Wednesday 29 September 2010

Modern Irish Classes 2010-11

Dr Deborah Hayden writes:

Thanks to the continued generosity of the Irish government, the Department of ASNaC will again offer Modern Irish language classes this academic year at beginners, intermediate and advanced levels. The course is free to all members of the University of Cambridge; individuals who are not affiliated to the University but are interested in attending are also welcome and are encouraged to contact the Head of Department, Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh (

The Modern Irish Resources page on the ASNaC website has also been updated, and now includes many useful links to online dictionaries, broadcast media sites, Irish language immersion programmes and academic organisations.

All language classes for Michaelmas Term 2010 will take place in the English Faculty on the Sidgwick Site at the following times:

Beginners: Tuesdays at 5 p.m. and Thursdays at 3 p.m.

Intermediate: Mondays at 4 p.m. and Thursdays at 5 p.m.

Advanced: Wednesdays at 3 p.m. and one other hour TBA

In addition, there will be an Introductory Meeting for all interested students on 6 October at 1 p.m. in the ASNaC Common Room, English Faculty, Sidgwick Site.

If you have further questions about the classes, please feel free to contact the instructor, Dr Margaret Griffin-Wilson (

We hope to see many of you there!

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Modern Glosses

Dr Denis Casey writes:

In recent years the internet has become an indispensable tool for medieval scholars, with websites such as the Early Irish Glossaries Database, Parker Library on the Web and the Celtic Digital Initiative providing access to texts and images to users around the world. Websites, like any other medium, have both their advantages and limitations but an interesting, most likely unplanned, though certainly useful side effect has been produced by That website, as its URL suggests, is a vast archive of useful material not always readily available in every library. The beauty of this service is that some of the actual digitized volumes themselves were formerly owned by well-known scholars and their annotations offer interesting insights into the texts and their interpretations of the texts, just like any medieval gloss or commentary.

To take an interesting example, consider the case of the Ancient Laws of Ireland series. That six-volume edition and translation of the corpus of medieval Irish law was based on the earlier work of the mid-nineteenth-century scholars Eugene O’Curry and John O’Donovan, but not completed until 1901. It was widely castigated for errors in transcription and translation (not necessarily the fault of O’Curry and O’Donovan); to prove the point, Eóin Mac Néill, the great Scholar-Revolutionary, published a translation of two of its texts in 1923, shortly after emerging from jail and taking up the post of Minister for Education in the new Irish Free State, during the civil war. A later scholar and former Free State ambassador to Weimar Germany, D. A. Binchy (who incidentally left fascinating pen-portraits of Hitler, von Bruning and others in the pages of Studies), spent much of his career editing and translating various legal texts and finally produced a six-volume diplomatic transcript of the known legal manuscripts: Corpus Iuris Hibernici (1978). Nonetheless, many of the texts have neither been reedited nor retranslated since the publication of the Ancient Laws series. Luckily, at least some volumes from Binchy’s library found its way into the collection of Stephen B. Roman, who subsequently bequeathed them to J. M. Kelly Library, St Michael’s College, University of Toronto. Among these are at least three volumes of Binchy’s annotated copies of the Ancient Laws, which are now available on Anyone who has dealt with the complexities of (and frustrations attendant upon) working with medieval Irish legal texts will appreciate the help of one of the most notable scholars of medieval Ireland. Here are the links to volume 1, volume 3 and volume 4.

Friday 17 September 2010

Investigating Ragnar Shaggy-Breeches

Dr Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, Lecturer in Scandinavian History in ASNC, writes about her current research on Ragnar Loðbrók:

One of my current research projects has to do with a legendary Viking named Ragnar Loðbrók. His nickname means ‘Shaggy Breeches’, and my husband likes to refer to him as ‘Ragnar Shaggy-Pants’. According to Ragnar’s saga (here illustrated by Niels Skovgaard), Ragnar got his nickname from the time that he killed a serpent, protected from the monster’s venom by a suit of fur clothing dipped in tar. As you might expect, by killing the serpent he won the hand of the lovely Thora. The story of Ragnar was very popular in Iceland in the Middle Ages, and Ragnar was believed to have been a real person, and even the ancestor of certain Icelanders. My project is to survey these references to Ragnar and to investigate what he meant to different authors. So far it appears that Ragnar was quite a malleable character. He could be the ancestor of the royal houses of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, or he could be the representative of the evils of the pagan age, before Christianity came to Scandinavia. The author of Njal’s Saga uses Ragnar to establish that some Icelanders come from a noble background, in contrast to the author of Egil’s Saga, which uses Ragnar to symbolize the old order in Norway, which the new order of Iceland sets itself up against. Significantly, there is no text in Old Norse that lists all the descendants that have been attributed to Ragnar, or that showed Ragnarr as the father of Icelandic settlers and of Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish kings. Evidently the ease with which his legend could be adapted led to such a proliferation of material that later Icelanders were unwilling to deal with it all – but I am.

(The caption of the illustration says ‘Thora sees Ragnar, and he sees her.’)

Monday 13 September 2010

The influence of Old Norse on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Dr Richard Dance writes about his current research project, an etymological survey of words derived from Old Norse in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:

The language of the Scandinavians who settled in Viking Age England had a profound influence on the history of English, including its vocabulary. A number of important, everyday Modern English words have been traced back to Old Norse (e.g. die, egg, ill, law, leg, low, seem, sky, take, window, not to mention the pronouns they, their and them), and there are hundreds of other likely instances in texts written during the Old and Middle English periods. The sociolinguistic context of the contact between speakers of Old English and Old Norse in the Viking Age, and the mechanisms by which material was transferred from one language to the other, have been the subject of important research in the last several decades (see notably M. Townend, Language and History in Viking Age England: Linguistic Relations Between Speakers of Old Norse and Old English (Turnhout, 2002)). But there is still much work to do in order to understand the loaned vocabulary itself, particularly the Scandinavian influence on the lexicon of the great medieval English literary monuments composed in the North or North Midlands. My current research project explores one important work, the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

A view of 'Lud's Church', Staffordshire (possible inspiration for the 'Green Chapel'
in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). Photo: Dr Richard Dance 

Despite its celebrity as one of the pinnacles of Middle English literary achievement, and, what is more, though its vocabulary has frequently been held up as one of the most striking known instances of Scandinavian influence, there has been no complete etymological survey of Norse loans in Sir Gawain. This is perhaps because the identification of a list of these words is a task accompanied by so much uncertainty: the number of lexical items in the text whose development could be attributed to Norse input is very large, but (once we get beyond the obvious candidates) there is surprisingly little consensus about which exactly to include. At a minimum there are just over a hundred different words in Sir Gawain demonstrably derivable from Norse on the basis of comparative formal criteria (these include phonological ‘tests’ like the presence of a distinctively ON /sk/ in words like skete ‘quickly’, to be derived from ON skjótt rather than OE scēot- with its initial palatal, cp. MnE shoot). At the other extreme, taking into account the etymological labels and other remarks of the historical dictionaries, the glossaries (and notes) of the standard editions and assorted other studies, I have so far collected more than 450 total instances for which some influence from Norse has been suggested, including many for which the evidence is much shakier (amongst the more interesting and tentative are words like fysken ‘scamper’, gryndel ‘fierce’, runisch ‘rough, violent’). The disparity between these two extremes is nicely indicative of the difficulties that beset the etymological identification of Norse loans in general, and which result from two basic deficiencies in the pool of evidence: on the one hand the sheer formal similarity of Old English and Old Norse, which has self-evident consequences not only for the relatively easy transfer of material between the two, but for our capacity to identify it after the fact; and on the other the patchiness of the record of both languages in the periods before and during which contact took place. The first step in the investigation of these words cannot therefore be a simple matter of compiling a list of ‘bona fide loans’; but the grounds upon which Scandinavian influence has been identified need careful scrutiny and considered presentation before any further analysis can be undertaken. Taking Sir Gawain as my sample, my project therefore aims to discover not only what can be achieved by a thoroughgoing collection of all the many and various suggestions for Norse input in scholarly publications, it also sets out to be a reassessment of the methodological underpinnings of a subject central to English lexical history, whose principles have seldom been set out or discussed since the magisterial work of Erik Björkman (Scandinavian Loan-Words in Middle English (Halle, 1900–1902)).

I have been working on this material intermittently for a number of years, and my approach to the etymological arguments has evolved as I have collected more and more suggested loans. Over the next few months I intend to prepare the main elements of my research for publication. This task has been greatly facilitated by the generosity of the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), whose ‘Fellowships’ scheme has enabled me to take an additional term of sabbatical leave in order to work on Sir Gawain. Looking further ahead, I hope that my survey of the vocabulary of this important text will sow the seeds for a large-scale, collaborative project to collect words of possibly Scandinavian origin from a great many more Middle English texts.

Wednesday 8 September 2010


Congratulations to Dr Denis Casey who has won the 2010 Irish Chiefs' Prize in History, which is awarded by the Council of Irish Chiefs and Chieftains in association with the History Department of Trinity College, Dublin and History Ireland magazine. Dr Casey recently completed a PhD in ASNC and, from October, will be teaching Celtic History in the Department while Dr Fiona Edmonds is on research leave.