How did I get here?

As regular readers of my blog will know, I have just submitted a book to a publisher.  This was based upon my doctoral thesis, but with extremely significant revisions, and I hope it will be much better for them.  The subject is Anglo-Saxon ‘private prayer’, encompassing various kinds of prayer outside of a strictly communal liturgical context, ranging from silent prayer in a secret place, to prayer between a healer and a sick person, to group confession in monasteries.  Now that I am away from this work, it’s not a bad moment to look back on what I have been doing and how I got there.

I’m not sure when it was that I became a medievalist: there could have been all sort of things that I might have gone into.  But one moment does stick out in my memory.  When I was about seventeen and studying Chaucer for the first time, I was reading a book about the poet by the medievalist Derek Brewer, and one sentence stood out.  It was something to the effect that, although medieval literature is often full of grimness, about death and sin, it is never nihilistic: it always assumes that life has a meaning, that it is worth living.  I think this might have been what stayed with me.

Durham Cathedral close-up
Durham Cathedral, north-east England

When I studied English literature at the University of Durham, the departmental medieval team was small, yet somehow managed to teach a surprising number of modules between them.  As a first-year undergraduate, I turned down the opportunity to study medieval literature in favour of other things, but I studied Middle English in the second year, and in the third opted for Chaucer, Germanic Myth & Legend, and Old English.  The opportunity to learn a historical language was one that I welcomed greatly: having a reasonable level of German meant that I picked up the language without too much difficulty.  One of my assessments for this module was to transcribe and write a mini-edition of a selected piece of Old English poetry (I picked Riddle 26 from the Exeter Book), giving me my first experience of what an Anglo-Saxon manuscript page looked like and how to transcribe its writing.

So when I decided to apply for a master’s degree, a couple of years after graduation, it was to medieval literature that I naturally gravitated.  I started learning Latin, by myself, with a teach-yourself book, in the mornings before going to work, and later took a one-week summer school.  The opportunity to study so many languages and palaeography attracted me to the course at York.  When I got there, I wanted to take a broad approach to the era, studying (amongst other things), Cistercian writing, Viking poetry, and the Divine Comedy, whilst also taking classes in early- to high-medieval palaeography, Latin, Old Norse, and advanced Old English.  Although the Centre for Medieval Studies ran a couple of courses on Anglo-Saxon literature, one wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, and the other wasn’t running because the tutor was on research leave that year.  That meant that, when I came to choose my dissertation topic, the Anglo-Saxon period was a large gap that I wanted to fill.  However, I remember being completely stumped for ideas, and starting to panic.  Looking for a distraction from the impending deadline, I checked my email only to find that the course administrator was now asking us to send in our dissertation topics a few days early!

My supervisor suggested I look into charms; somehow I got the idea to write about medicine and scientific beliefs, and how they were related to the practice of Christianity in late Anglo-Saxon England. As mentioned in an earlier blogpost, when I was doing that riddle editing exercise during my BA, I had stumbled upon the Old English Leechbook, a medical manual that I have discussed many times in this blog.  I had since re-encountered it in our Old English translation classes, where I had also come across a strange little ‘alphabet’ text: a series of little sentences, each prefaced by a different letter of the alphabet, which appears to be some form of fortune telling.  This was found in a little manuscript called Ælfwine’s Prayerbook, which turned out to have a lot of texts related to divination and the phases of the moon.  I ended up writing about both of these manuscripts, and a few others, in my dissertation.

When I started looking into PhD topics, it was suggested to me that charms or medicine might not provide enough of a topic (looking back, I’m not sure I agree, but never mind), so instead I proposed something about liturgical texts for use outside of strictly liturgical settings.  After the first six months, this had morphed into a study of private prayer, drawing to a large extent on Ælfwine’s Prayerbook once more, as you will guess from its frequent appearances in this blog.  After examining a few late Anglo-Saxon texts in my first year, and Carolingian ones in my second (via a brief but interesting detour into Syrian prayer), I got the idea to write a thesis in four chapters: the Carolingian background to late Anglo-Saxon prayer, prayer for the monastic hours, prayer to the cross, and confession.  A lot of the notes that I took during this period, particularly those written on secondary literature, are now unreadable by Microsoft Word.  I’d like to point out that most of the 1000+-year-old manuscripts that they are about are still in perfectly good condition.

Unreadable file
Not a problem you have with medieval manuscripts

Following my viva examination, and a lot of thought, I have now come to the conclusion that I was a little too preoccupied with drawing a neat and tidy distinction between private and public prayer in my thesis: it’s a much messier subject than I wanted to believe.  This conclusion is reflected in the book that I have recently submitted.  Since completing my PhD, I have returned to medicine and charms as a subject for my conference papers: due to my publisher’s interest and my own, I have included these in my book.  There is a lot to be said about prayer and Anglo-Saxon medicine, more than I have managed to write about it so far.

So, with a heavily-altered thesis book forthcoming, what will my future research be about?  I’m still very much interested in medieval medicine, and particularly the use of prayer and charms in it; I want to know more about cultural connections in the medieval world.  I’d like to get to know a wider range of manuscripts than those which I currently work on, and hopefully I will explore them first in this blog.  More generally, I would like to know more about the definitions of religion and witchcraft, and about traditional healing, and cultural attitudes to medicine .  I would also like to return to one of my greatest childhood interests – plants and flowers, which can be related very well to the medieval Herbaria.  Who knows which way I will go next?

Herbarium VitCiii29v
Old English Herbarium.  London, British Library Vitellius C. iii, fol. 29v.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. John Woodman says:

    Interesting account. I have a general interest in your area, but no experience of the academic world and its approach.


  2. If you’re still fighting historic Word doc files, I’m willing to pitch in…


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