ISAS 2017: ‘Global Anglo-Saxonists’

This summer, I was able to attend the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists’ eighteenth biennial meeting at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa, 29 July – 1 August 2017. I had been accepted as a panel speaker at the conference, and was also lucky to be given the opportunity to participate in the pre-conference Jerry H. Bentley Graduate Student Workshop.

UH Hawaii!

Now you might be wondering (as my family and friends certainly did!) what on earth Anglo-Saxonists might be doing in Hawai`i. Practically, the conference moves around between the Europe and the Americas on rotation: it was the turn of a Western US institution. Theoretically, and more crucially, being far-removed from the creation-locations of the peoples, texts, and objects that most of us study on a daily basis, was conceived as a way of being able to reconsider how we read, categorise, and interpret both these ‘original’ subjects, and the way that they continue to work across the world today as symbols in contemporary creative writing, religion, and politics.

Gorgeous yellow brick, trees, shadows, at UH.

As many conference speakers reminded us, medieval poems and symbols are not neutral artefacts, symbolising only that which they were ‘originally intended’. Michael W. Scott (London School of Economics & Political Science) in his keynote, showed how medieval Christian practices and saints were used by nineteenth century missionaries in the Pacific: converts were baptised with early Anglo-Saxon names, churches and monasteries named and built in the northern European styles, and rituals and rites transferred across the centuries and seas. The #PublicMedievalism round table organized by Sihong Lin, Mateusz Fafinski, and Kate Mees, focused on practical ways that teachers of the early medieval period can combat discrimination in classrooms and further afield, and take back medieval symbols that have been appropriated by alt-right groups. Of course, before and after the conference many other conversations were had surrounding its aims to reevaluate Anglo-Saxon studies and how far it met them – see this blog post on In the Middle by Adam Miyashiro for more nuanced discussion than I can incorporate here. Many speakers also noted before beginning their papers the lack of diversity represented by conference attendees, with few people of colour giving presentations at a conference that aimed to think globally.

Campus chickens!

My own paper, ‘Re-performing Anglo-Saxon migration narratives in a time of refugee crisis’, read Caroline Bergvall’s Drift project 2012-2015 – which encompasses printed and performed poetry and visual work – as a work that uses medieval texts to trouble nationalistic, border-defined understandings of how the world works. Drift opens with a re-writing of the Old English Seafarer poem, and brings together this and other medieval and modern accounts of voyages, including a report on the ‘Left to Die’ boat, which tells the story of nine survivors of 72 Libyan migrants who attempted to cross the Mediterranean in a rubber dingy. Bergvall uses Old English language and stories to speak about what it is to be a moving, desiring, and suffering subject, always in relation to others. She renders the medieval as audible and read-able through her own migrant, queer, female body, while she makes space for those – to use Srishti Krishnamoorthy’s term – most ‘illegible’ bodies: ‘refugees’. Bergvall’s is an appropriation of medieval narratives that works against prejudice and discrimination.

The amazing sports complex at UH.

I was very excited that my paper was part of a conference that also included papers on a range of new Anglo-Saxonisms. Elaine Treharne and Francesca Brooks gave papers on difference aspects of the early English and Welsh languages and landscapes imagined by David Jones; Mary Kate Hurley introduced the ‘Old English’  poetry of Lytton Smith; Daniel Donoghue gave fascinating insight on the editorial and authorial history of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf (or rather, Beowulfs – there are so many versions!); and Jane Toswell christened Henry Wadsworth Longfellow the ‘Unexpected Anglo-Saxonist’. I was also happy to be on the same panel as Courtney Barajas’s important insights from teaching the middle ages post-Trump. Against one or two complaints from within ISAS’s ranks, it is really exciting and encouraging to have a whole clutch of scholars insisting that the study of Anglo-Saxonisms, of modern stuff, very much belongs among philology, palaeography, and the reading of texts and objects made 1000 years ago. Dissenters are in the minority!

Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, UH.

The Jerry H. Bentley workshop was two days of seminar-style discussions with eleven other graduate students from around the US and UK, led by world historian Fabio López-Lázaro and Anglo-Saxon cultural historian Karen Jolly. Under the theme of ‘The Global Anglo-Saxonist’ we had been invited to read broadly and deeply prior to attending the conference, with our reading list launching us through renowned scholarship from Pacific writers, to edited collections on the state of the field of medieval studies, digital humanities, and essays on the nature of experiencing time. I cannot list all the ‘lightbulb’ moments generated during the workshop, however, discussions of how ‘Early England’ specialists should consider more often the impact of activities east of Rome, and how specialists in Old English might remember the influence of Latin thinking, on the humans and the texts that we study, will stick with me.

The Luau, or special lunch, generously hosted by Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, UH.

An idea that I’ve turned over a lot since returning from the conference is the paradox of being an ‘Anglo-Saxonist’, or, really, any ‘specialist’. Yes, we must all choose a temporal or thematic focus in order to become experts in a given field (and work within a university system that has demarcated disciplinary boundaries). However, we must always keep in mind the wider contexts of ‘our topic’, or think about how, actually, by framing questions differently, ‘separate’ fields reveal themselves to be constituent parts of a wider whole. Whether this means reading outside of our usual classmarks or collaborating with others, I am excited by the opportunities for thinking globally, across times and spaces, that being an Anglo-Saxonist can open up.

Just as important as the exchange of ideas at ISAS, was getting to meet so many peers and established scholars across Anglo-Saxon studies. I hope that us workshop graduate students will stay in touch (hooray for medievaltwitter!). Many thanks to the Anglo-Saxonist mentoring initiative for linking me up with Professor Ben Saltzman, University of Chicago, who shared his experiences of post-PhD life and cheerfully dragged me out of my comfort zone (quietly scoffing snacks in the corner) to the melée of chatter with other attendees during break times. I would recommend that medievalists sign up to the mentoring for Leeds and Kzoo this year!

Post conference, some beach time! Pro tip: don’t go to conferences in exciting places, you will spend the whole time with part of your mind thinking about the beach outside of the dark auditorium…

Finally, very many thanks are due to LAHP and to the sponsors of the ISAS conference. A large donation to ISAS from previous UH Law Associate Dean, Carol Mon Lee, in memory of her husband, Emeritus professor of world history at UH Jerry H. Bentley, facilitated bed, board, conference fees, and the workshop for graduate students. A generous grant from the London Arts and Humanities Partnership made my attendance at both the workshop and conference possible, without which I would have missed out on so many exciting, challenging, and eye-opening conversations, that I aspire to continue in my teaching and research.


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!

Originally posted on the Medieval Comics blog: Hearts, minds, and sea birds | Medieval Comics

The Old English poem we call ‘The Seafarer’ is found in the tenth-century Exeter Book, a large codex (book) of poems and riddles, still housed in the library at Exeter Cathedral since it was given by Bishop Leofric in the eleventh century.

Ostensibly, in ‘The Seafarer’ we listen to a man who describes the irresistible call to sea and his experiences on the ocean: a place where he is at once alone and longing for land, but from which he cannot stay away, the way to his ‘final home’.

Although the poem is about seafaring, as Eleni Ponirakis (Nottingham University) has pointed out, the speaker of the poem does not seem to do much physically, but a lot happens to him. He is made to feel anxiety or longing, is called to the sea, is frozen. The speaker ends contemplating his after-life.

There is, then, a lot of internal action going on. This is a poem of the mind: Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan… [I may sing a true tale about my self…]. Words of the inner life abound: mod (the mind, or perhaps soul or spirit) appears seven times, heortan (heart) appears twice, and hyge (mind) three times.

Forþon nu min hyge hweorfeð   ofer hreþerlocan,
min modsefa   mid mereflode,
ofer hwæles eþel   hweorfeð wide,
eorþan sceatas,   cymeð eft to me
gifre ond grædig,   gielleð anfloga,
hweteð on hwælweg   hreþer unwearnum
ofer holma gelagu.

[And now my mind is free from my breast-locker, my soul at sea, over the whale-path it travels wide. From across the earth it comes back to me, eager and greedy; the lone-flier yells, pulls to the whale-way my yielding heart, over the sea-waves.]

The Seafarer, lines 58-64a

This middle section of the poem seems to describe the speaker’s mod bursting forth from the chest to roam over the seas. What critics can’t agree on, however, is what the anfloga, literally ‘lone flier’, is referring to. Is it a gull of some kind? A metaphor for the call of the sea? Or does it refer back to this mod which soared from the body of the speaker just a few lines back? James Paz (Manchester University) has most recently suggested that the voice of the poem itself is this uncontainable lone-flying soul, not the seafarer as person, leading to the question of who or what exactly is speaking.

Who or what is the speaker of this poem? What is the lone flier? What’s the relationship between the lone flier and the mind or body of the poem’s speaker? Where is the poem being spoken–on land or at sea? Do the events it describes take place in the mind or are they played out in reality? This particular section of the poem has the potential to be interpreted in a range of abstract and more figurative ways, and I can’t wait to see what form it might take over the course of this project.

This medieval ‘snapshot’ of what it means to be human is one of a series to inspire Karrie Fransman’s medieval comics artwork. To read more, go to project + snapshots.

Caroline Bergvall: Drift Trailer on Vimeo

Caroline Bergvall: Drift Trailer on Vimeo on Vimeo

I was lucky enough to see Caroline Bergvall performing ‘Drift’ at the Southbank on the 17 July.

I also got my hands on the accompanying book of the same name. Less a book of the performance, more a research journal with poetry and art.

I haven’t been able to get to grips with what I think of it in a more academic way. I was blown away by her performance (and that of her co sound and visual artists), and I hope to write something more coherent soon.

In the meantime, take a look at the trailer!