Hyggnaþing (‘Meeting of Minds’): A Graduate Conference in Old Norse Studies took place on the 11th of August 2021. A brand-new conference co-organised by Natasha Bradley, a DPhil student at Lincoln College, Oxford, and Ben Chennells, a PhD student at University College London, Hyggnaþing attracted speakers and attendees from across the globe for a one-day online conference exploring all things Old Norse.
Hyggnaþing was created in response to the isolation that has impacted everyone over this past year and a half. With constant lockdowns, library closures, and restrictions on events, postgraduate study has become even more challenging and isolating, with fewer opportunities for students to engage with the academic community. Hyggnaþing was created with connection in mind, providing a virtual space to build networks and share research in a welcoming environment. For this, Hyggnaþing made use of both Zoom and Wonder, a platform which simulates the experience of an in-person meeting and allows for online ‘mingling’.
After some opening remarks from the organisers, the conference began with a panel on the significance of space in saga literature, chaired by Oxford’s own Olivia Elliott Smith. The first paper was by Grace O’Duffy (University of Cambridge), whose paper explored the development of Hǫttr from Hrólf saga kraka, as he progresses from the bone-pile to a masculine ‘ideal’. Then Mary O’Connor (University of Oxford) spoke about courtly space in two Old Norse riddarasǫgur: Ívens saga and Erex saga.
After a quick screen break, the second session of the day, chaired by Sigrun Borgen Wik (Trinity College Dublin), began with a paper from Basil Arnould Price (University of York). Basil’s paper explored the idea of failure as resistance in Grettis saga and Gests þáttr using queer theory. This was followed by a paper from Caroline Bourne (University of Reading), which reassessed the relationship between Scandinavians and the Gower peninsula in South Wales from the tenth century. The panel was concluded with a paper by Giorgia Sottotetti (Háskóli Íslands), who examined small figurines or ‘pocket-idols’ from Iron Age Scandinavia and analysed how they reflect the religious, social, and political changes within the period.
After lunch, Hyggnaþing resumed with a panel on translation, chaired by the co-organiser Natasha Bradley. The first paper, by Katrín Lísa L. Mikaelsdóttir (Háskóli Íslands), analysed the presence of Norwegianisms in medieval Icelandic manuscripts and how their use changes over time. The second paper of the panel was by Davide Salmoiraghi (University of Cambridge). Davide looked at the reception of the Church Fathers in medieval Iceland, examining the spread of the saints’ cult and its influence on the Norse hagiographies. Luthien Cangemi (University College London) concluded the translation panel with her paper on the transition from the concept of Medicina to Physica in Old Norse sources.
Then followed the mid-afternoon virtual coffee break on Wonder. This allowed attendees to mingle together to get to know each other, moving between groups of people to talk. Some attendees continued their discussions about the conference in a more informal setting, and others struck up new discussions about postgraduate life and their own research.
The final panel of the day was chaired by the conference co-organiser Ben Chennells. It explored the receptions and re-castings of Old Norse literature. The first paper, by Grace Khuri (University of Oxford), examined the Victorian novel Eric Brighteyes by H. Rider Haggard and its use of Old Norse saga sources. Richard Munro of the University of the Highlands and Islands then presented about how to perform an eddic poem.
The keynote lecture, delivered by Dr Sarah Baccianti, a British Academy Newton International Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast, discussed the Old Norse medical charms and healing practices. Exploring material culture and saga literature, Baccianti’s interdisciplinary paper called for a re-evaluation of the distinction between our modern concepts of magic and medicine. The keynote was followed, as with all the panels, by an engaging discussion. An evening social hosted on Wonder concluded the conference.
Hyggnaþing hosted ten speakers, four chairs, and a keynote lecturer, all of whom joined the conference from nine different institutions across the UK and beyond. Seventy-five guests registered to attend, with audience members joining from locations across the globe, from the United States to Australia, to ask questions and make comments that sparked engaging academic discussion. New connections were forged on Wonder and Zoom alike, and the organisers hope that these will be long-lived.
Hyggnaþing is incredibly grateful to Oxford Medieval Studies (OMS), sponsored by The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) for the funding to cover the costs of the conference. This allowed the registration for the conference to be completely free of charge, creating an accessible and welcoming conference for attendees and helping to foster the thriving academic community, and ‘meeting of minds’, that came together for Hyggnaþing. For more information about the conference, see the Hyggnaþing website: https://hyggnathing.wordpress.com/
The first workshop and initial meeting of the Medieval Commentary Network will take place at Christ Church, Oxford, on 9 October 2021, from 9am – 5pm. A buffet lunch will be provided. The workshop is free of charge for all participants. This will take place as an in-person workshop (unless government regulations change). Unfortunately we are unable to live-stream the event, but we are hoping to make recordings of some talks available online after the event (subject to speaker approval).
Speakers include Alastair Minnis, Andrew Kraebel, Edit Lukacs, Audrey Southgate, Elizabeth Doherty, Malena Ratzke, Zachary Guiliano, Bond West, Rachel Cresswell, and others. The full conference programme will be available at https://medievalcommentary.network/ by the end of July.
We recognise that the current situation brings with it a great deal of uncertainty regarding travel; if you find you are no longer able to attend, please let us know as soon as possible.
Please email email@example.com with any questions and for further information.
On Saturday the 9th of March, thirty-one pilgrims (and one canine pilgrim companion) met at St Helen’s Church in Abingdon, ready to walk the twelve miles to Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. Much like the Canterbury Tales, our party was diverse; there were students from across the UK and across disciplines and stages, porters, academics from far and wide and members of the public (one of which who had run a half marathon the very same morning). As a BYOB (Bring Your Own Beliefs) pilgrimage, there were also a range of reasons for pilgrimaging present among our group. This was the start of the Oxford Medieval Studies Pilgrimage Day 2019, a day that would engage with the practice, literature, history and revitalisation of medieval pilgrimage.
At St Helen’s we handed out pilgrim badge replicas, kindly funded by the Oxford Pilgrimage Studies Network, to each of our pilgrims. Beautifully recreated in pewter by Lionheart Replicas, the original badge dated from the fifteenth century and depicted two pilgrims, one male and one female, ready to set out on their walk. After some quick ground rules, some advice for how to make the most of a pilgrimage and a rousing reading of the opening lines to the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from Rebecca, we set off on our journey.
Although the preceding week had been plagued with rain and wind, the day was miraculously sunny with only the occasional gusty spell, the perfect walking weather. Our next stopping point was only five minutes away: the Abingdon Abbey buildings. The curator of the buildings, Tim Miller, led us around the surviving buildings of the Benedictine Abbey, including Unicorn Theatre, the Long Gallery and the Chequer. Tim was an excellent guide for us, bringing the stories of the abbey and its uses to life and showing us the most impressive parts of the building, such as the beautifully painted remains of a Tudor room partition decorated with roses and pomegranates.
After leaving Tim, we then had a long walk ahead of us. We walked through the grounds of Radley College and across the countryside until we reached the picture-perfect village of Sunningwell and its church, St Leonard’s, at just past midday. This was our lunch stop, many of the pilgrims pausing to eat their packed lunch in the sunny grounds of the church or enjoying some hot chips and a pint at the local pub. This church is now mostly fifteenth century, but the village and its association with Abingdon abbey traces back far further. It also features a stunning seven-sided porch at its entrance, the victorian stained glass of which was designed by J.P. Seddon.
We then moved off again, quickly looking at the well after which the village took its name. The landscape was a little steeper as we climbed Boar’s Hill, but the view on the descent of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’ was worth it, and we then arrived at St Lawrence’s Church in South Hinksey. Father Ben Drury kindly gave us an history of the church and pointed out the distinctive minstrel’s gallery and the little private window for viewing mass.
We then set off on the last part of our walk, trekking over the train lines and the river, then through the outskirts of the city to Christ Church Cathedral – our pilgrims had made it home! We rounded off the walk with Rebecca reading from the Book of Margery Kempe, a moving passage describing how she reaches the English shore after a stormy passage, before our pilgrims dispersed for a well-earned rest.
The last order of the day was a talk from Dr Guy Hayward, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust, at St John’s College. Guy talked about his experience of pilgrimage, its history and how he is working to revive the practice in the UK – the perfect reflective end to the day with the lasting message that we should all work to bring pilgrimage back. If you would like to walk a pilgrimage to Oxford, we encourage you to check out the BPT website http://britishpilgrimage.org/portfolio/five-ways-to-oxford/ and let us know how you get on!
Some feedback from our pilgrims:
‘Talking with people about their different life experiences was enlightening’
‘I think it was great. The highlight for me was doing a journey together with people from different walks of life.’
‘Well co-ordinated, well supported, very friendly. Had a lovely day. One to remember.’
‘Really enjoyed it, would love to do more’
We would like to say thank you to the OMS Small Grant at TORCH for their support, and that of the Oxford Studies Pilgrimage Network. We would also like to say a special thank you to Guy Hayward, Tim Miller, Fr Ben Drury and Robert Culshaw for helping the smooth running of the day, and, of course, our brilliant pilgrims.
Visiting the Ashmolean Museum is one of the many great privileges that the University of Oxford has to offer. One can travel to a myriad of different times and places within its walls, and speaking personally, I am always eager for the encounter with the medieval past made possible through its collections. Recently, Jim Harris, the Andrew W Mellon Foundation Teaching Curator at the Ashmolean, gave the Oxford Medieval Studies Lecture for Trinity Term on precisely this topic. His talk, entitled Museum in the Middle: Medieval Things in a (Still) Medieval University, provided much food for thought about the wonder, loss, and strangeness in both the medieval and the museum.
Much of Jim’s teaching is rooted in the medieval collections, which has allowed him to engage both with the material culture of the Middle Ages and with those who study it – us medievalists. In Jim’s words, the “thread connecting medievalists to the past of their study is wonder,” and it is wonder that can be channeled through teaching with objects. As medievalists, this sense of wonder, the idea that knowledge can be derived from studying things we do not know about and do not yet understand, has driven us to acquire the skills to access that knowledge. We have learned new languages, both medieval and modern, how to decipher different scripts and to what location and periods these scripts belong, and how manuscripts were produced, among many other things, to bring us closer to the past that inspires so much wonder in us. Undertaking this learning allows us to further our connection to this past, as medieval people also had to learn new languages, ways of writing, methods of production, and many other skills to create the texts, documents, and objects that are now the subject of our study. Jim stressed that such wonder-motivated learning is not a product of the Early Modern Period or the Enlightenment, but rather is human, and was certainly present during the Middle Ages.
Jim described how teaching with objects can put this sense of wonder back into the curriculum. When we look at objects in ways that make them speak to us, using the skills that our sense of wonder has motivated us to learn, we become connected to a tradition, a history of looking, and the past that we look at is in turn bound to us through this act. Jim made clear that teaching with objects is not about being an art historian or portraying the rare and exceptional as exemplary, but rather about the wonder contained within the everyday and the mundane. Like the sense of wonder that drove us to learn how to communicate with the Middle Ages, wondering at its everyday objects once again brings us closer to the people who made them and to the period in which they lived.
The wonder that object-centred teaching can bring to the study of the Middle Ages speaks to what literary historian Stephen Greenblatt calls the resonance and wonder of museum objects. Greenblatt characterises resonance as the power of an object “to reach out beyond its formal boundaries to a larger world, to evoke in the viewer the complex, dynamic cultural forces from which it has emerged and for which it may be taken by a viewer to stand,” while wonder is an object’s power “to stop viewers in their tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.” While everyday objects, like the holy water ampulla associable with the Beckett pilgrimage and the pilgrim badge of John Schorne that Jim featured in his lecture, may not cause the viewer to stop in their tracks on display, in Jim’s words these objects become “capable of answering questions beyond what can be shared in a museum label” when they are taken off display and brought into the teaching room.
This can be seen clearly in Jim’s example of a small Limoges pyx, dated to c. 1200, that shows signs of its wear and use. While its well-preserved counterpart can be found on display in the museum, and it has been selected for display because of its condition and beauty, the pyx that Jim uses for teaching, with its worn exterior and signs of copper corrosion, has the potential to reveal more about the lives of medieval people than the one on display. This is because we can interrogate this object in ways that we cannot apply to the example on display: we can look inside this pyx, we can touch it, we can see it up close and from different angles and in different lights; we can ask questions about its manufacture, iconography, and use in devotional practice. While the ways of looking that we can use to interrogate the pyx on display are restricted by its exhibition, the pyx that Jim teaches with, though off display, becomes accessible to us from seemingly endless perspectives.
That this object can be interrogated not only by medievalists and other students of the humanities, but also students of medicine, neuroscience, and psychiatry, makes this what Jim calls an “agile” object with the “capacity to submit to interrogation from any number of disciplines.” In their agility, objects like the pyx cultivate resonance: they reach out to us from the past and can tell us how they were made, how they were used, and what they meant within the world that produced them. The resonance of these agile, everyday objects can stop us in our tracks and inspire our sense of wonder, as their agility allows us to discover their uniqueness and can further connect us to the past that they represent.
Loss is something that medievalists are often faced with. Whether it be the loss of texts through the deterioration or destruction of manuscripts, the loss of traditions and customs that have faded from memory, or loss due to the simple absence of information, the impact of loss is felt greatly within Medieval Studies. Loss is likewise ever-present in the museum, and Jim spoke of objects of loss: those that have been broken, discarded, or intentionally destroyed, or those that we no longer understand or recognize.
If we look at objects of loss with a sense of wonder, however, their loss can reveal much about the world from which they came. Jim demonstrated this with a small, broken corpus that had been removed from a crucifix, its arms deliberately broken and its feet bent. Jim explained that the stubs of its broken arms had been worn smooth not through cutting or filing but by touch, and when we look at this corpus this way, it reveals itself as a personal devotional object. This broken corpus, and other objects like it, had afterlives beyond their intended uses, and they take on yet another afterlife as museum objects.
When we, as medievalists, study the texts, documents, and objects that bring us closer to the past, these things too take on afterlives as the subjects of our study. Just as the producer of the crucifix to which the broken corpus originally belonged likely did not imagine that their creation would be transformed in this way, the medieval producers of the texts and documents that we study probably did not envision that they would be scrutinized by scholars in countless ways centuries later. We can interrogate these texts and documents from a variety of different perspectives: literary, historical, cultural, social, feminist, queer, ecocritical – the potential is almost endless. In studying the products of the past, we contribute to shaping the afterlife of the Middle Ages.
It is in our scrutiny and interrogation of the past that we will encounter loss, and we require certain ways of looking at what we study in order to see through the gaps. The ways we look at texts and documents are not unlike those that Jim uses to teach with objects like the pyx, as they allow us to extract information, to make new connections, and to expand our knowledge. As sociologist and museologist Tony Bennett says, these ways of looking allow objects “to be not just seen but seen through to establish some communion with the invisible to which they beckon.” Approaching both texts and objects, at times in tandem, from different perspectives allows us to see through to the past, and sometimes loss provides us with another view to the Middle Ages.
The Ashmolean was founded in 1683 by the polymath Elias Ashmole, and as such it is not technically a “medieval” museum. It exists, however, within a medieval university, and Oxford’s “medievalness” helps to remind us that the medieval did not simply stop on New Year’s Day of 1500. One need only to look at Oxford’s buildings and participate in its traditions to see that the medieval is still all around us. Medieval traditions and structures thus continued to shape society and culture long after what is now considered the “end” of the Middle Ages, and as Jim illustrated, this is certainly true of the Ashmolean and its collection.
Elias Ashmole acquired his collection from John Tradescant the Elder and his son, who were interested in gathering together rare and wonderous things from near and far in order to gain knowledge from them. The world in which the Tradescants and their associates were interested, Jim explained, was the world of medieval travel tales, and the medieval therefore had a large role to play in the formation of these early collections. The “medievalness” of the creation of knowledge from the gathering together of strangeness, and the documentation of this collecting, can be seen not only in Jim’s examples of the inventories of the Valois kings, who produced huge and highly detailed catalogues of their collections, but also in cathedral inventories that document the relics, offerings, and even sometimes natural curiosities that they possessed. As vast works of looking carefully and recording what is seen, Jim likened these prolific medieval inventories to the Ashmolean’s own digital archive, which currently makes over 200000 object records accessible online.
As the museum is often viewed as a strictly modern phenomenon, the Middle Ages are generally excluded from discussions of its development and practices. What Jim’s fantastic lecture drove home was that the wonder, loss, and strangeness found in both the medieval and the museum forge a connection between them: the museum can be medieval, and the medieval can be museal. Jim’s example of the Nuremberg Chronicle perfectly illustrates this connection in that it brings together the ancient and the current, the factual and the mythical, in a way that mirrors the museum’s ability to bring together different times and places in a single location. The Nuremberg Chronicle, as a product of the Middle Ages, and the museum are both what Michel Foucault would call “heterotopic,” in that they are capable of juxtaposing, “several sites that appear incompatible within a single space.” As Jim said, “the medieval mind is encompassing, and in itself a museum.”
Jim’s OMS Lecture is a must-see for medievalists and museologists alike. Though the Middle Ages may seem like another world, Jim underscored that the “middle age” between the past and the future is, in fact, now. There is perhaps nothing quite like a global pandemic to highlight just how much is shared between the medieval and the present. As we emerge from the third lockdown and museums reopen, this summer will hopefully allow us to visit the Ashmolean to encounter the wonder, loss, and strangeness of the medieval held therein.
Watch it here:
Greenblatt, Stephen. “Resonance and Wonder.” In Exhibiting Cultures, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Levine, 42–56. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
Bennett, Tony. The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics. Abingdon: Routledge, 1995.
Foucault, Michel. “Different Spaces.” In Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology: Volume Two, edited by James D. Faubion, translated by Robert Hurley, 178–185. New York: The New Press, 1998.
About the author
Olivia Elliott Smith is a DPhil Candidate at Linacre College and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow. Her research focusses on developing museological and heritage studies approaches to Old Norse literature. She has a background in museology and has worked for the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The Public Affairs Directorate (PAD) would like to hear from research staff who would be interested in writing a blog for publication with the University Bulletin. This is a fabulous opportunity for research staff to give insight into their area from their perspective.
Those interested in writing a blog should contact Rakiya Farah, PAD. Rakiya will need a one-line description of the subject of the proposed blog and an indicative time line that would work for the researcher.
About the blog: We send out a weekly blog with University Bulletin, usually written by a senior member of staff. Several hundred staff read it every week and we are now keen to ensure that our colleagues hear from a broader range of staff at Oxford.
We’d particularly like to profile more Early Career Researchers in the blog to give more visibility to their work, and because research stories are consistently among the most popular articles we share in the Bulletin.
With this in mind, we would like to invite you to write one of our blogs. This would be a platform to describe your work to a (predominantly) uninitiated audience, to reflect on your experiences as a researcher, your motivations, and to share your perspective on research at Oxford.
The brief: • Informal, personal style and tone • A reflective piece that gives staff some insight into your area – we tend not to use the blog as a place for formal announcements • Content: a guiding question, when writing your blog, might be good to think about what staff across the University would find most interesting about your work and experiences • Around 250 words, but can be longer – they can be up to 450 • Deadline: end of Thursday preceding the Monday edition – unless you are drafting a blog not for inclusion on a set date • We are finding that staff are really responding to this style and have been asking to hear from a wider range of staff.
Timing: We would welcome a blog that you draft at your leisure, which we can slot in as appropriate. But if you had a particular week in mind, we could also pencil this in provisionally. All of our blogs are subject to final approval by the Vice-Chancellor.
Meeting 7-8:30pm on Thursdays of even weeks of term. Session 1: Thursday 6th May, Week 2 Session 2: Thursday 20th May, Week 4. Session 3: Thursday 3rd June, Week 6. Session 4: Thursday 17th June, Week 8. We are an informal group who come together to discuss secondary readings about a variety of themes related to medieval trade across the globe. In previous meetings we have discussed readings covering topics such as Muslim merchant communities in China, Eastern Mediterranean slavery, and network theory approaches. Each session, a group member will present for 5-10 minutes on a pre-suggested reading followed by a large group discussion. Suggested reading in preparation for each session is sent out at least a week before the group meeting. Anyone interested in any element of medieval trade and its study are welcome to join. To be added to the team and have access to the materials and meetings please email Annabel Hancock at firstname.lastname@example.org
Medieval Latin Reading Group Mondays, 13:00–14:00, Microsoft Teams Improve your Latin, learn palaeographical skills, and engage first-hand with medieval texts by reading reproductions of manuscripts together. We will learn to read and translate directly from medieval books, moving in a roughly chronological sequence during the year. All welcome; meetings will take place weekly during term. Submit your email address (https://web.maillist.ox.ac.uk/ox/subscribe/medieval-latin-ms-reading) to receive notices. Organisers: Jacob Currie; Andrew Dunning; Matthew Holford.
Fridays of even weeks, 11am–noon, Microsoft Teams Convenors: Lena Vosding, Lewis Webb, Godelinde Perk
Nervous about an upcoming presentation? Struggling to improve your article’s argument or structure? In need of constructive peer feedback on a book chapter, or simply encouragement? Join our friendly, interdisciplinary group of early career pre-modernists, offering an informal, supportive environment for helping each other revise, refine, and finally complete that work in progress. The group convenes in weeks 2, 4, 6, and 8 on Teams to discuss a work in progress. The format for these one-hour sessions alternates between a presentation to the entire group (for conference contributions) and a discussion of a pre-circulated written text. WIP contributors are expected to provide a cover letter outlining the desired areas for improvement to facilitate discussion. The final twenty minutes of each meeting are dedicated to discussing more general topics related to writing, editing and publishing. All ECR pre-modernists from any Faculty are welcome. We particularly invite WIPs with an interdisciplinary and/or gender focus. You are also very welcome to participate without contributing a paper. If interested, please submit an abstract (up to 300 words) of your WIP, accompanied by a short biography to email@example.com by Friday 30 April to be added to the PMC Teams channel and receive updates on the programme as well as meeting invitations. First meeting: week 2, Friday 7 May, 11am–noon, Teams.
Anglo-Norman Reading Group
The Anglo-Norman Reading Group will continue to meet on Zoom during Trinity Term on Fridays of ODD weeks (30 April, 14, 28 May, and 11 June) from 5-6:30pm. We will be reading the Anglo-Norman Fabliaux. Please contact Jane Bliss (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Stephanie Hathaway (email@example.com).
Oxford University Numismatic Society All talks will be held online over MS Teams at 5pm GMT. Links will be distributed beforehand by means of the OUNS mailing list: to subscribe and receive meeting links and further updates, please email the Secretary at firstname.lastname@example.org.
4th May (Week 2) at 5pm: Dr. John Talbot (University of Oxford): “Icenian and Durotrigan Coinage – Using A Study of Coinage to Learn about Late Iron Age Society” 18th May (Week 4) at 5pm: Prof. Fleur Kemmers (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt): “Making Money in Republican Rome: A Numismatic Perspective on Rome’s Expansion”. 1st June (Week 6) at 5pm: Dr. Maria Vrij (The Barber Institute of Fine Arts / University of Birmingham): “‘How Do You Solve A Problem Like Mezezios?’ – Understanding and Unpicking the Imagery of the Emperors Mezezios (668-669) and Constantine IV (668-685)”. 15th June (Week 8) at 5pm: Dr. Julien Olivier (Bibliothèque nationale de France): TBC.
Germanic Reading Group
This term we’re planning four meetings of the Germanic Reading Group, loosely connected by the theme of alliterative verse. The sessions will take place on Mondays from 4:00 to 5:00 pm by Zoom, as follows: Monday, 26 April (1st week). Old English, led by Rafael Pascual Monday, 10 May (3rd week). Old High German, led by Howard Jones Monday, 24 May (5th week). Old Norse, led by Eugenia Vorobeva Monday, 7 June (7th week). Old Saxon, led by Nelson Goering We’ll go through a short text, translating and discussing points of linguistic interest, under the guidance of the leader of each session. To be added to the list, contact howard.Jones@sbs.ox.ac.uk
When it comes to pilgrimage, the journey is most definitely the destination. This becomes very clear when looking at literary descriptions of religious travel: in the report of his three-year-long journey, Arnold von Harff describes his travels around Europe, Palestine and the Ottoman Empire between 1496 and 1499. The book features detailed descriptions of the culture, the people and the places he has visited, glossaries and alphabets of several different languages, drawings, and even an overview of the distance between each destination. In the end, Arnold gives a most crucial piece of advice to anyone who might want to follow in his footsteps: to take care of one’s belongings so they don’t get stolen on the way.
Arnold’s report reads like an adventure, suggesting that he strove for acclaim from his readership. Yet, the religious motivation for his travels can seem to fade into the background. So why not take a look at a different pilgrim whose journey was all about connecting with God, like Dorothea von Montau (1347-1394)? As a modest and pious woman, she did not have much in common with the self-consciously masculine aristocratic Arnold – except for the fact that her pilgrimages, too, have been written about: her life as a mystic and recluse is described in her biography, which includes several accounts of religious travel. In terms of perspective, aim and context, the writings about her life differ from Arnold’s travel report in every possible way.
The differences actually begin with the texts’ purposes: while Arnold describes the things he has – allegedly – seen with his own eyes during his travels, the vernacular biography, written by Dorothea’s confessor Johannes Marienwerder was intended to enhance her popularity among the local Teutonic Order community during her canonisation process, which was initiated shortly after her death in 1394. Although it claims to be based on Dorothea’s own accounts about her life which she shared with her confessor during her last years, one has to keep in mind that the text presents a literary construct of Dorothea’s life and of Dorothea herself, in the way a male theologian imagined an ideal pious woman.
Still, we can have something of a look at the female perspective on pilgrimage – as we’ve mentioned already, Dorothea was on the road quite a lot. Amongst other destinations, she travelled to Aachen, Rome and the Swiss Einsiedeln. A pilgrimage does not simply end at its main site though, and the way back might be just as difficult and testing. The distant third-person narrator describes Dorothea’s way back home from her pilgrimage to Einsiedeln as a very straining journey. She travels with both her senile husband and their young daughter. And just like a modern-day mum on vacation, she is the one holding it all together.
While her journey is surely an adventure, it is very different from Arnold’s. Besides the challenging conditions of the journey (which are best described by the words God himself uses in the text: wassir, kot und sne [water, faeces and snow]), Dorothea’s biggest struggle is looking after her family. She is the one who carries her husband’s luggage throughout their journey and who washes her family’s clothing at night, while also protecting their belongings from theft, since her husband is too frail to do that. Her hardships are underlined by the narrator’s frequent usage of the word field ‘suffering’ and the strong emphasis on Dorothea’s loneliness and tiredness throughout this episode:
des nachtis […] slief der man herte von mudikeit, und dy muste wachen, das sy icht vorlorn das ire und beschediget worden libes und gutes, alleyne sy ouch wol hette ru und slofes bedorft
at night her husband slept deeply because of his fatigue and she had to keep watch for them to not lose their possessions and to not be physically harmed, but she would have needed rest and sleep as well
Only God helps and protects her and raises her up when needed. This very strong connection between Dorothea and God is another difference from Arnold’s reports: while Arnold only asks God for his help during his travels, we actually see God’s help in action in Dorothea’s case. She considers him a spiritual groom, which draws a sharp contrast to her real-life husband, who is only adding to her distress. Ultimately, the way she bears her misery with the help of her steadfast trust in God is what actually makes her worthy to be a saint – the main point the biography intends to prove to the reader.
Dorothea’s central role as a strong woman among incapable men promotes an interesting gender dynamic. Transgressing the stereotypes of female passivity, she takes on the role of family protector – even saving her family’s life single-handedly. At one point during the journey, they have to cross a frozen lake and manage to travel with a horse-drawn sleigh. All of a sudden, a slight cracking noise indicates a catastrophe: the ice starts to break under the weight and the carriage falls through. Whilst the sleigh driver, his companion and her husband are startled and remain passive, Dorothea acts like a true hero. The narrator describes how she quickly grabs their luggage with one hand and her daughter with the other and jumps off the sleigh. Because her husband is – once again – unable to act in this situation of great danger, Dorothea has to come to his rescue. She grabs him by his feet and pulls him out of the water. This time, it is her daughter who points out divine intervention behind these events: she insists that it was in fact the Blessed Virgin Mary who saved her (because how else would you explain a woman so strong and resilient?).
Having heard about Dorothea’s journey, the travels of Arnold von Harff sound more like an adventurous holiday and what is more, he was clever enough to travel without dependents. Apart from the topic of pilgrimage, they do not seem to have much in common. However, the accounts share one major similarity: they are written to inspire. Dorothea’s endurance and faith are exemplary for anyone who wants to lead a godlier life. As for Arnold, his report can serve as a guidance for those who want to undertake a similar journey – or as an inspiration for those who want to imagine one – or even, maybe, for those who just want to pretend they did. After all, travelling, just like writing, is just a matter of perspective.
Toeppen, Max (Ed.): Das Leben der heiligen Dorothea von Johannes Marienwerder. Scriptores rerum Prussicarum. (Die Geschichtsquellen der preußischen Vorzeit). Vol. 2. Leipzig 1863, pp. 179–374.
Translation into English: Stargardt, Ute. The Life of Dorothea Von Montau, a Fourteenth-Century Recluse. Mellen, 1997.
Josephine Bewerunge and Marlene Schilling are both reading for the MSt in Modern Languages (German) at the University of Oxford in the academic year 2020/21. This blogpost is based on their joint presentation for the Medieval German Graduate Seminar in Hilary Term 2021.
This post serves as a dual introduction, both to Arnold von Harff and to late-medieval pilgrimage writing more broadly. The latter goal in particular is, admittedly, rather brave.
Who was Arnold von Harff?
This is a question which Harff wants his audience to answer in a particular way. As he never tires of reminding us, he was a knight from an aristocratic family. To be more specific, he was the middle son of a nobleman, Adam von Harff. He was born around 1471 at the family seat of Schloss Harff in Bedburg, a castle which was demolished in 1972 for the sake of opencast brown coal mining, along with the whole associated settlement (to see full-size versions of any images, click through twice).
As you can see, pretty much nothing survived, but the Crucifixion group which had been in the churchyard since 1531 was moved to the new settlement and affixed to the modern church wall. It bears some striking similarities to the Crucifixion image transmitted with Harff’s Reisebericht, the earliest version of which is roughly thirty years older than the group (though note that this version of the image, as transmitted in MS Bodl. 972, post-dates the statues by about twenty years).
Harff set out from Cologne at the age of twenty-five on a rather ambitious programme of pilgrimage: he apparently planned as highlights Rome, Sinai, Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela, St Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg, and Wilsnack. He did reach the first four of these destinations. He also, apparently, made it to many further-flung locations, some of them evidently only by travelling on the page. As previous generations of scholars have observed, a fair amount is clearly carried over from other sources including, but not limited to, Marco Polo, Odoric of Pordenone, Ptolemy’s Geography, and – perhaps most significantly – John Mandeville’s Book, also known as Mandeville’s Travels. In any case, Harff didn’t make it to Wilsnack or Ireland. He returned home in 1499. In 1504, he married Margarethe von dem Bongart and followed his uncle in the post of hereditary chamberlain at the court of Guelders. His story has a rather sad ending: he died only a year later, in 1505, leaving his wife pregnant. Their daughter died too, in early childhood, and was buried with him. But his writing has survived, and was fairly popular amongst members of his own social class in the Rhineland and Westphalia. It continued to be circulated in manuscript into the seventeenth century, though it was not printed until 1860. It was then edited by Eberhard von Groote, using three manuscripts in the Harff family archives, including one that, while unlikely to be an autograph, dates from shortly after Harff’s journey.
What is late-medieval pilgrimage writing?
So let’s now turn to the Reisebericht’s literary context. The first thing to do here is to separate the practice of actually going on a journey from the accounts of travel that we find on the page, even if they are written by people who really have travelled. It’s a constant refrain today that the lives people recount on social media are not identical with the lives they’re actually living: social media offers us the curated version, often carefully groomed to leave certain details out or to foreground others. It’s – usually – a version of reality, based, at least to an extent, in what has actually happened, but it doesn’t quite overlap. I don’t simply mean this in the sense that recounting exactly what happened at every moment of every day would be both tedious and impossible, or even particularly that people’s memories are flawed and subjective, though of course that’s true. It’s the gap between the picture of a historic landmark apparently on its own, while in reality, locals waited impatiently behind the photographer, who was carefully adjusting the angle to avoid the crane behind it and the modern building in front of it. A fifteenth-century pilgrimage on the page and a fifteenth-century pilgrimage as it really happened are deliberately and consciously different, and when we read pilgrimage writing, we’re looking at journeys on the page. Despite the huge range of texts which come under the heading of ‘pilgrimage writing’, and the scope for variation beyond descriptions of the pilgrimage site themselves, there are conventions which, certainly by the time Arnold von Harff was travelling and writing, are quite rigid when it comes to recounting visits to the Holy Places in Jerusalem.
So let’s focus in on Jerusalem. One of the key factors behind this conformity was the Franciscan Order, who had been granted the Custody of the Holy Land in 1342 by Pope Clement VI. The pilgrimage programme the Franciscans developed endured with little variation for two centuries. The sites to be visited, the liturgy at each, the order in which they were seen, the route between them, and the terms in which they were described, were shared by late-medieval western pilgrims making the Jerusalem pilgrimage (though parts of the route could be taken in reverse). But the Franciscans weren’t content for their programme to remain in Jerusalem. Pilgrims brought it back with them in their accounts, and the pilgrimage was so formalised that pilgrim authors frequently copied one another’s words, and the advent of print in the second half of the fifteenth century really speeded up this process.
Although Harff’s account wasn’t itself printed, he made use of printed accounts in his writing process, including the Peregrinatio in terram sanctam of one of the Big Names of German pilgrimage writing: Bernhard von Breydenbach. We can see traces of this rather mammoth work in text and image in Harff’s account. His section on Greek Christians is a key example, and several alphabets are also lifted from Breydenbach. Nonetheless, most of the images transmitted with Harff’s Reisebericht cannot be traced to Breydenbach.
Another crucial source for Harff (and for many others), and almost certainly another printed one, is John Mandeville’s Book. This is purportedly the first-person description of an English knight’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land and his further travels in the East. It appeared in French in the second half of the fourteenth century, was transmitted widely in manuscript, and rapidly translated into various vernaculars including, by 1415, two separate German translations, those of Otto von Diemeringen and Michael Velser. Both were printed in 1480. Mandeville’s depiction of the Holy Land was enormously influential – despite the fact that it was also long out of date by the time of its first appearance, being largely dependent on crusader-era sources, and without reference to the Franciscan pilgrimage.
The point was not – usually – to use Mandeville as a source for information about the reality of fifteenth-century Jerusalem, since, as we’ve seen, this wasn’t the point of pilgrimage writing in general. Mandeville’s version of Jerusalem was already multi-era and multi-source, so mingling it with later pilgrim experiences means that the late-medieval Jerusalem-on-the-page becomes what Anthony Bale calls ‘the perfect simulacrum, a copy whose original had long since vanished, if it had ever existed’. So while there’s of course a certain overlap between Jerusalem-on-the-page and Jerusalem-in-the-world, the former was what pilgrims were aiming to describe when they copied from or drew on Mandeville’s description of Jerusalem, whether they did it with Mandeville as their direct source or whether they were copying other pilgrims who had themselves drawn on Mandeville. Bale coins the term ‘meme Jerusalem’ to describe this phenomenon.
But outside the ‘meme Jerusalem’ and beyond the Holy Land? Well, I started out by saying that it was rather brave to attempt an introduction to late-medieval pilgrimage writing, and that’s because it’s quite … elastic as a category. As Harff’s Reisebericht shows us, there was scope for pretty much whatever you wanted to include when you sat down to write about your pilgrimage. And while Harff might start his account by describing himself as ‘ritter geboren’ [knight by birth], he finishes it by asking his audience to pray for the pylgrym, weech wijser, ind dichter [pilgrim, guide, and author]. Just as he can be many things at once, so can his Reisebericht – and so can anyone else’s.
Everyone is welcome at this informal and friendly graduate seminar. This Trinity Term, as always, MCC will feature presentations from the 2020-21 Medieval Studies MSt cohort on their upcoming dissertations.
Week 2 (4 May): Pilar Bertuzzi Rivett (Lincoln): Ten Names, One God: Exploring Christian-Kabbalistic affinity in a Christian hymn of the twelfth century Samuel Heywood (St Peter’s): The Finnish Product: translation and transmission of Luther’s hymns in Finland and Sweden
Week 3 (11 May): Jennifer Coulton (Wolfson): Tongue-tied and Legal Loopholes: binding motifs in Early Medieval England Florence Eccleston (Jesus): The Emotional and Embodied Experience of the Seven Deadly Sins, c.1350-c.1500
Week 4 (18 May): James Tomlinson (Magdalen): The Relationship between Music and Architecture in Late Medieval Creativity: structure, allegory, and memory Irina Boeru (Wadham): At the frontier of the known world: cartographic and heraldic encounters inLibro del Conosçimiento de todos los Rregons et Tierras et Señorios que son por el mundo, et de las señales et armas que han
Week 5 (25 May): Arielle Jasiewicz-Gill (Oriel): Lay Devotion and Performative Identity in the Fifteenth Century Florence Swan (Wolfson): The devel of helle sette his foot therin! A literary historical analysis of the cook in late medieval England
Week 6 (1 June): Thomas Henderson(Linacre): Twelfth-Century Mathematical Thinking: an anonymous fractions treatise, Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. F.1.9
About the seminar: Founded in 1970/1, the London Society for Medieval Studies seeks to foster knowledge of, and dialogue about, the Middle Ages (c.500–c.1500 CE) among both scholars and the wider public in London. Organised by postgraduates and early career academics, our fortnightly seminars showcase the latest advances in all areas of medieval studies, including history, art, politics, economics, literature and archaeology. All are welcome.