Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War – The British Library, special exhibition.

Listen! And I will tell you of the best of exhibitions that I saw in London yesterday…

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library. This exhibition will end on February 19th, so I urge you to go along as soon as you can – its like will never be seen again in your lifetime. Full price tickets are £16, concessions available, booking in advance of your trip is essential.  For bookings, visit: https://www.bl.uk/events/anglo-saxon-kingdoms

Allow around 2 hours to see this exhibition – its scope and breadth are unspeakable. This is the ‘greatest hits’ of the literary life of the British Isles between the withdrawal of Rome (early 400 CE) and the Battle of Hastings (1066). The hefty 424-page exhibition catalogue (pictured here, £40 hardback) has been essential in helping me to digest the experience as it was almost too overwhelming to absorb the detail of its 180 objects.

As you may expect, the bulk of the books assembled here are Latin texts created during Britain’s early ecclesiastical culture; these were copied by scribes on vellum and richly illustrated. Preservation rates are strong in these elements of the collection as these sacred texts were cared for and then often hidden in order that they survived the Reformation. These texts are numerous, but were written for the Church, in the language of the Church. Even if they had been permitted to see one of these books, the average inhabitant of these islands would not have understood them.

For me, the real high points of the exhibition were the displays of texts written in Anglo-Saxon English (or ‘Old English’) of which there are so very few in existence: not many were ever created as Anglo-Saxons were largely illiterate, yet this was the language of the ‘common folk’ of these lands, predominantly consisting of, or descending from, Scandinavian and Germanic people who had variously invaded and settled here. As the subject-matter of these books was often more secular in nature, this tiny portion of literature has not always benefitted from the protection of the Church in the way that their contemporary Latin books have. We owe a great debt of gratitude to figures such as Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), an antiquarian bibliophile who collected so many texts and documents in his personal library.  The best-laid plans, however, go oft astray – a fire destroyed and degraded many of his books in 1731, at which point his collection was already highly regarded as a national treasure.

One of the texts which was partially destroyed by this fire is known as Beowulf (named retrospectively for its protagonist hero as no title is given). The best estimation is that this text was written down around 1000 CE, but it contains a tale handed down for many generations before that via the oral tradition. This is the first known ‘story’ from the British Isles: it recounts a tale of Danes and Swedes combining forces to do battle with monsters and dragons. This type of story, brought to Britain by an immigrant culture, came to form the modern-day Fantasy genre via the work of Anglo-Saxon scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien in the mid-20th century.

The exhibition sees the return to these shores of some texts which have not been seen in Britain for quite some centuries, such as the Codex Amiatinus – a gigantic illustrated bible which takes several people and a wheelbarrow to shift (Northumbria, created before 716 CE). Also experiencing a homecoming is the Vercelli Book (c. 975 CE) which contains several of the most important and profound poems in Anglo-Saxon and has been housed in Italy since the early 1100’s: the supposition is that a Pilgrim took it from Britain to Rome and never brought it back – to be fair, it does look heavy…

It’s not just religion and secular poetry on display here: the early British understanding of astronomy and medicinal remedies is on offer here too, along with maps, letters, accounts of Far-Eastern exploration and a collection of early music. These scores are accompanied by a set of headphones so that you can hear recordings of the music, which pre-dates the development of the major-minor key systems – chillingly beautiful in its modal inflections.

Fittingly, the through-flow of the exhibition terminates with The Great Domesday Book (c. 1086) which marked the Norman conquest’s full comprehension of the territory they had colonised following the Battle of Hastings. This account of every house, pig and slave in Britain sits beneath a short but helpful video by leading historians who give the circumstances of the book’s creation.

If all this isn’t enough, the exhibition is liberally studded with Anglo-Saxon ‘bling’ which adorns the walls as you move from one set of book display-cases to the next. Precious treasure from the Sutton Hoo ship burial and the Staffordshire Hoard is displayed for context – the Potteries Museum of Stoke-on-Trent is given a thankful acknowledgement as a lender to the exhibition.

The British Library has been planning this exhibition for around 7 years – it has taken this long to carefully coordinate and curate this event which has gathered together precious British books from as far afield as New York and Florence, as well as the prestigious UK collections such as are housed in the University libraries of Oxford and Cambridge – and, of course, the British Library’s own Treasures Collection. The international effort behind this exhibition corresponds with a genuine sense of the pan-European character of early Britain, and serves as a timely reminder of the fruitful nature of cultural exchange and integration – be that though the spread of Christianity from Ireland and Rome, or the multiple immigrant cultures from Northern Europe. The exhibition shows that the deeper we look into Britain’s past, the more it seems to be composed of a fascinating collage of many cultural voices.

If you like books – you really must go. If you don’t like books…. well, you really must go and see a special Doctor about that.

Photos: the front-cover of the exhibition catalogue, and its double-page spread of the richly illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels (Northumbria, c.700 CE).

Melanie Ebdon.

“It’s not at all grim up North” –

At the end of June I attended a one-day interdisciplinary conference at York St John University: the title of the conference was “Uplandish: New Perspectives on Northern England’s ‘Wild’ Places”.  The topics which people presented on were very varied and included: film-making, the cultural mythology of the Moors Murderers, the history of Dove Cottage (Wordsworth’s most famous home), and the work of the National Trust in securing UNESCO World Heritage status for the Lake District.  My paper was one of a handful of literary-critical papers that day – it was titled “Sarah Hall’s Wild Women of the North”.

My 20-minute paper gave a brief analysis of the idea of wildness in three novels by Sarah Hall: The Carhullan Army (2006), The Wolf Border (2015) and Haweswater (2002).  I focussed on the presentation of central female characters as embedded within the Cumbrian landscape of all three texts, its ecosystem and the contestation of traditional stereotypes that this entails.  My paper gave a broadly ecofeminist reading of the literature, and made the point that the association of women and nature is not at all retrogressive in Hall’s writing but, rather, is presented as a source of radical energy which enables the women to intervene in political history, as opposed to seeing them excluded from it.

My paper concluded with a question: these novels seem to fit in with a trend in contemporary literature to access the authentic, ecologically-implicated, animal self – an identity which stands in sharp contrast to our increasingly technologically-mediated existence; does this represent a genuine cultural turn developing in the new millennium, or are these just consolatory fictions which we can shut off from when we close the book?

I very much enjoyed giving this paper, as well as the discussions over coffee with other delegates, in particular another academic – Dr. Justin Sausman of the University of Hertfordshire – who also presented on Haweswater.  Another personal highlight for me was having the opportunity to quote a small section of Beowulf in Anglo Saxon (yes, it was relevant to a discussion about the literary history of monstrosity and the moors!).

York is just lovely – you should go, especially if you really like a bit of Viking history mixed in with your organic cafes and high-end clothing stores.

My thanks to the University for funding my trip.  Next stop: a conference on Eco-Gothic in Dublin, Trinity College, late November – yey!

Dr Melanie Ebdon

 

A Trip to Bronte-Land!

Haworth Parsonnage – home of the Bronte family:  On April 1st-2nd, a few Staffordshire Uni English and Creative Writing students went on a trip to Haworth.  On the Saturday we visited Haworth Parsonnage, home of the Bronte Family.  On the Sunday we walked a total of 9 miles along the Pennine Way to Top Within: this now ruined farmhouse is said to have been the inspiration for the house called Wuthering Heights in Emily’s novel of the same name.  Well worth it – and we had a lovely fine day.  With thanks to Cathryn Hurd for many of these photos and for driving us!

This is where the magic happened: the table at which Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre and Emily wrote Wuthering Heights.  The museum information described this desk as “One of the most important literary artefacts of the 19th century” – I’d say it’s one of the most important literary artefacts ever.  The table was purchased and brought back into the home in 2015 at a price of £580,000.  The family who sold the table to the Bronte Museum had used the table for their Christmas dinners…!

Everything stops for tea (and a coconut slice)

Getting into the Victorian vibe – what a lovely couple!

Setting off on a ramble up the Pennine Way towards Top Withen (why does this remind me a bit of the Tellytubbies…?).

Approaching Bronte Bridge

Gaining a little altitude – almost there!

The pen-name signatures of all three published Bronte sisters

Careers Week: Graduate Talks

Thursday 9th November 2016 – Careers Week

Today we had talks from three graduates of the English and Creative Writing awards at Staffs Uni

  • Danielle Booker, manager of local PR company ‘Lyme Communications’
  • Sharon Sant – novelist (Romantic fiction under the pen-name ‘Tilly Tennant’, Young Adult fiction as herself)
  • Bram Welch – Entertainment Journalist

 

20161110_114531

The speakers brought a wealth of diverse topics to the panel, which in turn generated many helpful questions from the current undergraduates in attendance.   Having attended the careers talks this week and last, I can see several important linking themes emerging, which I shall summarise here:

  1. All speakers stressed the importance of forming good friendship groups at undergraduate level in order to support and encourage you in the key task of getting through your degree!
  2. Relatedly, there was further emphasis in every presentation regarding the need for networking after graduating.  This could mean any of the following: keeping in touch with your fellow graduates, attending events relevant to your areas of employment interest, letting family and friends beyond the Uni know about your skills set/career aspirations, creating a LinkedIn profile, creating a Facebook page for professional use only.  Get to know people and get people to know you!  Many of the stories we heard at these talks depended upon happy coincidence, and that coincidence was generated by networking.
  3. A degree doesn’t necessarily mean that you get a job – work on YOU.  Become someone that an employer wants to employ: work on your interpersonal skills, your self-confidence, maybe even your manners.  Learn to cultivate a good presentation of self.  Develop your personality by travelling, possibly even by living and working in other countries (Bram talked very enthusiastically about the TEFL scheme), volunteer – even for things that aren’t directly relevant to what you’d like to do eventually.  If you have no particular career path in mind, then pick some work experience and just make yourself do it; if you hate it, you can at least discount that field.  If you love it you could be making valuable links for later on.   Any work experience will give you life-experience and help you with your personal development.
  4. Find out about Graduate Schemes – you may not even be interested in the field in which any given scheme is based, however, you can be well-paid and given intensive training in a variety of skills which will stand you in good stead for a range of other careers.   This tip was really just from Kerry Ann last week, but it’s such good advice that I had to include it here.
  5. Managing your existing online profile/s: if a potential employer were to Google you, what would they find…?  It’s time to think carefully about what’s out there on the internet and how it will look from a professional context… (Again, this was just from Kerry Ann, but too important to leave out!)
  6. Start the wheels in motion NOW!  This was a common and crucial piece of advice we heard from every speaker.  All 6 of these points can be tackled right now, today, yes – even in the 1st semester of your 1st year!

The talks were – obviously – much richer than this list can indicate.  We are very grateful to our alumni for returning to pass on their pearls of wisdom and inspire our current undergraduates with a lot of food for thought.

Melanie Ebdon.