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.

Hello PG7009

Hello Orla and Digital Skills classmates,

If all has gone according to plan, this post has gone online shortly before today’s class and our presentations. If it hasn’t, then on screen right about now you will have seen me log in and frantically hit the “publish” button.

My PhD research is on the eschatology and apocalypticism of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica, the last book of which has largely been overlooked by historians, who are more concerned with Bede’s account of the politics and conversion of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. And if you’re wondering why I have differentiated between eschatology and apocalypticism, it’s because they are two separate, though related themes. Eschatology is the study of last things, including the fate of the soul after death. The apocalypse, as Bede would have understood it, was the end of time, although I think most of us have this or a similar image in mind:

The reason most historians ignore book five (a Latin version is here), or at least don’t treat it in its proper context, is that it is full of visions of heaven and hell as well as miracles, along with descriptions of Jerusalem, missions to Germany, a Saracen incursion into Gaul, and other eclectic things. This marks it out from the rest of the text, which is generally chronological and more tightly structured.

But Bede was a teacher, even though he is most readily associated with being a historian. My core argument is that this series of pious things is actually what the whole text has been leading up to. John Burrows has said that the HE turns to the visions and miracles because by the end of book four the English — Bede’s HE is responsible for English (Angli) being used as a catch-all term for all the Germanic peoples of Britain — have been converted: “Mission accomplished”, as he puts it. I argue the opposite, which is that Bede believes the English still need miracles because they have not been properly converted. Bear in mind that Bede was a providential historian, and as such saw a divine plan and direction in history. He would also have known of Matt 24:14, which says that the end will come after the gospels are preached to the whole world. In Classical tradition, Britain and Ireland were beyond the civilised world, and this was interpreted by Christians as meaning that their conversion was a pre-condition for the end of the world.

However, speculating on when the end would come was heresy (and Bede was accused of thisby someone who misunderstood his work on time): Bede himself said it would come suddenly, like a thief in the night. But the end would be foreshadowed by lawlessness and corruption, and Bede’s Letter to Egbert (or Ecgbert) presents his kingdom as being in exactly such a state. In the Historia, he says the people of the 700s were suffering “spiritual death”. He had read the sixth-century De Excidio Britanniae of Gildas and seen how the Britons, the Romano-Celtic population, had fallen into cycles of sin, repentance, and sin and were faced with a final, cataclysmic judgement – a preview of the apocalypse, as it were. In fact, Bede says the Britons were unable to awaken from spiritual death and so were defeated by the English.

My argument is that Bede sees the English falling into the same patterns, but that he knew the Britons had been supplanted by the English, and both Gildas and Bede saw this as divine punishment. Thus, at its most boiled down level, I am arguing that, because he believed the end was going to be sudden but that the preconditions had been fulfilled, and because he believed his people to be living in spiritual death, which would see them barred from heaven, Bede used apocalyptic concerns to shape his history writing in such a way as would do the most moral good.

Blog plan

I am trying to make this blog a research portfolio separate from my other internet possessions (insomuch as anything can be owned on the internet).

It will contain a research journal along with some thoughts on the subject of apocalytpicism and related subjects in the early medieval period. Pretty much anything history-related is eligible for a look-in. I will also devote a section to abstracts and upcoming talks, although for now I am using for that.

A long-term plan would be to upload podcasts of my conference papers, although this is where I run in to issues regarding copyright and publication of thesis material. I would ultimately integrate these recordings into the section on abstracts, etc.

Speaking of the dead

I will be giving a talk in Silverdale, University College Cork on Feb 24 at 3pm about Bede’s narrative of Dryhthelm’s vision. Dryhthelm (aka Drythelm, Drycthelme, or Drithelm) was an Anglo-Saxon man who lived in about AD700. And as Bede tells us: “About this time a memorable miracle occurred in Britain like those of ancient times. In order to arouse the living from spiritual death, a certain man already dead came back to life and related many memorable things that he had seen, and I think that some of them ought to be mentioned here.” (see here for the Latin: HE 5.12)

These “memorable things” included a tour of the afterlife, in which Dryhthelm visits souls undergoing purification, the mouth of hell, and the edge of heaven. My argument is that Bede includes this narrative  because it suits his desire for moral reform in Northumbria, and because the vision shows what he believes awaits the Anglo-Saxons. There’s much more to it: Gildas and Bede’s understanding of “spiritual death” are major factors, as is Bede’s Letter to Ecgbert – any paper on Bede involves chasing a paper trail untold miles long.

I can’t record the talk on the day but may record it later and embed it on the site; I don’t think I’ll be able to upload the paper itself as it deals with topics about which I’m writing an article for Marginalia.

University’s medieval projects

My research (and I will start posting a series of research diaries soon) in part concerns representations of death and the afterlife, with a particular focus on how fears about and ideas of the end of the world influenced the writing of history. I am preparing a paper and article of the vision of Dryhthelm, who Bede, the Anglo-Saxon historian writing in the eight century, tells us came back from the dead. The vision itself is quite rooted in apocryphal and early Christian images of heaven and hell.

But while I am focussing on the Anglo-Saxons, the university’s Department of Early and Medieval Irish is working on a major project examining Irish representations of the afterlife. De Finibus (On the ends) has been on the go for a few months and the website provides an introduction to the project, the people involved and, in time, a bibliography of relevant secondary literature. The team is working on editions of key Irish eschatological texts, and also aim to produce a sourcebook of the main literature.

Over at Christ on the Cross, meanwhile, members of UCC’s English and Art History departments are hard at work evaluating Irish representations of the crucifixion, both literary and material. It’s just a small bit outside my own research era (the project is focussed on AD800-1200 and I’m meandering through the 700s and earlier) but is still of huge relevance. The project’s mission statement is here, and the upcoming conference on March 29-30 looks like it will be a very interesting one indeed.