Thursday 27 April 2017

Book of Uí Mhaine Conference, 2017

On 2nd March the Royal Irish Academy hosted a two-day conference at Dublin on the late fourteenth-century manuscript Leabhar Ua Maine or Book of Uí Mhaine. Twelve speakers presented papers on various aspects of this manuscript, ranging from early modern poetry to illumination, among whom was ASNC’s Professor Paul Russell. A small delegation of current ASNC PhD students (David McCay and myself) and professors (Prof Máire Ní Mhaonaigh; Prof Paul Russell; Dr Margo Griffin-Wilson) were among the 110 delegates, as well as ASNC alumni such as Dr Sarah Waidler, Dr Silva Nurmio, Dr Deborah Hayden and Dr Elizabeth Boyle.

Just after noon, the conference was opened by Siobhán Fitzpatrick (head librarian) and Elizabeth Boyle. The first two papers given by Dr Nollaig Ó Muraíle and Dr Bernadette Cunningham provided a context for the manuscript by exploring its origins and those associated with its production and further history. After a tea break Dr Elizabeth Boyle took the audience on a journey through the Middle Eastern historical matter, of which a wide variety can be found in the manuscript. She discussed the interpretation of this material by tying it to its contemporary historical context and the genealogical material that is found in large quantities in the book. Prof Michael Clarke continued with the exploration of the verses on world-kingship by placing them in an international context, linking the poetry with mainland European monastic cultures and tentatively positing a link with the material found in the Book of Uí Mhaine and the contents of the library of King Richard II. Although this paper marked the end of the first day, discussion on the topics touched upon during the sessions continued during the reception.

The second day opened with a paper on the dindshenchas material contained in the Book of Uí Mhaine presented by Dr Marie-Luise Theuerkauf. Prof Ruairí Ó hUiginn followed with an analysis of the genealogical tracts, comparing them to the same core of material found in the roughly contemporary Book of Ballymore and Book of Lecan and pointing to the fact that the foregrounding of Uí Mhaine material in the manuscript indicates a strong regional interest. After a short tea break the next session brought us into the realm of poetry, as Prof Pádraig Ó Macháin and Dr Mícheál Hoyne discussed the transmission and functions of the poems in the manuscript. During the lunch break many discussions were continued, and there was ample opportunity to ask the speakers questions or wander around the Royal Irish Academy to browse the shelves or admire the Book of Uí Mhaine in person, which had been put on display especially for the occasion.

The first afternoon session was dedicated to language and was started off by Dr Deborah Hayden, who discussed the version of Auraicept na nÉces contained in the Book of Uí Mhaine. After this interesting paper, it was Prof Paul Russell’s turn to delve into the language. His study of the Uí Mhaine glossary explored the relationships between this word-list and similar glossaries found in three related manuscripts, concluding by showing that their transmission took place in the reverse direction than has hitherto been assumed. After the afternoon coffee break we moved on to the last two papers of the conference. In an interesting paper, Prof Liam Breatnach explored the metrical tracts that are found in the manuscript. Finally, the conference was brought to a close by Dr Karen Ralph, who took a closer look at the illumination found in the manuscript and linked it to medieval Irish literature. This paper concluded our journey through the Book of Uí Mhaine, which proved to be a multifaceted source providing us a glimpse into medieval Irish society.

Anouk Nuyten

‘Now comes the shadow-dark dragon flying’ – Eddic Poetry and the Power of Legend

In celebration of National Poetry Month, Judy Quinn, Brittany Schorn and Carolyne Larrington share some reflections on Old Norse eddic poetry on the Cambridge University Press blog.

Cambridge University Press is also currently offering at 20% off deal for their Handbook to Eddic Poetry; get it HERE.

Monday 24 April 2017


The annual Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic (CCASNC) took place this year on the 11th February, with the theme ‘Identity and Ideology’. We welcomed nine postgraduate speakers, and our keynote speaker Dr Alex Woolf (University of St Andrews).

The opening session began with ASNC’s own Rebecca Thomas discussing the multiple identities of Asser behind his Life of King Alfred, followed by Thomas Kearns (University of Durham) providing a detailed look into the charters of Oswald of  Worcester and his ideological vision of the Benedictine reform in the tenth-century. To close was Katherine Olley (ASNC), who took us further afield to Norway and gave an emotive description of attitudes towards birth scenes in Old Norse legendary literature. Discussions continued throughout the coffee break, when the next session brought us something slightly different in the form of archaeology. Danica Ramsey-Brimberg (University of Liverpool) presented a microcosm of Viking age burials in the Irish sea region and its political context, with Ben Allport (ASNC) following with an in-depth look at regional identity in medieval Norway, using a mix of both archaeological and saga evidence. Closing this session was a discussion of identity and diet in the Anglo-Saxon conversion period by Samantha Leggett (University of Cambridge), who very deftly provided a scientific discussion of teeth in a way which was not only understandable for those of us who were not archaeologists, but which was highly engaging.

After breaking for lunch – and an opportunity to browse the bookstall! - we were delighted to welcome Dr Alex Woolf, Senior Lecturer in History at the University of St Andrews, as our keynote speaker. Dr Woolf presented a skillful discussion on ‘Imagining English Origins before the Viking Age’, and led us from Germanic mythology to Welsh genealogies and English toponomy. He looked at a range of elements contributing to the identity of the English, including his idea that the character Hengest had its origins in a gloss on the Latin name for Kent. There was much food for thought, and a productive and thought-provoking question-and-answer session followed.

The third and final session continued to provide a broad range of topics, opening with a fascinating discussion from Rachel Fletcher (University of Glasgow) on the first Old English dictionary by William Somner in 1659 and its influence on the field. Following this, Steve Walker (University of Birmingham) spoke on ideological battles between secular and ecclesiastical elites in Britain as an ongoing issue which has modern-day implications. Finally, we had Kathryn Haley-Halinski (University of Iceland/University of Oslo) to close the day with a focus on the Rus in the Volga region as found in the writings of Ibn Fadlan, as part of the Viking Age diaspora.

In many ways, the closing papers reflected the overall feel of the colloquium; detailed analysis of very specific and very different topics, of which all were nonetheless strongly connected to each other by ties of identity. Indeed, it was a predominant theme of the day that one cannot study a subject in isolation; identities and ideologies are both forged through engaging with other cultures, politics, and landscapes.

Post-colloquium, lively conversations could be found in the Red Bull in Newnham, where the dialogue of identity and ideology continued in a more informal setting. Formal dinner followed at Wolfson College, and we enjoyed a drinks reception and excellent three-course dinner.

The quality of this year’s CCASNC was consistently high, both of the standard of papers presented and of the questions they raised. The CCASNC committee would like to thank all those who came, and all those involved behind the scenes, for making this year’s colloquium so successful.

Alice Taylor

(CCASNC co-president)

Voyages Along the North Way, Past and Present

Hardangerfjorden Hordaland

Ben Allport, PhD Candidate

A well-known textual source for Viking Age Norway, known as Ohthere’s Voyage, relates the account of a Norwegian trader at the court of King Alfred the Great in the 870s-90s. Ohthere had journeyed from his home in the far north of Norway both northeast to the White Sea and south along the coast to the town of Hedeby (Schleswig) in modern Germany. From his home to a town called Skiringssal at the entrance to the Oslofjord he describes the route he is sailing as the ‘Northway’, one of our earliest attestations of the term that would become ‘Norway’ in modern English and ‘Norge’ in modern Norwegian. It is a unique text which attests to the sailing prowess of Viking Age Scandinavians and also to the friendlier contacts between the Anglo-Saxons and the Norse at a time which we tend to view through the lens of the Viking invasions.
Folgefonna National Park

Last year, from September to November, I got the opportunity to make my own voyage to ‘Northway’. Generously supported financially by the Scandinavian Studies Fund and the Sydney and Marguérite Cody Studentship, I spent three months based as a visiting researcher at the University of Oslo (Universitetet i Oslo) – but I made sure I had an allowance to do some travelling! When I wasn’t trawling through Norwegian history books, and attending (and occasionally giving) seminars or lectures in the ever-friendly Faculty of Archaeology, History and Conservation in Oslo, I was able to visit the varyingly autumnal and snowy forests of the Oslomark, experience the beautiful train-ride to Bergen, visit some of the Viking historical sites of Western Norway, and even fly to Tromsø, deep within the Arctic circle, to speak at the most northern University in the world, taking in some northern lights in the process.

My PhD research is concerned with the importance Norwegian regional identity in the Viking Age. Norwegian regional identity remains strong even to this day, with different areas even adopting different official dialects that distinguish them from the official language Bokmål, understood abroad as ‘Norwegian’. My trip therefore allowed me to get to grips with both the modern and medieval regional identities of Norway; I learned of the stereotypes that are still very much alive. The residents of Bergen (bergenser) are renowned for being loud and obnoxious (source: an Oslo resident), while those of Trøndelag (the area surrounding Trondheim), are moustachioed, bucolic, and wear leather jackets (I’m not joking about the moustaches, the so-called the trønderbart – google it).

St Olafs Church, Avaldsnes

My trip took me to locations such as Avaldsnes in Rogaland, the place from which Harald Fairhair, the semi-legendary unifier of the Norwegian kingdom, reigned supreme over all of Norway from the 870s to 930s – if you ask a resident of Rogaland, that is (or watch the fantastically mythologised video at the Avaldsnes Nordvegen museum). Someone from Oslofjord might suggest that Harald only ruled Western Norway and Trøndelag; a trønder might dispute even that. Although this late ninth-century figure may be controversial, it is clear that the modern Norwegian concept of history goes back much further than one might expect, particularly given the English (a term used advisedly) tendency, sprung of Victorian attitudes, to view 1066 as the starting point in British history, ignoring the different peoples and cultures of prior centuries. One person in Oslo even proudly told me that she had gone to school at Avaldsnes and had used to jog on Harald’s burial mound. Not one of the many mounds at Avaldsnes has been identified as Harald’s – and indeed the only written evidence that it exists at all locate it five miles away, in Haugesund. Who knows which particular tumulus had taken on this special significance for her, but to a certain extent it doesn’t matter; it is enough that, to this individual, history, identity and the landscape were all bound up together.

At one point I was able to make it as far as Ohthere’s homeland: the county of Troms, well within the Arctic circle, a land of sheer, dark cliffs that tower over the small settlements dotting the coastline. I was there in late November, and witnessed the beginning of the period known as ‘mørketiden’ – literally ‘the dark time’ – when the sun goes down for the winter. I walked across a frozen lake in Tromsø in the midday twilight, while people walked their dogs and skated around me. At night the skies were lit with the ‘nordlys’ – the northern lights.

As I described these sites to my dad over the phone, his first question was: ‘why do people decide to live there?’ Admittedly, his ideal of weather is decidedly more Mediterranean than mine; my choice of destinations (having previously spent years in both Iceland and Norway) tend towards cooler temperatures. However, at first glance, it is hard to imagine what would have induced Ohthere’s ancestors to settle in such an apparently hostile environment. A couple of centuries ago I’m sure it would have been argued that some sort of primordial romantic spirit drove the initial intrepid settlers to a place where nature so forcefully exerts its power over man; something similar probably drives modern tourism. 

However, the fact remains that this migration was made, and was indeed made time and again, by both the Sámi (the earliest settlers of the region) and the Norse, all of whom sought after the plentiful resources which lurk in abundance beneath the barren landscape we like to picture. During the Viking Age, northern Norway (or Hálogaland, as it was known to Ohthere) may well have been the economic powerhouse of Norway; the shorelines of the region are dotted with the remnants of major fisheries up to 1500 years old. In the Viking Age, the residents of Hálogaland (the Háleygir) were renowned for building the largest sea-going vessels, and this is confirmed by the largest boathouses, which suggest the existence of ships of up to 40m long. As Ohthere informed Alfred, ‘he was a very rich man in those possessions which their riches consist of, that is in wild deer. He had still, when he came to see the king, six hundred unsold tame deer.’ Besides this, the far north offered precious metals and items prized as luxuries throughout medieval Europe – furs and walrus ivory.

Oseberg ship; the largest North Norwegian ships would have been twice as big.

Ohthere’s Voyage also makes mention of the Sámi people (whom he terms the Finnas); the oldest indigenous population of Scandinavia. A diverse collection of peoples speaking ten different languages and pursuing many different livelihoods, the prevailing image of the Sámi is of nomadic reindeer herders; this seems to be the lifestyle that Ohthere describes. Unfortunately, interactions between the Norse residents of Norway and the Sámi over past centuries have ranged from exploitative (Ohthere himself extracted tribute from the Sámi, although the relationship is now considered to have been less one-sided) to outright oppressive. Today, discussion and inclusion of Sámi culture and history is beginning to gain the prominence it deserves, thanks in part to the efforts of scholars at Tromsø’s Arctic University. It was one such collection of scholars, the members of the Creating the New North research project, which had drawn me north in the first place, for an incredible few days where I was invited to speak at a project seminar, given a tour of the university museum and inundated with free books and articles. Throughout Tromsø there was evidence of the increasing recognition of the Sámi, including bilingual street signs – a sight familiar from parts of our own isles.

Ohthere brought tales of an alien land to entice and thrill his Anglo-Saxon audience. Today, the British knowledge of Norway is far more comprehensive, especially given its popularity as a holiday destination in these days of adventure tourism. But boat-tours of the fjords and glacier walks rarely provide an opportunity to get to grips with both Norwegian history and the modern attitudes of a culture so similar, in many ways, to our own. There is therefore still room for voyages of discovery to be made to Norway; and if anyone is in need of a new Ohthere, then it is a role I am more than happy to inhabit (please)!
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I wish to extend my thanks to the funding bodies that allowed the trip to take place; to Jón Viðar Sigurðsson, Hans Jacob Orning and the Institutt for Arkeologisk, Konservering og Historie at Universitetet i Oslo; to Lars Ivar Hansen, Richard Holt, Sigrun Høgetveit Berg and the ‘Creating the New North’ research project at Universitetet i Tromsø; and to everyone I met along the way!


Saturday 11 March 2017

New Article on Þórsdrápa from Tom Grant

Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 12 will be out soon, featuring an article by ASNC PhD student Tom Grant about ‘Þórr the War God: Polemicizing Myth in Eilífr Goðrúnarson’s Þórsdrápa’. Read more about it on the VMS facebook page here.