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Material Artefacts: Reading the Past through Archaeological Objects in Medieval British Literature

International conference organized by project B01 “Artefacts, Treasures and Ruins – Materiality and Historicity in the Literature of the English and Scottish Middle Ages” (Head: Prof. Dr. Andrew James Johnston), 5–7 June 2015


Conference „Material Artefacts: Reading the Past through Archaeological Objects in Medieval British Literature“

Conference „Material Artefacts: Reading the Past through Archaeological Objects in Medieval British Literature“

Workshop report by Jan-Peer Hartmann, Regina G. Scheibe, Sven Durie and Margitta Rouse

The conference, which brought together an array of high-profile international scholars, aimed at exploring the various ways in which the literary depiction of archaeological objects – ruins, fragments, buried artefacts or treasures – may contribute to an understanding of temporality and history. Recent years have seen the publication of a number of important contributions at the intersection of literary studies and archaeology that have drawn attention to the fact that medieval and early modern texts often invoke questions of temporality by taking recourse to material objects. Among these are two books whose authors also held papers at the conference, John Hines’ Voices in the Past: English Literature and Archaeology (2004) and Philip Schwyzer’s Archaeologies of English Renaissance Literature (2007). Taking their cue from these and other publications, the papers presented at the conference explored ways in which medieval and Renaissance texts produce specifically aesthetic and literary responses both to questions of historicity and the epistemological conditions of historical knowledge.

In his paper ‘“But men seyn, ‘What may ever laste?’”: Chaucer’s House of Fame as a Medieval Museum’, John Hines confirmed that engaging with material objects in the past was an issue in the Middle Ages, although references to archaeological objects are relatively scarce in Middle English literature. He explained this latter phenomenon in terms of the discursive capacity of material objects in the Middle Ages, since they were still regarded as having an inherent power of action. But whenever references to material artefacts do occur material semantics profoundly interact with literary texts. Thus, Hines persuasively argued that narrational elements of ancient legend were transformed into material forms in the dream visions in Geoffrey Chaucer’s House of Fame, exemplifying that the literary turned into the material in the Middle Ages rather than the other way around, or, in other words, that the House of Fame offers evidence of a concretization of the literary. By doing so, Chaucer creates what Hines called the ‘literary archetype of a museum’, which is a feature more typical of the early modern period than of the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s dream visions reflect the interactive and participatory concept of present-day museum theory, so much appreciated by the general public nowadays. Since the process of reconceptualising the material object, initiated by Renaissance scholars and collectors of antiquities, was only just beginning, Chaucer may have failed to see how such a reconceptualization might contribute to a satisfactory ending of his work and hence left his poem unfinished.

Jonanthan Gil Harris (Ashoka University), in his paper ‘Staging the Oriental Past: Thomas Coryate’s Indian Archae-theatrics, c. 1616’, examined how early modern archaeological practices explore the past in visible surfaces. Instead of employing a hermeneutics of the depth, chorographical texts such as John Stow's Survey of London use the city as a theatrum historiae, revealing the past in material scenes through an ‘archae-theatrical’ investigation of the present. The same practice of archae-theatrics also underlies Thomas Coryate’s journey to India in 1613, which Coryate understood as a theatrical emulation of Alexander the Great's journey. Harris argued that material remains become the histrionic surface for the artful performance of the past.

In his contribution ‘Beowulf’s Roman Remains: Material and Literary Archaeologies’ Andrew James Johnston (Freie Universität Berlin) argued that the specific use of Roman remains in Beowulf serves the purpose of deliberately juxtaposing different historical narratives and literary traditions, even as the poem draws attention to the fact that history and literature are inextricably mixed. It is through the deliberate blending of archaeological scenery with literary history that the text negotiates its own place both in history, on the one hand, and more specifically, in poetic tradition, on the other.

Lori Ann Garner’s (Rhodes College, Memphis) paper ‘The Poetics of Weaponry in Anglo-Saxon Remedies’ explored how, by reference to discourses of warfare and weaponry, Anglo-Saxon medical remedies frame encounters with diseases as battle-like struggles. Garner argued that Old English remedies, medical incantations and charms refer to weapons not only as healing implements but also use imagery of weapons and armour to metaphorically explain causes of illnesses and offer suitable remedies. The poetics of weaponry found in medical text, thus, aesthetically links heroes and healers of the Anglo-Saxon world, providing a vocabulary for the negotiation of power over illness and adversity.

Jan-Peer Hartmann (Freie Universität Berlin) discussed the Old English runic poem inscribed in the east and west sides of the stone monument at Ruthwell with special regard to the poem’s material and media contexts. His paper ‘The Ruthwell Cross and the Riddle of Time’ read the poem as a riddle not only on the Holy Cross but also on the monument it is inscribed into, suggesting a material and temporal overlap of original and representation. Yet the conciseness of the Ruthwell poem’s account and the absence of certain details delimit the poem’s temporal perspective and give it the appearance of historical situatedness, resulting in a tension between monument and poem that has the potential to question a linear interpretation of sacred history.

Andrew Hui’s (Yale-NUS College) paper ‘Spenser’s allegory of the monument’ traced the various ways in which the image of the ruin was employed in Renaissance poetry and, more specifically, the works of Edmund Spenser (1552–1599). Spenser’s poetic project, Hui argued, engages in a fundamental rethinking of the monument, its making and ruination. Departing from the traditional topos of the ruin as an image of transience, Spenser’s poetry re-imagines the engagement with ruins as a creative process of destruction through adaptation and retelling. Spenser’s own opus magnum, The Fairie Queene, is famously incomplete and, according to Hui, in essence unfinished and unfinishable due to Spenser’s practice of annotating and glossing his own text and the use of old-fashioned, pseudo-medieval language. To all means and purposes, Spenser is already writing a ‘ruin’, implying a disbelief in the classical topos of the ‘durability’ of the poetic – as opposed to the material – monument.

In his talk ‘The Quick and the Dead: Bodies and Statues in Gower’s Confessio Amantis’, Ethan Knapp (Ohio State University) explored Gower’s use of sculptures and their temporality as a means of expressing underlying anxieties about the political and economic situation of the city of ‘New Troy’, i.e. London. Rather than adhering to an emblematic, two-dimensional conception of ‘ymage’, Gower’s excessive use of idols and statues suggests a three-dimensional understanding of the term. Knapp argued that Gower’s conception emphasises the possibility to read visual traces of time on the object and thus become aware of their temporality. Thus, the city’s ruined statues signify an imperial trajectory of demise.

Questions of temporality and historicity were a central concern in Neil Cartlidge’s paper ‘Evidence of the Past in the Legend of the Seven Sleepers’ (Durham University). In contrast to most saints’ legends, which present a simplified concept of time, the Legend of the Seven Sleepers offers a miraculous shift forward in time: Seven young Christians from Ephesus escape persecution only by a miraculous sleep which lasts for over three hundred years, thus offering evidence of the truth of the resurrection doctrine: all men will rise with their body. This variant of an ‘enchanted sleep’ narrative introduces temporality as an arbitrary contrast by employing an apparent incongruity of God’s imposed temporality on earth. Analysing the numismatic use and knowledge displayed by the communities described in the three extant versions of the Legend, i.e. in the thirteenth-century Anglo-French version by Chardri (perhaps an anagram of the name Richard), in the anonymous Old English Life, and in the ‘vulgate’ Latin text which is probably their common source, Cartlidge noted a dramatization of temporal differences resulting from the aforementioned shift in time. This dramatization is also apparent in references to certain leaden inscriptions, which, he argued, were to invite comparison with later medieval tabulae, such as the Magna Tabula Glastoniensis.

‘Beowulf is obsessed with artefacts’, Roberta Frank (Yale University) observed in her paper ‘The Beaker in the Barrow, the Flagon with the Dragon’. The poem’s notorious ‘digressions’ – flashbacks and flash-forwards – are often prompted by the contemplation of objects, such as the necklace worn by Hygelac during his last battle, the giants’ sword or the dragon’s hoard. Historical layers are also suggested by the poem’s language. Frank demonstrated how the use of different words for ‘cups’, some of them current, others superannuated and some no longer found in contemporary Old English documents, produce differing levels of historical remoteness. Language change, Frank argued, was thus not detected by the philologists of the Renaissance but employed to striking literary effect in this Old English poem.

In her paper ‘Anxious Appropriation: On Spoliation and Self-Eating in Medieval English Poetry’, Irina Dumitrescu (Universität Bonn) examined the use of spoliation and cannibalism in the Old English Andreas and the Middle English Siege of Jerusalem. Both poems depict violent encounters between Christians and Jews involving acts of spoliation and cannibalism that include deliberate travesties of the Eucharist. These, Dumitrescu argued, can be read as an implicit critique of Christianity’s appropriation of the Old Testament by highlighting the potential for violence inherent in the acts of appropriation and the appropriated objects themselves.

Philip Schwyzer (University of Exeter) compared and contrasted two examples of exhumations of royal bodies, that of King Arthur in 1191 and that of King Richard III in 2012. In his paper ‘The Return of the King: Exhuming King Arthur and Richard III’ he argued that the medieval as well as the present-day debates surrounding each exhumation ought to be regarded as constructing secular-royal variants of the hagiographic inventio narrative. Schwyzer demonstrated the extent to which the characteristics of these narratives can be traced within the debates surrounding Arthur’s as well as Richard’s exhumations, the crucial difference being that Arthur’s exhumation served to confirm the pastness of the past, confirming that Arthur is truly dead and will not return, thus bringing political closure, whereas Richard’s exhumation suggests that history can be rewritten. The debates surrounding Richard’s exhumation suggest that it is possible to make peace with the past, to set right historical wrongs, and to ‘rescue’ a country from a ‘malevolent’ historiography that had misrepresented a ‘truly good’ king. Schwyzer argued that the possibility of historical redemption in the case of Richard acquires a characteristically early modern feel, in that earlier historical accounts appear as bad illusions that people had succumbed to and needed to be freed from. Ironically, in 2012 it is especially the most canonical early modern fictional reconstruction resp. interpretation of Richard’s reign (Shakespeare’s Richard III) that appears as ‘wrong’ and even dangerously misleading in the popular imagination.

Sarah Salih’s (King’s College London) paper on ‘Bodies that demand to be found: undead bodies, finds and finders’, discussed several inventio narratives and the ways in which these served as an archaeological metaphor. Finding the object allows the emergence of the past into the present, and of making sense of the past. Based on Bruno Latour’s view that objects can be ascribed agential qualities that allow for a reciprocal exchange between material objects and people, Salih argued that, since not every object is agential in the same way, narratives are essential in negotiating the agency of objects. Drawing a further theoretical impulse from Pierre Nora’s distinction between memory and history, which regards memory as always part of the present and history as the reconstruction of the past, Salih argued that stories of finding things complicate narratives of medieval England temporally, especially where history and memory overlap. Bodies of saints that lie undetected and uncorrupted are waiting to be found. In a cultic context, saints’ relics are the paradigmatic ‘found object’, and allow for different ways of making sense of and reconstructing the past. Contrasting several medieval inventio narratives, Salih showed that medieval responses towards the past are by no means consistent; rather, they serve to preserve, protect, conceal, uncover or forget the past.

Naomi Howell (University of Exeter) introduced us to an unusual case of a heart burial in her presentation ‘Saracens at St Albans: The Heart-Case of Roger de Norton’. In 1872 a heart, which was identified with that of Abbot Roger de Norton (d. 1291), was discovered in a round, fragile wooden box under the paving of St Alban’s Abbey before the altar of the Virgin Mary in the eastern part of the church. Although the separate burial of the embalmed hearts of the elite was an established practise in the Middle Ages, it was nevertheless exceptional within monastic communities. With lead being regarded as a sign of humility, leaden containers seemed to have been most common for storing the embalmed organ. However, the container of Roger de Norton’s heart was unlike others of the period, not just because it was made of wood, but also because it originated in the Islamic world, bearing a benedictory Arabic inscription in Kufic script. The wooden box, of which only fragments of the lid have survived, was probably produced in Afghanistan in the eleventh or twelfth century, and it was already more than a century old when it was re-used for the burial of Roger de Norton's heart. The box reflects the contemporary fashion for real and feigned Arabic text on high-status objects and highlights a complex relationship with the Saracen world, evidence of which is provided by Matthew Paris’s Anglo-Norman Vie de St Auban. The narrator of the saint’s legend identifies himself as a ‘Saracen of false belief’ who converted to the Christian faith after witnessing the death of St Alban, traditionally regarded as the first martyr of England. Matthew’s Saracen explains that his text is written in his own barbaric tongue, but will eventually be translated into Latin and French. In his Gesta Abbatum, Matthew elaborates the story, describing how a Life of St Alban in a barbaric tongue was discovered below ground in the tenth century, amid the ruins of the Roman city of Verulamium (or Roman St Albans) where St Alban was martyred in the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Howell here particularly stressed the reciprocity of events: the same earth from which the Saracen story of the Christian saint was retrieved, later receives back into itself, in an act of reparation, the Christian heart of Roger de Norton in a Saracen container.

Marijane Osborn (UC Davis) explored the multidimensional programme of the Franks Casket, an Anglo-Saxon chest of presumably Northumbrian origin made from whale’s bone. The decorations and texts on the four sides plus lid mix religious Christian and legendary Roman and Germanic scenes, runes and Latin letters, Latin and Old English languages. In her paper ‘Boy Murder and Bone Map: Some Coterie Themes on the Franks Casket and Where They Lead’, Osborn drew attention to the multiple meanings suggested by some of the images and inscriptions, reading the whole object as a mappa mundi, with each of the scenes invoking a different part of the known world.