Borderlines

On Saturday, I will be speaking at this year’s Borderlines conference in Belfast. Borderlines is the biggest postgraduate medievalist conference in Ireland and possibly the UK as well, and it has an international reputation. I will be delivering a paper on the conversion of the landscape in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica and its place in the regulation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. It is a little outside my PhD work, although as I wrote it I realised there are quite clear links. As such, I might look to publish a version of the paper somewhere, or else upload it here (depending on advice from my supervisor). Either way I am somewhat nervous, as it’s a tad unlike what I’ve written about before.

The abstract for Saturday’s paper:

Title: ‘“Where once beasts dwelt”: Defining and regulating the natural world in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica

Abstract: This paper argues that, in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica (HE), the conversion of the landscape of Northumbria was an important aspect of converting the people, and that this is connected to the role of kings and the elite in regulating an ideal Christian society.

In later generations, the erection of crosses across the territory served to remind people that they lived in a Christian kingdom. I will argue that the taming of this “wild” natural world can be seen as a metaphor for regulating a society and people in crisis.

When Oethelwald of Northumbria offers Bishop Cedd land on which to build a monastery, the cleric deliberately chooses a site that is “amid some steep and remote hills which seemed better fitted for the haunts of robbers and the dens of wild beasts” (Bede, HE 3.23).

Bede, our source for this story, says that this is an example of how “the fruit of good works shall spring up where once beasts dwelt or where men lived after the manner of beasts” (following Isaiah 35:7). However, the monastery, Lastingham, was not at all remote and was actually three miles from a Roman road – but the symbolism (aiming to be apart from the world) is clear. Bede, in his Letter to Ecgbert, which presents a kingdom in moral and military crisis, stresses the need to preach “in every hamlet and field”, while also stating that it is essential for kings and bishops to work together in order to achieve an ideal Christian society.

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