Individual scholars sometimes agonize over ideas of ‘public engagement’, and are more than familiar with the intensifying pressures within academic circles to create ‘impact’ beyond the so-called ivory towers. Yesterday, in London, a group of academics and media professionals met to discuss some of the issues involved …
‘Research into the Medieval and Early Modern: Navigating Issues of Engagement’ was a really good conference, certainly one worth sacrificing my Saturday leisure for. It was held at Queen Mary’s and organized by a team of postgrads there. So, first, a big thank you to Hetta Howes, Ella Kilgallon and Lydia Zeldenrust for doing such a great job!
A chief aim of the conference was to address the question of how scholars get their research out to a wider audience. The focus was scholars within the Arts, and there was a particular emphasis, as you see from the title, on medievalists and early modernists, those of us whose research looks at the histories, languages, literatures and cultures of peoples who lived between 500 and 1800 (these are very approximate dates).
Now I don’t really want, here, to regurgitate all the details of the programme, though I will say there were some really top-notch talks. What I do want to do with this particular post is open up the issue of ‘navigating issues of engagement’ to those of you who are kind enough to read my blog.
It was acknowledged at the outset of the conference that not every academic feels comfortable or able to present their work for non-academic audiences. Some actually feel that it’s not their job to do so, or that by presenting their research in a more ‘populist’ way (e.g. via TV, radio, public exhibitions, or magazine features) that they are in danger of dumbing down their work and compromising their professional reputation. Few academics would treat lightly the possibility of being stigmatized as a ‘media whore’.
Of course, it’s not really possible, and certainly not desirable, to force every academic into wider public engagement. However, it is important to break down barriers between academia and the general public; or, to put it more positively, to demonstrate the wide relevance and value of Arts research.
I received a tweet the other day that thanked me for trying to do this. For me, stepping out of my own ivory tower is a very positive thing. It’s my particular thing, it’s true, my chosen career path. That doesn’t mean that I’m indifferent about academic research – of course not. We need robust studies; I want my own research to be the best it can be. But when I was told in the tweet that the work of people like me had thrown light on historical subjects that were once seen as elitist endeavours, well, I was actually quite chuffed.
It may sound like I’m doing a bit of trumpet blowing here – my own trumpet firmly in hand. But really, what I’m attempting to do with this little anecdote is open up the debate. I really would love to know what others think about this subject, academics or non-academics. So, go on, have your say:
Are scholars who use public media to present research dumbing down or opening up? Or is it somewhere in between?
Thinking of getting engaged? Want to do something a bit different to celebrate? How about an Anglo-Saxon betrothal?
I’ve been gemming up this week on Anglo-Saxon laws. This is because in a few weeks’ time I will be giving a public talk in the nave of Rochester Cathedral on the subject of its remarkable treasure, the Textus Roffensis. This manuscript, produced about 1123, contains amongst other things the only extant copies of the early Kentish laws, including the code of King Æthelberht of Kent (c.600). It also has a copy of King Alfred’s Domboc (after 893), a couple of rulings by King Æthelred, he of the unreadiness (997), and a translation of the great Winchester code of King Cnut (1020-21), the largest single Anglo-Saxon law code.
Today, though, I want to talk about one of the anonymous Anglo-Saxon laws found in the Textus Roffensis, one that I think will become a firm favourite of mine. This code is known as Wifmannes Beweddung (Woman’s Betrothal), and it can be dated to the early part of the eleventh century.
I plan to put a full translation of the law on a future blog, but in the meantime here are some of the key features should you be tempted by the idea of having a historically authentic Anglo-Saxon betrothal. (Are you mad?) I think, however, I should just warn you love birds that, assuming Wifmannes Beweddung reflects actual practice, betrothal/marriage in eleventh-century England had, well ... how to put it now ... a strong economic foundation.
The bridegroom-to-be had to make a promise to the advocate of the bride-to-be (who would have been a male member of her family) that he would maintain her as a man ought to – ‘according to God’s law’. This meant pledging remuneration to those who had brought her up, and proclaiming what exactly he would give her for keepsies should she outlive him.
The law actually states that the wife was entitled on the death of her husband to half the yrfe. Now, the sense here is she gets half the property, but if you want to be a bit more literal, half the cattle. Now if you really desire to reproduce an Anglo-Saxon betrothal ceremony, I reckon incorporating that into the proceedings might just give you that feeling of authenticity you crave.
There’s more: if a cild (a child) is born to the union, the wife is entitled to all the cattle/property should hubby pop his clogs. This bit’s not much use then if you’re not really into the idea of procreation; and I don’t know whether we should stretch it to cover adoption and surrogacy.
Finally – this is addressed to the bride-to-be – don’t even think of taking all that cattle if you plan to remarry on the demise of your beloved, regardless if you have a wee bairn, or not. (Sorry, I just slipped into my Scottish ancestry there, though another Old English word for child is bearn.)
After all these economic niceties have been established, then the family of the bride-to-be go ahead and arrange with her the betrothal, but not before the advocate or sponsor gets a security of some sort from the groom. (A cow, maybe? A small goat, perhaps?)
Now I know this part might suggest a slight hitch for your engagement plans. No, not the surety bit. Come on, groom-to-be! You can find some way of fulfilling the surety – maybe a guinea pig, or the neighbour’s cat, if you don’t fancy handing over a cow or goat. But what I’m really getting at is the probability that the woman may not need to be present at the betrothal. So ... a betrothal/engagement ceremony without the bride-to-be. Do you want authentic, or not?!
To the bit that really matters – the wedding plans. Wifmannes Beweddung says that the priest has to be involved, because he has to arrange things so that God blesses you in ‘all prosperity’. But what’s particularly important is that he has to find out how closely related you are. Now, it does depend on whose rules of consanguinity you’re going by, but if you happen to be first cousins, there’s no chance. Even a more distant relative might be an issue for the Church. (There were ‘degrees’ of relation forbidden, and these varied throughout the medieval period and in different traditions, but that’s for another time.)
So, there we have it, you would-be Anglo-Saxon betrothal re-enactors. I hope this little taster has whetted your appetite. I promise to provide a full translation of Wifmannes Beweddung in due course. Maybe I should take payments for this, especially if you wish to incorporate it into your engagement celebrations. I could make a killing. I like guinea pigs.
Wonderful news! We’ve been given the chance in 2015 to see all four manuscripts of the Magna Carta – together! But hang on a minute: four Magna Cartas (properly, Magnae Cartae)? Well, actually, I make it five …
Like you, I imagine, I had a little shiver of excitement as I entered the British Library’s electronic ballot to see all four surviving manuscripts of the 1215 Magna Carta – that symbol of justice and liberty. I would kill to be one of the 1,215 people (observe the cleverness of the number) who get to see this once-in-a-lifetime exhibition.
Just imagine being greeted by the charming historian Dan Jones to the mellifluous strains of live medieval music and, impressively, being guided to the Magnae Cartae by ‘costumed characters from the thirteenth century’. I did for a moment think that last bit meant people actually from the thirteenth-century rather than people dressed in clothes typical of the thirteenth-century, but then not even the British Library could pull off the Resurrection. I wonder if we will see Dan in a tunic?
But I digress. And I’m being a bit silly, too.
So, now. If you are a tad staggered to hear there are actually four copies of the Magna Carta, then I will trouble you some more. I may be anticipating Mr Jones here, but we should probably drop the romantic notion that on a sunny June 15 in 1215, on the banks of the River Thames at Runnymede, a single copy of the Magna Carta was written up and sealed by King John.
The good people at Early English Laws (EEL) explain that once John and his barons had agreed the terms at Runnymede, numerous copies of the Magna Carta were made retrospectively in the royal chancery, and subsequently many were distributed throughout the land. (I imagine that these were actually given the royal seal; in fact, one of the British Library copies has its seal intact.)
Remarkably, four of the copies have survived – two at the British Library, one at Lincoln Cathedral and one at Salisbury Cathedral – and these are the ones I will get to see. (I managed Kate Bush tickets, for crying out loud, so this is going to be a walk in the park.)
But there is more! Yes! One more, in fact ...
The 2015 Magna Carta was also translated into Old French. It survives in a copy written into a cartulary of the lepers’ hospital of St Giles at Pont-Audemer in Normandy, sometime between 1219 and 1226.
‘This particular version of Magna Carta,’ explains EEL ‘was created to facilitate publication of the charter in Hampshire, where it was distributed by the steward of the archbishop of Canterbury, Elias of Dereham. The survival of this vernacular version is a significant piece of evidence showing how the content of Magna Carta was made known to the wider political community in England.’
So, there we have it: five Magnae Cartae. What a shame we couldn’t see the French one too. Did anyone think to ask them?
Go on ... have your say by leaving a comment.
Titter ye not. Euphemism has its place in some of the best Old English poetry ...
Old English, the vernacular language used during the Anglo-Saxon period (and for quite some time after), is rich with highly descriptive words. You’ve probably heard of kennings, for example, which are metaphorical words (or phrases) that are almost riddle-like in their meaning: so, we get words like ‘swanroad’ (‘the sea’) and ‘bone-house’ (‘the body’). Delightful!
Another thing that occurs frequently in Old English, particularly in poetry, is the synecdoche, a figure of speech which uses the part of something to stand for the whole. To illustrate, a common synecdoche in heroic verse (think Beowulf) is ‘edge’ which is used to mean ‘sword’. Intelligent!
One of my favourite areas of Old English language (I’m afraid I do have to lower the tone now) is the euphemism, which at times is almost as creative as the kenning. Euphemisms are, of course, words or phrases that substitute for ones that may be considered a tad unpleasant for those with more delicate sensibilities, shall we say.
I revisited a good one recently whilst translating part of the poem known as Genesis A. It combines the metonym ‘bed’ (what we might call an attribute of sex) with the term ‘-ship’ (as in the word ‘fellowship’):
“Here inside are my two spotless daughters.
Do as I bid you – they do not yet know, either
of these women, the presence of men through
bedship – and give up this sin. I give you them
both, before you commit this shame against
your natures, this pointless evil against
humanity. Take these women. Let free my
guests whom I, for God’s sake, if I may, will
protect from you.”
Though ‘bedship’ always makes me smile, the context here is not in the slightest jocular. You may recognize the lines above as a reworking of the story from the Old Testament (Genesis 19) about the men and boys of Sodom demanding to ‘know’ the two men who had entered as guests into the home of so-called ‘righteous’ Lot.
It’s a little ironic, perhaps, that the poet doesn’t actually follow the Vulgate Bible’s euphemism, ‘to know’, when it comes to the Sodomites’ demand. Instead, we are told:
‘They proclaimed with words that they would shamelessly have sex with the heroes: they had no regard for honour.’
And yet, as you see, the poet does preserve the euphemism when it comes to Lot’s offering of his daughters as substitute rape victims – and not only preserves the Vulgate’s use of ‘know’, but amplifies it: My daughters, Lot points out to the Sodomites, do not 'know' men ‘through bedship.’
Perhaps the virginal status of the two daughters (note the euphemistic ‘spotless’) was a strong motivator for using the euphemism ‘bedship’; whereas the notorious Sodomites needed no such consideration: they simply wanted sex, and they were flagrantly open about it.
Having said that, the Old English word used for ‘have sex’ – hæman – has itself a euphemistic origin. Though throughout the corpus of Old English works it almost always simply means ‘to have sex’, its etymology suggests the early Germanic tradition of taking a bride home as part of the wedding (sex was, in effect, part of the ceremony). We can see that when we look at the stem hæm which derives from ham, the Old English word for 'home’.
It’s fascinating (to me, at least) that a euphemistic phrase or word can eventually end up being used very directly, and thus not as a euphemism at all. This appears to be the case with hæman.
I wonder, is that what happened also with the modern word ‘intercourse’?
‘Intercourse’ seems to have been used euphemistically to start with (I believe it was first used sexually at the end of the eighteenth century), but later the sexual meaning became the primary meaning.
‘We had wonderful intercourse!’ was probably at one time something you could get away with in polite company, without the slightest raising of a Victorian eyebrow. But by the late twentieth century, it wasn’t something to announce to your friends about the tea and scones you had with granny at the weekend.
Ah, Euphemism. Quite an art form.