Posted by: kljolly | July 27, 2014

Lancashire and Peak District Landscapes

It is hard from the comfort of a car to imagine traveling on foot or horseback the winding roads we traverse so easily.  As we traveled south from our visit to Heysham through Lancashire, I tried to see the landscape as tenth-century Aldred might have viewed it, slogging along, looking for paths and markers.  How exciting a crossroad might have been, or the sight of a hearth fire’s smoke!  A riverside would be a comfort, as well as source of water, no matter how winding the path along it.

Rivers_of_LancashireWe did stop once for me to get pictures of the River Wyre at Garstang, an area where I have Aldred unsuccessfully avoiding the Battle of Brunanburh (location unknown).  The roads don’t make it easy for us to follow the river, which meanders from two sources converging at Abbeystead (the middle dark blue line on this map) westward to Dolphinholme (I love that name!), then south through Scorton and Garstang, before turning west again through St. Michael’s and Great Eccleston, and then north to the coast at Fleetwood.  This Wikipedia map of Lancashire rivers also shows the Lune to the north and the Ribble to the south.


The only point where our more direct (and perhaps Roman) road intersecteWyre2d the Wyre was at Garstang, so I got out to take two pictures just for the atmosphere of the river.  However, in my current storyline for Aldred, I have him heading west into the Wyre lake area north of here, then getting taken forcibly to somewhere near Garstang before the battle.  So I am left with this feeling of almost, but not quite, glimpsing the landscape Aldred might have seen.


PeakDistrictCavernsRoadThe next day, we explored some stunning areas of the Peak District (I will leave the Anglo-Saxon stone monuments for a separate post).  Near the end of the day we went through Castleton (brief view of Peveril castle, too modern for our early medieval tastes) westward to Blue John Cavern, arriving too late to go inside but with enough time to admire the views.  Above us was the Pennine Way trail, with hikers visible.  As we drove west on the A618, an interestingly looking northward road took us into what seemed a high and secret pass.  I wondered if the road even went through to anywhere or just dead-ended in a crevice.  But it (Mam Tor Road) did go through the vale of Edale.  It reminded me of some kind of hidden path to Rivendale, but it also made me wonder who, in the tenth century, might find their way through these paths, and why.

Remoteness has advantages and disadvantages.  Lower agricultural land is highly productive, long-tilled, and subject to high traffic (and invasion).  Higher grazing ground, less accessible, with scattered human populations, is a bit lonelier.  Then there are the uninhabitable peaks.  Although I did not see any, I can imagine that a religious hermit or community might find these hills a solitary place to contemplate the divine mysteries.

Posted by: kljolly | July 22, 2014

Slow Scholarship and Digital Humanities

This summer I attended two very different conferences in my field, where I gave two inter-related papers reflecting on the processes of scholarship in a digital world.

The first conferDAIV19ence, in Cambridge, was a small one of specialists in early English history, Writing Britain, 500-1500.  My paper, “Inscribing Identity:  Northumbrian Old English and Latin in Dialogue,” addressed two of the conference themes:  the role of language in regional identity and digital humanities.  In it, I explored some theories about extensive versus intensive social power as a way of understanding the political dynamics in tenth century (Viking era) northern England, using the bilingual text (Latin glossed with Old English) from my current project on the manuscript known as Durham Cathedral Library A.IV.19 (one set of texts already published available on ScholarSpace).

That brings me to the digital part, where I got to show off the work of colleague David GoldbergGoldberg, collaborating with me in producing a tool to digitize a glossed manuscript.  The problem with typing up a glossed manuscript is how to represent the relationship between the base word (Latin in this case) and the Old English gloss word floating above it.  MS Word has the advantage of needed special characters and other formatting, but has no way to tie the two words together other than hard or soft spacing, which often gets skewed.

David wrote a program we are calling Glossa, still in its infancy, that allows me to type or paste in the two lines of text,  “grab” the Latin word, then grab the Old English gloss word(s), creating a permanent association.  This means we can create a two-way glossary (Latin to Old English or vice versa), allowing further linguistic analysis as well as searchability of the text.  Finally, this xml code can be shared with the Text Encoding Initiative for others to use.  Attendees at the Writing Britain conference were very interested in both the potential for the software as well as the linguistic implications of analyzing this bilingual text for what it can tell us about tenth century England’s diverse political and social landscape.

The other conference I attended was the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, with over 2000 delegates.  My paper there may seem antithetical to the digital world, given in a series session called “Slow Scholarship.” However, the aim of the sessions was not to dismiss the benefits of “big data” with digitization, but to combine it with the kind of patient, focused attention to detail that humanities research has always prized.  Digitization should free us up to spend more time contemplating the meaning of texts and artifacts, not zoom us past that stage of reflection.


My paper, “Letter by Letter:  Manuscript Transcription and Historical Imagination,” explored the theory of “deep attention” in relation to “hyper attention”  as developed by Kate Hayles.  One slow side of my work is transcribing, letter by letter, the glossed manuscript.  In doing so, I see things--odd words and different understandings the glossator has of the text–that I would not have noticed if I had just scanned it and then searched the text.  On the other hand, I want that tedious work of typing to have some long term value, hence my desire to digitize it in such a way that it is searchable and can be compiled to look for patterns that I might not see in the slow process of transcription.

The other slow bit in my title has to do with imagination, and here I transgress the boundaries of traditional historical scholarship by writing historical fiction (or attempting to).  The more time I spent with this glossator–whose name is Aldred–the more I got to know him, in a peculiar way, given that the only evidence we have about him is from his Old English gloss translations of Latin liturgical and encyclopedic materials and two “colophons” where he describes himself somewhat ambiguously.  But to know him in his home terrain means exploring the landscape he inhabited.  Bakewell 016

So off I go to England to traipse around Northumbria and Cumbria, imagining what he might have seen a thousand years ago, and taking some (digital!) pictures to remind me.  This one to the right, at Bakewell in the Peak District, shows one side of a cross fragment with a carving of the Scandinavian hero/god Woden on his horse Sleipnir, an image illustrating the Viking settlement and acculturation to Christianity in tenth-century England (given comments below, I am now revising this view, especially since the cross fragment is dated by some to eighth or ninth century).

Bakewell 030Meanwhile, this image of stone fragments, also at the church in Bakewell, is a reminder of our fragmentary knowledge of the past, similar to the fragments left by Aldred in the manuscripts he glossed.  It is my job to take these jigsaw pieces and built a puzzle from them.  That takes time, time digital tools can enhance.



[cross posted to Digital Arts and Humanties @UH]

Posted by: kljolly | July 16, 2014

Heversham and Heysham

Because I failed to get there last summer, I aimed this summer to get around Morecambe Bay and further south into Lancashire, in part because of recent interest in the Battle of Brunanburh.  From there, my expert local guide and driver (left anonymous unless she wants credit) took me into the Peak District, where we saw a surprising number of Anglo-Saxon stone artifacts, even some we did not expect based on our handy guidebook (Laing and Laing).

HevershamChVinescroll2Our first stop was Heversham, so that I could see what remained of a monastic site Aldred might very well visit if he traveled west of the Pennines visiting religious communities in the Lindisfarne Cuthbertine network.  In the porch of the (later) church is a nice late 8th century Anglian vine scroll with beasties cross fragment (at left).  I often wonder how Aldred or other travelers responded when they reached a stone cross marking a byway or saw a church rising in the distance:  did they quicken their pace, like a horse nearing its barn?  Something familiar and comforting in the landscape would be a welcome relief if one were trudging through wet paths.  We were able to hop back in the car and turn on the windshield wipers as we made our way to the coast.

Bay from Morecambe

Bay from Morecambe

Heysham was properly atmospheric, that is, it rained heavily and we couldn’t see across Morecambe Bay, same as last summer when I was on the other side of the bay:  it seems to be my fate to see only a mist covered tide running in or out of the flats.  My local guide as well as my expert driver kept apologizing profusely for the English weather, but for me it simply indicated that this is what someone like Aldred might very well experience on site.

HeyshamStPatrick1However, the churches of St. Peter’s and St. Patrick’s were well worth visiting, despite the wind and rain.   The entry through a stone archway (left) reminded me of Irish monasteries with their gateways into the stone encircled sites.  St Peter’s church, intact, is first, then further along the headland is the ruin of St. Patrick’s, both part of a single religious community, apparently.

St. Peter’s has, among other things, a well-preserved tenth-century Viking hogback:

HeyshamStPeterHogbackSigurdIts interpretation is of course problematic:  men and animals in various poses on both sides could be Christian and/or Scandinavian legends, and perhaps both and neither is the best way to view it, as I would guess Aldred would as well:  an alien addition to a decidedly Christian site full of Anglian sculpture.

HeyshamStPatricks3St. Patrick’s has this evocative doorway overlooking the sea.  In addition, it has the sadly empty stone tombs (well, unless they evoke the empty tomb of Christ with its hope of resurrection!).  I doubt they were empty when Aldred visited, and probably still had their head markers for which you can see the stone posthole.




I also discovered that you really can’t see the Lune from the headland, but you can see the present day port and powerplant (hard to miss).  Not part of Aldred’s tenth century landscape, so I took shots off the headland (the dog is optional).


HeyshamStPatricks10So now I may rewrite the scenes of Aldred at Heysham to reflect this view of the site.

Posted by: kljolly | July 14, 2014

Cambridge and Leeds

I just returned from the UK, attending the Writing Britain conference in Cambridge and then the Leeds International Medieval Congress, with four days between to explore Lancashire (possible Battle of Brunanburh sites!) while avoiding the Tour de France.  More on the road trip in the next post (except for this picture from the Peak District).


I won’t say a lot about the sessions because it is too much to absorb and report on all at once, other than to say that it was great to hang out and converse with Anglo-Saxonists and other medievalists at both conferences (I have learned from following Jonathan Jarrett that it can take a full year to report on the IMC!).  However, I will note two things from Leeds:

First, Michael Wood’s plenary lecture on the Battle of Brun(n)anburh was a masterfully told story, unsurprisingly.  It was like being in a sleek boat on a swift stream, moving inexorably toward a destination, without being able to see out the sides where the alternative streams and byways might lead.  He gave the obligatory warnings about the location of the battle being undiscoverable and about the unreliability of the primary sources, then proceeded to take us to the site he has discovered while relying on twelfth century or later sources he asserted were authentic tenth century records, all along assuring us that no one had paid attention to this or that fact or source that he was highlighting.  Convincing…unless you have read the debates.  However, he did cast enough serious doubt on the Bromborough Wirral thesis to keep the debate going.  He also punctured the notion that archaeological finds might locate the battle:  no specific battle has been authenticated by sucTreevesh finds, and if we did find something, we would then debate what battle it was.

Second, I discovered in the book area that Arizona Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies (AMRTS) now has a historical fiction wing called Bagwyn Books.  They have published, among others, a novel called Eadfrith, Scribe of Lindisfarne by Michelle “Treeves,” heartily endorsed on the back by none other than Lindisfarne Gospel expert Michelle Brown.  It is a short book, highly informative and descriptive with strong sympathy for the religious life of its main characters.  At least initially, its style is very evocative of Anglo-Saxon poetry.  I enjoyed reading it and am encouraged by it to pursue my own project on Aldred, heir to, and witness of, Eadfrith’s opus dei in the Lindisfarne Gospels.

ISASlogoLast, I was gratified to hear from a number of Anglo-Saxonists that they are eagerly looking forward to attending ISAS 2017 in Honolulu.  Next up, Glasgow 2015!



Posted by: kljolly | June 8, 2014


I am grateful to Jonathan Jarrett for recently pointing out the work of George Molyneaux on tenth-century Anglo-Saxon kingship.  I followed Jonathan’s brief comment back to an earlier post and also acquired Molyneaux’s article, “Why were Some Tenth-Century English Kings Presented as Rulers of Britain?,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, 21 (2011), pp. 59-91.

The answer to his title question, vastly oversimplified, is that Wessex rulers in the early tenth century might style themselves rex totius britanniae simply to assert their overlordship of kings and other subrulers in Wales, Cumbria, Northumbria, and Scotland in a way not that different from their overlordship in English territories.  But in the later tenth century (beginning in Edgar’s reign), the growth of an “intensive” style of kingship in England differentiated that style of royal rule from the “extensive” rulership Wessex kings exerted earlier over their subjects and continued to exert over subrulers in other areas of Britain.

Two things especially interested me in this article relevant to the Battle of Brunanburh as well as the tensions between northern forces and the Wessex kings.

First, Molyneaux uses a construct of extensive vs intensive rulership from M. Mann (The Sources of Social Power, 1:  A History of Power from Beginning to A.D. 1760):  extensive power organizes far flung territories and people through cooperation; intensive power is more tightly organized to control people and requires a higher level of commitment from them.  I had been thinking of ways to talk about the complex relationship between Wessex’s rulers and the north, toying with the idea of “non-state space,” but that did not seem to fit well in the medieval era. Molyneaux argues that in the early tenth century, the English kings used power in the extensive sense but not the intensive:  they did not control people’s lives directly, but did seek control over other rulers.  What Molyneaux describes is a loose overlordship over kings who “cooperate” (or not).

The second point has to do with those episodes of non-cooperation.  The  English kings in the early tenth century were content to let the kings of Wales, Scotland, Cumbria/Strathclyde, and earls of Northumbria rule their own territories as long as they acknowledged that the English king was the greater king (he looks at charter attestations and submissions on various occasions to document these relationships). But the English kings would not tolerate–and would invade the north–if any kind of alliance with Hiberno-Scandinavians threatened.  In other words, such an alliance stretching from Dublin to York and beyond might create another extensively ruled realm that could easily break away from English overlordship.

I may not be fairly representing all of his argument–I encourage others to read the article.  However, what it suggests to me is that Brunanburh was not a winner-take-all event but part of a larger pattern of alliance formations and reformations as Wessex kings asserted their overlordship and resisted any effort to create a parallel extensive northern polity.  I also wonder if the reason why our later evidence about the battle of Brunanburh is so confusing is because it assumes a style of intensive rulership that simply did not start to form until later, and so they read back into it an effort to extend English intensive rulership over all of Britain, when in fact the English kings were only interested in maintaining their extensive rulership.


Posted by: kljolly | May 23, 2014

Boethius and Brunanburh chapter

This chapter on Aldred at Brunanburh reading Boethius has been one of the more difficult and longest to write, perhaps because of all of the controversy surrounding the battle.  The draft chapter I just posted as a page probably will stir up more, since I had to make some choices about the locations of the battle and people movements.  I am still tinkering with names, places, and dates.  Feedback is more than welcome.

My aim overall is to get a feel for the cultural atmosphere and inner life more than the outward appearance, though as a historian I am compelled to get both right.  As I noted in an earlier post, I see a need to take my writing a step further in terms of language and depth of meaning.  I am not there yet.

Meanwhile, I will try to keep revising and listening to comments.  Next week I start teaching a six week online class on the Vikings!, so I might be a bit preoccupied.  Then off to England, including more wanderings around Lancashire to see the sites where I have placed Aldred and the battle.

Addition (May 25):

I just read an insightful review article interviewing the authors of two novels set in recent Central American history (Paula Huston, A Land Without Sin, and Shirley and Rudy Nelson, The Risk of Returning).  At one point in the article (in Books & Culture here), Paula Huston comments on how to include historical context in fiction:

While I agree that the inclusion of too much historical detail can wind up hijacking a story, I think much contemporary fiction suffers instead from not having enough of it. Unfolding events might provide a bit of atmosphere, but the true focus is on the individual-as-individual…. Yet when we novelists relegate historical context to atmospheric backdrop, we unnecessarily limit the sorts of challenges we can throw at our characters. I think history can be a sort of meta-character, its dynamism and energy generating conflict on a grand scale and highlighting the moral weaknesses and strengths of those who must deal with it….  So how did I decide what historical facts to include and what to leave out? I tried to treat history as a character. And this gave me a helpful anchor-point when it came to the inevitable detail-sifting process.

Shirley Nelson then quotes Italo Calvino and adds her own thoughts:

“The book I would like to read now is a novel in which you sense the story arriving like still vague thunder, the historical story along with the individual’s story.” [Italo Calvino, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, translated by William Weaver (Harcourt, 1981).]   I love that, but the question, obviously, is what you do when the historical thunder starts to get louder. We finally developed one rule. Include only the facts that the characters need to know in order to function within the story. How they learn those facts must be part of the action.

Both of these insights certainly inspire me to consider history as a character in my novel, but to do so through the eyes of Aldred as he experiences the events.  This is admittedly tricky, since I want to reveal what I know and he does not–but in some ways I am saving that for my meta-narrator, the modern historian whose researches uncover Aldred’s trail of crumbs in the manuscript record (none of those sections I have written so far are included online).


Posted by: kljolly | April 9, 2014

Brunanburh timeline

Now that I have worked out a rough draft of Aldred’s involvement in the battle of Brunanburh and some of the geography, I am encountering timeline difficulties.

In my draft narrative, I created a close sequence of events for Aldred encountering first one side and then the other within a matter of days, but I now realize that is too compressed.  Anlaf’s forces probably arrived on the coast in mid-September, harried a bit disrupting the harvest, and then met up with the Scots and Strathclyde kings coming south at some coordinated place, followed by the actual battle with Athelstan in early October.  So I need to stretch out Aldred’s encounter with the northern forces before taking him around to the other side with Athelstan and then to the battle.  This actually gives Aldred more time to read Boethius and interact with Northumbrian earl Oswulf, whom I am placing in a very ambivalent position.

Several points made in Michael Livingston’s Casebook introduction seem worth pursuing (pp. 14-19), even though I am going with the minority view that the battle took place north of the Ribble and not in the Wirral.

  • That Anlaf’s representative came over earlier to strategize with Constantine and Owain, and that the main forces landed later at a planned location on the west coast.
  • That the route southward of Constantine and Owain was along the Carlisle to Manchester Roman road through Lancashire (where I am placing the action).
  • That this strategic location in Lancashire offered access to York, Anlaf’s ultimate goal, via the Aire Gap through the Pennines, protected by Skipton.
  • That Athelstan was caught off guard by the invasion and took a while to respond for several reasons:  harvest-time, the location in the west rather than York, and uncertainty of the enemies’ movements.


Taking these as parameters, I have the following notions:

  • Anlaf with his main forces arrives at the Lune (Glasson) as observed by Aldred at Heysham, mid to late September.
  • Aldred is picked up at Heysham by his Strathyclyde cousin who was sent as an advance scout to meet Anlaf’s group and solidify arrangements to meet up with Constantine and Owain’s troops near Galgate.
  • Because the northern forces are delayed in coming south to meet them, Anlaf’s troops begin harrying the Cumbrian and Lancashire countryside for supplies–or, as Livingston argues, are they harrying across the English “border” to the south of the Ribble, prompting Athelstan’s response?
  • Currently, I have Aldred brought to the combined Scots and Strathyclyde camp with Anlaf already there at Galgate, where he encounters Earl Oswulf, but the timing is now off.   I could have Aldred’s cousin take him to Anlaf first for an encounter with the viking forces, then north to somewhere like Carlisle to meet Constantine and Owain as they start moving south, lengthening Aldred’s stay with them into a week rather than a day, during which time Aldred’s reading of Boethius to Oswulf could have some impact on the earl.
  • The northern forces and Anlaf’s band do meet up in Lancashire (Galgate or Garstang) and set out to meet Athelstan’s forces coming north, meeting for the battle somewhere north of the Ribble, early October. Here, as I have it now, Aldred escapes from the northern band as they march south (he goes eastward into fells along Wyre river), but gets picked up by some of Athelstan’s scouts and is questioned, meets my bad guy Seaxhelm, and eventually finds himself on the edge of the battle among the healers and clergy.

Is this making any sense?



Posted by: kljolly | March 25, 2014

Heysham and Brunanburh

At the risk of raising more discussion of the location of Brunanburh, I have another query about the infamous 937 battle:

Was Oswulf I earl of Bamburgh (fl. 934-66) there either on the side of Constantine mac Aeda et. al. or King Athelstan’s?

Bamburgh, seen from Lindisfarne

Bamburgh, seen from Lindisfarne

Oswulf certainly survives to betray Eric Bloodaxe last king of York in 954 (according to Roger of Wendover; cf. Rollason, Northumbria 300-1100, pp. 265-66).  In PASE, he may be Oswald 14 as well as Oswald 17.

Oswald 17 is noted as dux Bamburgh in charters of King Eadred (r. 946-55), so two kings after our battle.

But Oswald 14 dux (of what?) signs Athelstan charters in 930 (S406), 934 (S407, S425, S428), and supposedly 937 (S434, S435), although those two charters discussed earlier are now dated to 935, two years before our battle (see the easy to use Electronic Sawyer for these charters).

Oswulf’s attestations in 934 are significant.  That year King Athelstan returned to the north to settle matters with Scots king Constantine and Owain king of Strathclyde that he thought had been stabilized in 927 at the Eamont Bridge treaty with these two rulers and Oswulf’s predecessor at Bamburgh, Ealdred.  After Athelstan’s 934 victory over these northern kings (and his gifts to the community of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street), Constantine and Owain begin attesting as subkings in submission to Athelstan.  Oswulf’s appearance in 934 and 935 charters suggests he may be part of the group, or merely that he is already a loyal vassal to Athelstan.  Unfortunately, the northern kings’ submission does not last long, given the bloody battle at Brunanburh three years later.

So was Oswulf there and on whose side?

On another note, I have a few days this summer between conferences to visit Heysham and environs.  Any suggestions on B&Bs and places to visit, please send to my email.


Posted by: kljolly | March 20, 2014

Happy St. Cuthbert’s Day


Today is a propitious day to return to blogging, even as I realize my last post was over a month ago.  March 20 is St. Cuthbert’s feastday, and Lent as it is, we can celebrate his ascetic life and legacy.

I have hit a writer’s wall (partly built from semester teaching duties) in my effort to place the 19-year old Aldred at the Battle of Brunanburh in 937.  I am stuck at the place where the battle itself is beginning and how to visualize what Aldred would experience as a non-combatant.

BranaghHenryVWithout experience of such violence myself, and with a strong antipathy to graphic realism in film and print, I am not sure quite how to proceed.  In some ways I am writing against the glorification in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle poem about the Battle of Brunanburh, and leaning more to the heroism and sadness found in the tone of Beowulf.

On the other hand, my mind’s eye recalls the realism of the battle of Agincourt in Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V:  some scenes are so graphic I turn away, but at the end, the ironic (to me) singing of the Non nobis (not to us, O Lord, but to you be the glory) while walking among the dead, dying, and grieving is what I am picturing for Aldred.  Before that point, I am not sure where to place him in relation to the battle, which goes on all day, sunrise to sunset according the sources, and is the bloodiest on record.  Perhaps assisting clergy with the dead and dying, on one side or the other (or both).

Posted by: kljolly | February 8, 2014

Writing Historical Fiction

I have been writing chapters on Aldred for about two years and am beginning to reflect on the process as well as how to move forward.

My first stage of writing a new chapter starts from some text that Aldred copied, glossed, or might have read.  I imagine a scene or encounter linked to the text and then start exploring it until I reach some kind of conclusion or point where I seem to stop as the historian.

The second stage involves rethinking the whole thing on the rule of “show, don’t tell.”  This means I rewrite explanatory sections into dialogue or interior monologues, or anything but the teacher voice in me.  I may add characters or drama to bring it to life.

Here is where I usually stop, but feel the need to finish out the second stage by adding more sensory life:  sights, smells, sounds, touch, feelings beyond thoughts.

bedeHowever, I have a stage three in mind that I don’t know how to tackle, yet.  It has to do with language and spiritual depth.

On the language side of this equation, I find my prose dull, trite, uninspiring, not thought-provoking.  I enjoy writers with either a natural style of language that is deceptively simple and yet words well chosen and evocative (Tolkien) or those unusual combinations of words that stop you in your tracks (Pratchett, on the humor side at least).  Not that I want to sound like either of those authors, but I want my authorial voice to have some kind of richness, while staying close to the Old English environment of my characters and story.

For me, this language problem is tied to my goal to have some kind of spiritual depth, a book that makes you ponder life issues and truths (again, Tolkien, but not Harry Potter).  I need to dive deep but have not done so, yet.

I am also wondering if I might benefit from going to an intensive writing workshop or retreat, just to plumb those depths.  Two that came to my attention recently are: the Glen Workshop (the western one includes a favorite poet, Scott Cairns); and the Ecumenical Collegeville Institute at St. John’s College in Minnesota, where I took a sabbatical in 1995.

This summer’s plans are already in the works, including a visit to Aldred’s stomping grounds in England, but maybe next summer?

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