Playing with medieval visions, sounds, sensations | via King’s Medieval students

First posted on  Playing with medieval visions, sounds, sensations | King’s Medieval Student Blog


The theme for this year’s arts and humanities festival at King’s was announced as ‘Play’ way back in spring 2016. A few of us PhD students in the English department had known for a while that we wanted to put together an event to explore our academic interests which sit slightly outside of our main PhDs: namely, a wide range of work that can be called ‘contemporary medieval’ [1].

We enjoy the work of writers such as Patience Agababi and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, who have rewritten Chaucer; Caroline Bergvall, whose performances and poems play with modern and medieval literature and language; the gorgeous artefacts from the King’s Archives; and a whole range of other work that has transformed medieval texts over time – we’ve written about some on this blog.

A workshop in progress. c. David Tett
A workshop in progress. Photo: David Tett

We decided therefore to initiate some more play with medieval things, and invited participants to join us in workshops rather than lecture halls. We wanted to create a memorable encounter with these medieval poems, and an opportunity to be playfully creative. We also wanted to engage many senses: aural/ oral, textual, and visual. The workshops were imagined as a ‘first step’ for those new to Old or Middle English or, for those who were current or prior students, an exercise that would be something totally different to the things that they usually do in a classroom.

We decided on two poems to explore during our workshops: the Old English Dream of the Rood and Chaucer’s The House of Fame.

We chose these poems for a few reasons, practical and academic: both are long enough poems to break down into chunks for a workshop; both are ‘dream visions’; and both have not been either translated into new texts or images on a large scale (compared with, say, Beowulf or the Canterbury Tales). They are full of exciting sensory moments: brilliant lights or images, movement between earth and sky, and in both texts more than one voice speaks.

House of Fame workshop in progress!
House of Fame workshop in progress!

In the room we had a range of materials for making, pens, pencils, typewriter, scanner/ printer, newspapers and magazines, as well as images of manuscripts and medieval art, maps and diagrams, and copies of ‘new medieval’ work that inspired us. We realized that what we included in the room would shape the creative ideas that participants had, and their understanding of the meanings of the poems, but we encouraged everyone to gravitate to the materials they found most interesting.

We really enjoyed the sessions, and were surprised and happy with the way people responses to our strange old poems. We discussed what ‘medieval’ means today. We had some philosophical conversations what ‘translation’ is (were we making versions, remixes, new work, retellings of the poems?). We discussed the development of the English language, and wondered about why some words had lasted through the Middle Ages when so many had disappeared. We even discussed medieval science and theology in some detail.

Above all, we were excited to see how people’s collages, translations, or new poems really got into the spirit of the festival theme, ‘Play’, with some touching, hilarious, insightful, and simply surreal results!

Carl Kears at 'playing with medieval visions' evening. Photo: David Tett
Carl Kears at ‘playing with medieval visions’ evening. Photo: David Tett

‘Playing with medieval visions…’ came to an end with a day-long exhibition of the workshop art and texts, followed by talks from Fran Brooks on the medievalism of David Jones, and Carl Kears on the ‘new Old English’ treasures of the Eric Mottram archive.

In the spirit of the small press relics found in the Eric Mottram archive, we pulled together the work made by everyone into two zines: new editions, if you like, of The Dream of the Rood and the House of Fame. Thank you to all our participants who came – whether to workshops, the exhibition, talks, or all three. We hope these little books are a fitting way to remember all the conversations, creations, and play!

‘Playing with medieval visions’ team: Fran Allfrey, Francesca Brooks, Charlotte Knight, Carl Kears, Charlotte Rudman, and Beth Whalley.

[1] ‘contemporary medieval’ is borrowed from medieval scholars Clare Lees and Gillian Overing.

‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’  were a series of five workshops, an exhibition, and symposium organised by PhD students for the Arts and Humanities Festival 12, 13, 17, 21 October 2016. Participants were invited to play with Chaucer’s ‘House of Fame’ or the Old English ‘Dream of the Rood’ , using them as starting points for new textual/ visual work. The events were generously supported by the AHRI and by the Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s.

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