Suburban Academic

Musings of a domesticated scholar


Happy April, good readers! Today is many things (April Fool’s among them, so be on your guard), but best of all, today is the day that begins Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You can read –AND LISTEN TO– the beginning here:

a 'wel-faringe' knight and his 'lady bright'

a ‘wel-faringe’ knight and his ‘lady bright’

There’s plenty to say about why Chaucer matters– he was enormously prolific; the Canterbury Tales are the backbone of the English canon; he was the father of English (or is that Shakespeare? Or Milton? Or Mark Twain?); etc, etc, etc.

But for me, Chaucer is important in the same way that most authors are: he shows me that people are generally the same throughout time and across place. He teaches me that humor is the best instructor (and the most restorative salve); his words make me fidget, and struggle, and laugh, and google, and wonder, and write “WTF” in my margins.

And as a medievalist, I am drawn to Chaucer not just because he’s “part of the field,” but because his works transcend our field so well. We’ve all heard about Richard III’s reburial and the Anglo-Saxon cure for a modern-day superbug, but as I’ve written about already, Chaucer’s works recast our present-day scenarios in ways that allow us to reflect critically and meaningfully on our own lives.

With that in mind, I’d like to toast all the participants in #whanthataprilleday15 and encourage all of my friends  to find out a little bit more about these important cultural legacies that dumb luck and genius librarians have bequeathed to us:

Chaucer’s Manuscripts and Books on the Web 

Medieval Manuscripts Blog

Best Blog: A Clerk of Oxford

And speaking of bequeathing, I thought I’d practice my own preaching and share–with you and my son– part of my favorite of Chaucer’s poems, The Book of the Duchess. I wrote about it in my master’s thesis a zillion years ago, and, even after doctoral exams, I still love it. The story is GOOOOOOOORGEOUS and sad, funny, complicated, dream-like, life-like, and–most important to my purposes here– it involves a puppy.

Our narrator (the dreamer) has fallen asleep reading a book, and wakes up to a new but eerily familiar world. He witnesses a great hunt, the escape of the hart, and the recall of the hunting party . He now finds that he is alone in the woods, but not for long:

Until next time, sweet dreams!

Ælfric and the Rabbit Hole

Welcome back, readers!

I’m working on my  first dissertation chapter–about seafaring saints in Old English hagiography–and I wanted to share my initial experiences. This post is a rant about my frustrations, a suggestion about how others might avoid my pitfalls, and a declaration of my intention to renew the study of Old English by making it–and its contexts– more accessible.

My research strategy was clear: 1) find the Old English saints’ lives that feature boats; 2) close read said texts; 3) find their original Latin sources and compare them; 4) make claims about the seafaring saints’ stories and their analogs.

This is all pretty standard, yes? I’d just go to my editions of hagiography and look at the footnotes. For the Old English Martyrology, this is precisely what I did. Using Christine Rauer‘s “Edition, Translation, and Commentary” I was able to find relevant saints’ tales and their sources. TA-DA!

And then I went back to Ælfric. I have Skeat’s Lives of Saints, whose hagiographic works are  most relevant to my project, and took cursory notes on the Catholic Homilies. Now, Skeat doesn’t give much background on the LS, and the edition is from the late nineteenth century. What followed were days and days and days of fruitless research and of course, all that persistent self-doubt that hitches a ride on these frustrating pursuits.


Eventually, though,  I discovered Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints’ Lives and Their Contexts, and it changed everything.  If you want to write on Ælfric, you need this book. 


Why, you ask?

For the introduction, at the very least. E. Gordon Whatley guides his readers through the Ælfrician canon and the issues attending its many sources in “An Introduction to the Study of Old English Prose Hagiography: Sources and Resources.” His chapter follows “from published Old English  texts to largely unpublished Latin manuscripts” but maintains “its underlying theoretical bias: that English saints’ legends are best read in relation to their individual Latin source texts and in the larger context of Latin hagiography in England and Europe in the early medieval period” (4). Next, he includes a list of “all the texts of individual saints’ lives in OE prose”– a great resource for someone like me who has trouble keeping things straight. The list includes the short title and the text’s id number according to Cameron and Franks’s Plan.

Wait, what plan? “A Plan for the Dictionary of Old English,” which is reviewed here. You might notice that the second paragraph begins by discussing the 280-page “List of Old English Texts” which makes up the third chapter. Is there no better name for this massive document than “Plan”? And why doesn’t every student who’s taken a course in Old English  know about it? Or, even more worrisome, does everyone else know about it? Just how isolated am I?

I didn’t even realize there was a Plan until this week. And this is in part because of how Old English is taught. Once we’ve learned the grammar (and if we do, it’s with no thanks to Bright and Cassidy’s confounding book), we read at first from anthologies. The best of these is Elaine Treharne‘s because it introduces each text within its manuscript context. But of course, the leap from introduction to advanced research is a big one to make, and especially difficult to do on one’s own. It seems to me that  Old English courses should begin in the library, and move out from there. Explain first the bibliographic information, then the manuscript record, and then get to the texts.

Whatley’s explanation of his list illustrates just how complex the field is, even when only pertaining to Ælfric: 

“For reasons of space and redundancy, I have not given manuscript information or, in most cases, citations of printed editions; both are supplied at the appropriate place in the PlanI (which does not, however, include references to Godden’s later edition of ÆCH II). Editions printed since the publication of the Plan may be located in the bibliography of Luke Reinsma for Ælfrician texts and that of Karen Quinn and Kenneth Quinn for non-Ælfrician texts (see second edition), but I have included references (in the Notes) to important editions not mentioned in the Plan, Reinsma, or Quinn and Quinn” (4). 

He recommends other bibliographic resources and clearly articulates particular elements of the  Plan. Then, bless him, he takes us through the many steps of researching an Ælfrician life. Below is a summary of the steps, with my reactions/objections in italics:

  1. Pick a saint
  2. Find the source (passio, probably)
  3. Check an encyclopedia such as Bibliotheca Sanctorum
  4. Consult Books Known to the English, Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture-What happened to SASLC? Is it ongoing? Why can’t I find much about it on their website?
  5. Recall 19th century groundwork: Forster for Legends in CH; Ott for Skeat’s first volume of LS
  6. Consult Acta Sanctorum, a compilation by Bollandists, of “vitae  or passiones of nearly all the known saints of the Christian Middle Ages whose feast days occur from January through November” (10).  What about December?   “Although Acta Sanctorum remains the greatest single collection of hagiographic texts, it is also, like J.-P. Migne’s more familiar library of patristic texts, Patrologia Latina, out of date and deficient by modern scholary standards…[Its] editions of late classical and early medieval texts…are not usually representative of the sort of texts that Anglo-Saxons such as Aldhelm or Ælfric used in their own hagiography” (10-11).Great.
  7. Look for your specific saint in Analecta Bollondiana,another 19th c Bolandist publication, which “publishes articles in the whole field of hagiography…” Although “working through copious indices of notices of one’s chosen saint, text, or manuscript can be tedius,” it is nevertheless “necessary and invariably rewarding…for anyone in the early stages of a hagiographic project” (11). EARLY STAGES? I’M AT STEP 7! 
  8. Find the Bollandists’ monograph series, Subsidia Hagiographica, which “includes editions of longer texts, special studies, and catalogues of hagiographic texts in medieval mss in the larger and smaller libraries of Europe”.  For my purposes, “catalogues of the libraries of Paris, Brussels, and Rome, which include manuscripts of insular origin, some of the most significant of which, for hagiorgaphy in ASE, have only recently begun to be recognized as insular” (11).
  9. Read this against a) Delehaye’s “classic popular introduction to hagiographic literature” and b) Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina (BHL), an alphabetical listing of all the Christian saints, Eastern as well as Western, whose lives are preserved in Latin” (11, 12). But once I find the number, how do I find the actual source? Am I using their database all wrong?
  10. Check the Bollandists’ 2 supplements, which relate recensions, new printed editions, studies, and issues in numbering.
  11. Backtrack: Many saints’ lives come from Greek anyway. Look at Siegmund and Berschin. Footnote reveals that Siegmund writes (not surprisingly) in German. Thankfully, Berschin translated by Frakes: Greek Letters and the Latin middle Ages from Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa).
  12. Ooops! Early MSs of England are rare and Bollandists aren’t cataloguing English libraries anyway. Damnit!
  13. Retrieve Zettel’s unpublished dissertation from library (in my case, I asked my cousin at UVA to send me their copy, since no schools in North Carolina had one).  Zettel finds that the Cotton-Corpus Legendary was actually written after Aelfric, but “appears to derive from a collection of saints’ lives, a legendary in effect, in use in late tenth-century England, which in turn derived from a ninth-century continental collection” (14). Why am I doing this? What’s the point? We’ll never figure any of this out. This is stupid. I’m stupid. Arrrgghhh.
  14. Take courage from Whately’s tip to look at Cotton-Corpus Legendary, Harley 3020, Paris BN Lat. 5574, ff.1-39, BN Lat 10861.

So these are the steps one takes to track down an Ælfrician source. I wish there were a more streamlined way to go about this research, but as of now, I rely on this book, my dissertation director, and my fellow medievalists.

In related news, I will be updating and reformatting the Taxonomic Chart of Medieval Research Tools next week, in hopes of contributing a solution to the problem I have raised here. I welcome all recommendations for websites, databases, and even BOOKS you think should be included.

Until then, wishing you each success in discovering the light at the end of your tunnel.

Baby rabbit

Vessels of Knowledge in Anglo-Saxon Literature

I’m thrilled to be presenting at UNC’s Making Knowledge in Medieval and Early Modern Culture conference next month.

Here’s my abstract. Questions, comments, and concerns are welcome!

Vessels of Knowledge: Ships as Didactic Spaces in Anglo-Saxon Literature

While seafaring and sea vessels appear in Beowulf, they do so in relatively flat formulae, contributing very little to the narrative. Crossing the sea, like going into battle or singing in halls, is simply something that men (especially brave, heroic men) do. But in other works like Andreas or Lives of Saints, ships are more than tokens of conquering kings. They are spaces for teaching others about the power or will of God, places where non-believers may witness miracles, and transitional settings of transformation.

Of course, many of the Anglo-Saxon nautical tropes have their roots in the Bible. Anglo-Saxons take visual cues, thematic elements, and even narrative points from the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah’s and Noah’s ordeals, and Christ’s calming of the storm.

Yet in poetry and prose, Anglo-Saxon treatments of ships and sailing also reflect contemporary (and sometimes continental) concerns. In Lives of Saints, for instance, ships seem to be particularly threatening to women, who are sometimes bartered for passage, but often opportunities for conversion to men. Instead of seeking solitary existences, most passengers in these works are in the process of fleeing one community or in search of a specific, foreign one.

Ultimately, this paper seeks to answer, “What is learned on ships in Anglo-Saxon literature?” — a question that requires us to think about the transmission of knowledge not only within these texts, but also among them.

A ReIntroduction

Welcome back, patient readers! Thanks very much for returning after such a long hiatus.

I had an exciting but difficult summer, which lead to inner-ear surgery in October. With the help of colleagues, the department, and a great husband/nurse, I was able to finish off the fall semester and get some rest.

Here’s what’s happening this term:

  1. I’m teaching my first literature course: Introduction to Drama. After an inauspicious start the class has turned itself around, and I’m beginning to regain my confidence.
  2. I’m taking my first of three courses for a certificate in the Digital Humanities. Taught by the impressively experienced and endlessly patient Dan Anderson and Joe Viscomi, Digital Editing and Curation has been quite an eye-opener.
  3. Research for my dissertation on ships in Anglo-Saxon literature has begun more slowly than I’d like, but that’s because of a fourth development:
  4. We’re expecting our first baby in late June (surprise!)

So, do check back here for (at least) monthly writings about teaching drama, digital projects, early medieval ships, and an occasional reflection on pregnancy in academia.

Until soon, wishing you all warmth and wellness.

"I am an Anglo-Saxonist" or, What a Medievalist Looks Like

I’d like to begin this blog post with a long, very important quote from an even longer, more important article.
Within the world of higher education, we are all working at a time when the value of academic knowledge is under attack. Every few weeks, another round of essays about the decline and fall of the humanities circulates through the media. Congress increasingly demands practical outcomes from government-supported scientific research, an attitude that, while appearing reasonable, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of basic science. The demand for explicitly vocational training threatens disciplines that offer knowledge over skills, creating a false dichotomy that sets academic programs at odds with one another… Meanwhile, the general public perceives faculty members as isolated from reality, holding cushy jobs, and uninterested in open communication. The public has little access to the broad diversity of knowledge, experience, and background inside higher education, because those academics who do achieve broader platforms generally come from only the most elite universities. Although many of those public intellectuals are brilliant writers and speakers, they represent only a tiny percentage of the expertise available in the academic world. That expertise lies not just in our subject fields but also in the habits of mind we bring to bear on countless other kinds of issues.    -From D Perry’s “My Initial Public Offering,” Chronicle of Higher Education, July 22, 2013.       

So the scene is set, is it not? Now, to the action.

I’ve been waiting to use this pic since December

This spring I presented the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Map (written about here and here, and presented at CUNY’s New Media in the Middle Ages) at the Medieval Academy of America, where I was one of three on a panel about medieval texts and mapping tools.
I was able to make some great connections, especially with the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and Brandon Hawk, who pretty much makes magic on his Studying Judith blog. Even more wonderful was the fact that my father had moved heaven and earth to fly in just for a few hours in order to see me. So as a whole it was a good time, but I was nagged by a feeling that I didn’t belong– a feeling that had not begun with, but was articulated by, an observation that an eminent,  male scholar had made to me when I first arrived: “You don’t look like a medievalist.” Perhaps he was right; I certainly didn’t feel like one, and I could only hope that he hadn’t been referring to something like this: 

Iris Van Herpen 2012 collection

In late July I presented the Map at SHARP‘s conference on “Geographies of the Book, where I was one of 14 presenters at a Digital Projects Showcase.
During the three hour showcase, not one minute passed without someone asking great questions or offering truly helpful advice. This really surprised me; most at MAA hadn’t seemed curious about any digital work presented at the conference. But here I was, surrounded not by medievalists but by book historians, and their feedback was extraordinary. So what was going on? Was I in the wrong place after all, or for the first time in the perfect place?
Medievalists as a whole are awkwardly interdisciplinary. We deal with a range of 1000 years and literature that is, by design, always derived from earlier works. But in none of the conferences I’d attended had there been such a special interest in and performance of academic activism and outreach as there was at SHARP.
For the last day of the conference Ian Gadd invited twelve new scholars to participate in a new kind of plenary, whose aim was to “assess our own current conceptions of book history by mapping the newer, emerging geographies represented by the conference’s papers and participants” and consider “the potential new vistas and pathways that lie ahead.” 
I was among the twelve who spoke for 5 minutes each; no one knew who was part of the plenary until the session itself, when we stood up from different points in the crowd (and could finally wear our name tag badges, seen below).

As planned, Ian Gadd thoroughly “eschew[ed] the traditional format of a small panel of very senior scholars for something more open, participatory, and dynamic” by speaking from the back of the room, leaving this rather stark scene at the front (though live twitter stream was projected).

I began my five minutes by boldly exclaiming, “I am Rebecca Shores, and I am an Anglo-Saxonist.” What had I done?! Did they know I still use cribs for my translations? Did they care that I’m still really confused by prepositions and complex constructions in the prose I study? Maybe, maybe not. 
But I spoke expertly on my own reservations about attending such a conference and pointed out that, although I thought SHARP was a stretch for me to attend, it ended up giving me a 3-hour platform for my project and role as a plenary speaker. As an Anglo-Saxonist. At a book history conference. AMAZINGNESS.
I encouraged the audience to continue to reach out across disciplines, institutions, and platforms– sharing our own love for our fields is the only thing that will keep us afloat. And then I looked to the live twitter stream projected on the wall. Right in front of me, in the words of my new friends and colleagues, was the image I’d been seeking for so long: this is what a medievalist looks like:
photo from Nicholas Morris’s Twitter feed (@Nickmimic)
And it is this image I took with me when I flew to Dublin for the meeting of The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists– a conference that began with an eminent, male scholar raising his hand to say, “Everyone please, remember to turn off your phones.” But more on this soon.
So keep sharing, readers, lest we forget who (and what) we are.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Map, v 2.0

I recently had the pleasure of presenting my mapping project at SHARP‘s Digital Projects Showcase. I’m in the middle of writing a reflection/call-to-arms on my experience there, but wanted to share my materials sooner. So here they are: images from my handouts and the newest version of the map.


A group of annalistic texts begun in the 9th century and, in one case, extending until the 12th.

It includes a variety of events: birth of Christ; natural and supernatural phenomena; royal births, coronations, deaths, and burials; consecrations; invasions; laws; property endowments; international and inter-family drama; the building (and burning) of towns.

A: the earliest surviving manuscript of the Chronicle; end date 1001; significant interest in Winchester

B: irregular annal numbers; end date 977; updated regnal list from A

C: “chronicle of chronicles” because of its sources; ends in the middle of 1066

D: integrates/conflates sources incorporated by C as one chunk; ends 1079; northern interest

E: longest chronicle version; end date 1154; begins in Old English and ends in Middle English

F: Bilingual

G: Copy of A


In content alone, the Chronicle is an important part of early English history and literature (listory? histerature?) And unlike its contemporary chronicles on the European continent, it is uniquely vernacular. Some versions contain important regnal lists; some include poetry; they all tell a different story of England, documenting in varied narratives of the arrival of Brutus, Angles, Saxons, Vikings, Normans, missionaries, and bishops. Version D has the longest treatment of a woman in it, describing (and perhaps defending?) Margaret of Scotland’s marriage. The same version (D) actually ends mid-word in the annal entry for 1079; version C ends halfway through the entry for 1066—on the Stamford Bridge—and before the Battle of Hastings.

Although annals seem to be primarily focused on time, these are actually just as preoccupied by space. Indeed, location is so important to these texts that until recently, most were referred to as the chronicle of a place name: Winchester Chronicle, Abingdon Chronicle, Worcester Chronicle, and Peterborough Chronicle.  But these names didn’t only show the onomastic interest of the chronicles’ contents; they more accurately reflect the scholarly effort to trace their transmission history—multi-layered narrative.


There are plenty of issues surrounding the cartography of complex texts. Here are some that I dealt with in Google Earth: 
1) The map of Anglo-Saxon “England” changes over the course of these texts:

 2) The transmission histories are complicated, at best:
3) There are practical issues of data selection and entry when not all annals have traceable place-names:


But Google Maps Engine has just come out, and that’s allowed me to sort and change displays. 

It sorts data by date and label by event (or vice versa):
It layers multiple versions (10th century A and E shown here, labels hidden):
It allows me to build a database within the mapping program itself:
Still, there are some kinks to work out before I move forward. Consider, for example, what happens when I try to map regions like Wessex and Mercia:
It’s not a pretty sight! Nevertheless, I’ve gotten great help from the UNC librarians and fellow SHARPists. More on both very, very soon.

Til then, 
Map on!

The newest Viking invasion


In my search for a dissertation topic (starting point: Anglo-Saxon prose), I am increasingly interested in exchanges among Anglo-Saxons and their North Sea neighbors.

I’ve recently been reading about spaces, places, and history (see my new Reading List page), but I keep being pulled by seafaring and its cultural impact on the region. So I started a new reading list, got on Amazon, and behold, the Vikings came straight to my door:

I stand by my tweet: “when vikings show up at your doorstep, let them in!”
My new line of inquiry comes as one of many in a series of summer novelties. Two different batches of baby birds hatched in our stoop; Drew graduated from law school (summa, 1st in his class, tons of awards); I’ve engaged in some small projects around the house. 

I also spent two weeks in London with librarians. My favorite firsts include seeing Stonehenge, the Alfred Stone, Oxford University Press, Bath, cave-crepes, and a tenth-century manuscript that I HELD WITH MY OWN TWO HANDS. 

After eleven straight weekends of travel, I was finally able to start my research in earnest. Once I realized that my interests were beginning to shift, I started with Haywood’s Dark Age Naval Power and Unger’s The Ship in the Medieval Economy, 600-1600.  Chapter 3, “Anglo-Saxon Piracy and the Migrations to Britain” was the most useful of Haywood’s chapters to my research. It introduced me to the Litus Saxonicum, a series of Roman coastal defenses along both sides of the channel. 
Litus Saxonicum, Wikimedia Commons

If only I’d picked this book up a few months earlier! I’ve missed the submission deadline for BABEL‘s 2014 “On the Coast”meeting in Santa Barbara, but I’m encouraged that shoreline studies are now on the cutting-edge (HA. get it? edge?).
Aaaaanyway, after the Romans withdrew from Britain in 410, Saxon raids increased. A note on vocabulary here– at this point in the story, no one’s a Viking yet.
Britons were native to the island; Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians were invaders. 
According to Haywood, archeological evidence suggests that the Anglo-Saxon settlements came in two waves: “the first began in the early fifth century and was confined mainly to eastern Britain and was confined mainly to eastern Britain between the Humber and the Thames”and the second, spanning the middle of the fifth century and the start of the sixth,  included “Kent and the south coast” as well as “the Midlands from East Anglia” (80).

 Haywood reads in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that, “the Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain after the mid-fifth century, such as Cerdic in Wessex or Aelle in Sussex, did not arive as either pirates or federates but as seaborne conquerors” (83). If those names seem at all familiar (and you’re not a medievalist), that’s totally legit. Here’s where you’ve heard them before: Cerdic is portrayed the previously blogged-about King Arthur (left). King Aelle(a) is a character on the TOTALLY AWESOME History Channel series, Vikings (right).
Ok, so, back to the scholarship. After briefly discussing the literary accounts of the 5th century invasions (Gildas, Bede, Gallic Chronicles, Anglo-Saxon Chronicles), Haywood reminds us that the Saxon raiders did not limit themselves to Briton–they raided in Gaul as late as the seventh century (though by now they’re starting from Britain as opposed to Saxony). Next he goes through the development of shipbuilding by the Angles and Saxons, showing that “by the second half of the seventh century we can be quite certain that the sail was in everyday use by the Anglo-Saxons” (107).  Note his use of Anglo-Saxon here. By now, this can refer to Angles and Saxons living in Britain. 
You’re rightly wondering, “where the ___ are the Vikings in this damn post?” Never fear, readers–they arrive just when you don’t expect them [kidding; see below].
The beginning of the Viking Age is marked by most at 789, when Scandinavians came to Portland and were mistakenly identified as merchants by an ill-fated reeve. The reason I included all this background is because in a grossly-over-simplified version of reality, the Vikings did to the Anglo-Saxons what the Angles and Saxons had done to the Britons. Just as Angles and Saxons came to Britain in raiding parties and eventually settled, so the Vikings (mostly Norse and Danish) arrived– at first as pillagers and then, as we can see from place-names, genealogies, genetics, archaeology, history, laws, and literature, as settlers in increasingly important ports. In case you’ve fallen into the “meh, I don’t really care about that” trap, check out McGlashan’s 2003 article about the Vikings’ generous beach laws, which I found in a perfectly-timed tweet by
Despite Haywood’s detailed coverage of pre-Viking shipbuilding, Unger’s analysis of shipbuilding technology and its economic impact in his chapter on “Vikings and Byzantines: 750-1000″ is surprisingly engaging (and I think better researched). Unger traces the development of vessels within the context of technological, military, and economic changes. He shows us that “[t]he development of the Viking ship was the most important change in European ship design from 750 to 1000″because it  “marked a significant improvement in the ability to move people” (Unger, 80-81). And these people, in turn, went south to Iberia and through the Mediterranean to Alexandria; east to the Black and Caspian Seas; and west to Iceland, Greenland, and Canada. The new Viking ships were stable, deep-seaworthy, and light enough to carry on small stretches of land (82). And how do we know this? Because we still have some. 
You can see a few at Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum, whose gift shop boasts such gems as Terry Jones’s children’s book and slides of the exhibits. SLIDES. 
“Wait, what are these?” And yes, it is THAT cold inside Norwegian museums in December

And the Viking warships weren’t their only vessels to reflect and affect social, political, and economic change. Here’s my last bit from Unger (for now):

The result of Viking voyages was to extend the realm of northern trade, to promote the full integration of Scandinavia into a northern trading network and to intensify trade within that network. The emergence of Europe about the year 1000 from the difficulties, political and economic, of the preceding 150 years was certainly a result of the end of raids by Vikings in their warships. But t was also a result of the ability of Scandinavians to turn their new type of vessel to commercial advantage. (94)
So you see, Vikings were able to conquer and settle; they drew new boundaries on land and carved new “whale-roads” at sea. Awesome, am I right?
My next book to read (and already the prologue was hard to put down) is Studies in the Medieval Atlantic, whose image I posted yesterday to facebook and Instagram. I hope to include it in a shorter post soon, but I’ll leave that for another day when I can give it the attention and space it deserves. 
Until next time, wishing everyone the blessings of newness (and no threats of invasion).

Works cited: 
Haywood, John. Dark Age Naval Power: A Reassessment of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Seafaring Activity. Routledge, 1999.
Unger, Richard W. The Ship in Medieval Economy 600-1600. London, 1980.

New page! My reading list

Hello again, readers!

To supplement the Taxonomic Chart of Medieval Research Tools and more general Academic Sources, I’ve added my personal reading list and goals for the summer on a new page, under the oh-so-spicy title of Reading List.

I will revisit this page as my list grows, and if feeling particularly ambitious or moved, will update it with short synopses or judgments. Let me know what you think, or if you have recommendations or requests.

Til soon,
Wishing everyone some bibliographic bliss.

Holy Women, pt 2

Welcome back! This will conclude the “choose your own adventure” on Holy Women. Hopefully most of my posts in the future will be about my dissertation research on Anglo-Saxon prose (yes, that’s as narrow as I’ve gotten it so far).

Moving away from holy women written by men to holy women written about themselves, I present #s 3 and 4: Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe.

Holy Woman #3: Julian of Norwich: “the visionary”
Julian (1342-1416) was an anchorite in Norwich. As an anchorite she engaged in contemplative prayer in an institution of the church that was sanctioned, if still somewhat marginalized, by the church.
Synopsis: Hers is actually two texts: the first recounting visions over the course of a few days, the second reflecting on those visions in the context of her later life and complex doctrinal issues. She focuses on the Trinity and especially Christ but says very little about sacraments.

Julian, Norwich Cathedral

Themes: For those interested in the intersections of orality and literacy, I should note that she does claim to be illiterate. This could be part of a medieval modesty topos, but it nevertheless opens up conversation for what it meant to have been a “well-read”woman in medieval England (and is worth bringing up in comparison to figures like the Wife of Bath).
Her visions are beautiful, sometimes frightening, and often moving. One of her most famous showings appears in her First Revelation, when God shows her “a little thing, the quantity of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of [her] hand, as it seemed, and it was round as a ball.” When she asks what it is, she hears, “It is all that is made” (I’ve modernized the spelling of Baker, p 9). The whole passage is tender but powerful, deftly confronting the microcosm/macrocosm in an extraordinarily intimate relationship with God.

You can find more about Julian of Norwich at Luminarium, but I highly recommend the Norton Critical edition of The Showings of Julian of Norwich by Denise Baker. You can even borrow my copy.

Holy Woman #4: Margery Kempe: “the housewife”
Margery is not a saint. Her writings are not particularly retrospective, nor even strictly autobiographical.    Synopsis: Margery’s Book documents her life at home and abroad; on pilgrimage and on trial. It deals with the hardships and persecutions she suffers as a woman traveling on her own and blessed with weeping spells. Unlike Julian, Margery constructs her narrative around episodic patterns rather than chronology.
Themes: Barry Windeatt writes, “[c]hronology has given way to patterns of episodes recounting loss, shame, and powerlessness, succeeded by vindication and precarious triumph, and followed in turn by renewed disempowerment and beleaguerment” (The Book of Margery Kempe, 26). But don’t get the impression that she’s just a victim of (admittedly, rather peculiar) circumstance; an especially memorable scene recounts her buying back her chastity from her husband. Nevertheless, Windeatt sees her story as a updated hagiography: “Here the assaults and tortures of a martyrdom have been updated into a middle-class housewife’s endurance, for her convictions, of her society’s contemptuous humiliation and character assassination” (19, 20).  I got defensive when I first read that; it felt like an indictment of her authority, authenticity, and even her life. But those three aspects are important for us to discuss with each other and with our students. Teaching this to undergrads would be fascinating. Who would be sick of her? Who would distrust her? Who would find the whole thing fascinating, and even inspiring? Who would wonder, since it’s not an instructional book, why she really had it written down? I’m not particularly fond of Margery’s book, but I can identify with her person/character, and I’d love to know what you, thoughtful reader, think of her, too.

Works cited: 
Baker, Denise N., ed. The Showings of Julian of Norwich. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. 
Windeatt, Barry, ed. The Book of Margery Kempe. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education, 2000.

Holy Women, pt 1

Since my last post, I’ve passed all my PhD exams, taken a few several weeks to recover, and gone to England for a couple of weeks. After my extended break, health issues, and a family visit, I am happy to be back and researching for my dissertation prospectus.
But first, I owe you all an adventure. Three months ago you voted on which should be my next blog post, and the tallies are in: Holy Women it is! Sorry for the delay.
In order to make up for lost time, I’ll do this in two installments.
Holy Woman #1: Constance in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale: “the mediator”


Chaucer’s story is a bit more elaborate and stylized than its Anglo-Norman source, a chronicle by Trivet. This blend of saint’s life and romance could also be called “Murderous Mothers-in-Law.”
Synopsis: A syrian sultan converts to Christianity in order to marry Constance, a merchant’s daughter. She’s not particularly keen on the idea, but unlike the Wife of Bath admits that women “are born to thralldom and penance, and to be under man’s governance.” The sultan’s mother resents that he converted for the pretty little thing; accordingly she fakes conversion, kills all the converts of her own land, and exiles Constance to Italy. Constance is shipwrecked in Northumbria, where she’s saved by the pagan but sympathetic King Alla. After he and his people are converted by her “mediation,” Alla and marries Constance and goes off to war, leaving her at the mercy HIS vengeful mother. In an intricate fake-letter plot, Constance’s new mother-in-law exiles her and her son. Eventually Alla catches on, returns home, kills his mother, and takes pilgrimage to Rome.
It’s been five years since Constance and her son have been lost at sea; she’s never given up hope, and although she pales three times in the story, her faith and prayers sustain them. At long last they wash ashore in Rome, where the family is reunited.  Alla and Constance return to England, living happily for one year before he dies. Constance leaves for Rome to live out her days with her son, now Emperor Maurice.
Themes: Constance is plotted against by older, pagan women; she accepts her fate without self-pity or despair; she leads by example, giving no grand speeches but converting others (especially powerful men) by “mediation.” She is always humble, quietly accepting her fate and seeking God’s protection.
Holy Woman #2: St Cecilia in Chaucer’s formerly-known-as-second-nun’s-tale: “the big reveal”


Influenced by Richard Love, Augustine, and the Franciscan Meditations on the Life of Christ, Chaucer’s S Cecilia is sometimes thought of as “the only good woman in the Canterbury Tales.” I take issue with that, but will let you make your own conclusions.
If Constance is patient and quietly brave, Cecilia is “busy” and urgently bold. We hear much more from Cecilia than we do from Custance, and I think part of that is due to genre: Man-of-Law’s Tale is hagio-romance, but Cecilia’s story is more strictly hagiographical. What fascinate me about Cecilia’s Tale (as I mentioned in my post on Values of the Hidden in 2011) are the visible elements of the story. There are secret angels, popes popping out of catacombs, magical golden books, covert meetings, clandestine conversions, but also spectacular confrontations and tortures.
Themes: Cecilia is nothing if not active; she engages in debates on logic and faith, and has strong ties to the secretive Christian community. She preaches for three days after being boiled and half-decapitated, emphasizing her role as one who reveals the truth of God as well as the “naked”ness of her fellow humans.

That’s all for now, but if you’re interested in reading more (and differently) about Chaucer, check out the mind-blowing Dark Chaucer: An Assortment.

Look out for my next post on holy women later this week:
Holy Woman #3: Julian of Norwich: “the visionary”
Holy Woman # 4: Margery Kempe: “the housewife”

Until then, here are some other sources of medieval holy women:

The Early South English Legendary
Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women
Bokenham’s Legends of Holy Women

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