A Question of Cooperation

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.

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6 Responses to “A Question of Cooperation”

  1. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    I have notes on that paper, which I can try and type up so that someone else can read them. If you mail me at the address on this page with a contact address I’ll send you the results. However it seems to me that in this case there must be work inside the discipline that could help you; I mean, I’m aware of the debate and as you know don’t figure myself a literary type at all. There’s a bit of stuff on Regesta Imperii‘s OPAC suggesting a live debate, but to my surprise you seem to be right that a lot of it is literature study. One way to go might be to put some of Jinty Nelson’s stuff on Alfred through the Arts & Humanities Citation Index?

  2. swain Says:

    One of these days I’m going to have to write my rejoinder to Godden…..

  3. heptarchyherald Says:

    Thank you very much, Jonathan, for the kind offer. I will take you up on that. Dr. Swain, I look forward to reading that rejoinder, when it appears. As for the Alfredian canon debate, I am just wondering if it is a symptom of something else, namely, awareness of “the other side,” so to speak. How aware are historians of the work of our counterparts in literary studies? It seems to me that the argument over the origins of the Old English translations could have an impact on our own work. This translates to similar work on just about any textual subject one might imagine. I know this is, or might be, academic to most of you, but I am still learning, so bear with me. Simply put, I believe that literary studies can offer a lot to the historian. There was a time, it seems, when the academic divide was less visible. Whitelock, Stenton, Maitland, and, even today, Keynes, dabbled on both sides of the scholastic fence, history and literature. I would imagine, given her academic genealogy, that Janet Nelson is a direct descendent of that same impulse.

  4. swain Says:

    Well, first, it’s Larry. We’re colleagues after all. Second, I think it works both ways. Most of us literary types are not aware of what is going on in history etc. Anglo-Saxonists as a whole I think are not quite as bad as other fields since our numbers are so much smaller–esp the number of A-S historians! So it is much easier to cross-pollinate. Still, it is a problem unless like me, one is a hide-bound, old fashioned, dyed in the wool historicist sort.

    Anyway, some historians are quite aware of issues in literary studies. Simon Keynes comes to mind. Working the other way, Michael Lapidge was often aware of what was going on among the historians….but as I say, its easier for Anglo-Saxonists I think.

    Ok, the general stuff mentioned….let me say that on the question of Alfred and his canon, the lines of “literary” “linguistic” and “history” are very blurred, and should be. To ask whether or not Alfred had anything to do with one or more of the works produced under his name *must* make use of tools and information from all these fields, no matter how one answers it. Since most A-S studies are undertaken by lit-lang people, it may not be impacting the historians as much at first glance, but it will–at least those working in the area.

    Another specific example: I’ve been reading some archaeological reports, and while it is apparent the archaeologists are not literary specialists, nonetheless they frequently use literature to fill out the picture of the artifacts they are describing and talking about: I know that this is not always the case, but in this case, the authors are using Old English, Anglo-Latin, and Irish texts to make sense of what they’ve found. Literature informing archeology, archeology informing literary studies…..it can happen, and with you, I say it should and must.

  5. heptarchyherald Says:

    Point well taken about Anglo-Saxonists. A limited pool of evidence forces everyone to jump in. As for archaeology, I have only within the past year or so been trying to read as much as I can. I have read some Carver, Blair, Hamerow, and Harke. I found C.J. Arnold’s “Archaeology of the Early A-S Kingdoms” incredibly helpful. We don’t really have any archaeology offerings at my school, so I have been going it alone. I am very excited about some of the new discoveries, though. I’m going to include some work on Prittlewell in my thesis. I haven’t seen any academic papers on it, yet, but Prittlewell is an incredible discovery. I am particulerly struck by the gold crosses as evidence of Lombardic and Allamannic influence. Still don’t know how much to read into that, however.

  6. swain Says:

    One good way to keep up in A-S studies is to subscribe to the Old English Newsletter. The annual bibliography and annotated bib make the $25 price for two volumes a steal. So if you don’t already subscribe, http://www.oenewsletter.org.

    You’re in a tough spot, with no one really anywhere close to your field on campus. If I can help, let me know, though I’m not in your area. Keep posting though!

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