Musings of a domesticated scholar

Category: medieval research Page 1 of 3

What do the sheep say?

It was the little knight‘s turn to pick the text for #WhanThatAprilleDay16. In light of his favorite Easter toy (once his dad’s), IMG_2060.jpgand in keeping with my recent interest in sounds of the past, he chose the short catalog of animal sounds in Aldhelm’s De metris et enigmatibus— a treatise on poetic meter.

Aldhelm was a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon, but according to Susan Rankin of Cambridge, “[t]he catalogue of words describing the sounds made by animals– or uoces animantium (animal voices)– goes back at least as far as the mid-fifth century and survives in various textual traditions” (Cantus Scriptus, 13).


British Library, Additional MS 42130, Folio 163v via

For Aldhelm, this list helped distinguish the human, signifying voice from non-human, non-signifying noise. To learn more about classical and early medieval classifications of vox and sonus, look at Rankin’s “Capturing Sounds: The Notation of Language” in Ransom and Dillon’s Cantus Scriptus: Technologies of Medieval Song.

The text appears on an eighth-century leaf bound with a ninth-century copy of Isidore’s Etymologies. Rankin’s transcription is partial, so I’ve included the manuscript  below.


Zofingen, Stadtbibliothek PA 32, f. I r. (

Nam apes ambizant uel bombizant…asini oncant uel rudunt…boues mugiunt uel reboant…cicadae fretinnunt… elefanti barriunt uel stridunt…equi hinniunt…galline cacillant…galli cantant uel cucurriunt…meruli zinzitant/ oves balant…porci grundiunt…ranae coaxant…

Can you guess which animal is which? Reading aloud will help (and remember, they’re  plural animals). You can also take a quick listen to my recording of Rankin’s excerpt.

By the way, this is a really fun way to introduce yourself (and/or your toddler) to any language. So may your spring be abuzz with sounds– ancient and animal alike!


Pregnancy, Motherhood, and the Dissertation Chapter

In October of 2013 I submitted my dissertation prospectus to a table of enthusiastic and supportive professors. One of them called attention to a particular sentence buried in the middle of the document. “I see here that you’ve written…Could you please tell us about…Well this sentence, right here: ‘It seems difficult, but nevertheless realistic, to complete these hours and the dissertation by the spring of 2016 in light of upcoming and unanticipated parenthood.’ Are congratulations in order?”

Yes, they most certainly were. My committee members could not have been more kind in that moment of revelation, and I would have gladly reveled in their sweet remarks had morning sickness not rushed me out of the meeting.

My plan was ambitious. I was going to write my first chapter by the end of that summer. I was going to take only one semester off from teaching. I was going to nurse for three months, get right back on my ADD meds, and be back to work in no time. All said, I would be unmedicated for exactly one year and then be back to normal, just with more to do.

Well, two years later, I am still tweaking my stimulant medication. I was put on anti-depressants from the middle of my pregnancy through the first few months of my son’s life to prevent postpartum depression (a successful experiment). I am on my fourth “new” birth control.  I took a year off from teaching. I gained (and lost) fifty pounds, but forfeited a lot of muscle and am plagued by loose skin. And as inspired as I was by the momentary spotlight on sexism directed towards the appearance of women in academia, I am nevertheless really embarrassed by my new body.


One of us has lunch. One of us has pants. It is almost NEVER both for each.

In the context of this not-so-brave new world, I submitted my first chapter A WHOLE YEAR after I thought I would. My mapping project is threatening to join the quickly increasing stack of “things that didn’t work out.” So what has happened? Is it mere laziness that binds me to my TV? Or feelings of being overwhelmed? Or a variety of chemical combustions occurring as I struggle to find equilibrium? Or the loneliness I feel when I think, “am I really all alone in this struggle?”

How did I think this would be so simple? Why did I assume that there was a “New Normal”? All of my social media “friends” with children seem to have graduated and gotten jobs in the time that I spent staring blankly from my couch.

Cognitive Therapy has taught me a lot about ways to push back against these thoughts: I did have a healthy pregnancy; I do have a sweet little boy. I have been able to spend time with him during his first year. I am back in the classroom. I have medical issues that others do not.

But this is so unsatisfying! Who cares what good I’ve got? What I really want is my degree and a job. Can I square that with also wanting to be with my toddler? If so, how? Or is it already too late, anyway? Is the damage to my CV irreparable (not published, no teaching awards, no honors or certificates)? And even if I do just crank this thing out, will it be at the cost of something else, like my marriage or parenting? How can I make a choice when there is so much at stake?

The dissertation process is daunting for everyone. I hate my first chapter. It is scattered; it lacks unity because it lacks depth. I also resent my first chapter. It took too long. It took too much. It isn’t enough.

But you know what? I’m going to share some of it in September after I meet with my director. And I’ll post about teaching Gilgamesh tablets and the Beowulf codex and the Bayeux Tapestry. Why? Because if I can get through the past two years, I can surely get through the next two.

Until next time, wishing you all unabated productivity.

[edited March 2, 2016].



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.

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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