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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.