Thursday 26 May 2011

Ryan Giggs' super-injunction: the ASNC perspective

Prof. Simon Keynes, of the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic, University of Cambridge, gives his historical perspective on the 'King Cnut of Football', Ryan Giggs, to the BBC. Read the story here.

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Open Resources for Celtic

Jack Leigh writes:

Ever searched in vain for an online text or translation? Wanted to make a correction to something you did find? Only found out about online resources after you managed without them? Open Resources for Celtic Studies is the beginnings of a project to provide an easily-accessible repository of open [1] information of use to Celticists. At the moment it’s somewhat lacking but you can help change that! Please take a look and, if you like the idea, do something to help out.

Things you could do include:
  •  Contribute some translation or bibliography (you need to revise those set texts anyway!) 
  • Post an article you’ve written 
  • Post links to existing online resources you know 
  • Pick a character and write about them (texts they appear in, etc.)
  • Any other idea you think would be useful! 
I was fortunate to recently meet Lucy Chambers and Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation (which has brought us cool projects like Open Shakespeare, Public Domain Works, and Open Bibliography) and we discussed some of the ways to take this idea forward, perhaps through integrating it with work done for Open Shakespeare, into a wider ‘Open Literature’. 

Things I would currently like to see include: a comprehensive bibliography which links books and articles with their reviews, and allows users to add their own reviews; profiles of literary characters, texts they appear in and genealogical information; open transcriptions, critical editions and translations marked up using TEI XML. Anyone have grand ideas of their own? Please take a look and see what you can make of the resource. 

[1] “A piece of content or data is open if anyone is free to use, reuse, and redistribute it — subject only, at most, to the requirement to attribute and share-alike.” (See, particularly the ‘Open Knowledge Definition’ for further explanation)

Monday 23 May 2011

Report of Chadwick Lecture

Dr Jonathan Jarrett, of the University of Oxford, has an interesting report on his blog of Prof. Wendy Davies's 2011 H. M. Chadwick Memorial Lecture, which she delivered in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic on 17th March.

Monday 16 May 2011

Film Review: "Thor" - for Better or Norse?

Robin McConnell writes:

You will probably already be familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is, the series of film adaptations of Marvel Comics superhero properties which began with 2008’s Iron Man and includes The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, the forthcoming Captain America: The First Avenger and the subject of this review, Thor; a series that will culminate in 2012’s The Avengers, featuring all four superheroes. Created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby in 1962, the Marvel Comics series Thor was always one of the more controversial comic books in the genre – just how tasteful was it to appropriate a bygone culture’s mythology and twist it to your own post-industrial, twentieth-century, Cold War-influenced, all-American ends? This is the question that Stan Lee did not ask himself when he decided to create the ultimate superhero: no more (near-)mortal beings with god-like powers, just an all-powerful god, pure and simple.

Consequently, Thor was always going to be the toughest Marvel Comics hero to translate to the big screen. The difficulty comes in trying to integrate a god into the technology-based, sci-fi world of Iron Man and the Hulk. So how do Marvel Studios get around this? Simple: Asgard becomes another dimension where science and magic are “one and the same” (to quote the script), with a portal gate at the end of the Rainbow Bridge that allows its inhabitants – styled ‘Asgardians’ in the film, not ‘Æsir’ – to travel to Earth. The gods are super-powered, yes, but the trick is to recast them as superhuman aliens, not as deities. For example, Thor has no discernable powers of his own except being extra-buff (much to the delight of female members of the audience) – his powers such as they are come from his hammer, Mjolnir (sic.). This isn’t true of all the Asgardians, most of whom are given their own personal skill, but for the most part they are nearly-plausible ‘scientific’ versions of the Norse gods rather than traditional comic book superheroes with impossible magic powers. Then there are the Frost Giants, who break this portrayal by being huge and able to freeze anything, as well as having monstrous guard dogs the size of Godzilla. Oh, well, we can’t have everything.

Marvel Comics' Thor (image from

So, to the story. Is it good? Well, it’s not bad. The premise is that Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is heir to the throne of Asgard, and extremely arrogant and irresponsible to boot. When he disobeys his father Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) orders and attacks the Frost Giants, almost causing a full-scale war between them and Asgard, he is banished to Earth, where he is to be powerless until he can prove his worth. On Earth, he meets astrophysicist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) who helps him survive in an unfamiliar world where he is not only unimportant, but also wanted by secret government agency SHIELD who have taken possession of Mjolnir, which was sent down to Earth separately from Thor. From there it’s a traditional journey of romance and redemption with all the action you’d expect from a summer blockbuster. The twist is the choice of Kenneth Branagh as director. Best known for his work adapting Shakespearian plays to the screen, his influence is most felt in the first portion of the film set in Asgard where the plot machinations are almost lifted wholesale from the Bard: the triangular relationship between Odin and his sons Thor and Loki reflects King Lear, Hamlet and Othello in its depiction of a jealous manipulator (Loki) exploiting the strained relationship between favourite-son (Thor) and father (Odin) for self-gain. This forms the dramatic core of the plot and is probably the most satisfying section of the film, reaching its climax with a spectacular assault by Thor, Loki, Sif and The Warriors Three (Asgardians invented for the comic) on Jotunheim, home of the Frost Giants. Once Thor is on Earth, it transforms into a fish-out-of-water comedy which is genuinely very good. This reflects arguably the film’s greatest strength: the realisation that all the Shakespearian drama in the world won’t engage the audience fully unless the inherent silliness of the scenario is acknowledged and embraced, but without sinking to Batman & Robin levels of self-parodic farce.

Friday 13 May 2011

Adventures in a graveyard

Dr Elizabeth Boyle writes:

In 2009, Dr Paul Russell and I held a conference in Cambridge to commemorate the centenary of the death of Whitley Stokes (1830-1909), colonial jurist and Celtic scholar. A volume arising from that conference is soon to be published by Four Courts Press, but my interest in Stokes has continued to grow, and last week it led me to a graveyard in Co. Dublin in search of a putative memorial cross which was apparently erected for Stokes shortly after his death.

Stokes, who was born in Dublin, left Ireland in 1852, at the age of twenty-two, when he went to study law in London. Although he returned to Ireland for brief visits, he never again lived there, instead travelling to India in 1862, where he spent twenty years in Calcutta and Simla, codifying Anglo-Indian law, eventually becoming President of the India Law Commission. He returned to London in 1882, and spent the rest of his life there. He was a founding fellow of the British Academy. Stokes published prolifically on medieval Celtic languages and literatures, and it remains the case that many medieval Irish texts are only available in print in Stokes's editions and translations. Stokes died in 1909, and was buried in London.

However, according to the genealogical website of a Stokes family in Australia, a memorial cross had allegedly been erected at a "St Finian's" church on the Howth peninsula, in Co. Dublin. In following up this lead, I faced two problems: first, that this cross is not referred to anywhere in the scholarly literature (e.g. in the entries on Stokes in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, or the Dictionary of Irish Biography), and so I had no more specific information to go on than one brief remark on a single website; and second, that there is no "St Finian's" church on the Howth peninsula.

It seemed most likely to me that "St Finian's" was a misreading of St Fintan's, a church located in Sutton, close to Howth, and which dates back to the early medieval period (fitting for a scholar such as Stokes, with his interest in the culture of early medieval Ireland). So, on a drizzly, overcast Thursday, I took the DART from central Dublin to Sutton, and wandered through the graveyard in search of a cross which I wasn't sure even existed.

Remains of the early medieval church of St Fintan's, Sutton, Co. Dublin

Friday 6 May 2011

Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture

On Monday 9th May, Prof. Thomas Charles-Edwards, Jesus Professor of Celtic, University of Oxford, will deliver the 2011 Kathleen Hughes Memorial Lecture on:

'St Patrick and the Landscape of Early Christian Ireland'
Lives of St Patrick, from the late-seventh century onwards, are rich in information about the political and ecclesiastical landscape—about small kingdoms and large, about ‘seats of kingship’ and local churches. Occasionally they touch upon the major places of pre-Christian Ireland as these were understood in the Christian period. The latter are ubiquitous in early Irish narrative literature and then in the Dindshenchas ‘place-history’ of Middle Irish. The lecture will discuss the relationship between Patrick’s places and those believed to be the central places of pre-Patrician Ireland.
This lecture will take place at 5.45pm in the Pavilion Room, Hughes Hall, Cambridge. All welcome.

Monday 2 May 2011

Authorities and Adaptations

Dr Elizabeth Boyle writes:

On Friday 15th and Saturday 16th April, thirty scholars working on various aspects of medieval Irish history and literature gathered in Cambridge for an advanced research workshop on the theme of 'Authorities and Adaptations: the Reworking and Transmission of Sources in Irish Textual Culture, c. 1000 - c. 1200'. The reshaping of earlier source material to accommodate contemporary concerns is a significant phenomenon in medieval literary culture, and particularly so in Ireland. The process of recycling and reworking textual materials has often been commented on by scholars of medieval Irish, but had never been systematically interrogated. Over the course of the two days of the workshop, Celticists from Britain, Ireland, Germany and the United States, addressed the question of how sources were reshaped and adapted in eleventh- and twelfth-century Ireland. By studying how older authorities were used in medieval Ireland, the participants sought to further our understanding of how medieval Irish intellectuals and authors understood their own history and literary inheritance.

The papers presented at the workshop encompassed texts in both Latin and Old/Middle Irish, and ranged across many genres, from law to history-writing, from narrative prose to doctrinal poetry, and from biblical exegesis to grammatical tracts. A number of papers also focused on how earlier texts, including legal texts, grammars and poetry, accreted layers of learned commentary, which shaped the way those texts were read and understood by later audiences. As all of the papers demonstrated, the reworking of earlier source material was not merely a deferential act of preservation: rather, authors engaged actively with their sources, reshaping them to meet contemporary concerns, and using authorities to lend weight to words that would resonate with new, and changing, audiences.

The workshop was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the H. M. Chadwick Fund, and the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. The programme of papers was as follows:

Papers I – III
Session chair: Dr Pádraic Moran (NUI Galway)
I. Prof. Patrick O'Neill (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill): 'Old wine in new bottles: the reprise of early Irish Psalter exegesis in the eleventh and twelfth centuries'
II. Dr Deborah Hayden (Hughes Hall, Cambridge): 'Metrical mnemonics and anatomical accents in Auraicept na nÉces'
III. Dr Paul Russell (University of Cambridge): 'Adaption, re-working and transmission in the commentaries to Amrae Coluimb Chille'

Papers IV - VI
Session chair: Dr Paul Russell (University of Cambridge)
IV. Dr Elizabeth Boyle (St Edmund’s College, Cambridge): 'Invisible authority: Echtgus Úa Cúanáin’s use of Paschasius Radbertus in his poetic treatise on the Eucharist'
V. Dr Brent Miles (University College Cork): 'The Hiberno-Latin background to the Sermo ad reges and an Irish tradition of advice to kings'
VI. Dr Caoimhín Breatnach (University College Dublin): 'Irish and Latin abridged versions of the Gospel of Nicodemus'

Session chair: Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh (St John’s College, Cambridge)
VII. Prof. Thomas Charles-Edwards (Jesus College, Oxford): 'The manuscript transmission of Bretha Comaithchesa'
VIII. Prof. Máire Herbert (University College Cork): 'Some thoughts on history and history-writing in the post-Viking era'

Papers IX-XI
Session chair: Dr Ralph O’Connor (University of Aberdeen)
IX. Prof. Ruairí Ó hUiginn (NUI Maynooth): 'Recycling a cycle: some late "Ulster" tales'
X. Dr Hugh Fogarty (University College Cork): 'Aided Guill 7 Gairb and the "inward look" in late Middle Irish prose saga'
XI. Dr Geraldine Parsons (University of Glasgow): 'Revisiting Almu in Middle Irish texts'

Papers XII – XIII
Session chair: Dr Mark Williams (Peterhouse, Cambridge)
XII. Prof. Michael Clarke (NUI Galway): 'Catheads and Trojans: reworking of Sex Aetates Mundi material in later medieval narratives'
XIII. Prof. Dr Erich Poppe (Philipps-Universität Marburg): 'On some sources of "On the beginning of Christ’s teaching" in the Leabhar Breac'

Paper XIV-XV
Session chair: Dr Elizabeth Boyle (St Edmund’s College, Cambridge)
XIV. Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh (St John’s College, Cambridge): 'Authorial attribution in twelfth-century Ireland: new wine in old skins'
XV. Dr Kevin Murray (University College Cork): 'The reworking of Old Irish texts in the Middle Irish period: contexts and motivations'