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.


AHFest2016 | CLAMS students

screen shot of caroline bergvall

I put together a series of blog posts for the CLAMS student blog, all about the various ‘new medieval’ work that has inspired our ‘Playing with medieval visions, sounds, sensations’ workshops. It was a lot of fun writing these posts, some of which I’ve wanted to do for a while, so it was good to have a purpose and a deadline to write for!

My favourite post to write, of course, was a short exploration of Caroline Bergvall’s Drift, a poem of epic proportions which begins with a rewriting/ reimagining/ retelling of the Old English Seafarer poem.


Take just the first line of the Old English Seafarer for example:

Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan…

[Keeping the word order: ‘May I of my self true stories tell’; or literally: ‘I may tell a true story about myself’]

And now Caroline Bergvall’s words:

‘Let me speak my true journeys, own true songs Maeg ic, I can make my sorry tale right soggy truth sothgied sodsgate some serious wrecan my ship sailing rekkies tell Hu ic how ache wracked from travel…’

From one line of Old English Bergvall has spun out five lines. Each Old English word is teased and tested and stretched. ‘Soðgied’, in truth pronounced ‘soth-yed’, is here turned into ‘sodsgate’: a transformation that always reminds me of when I was first learning Old English, I would always accidentally read ‘ð’ as ‘d’. Also, to note, I’ve used the book version of the text to get the spellings for this section, but hearing the poem aloud the words more obviously reveal their playfulness, for example ‘some serious wrecan my ship’ could be ‘some serious wreck-an my ship’.

Read more: AHFest2016 | CLAMS students

Hearts, minds, and sea birds | via Medieval Comics

Folio 81v of the Exeter Book [The Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral]
I wrote a little blog about the Seafarer poem and the mysterious ‘anfloga’, which I chose as a snapshot to give the Medieval Comics project. I can’t wait to see what artist Karrie Fransman does with the poem!

“The Seafarer describes the irresistible call to sea and his experiences on the ocean, but this is a poem of the mind..”

Source: Hearts, minds, and sea birds | Medieval Comics

Booking now open: Playing with the medieval | CLAMS students

Very exciting! I will be running a series of workshops at King’s College London as part of the Arts and Humanities Festival 2016. Booking is now open and full details released!

We are very happy to announce that booking for the Arts and Humanities Festival 2016 is now open! CLAMS PhD candidates Charlotte Rudman, Charlotte Knight, Francesca Brooks, Francesca Allfrey, Beth …

Source: Booking now open: Playing with the medieval | CLAMS students

Short Film: True Songs

True Songs ASFF

My short film ‘True Songs’ has made the official selection of Aethetica Magazine’s Short Film Festival 2016.

I’m so excited to go up to York for a weekend of films, and hear my Nonna’s voice in a cinema!

The film is an abstract series of changing focus shots of a shelf in my grandparents’ old house, with a soundtrack of stories being recounted by my Nonna. The title is a little nod to The Seafarer poem, with its first line, as rendered by so many translations. I love the cadences in my Nonna’s voice. I love the way her language slips into Italian sometimes. I love how unfazed she was by an audio recorder, she spoke with such honesty and openness. I made the film during a tough period for her, and for my family, so it’s nice to be able to share her stories now.

Screen Shot 2016-08-27 at 12.24.05.png
The first lines of The Seafarer poem, as translated by Ezra Pound, Nora Kershaw, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Amy Kate Riach, Craig Williamson, and Caroline Bergvall. Collage detail from the Gift for the Illuminated Sphere.


The ‘Dark Ages’ | English Heritage

Source: The ‘Dark Ages’ | English Heritage

“In relation to the interpretation scheme at Tintagel Castle, the terms ‘post-Roman’ and ‘pre-Saxon’ are difficult, particularly in the context of Cornish history. More scholarly names such as ‘late Antiquity’, ‘migration period’ or ‘early Christian’ are all potentially problematic for the general public. ‘Early medieval’ or ‘early Middle Ages’ is perhaps the most suitable, but we have found that these terms are popularly associated with the period around 1066 and the Normans; potentially confusing at a site such as Tintagel which also has medieval buildings.

Our historian found Ken Dark’s 2004 paper  influential (Dark, K. 2004 ‘Back to the ‘Dark Ages’? Terminology and preconception in the archaeology of fifth- to seventh-century Celtic Britain’ Journal of Celtic Studies 4, 193-200). In this he sets out the alternatives and comes to the conclusion that it isn’t a particularly bad term to use, as it is widely understood by public and scholars alike. We discuss the terminology in more detail in the English Heritage guidebook, and we trust that our description of the high-status settlement and trading activities at this time helps to show visitors that these were richly complex times indeed.

With regards to the terminology on our Story of England pages, we acknowledge that the term ‘Dark Ages’ is not perfect and welcome suggestions for alternative descriptions, bearing in mind the difficulties we have with commonly used alternatives, as outlined above. The term must be short, generally valid for the period c.400 – 1066 and crucially, must be understandable to the wider public…”