Musings of a domesticated scholar

Author: Rebecca Shores Page 2 of 9

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.   – 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.

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