One more conference

I’m speaking at a conference in UCC tomorrow morning. This is the second annual College of Arts, Celtic Studies, and Social Sciences postgraduate conference, and the first one at which I’m speaking (I only went along last year). The itinerary doesn’t seem to be online, but I can tell you I’m the only one giving a paper on medieval material. There are no archaeologists, classicists, early or medieval Irish scholars, or people working in Old or even Middle English. I stick out like a sore thumb.

Bede, you drive me crazy

For the last few days I have been finalising and editing a paper I am going to deliver at the Imbas conference in Galway next weekend. To say it has been frustrating is to put it mildly.

Admittedly, part of this is my fault. I should know by now that no matter how simple or straightforward a Bede paper appears, it is much more complicated than at first thought. Or, even if it turns out to be relatively straightforward, fitting it all into a 20-minute paper is another thing entirely. I seem to have a habit of picking big topics.

This paper focuses on Bede and the lay pastor. But it’s showing that they were needed because of a sense of a coming apocalypse. I know, I know. Me and apocalypses.

The only really frustrating side of this was fitting it into a 20-minute argument. There’s easily 6,000 words of an article in this, maybe more. At least with the paper it focuses me to get my thoughts together and condense the information into key points.

I found that I had the bones of the paper done in a couple of days: most of what I’m talking about is now second nature to me. But trawling through his exegesis and homilies slowed things considerably, and the process of being more selective in my quotations even more so.

When I write, I tend to write so that everything is necessary. If I’ve included background, it’s because I think it’s necessary in order for people to understand what I’m talking about. In this case, I’ve boiled the background down to its most basic points, although I feel it’s detailed enough to show the complexity of the situation. Whether my supervisor will agree is another thing; he may well feel that I’m expecting too much of the audience. My writing demands quite a bit of the reader, apparently, or at least it has in the section of the PhD I’ve put together for the department’s review process (i.e. a section that proves I’ve done a lot of work and know what I’m talking about).

I’ll post the abstract once the paper has been delivered, and I’ll also add a link to the podcast once that’s online.


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.

Faith convictions

I was asked a perplexing question recently. I had just spoken at a postgraduate seminar in Trinity College Dublin, delivering a paper called ‘”The allegory of so lamentable history”: The Old Testament influence on Bede’s understanding of apocalypse’ (see last abstract here for a similar, earlier paper). In it, I basically argued that Bede, an Anglo-Saxon historian in the eighth century, used the Bible to understand how the end would come for his people, and particularly that he used the book of Amos as a model for criticising corrupt elites.

Many medieval writers used the Bible in some sense to comment on or understand their own day, but some, likeGildas and to an extent Bede, saw in it actual prophecies of what was to come in their people’s history. All of which is pretty heavy going, I admit, but that is the world I am trying to decipher and analyse for my doctorate. The paper went well and there were good questions (and people had paid attention to our papers, which is a bonus). At the end the chairperson, a theology graduate, asked about the difference between theology and ideology in Bede’s work. In all honesty, I said that Bede would not necessarily have drawn a distinction: as far as he was concerned, a perfectly Christian kingdom was the ideal that the Anglo-Saxons should aspire to, and his work was partially designed to encourage the development of such a kingdom.

The chairperson felt that the use of the Bible to advocate national agendas was a travesty, a view I can fully understand although it does not apply to early medieval writing. As far as Bede was concerned, what he was doing was using the Bible to show how the English were part of a united Christianity: if the Bible and its messages could be shown to apply to the English, then that meant they were definitively part of the wider Christian world and were as important a part of it as somewhere like Rome. I appreciate that this is difficult to get across; I have spent more than a year working on this so it seems second nature to me. However, the chairperson came from a theological perspective, and a modern one at that, so it seemed like a travesty to use the Bible in this way. As I said, I understood where he was coming from.

After the meeting had broken up, he asked my colleague and I about our faith convictions. I wasn’t enormously pleased about this, as I believe such things are personal and you shouldn’t be put on the spot about them, although I know he did not mean anything by it really. But I had to think quickly to try and sum up some ambivalent and unarticulated thoughts that have bubbled away in my brain. It reminded me of the immigration forms for Abu Dhabi, which ask you to specify religion and sect: these signifiers of identity can mean a great deal while also meaning one must step outside old familiar zones. I gave a probably wholly unsatisfying answer referring to nominality, acceptance, etc, summed up with “I’m neutral but friendly”.

In history, we always strive for (or at least are supposed to strive for) objectivity, removing ourselves from the subject and analysing it critically. Naturally, this can only ever be an aspiration: everybody has some interpretation or reading of the text that is affected by their experience to date. And there’s nothing wrong with that necessarily, although it should be recognised at least.

I tend to approach things from a literary criticism point of view, although that is usually over-ruled by historical analysis. I think what the chairperson was really wondering was if our faith convictions had determined or influenced our papers, or our interpretation of how the writers used their sources (my colleague gave a paper on early modern uses of the Bible in apocalyptic scenarios). It did not: we merely examined how medieval historians had used the Bible as a source. But his question did make me think, and I am not sure I could ever give a proper answer.

[Cross-posted at Tiny Planet]

Speaking out

The next few weeks are going to be hectic. I’m giving a 40-minute research seminar at UCC on February 24, I’m due to speak at the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies postgraduate conference in early March (abstracts here). I’m also preparing an article for the online journal Marginalia, although it all depends on whether the article proposal is accepted, which I won’t know for a few days at least. I may also be in York for a day, depending on finances.