Thursday 27 December 2012

Final congratulations of 2012

Hoping that all our readers are enjoying the holiday season, here's a final round-up of good news from the ASNC department:

Dr Rory Naismith, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in ASNC, has been awarded the 2012 Jan H. Nordbø scholarship and medal by the Norwegian Numismatic Society. This prestigious award exists to bring foreign scholars of numismatics to give a lecture in Norway. On 30 October, Dr Naismith lectured to the Norwegian Numismatic Society in Oslo on the subject of ‘Gold Coinage and the Fall of the Western Roman Empire’, and received the medal accompanying the scholarship. He also delivered a lecture the following day at the Museum of Cultural History in the University of Oslo, on ‘The Agnus Dei Coinage of Æthelred II’.

The Research Centre of St John’s College Oxford has awarded pump-priming funding for the initial stages of an international research project, ‘Interpreting Eddic Poetry’, to Dr Carolyne Larrington (Oxford) and ASNC's Dr Judy Quinn (Principal Investigators). The project will support an interdisciplinary research network which will convene for its first Workshop ‘Interpreting Eddic Poetry: Interdisciplinary Perspectives’ in Oxford in July 2013. Details of the programme and registration arrangements will be announced shortly.

Funding has been awarded to Dr Judy Quinn and ASNC alumna Dr Debbie Potts from the pilot AHRC Cultural Engagement Fund to support the projects ‘Kennings in the Community’ and ‘Modern Poets on Viking Poetry’. Dr Potts will be based in the Department for three months from February to April 2013 to develop the projects and organise events related to them.

Congratulations to all of them, and best wishes to all of you for the New Year ...

Thursday 13 December 2012

Report of Quiggin Lecture 2012

Helen Oxenham, a doctoral student in ASNC, writes:

One of the highlights of the ASNC year is always the annual E.C. Quiggin Memorial Lecture, begun in 1993, to commemorate Edmund Crosby Quiggin, the first teacher of Celtic at the University of Cambridge.  This year's lecture was as highly-anticipated, well-attended, and fascinating as usual.  On the 29th November at 5pm, the ASNC department was very pleased to welcome Professor Ruairí Ó hUiginn of the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, to speak on the subject of ‘Marriage, Law and Tochmarc Emire (‘The Wooing of Emer’)’.

The lecture began with a summary of the tale of Tochmarc Emire – a tale in which the hero Cú Chulainn pledges fidelity to Emer, and then proceeds to break his pledge with multiple women, while Emer remains faithful – and then moved on to an analysis of the surviving manuscript sources for the various sections and versions of the tale.  Then came the main body of the lecture, which focused on the connections between the earliest versions of Tochmarc Emire (dating to between the eighth and the eleventh centuries) and the early Irish legal material.  Professor Ó hUiginn argued convincingly that Tochmarc Emire can be viewed as a negative exemplary tale through an analysis of certain legal prescriptions.  The legal text Cáin Lánamna, for example, carefully regulates a wide range of types of sexual union, both permanent and transitory.  Cú Chulainn, however, enters an unregulated union with Aífe, a female warrior, which ultimately leads to him killing his own son.

The combined use of a vernacular prose tale and the early Irish legal texts threw new and interesting light onto the ways in which such tales might be analysed within their early medieval context, the underlying messages being given greater resonance and meaning through this wider understanding.

It is traditional at the Quiggin Lectures that questions be reserved for the time at which the visiting speaker has a glass in hand, so after the launch of the pamphlet for the previous year’s lecture (Professor Odd Einar Haugen on The Orthographic Reform of the Old Icelandic First Grammatical Treatise) the assembled audience moved out of the lecture room for a feast of wine and canapés, to continue discussion and bombard Professor Ó hUiginn with questions. We look forward to seeing this lecture in print about this time next year.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Conference report: Linguistic Encounters and Educational Practice

Razvan Stanciu, a PhD student in ASNC, writes:

On 29 and 30 November, St John’s College was host to a symposium organised by the Department’s own Máire Ní Mhaonaigh and Michael Clarke of NUI Galway. They brought together six scholars of medieval literature who presented their work to an eager audience of lecturers and students, from Cambridge and beyond, all under the theme of ‘Linguistic Encounters and Educational Practice in Medieval Europe’. Rosalind Love of the Department kick-started the proceedings and warmed up the audience (on what was otherwise a crisp winter’s day) with a spirited and at the same time inspiring talk on glosses and commentary in the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. What otherwise could be mistaken for a terse topic caught the audience’s ear with its wider implications for early medieval intellectuals’ relationship to textual authority, but also with the abundance of involuntary humour emerging from some of the glosses. Abigail Burnyeat (University of Edinburgh) provided the second act of the day, an analysis of a single manuscript (British Library Egerton 1782) in which colloquy-type texts can be read as evidence for classroom practice. Elizabeth Tyler (University of York) took advantage of the most privileged of talk slots (i.e. after the first tea-and-cookies break) to grab attention with her study of Anglo-Saxon poetic manuscripts, in which she used a comparison between the Latin Cambridge Songs (Cambridge University Library Gg 5.35) and the vernacular Exeter Book to illustrate the symposium’s general theme of multilingualism. Michael Clarke illuminated one of the lesser-known aspects of the Middle Irish Lebor Gabála Érenn (‘The Book of the Takings of Ireland’), its connections with the early medieval texts of commentary on Classical authors. His talk and Rosalind’s worked like two sides of the same coin, enabling listeners to see how the same kind of material was re-worked in a Latin and scholiastic context and in a vernacular and narrative context respectively. After a long lunch (and especially dessert), Jan Rüdiger (Goethe University, Frankfurt) and Lars Boje Mortensen (University of Southern Denmark) wrapped up the day, the former talking to us about a research project surveying the political vocabulary of medieval languages and the latter about the emergence of historiographical prose in various European literatures. 

Jan Ruediger's talk, chaired by Michael Clarke

After such a full day, we came back the next morning to experience a refreshing insight into the world of Chinese textual culture of the ninth and tenth centuries offered by Imre Galambos of the University of Cambridge. Imre’s talk was a highlight, especially since he emphasised some specific aspects of the material he is working with (i.e. geographical periphery, complex multilingualism) which are highly relevant to many medievalists too and to ASNC in particular. The two-day symposium concluded with a free round-table discussion, where the various participants, particularly the PhD students and postdocs, had a chance to exchange impressions about the issues raised during the two days and about the way in which the talks provided food for thought for their own work. And food for thought they indeed provided, through the often intriguing nature of the general theme and the unusual internal cohesion of the schedule of talks. The specific focus of the research group meant that in every presentation the issue of medieval education and of its interplay (or indeed interface) with textual multilingualism was given centre stage and harmonised with the particulars of each scholar’s work. It was thus a rather rare opportunity for many students and researchers to take part in an academic conference where the celebrated ‘And now for something completely different’ could not cross their minds.

Monday 3 December 2012

Three Late Anglo-Saxon Rarities Acquired for the Fitzwilliam Museum

Dr Rory Naismith writes:

The Department of Coins and Medals in the Fitzwilliam Museum has recently secured a number of items of major importance for knowledge of tenth- and eleventh-century England.

Seal matrix of Ælfric

This is only the fourth known surviving late Anglo-Saxon seal matrix, and the only one held by a public collection besides the British Museum. It was found two years ago on the Wiltshire/Hampshire border by a metal-detectorist, and was bought by the Fitzwilliam in November 2012.
Like one of the other surviving matrices, this example is made of copper alloy (the other two being carved from walrus ivory). Unlike any of the others, however, this one shows traces of gilding: a thin layer of gold applied across the entire surface of the matrix at the time of manufacture. This would originally have lent it the appearance of solid gold, and made a powerful visual impact. The handle at the top of the seal (with a loop-hole for mounting) and the acanthus leaf decoration carved on the back also add to the impression that this seal matrix was in itself intended for display, as well as for leaving a mark on wax.

The inscription on the seal reads ‘+SIGILLVM ÆLFRICVS’ (‘the seal [of] Ælfric’). The man portrayed in the centre of the seal is presumably intended to represent Ælfric himself. Like the images on other seals, this elaborate bust is closely akin to coins of the same period, and may even have been carved by the same craftsmen. Some of the details of the image are obscured by loss of gilding and decay of the copper, but it is entirely possible that Ælfric was once shown holding a sword, as the figures do on all three other surviving seals for Anglo-Saxon laymen. Interestingly, one of these (now in the British Museum) also names an Ælfric, was made of copper-alloy and was found in Hampshire. It may once have belonged to the very same man as the new matrix, although the name Ælfric was common in late Anglo-Saxon England.

The delicate acanthus leaf decoration found on the reverse of this and the other Ælfric seal links them to the sophisticated tradition of ‘Winchester school’ art characteristic of high culture in late Anglo-Saxon England. This and other artistic affinities associate the seals with the late tenth or early eleventh century. The only specific date for any late Anglo-Saxon seal comes from impressions of a now lost matrix for St Edith of Wilton which must have been made in the period 975×984.

Despite their rarity, these objects played a significant part in the administrative system otherwise known from law-codes, charters and coins. They were used as tokens of authority by powerful laymen and ecclesiastics, up to an including the king. King Alfred the Great expected a seal and a writ (letter) to act as potent signs of the king’s will. Æthelred II (978–1016) is also known to have had a seal, of which no impressions survive; the earliest extant royal seal impressions date to the reign of his son, Edward the Confessor (1042–66). Interestingly, modern finds of tenth- and early-eleventh-century matrices are concentrated in England south the Thames: precisely the region where the king’s presence was concentrated and the exertion of royal power was most keenly felt.

Agnus Dei penny of Æthelred II

In the 970s and after England developed a remarkable monetary system based on standardised coin-types naming king, mint-place and individual maker (‘moneyer’) which were issued at up to seventy places across the kingdom, from York to Exeter and Dover. Every few years these coins would be brought in and replaced with a new type. Thanks to payments of tribute to the Vikings who menaced England during the reign of Æthelred, tens of thousands of silver pennies of most of these types have survived in hoards from modern Scandinavia.

Yet one particularly striking and historically important type remains poorly represented among them: the famous Agnus Dei type. Only 21 specimens have been discovered, all but four of them in Scandinavia or the Baltic. One of the latest to come to light was found near Epping, Essex, in 2008, by a metal-detector user. It was subsequently bought for the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Uniquely for the succession of types running from Edgar to Harold II in 1066, the Agnus Dei coinage dispenses with a representation of the king on the obverse and with the usual cross on the reverse. In their place, one finds a representation of the Lamb of God and of the Holy Dove. These images find extensive parallels among manuscript illuminations, sculpture and metalwork of the period, and demonstrate that the designers of coins were very much in touch with the artistic mainstream, and therefore presumably with the deep resonances which attached to these images. Both emphasise the peace-bringing power of Christ and the Holy Spirit: a message which chimes perfectly with the desperate efforts mounted by King Æthelred at the time of a great viking invasion in 1009 – a date which is also indicated by independent numismatic evidence. The attack of Thorkel the Tall and his army beginning in the late summer of that year presented a genuine crisis for the English, whose own forces proved unable to co-operate or pin down their opponents in battle. Under these circumstances, the rulers of the English placed their hopes in God. A tract stipulating the donation of alms, fasting and prayer until conditions improved was issued in the run-up to Michaelmas (29 September) 1009, while the defenders of the southeast – where the force of the attack fell – braced themselves against the foe.

It is very likely that the Agnus Dei coinage was produced as a complement to this broader appeal for divine help in the late summer and autumn of 1009. Although scarce, the surviving coins were clearly a carefully conceived venture, innovative in fine detail as well as their striking iconography. They are also noticeably heavier than the immediately preceding coin-type, which indicates that they probably belong at the head of a new type (coins of which typically became lighter over time). Issuing a fresh coin-type meant more than inconvenience for the populace or a fundraising scheme for the king and his agents: it was a key defence against forgery and, in the eyes of contemporary commentators, an assertion of good order comparable to the prevention of other serious crimes. In other words, it was precisely the sort of endeavour that the circumstances of 1009 called for. The Agnus Dei coinage thus constitutes a very special inception for a new coinage; one which was closely tied to the exceptional conditions of the time.

The Fitzwilliam’s specimen of this coinage was made at Salisbury in Wiltshire by a man named Sæwine. The pattern of production visible from surviving specimens gives further clues to the unusual way in which the Agnus Dei coinage was issued. None of the leading mint-towns (Lincoln, London, Winchester and York) of England are represented; rather, minting was restricted to just nine relatively minor places, stretching in an arc from Salisbury in Wessex through a cluster of mints in western England at Stafford and Hereford, to another group in the east midlands. These nine places may represent the only ones to receive and use dies (stamps) for the new issue during its short period of currency, although there is some uncertainty about how this process was organised. The absence of Agnus Dei pennies from the southeast may be a result of the impact wrought by the viking invasion.

This penny was found already with the bend which can be seen in the illustrations above. Flattening it out was deemed too risky, and also as perhaps taking away from part of the coin’s history. It is very likely that it was bent deliberately by an eleventh-century user, possibly as a small votive offering: a custom which became widespread later in the Middle Ages.

The coin was recently featured on BBC 2’s Vikings with Neil Oliver.

Penny of Cissbury

The coin-issue for which Agnus Dei was such a highly-charged prelude, known as Last Small Cross, returned to the norm of royal bust and cross which had dominated the English currency for four decades by this time. Indeed, this final coin-type issued by Æthelred II was closely modelled on the coinage of his illustrious father Edgar and revered brother Edward the Martyr. At a time of uncertainty and deepening crisis, the coinage looked back to an age of peace and stability.

In organisation, however, it is apparent that the situation was quite different. Detailed analysis of Æthelred’s coinage has been used to show the steps which were taken to maintain one aspect of local government in the face of enemy action. In particular, viking attacks sometimes seem to have prompted the retreat of minting operations from exposed boroughs to fortified redoubts in the vicinity. Several were installed within the ramparts of prehistoric hill-forts. At one of these, South Cadbury in Somerset, excavations have uncovered evidence of the formidable defences which were erected in the time of Æthelred. Another such hilltop mint-site was at Salisbury in Wiltshire, which at this date was located at Old Sarum: a hill-fort 2.5km from modern Salisbury, which remained the site of the city until 1220. It is likely that this mint-place was established after the sack of nearby Wilton in 1003: several of the moneyers who had formerly served there can be traced subsequently at Salisbury.

Another probable case of a hill-fort which served as an ‘emergency’ mint under Æthelred is Cissbury in Sussex, near Worthing. The third new acquisition highlighted here is a coin attributed to this mint. Only about twenty pennies from Cissbury are known to survive. The context in which this specimen was found is unknown, although it has a long pedigree associated with some of the most important coin collections of the last century. At various times it belonged to the numismatic scholar Francis Elmore Jones and to the great American collector Emery May Norweb.

This specimen is especially significant for its long and clear mint-name: SIĐESTEB. Like most mint-names on Anglo-Saxon coins, this is an abbreviation, and probably signifies Sithmestbyrig. This might be an Anglicisation of a now-lost older name, but it also means ‘the final fortress’ – a most appropriate name for what may have been a last-ditch stronghold against Viking attack. Coins provide the only medieval attestation of this name; other records of it do not survive from before the sixteenth century, when it was called Sissabury or Sizebury. But it can be independently shown that the dies (stamps) used to make the coin probably come from somewhere in Sussex. In short, there is every reason to believe that this imposing fortress provided another location for one of the ‘emergency’ mints of Æthelred II’s troubled later years.

Despite the likely hope of the English that Cissbury would provide a secure holdout against viking aggression, there is evidence to suggest that at least some interaction took place between its inhabitants and the Scandinavians. The marks on the reverse of this coin, known as peck-marks, are an indication that the quality of the coin was checked by a Scandinavian user at some point. Very many English coins of the period display peck-marks such as these; but it was much less common for English coin-dies to be used in Scandinavia as well as England. Yet analysis of coins made in contemporary Sweden and Denmark has revealed that the dies which made this coin, although of English manufacture, were also used to produce coins in the viking homelands. Whether the dies were taken across the North Sea through violence or by peaceful means is unclear, though there were several other English dies which made the same journey, some evidently purpose-made for use in Scandinavia with the names of local kings. Specimens from this later phase of the Cissbury dies’ use can be identified from their very high weight and, in at least one case, from being struck on a square piece of silver. At one stage the obverse die was also combined with a reverse of much cruder design and literacy. It is impossible to say for sure whether the present coin was made in England or Scandinavia, though on balance it is more likely to be English.

Together, these three acquisitions provide a valuable window onto the operation of the late Anglo-Saxon kingdom: how its leaders demonstrated their authority, and how its economy and administration adapted to weather testing times.