Thursday 30 October 2014

Festival of Ideas 2014: a visitor's impression

Sandra Leaton-Gray reports on the ASNC Festival of Ideas. 

I was delighted to be able to visit ASNC during the Festival of Ideas recently to learn about all things Viking and more besides. Initially I was merely planning on going in a coat-holding capacity with my 16 year old son, Conrad, who has a passion for runes, Norse military tactics, and so on.  However I was soon swept along by the different talks and started to understand what all the fuss was about. First of all we attended a lecture on the beginning of writing. I had never really thought this through at all and had rather taken writing for granted, What baffled me was how I could not have realised people would initially be writing on wood with knives, as some vague part of my brain assumed it was all about ink and vellum, which with hindsight was a major and fairly obvious misconception. You can't just bump off a goat for its skin every time you want to write down something quickly, after all. I was also fascinated by the accounts of marginalia written by early scribes, who appear to have spent their days rather cold and damp, with errant pets and similar kinds of utilitarian concerns we share today. 

Next I heard all about Vikings in Cleveland, which was surprising as I had previously imagined Vikings to be horn-helmeted types, largely confined to the area immediately around the Jorvik centre, various Scottish and Northumbrian islands wherever monks did their thing, and most of Lincolnshire. This is on account of my embarrassingly patchy mental map of the Viking world that, prior to the ASNC visit, apparently embracing nearly all the popular myths in a manner wholly unfitting for someone whose ancestors came from the Viking village of North Thoresby.  I was particularly intrigued to hear about the various forms of impact Vikings had had on Cleveland, and that it was possible to track their language even still in local dialect (as it seems to be, to some extent, in Lincolnshire today). 

I then spent a bit of time surfing the Internet looking at Viking ships, with the help of someone from the department who had taken note of my horrified question about female sacrifices and who encouraged me to learn more about the context of this. I am still convinced I had a narrow escape, being born in the 20th century, although my son assured me that I shouldn't worry as the Vikings took the good looking ones home with them, which was diplomatic of him in the circumstances, I felt. 

Finally the high spot of the day for me was being invited to judge an Icelandic warrior, aka obvious psychopath, who was clearly not the kind of person that you should let loose with a sword after the consumption of mead. We were allowed to vote on the various moral dilemmas in the story, and consult with historical and legal experts in order to come to our decision, but whatever we did, the situation got worse and worse for the poor victims of the psychopath's crimes until they were left destitute and without issue. What was really lovely about this session however is that the children present took it incredibly seriously and asked some really astute questions that helped the debate along a great deal. Perhaps we should stick them in a time machine and get them to arbitrate in 10th century Iceland next time? 

All in all this was a terrific day out and I left a lot wiser.

Many thanks to Sandra for this report. We also are grateful, of course, to Dr Debby Banham, Ben Guy, Julianne Pigott, Jo  Shortt Butler and all of our undergraduate volunteers for putting on such a wonderful programme for our guests.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Visiting Saints and Dragons

Over the next few days we'll be publishing some reports from this year's Festival of Ideas, which has been another big success for the department. Here's the first, from ASNC graduate student Julianne Pigott:

"Charting geographic and historical territory from St Columba’s defeat of the Loch Ness Monster to the dragon vanquished by St George, ‘Saints and Dragons’, a Festival of Ideas session presented by the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic on Saturday October 25th was created with an audience of under 10s in mind but ultimately attracted the attention of a selection of visitors of all ages. Designed by graduate student Julianne Pigott, as part of the Isaac Newton Trust funded Mapping Miracles project which examines miracle accounts from hagiographical texts composed across the regions of the medieval Insular world, ‘Saints and Dragons’ encouraged participants to explore the patterns, convergent and divergent, in miraculous animal encounters recorded in texts composed about saints associated with modern-day Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England. 
St Brigit of Ireland (image courtesy of Aidan Hart icons)
The subject of no fewer than eight hagiographical texts in Latin and Old/ Middle Irish, St Brigit, was the first of six saints to whom attendees’ attention was drawn. Drawing on accounts from the seventh century Latin text composed by Irish author Cogitosus, listeners were introduced to twelve Brigidine miracles, as they handcrafted crosses in accordance with a pattern attributed in modern folkloric tradition to the fifth-century nun. From the wondrous reproduction of meat she had previously fed to a stray dog, to her ability to calm wild horses and straying cattle, younger audience members were enthusiastic about the fantastical elements of the Brigit narrative.  Crossing the Irish Sea to Scotland, the audience was introduced to Adomnán’s Vita Columbae, a seminal source for historians of the period, but also the first literary account of the Loch Ness Monster. The holy man’s victory over his watery foe marks the only textual sighting of the monster before 1933 but this earliest identification of Nessie is often known only to medievalists and Latinate scholars; the adult participants in ‘Saints and Dragons’ certainly appreciated the value in familiarising themselves with the medieval roots of a modern legend. 

A St Brigit's cross created by a participant
In a further exploration of the connections between past and present, the younger cohort was presented with a brief introduction to the manuscript and textual history of these tales, with particular reference to the ninth century Irish poem Pangur Bán and its adaptation by contemporary filmmakers as a customised narrative for today’s Disney saturated audience. The account of the journey of this text, from ninth century European manuscript to twenty-first century animated movie replete with child-friendly musical accompaniment, provided an appropriate preface to a consideration of Welsh Saint Melangell’s position in popular lore as the saviour of hares. 

Tracing the ahistorical Melangell from a putative lifespan in the sixth century, through a text likely written in the twelfth, committed to vellum in the sixteenth and reports of a traveller to the region in the eighteenth, mature participants became more familiar with the particular challenges encountered by the historian seeking to disinter the truth of these tale. Meanwhile younger audience members were entranced by the vision of St Melangell sheltering the hares and rabbits under her voluminous skirts! 

The most popular storytelling section of the event was St George’s defeat of the dragon in Cappadocia, though listeners were taken aback to discover that the infamous victory by England’s patron saint occurred in modern Turkey rather than on local soil. The theme of 2014’s Festival of Ideas was ‘identity’ and the St George narrative challenged assumptions readily made by modern readers about the origin and reliability of narratives accepted in today’s popular culture as unassailable truths. Seeking to refocus attention on the sometimes very localised nature of identities, both medieval and modern, the final saint’s tale recounted was that of St Æthelthryth of Ely, whose association with the Cambridgeshire region is historically attested and confirmed in bountiful literary productions. 

‘Saints and Dragons’, though originally intended to serve only younger Festival attendees, evolved on the day of delivery to meet the expectations of a more diverse audience than anticipated. From the lively pictures and colourful crosses produced by the youngest participants to the probing questions raised by teenaged Classicists, the session exemplified the continued resonances of medieval saints’ stories for modern audiences, as narrative accounts in which certain aspects of identity are firmly implicated. The miracle accounts relied upon in the session explored how the relationship between place and people is neither fixed nor finite and challenged long, and often fondly held, assumptions about Insular patron saints and the intimacy of the connections upon which modern regional identities are, at least in part, founded. The work done by the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic lends itself exceptionally well to exploring and bridging the gaps, both perceived and real, between disparate Cambridge communities. Audience members in attendance at ‘Saints and Dragons’ cannot have failed to notice the universal themes, with personal relevance, which suffuse narratives composed in wildly different times and areas across the medieval Insular world. Those connections remain as relevant and requisite to good political and personal relationships today, as then."

Thursday 16 October 2014

Festival of Ideas, October 22‒25

One week into the new term, it's time to announce the first big ASNC event of the year. This is our now traditional involvement with the University of Cambridge Festival of Ideas, an annual exploration of the arts, humanities and social sciences where we take the opportunity to share some of our interests with the public. In keeping with this year's theme ('Curating Cambridge: our cities, our stories, our stuff'), several of the events will have a local focus.

On the evening of Wednesday 22nd October, Philip Dunshea will get things up and running with a talk, 'A tour of Cambridge and its surroundings before the University'. Dr Dunshea will try to get from London to the centre of Cambridge at the beginning of the seventh century, looking along the way at how early medieval authors wrote about the surrounding landscapes, and introducing some traces which survive out in the fields of South Cambridgeshire today. 22nd October, 67 p.m., Room G-R06/07, Faculty of English, 9 West Road

Then on Saturday afternoon, Dr Debby Banham  will pick up where Dr Dunshea left off, with a Walking Tour of Early Medieval Cambridge. Dr Banham's tour comes highly recommended, and will cover some of the exciting finds archaeologists have made in Cambridge in recent years.
Saturday 25 October: 1:00pm - 3:00pm
Saturday 25 October: 1:00pm - 3:00pm
25 October, 13 p.m., Meeting in Foyer of English Faculty, 9 West Road. Please wear appropriate footwear and clothing suitable for the weather!

Please wear appropriate footwear and clothing suitable for the weather. - See more at:
Please wear appropriate footwear and clothing suitable for the weather. - See more at:
On the same day, the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic will host a series of talks and interactive sessions, many of them aimed at children. These will run the whole day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., beginning and ending with some medieval story-telling performances. In between, there will be an introductions to medieval writing, the world of the vikings, crime and punishment in medieval Iceland, and the role of genealogies in the early middle ages. It looks like a rich and very entertaining programme; for full details, see the Festival of Ideas guide which you can download here.

We look forward to welcoming you to the department!

Faculty of English, 9 West Road

Meet in Foyer of English Faculty Building, 9 West Road, CB3 9DP - See more at:
Meet in Foyer of English Faculty Building, 9 West Road, CB3 9DP - See more at:
Saturday 25 October: 1:00pm - 3:00pm
Saturday 25 October: 1:00pm - 3:00pm