London Old and Middle English Research Seminar

The seminar aims to include contributions from both leading medievalists and from new members of the London medievalist community, to encourage participation from graduate students, and to range as widely as possible within the fields of Old English and Middle English studies. The selection of topics offers a balance of detailed analysis and more general theoretical / methodological or historical discussion. The seminar fosters a friendly spirit of collaboration among London medievalists and is an essential and vital forum where London medievalists can meet, exchange ideas, and keep abreast of current trends in medieval studies.

Organisers

Dr Alastair Bennett (Royal Holloway, University of London) & Dr Catherine Nall (Royal Holloway, University of London)

LOMERS Schedule 2020-2021

Seminars this term will take place online, via Microsoft Teams. To receive the meeting link please register below.

Seminar Schedule and Registration

November 25th 2020: Mike Bintley (Birkbeck, University of London)

'Minds in the Landscape: Texts, Environment, and Material Culture in Early Medieval England'

This paper will outline the methodology of my current research project, which attempts an interdisciplinary investigation of the environment of early medieval England (broadly defined) through the consideration of textual evidence from Old English poetry, the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Chronicles, and vernacular charter bounds. These distinct, yet related forms of writing will be contextualised using evidence from the material record for the physical environments of this region, such as standing buildings, landscape archaeology, and archaeobotanical evidence. This project adapts the concept of the ‘extended mind’ and the cognitive archaeological approaches of Material Engagement Theory (MET) to accommodate the study of documentary sources traditionally undertaken by literary-historical scholarship. Within this model, objects and other elements of environment external to the embodied human brain are understood as constituent parts of the ‘extended’ human mind. This project aims to take MET a step further by showing how written texts and environment formed part of the textual-material continuum of extended minds in early medieval England, endeavouring to bridge gaps between discipline-specific approaches to the study of texts and material culture. 

December 9th 2020: Laura Saetveit Miles (University of Bergen)

‘St. Birgitta of Sweden’s Revelations in Middle English Devotional Compilations’

More and more attention is being paid to the vernacular devotional compilations that circulated everywhere in late-medieval England. Though we have long known of their many surviving copies, only recently has their complexity, variety, and influence been more closely examined, for instance with  Prof. Denis Renevey’s large project. How did these devotional compilations simultaneously rely on and shape the authority of female visionaries such as Birgitta of Sweden, whose Revelations were borrowed by several different texts? In this talk I will highlight some of the ways in which Birgitta’s influence was spread by means of dozens and dozens of manuscripts containing compilations that relied on Birgittine excerpts. Both adored and ignored, both cited and silenced, Birgitta emerges as an enigmatic figure at the mercy of male literary agents. Nonetheless, I propose, compilations ensure Birgitta’s status as the most-read holy woman in late medieval England. This work-in-progress presentation showcases current work from my Norwegian Research Council project, “Re-Assessing Birgitta of Sweden’s Revelations in Medieval England: Circulation and Influence, 1380-1530.”

February 10th 2021: Rachel Burns (University of Oxford)

‘Psychogeography in exile: Solomon and Saturn II and The Wanderer

The tenth-century Old English poem known as Solomon and Saturn II (SSII) imagines a wisdom-debate between the sagacious Biblical King Solomon, and a pagan intellectual by the name of Saturn. The poem opens with a haphazard account of Saturn’s travels throughout eastern Europe, north Africa and central Asia in pursuit of knowledge, culminating with his arrival in Jerusalem. While Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe attributes ‘little significance’ to the order of these place-names, I argue that alliterative and grammatical analysis of the passage show the disorganisation of Saturn’s travels to be deliberately effected by the poet, as a spatialised metaphor for the senselessness of his pursuit of secular wisdom. In SSII and its sister poem Solomon and Saturn I (SSI), there are several such episodes of wandering, each associated with sinfulness and mental distress. This correllation prompted me to engage with the varied modern field of psychogeography, which asks us to examine the relationship between physical and mental wandering, the definition of urban space by authority, and wandering as a subversive activity. Ultimately, I will argue that the poem’s hostility to wandering is a result of its creation at the height of English monastic reform. Where the groups engaged in modern psychogeographical practice have often used wandering (or the derivé) as a means of challenging authoritative definitions of space, the poet(s) of SSI and SSII is fully invested in the authority of monastic institutions. ThroughSSII’s allusions to Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job, and its broader reliance on patristic thought, the poem’s ‘psychogeographical contours’ (Debord) reflect a belief that that wandering, both physical and spiritual, is a threat not only to the soul of the individual, but to the collective functioning of the monastic institution. The poem does not leave the troubled monk without recourse to an antidote: in true Benedictine fashion, books are shown to be the best salve for a wandering soul.

March 3rd 2021: Marco Nievergelt (University of Warwick)

'Medieval Allegory as Epistemology: Language, Cognition, and Experience in the Dream-Vision poetry of Jean de Meun, Deguileville, Chaucer, and Langland'

Medieval intellectual culture never produced a discipline that was roughly equivalent to modern ‘Epistemology’. That is not to say, however, that medieval intellectuals failed to engage with philosophical questions related to the nature of knowledge and cognitive processes in the human mind. Remarkably, a wide range of sustained and sophisticated considerations on the nature of knowledge can be found across an impressive array of disciplines – from medieval faculty psychology to theology, grammar, optics, and the natural sciences more broadly. 

Poets too indulged in such epistemological speculation, and often did so by engaging in creative dialogue with more institutionalised branches of learning. In my latest book – freshly completed – I have argued that allegorical dream-vision poetry provided a particularly suitable environment to examine the nature of subjective knowledge. In particular, poets used the formal defining features of this literary ‘genre’ (dreaming, a first-person narration, allegorical expression and interpretation) to stage a series of elaborate thought experiments to test and examine that nature of knowledge, with particular attention to the relation between mind, sensory reality, and language – and poetic language in particular. 

My talk will address some of the methodological and disciplinary challenges of conducting such an inquiry, and will concentrate on a handful of examples drawn Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, Guillaume de Deguileville’s Pèlerinages, as well as the poetry of Chaucer and Langland, placed in the intellectual and cultural context of the period. I want to argue that so-called ‘allegorical dream-vision poetry’ is not merely a remarkably popular literary genre that contains some incidental reflections on knowledge, but that this literary tradition as a whole ought to be understood as stemming primarily from a desire to explore a complex set of philosophical problems regarding the nature of knowledge in general, and the nature of poetic knowledge in particular.

May 19th 2021: Postgraduate and ECR seminar

Calum Cockburn (UCL), 'Helle-ceafl: tasting death in the Old English Andreas'

Rebecca Menmuir (University of Groningen), ‘Preaching and Teaching with Ovid in Medieval Florilegia

Of all the classical authorities who were celebrated in the Middle Ages, none experienced the same level of fame, or infamy, as the Roman poet Ovid. While his poetry was often condemned (particularly his predatory erotic manuals), his works were also used in medieval places of learning: the schoolroom and the pulpit. In this paper, I will explore Ovid’s presence in these spaces via several medieval florilegia which worked their way across scenes of teaching and preaching in the Middle Ages in England. Florilegia could usefully be described as the medieval versions of the ‘greatest hits’ of authorities, compiling excerpts of mostly patristic and classical authors. The format and content of these florilegia illuminate how the simultaneously most edifying and most indecent classical author found himself in an instructive role in secular schoolrooms and monastic settings. Moreover, they offer some insight into the methodology for reading, compiling, and teaching classical authority in medieval England.

 

LOMERS Schedule, 2019-2020

September 24th 2019: Kellie Robertson (University of Maryland)

 

'Weather Prodigies: Climate Change and Medieval Narrative'Long before the advent of global warming accelerated by industrialization, humans imagined their own actions to be causally related to weather events. Looking at medieval technologies for weather prognostication alongside poetry and chronicle accounts, this talk explores what anthropogenic climate change looked like before the Anthropocene, particularly for medieval writers grappling with describing the aftermath of destructive storms. It argues that what Amitav Ghosh has recently called “the environmental uncanny” emerges from an odd but enduring subject position: one in which writers simultaneously imagine themselves as directly responsible for storms and other weather events, even as they experience themselves as being the helpless object of them.

 

January 29th 2020: Katie Walter (University of Sussex)

 

'Feet, Peasants, and Medieval Literature'

 

In the encyclopaedic tradition the feet are connected, through their soles, with the soil (solum): the sole of the foot is ‘so called because with it we impress footprints in the earth’. But both soil and soles are solum because they sustain other things – the sole of the foot ‘the entire weight of the body’, and the soil ‘everything’. In the theological and pastoral tradition, the feet are metaphorically connected with the soul’s movements: one is the foot of the intellect, the other is the foot of affection; and Accedia (or Sloth) is both a cripple and a foot. In the tradition of the body politic, feet are more specifically associated with a particular class: peasants are feet. In this paper I will establish these strands of natural philosophical, theological and moral thinking about feet, before turning to one figure, that of the ploughman, and one poem, Piers the Plowman’s Crede. I'll suggest that reading ploughmen as feet in general, and Piers as a foot in particular, alerts us to a poetics of feet in late-medieval vernacular theology. As even these snippets suggest, feet are thick with meaning. In their connection with the soil, the earth and work, but also with disability, feet might appear to be of limited spiritual value. However, their simultaneous connection, not only with sustaining but also with moving, with making footprints and tracks, and with intellect and love, open up another possibility for the ploughman-as-foot: for spiritual acuity and moral exemplarity, which, I'll suggest, is inextricable from his physical connection with - his adherence to - the earth.

 

February 12th 2020: David Callander (Cardiff University)

 

‘Bringing Medieval English and Welsh Literature Together’

 

Ever more scholars are seeking to compare medieval English literature with texts from Britain and elsewhere in other languages, including Welsh. This talk seeks to highlight some of the more productive avenues which could be pursued in bringing medieval English and Welsh literature together. I look at a number of possibilities, including the study of early modern Welsh translations of medieval English literature, such as ‘Troelus a Chresyd’ and the Welsh Mandeville’s Travels. I then discuss in particular detail the opportunity for comparative study provided by border-crossing saints like Winefride/Gwenfrewy, examining the often contrasting adaptations of her medieval Latin lives in Middle English and Middle Welsh.

 

This talk has been rescheduled from its original date on November 27th, 2019.

 

March 4th 2020: Marco Nievergelt (University of Warwick)

 

‘Medieval Allegory as Epistemology: Langland and Deguileville on Language, Cognition, and Experience’

 

This talk has been cancelled due to planned industrial action

 

May 20th 2020: Calum Cockburn (UCL) and Rebecca Menmuir (University of Oxford)

 

This talk has been postponed due to the Covid-19 outbreak

 

Seminar Schedule and Registration