Tuesday 30 April 2013

Modern Poets on Viking Poetry - A Reading

Rebecca Merkelbach, a PhD student in ASNC, writes:

The evening of Friday 26 April marked the high point and conclusion (at least of the Cambridge part) of Dr Debbie Potts' project ‘Modern Poets on Viking Poetry’. Members of the department and the public gathered in the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio to listen to eleven pieces written by poets from a variety of backgrounds and ages. They had all been working with skaldic verses, composed between the 10th and 14th century, and translated for the project by scholars of Old Norse. Debbie Potts introduced each of the original verses, which were then beautifully read by Orri Tómasson, transporting emotion across centuries and languages (as one of the poets remarked).

Some of the poems we heard were translations of, some reactions to, and some inspired by the form or content of the original skaldic verse. Especially topical was Lucy Hamiton's ‘Ring of Brodgar’, a response to a lausavísa by Þjóðólfr Arnórsson – a number of members of the department have visited this sight only ten days ago. Rebecca Perry's interesting, feminist interpretation of ‘The Waking of Angantyr’, which she entitled ‘how the earth increases’, fitted in very well with this week's CUSU Women's Campaign's ‘I need feminism because...’ photos. Anna Robinson's translation of Kormákr Ögmundarson's verses turned them into dialogue between the poet and Steingerðr, the object of his desire, now herself transformed into a subject. Probably the most emotionally charged compositions of the evening were the poems after Egill Skallagrímsson's ‘Sonatorrek’ which framed the interval. Chrissy William's ‘The Bear of the Moon’ beautifully caught the immense grief of the original, while at the same time contrasting it with dense poetic language. The film poem ‘Sonatorrek’ by Alastair Cook, featuring ‘The Lost Boy’ by John Glenday, transposed the metre and imagery of the original to the pointless deaths of World War I, commemorating Glenday's uncle who died in November 1918. It can be watched on the project's website.

All poems were incredibly powerful and inspired pieces of art, taking a lost poetic tradition and transforming it into something new, translating it into our time while also keeping the beauty of the old. Not only did the project offer an opportunity for creative dialogue between poets and scholars. The evening also sparked several new ideas for projects among the graduate students of the department, and we hope that we will hear more of them in the coming months.

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Conference report: 'Converting the Landscape'

Dr Brittany Schorn writes:

The ‘Converting the Isles Network’, based in the Department and supported by the Leverhulme Trust, held its fourth colloquium on the 22nd and 23rd of March at Bangor University. Despite somewhat hazardous travel conditions due to an unexpected freeze, all participants managed to make it to what turned out to be an extremely productive gathering. The subject, ‘Coverting the Landscape’, was considered from the perspective of different regions and methodologies, and led to an extremely productive and stimulating discussion of fundamental questions about the nature of Christian conversion.

The colloquium began with a session on burial evidence and problems of interpretation. Elizabeth O’Brien considered the variety of burial practices in early Christian Ireland, focusing in particular on the practice of inserting burials into ‘ferta’. She stressed that this could be read as a political rather than a religious statement, as it provided a means by which important people and newcomers could be incorporated into the existing landscape. Adrián Maldonado provided a fascinatingly nuanced discussion of Pictish barrow types, highlighting regional differences and also pointing out the difficulty in identifying the influence of Christianity itself with certainty. 

In the second session of the morning, Tomás Ó Carragáin and Morten Søvsø spoke on the difficulties involved in identifying ecclesiastical landscapes. Tomás Ó Carragáin examined the problem of how scholars can quantify the density of churches in the landscape in relation to secular sites, pointing out methodological problems that may significantly skew the broad pattern. Morten Søvsø spoke on recent and ongoing excavations at the church-site in Ribe, likely the oldest church in Denmark, which have important implications for our understanding of the history of the church in Viking-Age Denmark. 

Friday afternoon Nancy Edwards led a freezing, but fascinating, excursion to view inscribed stones on Anglesey. Moving through the southwestern part of the island, we took a chronological tour of the development of these inscriptions.

Our discussion of stone monuments continued as the subject of the opening session of the second day of the colloquium. Meggen Gondek discussed the distribution of the different classes of Pictish symbol stones, focusing in particular on a series of sites in Aberdeenshire, demonstrating what they can reveal as evidence of changing religious practice. Cecilia Ljung then examined a phase of early Christian stone grave monuments in Sweden, dated to a very limited period in the 11th century. She considered their relationship to the already significant runic memorial tradition and using Västergötland and Øland as case studies, stressed regional differences in the nature of the church and conversion.

The next session, on technology as a tool of conversion, looked at the way that the conversion affected agricultural organisation and production. Thomas McErlean described the revolutionary changes that accompanied the introduction of mechanical mills at Nendrum, as well as improvements to the exploitation of fishing, forest clearing, and agricultural organisation that monasteries brought. Gabor Thomas then looked at the relationship between monastic foundations and intensification of rural production in Kent, taking the case study of Lyminge: a monastery which is currently the subject of a major interedisciplinary research project.   

Rory Naismith continued the theme of technology and economic impact through examination of monetization in relation to Christianization. He examined a series of areas across northern Europe, in each of which coinage enjoyed a different relationship with religious development. Finally, Lesley Abrams closed the colloquium’s papers with a review of the fascinating question of when and how the Vikings of Dublin converted to Christianity. Several important questions emerged of how conversion is to be defined and contextualized, which led effectively into the closing discussion.

The colloquium ended with a lively roundtable discussion of questions such as: is it possible to distinguish belief from the institution of the Church in the surviving evidence? What is the minimum requirement to identify as Christian and how did missionaries perceive their goals? And to what extent did economic change follow ideology?

The Network now looks forward to our final colloquium to be held in Cambridge on the 19th–21st of September 2013. The subject will be ‘The Isles and the Wider World’ and confirmed speakers include Rowan Williams, Bernhard Maier, Chris Wickham, James Palmer, Sven Meeder, Ingrid Rembold, Geneviève Bührer-Thierry, Jörn Staecker, Stanislaw Rosik, Jean-Michel Picard, Sébastian Bully, Krisztina Szilagyi, and Tomas Sundnes Dronen. A full programme will shortly be available from our website here, along with registration information.

Monday 22 April 2013

Departmental Open Day 2013

The annual ASNC Departmental Open Day will take place on Wednesday 26th June. Booking is essential, and further details on the structure of the day and how to reserve a place are available here.

Monday 8 April 2013

New Website on Medieval Welsh Law (Cyfraith Hywel)

Prof. Paul Russell notes:

A new website has been launched on Medieval Welsh law. This examines all aspects of medieval Welsh law, and includes bibliographies, discussions, details about the manuscripts, sections on Aneurin Owen’s Ancient Laws, and much more. This work is the result of a research project led by Dr Sara Elin Roberts, with ASNC graduate Bryn Jones as a research assistant; the project was funded by the Publications and Research Committee of the University of Wales, with the work of creating the website funded by the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. The website also represents the work of Seminar Cyfraith Hywel, and announcements of the meetings of the Seminar, new publications, and related matters will be included on the website from now on.

Friday 5 April 2013

Conference report: 35th California Celtic Conference 2013

Myriah Williams, a doctoral student in ASNC, writes:

As we gathered on the patio of Stephens Hall at the University of California, Berkeley, flying champagne corks and a cake aptly decorated with the Welsh draig goch reminded attendees of the California Celtic Conference (March 15–17, 2013) that this year marked the event’s thirty-fifth birthday.  Giving a small speech, organizer Dr Eve Sweetser remarked that as a student assisting at the first annual meeting of the conference back in 1979, she never expected to be running the show thirty-five years later.  Yet she was, and this is a testament to the passion for Celtic Studies felt by the staff and students of UC Berkeley, and equally of UCLA, where the conference is held on alternate years.  It is also a testament to the success of the conference itself, which this year hosted speakers not only from California but from Massachusetts, Canada, England, Wales and Ireland; no small feat for a program so far removed from the native homelands of its subject.

Festivities began earlier in the morning not with champagne, however, but with tea, coffee and an engaging paper by Dr Brynley Roberts, Emeritus National Librarian of Wales.  In ‘A Web of Welsh Bruts’, he illustrated his attempts at untangling the transmission of Brut y Brenhinedd, and reminded us all of the difficulty of such a task.  Transmission of a different sort was also highlighted by Roberts’ presence at the conference, for he had been a mentor to Berkeley’s own Dr Annalee Rejhon during her time in Aberystwyth, and it was his method of teaching Medieval Welsh that she passed on to her own students.  Among these students was Georgia Henley, currently a PhD student at Harvard University and a former ASNC, whose paper ‘The Origin of the Welsh Chronicle Brut y Tywysogion: Questions of Translation, Transmission and Adaptation’ arose from a conversation that she once had with Roberts.  In her paper Henley presented us with a comparison of several Welsh versions of the Brut, as well as a Latin chronicle, and inspired a lively question session regarding issues of variant textual traditions as opposed to editing at the scribal level.

Following the Bruts, a wide and varied array of topics was presented over the course of the long weekend.  We heard about issues of narrative, from the nature of description and characterization in medieval Celtic tales, to considering the origins of the Arthurian legend, to the waning tradition and preservation of storytelling in Doolin, County Clare, Ireland.  ASNC Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh explained ‘How Máel Sechnaill mac Domnaill was Formed’, and, despite using terms seemingly borrowed from particle physics, Jim McCloskey of UC Santa Cruz told us ‘How to Make an Inflected Verb’ in a way clear enough to be understood by the non-linguist (or non-particle physicist).  Dr Roberts was invoked again on Saturday in ASNC PhD candidate Myriah Williams’ discussion of the Medieval Welsh poem Ymddiddan Myrddin a Thaliesin, this time for his views on the classification of Welsh dialogue poetry.  This same poem was also analysed by Stephanie Ranks, an undergraduate in the Celtic Studies Program at Berkeley who adopted a metrical approach and concluded that it is possible that the second half of the poem was composed according to the older stress-based metre and not the later rules of syllable count.

Dr Joseph Nagy of UCLA began the day Sunday by exploring the role of seditious figures in medieval Irish literature, and then brought them to life with a Bollywood-style dance number (not performed live).  Inter-cultural connections of a different sort were made by Dr Thomas Walsh of UC Berkeley, who drew attention to parallels between the laments of the female narrators of the Irish poem ‘The Old Woman of Beare’ and a Greek poem attributed to Sappho (No. 58).  Swansea University’s Dr Jasmine Donahaye, on the other hand, considered the nature of the relationship between Wales and Palestine and nineteenth-century Welsh views on colonialism and conversion in ‘A Welsh Colony in Palestine?’.  We also learned from Leslie Jacoby of San Jose State University that the art of falconry has been little changed since the days of Hywel Dda, despite the much altered state of the world.  Indeed, it was the current state of the earth in comparison to its situation during the time of the events of the Mabiniogion that formed the topic of a paper given by Dr Kathryn Klar and Elizabeth Tolero, graduate of the Celtic Studies Program in Berkeley.  The pair’s argument that, due to climate change, the coast lines and weather patterns of Britain and Ireland would have been very different at that time than what they are today was convincing, as was their assertion that scholarly analysis and mapping of medieval texts should reflect these differences.

The conference concluded fittingly with a series of presentations from current Berkeley undergraduates working on a project initiated and run by Dr Klar to edit an unpublished book of twenty-four Old Irish tales translated by Dr Brendan O’Hehir, a founding member of the Celtic Studies Association of North America and the first chair of the Celtic Studies Program at Berkeley.  The project, which has been in the pipeline for several years, is providing the students with valuable research skills as well as editorial experience that they might not normally receive at the undergraduate level.  Once finished, the work will be a suitable tribute to the late Dr O’Hehir, whose influence continues to be felt by many in the Celtic Studies Program and who is still so fondly remembered by many of its faculty.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

CCASNC's Brave New World

Robert Gallagher and Alice Hicklin, doctoral candidates in ASNC, write:

On 16 February, the department hosted its annual postgraduate conference, the Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (CCASNC) to great success. Organised by a committee of postgraduate students, we welcomed eleven speakers from institutions in the UK, USA and Canada. The theme of this year's conference was 'Brave New World', a theme with which we sought to scrutinise and problematise notions of 'the new' in the early medieval world. Our speakers engaged with this theme enthusiastically and throughout the day we were confronted with a variety of new perspectives on various aspects of the languages, history and literatures of the early medieval west. Papers covered such diverse topics as Gerald of Wales' use of classical sources in his Topographia Hibernica, the socio-linguistics of the Íslendingarsögur, and monastic patronage of manuscript production in tenth-century England.

CCASNC 2013 (photo: Alex Reider)

We also had the pleasure of welcoming Barbara Yorke, Emeritus Professor in Early Medieval History at the University of Winchester and one of the country's leading Anglo-Saxon historians, as our keynote speaker. Prof Yorke chose a topic which has broad appeal and tied in perfectly with the conference's theme, as well as the department's on-going Leverhulme-funded projected, 'Converting the Isles'. Entitled 'Ingeld and Christ: Some Problems in the Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxon Laity', Prof Yorke provided us with a wide-ranging and highly engaging talk on the lay experience of conversion which centred on the recurring presence of Weland in a variety of Christian cultural contexts. In doing so, Prof Yorke took the CCASNC delegates on a journey spanning the width and breadth of Anglo-Saxon England, meeting some well-known and not so well-known artefacts along the way, including the Franks Casket, the Old English Boethius, and the Leeds Cross. Meanwhile in true ASNC-style, Prof Yorke drew some tantalising parallels with comparable evidence in the Celtic and Norse worlds.

Delegates gather at CCASNC 2013 (photo: Alex Reider)

The conference was supported by a large, lively audience, who made the day's proceedings a truly enjoyable experience. The CCASNC committee and the ASNC department were delighted to host such a well-attended and well-received programme and we'd like to thank all the speakers, as well as all those who helped with the running of this year's conference, for all their efforts.