Category Archives: Anglo-Saxon

Post 2: Some Thoughts from James Wright’s A Palace for Our Kings (King John’s Palace)

In preparation for my Sherwood Forest Archaeological Training Field School, I have been doing a lot of reading. In particular, I was pleased that James Wright’s book A Palace for Our Kings: The History and Archaeology of a Medieval Royal Palace in the Heart of Sherwood Forest came out at the end of June. It is specifically about the history and excavation of King John’s Palace at Clipstone, which is were I will be located. While I haven’t completed reading it yet (too many deadlines this summer!) – I am hoping to do so on the plane ride over – there have been several aspects that have intrigued me that I will share here. Some are thoughts; some are simply a collection of quotations around a concept. Some I am reacquainting myself with, some are ideas I want to remember as I begin the excavation, and some are totally new and specific to Clipstone. There will be more as I continue to read!
Definition of Palace
Citing the Oxford English Dictionary, Wright defines a palace as ” a large and impressive building forming the official residence of a ruler, pope, archbishop, etc.,” which is what he calls a “pleasingly malleable definition” (5). Later, he provides what is perhaps a more inclusive and useful description: “Palaces were used in remarkably elastic fashion by the monarchs. Their purposes varied according to a wide variety of circumstances not just from king to king but even within individual reigns. The personal preferences of a king might lead to a combination of reasons to visit a particular palace which may have involved sport, recreation, councils, parliaments, building campaigns, impressing magnates and dignitaries, retreating from plague, or as a resting point on a longer journey” (17). The Palace at Clipstone was one of the more impressive and maintained residences over the course of several reigns. The scale of Clipstone “lifts it to an entirely different level [than manor houses]” as it “stretched to seven and a half acres of enclosed land” (6).
King Edwin
I found it intriguing that the area of Clipstone is associated in “strong local tradition” with the death of King Edwin of Northumbria. He died in the battle of Hatfield in 633, long before the palace at Clipstone was established: “The precise location of the battle is not fully understood, but placename evidence and the discovery of a large number of skeletons during the 1950s in an apparent mass-grave beneath foundations of the north wall of the twelfth century church at Cuckney, six miles to the north-west of Clipstone, has led to speculation that it may take place close by. Traditional stories persist that, prior to his burial at Whitby, the slain king was interred at nearby Edwinstowe and it is possible that King John’s 1205 foundation of St Edwin’s Chapel in Birklands may have been related to this” (19-20). Mercian Archaeological Services, who sponsors the field school I am attending, received permission and funding to fieldwalk the area of St. Edwin’s Chapel in 2014.
Kings Who Visited
There are as always several dates involved when considering the multi-century history of a location like Clipstone. I found it useful to mark when kings first visited the site (chart below). Although a manor had been there prior to the Norman invasion and there is evidence of repairs and construction on the site, Henry II in 1181 is considered the first documented royal visitor to “his palace and deer park” (27). It is interesting that he visited Clipstone after the wars with his sons, wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, and other political leaders that they recruited. When he won, he set about essentially strengthening his hold over castles and forests, including Sherwood. Richard I first visited Clipstone immediately after he returned from his imprisonment. I like to imagine this as a much-needed respite before setting about punishing John and the other rebels. Wrights claims that it was to make sure Clipstone was in order for a later meeting with the Scottish king William the Lion (39). Citing Roger de Hoveden, Wright comments that Richard traveled to Clipstone and Sherwood, “which he had never seen before, and they pleased him greatly” (39). John seems only to have been at the palace, at least according to any remaining official records, nine days in total over seven visits (41), but he was in the area quite frequently so there could be many unrecorded visits as well. Henry III is the one who really took an interest in the architectural design of the Palace and ordered quite a bit of construction, particularly in response to the comfort of his queen Eleanor. Edward I held parliament at Clipstone in 1290, where he announced the plans for another Crusade (68). Edward II differed greatly than his predecessors in that he spent more time at each of the locations he visited, including Clipstone. I suspect this is due to the changing nature of centralized government and the perceived security of the times.
Year First Visited Clipstone
Henry II
Richard I
Henry III
Edward I
Edward II
Forest Law
Forest Law plays an essential role in the history of King John’s Palace as it was often used by the kings as a hunting refuge. Wright discusses this role and the perception of the Law (spoiler alert: it wasn’t good). I’ll be thinking more about this in relation to the Robin Hood legends, but for now:
  • “…monarchy could take advantage of the proximity of the great game reserves created in the royal forests such as Sherwood…The forest was a legal definition, associated with Forest Law. Perhaps one third of England was under this law during the twelfth century. The law was intended to protect the beasts of the chase and to encourage their welfare so that they would thrive and enable the kings to have vast stocks to hunt.” (9)
  • “The presence of Sherwood Forest was a key reason for the monarchy’s interest in Clipstone. Forest Law was introduced by the Normans to a land that was not used to such restrictions. Although there was a concept of the ownership of woodlands and the animals within them during the Saxon period, if those animals strayed into another man’s wood he was free to hunt them. Deer were not the preserve of the monarchy alone. The Norman idea of a forest set aside for the enjoyment of the king alone comes from the laws of Charlemagne and northern France.” (24-5)
  • “Forests were such a symbol of royal power and authority that Henry II reneged upon his wartime promise to reform the Forest Law…The law therefore became a stringent political tool and a survey of the forests in 1175 was carried out in person by the king…it was partly the tension caused by the extents of the forests that contributed to the outbreak of civil war between John and his barons…Magna Carta attempted to redress the balance but had no great effect…The Charter of the Forest in 1217 agreed to the removal of all land added to the forest by Henry II…but it was not until Henry III came of age that he ordered the enquiry of 1227 which fixed the extent of Sherwood so that the east of Nottinghamshire ceased to be forest.” (25)
  • “The penalties that could be imposed upon the local population at Clipstone for poaching the king’s deer, or even for cutting down the trees upon which the animals relied for their habitat, were severe….Although the 1217 Charter of the Forest removed the death penalty for poaching there were still a severe punishments [sic] for transgression…the Forest Law was so unpopular and controversial that even his [Henry II’s] own treasurer Richard Fitzneal wrote disapprovingly of it in the Dialogues de Scaccario: “The Forest has its own laws based, not on the common law of the realm, but on the arbitrary decision of the ruler; so that what is done in accordance with the law is not called ‘just’ without qualification but just according to forest law.” (27)

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Guest Post – Brandon Hawk: Life in a New Job

First, let me say how happy I am to be back in New England and within the proximity of Kisha, John, and the wider MASSMedieval community. And thanks to them for the invitation to share some thoughts on my new position as Assistant Professor in English at Rhode Island College. At RIC, I am “the lone medievalist,” but I mostly see this an opportunity rather than a drawback: while I’m the sole pre-modernist in the department, I’ve also been encouraged to pursue some of the ways in which I can look beyond the medieval period in my teaching and research. In other words, I see plenty of possibilities for expanding the diversity of my work.

For example, I’m eager to cultivate my interests in the long history of media and technologies. Several of my colleagues have a strong media studies focus, and there’s a close link between English and the Media Studies Program. Related to that, I’ve made some great friends in the Adams Library on campus, including a new reference librarian who specializes in English and digital humanities, as well as the interim Head of Digital Initiatives. While there are no details plans yet, we have informally schemed to think about collaborative projects around campus and using the library’s special collections.

In terms of research, I’m using some of my interest in media studies to start new projects or reframe old ideas as I revise. In particular, I am turning to revising my dissertation into a book, which I’m tentatively calling Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England. As I rethink this project, I’m particularly thinking about the long history of media, how Anglo-Saxon culture can be thought of as “multi-media,” and what that can tell us about the contexts of translation and adaptation, the circulation of books, and especially preaching in medieval England. Last weekend I attended the York Christian Apocrypha Symposium ( and presented part of my research on sermons and visual art related to stories about Jesus’ infancy in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. This represents one step in bringing medieval and media studies together as I forge ahead with the larger book project.

Teaching has also posed opportunities both to stay rooted in the medieval and to look beyond it. I’m teaching a 100-level general education “Literature and the Canon” course; a 200-level course that welcomes students to the English major as “Introduction to Literary Study”; and a 300-level “Literature of Medieval Britain.” I’ve taken the most liberty to look beyond the medieval period in “Introduction to Literary Study,” in which we’re reading a smattering of literature including Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Kazuo Ishiguro’s “A Village After Dark,” Homer’s Odyssey, the biblical Genesis, Sophocles’ Antigone, Beowulf, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Virginia Woolf’s short stories in Monday or Tuesday, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Essentially, I’ve mixed a bit of classic, canonical literature with things that I just want to read (and some, like Woolf’s stories or Satrapi’s Persepolis, that I’ve never read before). For the last book of the semester, I had students nominate ideas (a total of 6) and then vote on them—offering a type of democratic ending to the semester—for which they collectively chose Harper Lee’s recently published Go Set a Watchman. I’m also taking the opportunity to experiment with teaching, like an exercise you can read about here (

So far, I’ve had a good start to the semester and this position, and I’m looking forward to what else might come—medieval and otherwise—in my future at RIC.


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English Studies Abroad: Bath

This week, in English Studies Abroad (see previous post), we are “visiting” Bath. By “visiting,” we are focusing our study and readings on the city, as we will do with different locations (or figures) each week. For Bath, my goal is to focus on the striations of history, important not only for this particular place, but also to set the tone for the rest of class as well as provide a basic overview of British history. It’s been intriguing preparing for this week because, not being an expert in the nitty-gritty details of each city, there are aspects I am learning along with my students. I love it as it increases my enthusiasm with the material.

We started our “visit” with the city’s Roman-British history, which, of course, centers on the public baths, the hot springs being the reason people settled around it in the first place. Originally a shrine to the deity Sulis, the Romans named the area Aquae Sulis, co-opting the deity and aligning it with their Minerva. The Roman preoccupation with public baths is well-known, even to the point that they found it necessary to build them into the frontier forts along Hadrian’s Wall. I visited Chesters Fort a couple of years ago; the baths there take up about a third of the settlement (the following is a photo of the remains of the baths).

Chesters Roman Fort (Hadrian's Wall)

I have been having a particularly entertaining time reading about the curse tablets people would throw into the waters, hoping to get revenge on those who have wronged them. The tablets, some on display at the Roman Baths, which we will visit, are quite explicit – asking for the blood of the cursed or something a bit more or less gruesome (interesting images and background on the tablets).

When the Romans pulled out of England, we can imagine what places like Bath must have looked like, particularly a few centuries later, with the remains and ruins of their baths and stone walls. I ruminated in class about the idea that the images we see in the Exeter elegy The Ruin, if we step back from metaphorical readings, might be a glimpse of the experience of the Anglo-Saxon living with the physical Roman past.

Wondrous is this foundation – the fates have broken
and shattered this city; the work of giants crumbles.
The roofs are ruined, the towers toppled,
frost in the mortar has broken the gate,
torn and worn and shorn by the storm,
eaten through with age. (ll 1-5)

I like to think about the connection to our own journey as we explore the ruins of generations that came after this poem’s composition. Of course, it is widely speculated, and often debunked that The Ruin is written about Bath, but it is still an idea I find poetic.

The hot springs appear to have been widely known, if their appearance in the histories is any indication. Nennius, for instance, included them as one of his “Wonders of Britain,” a list often attached to the end of manuscripts of his Historia Brittonum. The pools at Bath were described as having magical properties – cooling and warming upon the desire of the bather. The reputation no doubt was increased by the perceived medicinal or miraculous, depending on your point of view, healing qualities. By the time we reach Geoffrey of Monmouth, Bath is associated with the great Battle of Badon Hill, thereby incorporating it into the Arthurian tradition to which Geoffrey’s work greatly contributes.  In his Prophecies of Merlin, it is foreseen that Bath/Badon’s waters “shall grow cold, and their salubrious waters engender death” (VII.3).

A portion of our discussion has focused on Bath’s position throughout its Roman and Anglo-Saxon history as a border or frontier town. As we can see from this map of Roman Britannia (c. 150AD), Bath, not located on the map but which lies to the south and a bit to the west of Gloucester, is situated on the outer western borders of Roman-occupied territory.

By the time of King Alfred the Great, Bath was a contested area between Mercia and Wessex (and even more so as the Danes pressed in from the north, before and after the Danelaw was created).

When Alfred began building up his series of fortifications throughout the kingdom, Bath was one of these burhs, listed in the Burghal Hidage, a document containing an account of these fortifications and their taxes (always an important piece of information for kings). At Bath, he had masons use the existing Roman stone as part of their reconstruction and strengthening of the city walls.

The borderland space that Bath occupied created unique opportunities, including its development as an influential market town. That particular characteristic carried over for quite some time, particularly as it became known for its wool trade. The merchant guild was formally recognized in the 12th century. Eventually, Catherine of Alexandria became the patron saint of the city – her wheel of torture perceived in the requisite spinning wheels. How well known Bath became for its wool and textiles can be seen in Chaucer’s “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales. We find the Wife of Bath naturally associated with her clothing and her cloth-making skills: “Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt/She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt” (ll. 449-50). Readers would have more than likely been very aware of Bath’s foremost industry.

We found it of particular note that Bath, after the Norman Conquest, was purchased by John of Tours following the Rebellion of 1088 between William the Conqueror’s sons. The winner William Rufus – quite a guy. He liked to sell or grant lands and bishoprics to his personal favorites. The note-worthy part of this exchange is the fact that John of Tours was a doctor (he was at the Conqueror’s deathbed). Given the persistent belief about the healing qualities of the springs, we can perhaps speculate that his occupation led to the rise in the next century of several hospitals, St. John’s, for instance. In the 13th century, leper houses developed, segregated baths built to ease their suffering. The hospitals, as was the wont of their medieval incarnations, served as hospices for the elderly, who were often soothed by the hot baths.

There is so much more to think about, particularly the history of another of our destinations, Bath Abbey, which has fascinating historical striations on its own and is connected on every level to the city’s various pasts, from the Anglo-Saxon when it was first built to the later hospitals to its present incarnation. We can stop at medieval Bath or continue on with Queen Elizabeth I’s favor and the revival of its spas, which are extremely popular by the time we get to Jane Austen and Bath’s appearance in several of her works, including Persuasion (my favorite of the novels) and Northanger Abbey.

An exercise I found enlightening as we prepare to visit Bath is a site put together for those interested in walking tours of southern England. In its description of the walk, it overlays the outlines of medieval Bath with the present-day city. Comparing these descriptions to Google Maps (in satellite mode) is a useful way to visualize landmarks and timelines.

Our Google Map project is getting off the ground, which you can see here (unfortunately, WordPress has not caught up with the new GM embed code). Also, here is the link to a collection of some of our online readings in Readlists (including background, news articles, texts, maps, etc.).

Next week, King Arthur!



Chaucer, Geoffrey. “From The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue, lines 447-478: The Wife of Bath.” Librarius, 1997. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.

Davis, Graham, and Penny Bonsall. A History of Bath: Image and Reality. Lancaster, UK: Carnegie, 2012. Print.

Geoffrey of Monmouth. “Arthurian Passages from The History of the Kings of Britain.” The Camelot Project. University of Rochester, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.

Manco, Jean. Bath Past. Building History, 15 Oct. 2007. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.

“Two Old English Elegies from the Exeter Book: The Wanderer and The Ruin.” Trans. R.M. Liuzza. English 401: Introduction to Medieval Literature. University of Tennessee-Knoxville, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.

Weissman, Hope Phyllis. “Why Chaucer’s Wife Is from Bath.” Chaucer Review 15.1 (1980): 11.36. JSTOR. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.

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The Program: Day 2, Kalamazoo

Day 2: Thinking about the Kzoo Program

This morning I am reflecting on the program of sessions. It’s part of the ritual (or my ritual – I don’t know about anyone else!) to plan out the sessions I want to attend and think about the broad spectrum of work offered by my fellow medievalists. It’s often a mind-boggling experience, given the depth and breadth of topics and disciplines. The sheer number of subjects of which I haven’t even previously heard is humbling as well as exciting.

I am rather conditioned at this point to pick out those sessions and papers with any reference to memory in them. This year, the vast majority of those about memory are Anglo-Saxon-specific. Two sessions in particular, “Memory and Community in Anglo-Saxon England” (413) and “Memory at Work In Anglo-Saxon England” (519), are entirely devoted to the subject. The first is primarily comprised of papers on Beowulf; the title “Burning to Remember, Eating to Forget” has immense possibilities. The latter session includes a title that intrigues me – “Memory and Identity Formation: A Cognitive Construction of the Self in The Wanderer.” I often teach this text through the concept of memory, particularly its bittersweet components. Is it better to remember or to forget? Which causes the most pain? This title makes me consider the possibilities of the loss of memory dealing the final “death blow” to The Wanderer’s previous life. Is it in the pain of remembering that he still retains what is left of his kin, of his role in society? If he forgets, will he, in essence, cease to exist? Another session, “Text and Image II: Memory and Visual Space” (232), looks interesting. As is not uncommon, there are several individual papers exploring the connections between death and memory.

Coinciding with being hired at Fitchburg State, I have found my interest in panels shifting. Now, at least half of the time, I choose sessions based upon what might be beneficial to me in the classroom. For instance, a roundtable on Friday (260), “Teaching Marie de France” (sponsored by the International Marie de France Society), is calling to me. As I was just mentioning last night, my students adore Marie de France. It has been one of the biggest surprises as a teacher; for some reason, I did not expect her to be such a draw. However, she does have everything – romance, intrigue, werewolves, knight-saving damsels, resurrecting weasels. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. At any rate, I am curious what others have to say.

Then there is always the almost hagiographic torture of the sessions that are happening while I am already booked!

I need a rest, and this is only the program!



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England Study Abroad…Test Run

As I mentioned on a previous post, I took a trip to England this summer, both as (primarily!) a vacation and as a bit of a test run for a future study abroad course I will be leading in 2014 (that date just looks impossible and yet it is incredibly near). Here, as promised, are a few notes…

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam Castle, East Sussex, built 1385. I actually chose this particular site somewhat at random. Travelling with my six-year-old nephew, I wanted to make sure he saw a little of everything, and this castle has…wait for it…a moat! As it turns out, it was a good decision. In a remote area, Bodiam is rather an idyllic setting , which explains, as I learned later, why it was such a popular destination in the 18th century – a perfect opportunity to discuss medievalism and the varying interest in the period up to present times.

Bodiam Castle, chapel ruins

I was particularly intrigued by the chapel ruins at Bodiam. With no roof and the only remnants the empty window frames, it invokes a sense of the passage of time. It’s easy enough to imagine what it originally looked like, and yet there is the bittersweet melancholy of decay. Bodiam was the first site we visited, and I think it is an effective starting point – low-key, yet interesting, and definitely beautiful.


Westminster Abbey, Chapter House

Westminster Abbey, London (well, really, Westminster). Westminster needs no justification as a place to visit. The amount of connections that can be made at the Abbey are limitless. Chaucer and Poet’s Corner. Edward the Confessor. Coronations. Architecture. The place is packed full (quite literally) of history and culture. Constructed in the mid-13th century, the Chapter House, however, deserves a great deal of attention. From the oldest door in England (1050!) to its paintings and stone benches, it is by far my favorite spot in Westminster.


Tower of London

Tower of London. Like Westminster, the Tower really needs no justification. Its historical striations  are complex and compact, building on each other and creating a spider web of English culture. Here is the moment to connect medieval and Early Modern history together, demonstrating how it develops rather than abruptly shifts. For myself, I am always intrigued by the Norman presence within the White Tower, particularly the chapel.

Tower of London, inside St. Thomas’s Tower


Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral, Kent. For a medievalist, every trip to Canterbury Cathedral is a pilgrimage. It is easily one of the most prominent literary sites, of course. This was my first time at Canterbury, and it didn’t disappoint. Winding through streets, looking for the cathedral, then finding it at the end of an alley. The gateway obscuring it until you get close enough to peer through, and then your breath is taken away. I was fortunate in that it was a beautiful day – all blue skies and cotton clouds. When we first arrived, there was a graduation ceremony taking place inside, and, as luck would have it, the choir was singing. A perfect moment. Like any medieval visitor, I stared straight up in awe. It’s difficult not to. The sheer scope of the cathedral is unbelievable.

The crypt is the place to go first. We were found by a lady working there who told wonderful stories about Becket. I found it easier to conceptualize the inside of the cathedral after having seen the crypt.

Canterbury Cathedral, shrine of Thomas Becket

The shrine to Thomas Becket is also a powerful aspect of the cathedral (and well-represented with the above sculpture and the single candle marking where his tomb rested) – and again the opportunities for teaching are endless.


Dover Castle

Dover Castle, Kent. I have already posted about Dover, so I won’t say much here. Still, I wanted to include a photo.


Glastonbury Abbey, site of alleged tombs of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere

Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset. If I absolutely must choose my favorite site from this trip, I will have to go with Glastonbury Abbey (the birds of prey exhibit and being able to hold a falcon definitely added to the experience). Given one of my interests is Arthurian literature, being able to visit the ruins was a special treat. It helps that it lived up to expectations as a peaceful place, worthy of all the stories of its sacredness and import. There are two signs (one of which is above) marking the Arthurian significance of the site. I think it would be quite a revelation to students after reading any version of the death of Arthur. Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia .


Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne, Holy Island, Northumberland. Lindisfarne is a long drive up north, but well worth it. There’s an inescapable excitement in crossing over the causeway – after consulting the tidal charts just to make sure you don’t get stranded there! The little village, surrounding the Priory ruins, and the castle looming in the distance make for quite the atmosphere. I don’t think students can appreciate the vulnerability of Lindisfarne to the Viking attack in 793 until seeing it. There is an exhibition concerning the Gospel – the manuscript itself is travelling to the island, I believe, next year. I was concerned that the Island was too far out of the way, but I really wouldn’t want the students to miss it.

Lindisfarne Priory, view from the sea side of the island


Chesters Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall

Chesters Roman Fort, Hexham, Northumberland. Chesters was built to guard the part of Hadrian’s Wall that crossed over the bridge on the River North Tyne. The ruins are very well-preserved, particularly the rather intricate bathhouse. It’s an excellent example of life in Roman Britain, with the museum providing all kinds of artifacts from Chesters and other parts of the Wall. There are two sections of the Wall itself still intact, demonstrating how the fort and the Wall connected. I chose Chesters for the sake of ease of travel; however, Corbridge Roman Town is another site I will consider in the future as a companion to it.


Sherwood Forest, Major Oak

Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. I said above that Glastonbury was my favorite site. This is only because I put Sherwood in a class of its own. There are many things I could say about the forest, but I will limit myself to its pedagogical assets. First on that list is, of course, its literary connections. Seeing Sherwood makes the stories real. However, beyond that, I think the sheer age of the forest is its value. It is difficult, even for New Englanders, to grasp the weight of time in England as compared to the United States. In Sherwood, it is inescapable.


I think the key to a study abroad trip of this nature is variety – expressing ideas, history, and culture from the perspective of different types of people, different architecture, different ways to connect what they have read to what they are seeing. With all of these sites, we have cathedrals, abbeys, castles, rural areas, cities, islands, forests, etc. We have Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Middle English, Early Modern. In case you haven’t picked up on it, the word “connection” is very important to me – as an individual, as a researcher, and as a teacher. I have some tweaking to do as well as some adding (I want to include some libraries into the mix), but I’m calling the test run a success.

I, naturally, have all kinds of texts in mind to assign for this course, but I would be interested in hearing ideas about what you would assign as companions to these sites.


PS For more photos, see my Flickr set.


Filed under 14th Century, Anglo-Norman, Anglo-Saxon, Chaucer, Early Modern, History, Medievalism, Teaching, Travels

Primitivism and the Warrior

My major project for the next few weeks is to write and, with luck, complete an article on accommodating the recent spate of Beowulf films in teaching Anglo-Saxon literature. This involves tracking down the little that’s been written on the topic, learning a bit about film theory, limbering up my pedagogy-speak, sifting through some recent Beowulf scholarship for some important bits I’ll be using, and reviewing my own notes on the poem from grad school and several years’ teaching (my undergraduate notes on medieval literature were, mercifully, almost entirely destroyed in a house fire in 1998; this conveniently allows me to complain bitterly about losing all that hard work without the awkwardness of actually having to confront just how bad most of it was). It also involves re-viewing the six films that have been released in the last dozen years–and believe me, that’s going to be the hardest part of the whole project. I’ll undoubtedly be reviewing them here; pain shared, after all, is pain divided. Or sadism made manifest. Perhaps a miniseries is in order–can one write a miniseries on a blog?

Among the articles I’ve collected is Stephen T. Asma’s reflection on the 2007 Zemeckis Beowulf in the context of other releases of the same time (Snyder’s 300; the HBO Rome series) which seemed to be about unfettered (i.e., pre-Christian) masculinity. Asma’s point seems to be that modern interpretations of these stories are, inevitably, colored by contemporary masculinities–so that the Zemeckis Beowulf is defeated not by his own arrogance or the inevitability of senescence, but by a weakness of moral character. As Asma notes, the modern movie Beowulf is “basically a jerk, whose most sympathetic moment is when he finally realizes that he’s a jerk.” The article is rather brilliantly titled “Never Mind Grendel. Can Beowulf Conquer the 21st Century Guilt Trip?”1 and you can read it if you have a Chronicle of Higher Education subscription. There’s a lot of food for thought there, and in general I agree with Asma’s conclusions–particularly his point that this “Nietzschean version” of Beowulf is no more a construction than (and, in some ways, not all that different from) the Tolkien version that preceded it. I’ll have more to say about this when I get to the film.

In the meantime, I’m boiling a bit about the other “hit” I got when looking up Asma’s article on the Chronicle site—a letter responding to the article, titled “An Afterlife for Beowulf.” I could (and do) take exception to the author’s reading of the poem as a whole, but what got my dander up was, predictably, the apparently unintentional condescension toward medieval culture. In a short letter, the author manages to work in two descriptions of medieval culture and writers as “primitive”; given the context, it’s hard to imagine this was meant even in the problematic Victorian “noble savage” mode. The reference comes when the author, having already mentioned that his interest in Beowulf stems in the main from an interest in Tolkien and Seamus Heaney, posits that an “important theme [runs] through the story: The pre-Christian fixations on gold and reputation can be read as a primitive longing for something that does not die.” In the following paragraph, he echoes this statement: “In Beowulf we see, among many other things, a primitive warrior culture groping for something beyond this world.”

Look. I could spend all day going into detail about why this is not a useful comment, and enjoy myself thoroughly in the process. But in fact, shorn of its benighted adjectives, the point is entirely valid. Let’s try that first sentence again without the disdainful attitude: “The fixations on gold and reputation can be read as a longing for something that does not die.” This is, I think, a reading that most of us would be happy to have our students walk away from Beowulf with–not the final word, perhaps, but a reasonable and illuminating approach to understanding the text. One can even imagine turning this analysis around on moments such as Hrothgar’s farewell speech to Beowulf and the search for an “eternal” monument that does not rely on wealth or fame.

So why a primitive culture? Three possible responses leap to mind in response to this kind of thing (four, really, but since our own culture does not highly prize dueling with large axes, let’s stick with three). The first is to add this to the poisonous collected wordhord most medievalists nurture somewhere behind their bile ducts–the same heap where we keep Pulp Fiction’s sodomy, CNN’s descriptions of war zones, and anything by or about Jacob Burckhardt. The second is to make a lengthy and impassioned argument concerning the complexity of Anglo-Saxon (or late Roman, or Byzantine, or Abbasid Caliphate, or Carolingian, or Scandinavian, or Ethiopian) culture; this might perhaps include a few salient remarks about the comparative values implied by, say, Germanic feud culture and the modern American prison system.

The third option, of greater interest and probably more illuminating, is to consider whether contrasting the culture of Beowulf with our own is less useful than considering whether they’re all that different in the ways the author means. Let’s briefly investigate just what is being called “primitive” here:
The desire for fame? A 2009 survey2 showed that the top three dream careers of modern British children are Sports Star, Pop Star, and Actor.
The obsession with mortality and the possibility of immortality? Visit a cemetery sometime. Better yet, visit a cryogenics lab, or the Immortality Institute’s website.3
The question of (or desire for) life after death? Religious institutions still argue for this with some force, and a comfortable majority of Americans believe in some form of an afterlife.
The pursuit of wealth? I’ll forgo the dubious pleasures of laying bare the soul of modern capitalism, a task for which I am not professionally or temperamentally suited; I do, however, enjoy the minor irony that this letter was written early in 2008, just as the worldwide economy was about to crash down due to the unbridled pursuit of unearned riches. The dangers of the dragon’s den, indeed…

So the question is—does treating Beowulf as an artifact of a “primitive” culture demonstrate a lack of understanding of that culture, or a (possibly warranted) cynicism about our own?

All right, I’m off to re-watch the first of six Beowulf movies and take notes. Wish me luck…



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