Medievalists Coffee Mornings!

When: Fridays, 10.30-11.30 am

Where: Visiting Scholars Centre in the Weston Library
How to get there: via the Readers Entrance on Parks Road, 2nd floor via the staircase/elevator just straight ahead from the readers entrance (stick to the concrete part, do not use the ornamental staircase or you will land in the Conservation Department which is also nice but where no coffee is allowed)

All medievalists working in Oxford are welcome! Join us for coffee, conversations, and many insights into the Bodleian collections, cf. the playlist ‘Weston Library Coffee Mornings’:

Oxford University Byzantine Society: International Graduate Conference

In association with Oxford Medieval Studies, sponsored by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) 

We are delighted to announce the finalised programme (and opening of advance registration for online attendance) for the Oxford University Byzantine Society’s 26th Annual International Graduate Conference ‘Transgression in Late Antiquity and Byzantium’, taking place on the 24th-25th February, 2024 at the Faculty of History, George Street, OX1 2BE.

The programme and abstracts of papers can be found on the dedicated conference website and below. The costs for attendance are as follows:
In person attendance: £15 for OUBS members / £20 for non-members
Online attendance: £5 for students / £6 for non students

Papers will be delivered in-person, with the proceedings broadcast on a Zoom link which will circulate via email to those purchasing online attendance tickets via Eventbrite (see link below). Advance registration for in person attendance is not necessary. If you plan on attending online, please purchase a ticket at our Eventbrite link.

We are grateful for the generous support of The Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research (OCBR), The Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity (OCLA), Oxford Medieval Studies, in association with The Oxford Research Centre for Humanities (TORCH), and The Faculty of History of the University of Oxford, as well as the many others who have helped with the conference’s facilitation.

We look forward to welcoming you to Oxford. Best wishes, the Conference Organisers:
OUBS President Alexander Sherborne
OUBS Secretary Ilia Curto Pelle
OUBS Treasurer Benjamin Sharkey

The OUBS Committee is grateful for the generous support of:

  • The Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research (OCBR)
  • The Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity (OCLA)
  • Oxford Medieval Studies, in association with The Oxford Research Centre for Humanities (TORCH)
  • The Faculty of History of the University of Oxford

The OUBS Committee would also like to express its gratitude to Shaun Cason, Eleanore Debs, Gavriella Makri, Bryce O’Connor, Rosalie Van Dael, Sophia Miller, Alexander Johnston, Nathan Websdale and Duncan Antich for their assistance with the conference’s facilitation.

Conference Programme

Venue: Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL

Saturday (February 24th, 2024)

11.00 a.m. – Opening Remarks (Lecture Theatre)

11.30-13.00 p.m. – Session 1: Panel 1a (Lecture Theatre); and Panel 1b (Rees Davies Room)

13.00-14.00 p.m. – Lunch Break (Common Room)

14.00-15.30 p.m. – Session 2: Panel 2a (Lecture Theatre); and Panel 2b (Rees Davies Room)

15.30-16.00 p.m. – Coffee and Tea Break (Common Room)

16.00-17.30 p.m. – Session 3: Panel 3a (Lecture Theatre) and Panel 3b (Rees Davies Room)

17.30-19.00 p.m. – Wine Reception (Common Room)

19.30 p.m. – Conference Dinner

Sunday (February 25th, 2024)

11.30-13.00 p.m. – Session 4: Panel 4a (Lecture Theatre); and Panel 4b (Rees Davies Room)

13.00-14.00 p.m. – Lunch Break (Common Room)

14.00-15.30 p.m. – Session 5: Panel 5a (Lecture Theatre); and Panel 5b (Rees Davies Room)

15.30-16.00 p.m. – Closing Remarks (Lecture Theatre)

16.00-18.00 p.m. – Parting Tea Reception (Common Room)

Schedule of Papers

Session 1: Saturday, 11.30–13.00

Panel 1a: ‘The Literary’
(Chair: Findlay Willis)
Panel 1b: ‘The Political’
(Chair: Alexander Johnston)
Duncan Antich
(Blackfriars College, Oxford) 
Compassion and Community: The Regula Pastoralis and Gregory’s Approach to Schism
Alejandro Laguna López
(Central European University)  
An Anti-Novelistic Novel: Subverting Love in Niketas Eugenianos’ Drosilla and Charicles
Averkios (Dimitris) Agoris
(University of Athens)
Multigeneric examples in Michael Choniates’s Educational Activity
Euan Croman
(Queen’s University Belfast)
Transgressing the domus imperii in the fourth and fifth centuries: Treason or Family Trouble?
Daniel Murphy
(Independent Scholar)
Usurpation Narratives as Political Commentary in Fourth-Century Historiography
Merve Savas
(Ohio State University)
Twisting the Narrative: Textual Transgression in Ammianus Marcellinus’ Res Gestae 14

Session 2: Saturday, 14.00–15.30

Panel 2a: ‘The Sexual’
(Chair: Alexander Sherborne)
Panel 2b: ‘The Conciliar’
(Chair: Bryce O’Connor)
Maria Christian
(Independent Scholar) 
“Look at that wood!” An Investigation into a Bizarre Sexual Practice Ascribed to the “Chaldeans” Involving Iconography in an Early Islamic Sex Manual
Vid Žepič
(University of Ljubljana) 
Legal Perspectives on Sexual Transgressions in Early-Byzantine Legal Sources
Pierrick Gerval
(University of Nantes)
Sexual violences during wartime, a transgression of Church prohibitions regarding sexuality in Byzantium (7th -13th century)
Kathleen McCulloch
(University of Cambridge)
Did Dioscorus transgress, or adhere to, established conciliar procedure at Ephesus II (449)?
Alexander Johnston
(Kellogg College, Oxford)
The Edge of Divinity: The Role of Wisdom in the Logos Prosphonetikos of the Quinisext Council
Rachel Edney
(University of Notre Dame)
The Eucharist in John Rufus’ Plerophories: Eucharistic Theology and Christological Controversy

Session 3: Saturday, 16.00–17.30

Panel 3a: ‘On the Edges of Byzantium’
(Chair: Benjamin Sharkey)
Panel 3b: ‘In the Land of Egypt’
(Chair: Sophia Miller)
Shaun Cason
(Worcester College, Oxford)
The End of Transgressions? Examining the Seventh-Century Treaty Between Islamic Egypt and Medieval Nubia
Dmitriy Kravets
(St. Hugh’s College, Oxford)
Orthodoxy and/or Empire? A Reassessment of the Career of Gregory Tsamblak (fl. 1402- 1415)
Helena Davies
(Linacre College, Oxford)
Sitt al-Mulk: A Damsel in Distress? Challenging Art-Historical Efforts to Rescue and Vindicate an Early Islamic Princess
Apolline Gay
(Université libre de Bruxelles) 
Looking for Eve: Figures of Female Transgression on Textiles from Byzantine Egypt
Michael Dunchok
(Kellogg College, Oxford)
A Higher Rank of Gods: In Defense of the Greek Magical Papyri
Chloé Agar
(Harris Manchester College, Oxford) 
‘He thrust his spear into the middle of him, and his bowels came out’: Literary violence against religious and legal transgressions in Early Christian Egypt

Session 4: Sunday, 11.30–13.00

Panel 4a: ‘The Archaeological and the Art-Architectural
(Chair: Gavriella Makri)
Panel 4b: ‘The Imperial and the Ecclesiastic
(Chair: Nathan Websdale)
Eleanore Debs
(Pembroke College, Oxford)
Examining the Peculiar Presence of Reliquaries Within Late Antique Baptisteries of the Limestone Massif
Sophia Miller
(Balliol College, Oxford)
Trees ‘Pleasant to the Sight’: Tree-Meaning in Late Antique Floor Mosaics in the Northern Provinces
Karolina Tomczyszyn
(Lincoln College, Oxford)
Transgressive Use of Holy Oils: In Search of Popular Religion in Syriac Christianity
Ziyao Zhu
(King’s College London)
Neither Just nor Unjust: Alexios I Komnenos and the Linguistic Politics of Byzantine Extrajudicial Confiscation.
Dilara Burcu Giritlioğlu
(Middle East Technical University)
Sinners and Saints of Constantinople: Union of Souls and Separation of Church and State
Findlay Willis
(St. Stephen’s House, Oxford)
Natural illness or divine punishment: the use of disability rhetoric to excuse or vilify the transgressions of Michael IV

Session 5: Sunday, 14.00–15.30

Panel 5a: ‘Defining Aspects of Deviance’
(Chair: Dimitri Kravets)
Panel 5b: ‘Transgressing Intellectual Borders
(Chair: Ilia Curto Pelle)
Ekaterina Rybakova
(Pirogov Russian National Researcher Medical University)
Illnesses of Spirit or Being: The Transgression of Pneuma in Byzantine Medicine
Thibaut Auplat
(Aix-Marseille University)
An overview of deviance in the 7th and 8th centuries: the Heresies by John Damascene
Patrick Martin
(University of Winchester)
Transgression in Middle Byzantine eschatological iconography
Mathijs Clement
(University of Cambridge)
Egeria, Traveller of Borderlands
Rosalie Van Dael
(St. Hilda’s College, Oxford)
Seeing is believing? Imagination in Augustine’s Letter 7 to Nebridius
Seyhun Kılıç
(Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne)
Monk in a Mundane Realm: Exploring the Intersection of Spiritual and Secular Realms in the Middle Byzantine Period

CMTC presents — “Work in Progress” Colloquium

Tuesday the 13th of February 2024, 5.15–6.45pm UK time Centre for Manuscript and Text Cultures

Memorial Room, The Queen’s College    

1. A. D’Angelo (Rome ‘Sapienza’), ‘Catullan marginalia in the 16th century: the books of Piero Vettori’. 

The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich preserves three printed editions of Catullus’ Liber with marginal notes by Piero Vettori (1499-1585). This important scholar edited dozens of Classical authors, but never published anything on Catullus: thus, these books are the main extant evidence of his work on this poet. The notes contain variant readings, original conjectures and loci similes, and they offer new insights on Vettori’s philological method and his library. Through these marginalia, I will try to point out Vettori’s main interests in Catullus’ poetry and the sources he used for his Catullan studies.

2. Marlene Schilling (Oxford), ‘A special form of devotion – personifications of time in late medieval prayer books from Northern Germany’.  

Addressing liturgical holidays, for example welcoming Mr Easterday, is a particular characteristic of late medieval vernacular prayer-books from North German female convents. They highlight a distinct form of poetics, because describing and interacting with specific points in time – personifying them – allows an intercommunication with the divine that conveys a certain form of agency to the speaker. In this paper, we explore the particular type of prayer-books these personifications are found in, talk about their material indicators within the text, and think about the special role of the prayer-books from the Cistercian convent Medingen within this distinct manuscript landscape.

OMS Small Grants Now Open!

The TORCH Oxford Medieval Studies Programme invites applications for small grants to support conferences, workshops, and other forms of collaborative research activity organised by researchers at postgraduate (whether MSt or DPhil) or early-career level from across the Humanities Division at the University of Oxford.

The activity should take place between the beginning of Hilary term 2024 and the end of Trinity term. Closing date for applications: Friday of Week 4, 9 February 2024.

Grants are normally in the region of £100–250 and can either be for expenses or for administrative and organisational support such as publicity, filming or zoom hosting. Recipients will be required to supply a report after the event for the TORCH Medieval Studies blog. Recipients of awards will also be invited to present on their award at an OMS event.

Applicants will be responsible for all administrative aspects of the activity, including formulating the theme and intellectual rationale, devising the format, and, depending on the type of event, inviting speakers and/or issuing a Call for Papers, organising the schedule, and managing the budget, promotion and advertising.

Applications should be submitted to Prof. Lesley Smith  using the grant application form. Applications submitted in other formats or after the deadline will not be considered. Informal enquiries may also be directed to Lesley. The Oxford Medieval Studies Programme money is administered by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and the money will be paid out via their expenses system.

Curating ‘Chaucer Here and Now’

by Professor Marion Turner (English).
All images by Ian Wallman. 

Chaucer Here and Now, a major exhibition at the Bodleian Library, was opened on December 7th by Sir Ben Okri, and it runs until April 28th. I’ve curated this exhibition about Chaucer across time; about inspiration, creativity, and readers. It brings extraordinary medieval manuscripts and early printed books together with modern film, animation, cartoons, and contemporary poetry. Across time, Chaucer has been re-imagined in many different ‘heres and nows,’ made to fit changing expectations and tastes. The show is accompanied by a lavishly-illustrated book of essays about the ideas and themes of the exhibition.

The exhibition includes the oldest Canterbury Tales manuscript, the Hengwrt Chaucer, on loan from the National Library of Wales. It also showcases some of the most beautiful illuminated Chaucer manuscripts, alongside particularly gorgeous manuscripts of Dante and Boccaccio’s work. The first and second editions of the Canterbury Tales, printed by William Caxton in 1476 and 1483 are some of the most important early printed books in existence. William Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer, perhaps the loveliest of all Victorian books, is another jewel, and there are also collections of Victorian children’s Chaucers, eighteenth-century Chaucerian ballads, and a cluster of translations into languages such as Ukrainian, Japanese, Farsi, Esperanto, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew, French, and Korean.

The exhibition reveals that readers have always been actively responding to Chaucer’s texts. In the first case, three manuscripts are open at the same tale, Chaucer’s unfinished Cook’s Tale. While one scribe simply says that Chaucer did not finish the tale, another finishes it off for him, while a third adds a completely different tale (not by Chaucer) calling it a second Cook’s Tale. Early scribes and editors did not treat the text with reverence – indeed they had to make decisions about what to do with the unfinished texts that Chaucer had left behind.

In later centuries, translators and adaptors became concerned about Chaucer’s discussions of sex and the body, and censored his texts heavily. Pope’s translation of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue cuts out all the references to sex, the genitals, desire, and the body, leaving a short and fairly unrecognisable text. In the nineteenth century, the popular tales included the Clerk’s (about female submissiveness), the Knight’s (about chivalry and courtly love), the Nun’s Priest’s (an animal fable), and the Man of Law’s (female suffering again). The tales about farting, adultery, and sex in trees, were less popular. In contrast, in the twentieth-century, many readers focused exclusively on those fabliaux tales – the prime example being Pasolini’s film.

While in the nineteenth-century, Chaucer was seen as a poet of empire, whose texts should be sent out around the world to promote a certain kind of Englishness, in more recent decades, Chaucer has been reimagined as a poet of diaspora and refugees. The exhibition brings together the Refugee Tales volumes (from 2016 onwards), the records of a project whereby refugees and writers walk the pilgrimage route and tell their stories. Other texts that link Chaucer’s focus on travel and giving voice to diverse storytellers to modern diasporas include Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze’s translation of part of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue into Jamaican English, Marilyn Nelson’s Cachoeira Tales, which uses the Canterbury Tales as an inspiration for writing about the forced migration of enslaved people, and Zadie Smith’s Wife of Willesden which transposes the Wife of Bath’s Tale from Arthurian Britain to a community of Maroons (the descendants of formerly enslaved people) in eighteenth-century Jamaica.

This exhibition shows how the idea of Chaucer as the Father of English Literature developed, and became firmly established in sixteenth century printed editions, which featured dominating portraits of father Chaucer, positioned in such a way as to construct him as the Father of the Nation. This authoritative idea of Englishness elides the multilingual background of Chaucer’s own texts and life: the exhibition showcases Chaucer’s multilingual sources, his own translations, and his use of different languages in his texts. The global author of today – translated into many languages, and inspiring many writers from diverse backgrounds – is not so far away from the fourteenth-century traveller and diplomat.

The exhibition offers various ways to engage with Chaucer’s texts. You can put on headphones and watch some of the BBC animated Canterbury Tales. On the back wall, the opening couplet of the Tales is projected in multiple languages. Every seven minutes, a one-minute monologue is projected onto one wall: the Knight, Miller, or Wife of Bath, talks about themselves in modern English. And just outside the main exhibition, in the transept, there is a pilgrimage wall, with graphics of the pilgrimage route, onto which visitors are encouraged to stick their own pilgrim creations. Craft materials are provided, along with video tutorials by artists about how to draw Chaucer cartoons or make Chaucer puppets.

Students have been involved in various aspects of the exhibition: the review in the Times opened with discussing the area of the exhibition which features photos of current Oxford students and quotations about what Chaucer means to them. The journalist singled out the student who has a Chaucer tattoo on her forearm.

In his opening speech, Sir Ben Okri talked about the fundamental importance of Chaucer, saying that his work and ideas were like a river running underneath world literary culture. He walked on to the podium to the song ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,’ which faded after the line ‘as the Miller told his tale.’ It was a great example of how Chaucer seeps into people’s consciousness, and continues to inspire poets, playwrights, artists, students, and all kinds of other people, from all over the world, in many different heres and nows. I hope people have fun in the exhibition, and that it surprises them.

The exhibition runs from 8 December 2023 to 28 April 2024 at the St Lee Gallery, Weston Library (Bodleian Libraries). Admission is free. Find out more on the Bodleian Libraries website.

There are two upcoming FREE special events:

  • Friday 2 February 2024: Chaucer Now: an event to celebrate recent rewritings of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. (click here to find out more)
  • Saturday 27 April 2024: Creating Chaucer: join us to explore Chaucer’s world through creative activities, talks and discussion. (click here to find out more)

Völuspá: a performative journey

To herald the new year, poet and DPhil student, Clare Mulley, recounts her experience of interpreting, translating and performing one of the most famous poems in the Old Norse canon for the Old Norse Poetry in Performance Conference 2023.

When I walk, barefoot, to centre stage from the shadowed doorway, the silence of the wood-panelled room is an excruciatingly loud one; loud in a way that can only come from a lot of bodies keeping themselves deliberately suppressed, but still shifting and audibly breathing. Under the lip of my hood, I can just make out the shadowy faces of the front rows, many of whom are friends and colleagues. They know there will be a performance of sorts, and many of them know more than I do the poem I am interpreting, but it is in these couple of seconds where anything could happen. This is, perhaps, the most exciting part of all.

I wait just long enough to feel their anticipation – the space between us is electric, humming with charge and stretched to full tension. A metre away, someone else is waiting: my co-performer, Norwegian musician and sound engineer Kjell Braaten, is poised over his sound system and various gorgeous wooden instruments, completely attuned to my every movement. Aside from his work for film and television, he has been performing at festivals and concert venues for years, and knows exactly what he is doing in building an atmosphere. In a few seconds, the pure gut surge of sound he is about to create will reverberate off the walls like echoes in a cave, and make itself felt in the bellies of all present. 

In the darkness, I can practically see the poem stretching out in front of me, a long, luminous thread whose tail-end I must grasp, or a path I must follow without stumbling, treading down to make the way clearer for future walkers. But first, I have to step into the shoes of the seeress (or völva, as she is known in Old Norse) using the words that have identified her for centuries.

I grip the staff in my hand and begin, reciting the first and foremost line in Old Norse: ‘Hljóðs bið ek allar helgar kindir…’ Give me a hearing.

For the next half hour, I will exist in another space outside of time: the space of ritual time.

***

Völuspá, the opening poem of the Poetic Edda,was my introduction to Old Norse poetry, and from the first time I read it (on a train journey between Manchester and Bradford) I was spellbound. Everything about it – its combination of slow-building tension and fast-moving scenery, mystic tonality and hypnotic refrains – suggested a vast, echoing space, evocative in turn of the mythical Ginnungagap in which the Old Norse cosmos has its origin story. Within that space, the female narrative voice itself remains an enigma, and is a presence which commands absolute attention. Interpreted sometimes as a resurrected völva or elemental being, sometimes as a human woman performing seiðr who has become a mouthpiece for an older consciousness, her voice not only hovers somewhere between the corporeal and supernatural, but speaks to an audience (the so-called helgar kindir ‘holy kindred’) which is itself situated in a poetic present that spans generations. Any audience experiencing the poem may automatically count themselves as part of the crowd she addresses, adding to its immediacy in effect.

A year after first reading the poem, I arrived in Oxford to begin another journey into the study of Old Norse receptions, but all the time I was settling into my studies, Völuspá stayed on the margins of my consciousness. It was an insistent, probing voice that would not go away. Each time I read or heard later translations and performances, I couldn’t help fixating on what I would have done differently, or on how certain word choices might sit in various settings. Eventually, I gave in to the urge to play with it: I sat down very late one night and began a poetic translation, which allowed for some leeway in expression and for some opening up of the mythology for audiences who did not have contextual knowledge. After some time working on the piece, and especially after studying Terry Gunnell’s work on performance archaeology, I finally realised that I was writing according to how my own speaking voice worked, and that I was saying phrases aloud as part of the selective process. Clearly writing the poem down wasn’t enough for the storyteller bone in the back of my skull; I wanted to work my way through a performance. 

I have always been fascinated by the idea of oral poetry as a cross-temporal process, or moving body; one made up of performance, memory (both living and cultural) and textual records, spanning generations with some level of consistency and yet inevitably received in and affected by what Carolyn Dinshaw aptly terms the ‘hermeneutic now.’ Drawing a venn diagram between the spheres of textual study and practical experience, I reasoned, would not only help me to investigate how certain textual material can have performative implications, and how those might practically play out on a stage, but, on another level, would also allow me to experiment with the blank margins outside the text that depend upon personal interpretation (such as tone of voice, settings, speed, musical accompaniment or other voices etc). While certain questions around how Medieval Scandinavians might have worked with or presented the poem will always remain unsolved, having to tackle certain practicalities would perhaps provide further insight into what might have been possible for readers or performers in a medieval context. Icelanders had always been famed and sought out in Medieval Scandinavian courts for their incredible narrative memories; could I now recreate something of the process by which they remembered longer works and captured their audiences? The upcoming Old Norse Poetry in Performance Conference 2023 provided the perfect setting (and excuse) for the experiment, and my storyteller bone thrilled at the thought.

One key decision I made was to do with setting; when performed with one voice, the poem is so unrelenting in its intensity that there seemed a real risk of not being able to sustain its energy unsupported for more than half an hour without boring an audience (I often wonder, incidentally, if any medieval performers might have been faced with the same dilemma, or if this might strengthen any theoretical arguments for multiple voices.) Music seemed the natural answer in my case, as I find it far easier to hold space with accompaniment, and this was where Kjell came in. I had watched him perform his new album Blóta the previous summer at Midgardsblót, a festival held among the burial mounds in Børre, and had seen nearly the whole room cry in response to his music. Some internet searches revealed that he had also participated in sound work on The Northman – one of my favourite ever film soundtracks, and a pleasing aesthetic match to what I considered Völuspá’s naturally dark quality. Luckily for me, Kjell loved my idea and generously consented to take part in the experiment, accordingly transporting several cases’ worth of nordic instruments from Bergen and risking his spine in the process. 

***

It would require a great deal more space than I presently have to detail all the theory, planning and sources that went into the project in full, and, as I intend to write more formally about those in future, I’m not going to do that here. Suffice to say that, after two performances, performing any oral medieval work (even a more loosely-interpreted one)teaches you a lot more than you bargained for, and is an absolutely terrifying and sublime experience all by itself. The intensity magnifies tenfold when done in the dark, in proper stage lighting and with body-shuddering music at your back. It didn’t take much effort to evoke ritual time, or pretend that my memories went back to the creation of the world – while the text on its own makes you feel like you are seeing creation happen, I felt like I was actively making creation happen.

 Perhaps the most intense part of the experience, however (aside from worrying about forgetting your lines, or about which academic interpretations you tend towards in your writing), is the sheer viscerality of the onstage experience due to energy exchange, and how quickly this affects what you considered fixed or rehearsed. What Ursula Le Guin terms ‘primary orality’ – in other words, the unique and powerful symbiotic relationship between a live performer and their audience that has no equivalent in other media – is blank margins territory; something that is almost impossible to communicate in a regular poetic structure, although the sense of the narrator commanding rapt attention is, again, palpable in the text. Onstage, this energy is practically solid, and rushes to meet you in staggering fashion. As though you had two, parallel brains, you are aware throughout of the delicate balance between holding onto deep memory while existing in the sharp, present consciousness of the room. If there is the slightest flicker of a face within your eyeline, the slightest sigh, jump or intake of breath, you are immediately aware of it and seeking to react in a way compatible with the energy directed at you. This weird dual consciousness can cause the most surprising changes to vocabulary you have rehearsed for hours, and to smaller actions to do with movement, volume and even facial expression.

In the second performance Kjell and I did at the Aarhus Old Norse Mythology Conference in November 2023, I decided to increase my involvement in the soundscape, and played a bone rattle and a skin drum at key moments in the narrative. The drum especially can be felt throughout the body as you play it and inspires an almost trancelike state, giving weight to your words and transmitting a physical sensation to your listeners; considering its history in Sami shamanistic practices, and the taboo surrounding it in the time of witch hunts, its cultural weight and physical effects added another, holistic layer to the work. From these experiences, I now have fresh awareness that no two performances can ever be the same, as every new context and audience forces a different synergy, and that in itself bears thinking about in an academic context; while we are left with the ‘bones’ of the poem in manuscript form, and the idea that a consistent memory of the structure is definitely there, how many forms might have been laid across similar skeletons in an oral context? How many people worked with the consistencies we know today to make their own work? The possibilities are endless. 

To me, one thing is for certain. As simplistic as it sounds, whatever the end result of a performance on a received text, there is nothing quite like the deafening silence at the end of it all, right before the applause hits, to remind you why such texts were probably written down in the first place: because someone, somewhere, had exactly the same reaction to something they heard, and wanted to capture the moment. Putting that text back into the voice felt like completing a circle.

For a review of the performance, see: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2023/30-june/comment/columnists/paul-vallely-voice-of-prophetess-speaks-to-the-soul

For a poem on the Old Norse cosmos by the author, see: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/ginnungagap-clare-mulley/

Poetry in the Medieval World

New TORCH Network approved

by Ugo Mondini

Poetry in the Medieval World is a network that explores premodern literature from a global perspective. Its aim is to address broad questions and seek answers building on contemporary discussions in comparative and world literature through a cross-disciplinary approach.

Our case study is currently poetry between c. 600 and c. 1250 CE. Poetry is a multifaceted phenomenon: it answers to different needs, travels across communities, and undergoes continuous changes. It is rooted in shared culture and knowledge; its intercultural communication or its appreciation by posterity can, at times, fail. There are recurring features: vivid images, complex words and rhythm, but also recitation music and singing. It is an expression of beauty and harmony. Even if poetry requires specialised experts to be scrutinised, yet its study should be easily approachable and crucial to the understanding of premodern literature, but also of literature as a whole. This – and way more – is the realm of poetry the Network will explore.

The Network creates an infrastructure for an open dialogue on medieval poetry with reading groups every two weeks, lectures by national and international scholars, and two annual meetings. The focus of our discussion is the production and transmission of poetry, its historical reception, and the challenges of translating it into modern languages, with a particular emphasis on English.

The Network connects people driven by scholarly curiosity. Therefore, we are extremely keen on receiving expressions of interest for collaboration from people at any phase of their career. If you are interested in this project and want to contribute to it actively, please email Ugo Mondini. The first events in Hillary 2024 will be shared in the coming weeks on the TORCH Networks website and the network’s X account (@PoetryMedieval), both of which are currently under development.

Images:

  1. Fujiwara no Yukinari (Kōzei), Excerpt from Bai Juyi’s “Autobiography of a Master of Drunken Poetry Recitation”
  2. David singing, MS BNF Par. gr. 139, f. 1v

Oxford’s Medieval Meadow

by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne

Hinksey Meadow is first on record in a grant by Henry I to Abingdon Abbey 1102 x 1110, and it’s still there, in West Oxford in walking distance of Oxford Railway Station, one of the rarest, most species-rich meadows in Britain. But it’s threatened with destruction – by the Environment Agency.  The EA is insisting that it should build only the most destructive version of its Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme, scooping out a  5 km channel through the Oxford green corridor from Botley to Sandford Lock, through Hinksey Meadow.

The UK has lost 97% of its meadows since World War II, including so many floodmeadows that the Thames Valley contains a quarter of those remaining. Hinksey Meadow is even rarer than that: it  is a wildflower floodplain meadow with type MG43a grassland, of which only four square miles survive in the UK as a whole.  It’s of much higher diversity than, for instance, Port Meadow.

Hinksey Meadow has survived for the best part of a thousand years because it’s part of a sustainable agricultural collaboration between humans and their environment: managed grazing fertilizes the meadow, and the meadow’s hay cut provides food for stock with no need for industrial fertilizer.  Hinksey is also an invaluable seedbank for the future of regenerative farming.  

Image1. Part of the scheme area, showing the direction floodwater takes and the location of the EA’s channel (up to 200 metres wide). Red arrow marks site of Hinksey Meadow

The channel requires

  • digging out c.400,000 cubic metres (700,000 tonnes) of soil and gravel
  • removing 3780 mature trees and 11 kms hedgerows
  • destroying habitat for many species of insects, birds and animals
  • destroying existing braided floodplain streams and wild life corridor
  • destroying iconic Oxford riverine willowlined landscapes
  • compulsory purchase of some 1000 parcels of land in and around the scheme area
  • release of sequestered carbon: grassland is second only to peat in its capacity

Hinksey Meadow cannot survive digging up and hydrological interference.

Landscape artist Elaine Kazimierczuk painted the Meadow for a charity auction to raise funds for its defence: see her at work and hear why, even on the grey windy English summer’s day the weather gave her,  she feels so passionately about the Meadow

The  EA’s channel offers

  • a small increase in alleviation to a few dozen houses and shops at massive financial and environmental cost
  • a big ticket scheme that will ultimately enable more development in and around the floodplain

And it is not needed:

  • up to 85-90% of the scheme’s protection is offered by much smaller localised flood defences such as bunds and earthworks
  • independent experts in hydrology and cost/benefits have shown that no channel works very nearly as well, without the enormous environmental destruction, and have also proposed several other alternative strategies.

Why does the EA insist on the channel?

It won’t say.  In the absence of clear reasons, we can only speculate that it decided on the channel (its characteristic response in twentieth-century flood schemes) in advance and then worked backwards to try to find mitigations. Independent experts pointed out that the EA used the wrong DEFRA metric for the area’s biodiversity in its application.  In its revised application the proper metric turned the EA’s claimed 10% increase in biodiversity into a biodiversity loss.

The EA now claims it will

  • translocate MG4a grassland. This cannot be done according to independent experts: such grassland takes hundreds of years to create.
  • create wetlands and plant saplings onsite and offsite (in unspecified locations somewhere in Oxfordshire)
  • secure environmental partners and get landowners to help with the costs of monitoring and maintenance

This leads to absolute loss of irreplaceable bio-diversity and interlocking mature eco-systems at least 30 years to wait before saplings become mature trees – if they are maintained. (For the effects  of a riverine EA scheme in 2022 see this BBC Interview)

Some of the trees that will be lost within and beside the Oxford meadows
The Willow Walk, the path by Hinksey Meadow
The EA’s proposed replacement for Willow Walk

What can be done? Objectors have secured a Public Enquiry into the scheme. The Enquiry opens 10 am on Tuesday 14 November 2023 for a month at The King’s Centre, Osney Mead, Oxford OX2 0ES (walkable from the railway station).  FIND US | The King’s Centre (kingscentre.co.uk)

You can

1. Support the Public Enquiry by joining a peaceful demonstration 10am on 14th November outside the King’s Centre entrance. Feel free to bring your own signs and banners. Please do get in contact at the email below if you would like to come on the 14th.

2. Sign the petition to Save Hinksey Meadow

3. Spread the word! And if you know people who might be able and willing to contribute to the defence of the meadow, direct them to the Go fund me page

References and more information

Any questions to Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, FMAA
SCR Associate St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford
Thomas F. X. and Theresa Mullarkey Chair in Literature (Emerita), Fordham University
olim Professor of Medieval Literature, University of York

CMTC research talks

The Centre for Manuscript and Text Cultures (CMTC) is a research group based at The Queen’s College in the University of Oxford. We are scholars working in different fields of the humanities with a common interest in pre- and early modern texts, their materiality, transmission, and dissemination. For further information please visit our websitehttps://cmtc.queens.ox.ac.uk/. Most of our research talks are recorded and uploaded to our YouTube channel CMTC Mediahttps://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNAJFkc6gzBVgseJ_IRrpLw. If you like CMTC Media please subscribe to the channel and turn on notifications to receive regular updates on the new content available.

There are two CMTC events in Michaelmas term:

Michaelmas Term Lecture:  25 October 5.15pm  (week 3), Memorial Room, The Queen’s College

Prof. Mary Carruthers (NYU and St Hilda’s, Oxford): Understanding Solid Figures in Early Medieval Manuscripts:  how Rhetoric and Geometry interact

Work in Progress Seminar:  7 November 3.30pm (week 5), Memorial Room, The Queen’s College

Dr Anthony Ellis (University of Bern): ‘Greek’ in the Medieval Latin manuscripts of Josephus:  reconstructing the philological workings of a late antique translator
Dr Sara de Martin (Oxford): Reassessing the transmission of Strato com. fr. 1 K. A.

Archive Michaelmas 2022

(1)  “Work in Progress” colloquium
Tuesday 8th November 2022, 3,30–5,00pm UK timeMemorial Room, The Queen’s College (and Zoom)(please register through the link provided below: Zoom links will be sent by email by 9,00am UK time on the day of the talk)
Benedetta Bessi (Venice/Stanford): ‘Towards a Digital Edition of the Liber insularum by Cristoforo Buondelmonti’
Joseph Mason (New College, Oxford): ‘Oral and Written Transmission in Old French Song: a reassessment’

Please register here (whether you are planning to attend in person or online)

(2) Michaelmas Term Lecture
Wednesday 23rd November 2022, 5,15–6,45pm UK timeMemorial Room, The Queen’s College (and Zoom)(please register through the link provided below: Zoom links will be sent by email by 9,00am UK time on the day of the talk)
Nikolay Tarasenko (Kyiv/Pembroke College, Oxford): ‘What Can the “Greenfield Papyrus” (pLondon BM EA 10554) Tell Us about Its Owner?’
Please register here (whether you are planning to attend in person or online)


Anglo-Norman Reading Group

Jane Bliss reports on the Oxford Anglo-Norman Reading Group.

The group is now nearly as old as the century! It was born of a chance conversation in the Taylorian Library, as we deplored an apparent lack of interest in Anglo-Norman. Having had a crash course with Tony Hunt during my MPhil studies, I was aware of the riches that are available but usually ignored by those who think the language is even more difficult than Old French.  From the outset we were keen to build an informal and collaborative forum for reading, discussing, and translating a wide variety of texts.  We welcome all comers, primarily graduate students but also numerous others, whatever their level of knowledge.

We study the literature of Anglo-Norman (the insular French of the Middle Ages), presenting and translating texts chosen according to members’ needs or suggestions. The range of material is inclusive: romance, chronicle, saints’ life, religious material, letters, legal texts, and much more. When possible, we invite a guest speaker, or (for example) the editor of a work in progress.  Recent texts have included the Anglo-Norman life of St Godric, presented by one of its recent editors Margaret Coombe, and an Apocalypse edited and translated (with our help) by Antje Carroll.  We even once presented extracts from one of our texts at the Medieval Road Show:  dramatic readings from the Maniere de Langage in which sample conversations, some highly comic, are offered to the language student.

We usually meet fortnightly, from 5.00-6.30pm, on a Friday. The group is currently supported by Helen Swift, who kindly arranges a room for us in St Hilda’s College, and a Convenor (Stephanie Hathaway) who looks after technical matters with splendid efficiency.  I lead the work on the texts:  I have done extensive research in Anglo-Norman literature (as an independent scholar); I studied with Tony Hunt and have many years teaching experience; I have published a number of books and articles in the field. 

The group varies from about 4 to 12 people, depending on their other commitments in a busy Oxford term; our hybrid sessions have attracted scholars from farther afield and may bring the number up to as many as 20. In fact, we have recently attracted a medievalist all the way from Bristol University, to take part in person whenever she can. We take it in turns to read the text aloud, never mind the pronunciation, and then help one another with translation and commentary.  Each text is presented at the beginning of term with an introduction, questions are explored, and discussion is encouraged.  A `padlet’ is provided for disseminating texts, sources, secondary materials, other interesting clips, and so on.

Thanks to our convenor and OMS, our studies are lubricated by a choice of wine or soft drinks. This encourages lateral thinking, and definitely aids relaxation at the end of a busy week. In addition, when we have a visiting speaker, we arrange to take them out to dinner. Failing that, we often meet for a drink together after the end of term.

Finally, I would like to pay tribute to the memory of Paul Hyams, who declared on joining us: `Historians don’t read enough romances, nor will they read anything in French.’  He was a faithful member of the group almost to his death last year, contributing to our understanding of the language used for day-to-day admin in medieval Britain. 

Jane Bliss (jane.bliss@lmh.oxon.org)
Image thanks to St Brendan