Archive for August, 2009

Sherlock Holmes: Medievalist!?

August 30, 2009

This is a medieval blog, but occasionally I will indulge myself with a post on another passion of mine, Sherlock Holmes. Serendipitously, today’s post references both Holmes and the Middle ages. Sherlockiana is the study of all things Holmes, with the conceit that Holmes was a historical figure. Many learned tomes have dealt seriously, in a scholarly fashion, with questions surrounding the world’s first consulting detective and his partner, Dr. John Watson.

A close reading of the canon, those stories written by Watson and edited by his literary agent, Arthur Conan Doyle, show that among his many other interests, Holmes was a scholar of diverse medieval subjects. For instance, in “The Adventure of the Three Students,” published in 1904, but taking place in 1895, we find Holmes on the campus of a great English University researching, what else?, early English (Anglo-Saxon) charters! Controversy rages over which university Holmes visited, but my guess would be Cambridge. (No, really, controversy rages.) Nevertheless, Holmes’ study produced some provocative results, though Watson never tells us what they were. “The Bruce-Partington Plan,” a case from November of 1895, just a few months after “Three Students,” opens at the tail end of Holmes’ two week intensive study of medieval music. Perhaps he was transposing medieval songs for performance on his beloved violin. This curiousity is not limited to 1895. In 1888’s “The Sign of Four,” the second novella in the canon, Holmes mentions his study of miracle plays and medieval pottery.

Holmes’ hobby is not surprising when one considers the intellectual and patriotic climate of the late nineteenth-century. The 1870’s saw the publication of the majority of Stubb’s work on English constitutional history, including a volume on A-S charters. By 1895, it was in its eighth edition. In 1895, England was gearing up for the millenial observance of the death of Alfred the Great, a fine figure with whom to celebrate Empire. This was also the era of Maitland and Harmer, and many other gentleman scholars to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. It is a shame that Holmes’ pen would leave no monograph detailing his findings like the one he wrote explaining the properties of various tobacco ashes. Ah, well, maybe, just maybe, deep in Watson’s tin dispatch box, where he kept the manuscripts of his writings, we might someday find a treatise in Holmes’ hand explaining, in rational, dispassionate prose, the answers to all those questions that vex so much today’s student of the Middle ages.

A Question of Cooperation

August 25, 2009

I mentioned in my last post my position as the only early medievalist in the history department of my university. As a professor this would be lonely enough, as a grad student the isolation is even more intense. I do, however, find opportunities. I am currently working on a project with one of the three (3!) early medievalists in the English department. My role is history based, contributing a short bio on Alfred the Great, but I am enjoying the interdisciplinary nature of the thing. The project focuses on the vernacular translation tradition of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. I have been reading a fair amount of scholarly studies concerned with Alfred and his translation program and I am struck by some of the current arguments. For instance, Malcolm Godden, in both a recent article in Medium Aevum as well as the introduction to volume 1 of The Old English Boethius  argues an extreme view that Alfred really had nothing to do with the “Alfredian canon.”  Of course, the traditional view places a certain number of works in the kings hand. A third school offers a more conservative approach- Alfred, while maybe not translating anything himself, certainly commissioned and approved the final products.

The argument is not my point. I’m not really qualified to discuss the literary merits of the evidence on any side, where thorns and ashes fly like arrows at Agincourt, but it did get me thinking. How could a historian use a debate like this and why aren’t they? What could we say about the historical Alfred if, indeed, he wasn’t involved? How would it change the history books? First, I guess, we must explore why he did not actually participate in these translations. Well, saving Wessex from the Vikings seems like a fair enough answer, but is it?  Next, we could cast our academic gaze at those who used Alfred’s name to further their endeavours. Why? And from there…where? Which is kind of where I need guidance.  I don’t know how it is at other institutions, I have to assume it is better, but at mine no one seems to be trying to build a bridge we can all cross. I suppose this blog is my way of trying to build that bridge.  I do know that Guy Halsall had something to say about this at Leeds. If anyone has notes or an abstract of that paper, “Dialogue, Interlocution, or Just Plain Cultural History?: What (If Anything) Do We Mean by ‘Interdisciplinarity’?,” I would love to read it.

Hello world!

August 22, 2009

Welcome to the Heptarchy Herald! My name is Michael and I started this blog for a couple of reasons. First, for the past two or three years, I have been a fan of academic blogs, particularly A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe, Another Damned Medievalist, Magistra Et Mater, Per Omnia Saecula, and Unlocked Wordhoard. I enjoy the posts and I have learned alot from these blogs, but I have things I would like to discuss, sometimes, dealing with my own interests in the early Middle Ages. Second, I am a master’s student at a middle Tennessee university known more for its Southern and Public history programs than anything medieval. This presents some problems as I am the only person in the department studying the EMA. We do have a medievalist on the faculty, but he works on late medieval/Renaissance Italy. He is a great professor and does the best he can, but, as an Anglo-Saxonist, I often find myself confronting problems with no one else to talk to. It can be lonely. Hopefully this blog will give me a platform with which to engage others in constructive dialogue.  Please be patient, I am not the most technologically gifted person. I will have a blogroll, as soon as I figure out how, and will be playing around with the look of the page. Also, if you have something of interest to discuss, by all means, bring it up on the comments. I will be happy to talk about the Middle Ages with you.