Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dissertation Fragments III: The Prospectus

For those who remember the first and second posts in this little series, I present the "final" installment of my dissertation fragments (just in time for the new year). The first post, "Two False Starts and an Abstract" saw me attempting to think through the idea of horizons as a way for me to make connections between texts and humans. The second post, "Horizons of History" was the opening to the lecture I gave at Wake Forest in late November. Now, I present you all with the fruits of my long labor: The Dissertation Prospectus.

I've felt reluctant to post it over the past few days -- it was provisionally approved (with necessary modifications) the day before Christmas, so I'm only just now re-reading it. Part of my reluctance to post it was, I think, my own discomfort with the prospectus genre. First of all, it is a genre that is made to be changed, so to speak -- everyone I've spoken to has said that their prospectus differed wildly from their final product. I would imagine the same will hold for me (particularly given how little I know Saints Lives at present), and there's a small part of me that would rather this early ambition-filled version of what I want to do gather dust silently, rather than continue to speak when its successor is a work in its own right. Further, it's hardly a perfected document. I think the major flaw in it is the terribly detached tone: then again, the prospectus seems a quite artificial writing project, if a necessary one. What I feel I've accomplished in this version is a coherent narration of my project -- in the end, I suppose, what one ought to have accomplished by writing it. I also think I've been forced to clarify my thinking, fit it into specific work that's going on in the field right now, and make it my own enough to hold weight. That said, there are a few flaws going in.

First of all -- there is no extended bibliography. I am working on that -- though I have one, it's not exactly typed up at present. Hopefully I'll get there, and when I do, I'll post it here. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly: I feel like I've lost a lot of the dialogue I was trying to establish with Latour, Deleuze and Guattari, etc. I think that's necessary -- I need to explore the texts in a way that allows them to speak first and fully, even if I have a critical or theoretical "hunch" that involves Latour, etc. In short: I have to let the Anglo-Saxon texts dictate the way in which I use theory, and not vice-versa. That seems obvious, and indeed it IS obvious. However, I wanted to articulate it here: most importantly, because it's something I struggle with in my work, in no small part due to my penchant for the philosophical and the conceptual. Thirdly -- and this one is the really important bit -- I'm missing an entire chapter or so. It's the one I'm going to write on Beowulf, which will engage the questions I began raising in the second of the Fragments posts. The reason I did not write it up as a chapter yet -- and the reason I'm still not sure it will be a proper "chapter" -- is that I think I want Beowulf to perform a kind of a linking function. That is to say, I want Beowulf to be present in my dissertation in each of the chapters. I don't know that that will work -- which is, of course, why I need to write up the summary as a nominal "Chapter V" to the dissertation and let it go at that.

At any rate, here it is: The Horizons of History: Writing (and Rewriting) Anglo-Saxon Collectivities in the Middle Ages. Thoughts, questions, comments, bibliographical additions are all welcome and indeed sorely needed.

The Horizons of History: Writing (and Rewriting) Anglo-Saxon Collectivities in the Middle Ages

In the wake of the theories of narrative expounded upon in the 1980s by Hayden White and Paul Ricoeur, the approach taken by medieval studies vis a vis the study of early “historical texts” has benefited greatly from the new ways of thinking through the relationship between narrative convention and the functions of history in society.[1] Monika Otter, for example, has used the relationship between fiction and history in the twelfth century to explore what she (following Ricoeur) has termed the referentiality of medieval Latin historical texts, or to put it plainly, the degree to which “fictionality, while not embraced as it is in vernacular romance, becomes a playful and (and sometimes alarming) possibility in Latin historical writing.”[2] In the introduction to their 2006 edited volume entitled Narrative and History in the Early Medieval West, Elizabeth Tyler and Ross Balzaretti draw on the narrative theory of White to argue for literary practice not as a way “to look through form to facts” but rather as a way “in which the form of the text itself becomes a way into our understanding the past,” and thus enable “literary and historical methodologies [to] meet as equal partners.”[3] The result of an interest in the ways in which form and content merge in the historical texts of the medieval past raises a number of questions, not least of which is “if early medieval historical writings were representations of the past made for present purposes,” how were these representations made, who made them, and what effect or influence did they have in the formation of early medieval identity?[4] Further: By whom were they used, and to what purpose?

Simultaneously, postcolonial thinking about the status of the nation in the formation of “modernity” has begun to question the conventions with which we approach the medieval past. Although some early theorists of the “nation” place its inception in the eighteenth or nineteenth century,[5] more recent critics have argued for an earlier date for the beginnings of nation-building, with the most far-reaching of these looking to Anglo-Saxon England for the beginnings, in protonationalism, of what would become the modern English nation-state. Adrian Hastings’ assertion of vernacularity as a key component in the beginnings of nationalist sentiment has found eager adherents in Anglo-Saxon studies, which, we are often reminded, boasts the first vernacular translation of the Bible.[6] Kathleen Davis’ influential work on the preface to the Pastoral Care emphasizes the rhetorical strategies of the text, which far from describing the world “as it truly was” was engaging in its own “nation-building” technique, attempting to set up a relationship between past and present which would allow for the continued growth of the political influence of the Angelcynn.[7]

My dissertation will explore the ways in which historical literature, broadly defined to include chronicles, world-histories and saints’ lives, functions in the construction of collective identities in the Anglo-Saxon period. My specific interest is in texts that were inherited from – or passed on to – cultures outside Anglo-Saxon England. By examining texts that were initially written by cultures predating the Anglo-Saxons, as well as texts which originated in Anglo-Saxon England but were passed on to later cultures, I will explore the ways in which these texts not only provided materials and models on which the Anglo-Saxons could base their own literary culture, but were themselves altered in the process of translation and transmittal. The texts I will examine are intricately linked to the process of nation building outlined by Davis, and though I am not as invested in the identification of protonationalistic tendencies in the texts, I will be focusing on the ways in which the nation-building process left its mark on the texts which were used as instruments for the imagining of ethnic and national identity.

Further, I will use both texts that were translated into Old English as well as texts which were generated in the period in order to explore the ways in which Anglo-Saxon culture interacted with texts more generally, not only altering them for their contemporaries (i.e., to be legible at the time of their reworking or composition) but also to present a certain textually based vision of the place of Anglo-Saxon England in the wider world. By examining these texts, which span a time period from the probable composition of the Old English Orosius, translated in the 900s slightly after the reign of King Alfred to the Matthew Paris translation of the Life of Edward the Confessor in the thirteenth century, I will examine the ways in which “Anglo-Saxon” culture was made both in and after the period traditionally assigned to Anglo-Saxon England, emphasizing the role played by the texts in question in thinking through what it means to be “Anglo-Saxon.”

I. Alfredian Temporalities: Time and Translation in the Old English Orosius

[The first chapter will examine the Old English Orosius, and the temporalities which intersect both in textual translation as well as the re-appropriation of generic convention across historical time, positing “the nation” as a network in which texts, peoples and generic forms play a role in the creation of identity.]

The “Alfredian Translation Program” in Anglo-Saxon England offers a particularly complicated view of translation as it relates to the issues of narrative history, national history, and time. Instituted during the reign of Alfred the Great in the late ninth century, the series of translations includes Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care and Dialogues, Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, Saint Augustine’s Soliloquies, the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, a prose version of the Psalms, and – my interest in this paper – a translation of Paulus Orosius’ Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII. Despite the sustained critical consideration of the prefaces to the Alfredian translations, however, the texts themselves – books described in the preface to the Pastoral Care as ‏‏ða ðe niebeðearfosta sien eallum monnum to wiotonne (“those which are most needful for all men to know”) are rarely the subject of much critical scrutiny, except where they diverge from their source texts in culturally significant ways.[8] That the prefaces – the locus of “originality” in the works in the sense of forming a clear boundary between the Latin and the Old English – have undergone such sustained critical inquiry to the neglect of the works they come before is significant to the study of the Alfredian program.

In this chapter of my dissertation, I examine the Old English version of Orosius’ Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII. I argue that a more sustained reading of the text, incorporating not only the “original” additions of the Old English translator but also the interests and execution of the text as a whole allow a more nuanced understanding of the multiplicity of temporalities that exist in the space of the text. This is not to say that the “original” parts of the Old English Orosius are not important. The additions to the geographical preface are instructive as to the scope and imagination of Anglo-Saxon England concerning both the northern geography and the peoples who inhabited it. The alterations to other portions of the text are instructive as the extent to which classical mythologies were known, and important to the cultural imagination, in Anglo-Saxon England. However, as a text in translation, the Old English Orosius is itself home to competing temporalities that are, I argue, instructive as to the ways in which that translation functions in terms of time. The Old English Orosius, in its translation and transformation of the Latin text of the Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII becomes a kind of hybrid space in which different temporalities interact and compete. These temporalities inhere in the problem of voice within the text. The hybrid space of the text – part Latin source material, part Old English invention, but with no specific delineations between the two (geographical preface excepted)--plays host to a variety of tensions and difficulties resulting from the anachronistic aspect of the text as what Malcolm Godden has described as a “monument to a fallen world.”[9] By reading the contexts of the two works, I will provide a sense of the tensions between the two texts in terms of the situation in history into which each falls. In the examination of a specific phrase—the cwæð Orosius (“Orosius said”)—I will position the time of Latinity and the representation of Orosius as indicators of a connection being made across times, as it were. In my reading, the Latin Historiarum Adversum Paganos and the culture which generated it become active participants in the shaping of an Old English identity through the text of the Old English Orosius. Drawing on Latour to argue for the Orosius as part of a collectivity formed in and by the different cultures and times represented in the various texts of the Alfredian corpus of translations, in this chapter I will raise questions about the status of this text “most needful for all men to know” vis a vis Jakobson’s formulation of translation in “Some Linguistic Aspects of Translation: as “translator of what messages? betrayer of what values?”[10]

II. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”: Narratives in the Winchester, Canterbury, and Peterborough MSs

[Chapter two will examine the Winchester, Canterbury and Peterborough manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in order to explore the ways in which group identity changes across time and textual traditions, and will more specifically address the alliance of different genres in the creation of collectivities in the singular “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.”]

In her recent work on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alice Sheppard notes the specifically pedagogical aims of the texts, making the assertion that “they teach their readers what ‘makes’ and Anglo-Saxon and what defines Anglo-Saxon kings and kingdoms.”[11] In thinking through the ramifications of this kind of a “writing of an Anglo-Saxon identity and the creation of a people who are known as the Angelcynn,” Sheppard’s main interest is in the narratives of kingship which are found throughout the various MSs, and for the most part, she limits her considerations to specific narratives in each MS. My interest, in choosing the Winchester, Canterbury and Peterborough MSs is to examine the ways in which narrative as a whole changes across the period during which the greater “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” was being composed. The motion forward in time from the early Winchester MS to the post-Conquest Peterborough MS suggests what Hayden White has identified as a major difference between annalists and chroniclers, in which “annals represent historical reality as if real events did not display the form of a story, [while] the chronicler represents it as if real events appeared to human consciousness in the form of unfinished stories.”[12] Working with ideas of narrativity, I wish to demonstrate that the alliances (over time) of different generic materials (including Saints Lives and later chronicle literature) had a profound effect on the composition of the later MSs of the Chronicle, suggesting that in the presentation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as we see it in the most recent edition (by Swanton) is perhaps more telling than we think. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle itself forms a collectivity of materials that differ in not merely their genre but also their composition, in that the representation of the Angelcynn that the work as a whole gives is very much influenced by the composite structure in which it is articulated.

III. Saints and Soil: Inscribing English Sanctity in Ælfric’s Lives

In writing his Lives of the Saints, Ælfric translates a number of hagiographic texts out of Latin, emphasizing in his preface not only his fidelity to the original but also issuing a warning that any copyists are not to alter the texts in question when they are further copied down. Among his chosen saints are not only traditional saints of Late Antique origin, but saints of England: both the saints and the cults of their veneration originated in the British isles. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the cult of certain saints, the ground on which the saints died (usually through their martyrdom) maintains a certain connection with their holiness: it often is capable of curing illness or disability. Examples of this from the Latin tradition include that of Saint Maur, and Saint Martin, among others. Most often this is through the presence of their relics, and churches or shrines are built in the place at which the saint perished. In the case of Saint Æðeldryð, the body of saint itself becomes the conduit and locus of miracles—further, the fact of its incorruptibility becomes a point of connection for religious belief through time, a proof preserved from before the time Bede wrote of it, git oð ‏þisne dæg (yet until this day). Saint Alban, too, becomes a point of gathering for pre- and post-persecution Christianity in the area of England: the place of his interment connects Christians across time, both before and after the reign of Diocletian (the emperor whom Ælfric cites as the perpetrator of the persecutions) as well as after the re-institution of Christianity by Augustine after it had once again fallen away.

Æðeldryð and Alban suggest a connection of faith across time which inheres in the body of the saint. Saint Swiðun, the last of the trio of Anglo-Saxon saints I will examine, represents a kind of special case. Although his body is interred in the cathedral at Winchester, his vita proper is forgotten by the time of its inscription into Ælfric’s work and there is no body featured in the text. The fact of Swiðun’s existence is known only in miracles, and it appears throughout the text that there is a certain degree to which Swiðun’s sanctity is constituted not by the preservation of his earthly body, but by the works done through him in the world. Swiðun, termed in the text se‏þe nu niwan com (he who newly came), breaks down traditional ways of understanding the sanctity of saints in England, and in so doing, suggests a different model for connection with them. By looking at these three saints of England, I will argue that the community formed through them extends in time not only in their stories and in Anglo-Saxon England, but moreover with the stories of other saints in Ælfric’s Lives.

IV. A King’s Life: Pre and Post Conquest Narratives of Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor, the last king of the line of Cerdic and so of the “Anglo-Saxons” proper (succeeded only by the Harald Godwinson before the “Norman” conquest), occupies a distinctive role in the history of Anglo-Saxon England. A “holy” king (not unlike the earlier King Alfred, whose vita was written by Asser in the tenth century), Edward’s function as regards “England” – both pre and post conquest – changed considerably through time. In her 1988 dissertation (unpublished), Martha Blalock focuses on what she calls the “legend” of Edward – literally, a reading of his life. She separates the historical materials from the hagiographic materials in so doing – classifying such works as the “Anglo-Saxon” Chronicles and the chronicles of Florence of Worcester in the former category and the various Latin and vernacular lives of Edward in the latter. In her analysis of the lives she suggests that “his legend can best be understood as a body of “accurate” or “inaccurate” historical facts which has been made to conform to saintly models” 13; thus, in assessing the hagiographical material, Blalock finds that the later, vernacular works show the influence of the “new historicity” she argues characterize the twelfth century renaissance, as opposed to the Latin lives, which are more traditional in form.

In re-examining the lives of Edward the Confessor, I will argue that in order to understand the interaction between genres in the lives which are composed about him, scholars must turn to earlier models of “saintly” kings, and open the scholarship to the possibility that hagiography also – and at an earlier date – influenced the recording of history in Anglo-Saxon England, most particularly in the portrayals of Kings Alfred, Oswald, Edmund and Edgar. The saintly life of Edward the Confessor might then be best understood as a reading of the historical text already molded into the traditions of hagiography at the time of its inscription; the result is a composite image of a king whose power waxes and wanes with his holiness.


[1] Hayden White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990). Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative (vols. 1 & 3) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

[2] Monika Otter, Inventiones (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) 19.

[3] Elizabeth Tyler and Ross Balzaretti, eds. Narrative and History in the Early Medieval West, (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006) 7.

[4] Yitzhak Hen and Matthew Innes, eds. The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 1.

[5] Cf. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991); Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[6] Cf. Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Hastings’ (extremely western) examination of nationalism places a great deal of emphasis on the translation of the Bible as a step on the (all too teleological notion of) the road to nationhood.

[7] Kathleen Davis, “National Writing in the Ninth Century: A Reminder for Postcolonial Thinking about the Nation,” JMEMS 28.3 (Fall 1998)

[8] e.g., Davis. See also Nicole Discenza, The King’s English: Strategies of Translation in the Old English Boethius (New York: SUNY Press, 2005). Culturally significant divergences in the Old English Orosius include not only the geographical preface, which adds entire sections on the Northern geography related (purportedly) to King Alfred himself, but also certain extensions of mythological stories that would not have been familiar to Anglo-Saxon England.

[9] Godden, "The Anglo-Saxons and the Goths: Rewriting the Sack of Rome," Anglo-Saxon England 31 (2002) 61.

[10] Roman Jakobson, “Some Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, ed. Schulte and Biguenet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) 151.

[11] Alice Sheppard, Families of the King, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004) 11-12

[12] Hayden White, The Content of Form, 5.

[13] Martha Graham Blalock, The Vita Sancti Edwardi Regis et Confessoris and the Vernacular Lives of Edward the Confessor (unpublished dissertation), 108.

cross posted at In the Middle


Friday, December 28, 2007

OE in NY Forecast: Spring 2008

Once each semester, I like to take stock of what it is I will need to have accomplished by its close. This coming term will see the completion (I hope) of the first chapter of my dissertation, but that's by no means all I will be working on as the weather warms and summer comes again. I sat down this evening to make my forecast for Spring 2008, as it were -- updating my electronic calendar (so useful), figuring out my commitments, and settling in to make the most of the second half of my fourth year of graduate school. Top of my list of things I'm thankful for: NO MORE CLASSES. I do plan to sit in on a class one of my advisers is teaching on Epic, but that's more for my own edification -- I should really know Homer better than I do, and there are far less enjoyable ways to spend a few hours a week than reading epic poetry.

[Re-reading post after the fact:] It occurs to me that there's no way I'll manage all of that by the end of the semester. But so long as I put a rather easy February to exceedingly good use, I should be able to avoid the worst of the academic March Madness, though it's a safe bet I won't be watching any basketball this season.

(picture is a very random building I found this past October on the Blue Ridge Parkway between Virginia and North Carolina. Because it's a safe bet through any semester that I'd rather be in the mountains)


  1. One Section University Writing.
    • Goal 1: Streamline use of Blog as model for academic conversation. Introduce earlier in semester (perhaps).
    • Goal 2: Choose new secondary readings for Conversation essay. (current choices -- Susan Stewart, Julia Kristeva -- are too obscure.)
  2. Functioning as a Peer Consultant/Mentor

Dissertation Work:

  1. Reading everything Bruno Latour ever wrote.
  2. Reading for my first Chapter (on Alfredian Translations and the Orosius. Mostly.)
  3. Writing Chapter One.

Pesky PhD Requirements:
  1. Testing proficiency in Old Norse as second PhD language.
  1. February 16: ASSC conference at Yale.
    1. Attending
    2. Functioning as a Respondent
  2. March 13/14: CELCE Conference on Borders, at NYU.
    1. Paper title: The Space Between: Mapping Monsters in the Old English Wonders
    2. Paper Status: Currently 21 pages (seminar length) -- to be cut.
  3. March 29-31: Columbia Center For Literary Translation hosts the biannual Graduate Student Literary Translation Conference
    1. I'm on the organizing committee.
    2. I'm chairing the roundtable session on Academic Translation.
  4. May 8-11: Kalamazoo 2008
    1. Paper title: Can't remember at present.
    2. Paper Status: Will revise CELCE paper. Possibly add more theory.
Other Academic Commitments
  1. Graduate Student Council
    • Recruiting Events for New Students
    • Co-Ordinating Colloquia
  2. Article for Heroic Age
  3. Co-authored inter-disciplinary article


Sunday, December 23, 2007

More Beowulf for the Holidays!

From a lovely little perch in Reagan National Airport,* where the gathering gloom is delaying flights out of historic Washington DC right and left, I bring you glad tidings of great joy!** Not only can you enjoy Beowulf the video game for X-Box 360 (what ever happened to "Super Nintendo"?) and Beowulf the Board Game (as reviewed by King Alfred at Bitter Scroll), but now we have this addition to our Beowulf themed gaming options: Beowulf THE MOVIE Board Game.

An excerpt from the "rule book" (found here):

[E]ach player strives to tell the most epic version of the Beowulf saga. To this end, each player takes control of Beowulf himself, guiding the hero and his companions to recount the chronicle in the most exciting way possible.

Ah yes. This holiday season, you can test your story-telling skills against your friends and loved ones, and for once -- perhaps disappointing those of us who took the time to learn Siever's half-line types in the hopes of a future career as a scop*** -- meter doesn't count.

I can't speak for it, only having learned of the movie-game's existence earlier today, but as a piece of Beowulfiana (an exciting notion in and of itself), there's a part of me that almost wants to spend money on it, though I highly doubt I'd ever play it. As to my experience with other versions of the board game...I think I'll practice a bit of (Old English) reticence on that point.****

Thanks to commenter LJS for the links!

* By which I mean sitting on the linoleum floor outside my gate at the only free electrical outlet I could find in this wing of the building.
** By which I mean small rays of sunshine that briefly allay the tedium of 7 hours of delays. Side note: What on earth did people do before WiFi?
***Am I the only Anglo-Saxonist who has considered this as an alternate career path if the academic job market doesn't work out? Also: Are there hirings for scops these days?
****By which I mean I don't consider myself entirely responsible for my poor board game choices when seeking to avoid boredom when attending seminars in West Virginia.

cross posted at OEinNYC


Friday, December 14, 2007

New York Medieval Happenings: ASSC Spring Schedule

As everyone who is on the ASSC listserve now knows, as of this week we've finalized our schedule for Spring 2008! Our fourth year, in keeping with the ASSC tradition, has featured some wonderful speakers from a variety of different academic backgrounds already, and the spring schedule looks to be one of the best yet. We're holding our fourth annual grad conference (put together by the graduate students in Old English at Yale), and the second Anglo-Saxon Futures conference, which I have mentioned a couple of times on this blog. Add that to a line-up of speakers including Andy Orchard, David Johnson, David Damrosch and NYU's Hal Momma, and it should be a really exciting Spring for Anglo-Saxonists in the New York area and beyond!

Click on the "Read More" below to see the full schedule, or check it out at our website, where we keep listings of all of our events for your perusal. And as always, if you would like to be added to the ASSC listserve, please send me an email at

The Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium
announces its Spring 2008 schedule

Andy Orchard
(University of Toronto)

Thursday February 7 (lecture)
4.30 pm

Friday February 8 (workshop)
10.00 am

both events at Rutgers University


"Pleasure in Anglo-Saxon England"

The Fourth Annual ASSC Graduate Student Conference

Saturday February 16
at Yale University


David F. Johnson
(Florida State University)

“Forensic Philology and the Interventions of the Tremulous Hand of Worcester"

Tuesday March 4
at Columbia University
Butler Library 523, reception following


David Damrosch
(Columbia University)

"A Rune of One's Own: Negotiating Latinity in Medieval Iceland and Colonial New Spain"

Thursday April 3
6.00 pm
at NYU


Haruko Momma
(New York University)

Wednesday April 16
5.30 PM

Faculty Work-in-Progress Series
at Princeton University


"Anglo-Saxon Futures II: About Time"
An international workshop of seminars and roundtables

May 23-24
KIing's College London
Council Room, Strand Campus

To join our e-mail list, please send a message to:

For updates and future talks, please check our website:

The ASSC is sponsored by: The Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University; The Office of the Dean for the Humanities, FAS, New York University; The Department of English, Princeton University; The Medieval Studies Program, Princeton University; The Department of English, Rutgers University. Many events and conferences are kindly sponsored by other host institutions and related departments or programs, to be specified in individual announcements.


A Holiday Gift for Anglo-Saxonists Everywhere

or, "Old English isn't dead, it just retired to Holland!"

At risk of distracting attention from other holiday and even less procrastination oriented posts (and in lieu of posting further installments in more work-oriented series of my own):

For many years we Old English scholars have asked ourselves the deep questions. Why does modern English sound the way it does? What rules governed the the umlauting of strong verbs of the fourth conjugation? Did the monopthongization of dipthongs occur earlier or later than the loss of the proto-Germanic endings in -jo stem verbs?* More importantly, if Old English is really a dead language, who killed it?

Okay, maybe we don't ask that last one. Or at least, not out loud. At any rate:

I noticed, a few weeks ago, an email to Ansaxnet from Larry Swain (who also blogs at The Ruminate and, in another medievalist group blog, Modern Medieval) featured the answer to at least one of those questions. And as I've not seen it anywhere else in the medieval blogworld, I thought I'd post it here (apologies if I'm just repeating what's already been spread far and wide). Behold: On the Discovery Channel (UK), Eddie Izzard went to modern Holland to buy a cow. In old English. And he did.

Anyone else wonder if Frissian might now count as a valid research language for Old English PhD students? Or is that too much to hope for in my Old Norse filled break...

*it is important to note that I do not have my copy of Alistair Campbell anywhere nearby. My grasp of Germanic philology being fuzzy at best, I've more or less invented these questions for Anglo-Saxonists. I do know, however, that all of the items mentioned do exist. As one of my favorite professors once said, "you can't make this stuff up."

cross posted at ITM.


Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Dissertation Fragments II: Horizons of History

This past week, in the midst of sifting through the fifty times "says Orosius" occurs in the Old English translation of the History against the Pagans, I reached another milestone in my academic life. As I've mentioned elsewhere (follow the link for the abstract!), I was asked back to my alma mater, Wake Forest, to give a talk to their medieval group. It was my first real "academic" talk. The presentation went well -- and I was pleased that it was made among professors and friends who are as dear to me as those at Wake. I got some very productive questions: most notably, and perhaps most interestingly for the dissertation prospectus this talk is going to morph into over the next few days (a transformation I began last week before the talk) was a question about resistance to the use of not only multiple theoretical perspectives but of their use in understanding, speaking of and writing about Old English literature.

It's a question I'm still working out the answer to. At any rate, I've posted the first part of my talk below for your reading enjoyment. Questions, comments and criticism are all welcome (and frankly needed!). I'll be posting the rest of it over the course of the week, while I wrestle with the Old English Orosius and the temporalities of translation for a paper due next Monday. For now, however, I give you The Horizons of History -- or perhaps what ought to be called "Notes Towards a Dissertation." Apologies for randomness of my citational style -- occupational hazard of the oral format I fear.

The Horizons of History: Writing (and Rewriting) Anglo-Saxon Collectivities

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning!

We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes
in the old days, the kings of the tribes—
how noble princes showed great courage!
Often Scyld Scefing seized mead-benches
from enemy troops, from many a clan;
he terrified warriors, even though first he was found
a waif, helpless.For that came a remedy
he grew under heaven, prospered in honors
until every last one of the bordering nations
beyond the whale-road had to heed him,
pay him tribute. He was a good king!

Familiar though they are, for an Anglo-Saxonist the opening lines of Beowulf return like a cherished refrain, calling out across time to form and reform a community of listeners around a well-known text. Indeed, we have heard this story before – in multiple classes where we teach, read, or translate it. And each time it is translated or reworked, we return to a scene of a “telling” – the scene of a tale which is resurrected across historical and linguistic difference, to speak to us in the now.

However, these familiar lines are also the space in which more than one community – or as I will term it collectivity – is formed through the narrative. My use of “collectivity” rather than community bears some explanation: partially informed by the work of Bruno Latour, the term “collectivity” avoids the artificial, vertical distinctions most often drawn between “nature” and “society”, subjects and objects, humans and non-humans. I would suggest, rather, that by allowing all of these (artificially constructed) sets – humans, non-humans, nations, texts, myths – to operate as quasi-objects or actors in what Deleuze and Guattari term the plane of consistency, we might allow for a more dynamic understanding of how ideas, humans, texts, and social groupings interact and operate on equal grounding in the construction of group identities.

Returning to the opening lines Beowulf, then, we begin to see these collectivities taking shape from the very beginning. In the space of less than a dozen lines, the poem identifies at least five separate collectivities which inhabit multiple temporal spaces interlaced not only in this opening but throughout the work. We have the Gar-Dena, those þeod-cyninga, the kings of the people, who form the first. They are a collectivity perceived – or received – by a second, listening group, indicated by the “we” of the first line. Scyld Scefing himself calls the third group into being: because he egsode eorlas, terrified the earls, we now have a collectivity best described as “those who are terrified by Scyld.” The final lines offer two more collectivities, one of which is predicated on Scyld’s actions, and one in which he participates. Scyld Scefing unites those who lie as ymbsittendra (the sitters-about, as it were) or bordering nations, all of whom unite to gomban gyldan – to pay him tribute. Scyld, we are told, wæs god cyning (was a good king). Of the set of good kings, he forms a part.

These collectivities co-habit the first eleven lines of Beowulf – yet they do not exist in a single, identifiable time in history. They inhabit multiple temporalities in the single space of the text. The implications of this for the formation of collectivities (which, remember, can include texts and humans) is most marked with the case of the “we” with whom the poet begins. The word seems to mean, or refer to at least – us: the listeners, the readers, the group which receives stories and texts passed down from geardagum. However, when examined closely, it becomes clear that this is a “we” of whom we can know very little – always shifting, it is reconstituted in and by each poetic utterance. Beowulf, though we read it as a written text, is of course, part of an oral tradition. What is identifiable about this particular collectivity, then, is the action, and not only that of listening. The active identity of the “we” in the first line of Beowulf describes a community via a completed action, and not simply that usual translation of gefrunon, “have heard.” Gefrunon, from the infinitive gefrinan, carries the connotation of a very specific way of gaining knowledge: used only seven times in the corpus, three of which occur in Beowulf, the majority of the uses of the verb involve a sense of what Bosworth-Toller defines as “to learn by action, find out.” Perhaps the most intriguing of these uses occurs in line 76 of The Dream of the Rood: Hwæðre me þær dryhtnes þegnas, freondas gefrunon, gyredon me golde ond seolfre (“Yet the thanes of the lord, the friends found me there, and geared me with gold and silver,” 75-77). Bringing this meaning to gefrunon’s usage in Beowulf has a crucial effect: bound together by what we might even term a quest, “we” have heard of these other collectivities which inhere in the poem not simply because we read it, or stumbled upon the knowledge. “We” learn by asking – we find out, we discover. The poem, then, anticipates our response to the history it represents. It acknowledges a futurity of reception – a time when another “we” will have learned by asking. This “we” – a collectivity already written into the fabric of the poem – constitutes a kind of futurity within Beowulf that posits a world beyond its composition and recitation – a world that will actively engage it in a time which is, for the poem, fundamentally not yet.

As these opening lines of Beowulf suggest, the “time” of the poem embraces a variety of temporalities – from the time of its main actions, to the distant past of Scyld, to the eternal time of Christian cosmology. The significance in the futurity of a “we” who learn by asking, however, is of the utmost importance in beginning to understand the multi-valent temporalities of the collectivity in Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature. In his “Discourse and the Novel,” Mikhail Bakhtin posits the intentionality of living discourse as a space shot-through with the multi-temporal status of utterance – a space, perhaps, not unlike the space of Beowulf. For Bakhtin, the “internal dialogism” of the word “is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation in any living dialogue.” (280) Bakhtin, of course, is speaking in direct relationship to the novel – a form foreign to Anglo-Saxon England. However, I would argue that Anglo-Saxon literature – be it prose or poetry, translation or creation – might be fruitfully thought of as constituting itself a living discourse, a space in which ideas of collectivity, time, and identity are begun, and reworked, through the period and beyond it.

The subject of my talk today – and of my dissertation, coming to a database near you in 2010 – is what I call the horizons of history. With the plethora of theoretical and critical terminology at my disposal, from fields as divergent as literary studies, historical studies, linguistics and art, one might well ask why I speak of Horizons rather than perspectives or boundaries. The answer is far from simple, but a brief explanation might serve us well as a beginning. Horizons can only be observed in the middle – i.e., the horizon is always experientially equidistant on all sides from the center point, that of the observer or subject. Any movement of the subject recenters the span of the horizon – new things come into the line of vision, others drift below the perceivable boundaries of sight. Consequently, a horizon cannot be crossed by the subject who observes it, whether they look “forward” to a future or “back” to a past. Only the object can cross over the horizon. The nature of horizons, then, is as a limiting factor in perception, defining the scope of the subject’s world-view.

The question this raises in my work is in the definition of boundaries. Boundaries must enclose something, be it a people, a place, or a time. In my argument, the boundaries in question enclose a larger, and even more contentious concept – that of “history.” For my purpose, I wish to engage the narrative strategies of history in what is traditionally called the Anglo-Saxon period. For my purposes, I define “history” – and “historiography” -- as the narrative space in which collectivities imagine and create their identities—or have these identities imagined and created for them. As such, my interest in history is the way in which historiography itself can be written in order to become that object which crosses the temporal horizons which bind its own world-view. Intersecting Bakhtin’s definitions of “living discourse,” these texts participate in a temporality that supercedes and encloses the individual times which compose the heterogeneous temporal fabric of the text. As such, the discourses of past, “present”, and the future unwritten intersect, creating a temporal space in which ideas of collectivities inhere and are passed on.

My dissertation explores a couple of different concepts of what “Anglo-Saxon” Collectivities can mean through the early Middle Ages and beyond. Unbound from periodicity in the strictest sense, the “Anglo-Saxon”, or “Old English”, becomes a constructed category, created and deployed in different historical moments for different purposes. Most specifically, the collectivities imagined in the Anglo-Saxon period are re-imagined at specific moments by communities in the process of imagining themselves, effecting what I will argue as a kind of collapsing of temporality, bringing together humans and texts that are temporally distant into a single collectivity. This “Becoming Old English” changes the ways in which the idea of a “nation” inheres in time, positing the time of the text as a time which allows for the breakdown of temporal boundaries, writing futures and pasts for a present which needs them. The time of the text is, irrevocably perhaps, always now – a contingent, relational now which participates in the past and future which permeate its horizons.

Text and Translation of Beowulf are from Chickering (1977)

Works Cited/Consulted

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Discourse in the Novel" in The Dialogic Imagination. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1982.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Joy, Eileen and Mary K. Ramsey. "Liquid Beowulf" from The Postmodern Beowulf. Morganton: West Virginia University Press, 2007.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Also: I'm not sure how to cite this yet (though I will find out): the work posted here on ITM by Karl, Eileen and Jeffrey (along with many of the comment-ers) has had a foundational role in my thinking, as is no doubt obvious down to the very level of vocabulary. If there's a horizon that's been expanded in the work I've done toward this talk (and the prospectus which shall follow), it is most definitely the one that forms the boundaries of my own academic and intellectual capacities. For that: thank you.

Cross posted at In the Middle.


Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What do you get the Anglo-Saxonist who has everything?

Why, the one thing that they probably won't find at the MLA this year (prospects for a job). E.L. Risden's Beowulf for Business piques my interest, and with the syncretic winter holiday season approaching, I think this should make a fascinating read.

It also proves that Beowulf has implications for modern life in ways of which I might never have thought.

My guess at a top rule: Never fight a dragon yourself. Get a lackey...I mean do it for you.

Thank you Ansaxnet for the link.


New York Medieval Happenings

More accurately: Columbia Medieval Happenings. Tomorrow afternoon Caroline Walker Bynum will be having a "medieval conversation" with my adviser. I'm going to be giving my own talk at my alma mater in North Carolina...otherwise, there's no doubt where I'd be. But more on that later. For now, expand this post to get the full info on what promises to be a fascinating talk between Caroline Walker Bynum and Patricia Dailey.

On Thursday, Nov 29th, at 6:00 pm

Where Patricia Dailey will be speaking with Caroline Walker-Bynum about her most recent book Wonderful Blood and issues addressed in her many other books.

It will take place in 754 Schermerhorn Extension (IRWaG seminar room) - entrance through Schermerhorn then to the right, through the hallway, up the elevators to the 7th floor.



Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ruins and Poetry: Beowulf and Bethlehem Steel

I’ve spent the last few days in Buffalo, New York, which some of my readers from Old English in New York will know is where my father’s family originates. I end up on the shores of Lake Erie at least twice a year now – and it’s a place I’ve come to think of as a kind of home.

About a week ago, in Boston with some of my dearest of friends, I finally saw the movie Beowulf. There are a number of very worthy blog-reviews, and more traditional reviews as well; however, I’ve been reticent to add my voice to the growing number. I saw the movie. I felt vaguely embarrassed as my friends asked me if THAT was what I studied. I cringed as the dialogue and speeches I love were destroyed by lines that no Anglo-Saxon warrior would ever say. I felt betrayed at the blatant sexuality and the use of women in the poem, the way they weren’t granted so much as a point of view, the way even those who had an opinion didn't ever fight back. No, I didn’t like this movie. It didn’t show me the poem I love, and it didn’t show me the gravitas I have come to cherish in my Anglo-Saxon verse.

And then, on the way to a family day-after-Thanksgiving gathering I caught sight of something familiar. The old Bethlehem steel factories live on the outskirts of Buffalo in a town called Lackawanna. Parts are owned by a foreign company – Mittal. Those parts are kept up, have been rebuilt even in the five years I’ve been coming back to Buffalo. The majority of the buildings, however, are modern ruins, growing vast fields of tall grasses inside the hollowed out sections of old structures, gated and barb-wired, a darkened wasteland sitting on the banks of Lake Erie. I don’t know the history of Bethlehem steel – at least, I do not know it intimately. It seems to be caught up in greed, exploitation, and the pain both cause in people who never see the profits of their labor, the ugliness of its moral stance written in grey slag on the beachfront. Nick Howe wrote eloquently in Across an Inland Sea that, unlike its northern neighbor Toronto, Buffalo will never be a city of “heritage”: a past one accepts without moral, or more likely, aesthetic embarrassment...a useable past for interior decorators (38). Buffalo is made of something tougher, less pliable, but perhaps (if one can make such a claim) more real. Again, borrowing from Howe’s elegant description: “Looking at the world from a city in decline keeps you from believing too many of the claims other places make about their futures. And it teaches you to value those intact ruins which were once someone else’s city of the future” (38).

Yet rising above these ruins now are the turbines that form part of what is called “Steel Winds” – an effort (I hope not final) to make the area which has for so long been home to the carcass of a giant productive once more. From an article in the Buffalo News, this line particularly struck me:

Fate has not forsaken us. It gave us a stiff wind blowing off Lake Erie. It left us a vast lakeside stretch of befouled land unsuitable for human habitation — but perfect for the mammoth wind turbines that no one wants to live near.
Fate here isn't anything that Beowulf and company would have recognized -- as we so often do in this age, fortune is blamed only for the good that falls to humans, and is said to be absent when we taste only of the bad. Boethian references aside, it is strange to see Fate invoked in this context...and stranger still as I wonder about what Fate--or more appropriately in this context, Wyrd--has done with the Beowulf I find beautiful, but that millions will now see as an adventure story where Pride is the Enemy, and the Sins of the Father echo in progeny born from the bodies of women objectified.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, in The Monsters and the Critics, a line that's been troubling me as I've written and re-written my dissertation prospectus these past few weeks.
Beowulf is not a “primitive poem;” it is a late one, using the materials (then still plentiful) preserved from a day already changing and passing, a time that has now for ever vanished, swallowed in oblivion; using them for a new purpose, with a wider sweep of the imagination, if with a less bitter and concentrated force. When new Beowulf was already antiquarian, in a good sense, and it now produces a singular effect. For it is now to us itself ancient; and yet its maker was telling of things already old and weighted with regret, and he expended his art in making keen that touch upon the heart that sorrows have which are both poignant and remote. If the funeral of Beowulf moved once like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless, it is now to us like memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo. There is not much poetry in the world like this...
Tolkien's point on the wider sweep of imagination aside, I think there's something in the assertion that Beowulf uses materials "preserved from a day already changing and passing" to bring down though generations the story we claim we know. Put together from pieces of a fragmented past, "Beowulf" is a poem we know, perhaps, only by its reputation -- we know it by what we've been left. We know the figurative landscape of the poem: the story of a hero, the monsters he fights and the death he dies doing it. We guess at the tone of the poem, of its seriousness and its strength, but we can only ever make an educated guess at its contemporary reception or use -- and the educated guess is still inflected by chance, however slight.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I think our interpretation of Beowulf is far more like bricolage than we are perhaps sometimes willing to admit. Neil Gaiman, in an article about the movie that I actually managed to read in its entirety (and I will read all of those blog reviews in greater detail - Prof. Noakes has a great list of them compiled at Unlocked Wordhoard, I've just not had time to work through all of it!), says of his first reading of Beowulf : "And I thought, this is a great story. It's got serious monsters in it and dragon fighting at the end. That's when I fell in love with it."

He fell in love with it based on those monsters Tolkien tried so hard to lift beyond what demeaning (and demanding) critics might say about them. Sitting with my high-school age cousin this weekend as I helped her work out the answers to her AP homework questions on the poem, I realized that Beowulf is a ruin in this day and age -- a structure whose original purpose is lost and broken, a structure that might hold meaning but doesn't hold a concrete use for the majority of those dwelling in the present day (the metaphysical musings on ruins, however, is another matter). All my eloquence about the poem's structure and beauty weren't of interest, wouldn't move my cousin to love the poem in the way I do, any more than it could her classmates, or any more than it did for me my senior year of high school. I didn't love Beowulf until someone -- Gillian Overing, in my first Old English class -- told me a story I could understand, a story I wanted to know more about. And at the end of the day, all my philology work and theoretical readings and deep study of the Middle Ages aside, here's what I think matters abotu Beowulf -- the movie and the poem: from the wreckage of the past, the burned remnants of manuscript and centuries of bored English majors, Neil Gaiman found a story he could tell, one to try to move other people to engage this work of the distant past. It wasn't the most well-executed story, and as a film it was just sad in places. But that's what we risk when we resurrect the past in the form of new media and new stories - we risk that this time will fail too, that the wreckage will only be added to, that our work will remain a ruin.

Driving by the Steel Winds turbines today on my way into the city, towering over the wreckage of the steel plant which used to be at the heart of the city's economic life, I also realized something else. There's a grace in the slender turbines which rise above the industrial waste of the past: there's a future here, a future of renewable energy resources. A future that's more than the past it is built on, and perhaps even a future that has learned from the history written in the unliveable land. And as with the Steel Winds, so with Beowulf: we cannot escape that Anglo-Saxon England was a violent and unforgiving place to live, a place where women were used (and horribly) as means to political ends, a place where feuds might obliterate whole peoples.

But it was much, much more than that too. Maybe there's something yet to learn from this Beowulf, beyond Angelina Jolie's nudity and Beowulf's bad lines. Maybe it can speak to something more than the sum of the parts of the past it inherited. Maybe its resurrection at this cultural moment is itself of value. And maybe we're too close -- temporally, spiritually -- to see this movie for what it might be: another performance of a poem whose ending has not been written yet.

The black and white photos on this page were taken by Kendall Anderson and can be found on this photoblog.

cross posted at In the Middle


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

One of the blogs I subscribe to is the Words Without Borders blog, and today, a quick perusal of their website before I went to teach yielded two things I wanted to share with you all here at ITM.

First: I'm not the only person feeling inspired by Forster. Christopher Merrill has a post on the University of Iowa's writing program which he calls "Only Connect". An excerpt:

Literature works by subterranean means. Ideas migrate at the speed of thought, which for a writer in the act of composition means the speed of sound—syllable by syllable—if not the speed of light. And literary exchanges have the merit of launching new ideas into the cultural discourse.

This connects so well with some of the Deleuze and Guattari I've been reading over the past few weeks -- these rhizome networks of literature. One of the things I think, increasingly, is important, is the work of not simply literary critics, but truly literary scholars. Put differently: I don't think I'll ever understand The Wanderer as well as I did when I tried, after many years of writing about the poem, to actually write the poem, via translation.

Second: I had never heard of Doris Koreva until this morning. One of her poems, translated here, expresses for me the relationship between what Allen Mandelbaum called, in his Chelmaxioms "the-Reader and the-Read." The lines I found most intriguing:

The reader casts his shadow over the poem.

All possibilities bloom in language,
the mind hears but what it wants to
or what it fears.
Such hope for language -- for communication -- but simultaneously, such fear. However, Koreva suggests something in her poem I've always felt, though I don't think it made sense to me until this morning: Is there something about literature -- the writing or composition of text -- that is inherently hopeful? A leap of faith, even: faith in language, perhaps, but moreover -- faith in the possibility of communication?

cross posted at ITM


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Dissertation Fragments Part I: Horizons, or Two False Starts and an Abstract

So as a part of my ongoing dissertation prospectus work is preparation for a talk I’m giving at Wake Forest in late November. I’ve been invited back by my undergraduate advisers (and continuing mentors!) Gillian Overing and Gale Sigal to speak to the Medieval Studies group – a group including professors and grad students from a wide variety of disciplines, including English, French, History, Italian, etc. I am, needless to say, incredibly pleased to be giving this talk – it’ll be a lovely homecoming, and I’ll even get to sit in on Dr. Overing’s Old English class. That should bring back some memories! It’s intimidating, to be sure: it is my very first “real” academic talk, invited and everything. However, it’s also comforting: Profs. Overing and Sigal read my undergraduate honors thesis. Whatever I say in this talk (which is now taking solid form in preparation for a workshop this evening), it can’t be more embarrassing, or less intelligible, than my 36 page aria on a 115 line poem, titled: The Exile and the Other: Male Voice and Psychological Landscaping in the Wanderer. My undergraduate masterpiece would be reworked a number of times in the following years, but the 2004 version will always be my favorite -- and the longest -- of its iterations.

By way of new beginnings, then, as I enter the stage of my career that begins with the end of my orals reading and ends in the scariest place on earth, I offer some first, discarded fragments that underlie the central idea of my talk (and also my dissertation), which will be titled: "On the Horizons of History: Writing (and Rewriting) Anglo-Saxon Collectivities." To show where I've ended up in more concrete terms -- and as to provide a preview of coming attractions -- I've also included the abstract I sent to Wake as a kind of advance warning. Part II of this series will, in all probability, be sections from the talk itself (suggestions for format welcome).

Think of these fragments as meditations, or perhaps as interconnected musings. Try not to think of them as the past I’ve tried to repress. Because really, that’s just so linear...

I: A Place to Believe In

In the introduction to the collection of essays in A Place to Believe In, Clare Lees and Gillian Overing introduce the work of “gathering” that the essays perform in what they call a “meditation” on “the idea of Northumbria and its horizons, whether historical, cultural, or geographic” (7). Using the definition envisioned by Michael Casey’s “How to Get from Space to Place,” they define horizons as the [foundations] which “form the perceptual basis of boundaries [that] are themselves spatiotemporal in status. To be in perceptual field is to be encompassed by edges that are neither strictly spatial—we cannot map a horizon (even if we can draw it)—nor strictly temporal” (43, cited in Overing and Lees 8-9). In their thoughts on space, place and time in the Northumbrian landscape, Lees and Overing engage with the “crossroads” which place represents; indeed, the work of the authors in the collection are located “at the intersection of land and sea, or of space and belief; at the coming together of physical spaces and the bodies that inhabit and co-create them; and last but by no means least, at the juncture of past and present” (26). The horizon becomes a symbol of the possibility of continuity, perhaps even coexistence, in the present of memories, objects and writings of and from the past. The horizon, then, has much in common with a liminal space—“the horizon is porous, its boundaries shifting” (24). In the context of place, this interpretation allows Overing and Lees to imagine their own coexistence with Anglo-Saxon past which they can quite literally see, surrounding them in the landscape that encompasses Yeavering, Bamburgh and Lindisfarne. The concept of time, however, is more difficult. Alternate times—and Other histories—persist, but the horizons of history cannot help but function differently from those of the Northumbrian Landscape.

II: Order of the First Chaos

In the first calens of Ovid’s Fasti, another type of horizon might be considered, in the figure of Janus. Janus is the two-headed god of gateways (I.65). However, Janus also delimits a boundary: his most vital role is as not only the god of gateways, but also as the god of the first Chaos. When he was first formed, “yon lucid air and the three other bodies, fire, water, earth, were huddled all in one.” (I.105-6). He looks both forward and backward at the same time, and thus he looks forward to the coming year, and backward to the year which has already passed. The conception of time laid out by Janus is cyclical—the order of each calendrical year both precedes and follows itself as a kind of promise of stability in the observation of months and celebrations. However, because he is the god that the “ancients called Chaos” (I.65), the dual sight of Janus serves not simply to demarcate the boundaries of the repeating calendrical year, but as a perpetual reminder that order is preceded by chaos, and that chaos is perhaps still present beneath order’s thin veneer. Significantly, Janus, née Chaos, also serves as the protector of order. “All things are closed and opened” by his hand; he asserts and he avers that “the guardianship of this vast universe is in my hands alone, and none but me can rule the wheeling pole” (I.118-120). Order is quite literally in the hands of Chaos, and the calendrical year offers but a flimsy stability at best.

III: Horizons of History (an abstract)

My current project, tentatively titled Horizons of History, examines what might happen if we think of an “Anglo-Saxon England” with fluid boundaries – embracing the possibility of a semi-permeable, ever-changing horizon as both boundary and event, forming networks of written “collectivities” that are not confined to a single historical period or outlook. Engaging with the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, Bruno Latour, and Deleuze and Guattari, I wish to rethink the ways in which we conceptualize an “Anglo-Saxon” period via a sustained reading of historiographical material written on both sides of the Norman Conquest. My focus in this paper will be two-fold. First, it will serve as an outline and preliminary defense of the topic of my dissertation – positing both the possibility of a “Long Anglo-Saxon Period” in the Middle Ages, and examining what is at stake in thinking of the period in this fashion. The second part of the talk will offer an overview of how I see this horizon of history functioning the in the political/poetic corpus, focusing specifically on the Old English Orosius and Beowulf.


Works Cited

Lees, Clare and Gillian Overing (eds.). A Place to Believe In (Penn State: Philadelphia, 2006).
Ovid. The Fasti. (can't recall the edition)

Cross-posted at In the Middle.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Postcard from NYC: Beowulf is everywhere

So I was walking down 14th street today, having left Morningside Heights for a meeting with a professor downtown at NYU. I was, it must be said, minding my own business. Suddenly I see a rather gruesome looking -- hand, on a poster. I note the Tolkien-esque calligraphic font used for the title -- but I'm still not reading it, because my brain hasn't quite kicked into gear for that yet. I practically fell over once my focus came back:

All this raises a question, dear readers: Where will you be on November 16th?

Grendel's mom wants to know.

cross-posted at In the Middle


Monday, October 22, 2007

Where to Study......

I'm not allowed to blog until I've finished grading my students' papers (computer's been giving me fits) -- HOWEVER. I saw a recent hit on my blog that was for "best universities to study Old English".

I won't say anything on the blog about my opinions on this (they are many and diverse, o readers, and you won't come out even really knowing what I think!!)but I did want to say that if you really want to know my opinion of my own institution I would be glad to give you my opinions. You may reach me at [first initial][middle initial]DOT[last name]ATgmailDOTcom.

What I can say: what we all know. If you're looking at universities that have a practicing Anglo-Saxonist (it's not a job, it's a way of life) -- you will be in for a treat. Regardless of where. Anglo-Saxonists (and medievalists more generally) are almost always what I would call "good people". And fantastic scholars.

I like my field, have I mentioned that?

Edit, after a query: So what on earth was I posting about here? Well, mostly just that some poor soul lost on the internet thought they'd find an opinion about old english programs written on this blog. Of course, I don't do useful things like that. So I thought I'd offer my poor overworked brain to those young, unjaded grad-school hopefuls who want to know something about Old English studies. Of course, given my inability to clone myself and study Old English in other universities (how SWEET would that be?), I can only give my thoughts my current place of study. If I do manage to clone myself, I'll send out contact info for my other selves, don't worry.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

"But History has already written that story" : Heroes and Narrative

The scene: 17th century Japan. Hiro, a young man from the 21st century, has accidentally landed here after attempting to employ a superpower he has recently developed. Hiro can stop time. Apparently he can also time-travel. In last week's episode of Heroes (a show just entering its second season on NBC), Hiro's found a way to write notes in the 17th century that will survive into the 20th and be found by his friend Ando, kept safe inside the hilt of a sword used by the legendary Takezo Kensei. Takezo Kensei has been Hiro's idol since childhood, when his father told him stories of the great warrior. Arriving in the 17th century, Hiro finds that Kensei is not only a drunkard and a middling warrior at best -- but he's not even Japanese. He's English, a traveler. And yet he's supposed to be one of the greatest fighters of all time.

An initial excerpt from Hiro's monologues in the episode:

"Righting History and turning Takezo Kensei into a hero will not be easy. But at least I'm not alone. Ando, I've met the most beautiful woman Japan has ever seen, and I think I've fallen in love with her. The only problem? History has already written that story, and she is destined to be the great love of Takezo Kensei...It was clear Kensei wouldn't become a hero unless I forced him to learn the hard way. If he could defeat the ninty Angry Ronin, he'd have a chance at becoming a hero."

Hiro does Kensei the favor of dropping him off with the ninety Angry Ronin, and leaving him there to either "become" a hero or die. Of course, Kensei has a superpower too -- he can recover from any wound. He is, however, unwilling to use his superpower "wisely" -- i.e., for the good, or the good as Hiro sees it. Part of helping Kensei "fulfill" his destiny means that Hiro must give up a woman he believes he's in love with. The victory over the Ronin solidifies Kensei's place in the Princess' affections.

Later in the episode, Hiro is ready to leave: Kensei asks him how he's supposed to become the warrior he's "destined" to be if Hiro isn't with him. My point in summarizing this lengthy series of scenes from last week's episode is that it bears certain, if tenuous, relations with what I'm hoping to write about as I continue my dissertation prospectus. Thinking through the idea of history necessarily means asking questions about narrative: that much is obvious. Heroes, however, is coming at it from another angle.

Hiro seems to be playing a role that's difficult to imagine. Hiro's influence in the past -- pointing Takezo Kensei toward his "destiny", hoping to restore a timeline somehow made different by his presence there. Hiro remarks on the way in which "History" writes stories -- and has in fact already written the one he's in -- yet his work in the past (if you can call it that) creates the very stories he's claiming as a kind of inherited tradition.

I guess what's fascinating here is the way in which Hiro's position is that of the disembodied "History" he speaks of when he remarks that "History has already written that story." Of course, as viewers (co-conspirators?) we know that Hiro is only partially correct. History hasn't written the story -- or more precisely, hasn't written it yet. What's intriguing is that History -- in the form of Hiro -- has already heard the story - and knew it, in fact, in advance of arriving on the scene as an historical agent.

Heroes, I think, takes an interesting position vis a vis history and the role the subject can play in it (whether or not the writers are aware of it, though I'd like to think they know exactly what they're doing). History arrives from the future (literally in this case) and inscribes a narrative, a trajectory, where before were inert forces, empty lives and silent stones. JJC writes here that in encountering Barber rock at Avebury, My son and I touched a megalith’s cold side and felt our own desires. Hiro's dilemma in this episode of Heroes is that he knows history must be written as he has already heard it -- yet his desire is that it be written differently, perhaps even Otherwise.

I'm mixing a variety of thoughts in this post, which is the product of a long drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway earlier today. However, I think it's a productive mix: Caught between the stories he knows and the feelings he's developed for the Princess who is meant to love Kensei, Hiro's role as agent of History (or History incarnate) becomes mixed: his loyalties divided, he's caught between the past as he Knows it and the future he wants for himself. I wonder if there's a way of thinking through this odd relationship between Hiro, Heroes and the past that could be a productive exercise towards examining the writing of other historiographies. What happens when we bring our own subjectivity to the past? Can we ever escape the desire to see the world not as it is but as we've learned to narrate it, whether we encounter that world in a text we find in the archives or in 17th century Japan as a result of time-travel? My own answer is no, not entirely -- but then, I've never found myself, as Hiro does, writing a history that would be passed down not to others but to Me.

I suppose that History has always written our stories -- both in the sense that our stories are structured by an inherited tradition and by single humans' experiences of those times. The question is whether we can work to find the human agency that wrote that history, and the tensions that suggest there might have been a way of narrating it Otherwise.

cross posted at In the Middle


Wednesday, September 26, 2007

ASSC Call For Papers

As of Monday, the CFP is officially out for the fourth annual ASSC graduate student conference. This year, ASSC is "on the road" -- the conference is to take place in New Haven Connecticut, and will be hosted by the intrepid Anglo-Saxon grad students there. The topic? "Pleasure in Anglo-Saxon England" -- the conference is to take place the 16th of February, with abstracts due November 26th.

Looks like it will be a fantastic event. Last year, two of the organizers presented at the conference here at Columbia -- both had fascinating papers. From the grad student side, I know our interactions with our Yale colleagues are always intellectually productive -- not to mention just downright fun.

Click "read more" to expand the post for the CFP (as it was sent to the ASSC listserv yesterday). Visit the ASSC website for further details, and other events.

Hope to see many of you there!

The Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium
is pleased to announce
a call for papers:

Pleasure in Anglo-Saxon England

the 4th annual Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium
Graduate Student Conference

Saturday, February 16th 2008

Yale University

Yale University, in partnership with the Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium (Columbia, Rutgers, Princeton, NYU), invites submissions for the fourth annual graduate student conference sponsored by the Colloquium.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Pleasure in Anglo-Saxon England.” We invite submissions addressing any and all manifestations of pleasure in Old English or Anglo-Latin texts, Anglo-Saxon history, art, religion, or archaeology. We welcome a variety of methodologies, being equally pleased by the philological delight of a word study as by a wide-ranging treatment of emotions in Anglo-Saxon society. We also invite papers on the particular pleasures that the Anglo-Saxon world offers post-medieval scholars, artists, and armchair antiquarians. In the tradition of the Colloquium, we will be having respondents for the paper presentations, which should be no longer than ten minutes.

Possible topics include:
- emotions in Anglo-Saxon England
- pleasure and religion
- word-play and language play
- the joy of objects
- Anglo-Saxon recreation
- food and feasting
- Anglo-Saxon music
- reception of Anglo-Saxon literature and culture
- Anglo-Saxon aesthetics
- pleasure of the exotic
- personal relationships
- depictions of heaven
- definition of the good
- luxury goods
- desire and appetite
- the senses
- the regulation of pleasure
- dreams

Please submit an abstract of no more than 250 words by November 26, 2007. Include your contact information, including active email address, street address, and phone number, and any requests for audio-visual equipment. You may submit abstracts via email to, or send paper submissions to P.O. Box 208302, New Haven, CT 06520. (Paper submissions should arrive by the deadline.)

Conference organizers: Irina Dumitrescu, Denis Ferhatovic, Jordan Zweck.


Thursday, September 20, 2007

Endangered Languages, Dying Wor(l)ds

I was browsing the New York Times online this evening and stumbled across an article I found interesting, which for once intersects in very specific ways with my own interests.

In "Languages Die but Not Their Last Words", journalist John Noble Wiliford talks about the endangered languages in the world today, noting that an endangered language falls out of use approximately every two weeks. An excerpt:

Some languages vanish in an instant, at the death of the sole surviving speaker. Others are lost gradually in bilingual cultures, as indigenous tongues are overwhelmed by the dominant language at school, in the marketplace and on television.

New research, reported yesterday, has found the five regions where languages are disappearing most rapidly: northern Australia, central South America, North America’s upper Pacific coastal zone, eastern Siberia, and Oklahoma and the southwestern United States. All have indigenous people speaking diverse languages, in falling numbers.
It's a bit disconcerting to see the language in which so much of the article is couched. I'm much more used to "endangered species" than "endangered languages." However, there's something about the urgency in the article that touched me:
In a teleconference with reporters yesterday, K. David Harrison, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore, said that more than half the languages had no written form and were “vulnerable to loss and being forgotten.” Their loss leaves no dictionary, no text, no record of the accumulated knowledge and history of a vanished culture.
It seems like a part of what's at stake in the article isn't simply the languages that are threatened; rather, there's a very specific, human cost in their loss. I'm inclined to think that there's a degree to which this shares some focus with other recent posts and comment threads here. The idea of a "deep past" that precedes written history is transformed in this article about languages, leaving open the possibility that there is, increasingly, access to entire histories and peoples lost with the passing of the spoken languages that preserved them.

In a talk with friend (and sometime commenter on this blog) LJS this afternoon over coffee, the subject turned to translation. I've been studying, and attempting to produce, literary translations of Old English poetry over the past year -- a side-effect of participating in two translation workshops, as well as the presence of the new Center for Literary Translation here. I've come to explain my difficulties with literary translation as a problem with poetics: I can be a very good writer, but only of a specific genre (literary criticism). I will, in short, never be a poet.

LJS's response was interesting. He discounted genre as a factor -- rather, he explained my problems with translation as a function of loving language. More precisely, a function of loving Old English more than I'll ever be able to love modern English. I'd never really thought the problem through in those terms, but it makes some sense. I nearly always go for the too-close-to-the-original in my translations. I think it's because I'm worried what my inability to be truly faithful to the original language I'll lose something vital. Or worse yet -- something still living in the dead language.

The end of the article suggests that a large part of the loss of these languages is due to languages that, like modern English, have acheived global use:
Another measure of the threat to many relatively unknown languages, Dr. Harrison said, is that 83 languages with “global” influence are spoken and written by 80 percent of the world population. Most of the others face extinction at a rate, the researchers said, that exceeds that of birds, mammals, fish and plants.
I spend a lot of time with dead languages. In fact, I probably spend too much time with them, given that I prefer to think of them as languages not currently in use. Thinking about my difficulty with translation and Old English, I can't help but wonder if my ambivalence with translation of late is a part of the larger problem: I don't know if the necessity of translation helps or hurts these dying languages, particularly when there is no way to keep them from being pushed out of linguistic currency by the 83 global languages.

In some sense, I think I'm feeling the sadness of losing access to the worlds these languages point to -- the histories that will never be told, the stories that won't be passed down. The worlds that will be left behind, forgotten, because the voices that could speak them fell silent. Preserving the languages is important, and these linguists are performing a service to future study, but how much can they really preserve?

I can't help wondering -- with no hope of even a (silent) fossilized remnant to be interpreted (correctly or incorrectly) afterwards, what happens to stories that aren't passed down? And when these languages die what happens to the worlds and peoples they -- however partially and fragmentedly -- represent?

File that under questions I'm not sure how to even begin answering.

Cross posted at In the Middle


Thursday, September 13, 2007

Same Old Blog, Spiffy New Subtitle

Yes, it's time to update OEinNY to note my newest "change in status."

The box on my little grad school to-do list next to "Pass Oral Exams" has been ticked off as of last Thursday.

Now things can get back to a semblance of normalcy around here. For example: I can start filing all of the file folders I accumulated during this process. I may need a bigger filing cabinet.

Please note the new Subtitle of the blog -- comments? Thoughts? Anything more poetic?

Also -- the best line of congratulations on my survival of last Thursday's exams came from my best friend's husband who noted in part:

We will now, of course, begin referring to you as "Master of Phil." Just exactly who Phil is, and how he's going to take this new role of servitude, I'm not sure.

May you rule justly over him.

Something more substantial tomorrow. For now, I'm just glad I already planned my nine AM class. Meaning: more time to be properly caffeinated before I show up to teach.


Thursday, September 06, 2007

We'll miss you, Luciano

I woke up this morning to sad news: Luciano Pavarotti has lost his battle with pancreatic cancer.

It's strange -- in a lot of ways, I grew up with Pavarotti's music in the background. The Three Tenors concerts were something my whole family sat down to watch together -- more than once. I nearly got kicked out of my family when I said there were moments I like Jose Carreras' voice just a little more than Pavarotti's. Christmas music was always Pavarotti.

I guess I know what I need to download for my orals "soundtrack," don't I. His Nessun Dorma was my first true love in terms of music from opera. I hadn't seen or listened to Pavarotti in a while as of this morning -- but on a day like today, I guess it makes sense that the songs that I listened to for so much of my childhood will be on my iPod today. It's funny -- though clearly there's no personal connection with Pavarotti, the music forged its own kind of connection, to the point that at one time in my family, we spoke of "The Three Tenors" as though they were people we know -- as though they were our friends too. Silly -- but also says something about music, I think.

We'll miss you, Luciano.


Hoping to do a more orals-centric post before the test -- but we'll see. For now, off to teach.