Monday 22 February 2010

Parker Library on the Web

ELB writes:

From 2005-9, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, was involved in a project (in collaboration with Stanford University) to digitise their superb collection of medieval manuscripts. The resulting online resource is the 'Parker Library on the Web' site. More than five hundred manuscripts were digitised, ranging from the 'Augustine Gospels' (a sixth-century, Italian Gospel-book, thought to have been brought to England by Augustine of Canterbury), to letters and documents concerning the sixteenth-century Reformation archbishop, Matthew Parker, who bequeathed the collection to Corpus, and after whom the Parker Library is named. A number of members of the ASNC Department, past and present, were involved in this project, particularly Dr Rebecca Rushforth, Dr Denis Casey, and myself, who were employed as Research Associates on the project, and who were particularly involved in the production of the site's metadata, such as the extensive bibliographies of scholarship which were compiled for each manuscript. For us, the project represented an unrivalled opportunity to have firsthand access to the manuscripts, as well as the chance to immerse ourselves in the copious modern scholarship which has been produced on various aspects of provenance, script, contents and decoration of each of the manuscripts.

This was an expensive and ambitious project, and one which is ongoing, in the sense that bibliography, and new information about the manuscripts, will be added to the site as it arises. The cost of maintaining the site is such that most of the site is only available to institutions that subscribe to it. However, the basic manuscript images are available to everyone, and it is hoped that the site will attract interested members of the public, as well as scholars. For those interested in ASNC-related topics, the Parker Library on the Web site offers a multitude of treasures, from the A-text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (in MS 173) to the Historia Brittonum (in MS 139), from the poetry of John Scotus Eriugena (in MS 223) to the homilies of Wulfstan (in MSS 190, 201, 419, and others). It is to be hoped that this will prove to be an invaluable resource for students and scholars alike.

Tuesday 16 February 2010

What's so interesting about Anglo-Saxon medicine?

Conan Doyle writes:

Given that this is the topic to which I have dedicated the last five years of my life, I may be giving something of a biased view, but to be honest I cannot think of a more fascinating facet of Anglo-Saxon society. The most sophisticated medical text ever produced in the Old English language is known as the Leechbook of Bald. The text is fascinating because it sheds light on how the Anglo-Saxons viewed the human body and the causes of illness. But perhaps more interesting is that the text seems to have been translated from a range of medical texts in Latin, which ultimately derive from authorities such as Alexander of Tralles, Oribasius, Celsus, Marcellus, Caelius Aurelius and pseduo-Galen. Basically, this is a roll-call of the best medical authors available from antiquity. (See Cameron's Anglo-Saxon Medicine for more details).

Ultimately I hope to show that the Old English medical authors read and comprehended the best of the medical classics available in their day, and brought them up to date in a coherent and consistent fashion. To them, disease was caused by an imbalance of the four humours (þa feower wætan in Old English): blood, phlegm, red (or yellow) bile, and black bile, an idea ultimately derived from Hippocrates. Imbalances of the four humours were treated by the application of remedies of the opposite property, so excessive cold dampness, such as an excess of plegm, would be prescribed pepper which is hot and dry.

Bald's Leechbook, in BL MS Harley 55 (image from

To demonstrate this more fully I am sifting through the Latin medical literature of the early middle ages, and trying to demonstrate exactly how much of the Leechbook of Bald was translated from this enormous canon, in an effort to demonstrate how the compiler was working. After that, I am examining exactly how the translators went about the difficult business of translating rather technical Latin terms into Old English; let's face it, doctors have been using incomprehensible jargon since the dawn of time.

Thursday 11 February 2010

Upcoming events

Forthcoming events in the ASNC department:
  • The Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic will take place on Saturday 27th February. This event is aimed at postgraduate students, and other interested scholars. Registration costs £5: see the website for further details.
  • On 11th March, Prof. Joseph Falaky Nagy (UCLA) will deliver the 2010 H. M. Chadwick Memorial Lecture on 'Merchants of Myth in Ancient and Medieval Celtic Traditions', in Room GR.06 of the English Faculty Building, 9 West Road, Cambridge, at 5pm. This is a public lecture; all welcome. The lecture will be followed by a wine reception.
  • Applications close on 12th March for the ASNC Summer School, run in assocation with the Sutton Trust, which is aimed at year 12 pupils, and which will take place 17th-20th August 2010. For further information on eligibility and how to apply, see the University webpage.
  • On 20th March, the ASNC schools event, The Early Medieval World, will take place at St Peter's School, York. This is aimed at pupils in years 11 and 12, and their teachers. For further information about registering for this event see the programme.

Monday 8 February 2010

From Ireland to India

ELB writes:

Last September, ASNC hosted a conference to commemorate the centenary of the death of Whitley Stokes (1803-1909), the Celtic scholar and colonial jurist. Today, one of the contributors to that conference, Prof. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, has a column on Stokes, which mentions our conference, in The Irish Times. Also, in December, another contributor to our conference, John Drew, had an article on Stokes published in Indian newspaper The Hindu. So what is about Whitley Stokes that would attract press attention from Ireland to India?

Stokes was born into one of Ireland's most prominent academic families. His father, William (1804-78), was professor of medicine at Trinity College Dublin, and an important figure in Irish cultural life. Similarly, Stokes's grandfather, also named Whitley Stokes (1763-1845), was a professor of medicine at TCD and a founding member of the Royal Irish Academy. Throughout his life, Stokes's social circle comprised many leading intellectuals, historians, artists and poets. From his earliest years these included Samuel Ferguson, George Petrie, Eugene O'Curry and Rudolf Siegfried; later, in his twenties, he became friends with William Allingham, Arthur Munby, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Stokes studied at St Columba's College, then Trinity College Dublin. He went to London to study law and was called to the bar in 1855. In 1862 Stokes travelled to India, where he worked for the legislative council; in 1879 he became president of the India Law Comission. Stokes returned to London in 1881, where he lived, at Grenville Place, Kensington, until his death in 1909.

Whitley Stokes (1830-1909)

Thursday 4 February 2010

Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon Norse & Celtic

 The Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, which has been taking place annually since 2000, is surely one of the longest running and most successful graduate conferences in medieval studies. Each year the conference is organised by a committee of graduate students, who then also take responsibility for publishing the proceedings volume, Quaestio Insularis. Each conference, and accordingly each issue of Quaestio, comprises one keynote lecture from a senior academic (usually rotating between Anglo-Saxonists, Scandinavianists and Celticists), followed by a series of papers by Ph.D. and M.Phil. students (and even the occasional undergraduate!), drawn from within the Department and also from further afield. The keynote lecturers have included such eminent scholars as Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, Thomas Charles-Edwards, Thomas Clancy, and Janet Nelson, but perhaps just as impressive is the large proportion of graduate contributors who have gone on to become respected academics in their own right. Past contributors have included Chris Abram (now at UCL), Emily Thornbury (now at Berkeley), Ralph O'Connor (now at Aberdeen), Geraldine Parsons (now at Glasgow), Alaric Hall (now at Leeds) and Augustine Casiday (now at Lampeter).


This year's CCASNC, which will take place on the 27th of this month, promises to be just as successful as those of previous years. The theme of the colloquium is 'Kith and Kin', and the keynote speaker is Carolyne Larrington, Supernumerary Fellow in English, St John's College, Oxford, who will be speaking on 'Family Drama in the Heroic Poetry of the Edda'. Further information on how to register can be found on the CCASNC website.

Monday 1 February 2010

Thoughts on Mel Gibson's Vikings

Matthias Ammon writes:

News emerged recently that Mel Gibson will turn to 'the Vikings' for his next directing venture, following Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto. Details of the project are scarce as yet, though it has been confirmed that Leonardo DiCaprio is going to star. According to some media sources, DiCaprio 'has long been fascinated by Viking culture', and he will feature in a storyline as 'unsparing' as Gibson's earlier films. Given the director's interest in 'violence in any society' (as stated in a recent interview with Total Film magazine), one is inclined to assume that he will not focus on the cultural impact of the Vikings in the British Isles.

William Monahan, the screenwriter who also penned Ridley Scott's crusade-drama Kingdom of Heaven, is writing the script for the as-yet-untitled film. KoH, like Braveheart, was not exactly acclaimed for its historical accuracy by academic critics, though Gibson has pledged that he will follow his use of Aramaic (in Passion) and Mayan (in Apocalypto) with Old English and Old Norse: 'I think it's going to be English - the English that would have been spoken back then - and Old Norse. Whatever the ninth century had to offer. I'm going to give you real.' Gibson, who has claimed to have been studying Old Norse at the age of 16, when he first had the idea of making a Viking movie, said he wants to 'see somebody who I have never seen before speaking low guttural German who scares the living shit out of me coming up to my house' in order to recreate the terror of the Viking attacks on England.

Mel Gibson, Braveheart

If this comment is anything to go by, it remains to be seen whether Gibson's striving for authenticity will extend to the philological rigour of reconstructing ninth-century Old English and Old Norse. The standard versions of both languages as taught to undergraduates around the world are both later and confined to a relatively distinct geographical area: late West Saxon of the tenth and eleventh century for Old English; Norwegian and Icelandic from c. 1150-1350 for Old Norse. There are of course very few written sources dating from earlier than these time periods, and reconstruction is notoriously difficult. Furthermore, this is the period in Old English where at least the written language becomes standardised, though the spoken language probably would have retained the often very significant dialectial varieties exhibited in earlier stages of the language. One wonders just how 'real' Gibson is going to give us: will a ninth-century Mercian be attempting to converse by speaking eleventh-century West Saxon to a Norwegian speaking thirteenth-century Old Norse? On the other hand, while the extent of mutual intelligibility between speakers of Old English and Old Norse is still a matter for discussion, one imagines that their language - which an Anglo-Saxon would probably have recognised and may partly have understood - would have been one of the less terrifying aspects of a raiding party or an invading army, even if it had been 'low and guttural'.