Tuesday, August 2, 2016

On NCS London and Orkney: Some Thoughts on Material History and Conviviality

As many/most know at this point, I'm now blogger #5 at In The Middle! The write-up below on NCS London and Orkney kind of ballooned in the last 24 hours, so I'll be writing a *separate* post (which will appear very soon -- likely tomorrow) with details on my move to In the Middle and on the fantastic person who will be the new co-blogger here at In Romaunce. More soon, but for now, some thoughts on NCS London, Orkney, "things material," and convivial scholarship.


Between the NCS London conference and a brief but fulfilling trip to Orkney, the past few weeks have been a blur in the best of ways. The NCS conference was absolutely spectacular. So many meetings of friends old and new, fantastic sessions and plenaries, the joy seeing Kristi’s and my Narrative Conduit sessions come together as beautifully as they did, and a series of outings that ranged from a tour of the medieval Thames (more on that in a moment!) to the rare opportunity to see the Book of Margery Kempe and the Shewings of Julian of Norwich side by side (at an exhibit on Voice at the Wellcome Collection) to the concluding “pilgrimage” to Canterbury. I am so profoundly grateful to all who made this conference possible – it was, from start to finish, a wildly generative and innervating gathering, and it did so much to renew my energy and enthusiasm for all that I’m working on at the moment. Between the move and the intensity of the job search, I’d been feeling my momentum flagging in the weeks leading up to the trip, but I’ve come away from the conference feeling, as I always do after these gatherings, a much-needed surge of excitement for projects well underway, and for projects I hope to embark on in the not-too-distant future.

There is so much to write about, but I think I’ll focus these next few paragraphs on one particular, but enduring theme of the trip: the importance of interweaving material history/materiality into what I do as a literary scholar. Several happenings over the past two weeks brought home to me the importance of the material – how the spaces and places that we encounter in our studies of the Middle Ages can be made all the more vivid by bearing witness to them in tactile ways.

The tour of Medieval London and the Thames was the first of such happenings. Shortly after Kristi and I organized our session on Narrative Conduits, it occurred to me that getting to wander around together and be guided through the medieval parts of the city and the river might help to amplify our conversations. I was directly inspired by the glacier tour that Jeffrey J. Cohen organized for the Ice session presenters at NCS Iceland (you can read all about it here). That tour so beautifully informed and inflected the conversations that developed in our sessions, and I was hopeful that organizing a tour of medieval London might do the same for Kristi’s and my sessions this year.

Gustav Milne, walking us down a medieval road in Cheapside.
We were lucky enough – through a series of fortunate events – to have the incomparable Gustav Milne lead us on a tour of medieval London for three hours the day before the conference started. He was an extraordinary guide, and he began our tour at the Museum of London, showing us numerous artifacts that ranged from Anglo-Saxon pottery, to a clinker-built ship fragment (the etchings on which proved the numeric literacy of the shipbuilders), to a series of pilgrim souvenir badges that told the story of St. Thomas a Beckett. From there, we wandered briskly all over town, where he showed us all manner of things: vestiges of the medieval city wall; narrow medieval city roads; the place in Cheapside where Thomas a Beckett was likely born; ruins of medieval parish churches; the Vintner’s Hall (roundabouts where Chaucer would have been born); the Guild Hall – site of a medieval marketplace and, before that, a Roman amphitheater, the location of which is now marked by a curving black line on the ground; the site of the medieval London Bridge; glimpses across the river of Southwark; and, in closing, the site of Chaucer’s Custom House, where he worked as a comptroller and likely wrote the Canterbury Tales. The tour also included a trip to the Thames’ foreshore, where we got to hunt for shards of medieval and Roman pottery and tile. We wandered in and around vestiges of the medieval wharf, and Gustav was kind enough to identify and date what we found. I was stunned by how easy it was to find these sorts of things. There were little bits of them everywhere you looked! This particular portion of the trip, coupled with our stop at the site of the Custom House were especially powerful and moving. I found myself grateful to be reminded, so palpably, of the material reality of Chaucer’s London, especially since it can be easy to lose sight of those sorts of details as you attend to all that he wrote. I am, needless to say, looking forward all the more to teaching the Canterbury Tales and Troilus this fall, medieval pottery shards and photos of the tour in hand!
My findings, which included part of a large 
medieval jug handle, part of a medieval 
peg tile, and shards of glazed medieval pottery. 
Remnants of the medieval wharf along
the Thames' foreshore.

Near the site of the Customs House. Gustav recited the opening 
lines of the General Prologue, and reminded us that Chaucer 
likely wrote the Canterbury Tales while at work there.  
(photo by Jeffrey J. Cohen)
The tour reminded me, in short, of how valuable it can be to attend to the material reality of the culture that produces the literature we study, and it subsequently got me thinking about future projects. At present, I’ve got five out of six book chapters drafted, and it’s looking more and more as though I might be able to get a complete manuscript together by the end of next summer/early Fall. I’ve generated a few ideas for a subsequent major project for a while now, and have found myself going back and forth in the past several months about which one to pursue. I think I’ll always gravitate back to the literature of crusading, and to matters of Otherness and alterity in medieval literature, but I’m feeling a need right now to branch into other areas once this crusades book is realized. And, I’ll confess, I’ve been looking for an excuse to get back to work on my work on “animate books” in Chaucer’s poetry for a while now. So! Thanks to this incredibly tour (for which I cannot thank Gustav enough!), the energy of the NCS conference, and the much-needed validation and support of several friends, I’ve decided to put my energies into a book project on materialism and Chaucer once I’ve got a complete manuscript of Crusading Imaginary. I’ll save the details for later, but I am beyond excited about it, and it is currently serving as a much-needed “carrot” as I make my way through chapter revisions!

The trip to the Orkneys brought home the significance of material history all the more – and how helpful it can be to situate literature in its landscape. Kristi and I galavanted around the islands for about five days, and encountered Pictish artifacts, Neolithic stone circles and burial cairns, Viking settlement ruins, Viking graffiti *inside* Neolithic burial cairns, and we also had the privilege of listening to a phenomenal story-teller tell a series of traditional Orcadian folktales – stories viscerally tied to the landscape and traditions of these islands. I knew before going – thanks to Leah Haught’s work on the Orkney boys in Malory -- that Orkney was a bit of a liminal space. Because of its dual allegiance to the kings of Scotland and Norway, it was as Norse as it was Scottish in the Middle Ages, and I was curious to see how much of that liminality still remained. As it turns out, the Orcadians pride themselves on their Norse ancestry, and so much of what we encountered — the folktales, the richly layered material history of the place, the keen attempts to preserve that history — demonstrated as much.

The power of material history was especially prevalent at Maeshowe, the last place we visited before heading back to London. Following our guide, we half-crawled our way into the 5,000 year old neolithic burial mound, and then stood as a group in semi-darkness. Our guide told us the cairn’s story, starting with theories of how the Neolithic people managed to drag its massive stones to this spot. She then recounted how the mound was broken into by the Norsemen, many of whom decided to do what so many people feel moved to do in such places: carve their name. In this case, they carved their names in runes, and often wrote other things about themselves as well. There are references to crusaders (“Jerusalem-men broke this mound”), attractive women (“Ingigerth is the most beautiful,” which is accompanied by a drooling dog to stress the point), boasts (“Eyjolf Kolbeinson carved these runes high up”; “The man who is most skilled in runes west of the ocean carved these runes . . .”); and the names of recognizable figures such as Ragnar Lothbrok. Aside from the references to crusading (which both surprised and amazed me given my current work on viking crusaders), the most striking graffiti was the drawing of the Maeshowe "dragon" and its accompanying otter and coiled serpent. Our guide made a compelling case for the dragon not being a dragon at all, but rather a wolf, and a very specific wolf at that: Fenrir. The presence of the other animals supports this theory: the otter could be Otr, killed by Loki in one of many famous myths about the trickster God, and the serpent could, in turn, be Jormungand – the world serpent and, like Fenrir, Loki’s offspring.

The Maeshowe "dragon."
Photo by Charles Tait
As I'm sure you can imagine, Kristi and I gestured very excitedly to one another the entire time, much to the amusement of the non-medievalists in our midst, I think — but these runes were utterly fascinating to behold. They correspond with the description of Maeshowe (or Orkahaugr) in the Orkneyinga saga, and they have so much to tell us – in however fragmented a way -- about the Norsemen who wrote them. They are consistently hilarious and viscerally human, and they represent the largest collection of runic inscriptions (read: viking graffiti) outside Scandinavia proper.  It was nothing short of incredible to stand in this space for as long as we did and witness up close a vivid example of richly imbricated history, and to see first-hand one of the major landmarks that features so prominently in Orkneyinga saga. We had similar experiences earlier on in the trip – our journey to Birsay for instance, a tidal island that features prominently in Orkneyinga saga as well, where the ruins of a Viking settlement (with some stray Pictish ruins in the mix) can be found; or our time spent inside the Dwarfie stane, a neolithic tomb carved out of a single, enormous glacial erratic. It too was covered in old graffiti (in this case 18th and 19th century travelers), and we spent ample time huddled inside the carved out cave, examining the inscriptions and (on the recommendation of the guide we met at Birsay), humming low notes to feel the walls reverberate and "hum back" -- among the most eery things I have ever experienced. But I think if I had to pick a single example that really brought home the value of coming into contact with a literary landscape – in this case, that of the Orkneyinga saga – it would without question be the experience of standing in Maeshowe.

Needless to say, I've come away from this trip with a renewed commitment to situating literature alongside its material history and within its particular landscape, and I have to confess: I am sorely tempted to create a course on the literature of the Orkneys to put this to practice in the classroom -- it would be a perfect place to teach a class about the ways in which literature springs from a particular cultural landscape. 

In closing, I came away from these two weeks incredibly grateful to be a part of this field. Every day of the NCS conference promised an array of meetings (however brief!) with warm and enthusiastic colleagues, with good friends old (and new!), and an array of deeply generative conversations and presentations. So much conviviality, and so many commitments to make our field more open and inclusive. As a result, I came away from this journey with renewed energy for my own work but also a renewed sense of optimism for where we are headed as a community. Cheers, then, to our merry and electric band of interswervists -- I am already counting the days to NCS Toronto! 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated by the authors in order to keep the spam at bay.