Poems for the Women of Beowulf: A Creative-Critical Project

Dr Laura Varnam, University College, Oxford

Hwæt

Indeed.

We have heard of the Danes.

We never stop hearing about them.

Those death-and-glory Danes.

Them, their demons, and their glory-

days. Me, I’d prefer a little variation.

If you’d like to,

listen–

this is our sisters’ side of the story.

This is the opening poem in the collection that I’m currently working on, inspired by the women of the Old English epic Beowulf. It deliberately subverts and upends the original poem’s call to attention and lays the foundation for my own feminist re-imagining of the world of Beowulf. How you deal with Beowulf’s opening hwæt is a litmus test for a poet or translator and it sets the tone for what’s to follow; think of Tolkien’s grand ‘lo’, Seamus Heaney’s dignified ‘so’, and Maria Dahvana Headley’s unapologetic ‘bro’. My ‘indeed’ raises an eyebrow at the original poem’s confidence that of course we’ve heard of the Spear-Danes, of the glory of the kings of that people. In Old English hwæt can means both ‘what’ and ‘why’ and in this poem I want to draw the reader’s attention to the masculine heroism that we never cease hearing about in order to question what other stories might be hiding between the lines. My project asks, what might happen if we imagined a female poet or scop reciting Beowulf? How might the poem’s monsters and queens appear through her eyes? And if we unlock this new wordhoard, how might a change of perspective enable and encourage more new voices and stories to emerge?

            This project, as I’ve discussed in detail in my 2022 article in postmedieval, arose directly from my teaching (‘Poems for the Women of Beowulf: A “Contemporary” Medieval Project’, postmedieval 13, 105-21). Beowulf is a poem that over the last seventeen years has taken root in my mental landscape and returning to it, year on year with new groups of students, has only increased my fascination with the ways in which the poem is able to speak to our present moment– and for our present moment to speak back. And for women’s writing and rewriting, the question of speech is all important. It is striking that only one woman in Beowulf speaks, Queen Wealhtheow, and when she does so, no one answers her. The Old English Maxims declares that ‘gleawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan’ [wise men must exchange songs or tales] but what about wise women? How can they speak when they have been silenced by the original text?

            The feminist poet and critic Adrienne Rich famously asserted in her essay ‘When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision’ (1972) that for women:

            Re-vision– the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text          from a new critical direction– is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an   act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we    cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a           search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-          dominated society.

Rich’s ‘act of survival’ is a driving force of my collection, especially when it comes to Grendel’s Mother, the so-called ‘monster’ at the centre of the poem, whose gender, ferocity, and very existence poses a threat to the patriarchal society represented by King Hrothgar and his hall. In my poems I give Grendel’s Mother a voice, both to ‘answer back’ to the poets and translators who deal with her troubling presence by silencing and misrepresenting her, and to give her an afterlife outside of the original text– to give her the gift of survival.

            A selection of my Grendel’s Mother poems will be published by Nine Arches Press in August 2024 in Primers Volume Seven (https://ninearchespress.com/primers) and this poem gives a flavour of the voice and approach:

Grendel’s Mother addresses the Author

For all your bluster, warrior-poet,

Your puffed-up preening,

Your sword-swagger and shield-shuffling,

You still won’t look at me.

Petrifying people? That’s not my style.

It’s not my stare that needles your braggadocio.

Any road, you started it.

Edging me out, making me your mearcstapa,

your boundary-stalker, border-controller.

I never wanted to shoulder those lines.

You kettle me into the corners of your compounds,

Tuck me into the bottom drawer of your wordhoard,

Shushed and smothered by your fabrications.

Water-witch, she-wolf of the deep, troll-dam?

Give over. Don’t be so nesh.   

This poem was inspired by the moment when the Beowulf-poet introduces Grendel’s Mother into the narrative but can’t quite keep his eyes on her (lines 1265-76). His narrative focus is drawn back to Grendel, to the relative safety of the comprehensible male monster, as though giving Grendel’s Mother too much attention might be to draw a dangerous, Medusa-like, gaze. In my poem, Grendel’s Mother uses the northern dialect of my foremothers (‘nesh’ being a dialect word for feeble or wimpy) and she calls out the ways in which her presentation by translators, too, has caused her to ‘shoulder’ the burden of men’s anxieties about female power. It’s striking that in Tolkien’s field-changing 1936 lecture and essay ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ that for all his insistence that the monsters are at the imaginative heart of the poem, he only focuses on Grendel and the dragon. Grendel’s Mother only merits a brief footnote.

            In Transforming Memories in Contemporary Women’s Rewriting (2011), Liedeke Plate comments that ‘in women’s rewriting, distrust, disbelief, anger, and a desire to set things right converge to give shape to a reader’s response in the productive reception of literature’ (p.42). This ‘re-righting’ impulse has particularly shaped my poems on grief and mourning when it comes to Grendel’s Mother. In Beowulf itself, ritual mourning is a fundamental part of the poetic economy; indeed, Gale Owen-Crocker famously argued that the structure of the poem revolves around funerals, beginning with Scyld Scefing and concluding with Beowulf’s own funeral pyre (The Four Funerals in Beowulf, 2000). But Grendel’s Mother is accorded no such commemorative rituals in the poem nor is she given the space to mourn her only son, outside of her violent revenge. And yet there are hints that the Beowulf-poet, and even Beowulf himself, recognises the legitimacy of maternal grief, despite the fact that it causes Grendel’s Mother kill Aeschere, Hrothgar’s counsellor. When he returns to the Geatish kingdom and relives his adventures for King Hygelac, Beowulf admits that she travelled on her ‘sorhfull’ (grief-filled) journey in pursuit of ‘gyrnwræc’ (revenge for injury, 2118-19). In my poetry collection, I have a number of poems which perform the work of mourning for Grendel’s Mother: poems where she laments the loss of her son; an elegy for the loss of Grendel’s Mother herself in the voice of Queen Wealhtheow; and a poem which constructs a textual burial for her.

            In this poem, entitled ‘Grave for an Uncuð Woman’, I use both the content and form of the poem to create a resting place for Grendel’s Mother. In Old English ‘uncuð’ means both strange and unknown, and in the poem I play with the paradox that by burying her, we both honour her memory and, paradoxically, pin her down to a safe location. While the monsters in Beowulf are left unceremoniously for dead– the decapitated Grendel with his mother on the floor of the mere, the dragon pushed off the cliff as Beowulf’s own funeral pyre is erected– there is an imaginative freedom in their refusal to be bound by human rituals of mourning.

Grave for an Uncuð Woman

In this poem, I construct a burial for Grendel’s Mother that reflects, and aims to compensate for, her marginalised status in the original poem. The fox-tail and cowrie-shell are symbols of maternal ferocity and fecundity; the seax or dagger is her weapon of choice in her mere. The goose-flute offers her the voice she was denied and the shoes dignify the joyless journey she makes into death, mirroring her grief-fuelled approach to Heorot.

            In the opening poem in my collection, I invite the reader to ‘listen’ to my alternative version of Beowulf, ‘if you’d like to.’ In these poems, and in the collection as a whole, I aim to open up a space for different voices to be heard and new perspectives to uncovered in a manner that is welcoming and hospitable to new readers too. Beowulf’s opening hwæt is as insistent as ever when it calls for our attention but perhaps in returning our gaze we might look afresh and askance at the stories it discloses. In a piece of creative non-fiction in Annie Journal last year, combining poetry and prose, I even went so far as to translate hwæt as ‘welcome’ (https://www.anniejournal.com/g%C3%A6sthus-with-beowolf-laura-varnam). I hope that by shaping new approaches to Beowulf, in the content and form of my poetry and creative-critical reflections, that readers will be similarly inspired to welcome the poem anew into their own imaginative landscapes… and see where it might lead them.

Dr Laura Varnam is the Lecturer in Old and Middle English Literature at University College, Oxford. She is the author of The Church as Sacred Space in Middle English Literature and Culture (2018) and the co-editor of Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe (2021). A selection of her Grendel’s Mother poems are forthcoming in Primers Volume Seven (Nine Arches Press, August 2024). You can find out more about her work on her website: https://drlauravarnam.wordpress.com/ Or on twitter/X: https://twitter.com/lauravarnam

Scales of Governance: Local Agency and Political Authority in Eurasia, 1000-1500

Worcester College, Oxford – 12th and 13th January 2024

by Annabel Hancock, Bee Jones, James Cogbill, and Susannah Bain

This workshop grew out of a discussion group the four of us started in Michaelmas term 2022 on ‘Governability across the Medieval Globe’. By ‘governability’ we meant why and how certain people and societies were more or less easily governed, although we had several big discussions about the usefulness of the term. Our conversations kept coming back to the utility of thinking from localities when trying to conceptualise how governance functioned in the central and later Middle Ages, and to how both medieval governance and our analysis of it had to operate across large differences in scale – from local officials and forms to (often unsubstantiated) claims of regional or even universal hegemony.

These questions relate to a great deal of cutting-edge work in medieval history, particularly in terms of new ‘global’ approaches and how we read sources to get at political culture. As a result, we decided to organise a workshop to bring together scholars pushing our understanding forward to assess where we are as a field and where we are going.

We were very fortunate to be offered funding from the Past & Present Society, the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, and the Oxford Medieval Studies Network. This funding allowed us to bring a fantastic set of speakers and respondents to Oxford, including a mix of established, early-career, and doctoral scholars. We wanted to centre discussion and use our eight papers and four responses to stimulate broader conversations on governance in this period. The papers were pre-circulated and speakers summarised their thoughts on the day, which afforded us more time for discussion. Our contributions covered Iberia, France, Germany, China, Egypt, Byzantium, Italy, and north Africa from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, which provided some range in our coverage even though we could not possibly do justice to the entirety of Eurasia across five centuries.

The workshop went absolutely brilliantly: we were delighted with the papers and responses, and we thought that the discussion was stimulating, wide-ranging, and very fruitful. Although not without important questions and possible issues, ‘scales of governance’ emerged as a useful conceptual lens to cut across ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ models of political organisation, drawing attention to sets of local and bureaucratic knowledges and highlighting the critical importance of varied social relationships to governance, both within a given locality and as an imposition upon it by rulers and/or bureaucracies. Governance was also closely related to the socialisation of elite men into certain kinds of authoritative masculinity, and to gendered social relationships between individuals and families. These dynamics are more difficult to access in most of the sources available to us for this period, but they enrich our understanding of how people and communities were actually governed.

Many of the papers highlighted the roles of different kinds of intermediaries situated between their communities and regional rulers. These figures, mediating and translating between knowledges at different scales, in many cases actually did most of the governing in a given locality. In some cases, local players seem to have been torn between evading oversight and control by rulers or larger political units on the one hand, and maintaining and strengthening their own power and position in their community on the other, including in some cases by steepening local hierarchies in their own favour. Recognising this led us to a discussion of how important it is to consider how formal or informal governance in a particular locality was, and hence the importance of processes of ‘formalisation’ of power through bureaucracies, regulations, and the imposition of officials.

Through the papers and discussions, we gained glimpses of medieval people of all social strata operating across different scales to get things done, such as Arabic-speakers leveraging their expertise in privileged documentary practices in twelfth-century Toledo or non-noble property-owners in thirteenth-century Carcassonne appropriating the language and frameworks of royal justice and official historical memory. Medieval people were in many cases capable of appropriating the language of their rulers and the procedures of governing institutions, and were not afraid to buy into the claims of rulers where it suited their own purposes, even while avoiding control from above in other ways.

We would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to the funders of the workshop, as well as to all the speakers, respondents, and other participants.

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/

St John’s Digitization Project

(By Sophie Bacchus-Waterman, Special Collections Photographer, St John’s College)

As Special Collections Photographer for the Digitization Project at St John’s College, I photograph the manuscripts and early printed books from our Special Collections. Given that we have over 20,000 early printed books and over 300 manuscripts, and it would be impossible for one person to digitize them all, we have devised a shortlist of items which will be made available online during this project. These might be manuscripts with significant cultural or historic value, interesting provenance, unique texts, or items that are regularly requested by researchers. Several items have already been made available on Digital Bodleian, and more are being added regularly.

Grazer Conservation Cradle

Books being photographed are placed onto the Grazer Conservation Cradle. The cradle is set to a 120° opening angle. If a book is not able to be opened at that angle, it is supported with foam wedges. Along the side of the cradle is a vacuum bar, on which the page being photographed is placed. Each page of the book being photographed is placed onto the vacuum bar, which, when switched on, acts like a vacuum and gently pulls the page into place. Along the vacuum bar is a ruler, which allows anyone viewing the book on Digital Bodleian to see its size. The colour swatch lets me keep the lighting and colour accurate from page to page.

Vacuum bar, ruler, and colour swatch on the cradle

Images are taken with a PhaseOne camera, which is directly parallel to the page being photographed. The camera can be moved closer or further away using a control panel on the side of the cradle. If I’m working with a smaller book, for instance, the camera might need to be closer to the cradle than if I’m working with a larger book. The cradle can also be adjusted with the control panel, and moved up or down as necessary, or left and right with a small dial. As I move through a book, the cradle might need be adjusted accordingly.

Control panel and dial for adjusting the cradle

Besides photographing the internals of our books, I also photograph the externals, using a flatbed and a wall-mounted Canon camera, in the setup seen in the photograph below.

MS 164, a 14th century French manuscript with a velvet binding, on the flatbed

The book is placed on the flatbed, and I photograph its front and back covers. It is also placed on its fore edge and spine, carefully supported with small towers of foam blocks on either side, which are covered with black cloth. I also include a ruler and colour swatch in photos of the externals, for the same reason as they are included in the internal shots.

Photographing MS 61

MS 61 was always high on our priority list for items to be digitized. A 13th century bestiary made in York, richly illuminated, MS 61 is one of the jewels of our Special Collections. If you would like to read more about it, you can see its catalogue description on Medieval Manuscripts in Oxford Libraries, encoded by my colleague, Sian Witherden.

I knew that MS 61 would initially pose challenges, due to its extensive use of gold leaf. Each illumination is backed with a thick ground of gold leaf, which reflects light when photographed. Given the amount of gold on certain folios, the light reflected in such a way that the gold looked white, an effect known as “specular highlights”, as seen in the below left photograph. In order to photograph a manuscript with extensive gold leaf, the lamps in the Photography Studio must be pointed upwards, away from the cradle. The light then bounces off the ceiling and onto the gold leaf, as seen in the below right photograph.

St John’s College, MS 61, fol. 9r

Once the issue of lighting the gold leaf was resolved, MS 61 was a dream to work with. For an 800-year-old manuscript, it was incredibly easy to handle. Written on high quality vellum, it was sturdy, its pages turned easily, and its modern binding meant that it was happy to open to the 120° angle of the cradle. As with the other books I’ve worked with so far, MS 61 was placed onto the cradle – it opened easily, and was handled with the usual care I handle the Special Collections items, but it didn’t need any extra support while out.

As I moved through the manuscript, I was struck by the incredible illuminations throughout it. Even after centuries, it is in a stunning condition, almost as if it had been made yesterday. In order to accommodate the manuscript, I moved the cradle left and right, and up and down, as needed, so that it was resting comfortably on the cradle. Above everything else, the preservation of whatever book I am working with is paramount to the project. Luckily, MS 61 didn’t require any extra support, or prove difficult at all.

The social media response to MS 61 being digitized was astounding, but also hardly surprising. MS 61 is one of the most beautiful and treasured items in our collection, and a lot of people have been excited to see it online. Not only is it a privilege to work with such stunning and rare books in my role, but knowing that the Digitization Project is facilitating research and introducing people to our collection online makes it all the more rewarding.

If you would like to see more of our collection, please visit our Digital Library, where you can read more about our collection, and see what has already been made available to view online. If you would like to read more about MS 61, take a look at this Book of the Month blog post here.

New Book: Medieval Sex Lives

(Guest blog by Elizabeth Eva Leach)

Summary

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 308 preserves and re-copies the lyrics of over 500 songs, ranging from those written in the late twelfth century, to those composed only a few years before the manuscript was copied in the early fourteenth. Its lack of both musical notation and authorial attribution make it relatively unusual among Old French songbooks. Its arrangement by genre instead invites an investigation of the relationship between a long tradition of sung courtly lyric and the real lives of the people who enjoyed it, in particular their emotional, intimate, sexual lives, something for which little direct evidence exists.

Medieval Sex Lives

Using the other main inclusion in the original plan for Douce 308, Jacques Bretel’s poetic account of a tournament, The Tournament at ChauvencyMedieval Sex Lives argues that song offered musical practices which provided fertile means of propagating and enabling various sexual scripts.

With a focus on parts of Douce 308 not yet treated in detail elsewhere, Medieval Sex Lives offers an account of the manuscript’s contents, its importance, and likely social milieu, with ample musical and poetic analysis. In the process it offers new ways of understanding Marian songs and sottes chansons, as well as arguing for a broadening of our understanding of the medieval pastourelle, both as a genre and as an imaginative prop. Ultimately, Medieval Sex Lives presents a provocative speculative hypothesis about courtly song in the early fourteenth century as a social force, focusing on its ability to model, instill, inspire, and support sexual behaviours, real and imaginary.

Three ideas in the book

  • The idea that medieval people consumed cultural products (in this case, songs) that fed and moulded their sexual imaginations;
  • The idea that an unnotated songbook might be very noisy with the sounds of sex and tournaments;
  • The idea that minority sexual practices (queer sexualities and paraphilias of various kinds) were present in the distant past.

What inspired me to write the book?

This book arose from two different but related questions. First, I wondered why the sung lyric tradition of Western Europe that is generally called “courtly” love had such a long and successful history. Second, I wanted to know why the unnotated songbook, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce had bothered to preserve and re-copy the lyrics of over 500 such songs, ranging from those written in the late twelfth century, to those composed only a few years before the manuscript was copied in the early fourteenth. The lack of musical notation, which was never planned for its songs, makes this manuscript unusual among Old French songbooks. Nonetheless, curating nearly 150 years of this long-lived tradition was clearly important to the patrons, compilers, owners, and users of this manuscript: but why?

How will this book make a difference in my field of study? In what way is my argument a controversial or one that will shake up preconceived ideas?

Overall, the book challenges the idea that medieval song has nothing (or little) to do with the real lives of its audiences. Ch2’s proposal of love songs as sexual scripts is a controversial use of sociological theory to treat medieval literature. In Ch3 it offers a new way of approaching the sotte chanson (‘silly song’) as something not merely humorous or satirical, but as a potentially serious erotic possibility. Ch4 treats The Tournament at Chauvency from the perspective of sound studies. And Ch5 offers a controversial reading of the medieval pastourelle that firstly expands the definition of the genre to include songs rarely considered as pastourelles (but collected by Douce 308 as such), and secondly makes a difficult argument about some of them as offering fantasies of sexual domination and rape that might have appealed (and been useful) to some audience members, specifically women and queer people.

Blogging Your Medieval Research

Over the past ten years, OMS has become one of the largest communities of medievalists worldwide. There is a phenomenal breadth and diversity of research taking place at Oxford, and a wide range of exciting creative practice and public engagement activities. This year at OMS, we are hoping to feature one blog post each week to highlight the range of work going on, and to draw attention to the range of work that goes on here.

This week we are starting with a blog post on blogging, and public engagement. There are tips here from Tuija Ainonen and from TORCH on how to best use the blog format as a medievalist. Particularly if you have signed up to write a blog post for us, please see below!

Reaching out with Medieval Manuscripts:

(Tuija Ainonen) 

What do you get when you put together an excited group of medieval manuscript specialists and ask them to discuss blogging and teaching with digitized manuscripts? The answer: trumpets, drapes, marginal animal appearances, fake back-drops, cries of agony, laughter and lots of good advice.

A worldwide audience (from California to New Zealand!) gathered in three online sessions that were organized as additional evening events for the International Medieval Congress (IMC) at Leeds, 6–9 July 2020. The organisers were very pleased to see that each session had well over 100 participants. Our speakers shared their experiences on using digitized medieval manuscripts for teaching, and for reaching out to various audiences via social media, mainly through blogging and tweeting. 

Blogging manuscripts with #PolonskyGerman

Tuija AinonenAndrew Dunning and Henrike Lähnemann (all of University of Oxford) opened the sessions by discussing their experiences on blogging for Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands – A Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project. The project is in the middle of a three-year collaboration between the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. Funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the project seeks to open up the medieval German manuscript collections of two world-class libraries for research and reuse. The two libraries will digitize c. 600 medieval manuscripts of Germanic origin between 2019 and 2021.

Watch to hear some thoughts on writing project based blogs on a variety of topics.

In the first session each presenter highlighted a blog post they had written. By opening up their writing processes they provided some useful tips for what to do, and what they would do differently. Even with specialized projects the aim is to write to non-specialists, so using approachable language and sentence structures is essential. As illustrative images are taken from digitized copies, it is crucial to provide readers with the manuscript shelfmark, folio reference and a link to the digital copy. It is important to follow the libraries’ attribution and guidance for terms of use that are provided in the meta-data of the images. However, the best place of the shelfmark is perhaps not on the title of the blog post. 

Teaching the digital codex 

In our second session Mary Boyle (University of Oxford), Julia Walworth (Merton College, Oxford) and Leonor Zozoya-Montes (University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria) continued the theme of manuscript outreach. Discussions considered teachable features and pedagogical approaches to teaching with digital codices. Teaching the Codex was launched at Merton College, Oxford with a colloquium in February 2016, and it has since published formidable blogs on teachable features and links to paleographical and codicological training resources.

Listen to great insights into how to approach teaching the digital codex.

Their individual and collective insights provided the listeners with lots of new ideas and thoughts. Perhaps the not-so-pretty manuscripts also deserve more time in the limelight provided by blogs. Various teachable features and manuscripts that cover multiple texts provide fertile ground for highlighting medieval manuscripts from various different viewpoints.

Blogging manuscripts for the general public

In our final session Alison Hudson (University of Central Florida) and Alison Ray (Canterbury Cathedral Archives) took us through a whirlwind of images and advice on good social media practices as they showed us examples of their twitter and blog behaviour.  

An excellent brief introduction to successful tweeting and blogging practices with medieval manuscripts

With a handy and useful group of guidelines for continuing our journey on blogging and tweeting with medieval manuscripts, one particular thought is worth repeating here. We as manuscript researchers and readers are in the best position to showcase and promote the work we do. Blogs provide us a handy way of showing ways in which medieval books are still relevant today, and how the old authors, compilers, scribes and readers of old continue to speak to current audiences.  

Tips for translating your research to a lay audience:


● The blog text should be written in an easily readable style, but do not underestimate your readership. Abstract concepts can be difficult to wrap one’s head around, so consider using analogies and word pictures to explain yourself.
● Please make sure your writing is not bogged down with complicated jargon. Provide definitions or a glossary for technical terms if you can’t avoid them. Avoid complex grammatical structures where possible.
● Express your ideas in the active voice, and phrase your sentences positively rather than negatively.
● The aims and objectives of your research should be clearly signalled so that the reader can understand the impact and uses of your work.
● Give concrete everyday examples wherever possible and clearly define your timescales.
● Put your research in context and explain which gap your research is filling. How does this study/event/podcast/conference fit into the bigger picture? Why is it needed? What will it be used for?
● Do not be afraid of using bullet points, diagrams or images to get your point across. All images should be accompanied by alt text however (a brief description of the image or diagram).
● Use the first person: Do not be afraid of writing in first person. A blog post is different from an academic article. It is important to engage your reader, and one way to do this is to craft a story. Do not be afraid of sounding immodest. For example, if you have discovered something new and exciting in the archives, tell us! “I made this discovery”. Remember, text that is essentially autobiographical but that avoids first person does not necessarily sound humble, but rather impersonal. You want your reader to connect with the people, places, and discoveries in your story.
● Personal touches: Nothing lightens up a blog post quite so much as a personal touch, such as an anecdote from your event, or a wry comment on your research aspirations. Think about including comments from other sources.

Manuscript journeys: from German lands to digital libraries

About the event

This event marks the completion of a three-year digitization project delivered by the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford and the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbuttel. The ‘Manuscripts from German-Speaking Lands’ project, funded by The Polonsky Foundation, has digitized hundreds of medieval manuscripts from collections at The Herzog August Bibliothek and the Bodleian and made these freely available online to scholars and the public.

The panel discussion will explore the journey of these manuscript collections from their origins in the religious houses of medieval Germany, their acquisition by the libraries in Wolfenbüttel and Oxford and their digitization and publication online.

 Speakers

Richard Ovenden OBE, Bodley’s Librarian

Julia Gross, Chargé d’ Affaires a.i. of the German Embassy London

Marc Polonsky, The Polonsky Foundation

Peter Burschel, Herzog August Bibliothek

Henrike Lähnemann, University of Oxford

Joanna Story, University of Leicester

Booking information

When you have booked your place, the ticketing system will send you an automated confirmation.

A link to access the online event will be sent by the morning of the event to the email address associated with your booking.

See our project website for more information about the project and to see the digitized collections.

Invitation to research staff to write a blog for the University Bulletin

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.

Examples are available online, including these from July 2020 and October 2020 respectively.

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.


A great example for a suitable blog post is this short article about anchorites by Godelinde Gertrude Perk