Saturday, 29 August 2015

'Nænne upspring ne nane geendunge'

John the Baptist (Wickhambreaux, Kent)
Augustinus se wisa us manað mid þisum wordum, and cwyð, "Besceawiað, ic bidde eow, mine gebroðra, mid gleawnysse hu wræcfull ðis andwyrde lif is; and ðeah ge ondrædað eow þæt ge hit to hrædlice forlæton. Ge lufiað þis lif, on ðam þe ge mid geswince wuniað; ðu hogast embe ðine neode; ðu yrnst, and byst geancsumod; þu erast, and sæwst, and eft gegaderast; þu grinst, and bæcst; þu wyfst, and wæda tylast, and earfoðlice wast ealra ðinra neoda getel, ægðer ge on sæ ge on lande, and scealt ealle þas foresædan ðing, and eac ðin agen lif mid earfoðnysse geendian. Leorniað nu forði, þæt ge cunnon þæt ece lif geearnian, on ðam ðe ge nan ðyssera geswinca ne ðrowiað, ac on ecnysse mid Gode rixiað."

On ðisum life we ateoriað, gif we us mid bigleofan ne ferciað; gif we ne drincað, we beoð mid þurste fornumene; gif we to lange waciað, we ateoriað; gif we lange standað, we beoð gewæhte, and þonne sittað; eft, gif we to lange sittað, us slapað ða lima. Sceawiað eac æfter ðisum, þæt nan stede nis ures lichaman: cildhad gewit to cnihthade, and cnihthad to geðungenum wæstme; se fulfremeda wæstm gebyhð to ylde, and seo yld bið mid deaðe geendod. Witodlice ne stent ure yld on nanre staþolfæstnysse, ac swa micclum swa se lichama wext swa micclum beoð his dagas gewanode. Gehwær is on urum life ateorung, and werignys, and brosnung ðæs lichaman, and ðeah-hwæðere wilnað gehwa þæt he lange lybbe. Hwæt is lange lybban buton lange swincan? Feawum mannum gelimpð on ðisum dagum, þæt he gesundfull lybbe hund-eahtatig geara, and swa hwæt swa he ofer ðam leofað, hit bið him geswinc and sarnyss, swa swa se witega cwæð, "Yfele sind ure dagas," and ðæs þe wyrsan þe we hi lufiað. Swa olæcð þes middangeard forwel menige, þæt hi nellað heora wræcfulle lif geendian. Soð lif and gesælig þæt is, þonne we arisað of deaðe, and mid Criste rixiað. On ðam life beoð gode dagas, na swa-ðeah manega dagas, ac an, se nat nænne upspring ne nane geendunge, ðam ne fyligð merigenlic dæg, forðan ðe him ne forestop se gysternlica; ac se an dæg bið ece æfre ungeendod butan ælcere nihte, butan gedreccednyssum, butan eallum geswincum þe we hwene ær on ðyssere rædinge tealdon. Þes dæg and þis lif is behaten rihtwisum cristenum, to ðam us gelæde se mildheorta Drihten, seðe leofað and rixað mid Fæder and mid Halgum Gaste a butan ende. Amen.

Augustine the wise exhorts us with these words, and says, "Consider, I pray you, my brothers, with wisdom, how wretched this present life is - and yet you are frightened that you will have to leave it too quickly! You love this life, in which you dwell with labour. You worry about your needs; you run around, and are seized with anxiety; you plough, and sow, and then gather; you grind and bake; you weave and make clothes, and with difficulty know the number of all your needs, whether on sea or on land; and all these things, and your own life too, with great hardship will end. Learn now, then, so that you may be able to earn the eternal life, in which you will suffer none of these troubles, but will reign with God in eternity."

In this life we grow faint, if we do not sustain ourselves with food. If we do not drink, we are destroyed by thirst. If we stay awake too long, we faint. If we stand up for a long time, we grow tired, and sit; then, if we sit too long, our limbs go to sleep. And consider after this, that there is no stability in our body: childhood passes to boyhood, and boyhood to full growth; full growth bows to age, and age is ended by death. Truly our age stands in no stable place, but by as much as the body grows, so much are its days lessened. Everywhere in our life are faintness and weariness, and decay of the body; and yet every one desires that he may live long. What is it to live long, except to labour long? It happens to few in these days to live in good health for eighty years, and whatever he lives more than that, it is labour and sorrow to him, as the prophet said, "Evil are our days," - and the worse is, that we love them! This world so flatters very many, that they are unwilling to end this wretched life. A true and blessed life it will be, when we arise from death and reign with Christ. In that life there will be good days - yet not many days, but one, which knows no rising nor no ending; which no tomorrow follows, because no yesterday went before; but the one day will be for ever unending, without any night, without afflictions, without all the labours which we have just been speaking of in this sermon. This day and this life are promised to righteous Christians, to whom may we be led by the merciful Lord who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Ghost ever without end. Amen.

This is the end of a sermon by Ælfric for the feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist, kept on 29 August. Read the whole thing here. Containing as it does strictures on the wickedness of women and the celebration of birthdays (!), it's not Ælfric at his most amiable; but these last two paragraphs are just beautiful writing. Cildhad gewit to cnihthade, and cnihthad to geðungenum wæstme; se fulfremeda wæstm gebyhð to ylde, and seo yld bið mid deaðe geendod. Or: On ðam life beoð gode dagas; na swa-ðeah manega dagas, ac an, se nat nænne upspring ne nane geendunge, ðam ne fyligð merigenlic dæg, forðan ðe him ne forestop se gysternlica. 'No ends or beginnings, but one equal eternity.'

Blessing for the feast of the Beheading of John the Baptist
(Benedictional of St Æthelwold, BL Additional 49598, f.104v)

Sunday, 23 August 2015

'From whom we learned all these things': Memory, Canterbury, and the Saints of 24 August

Let me tell you a story. This is an incident which occurred on this day some 950 years ago, during the night of 23-24 August, in a year some time between 1060-1065. The setting is the cathedral church at Canterbury, and our eyewitness is a little boy, who was singing in the choir alongside other boys and the adult monks.

A young girl came to the city of Canterbury, a maiden devoted to God by the grace of prayer. From her birth this poor girl had never seen the light of this world, but she was always seeking eagerly after the light of eternity.

It happened that the feast was being celebrated of St Bartholomew the Apostle and of St Audoen, the confessor of Christ, both of whose relics, along with those of many other saints, lie within the church of the Saviour at Canterbury. The girl asked the custodians of the church if she might have permission to keep vigil that night, which they readily granted her because of her devout way of life. She placed herself in the church near to the tomb of the blessed father Dunstan, and all night she kept vigil and prayed.

We were beginning the Night Office, singing the eighth response 'Let your loins be girded and your lamps be kept burning', joining our tuneful voices in harmony, when this little girl of God began to feel her eyes itching terribly. She rubbed her eyes very fiercely with her fingers, and blood poured from them, flowing from her head down onto her garments. She whispered to those standing nearby, "Give me a bowl, so the blood doesn't stain this holy ground!" When they had done so, she washed her eyes in the water they had brought. All this time we boys were staring at her, signalling to each other in excitement, for we guessed - as proved to be the case - that our good father Dunstan had performed a great miracle for her.

We had sung about the girding of loins, and the burning of lamps; that song had come to an end, and we sang our praises to the glory of the Holy Trinity. And behold, she who had 'girded her loins' in devotion was able to see the 'lights burning' in the church to the glory of God, rejoicing in her heart. She marvelled at everything she saw. She was shown many things: golden objects, crosses, the keys of the church, and at everything she laughed in joy and wonder. She stared around at the people in great amazement. All in the church who saw this wept, and sang to the praise of God with joyous hearts and melodious voices.

At dawn the next day, we boys went to our masters, due to be whipped for the infractions we had committed. But behold, that good man Godric [dean of the cathedral] intervened, saying to the masters, "You stupid men! You are vomiting your cruelty upon these innocent boys, when our sweet father Dunstan has demonstrated his tender kindness to us sinners. Get out of here! You see this miraculous sign being celebrated which our Saviour has performed for the girl born blind - and yet you dare to be so cruel? Get out of here!" So we escaped their cruel hands, and went into the church. Our blessed father's bell was ringing, the one it is said he made with his own hands - a sound than which nothing is sweeter, nor more able to move men's hearts to tears. All the people in the city were flocking together, to see with their eyes the truth of the story they had heard. With lifted voices and with tears we began together to praise our Lord God, who through his blessed servant Dunstan is pleased to bless our own days with great joy. There was a huge crowd of people standing in the church, and you could not see one among them who did not weep for gladness in all sweetness and devotion at the miracle.

This is a free paraphrase of a story (which you can read in Latin here) told in a Life of St Dunstan, written in Canterbury some thirty years after this miracle took place. The author of the Life was our little eyewitness choirboy, whose name was Osbern. At the time of this miracle, on the eve of the Norman Conquest, Osbern was a child oblate being educated in the monastery of Christ Church, aged perhaps ten or twelve years old. He grew up to be a monk of Canterbury, precentor of the monastery and a talented musician, best known for writing works on two of Canterbury's chief Anglo-Saxon saints, Dunstan and Alphege.

But all that was in the future on the August night when this miracle occurred. Linger in the story a moment, and imagine the scene: the summer heat, the darkness, the pools of candlelight, the chant going up into the roof of the church; the little boys jostling each other when they saw the unexpected commotion, as even the best-behaved choirboys do at any deviation from their usual routine. This is, typically for Osbern, a very musical scene: we learn what the monks were singing (a response from Luke 12:35) and we hear their tuneful voices, and we listen too to the ringing of St Dunstan's bell - a bell made with his own hands, it's said (quite plausibly, given Dunstan's talent for metalwork), with a sound 'than which nothing is sweeter'. Well, few things ever are sweeter than the church bells of home.

Osbern and some musical animals (BL Arundel 16, f. 2)

This story is of a miracle attributed to St Dunstan, and it's only tangentially related to the saints on whose feast-day it took place. But both St Bartholomew and St Audoen (also known as Ouen), who shared a feast on 24 August, had relics preserved at Canterbury: Audeon's had come there in the time of St Oda, Bartholomew's in the time of Cnut. And both feature in a little group of connected stories from Canterbury texts which touch on memory, community, and the transmission of knowledge between pre- and post-Conquest England. Let me weave some of these stories together for you today, and see what kind of tapestry we end up with.

We've started with a story which took place in the early 1060s, but we can go back further in time than that. The 'good man' Godric mentioned in this story, bursting in to save the boys from a beating with his vigorous speech, was dean of the cathedral between c.1044 and c.1070. He reappears elsewhere in Osbern's work, this time telling a story of his own. In 1023, Godric had been one of the monks entrusted with moving the body of St Alphege from London to Canterbury. Under instruction from Cnut and Archbishop Æthelnoth, Godric had helped to open Alphege's tomb in St Paul's (or at least, so he told Osbern). Godric described how when they had opened the tomb they found the shroud they had brought wasn't enough to cover it, so he ran to a nearby altar and grabbed the altar cloth to use as another shroud; but, apparently feeling a bit guilty, he left half a pound of gold to pay for the cloth. Osbern wrote an account of this event in the 1080s, based on what Godric had told him; in it he describes Godric as "once a disciple of Alphege himself... from whom we learnt all these things which, having made diligent inquiries, we now relate". You can read more about the story Godric told here.

A Canterbury manuscript of Osbern's Life of Alphege (BL Cotton MS Nero C VII, f.46v)

Now let's go forward in time to the 1120s, into the memories of my other favourite Canterbury historian, Osbern's slightly younger contemporary Eadmer. Towards the end of his life - when he was  by his own description 'white-haired' - Eadmer wrote a short work about the relics of St Audeon, and in this work we get a glimpse of Osbern himself. Eadmer describes how at some point in the early 1090s, he was quietly going about his own business in the cloister at Christ Church, copying a manuscript, when Osbern came up to him. Osbern wanted him to join in a search for the relics of St Audeon, which were at that time apparently overlooked somewhere in a storeroom. Eadmer recounts Osbern's persuasive speech to him, and says they went off together - without the proper permission - to investigate. They found the relics, but in the process angered the saint, who punished them with frightening dreams. (Historical research was so much more exciting in those days!)

Eadmer's account of the incident, from his own manuscript of his works, CCCC MS.371, f.223v 
('Tempore' halfway down the page is the start of Osbern's speech)

I talked about this story in my post on the reburial of Richard III, as an example of a generically typical medieval narrative about the discovery of lost relics. And so it is. But at the same time it is incredibly specific, localised to a distinct time and place, and we can bring to it all kinds of other contextual information about the people involved. It took place in the years between the death of Archbishop Lanfranc in 1089 and the appointment of his successor, St Anselm, in 1093. Osbern was writing his Life of Dunstan around that time - perhaps he was doing a bit of research on Audeon in order to tell the story of the little girl cured of blindness on Audeon's feast-day. Eadmer was in his late twenties, and of the two of them Osbern was the more senior and experienced historian; Eadmer was, as he tells us, working at copying manuscripts (some of which can be identified; see the article here), but probably only just beginning to compose his own works. His first forays into history-writing deal with Archbishop Oda, who brought Audeon's relics to Canterbury, and with one of the other saints whose relics they believed Oda had obtained (Wilfrid). So perhaps Eadmer was interested in Audeon for that reason, or perhaps Osbern's interest in Audeon's relics encouraged Eadmer's focus on Oda. Maybe it went both ways. When people are living and working together in close community, they influence each other immeasurably and intangibly, in ways perhaps even they don't understand.

Eadmer later became unquestionably the better historian of the two, and he has an intriguingly complicated relationship with Osbern's work, half imitation, half competition (when he later rewrote Osbern's story of the little girl's miracle in his own Life of Dunstan, he cut out Osbern's eyewitness testimony entirely). To see one writer through the eyes of another is fascinating, but scholars are not influenced only by other scholars; as Osbern's references to Godric remind us, a community is composed of all kinds of story-tellers, not just those who write the stories down.

Christ and Nathanael, traditionally identified with Bartholomew (Canterbury Cathedral)

This brings us to St Bartholomew, and another of Eadmer's memories. In the eleventh century Canterbury possessed the arm of St Bartholomew, and as I wrote in this post about Sandwich and St Bartholomew's Day, Eadmer gives us a vivid insight into his own childhood in talking about how this relic was obtained. (I'll copy and paste a bit from that post, to save time, but do go and read the whole thing - Sandwich's St Bartholomew's Day traditions are adorable.)

Eadmer says that the arm of St Bartholomew had been purchased for the cathedral priory by Queen Emma, wife of Cnut, in the 1020s or 1030s. She bought it from the Bishop of Benevento, who was then in England raising funds by the sale of relics, and in return for the arm the monks of Canterbury gave the bishop a fine cope as a gift. In his Historia Novorum, Eadmer tells how when he was travelling with St Anselm in Italy in 1098, he spotted the very same cope which the Canterbury monks had exchanged for Bartholomew's arm being worn at the Council of Bari. Far from home, Eadmer was thrilled to see this little piece of England. He explains to us that he recognised the cope from the stories of senior Canterbury monks: he recalls that when he was a boy being educated in the cathedral school, three older monks - he gives us their names, Edwin, Blacman and Farman - "used to recount consistently and in sequence" all the details of Queen Emma's transaction, and the ceremony of the exchange of relic and cope, which they had witnessed. "In those days people in England considered the relics of saints more valuable than anything else in the world", he adds, as he tells this story about story-telling, remembering the old monks' memories. When he recognised the cope in Italy, excitable Eadmer went to tell the bishop who was wearing it of his discovery (I like to imagine Anselm indulgently smiling all the while at Eadmer's characteristically parochial enthusiasm), and the bishop graciously confirmed the truth of Canterbury's tradition.

This story suggests all kinds of interesting things about memory and oral transmission in eleventh-century England, and about the way traditions were perpetuated within communities - knowledge being transmitted from one generation to another. Bartholomew is traditionally identified with Nathanael in the Gospel story about the meeting of Christ and Nathanael - 'an Israelite in whom there is no guile!' Like Eadmer's story about Bartholomew's arm, this is a tale of recognition and knowledge: when Jesus greets Nathanael, Nathanael asks him in astonishment, 'How do you know me?' The question goes unanswered, or only partially answered: Jesus tells him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." Divine knowledge has no beginning, no coming to know; but we, like Nathanael, have to be taught, and we can always wonder how we come to know the things we know. As Eadmer understood, historians always have to be asking themselves 'how do we know this?', and Eadmer's explanation of how he knows the story of Bartholomew's arm is as characteristic as his excitement in seeing a memento of Canterbury in far-off Italy. In his eagerness to prove that something good can come out of Nazareth (or rather, pre-Conquest England) Eadmer has preserved the record of an event which would otherwise be lost; without his story those three monks, Edwin, Blacman, and Farman, would have joined the countless numbers whose names and lives history has not preserved. Osbern does the same thing for Godric, who would otherwise be nothing more to us than a name in a few charters - one of Anglo-Saxon England's many indistinguishable Godrics.

Anglo-Saxon calendar for August (BL Arundel 60, f.5v)

If you've read this far, and followed the zig-zags of times and places in this post, I admire you. We have four separate stories here, connected by links of story-telling and memory: Osbern's memory of Godric, Godric's memory of Alphege, Eadmer's memory of Osbern (and Audeon), Eadmer's memory of Bartholomew (and Edwin, Blacman, and Farman). It's the historian's job to put those pieces together and make something of them, to tell you how these stories fit together and what the picture is supposed to look like. I could do that now, in various ways depending on my mood. One kind of historian would use these stories to make their own critical story, explanatory narratives about medieval monastic memory or the famous twelfth-century 'nostalgia for the Anglo-Saxon past'. Another kind would read these texts in order to cherry-pick details of liturgical observance or ecclesiastical architecture, or try to work out whether these stories are reliable evidence for the economics of relic-exchange in Cnut's England, or the politics of saints' cults under Lanfranc, or... whatever. All these approaches are valuable, and I've followed them myself - broken open the stories to get to the kernel of information inside and thrown away the husk, forgetting in the process that these are narratives, not just accumulations of useful details. But I don't want to do that today. It's too neat; when I've made such a mess of my own life, who am I to tidy up and explain someone else's? Human life is not and should not be so easily explained away. The part of me which will always be more of a literature student than a proper historian wants to linger inside the stories, to think of them not as historical evidence to be evaluated for what they can tell us, but as tales which give us a glimpse into something immeasurably more important: real people's minds.

August, in the eleventh-century Martyrology of St Augustine's, Canterbury (BL Cotton Vitellius C XII, f.134)

Eadmer's work on the relics of St Audeon was almost the last thing he ever wrote, and in it the elderly Eadmer (clearly in a reminiscing kind of mood) talks quite a bit about his own childhood memories. As well as telling the story of Osbern's research trip, he gives a lengthy description of the cathedral he knew as a child, the church which was the scene of the miracle with which we began - which was destroyed by fire in 1067, and by the 1120s existed only in the memory of Eadmer and his fellow white-haired contemporaries. Osbern, Godric and the rest were long dead. Reflecting on the powerful hold his own memories have on him, Eadmer observes that it's what people learn when they're young that they remember most vividly: Quo semel est imbuta recens seruabit odorem testa diu, he quotes. It's not surprising, in a way, that after a lifetime of writing the stories of other people's lives - he wrote at least seven Lives of saints, among other kinds of works - he should end his career by thinking about the story of his own life. The role of the monastic precentor, which both Eadmer and Osbern and other famous medieval historians filled, was to be the living embodiment of the memory of their community: to know its saints and its stories, its commemorations and its duties, its history and its songs, its hopes and its prayers. The writing of history, usually although not always in the form of hagiography, was an intimate part of this task. From a modern perspective hagiography is often considered an inferior form of history-writing, and sometimes it can be; but in the hands of a thoughtful writer like Eadmer, or a creative writer like Osbern, it can almost be superior to what we call 'good history' today: it has room for such human weaknesses as imagination, play, memory, all the kinds of stories modern historians try to exclude when we tell the story of the past. It allows Osbern to conjure up for us an August night, and Godric's vehement speech - not perhaps as they really were, but as he chose to remember them. When hagiography is the story of a saint connected to your own community - whether the saint is Dunstan, Alphege, Bartholomew or Audeon - it will always be connected to personal memories of people you knew and moments in your life, and that makes it more valuable, not less. Osbern's story of the girl's miracle on that August night in the 1060s - whatever really happened to her, whatever the boys saw or thought they saw - is a glimpse into his life and his memory, and memory really is a miracle. The human mind is a miracle past understanding, and a glimpse into another person's mind is a gift and a privilege, not just evidence to be sifted. 'We are, to be sure, a miracle every way – but our powers of recollecting and forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.'

Friday, 14 August 2015

You have an idle thought on a Saturday afternoon...

... and a few weeks later you're on the BBC website. You can read an interview with me trying to explain my Twitter project 'Old English Wisdom' here - that is, if you're not tired of hearing me talk about it, as I did at some length on this blog here and here. All the tweets posted so far can be found on this page.

This is very exciting but odd, too, because this isn't some great research project or a news story at all - it really was just an idle thought, something I thought would be a fun experiment, and Anglo-Saxon wisdom literature isn't my 'real research', so it's rather awkward to be described as an 'expert' on it! I'm not claiming to be that, I hope. I just very much like these texts, some of which I've known for years, some of which were new to me when I started doing this in my spare time. I enjoy translating them, and I enjoy thinking about them, and they've brought me a lot of comfort and pleasure over the past few months. I'm so glad to see they have been doing the same for others.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

'Thou wandrest in this fals world'

Lollai, lollai, litil child, whi wepistou so sore?
Nedis mostou wepe, hit was iyarkid the yore
Euer to lib in sorow, and sich and mourne euere,
As thin eldren did er this while hi aliues wore.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, child lolai, lullow.
Into vncuth world incommen so ertow.

Bestis and thos foules, the fisses in the flode,
And euch schef aliues imakid of bone and blode,
Whan hi commith to the world hi doth ham silf sum gode;
Al bot the wrech brol that is of Adamis blode.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, to kar ertou bemette;
Thou nost noght this worldis wild before the is isette.

Child, if betidith that thou ssalt thriue and the,
Thench thou were ifostred vp thi moder kne.
Euer hab mund in thi hert of thos thinges thre:
Whan thou commist, what thou art and what ssal com of the.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, child lollai, lollai,
With sorow thou com into this world, with sorow ssalt wend awai.

Ne tristou to this world, hit is thi ful vo.
The rich he makith pouer, the pore rich also;
Hit turneth wo to wel and ek wel to wo.
Ne trist no man to this world, whil hit turnith so.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, thi fote is in the whele.
Thou nost whoder turne to wo other wele.

Child, thou ert a pilgrim in wikidnis ibor,
Thou wandrest in this fals world, thou loke the bifor.
Deth ssal com with a blast vte of a well dim horre
Adamis kin dun to cast, him silf hath ido befor.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, so wo the worth Adam
In the lond of paradis, throgh wikidnes of Satan.

Child, thou nert a pilgrim bot an vncuthe gist,
Thi dawes beth itold, thi iurneis beth icast;
Whoder thou salt wend north or est,
Deth the sal betide with bitter bale in brest.
Lollai, lollai, litil child, this wo Adam the wroght,
Whan he of the appil ete and Eue hit him betacht.

This is the saddest poem I know. I'm only posting it today because I haven't posted here in a week, and I want to post something, but I'm too sad to think at the moment and this poem is all I have right now. It comes from a fourteenth-century manuscript, BL Harley 913, and you can see a list of the other poems contained in the same manuscript here. I remember the first time I read it, as an undergraduate, and how it went straight into my heart and stuck there. Translating the poem takes away some of its power, and you don't need to understand everything to get the sense of it (I think when I first read it, before I knew much Middle English at all, the strangeness was part of the attraction). So here's a kind of half-translation.

Lullay, lullay, little child, why weepest thou so sore?
Needs must thou weep, it was iyarkid thee yore [prepared for you long ago]
Ever to live in sorrow, and sigh and mourn ever,
As thine elders did ere this, while they alive were.
Lullay, lullay, little child, child lullay, lullow.
Into an alien world come so art thou.

Animals, and birds, and fishes in the flood,
And every living creature made of bone and blood,
When they come into the world they do themselves some good -
All but the poor wretch that is of Adam's blood.
Lullay, lullay, little child, to sorrow art thou bemette; [destined]
Thou knowest not that this world's wild before thee now is set.

Child, if should happen that thou shouldest thrive and the, [prosper]
Think how thou wert fostered at thy mother's knee.
Ever have mind in thy heart of those things three:
Whence thou comest, what thou art, and what shall become of thee.
Lullay, lullay, little child, child lullay lullay,
With sorrow thou came into this world, with sorrow shalt wend away.

Trust not thou to this world, it is thy foul foe.
The rich it maketh poor, the poor rich also;
It turneth woe to weal and eke weal to woe.
Let no man trust to this world, while it turneth so.
Lullay, lullay, little child, thy foot is in the wheel;
Thou knowest not where it shall turn, to woe or to weal.

Child, thou art a pilgrim in wickedness born,
Thou wanderest in this false world; look thyself before.
Death shall come with a blast out of a dark black door,
Adam's kin down to cast, as he has done before.
Lullay, lullay, little child, such woe for thee wrought Adam
In the land of paradise, through wickedness of Satan.

Child, thou art not a pilgrim but an unknown guest,
Thy days are counted out, thy journeys are cast;
Wherever thou shalt wander, north or east,
Death shall wait for thee with bitter bale in breast.
Lullay, lullay, little child, this woe Adam for thee wrought,
When he of the apple ate and Eve it him betaught. [gave it to him]

Fortune's Wheel (medieval wall-painting, Rochester Cathedral)

This poem was probably my first encounter with the idea of the Wheel of Fortune (well, as anything other than a gameshow, I suppose). It's such a common image in medieval literature, but it's somehow very vivid here - I think it's the phrase 'thy foot is in the wheel', which makes you feel how quickly a sudden jolt could send anyone flying from joy into misery. And to say it to a child! There's something utterly horrible, and yet completely astonishing, about the idea of speaking to a crying baby as if it is weeping for all the sorrows of the world; it's horrific, and yet somehow beautiful.

I couldn't pick a favourite line from this poem, although Child, thou nert a pilgrim but an uncuthe guest would probably be a strong contender. uncuthe means 'unknown, alien'; you are not a purposeful pilgrim but a strange guest wandering around the wilds of the world, not known or wanted anywhere. It makes me think of this bit from Ancrene Wisse:

Ne thunche ham na feorlich, thah ha her tholien as in uncuth lond & in uncuth eard, bituhhen untheode, scheome ba & sorhe, for swa deth moni gentil mon the is uncuth in uncuththe.

uncuth in uncuththe, a stranger in a strange land.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Havelok, Literature's Nicest Viking

If you feel like spending some time this weekend reading about Vikings (and who wouldn't), have a look at a piece I wrote for the BBC History website about the thirteenth-century romance Havelok the Dane.

As I hope I managed to convey in the article, Havelok is a thoroughly loveable poem. It comprised a whole chapter in my thesis, so I'm naturally fond of it! It was underrated for a long time; some of the early scholarship on it is breathtaking in its snobbery, littered with words like 'rough' and 'naive' and 'bourgeois' (fortunately things are mostly better now). It's true, Havelok is not the most learned poem; it doesn't name-drop Dante or paraphrase Petrarch, not even once. But it's full of energy, wit and heart, and it tells a good story with a sure hand. It has a strong care for social justice and for right and wrong (not a 'naive' care, unless to have such principles is automatically naive), but it doesn't take itself too seriously; it draws the reader into a fun community of listeners enjoying a story together, even when read on the page. Although it's about a displaced prince and princess and places great importance on royal blood, it's the least snobbish of romances: it finds value and meaning in the ordinary day-to-day labour of fishermen and cooks and handymen, and its hero is shown to merit his eventual happy ending not just through his royal descent but because of his willingness to do an honest day's work, to treat everyone equally, and to make a friend of anyone he meets. And its hero and heroine are perhaps the most mutually supportive and tender couple in medieval romance - give me Havelok and Goldeburu over Lancelot and Guinevere any day!

All this is very appealing, and Havelok has the extra charm of being an interesting take on English, or more accurately Anglo-Danish, history, as seen from the perspective of Lincolnshire and the north-east. It gives a romantic origin-story to the town of Grimsby, about as unromantic a place as one could imagine - and why not? I was very pleased to see that among the people who shared the link to my piece on Twitter, there were some Grimsby residents saying 'That's how my town got its name!' - which is exactly what the poet would have wanted them to say. Perhaps it's no surprise that a story which weaves a romance out of the history of Grimsby should have suffered from academic snobbery (funny story: I wrote this BBC piece shortly after an occasion on which I presented on Havelok in a job interview, to withering scorn from the professor on the other side of the table. I didn't present especially well (withering scorn tends to impair one's performance) but I've since wondered if it was not just me but Havelok this man thought so far beneath his contempt!). But if liking Havelok is naive, I don't want to be sophisticated.

You can read the whole poem here, in Middle English but with a handy gloss. To give you a taste, here's a characteristic extract, which illustrates something of the poem's best qualities, including its lively dialogue, its fast narrative pace, and its fondness for invective against the wicked villains. This passage comes when the usurper Godrich, who has seized the English princess Goldeboru's rightful inheritance, decides to get her out of his way by marrying her off to Havelok, whom he believes to be a common kitchen-boy (but is actually the heir to the throne of Denmark.) This is a serious moment in the poem - Goldeboru is being very badly treated, and the poem's full of sympathy for her, with a poignant little moment in which she reflects that such unwilling marriages are often a woman's lot. But it's tinged with humour, too, in Havelok's childishly innocent reaction 'What would I do with a wife?' and even in Godrich's naked villainy - he's practically cackling in his evilness here. Yes, it's OTT, but the poem is enjoying the excess, the sheer narrative pleasure of seeing our heroes in danger when we know it's all going to be OK in the end.

On the morwen hwan day was sprungen
And day-belle at kirke rungen,
After Havelok sente that Judas
That werse was thanne Sathanas,
And saide, "Maister, wilte wif?"
"Nay," quoth Havelok, "bi my lif!
Hwat sholde ich with wif do?
I ne may hire fede ne clothe ne sho.
Wider sholde ich wimman bringe?
I ne have none kines thinge -
I ne have hws, I ne have cote,
Ne I ne have stikke, I ne have sprote,
I ne have neyther bred ne sowel,
Ne cloth but of an hold whit covel.
This clothes that ich onne have
Aren the kokes and ich his knave!"
Godrich stirt up and on him dong,
With dintes swithe hard and strong,
And seyde, "But thou hire take
That I wole yeven thee to make,
I shal hangen thee ful heye,
Or I shal thristen uth thin heie."
Havelok was one and was odrat,
And grauntede him al that he bad.
Tho sende he after hire sone,
The fayrest wymman under mone,
And seyde til hire, fals and slike,
That wicke thrall, that foule swike:
"But thu this man understonde,
I shall flemen thee of londe;
Or thou shal to the galwes renne,
And ther thou shalt in a fir brenne."
Sho was adrad for he so thrette,
And durste nouth the spusing lette;
But they hire likede swithe ille,
Sho thouthe it was Godes wille -
God that makes to growen the korn,
Formede hire wimman to be born.

I made a quick recording of myself reading this, although I think I'm a bit too southern RP to do justice to this fine Lincolnshire poem! My grandmother was from Lincolnshire and all her ancestors for generations lived and died within the county, but I can't convincingly put on a Lincolnshire accent, I'm afraid :D

The next morning, when day had sprung
And the day-bell at the church was rung,
For Havelok sent that Judas,
Who was worse than Satan,
And said, "Boy, do you want a wife?"
"No!" said Havelok, "by my life!"
What would I do with a wife?
I couldn't give her food or clothes or shoes.
Where would I take a woman?
I don't have anything at all!
I don't have a house, I don't have a cottage,
I don't have sticks or wood for a fire,
I don't have either bread or sauce,
Or clothes except an old white cloak.
These clothes that I have on
Are the cook's, and I'm his servant!"
Godrich jumped up and hit him,
With blows very hard and strong,
And said, "Unless you take her
I'm giving you as your wife,
I shall string you up on high,
Or I'll thrust out your eye!"
Havelok was alone, and was afraid,
And promised all that he demanded.
Then he sent after her at once,
The fairest woman under the moon,
And said to her - so false and cruel,
That wicked slave, that foul traitor! -
"Unless you accept this man,
I shall banish you from this land,
Or you'll have to go to the gallows
And there burn in a fire!"
She was afraid at his threats,
And did not dare prevent the marriage.
But though it pleased her very ill,
She thought, it was God's will:
God who makes the corn to grow
Caused her to be born a woman.

And so they get married:

Hwan he havede don him, for drede,
That he sholde hire spusen and fede,
And that she sholde til him holde,
Ther weren penies thicke tolde
Mikel plenté, upon the bok -
He ys hire yaf and she is tok.
He weren spused fayre and well,
The messe he dede, everi del
That fel to spusing, an god clek -
The erchebishop uth of Yerk,
That kam to the parlement,
Als God him havede thider sent.

When [Havelok] had promised, out of fear,
That he would marry her and support her,
And she that she would him have and hold,
The pennies were counted out,
Many of them, on the book,
He took hers, and she took his.
They were married fair and well.
The mass was performed, every bit
Which pertains to marriage, by a good cleric:
The archbishop of York,
Who was there at the parliament [taking place in Lincoln]
As God had him hither sent.

If you went to Lincoln Castle, c.1330, you could see the chapel where this wedding took place...

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Five Anglo-Saxon Proverbs


This blog has been rather introspective and sober recently, so I think it's time to post something quick and fun. As I mentioned a little while ago, I've been conducting a mini Twitter experiment in my free time: Old English Wisdom. I've been posting daily snippets of proverbs, maxims, and advice or counsel from Old English poetry and prose, with translations, and the account has now acquired more than 1200 followers (and counting). This has been great fun for me, and since an hour's skim-reading of a weekend can yield enough material to keep me going for weeks, it doesn't take up much time at all. I may never get to teach Old English again (to students, I mean - no one can stop me teaching it to 1200 strangers on the internet!) but it gives me such pleasure to have an excuse to re-read all these familiar and less-familiar texts.

It's also a pleasure to play with some ways of negotiating the challenges of this kind of project, and to think about how the brand-new medium and the centuries-old message can work together. The biggest challenge, the thing I ponder most, is the lack of context. I'm bit obsessive about context, and one of the challenges of sharing anything on the internet as I do - pictures of manuscripts, extracts from texts, etc. - is working out how to give enough information to provide a full and accurate context, without exhausting the patience of the reader with excessive detail. This is especially acute on Twitter, where you never know how far a tweet may go or who may read it. But it's a useful challenge - it helps me to prioritise, and to think myself into the position of someone who doesn't know anything about texts which are very familiar to me. One of the features of this project which first gave me pause was that the individual tweets are, by necessity, lacking in context (I attribute them with a hashtag, which links tweets from the same texts together over time, and provides context of a sort.) I've only been able to reconcile this with my over-active scholarly conscience by the thought that proverbs and maxims are, by their very nature, statements which can be decontextualised and recontextualised almost without limit. That's how proverbs work, right? You can use them wherever they feel appropriate (or humorously inappropriate). And in the case of Old English maxims, they stand out from their immediate context by certain formal and grammatical features, and we find them across the corpus reused in multiple different contexts, in each of which they function differently. So I think it's acceptable (I hope...) to take them out of their context and let them stand alone, to some extent, in a way it might not be with other types of quotation.

The other challenge is translation; Old English poetry is hard to translate at the best of times, and in the case of proverbs and maxims there are even more uncertainties. They can often be translated in multiple ways, all equally possible - I do my best, but I'd be the first to admit that any single translation, especially when confined by Twitter's character limit, is often inadequate. But I think it's worth trying, if it's a choice between that and not posting the texts at all.

Ah, but I promised you fun. Some really excellent Anglo-Saxon proverbs are just a little too long for Twitter, and so here are five amusing examples from a collection known as the 'Durham Proverbs'. This group of forty-six proverbs comes from the manuscript Durham Cathedral, MS B. III. 32, images of which you can see here. Despite the name, the manuscript was not made at Durham (it only came there in the eighteenth century) but most likely at Canterbury, and the proverbs were added around the middle of the eleventh century. The manuscript also contains this hymn to St Dunstan, among other hymns and canticles, and the proverbs it contains appear in both English and Latin versions. Several have parallels in other Old English poems, including 'The Wanderer', and some appear in later Middle English sources too.

All the Durham Proverbs are rather wonderful and many of them are distinctly puzzling, but I'll post here just the instances of one particular type of proverb: the following are all examples of 'Wellerisms'. This common type of oral saying gets its name from Dickens' Sam Weller, perhaps the most famous fictional exponent of this kind of joke; here's a nice list of Dickens' Wellerisms, from eight hundred years after the Anglo-Saxon examples. (It greatly pleases me that the Durham Proverbs should come from a Canterbury manuscript, when so much of The Pickwick Papers takes place in Kent!)

Here are the Old English Wellerisms with their Latin versions, as reconstructed in Olof Arngart, 'The Durham Proverbs', Speculum 56:2 (1981), 288-300; the translations are mine. They all make me laugh, but I'll leave it up to you to interpret their meaning...


Nunc in iudicio porci dixit maritus sedens in apro.
Nu hit ys on swines dome, cwæð se ceorl sæt on eoferes hricge.
It’s up to the pig now, said the peasant sitting on the boar’s back.


[N]eque confiderem liceat bene ambulasset dixit qu[i] uidit [st]rigas capite pregredientes.
Ne swa þeah treowde þeah þu teala eode, cwæþ se þe geseah hægtessan æfter heafde geongan.
I wouldn’t trust you even if you walked well, said he who saw the witch walking on her head.


[N]ec caro carnem emendat dixit qui caccabum plenum ponderosum coxit.
Ne saga sagan, cwæð se geseah hwer fulne healena seoþan.
Don't tell tales, said he who saw the pot of hydroceles boil.

(No one understands this one. Your guess is as good as anyone's.)


...ait qui a[udiu]it [clamorem in] infern[o].
Wide ne biþ wel, cwæþ se þe gehyrde on helle hriman.
Far and wide things aren't good, said the one who heard wailing in hell.


[T]e habe[a]t qui te uocet [ai]t qui famem uidit abeuntem.
Age þe, se þe æfter cige, cwæþ se þe geseah hungor of tune faran.
He can have you who calls after you, said the one who saw hunger leaving town.


Images: two quirky little faces in a glossed Anglo-Saxon Psalter. Just because.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Public Engagement and Personal Enthusiasm, St Mildred and Me


13 July is the feast of St Mildred, eighth-century abbess of the Kentish monastery of Minster-in-Thanet. Mildred is a fairly minor Anglo-Saxon saint, but she's of particular interest to me for various reasons. I wrote about her story here and about the legends surrounding the foundation of her abbey here; if you want to read about Mildred I recommend you follow those links, because today's will be a more personal post - just a ramble, really, about some things I've recently been thinking about.

My interest in Mildred is part scholarly and part personal, and it's not entirely possible to separate the two. First the scholarly. In the eleventh century Mildred's relics and the lands of her former abbey in Thanet came into the possession of St Augustine's, Canterbury (by grant of Cnut, according to St Augustine's tradition); this meant that at the end of the eleventh century the prolific hagiographer Goscelin, among various commissions he undertook for St Augustine's, wrote several works dealing with Mildred. Mildred's relics and cult thus played a role in Cnut's relationship with the English church and in post-Conquest interpretations of the Anglo-Saxon past, two of the subjects I'm most interested in at the moment.

As for the personal: I was born in Thanet, one of the few places where Mildred is still commemorated today. In Mildred's time Thanet was an island close to the north-east tip of Kent; the channel which separated it from the mainland has since silted up, but it's still known as the Isle of Thanet. It's chiefly famous for having once been full of seaside resorts, then becoming very run-down, and now enjoying a bit of a cultural renaissance. When I was growing up there it was still in the 'very run-down' stage of that process, and despite the renaissance it's still often treated as a joke, whose working-class inhabitants can be freely mocked in national newspapers. I'm proud of being from Thanet, but I'm conscious that I don't speak with a Thanet accent, and that if I did, I wouldn't have got very far at Oxford. But long before that story of boom-and-bust-and-boom, Thanet had a rich medieval history, especially in the early Anglo-Saxon period. Bede tells us that St Augustine landed on the coast of Thanet when he came to convert the kingdom of Kent, and the foundation of a royal monastery at Minster followed in the seventh century. St Mildred, although herself a rather shadowy figure, is a part of all this. My first school was dedicated to St Mildred - not that I particularly noticed it at the time! - and later, as a graduate student, I spent two years at Lincoln College in Oxford, which was built (as I learned at the end of my time there) on the site of a medieval church dedicated to St Mildred. I graduated with my doctorate on St Mildred's Day, 2013 (entirely by coincidence - it was the only date available). So her home and her name and her day have a range of personal associations for me which have very little to do with Mildred herself.

I can't say how far the personal inspired the scholarly interest, or the other way around - perhaps I was drawn to Mildred because I'm from Thanet, or perhaps studying Mildred has made me more interested in Thanet's Saxon history, which I didn't really know about or think about when I actually lived there. It's probably a bit of both. Who can explain why they're drawn to the subject they study? I suspect more academics than would freely admit it have private, personal reasons for their scholarly interests which wouldn't stand up to professional scrutiny, alongside the more publicly acceptable ones. We are human beings, after all, and are attracted to certain things by influences we ourselves don't necessarily understand. Struggling as I am with work and vocation right now, I sometimes think it would be nice if more people (not just academics) felt free to talk about what draws them to the work they do.


Over the past few months, as people keep asking me to explain why I write an academic blog, I've come to realise that one reason is to convince myself that it's OK to have a personal, emotional attachment to the things I study. It's even OK to talk in the language of enthusiasm, passion and (dare I say it?) love. Like everybody who isn't senior enough to get away with looking unprofessional, I strictly keep emotional attachment out of my academic work, but I don't feel I have to do that on this blog - and I think the blog is the better for it, and I'm the healthier.

I'm encouraged in this belief by the knowledge that the medieval historians I study generally saw no problem whatsoever in being emotionally attached to their subjects. I like them all the more for it, and when I talk about them to the public, it's that which catches people's attention. As someone whose interests are primarily literary (I'm interested in the stories people tell about history, not in whether those stories are true or not), I find it endearing when medieval historians are biased and parochial and a little bit obsessive - all the things 'monkish writers' used to be criticised for by modern historians of the traditional stamp. Nothing makes me like William of Malmesbury more than his special fondness for Malmesbury's history, the fact that he can't resist being a bit extra interested in Aldhelm and Athelstan and anything connected to his own monastery. I love the thought of Eadmer at the Council of Bari, surrounded by the great and the good of the eleventh-century church but still getting most excited about a minor tidbit of local Canterbury history and the memory of some old monks he knew as a child. And there's something touching about the way Goscelin talks about St Edith of Wilton as if she were a personal friend, and associates her with a lost happy period in his life. These are emotional responses to the past which have little to do with the facts of history, and much to do with each writer's personal associations with a saint and the relationships, identities, or communities they represent for the writer. They're entirely 'unprofessional' reactions, from the best English historians of their day, of a kind which few historians now would admit to in public even if they felt them.

(Is there a little bit of self-conscious display in these accounts of emotional attachment, an attempt to persuade an audience to value the history the writer values? Well, of course, but that doesn't make them any less interesting. All writing is persuasion and self-conscious display - what do you suppose I'm doing right now...)


I think about this question quite often, especially as social media increasingly allows scholars to have a more open approach to displays of personal enthusiasm than is acceptable in a traditional academic environment. (Even if some will still squeak 'Oh no, enthusiasm!') What do we attach ourselves to, and why? These days academics, like many people, are encouraged or forced to live rootless lives, changing jobs often and not developing an attachment to any particular institution. There are few places we have time to know intimately and few communities of which we can become a permanent part. I'm unusual for an early-career academic in that I've been in Oxford for years now, although never in a permanent position or anything like a home - it's been stints of two- or three-year affiliations, while living in different types of rented accommodation (eight places in ten years). Even that precarious form of stability is a black mark against me in the job market (everything's a black mark against you in the job market!); and if I wanted to get another academic job I'd have to be prepared to leave at the drop of a hat, whatever that meant leaving behind.

That's a choice everyone has to make for themselves, of course, and one always has the option to opt out. But I wonder if it grows increasingly hard for people like me to understand what it might be like to count on living in one place your whole life - for instance, what it might be like for a monk or nun to spend his or her entire life attached to one monastery, living its communal life day after day in the physical presence of its saints and former inhabitants. Not that monks and nuns didn't travel, of course - and away from home, home associations pull most strongly. The three writers I mentioned above illustrate this, too: William of Malmesbury travelled around on research trips, Eadmer spent years in exile with St Anselm, and Goscelin, a kind of itinerant hagiographer who worked on commission, could almost be the patron saint of academics on contingent, short-term contracts. And anyway these monks would all have said that no one gets to have a permanent home in this world: Non enim habemus hic manentem civitatem, sed futuram inquirimus, however much we may love the temporary homes we do find in this læne lif. But I think that one reason I am drawn to studying monastic communities is that they offer a rootedness which seems impossible today - at least for people like me. The idea of settling down, finding a home, knowing you can live and work in the same place for decades if you want to - these are things people of my generation are told not to expect or hope for (by people who were able to do just that, of course), and it is difficult, even if we try to believe it's fun and exciting to be adrift in the world. I crave a sense of rootedness and belonging and if I project that feeling of security here on this blog, as people sometimes tell me I do, it's because I'm working hard to find it for myself where circumstances don't provide it for me.

One place I find it is in treasuring the roots I have in a small, unpicturesque island in the most out-of-the-way corner of Kent, and in tracing how disparate elements of my life have accidentally found common ground in an association with St Mildred. Mildred's Thanet looked very different from mine - no seaside resorts in her day - but much would have been the same: the huge skies, the noisy seagulls, the yellow beaches, the white cliffs, the great flat fields stretching out to the sea. Many features of the island were ancient even when Mildred lived in Thanet, from Bronze Age barrows to Roman walls and the very name of the place; they'd grown older still by the time I was born there, 1300 years after Mildred's foot stepped onto Thanet's shore and left its miraculous imprint.


There's no substitute for this kind of intimate connection with a place, and it teaches you things even as you don't realise it. I get most of my knowledge from books, of course, but I've found that one unexpected advantage of talking about my work publicly is that it brings me into contact with people who have that kind of love and knowledge for the places I study. They can correct me or give me hints I couldn't have found otherwise (the third comment on this post is an example I remember fondly). We can go astray in many ways when we get our knowledge only from books, and I've been noting one tiny example of this lately, especially at international conferences: perceptions of distance. To people studying an area by looking at it on a map, things often seem much closer together than they do if you're there – and it's easy to make airy statements about distance which just don't ring true if you know the landscape. I've fallen into this trap myself, and heard others do so when talking about places I know well. I remember reading a journal article once where the argument went something like: 'Canterbury is near London, so monks in Canterbury would have felt a special connection with the saints of St Paul's'. This is a shaky argument for various reasons but what especially pulled me up short was the idea of Canterbury being 'near' London - I mean, of course it is in one sense, on a global scale, and by the standards of US cities, but it certainly doesn't feel so. Now that we in deepest Kent have high-speed trains, you can get between Canterbury and London in less than an hour, but even today I wouldn't say it was 'near' in the way that author meant, such that an inhabitant of Canterbury would feel London's saints to be their own 'local' possessions. Canterbury has enough of its own medieval history to be proud of, I told the author crossly in my head, without piggybacking on London's! (Then I felt silly; but I'd bet you any medieval Canterbury historian would have said the same...) Or, when talking about Mildred's relics, academics sometimes say they were moved from Thanet to 'nearby Canterbury' or 'nearby Lyminge' – Canterbury I'll allow to be 'near' (though it probably felt a bit further away when Thanet was a real island), but try and get from Thanet to Lyminge, even today, even by car, and see whether you would say it was 'nearby'! Thanet is on the very edge of England, closer to France than to London, and on a grey day in January with the mist over the sea it feels like the edge of the world. Even the other end of Kent is very far away.

Did it feel the same 1300 years ago? I can't know for sure, but I can be a bit more confident than if I had never known the place; and that only makes me more aware of how much I don't know about other places, other experiences, other lives than the one I have lived, and how much there is to learn. So I'm not saying any of this to nitpick anyone else's work; obviously people don't and shouldn't only work on subjects of which they have personal experience, and I know I've made similar errors when talking about areas I'm not familiar with. (I'd written quite a bit in my thesis about Ely and the Fens before I visited the area, and as soon as I got there I felt I hadn't really understood the place at all.) But these are things we can learn from the places themselves and the people who live in them, and it does pay to be mindful about such things. If you don't walk the landscape and you don't live the life, you should at least be prepared to listen to people who do. It's about perception and perspective, not maps and facts - and this applies to more intangible matters as well. I gave a public lecture earlier this year which was partly about Mildred, and in the audience were two nuns from her own monastery, Minster-in-Thanet. This was incredibly humbling. I was supposedly the 'expert' in the room, and the nuns were very friendly and enthusiastic and said I'd told them things about Mildred that they hadn't known; but although in some ways they knew less about Mildred than I do, in other ways they knew much, much more – living in her monastery (on the same spot and in some of the very same buildings) and living the life she lived, they knew her in a way I could never fully understand.


Perhaps that's a rather unusual example, but I ponder this sometimes when thinking about the difference between the lives I study and the life I live, and about public engagement. Being prepared to listen to other people's experiences is one of the many ways in which public engagement can enrich academic study - and here I come back to my medieval historians. We could think of medieval saints' cults as a form of public engagement, in which an educated person with a scholarly interest in a particular historical figure - but probably also a personal investment in promoting that figure to the public - attempts to mediate a historical story in a way attractive to a whole range of audiences, talking about the past to people who might know very little about history, and who have their own intensely personal reasons for being interested in the subject. (Because they want a cure, or a local hero, or to prove someone wrong, or they don't like the monastery, or whatever it might be.) Accounts of saints' miracles are very rich social pictures, offering glimpses at many kinds of human experience - from sick little children with their worried parents to vulnerable elderly people with carers at the end of their tether, they tell stories of the ill and the dying, the proud and the frightened, the faithful and the sceptical, from all classes. Read enough of these and you see the generic patterns, but they are also at the same time unique, local, and specific. These narratives are scattered with place-names which would mean a great deal to a local audience and nothing to one further afield. For example, here's a list of some of the people whose stories are told in the first few Miracles of St Waltheof, which I happen to have to hand: a blind man from Luddington; a sick woman from Sleaford; a little girl from Stretton; a mentally disturbed boy from Whaplode; a blind woman from Skirbeck; and so on. The monk of Crowland Abbey making a note of Waltheof's miracles recorded the names and homes and afflictions of all these people who had come to seek a cure from the saint, and the list is geographically restricted (those places are mostly in Lincolnshire and the surrounding counties) but diverse in every other way. It's easy to think of scholarly monks as proto-academics - but if this was the range of people with whom a medieval English monk was interacting, was his experience really more restricted and narrow than life in academia, where scholars principally get together with other scholars from similar backgrounds and panic at the idea of talking to the public?

Among all the other things it is, medieval hagiography is local history, and that's one of the things which makes it easy to write about for a popular audience. You'd think nothing would be less accessible to a modern audience than stories of medieval saints (especially since I tell them fairly seriously, not in a 'here are some funny stories about weird miracles' way) - but when I post about such stories they touch people on a personal level, and I find that moving. When I look at the people who respond to my posts about saints here and on Twitter, there's always a strong local element, and it often seems to be people without any other obvious interest in medieval history who will say with most excitement 'oh, a story about my area'! I watch my links spreading through local networks of businesses, schools, churches and enthusiastic individuals: Norfolk networks love the Norfolk saints, Kentish networks seize on the Kentish saints, London networks are proud of the London saints, and so on. Place-names like those in the list above, which don't mean much to me, are to some people a word for 'home', and a part of their own personal history, as Mildred and Thanet are to me. It feels like a privilege to give people the chance to get these little footholds of personal connection to the past.

Such enthusiasm scares some academics, and they frown on anyone who appears to be encouraging it. But that dreaded enthusiasm is a lot closer to the experience of the people who believed in and the people who wrote about medieval saints' histories than the hermetically-sealed world of academia. Academic culture can be so narrow, and we narrow it still further by fostering a homogenous, 'professionalized' environment where 'professional' is defined in prescriptive, class-based, gendered terms which exclude many of the people whose lives and experiences we are supposed to be trying to understand. As I've said many times before, one of the advantages of talking about academic work in public is that the public will talk back - and since 'the public' is not one great mass dumbly waiting for you to pour knowledge down their throats, but comprises millions of individual human beings with a diversity of experiences, thoughts, and opinions, their reactions can immensely enrich academic work. (You'd really think this was so obvious it doesn't need saying, and I'm sorry it does! It's not controversial anywhere except academia, of course; I said something like this on Twitter a few days ago and the only snarky response was, naturally, from a senior male academic. Big surprise there.)

It would be best, of course, if such a diversity of experiences could be represented within academia itself, but as routes into the profession drastically constrict the less possible that seems. As I watch my postdoc friends quietly leaving academia, it seems to me it's not just talent which is lost but that very diversity: those who leave are the people who can't live rootless lives, because they have (and believe it's important to have) children, parents, and partners to think about; or the people who appear less 'professional' by academic standards (too working-class, too female, that kind of thing); or the people who don't come from backgrounds where constant rejection and job instability are things you just shrug off. The more academia becomes the preserve of people who are able - financially, practically or emotionally - to move countries every few years and to support themselves through extended periods of part-time work, the more socially and psychologically narrow a world it will become, the more detached from the wide range of human experience it claims to be able to classify and explain.


That's one reason why it needs to listen to the public, as much as the other way around. That's partly why I'm prepared to 'do history in public' in a personal way, and to talk here about my own experiences and my love for various authors and texts, even though I fear - quite a lot, actually - that it will come across as silly and unprofessional. I admit freely that my attachment to Mildred is utterly irrational, and not a bit diminished by the fact that most of what we know about her is 'just' legend. Even if she had never existed, never been more than a name, that name and her story would still represent a part of my life, a part of me: a connection to my own history, the institutions I've been a member of, the people I knew and loved there. Those things matter to me immeasurably, and they will remain with me whatever happens to my academic career. What I do on this blog (I've recently learned) is considered 'public history', but it doesn't feel that way; it feels like thousands of private histories, which interact and intersect and enrich each other. And mine is one among them.


All the pictures in this post are of Thanet's fathomless skies.