I’ve been asked to put a presentation together for a Doctoral Seminar. The Seminars are mainly designed to get my cohort to get to know each other, and each others’ work, and create a friendly space for discussion.
Tasked with the mission of making Anglo-Saxon studies interesting to a room full of Shakespearean, Victorian, and contemporary scholars I’ve gone with the approach of just telling a story. It’s also been really good for me writing this and getting my thoughts in order, as, to be honest, I’ve definitely been panicking a little for the first 4 weeks of term. Writing this out has felt good! So here’s the story of my PhD so far…
My project is all about understanding how Anglo-Saxon stories perform social, cultural, or political work today. I will be looking at the twentieth – twenty first century ‘lives’ of Anglo-Saxon texts and objects (things that were created in England between about 400-1000CE), including the ‘Seafarer’ Old English poem, the Latin life of ‘St Columba’, and the treasures of Sutton Hoo and Staffordshire Hoard. The work of archaeologists, museum curators, amateur medievalists, artists, creative writers, and mainstream media from the last 30 years will be my contemporary focus.
This work develops upon my MA dissertation, which tracked the development of translations of the poem known as the ‘Seafarer’. It all started with a display at the British Library exhibition ‘Writing Britain’. In the ‘coast’ section was the Exeter Book, one of the four extant manuscripts of Old English poetry, open at the Seafarer page. Next to the case, a pair of headphones, with Ezra Pound’s affected, booming voice, accompanied by kettle-drums, reading his ‘translation’. I became fixated with interrogating what a translation is and what it can do, what sort of thing can count as translation, who can do it, and who gets to experience it, and why is this interesting, for Anglo-Saxonists, but also at an individual, local, and wider social level.
My research took me from reading every text-based ‘Seafarer’ translation I could get my hands on, but I soon realised that the Seafarer existed beyond the page. All of a sudden arguments in the Times Literary Supplement, the work of an enthusiastic independent philologist, his illustrator acquaintance, her links with an independent printing press, with a Cambridge college, and a contemporary classical music composer became part of my research. The high points included interviewing British Library curator, the very lowest point: getting bitten to death by bedbugs in a dirt-cheap Newcastle hostel.
Since my MA, amazing projects have taken place that I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in or at least witness: involving artists, creative translation, performance, and collaboration, and getting Old English out of the classroom. I don’t know whether there is more work going on between medieval and modern art, or whether I’m just noticing things more because I’m looking for them. Anyway, through every new encounter, my project scope widened…
After a summer of casting around trying to think about everything all at once, reading everything from performance philosophy texts, to art history, to social theory, and confusing myself with new languages and ways of thinking, my supervisors have had to help me choose a path to tackle first, to get back to a primary source. So I’m now at the beginning of Phase 1: get to know Sutton Hoo – a seventh century ship burial site discovered in 1939, now owned by the National Trust, and related found treasures, now owned the British Museum, the shiniest of which are on display in the Early Medieval gallery.
Practically, this means that I’m gathering facts. I’ve started by working my way through the Sutton Hoo Society Newsletter. I’ve been up to Sutton Hoo to have a guided tour and listen to some site-inspired music. I’m going to go on to watch BBC programmes from across the 20th century, sift through plays and ‘fan fiction’ written by Sutton Hoo enthusiasts, dig through the Daily Mail archive (they seem to like covering it), and in the words of my supervisor ‘read every word ever written by Martin Carver’ (the archaeological research lead in the 1980s dig, the last dig at Sutton Hoo). That should keep me busy until at least Christmas.
But embarking on this research makes me anxious. I know that seems like a pretty solid to do list, but it’s eclecticism makes it feel unstable. Medieval literature scholars tend to not bother with fan club newsletters, the work of amateurs doesn’t get theorised by Anglo-Saxon philologists. I’m stealing the language of theatre and performance, museology, history, and literary theory and mashing them all together to fit my own purposes. And I don’t really know what I’m going to use those words to say, I don’t know what I’m looking for, I don’t know how to justify quite yet what medieval literature researchers might get out of exploring objects and people. I don’t really know what anyone might get out of it. I just think it’s important to have a look…
“A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’
But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.” – J R R Tolkien, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’.