Posted by: kljolly | August 21, 2021

Re-imagining Re-imagining Early Medieval Britain

Several followers of this blog are family members who, bless their hearts, read my dense academic prose with forbearance.  In response to my previous post, some asked could I not write without all of the jargon and say the same thing?  My immediate and admittedly defensive response was, well that would be a different essay for a different audience. 

But as I thought about it, I realized I was not practicing what I was preaching.  One of my points was about how western, often Latin-rooted, words and conceptual categories sound objective and scientific, but they actually inhibit our ability to view our world differently, to think outside those boxes.  Indeed, two Indigenous thinkers I quoted were objecting to “ontologies” and here I was going on about them using those same boxes.  In addition, a second purpose of my blog post was to explore ways to “reverbiage” the narratives we tell, with an eye to how I can write a historical fiction novel about Aldred in tenth-century Northumbria with contemporary English words that would convey a different spiritual landscape than our own.

So with thanks to those family members for their graciousness, I humbly offer here a reworking of that blog post without the jargon, which has resulted in a very different essay.  In the process I hope to sound less like the kind of objective expert the post condemns, and more like a human being struggling to listen to the wisdom of others and understand different ways of being in the world.  Perhaps this is a first step in altering my “omniscient narrator” voice in Aldred’s story.

[Post-colonial and Post-secular] Insights from African-American and Indigenous Studies

            Everything seems to be post- something these days:  post-modern, post-colonial, post-secular. But we won’t truly be free of whatever “it” is until we no longer have to talk about how to get over it or after it, that thing that is bothering us–whether the “it” is modernity, colonialism, or secularism, or all three, because they are all tied together.

            “Post” movements engage in what is called “deconstruction,” taking apart or dismantling a system or way of thinking that is thought to be damaging or limiting us.  Usually it is something so ubiquitous that we have accepted it without naming it, and once someone names it, debate begins.  It is, in an analogy popularized by David Foster Wallace, a “fish in water” problem.  In his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, “This is Water,” Wallace tells a joke where a grandfather fish sees a pair of younger fish swimming by and asks, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The young fish ask each other, “what is water?”

Brendan’s Coracle

  It is a dangerous question: like pointing out the emperor’s new clothes, people get uncomfortable at their nakedness.

          However, the goal of naming and taking apart certain beliefs is not to shame or harm, but to heal. Although the process of overturning embedded systems is necessarily messy, the purpose is to produce new ways of thinking and being.  This principle of deconstructing to rebuilt and repair applies to many current debates about such topics as racism, policing, immigration, economic inequality, or Indigenous sovereignty.  To take one example that will surely get me in trouble, recent theories identifying the racist waters in which we swim are being contested by those who deny the existence of systemic racism, in a “what is water” kind of way.[1]  These waters are polluted by certain assumptions rooted in American culture and white evangelicalism that need to be called out, but when called out provoke a defensive response.  

            The “post” being taken apart in this blog post is “secularism.” Secularism is one pillar in these modern assumptions that needs challenging.  The whole notion that there are two separate things called “secular” and “religious,” is a western invention dating back to the Enlightenment era, and also embedded in our American notion of “separation of church and state.”  Many mistakenly assume that separating the institutions of church and state means that we also can separate secular and religious, physical and spiritual in our daily lives, bodies from souls.  These pairs are examples of “binarisms” in western thought: categories that are mutually exclusive (you can’t be secular and religious at the same time) and often hierarchical (visible physical things are more real or important than invisible spiritual things, which are private and relative).  Sometimes this mutual exclusivity harms both sides, as in the false notion that science is opposed to religion and vice versa in the American culture wars over evolution, climate change, and the sacredness of Indigenous lands.  The binary terms of debate have to be overcome first if we are to address these issues.

We need to tell a new story.

            To get outside of these boxes separating bodies from souls, we can turn to cultures that have a different way of seeing the world.  I have found sustenance in more holistic visions from Native American, Hawaiian, and African American thinkers, among others.  One of the divisions in my own experience is between my personal faith life and my scholarly work—a necessary separation of domains of activity at an institutional level (separation of church and state is vital). But ultimately if I am to remain a “whole” person, everything that I see and do, read and hear, say and write are intertwined and influencing each other. 

            This blog is an example of that uncomfortable space of the personal and the professional:  I am a professor of history writing historical fiction (fair enough, others have done so), but I am also infusing matters of heart and faith, as well as activism on social justice issues.  I cannot isolate the process of telling Aldred’s story based on academic research into early medieval Britain from contemporary issues that consume my attention and are changing my thinking and my faith experience as a Jesus-follower, especially this last 18 months at the conjunction of a pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and the protection in Hawai‘i of Mauna Kea as sacred.[2]

What is sacred? 

That is a question well within both my academic expertise and personal experience as I am listening and learning from those who swim in different cultural waters than my own. Consequently, I have an obligation to speak and act within my circles of influence, whether on campus, in the community, or in scholarly conversations.  Nor am I alone in this endeavor, despite some resistance to the notion of including contemporary and personal beliefs in “objective” scholarly discourse.

            Tarren Andrews, the Bitterroot Salish scholar whom I cited in the previous blog post, defines what it means to have a “good heart” for medieval scholars entering into conversation with Indigenous studies:

            The idea of xẹ st spúʔus is the foundation of Indigenous relationality. Unlike the bēaga bryttan (ring giver) of Beowulf’s world, who gives gifts in exchange for martial loyalty, Indigenous kinship and all other forms of Indigenous relationality are predicated on doing, being, and giving without the expectation of reciprocation. Acting in xẹ st spúʔus cultivates an ethic of relationality and kinship that is contingent not on a regular assessment of exchange or a balancing of scales but on continual proof of intent, motivation, and communal goals. Beginning with something like xẹ st spúʔus destabilizes the Euro-Western epistemologies of capital, property, and the gift economy, creating space for Indigenous ways of knowing and being to have a sincere and material impact on medieval studies.[3]

This potent critique and invitation speaks back into our understanding of early medieval Britain.[4] The elevation of Beowulf as a quintessential representation of the values and beliefs of the people who lived in that time and place, is also a distortion:  whoever composed, modified, and transmitted the story and then the poem between the seventh and the eleventh centuries, the single manuscript artifact we have recording this poem represents only one elite perspective and set of values. Moreover, the selection of Beowulf by early modern English scholars to represent their ancestral culture speaks as much or more to their values as it does those of the early medieval poet and their audience.

            You might detect here that I do not like Beowulf, and frankly I do get a bit tired of its prominence.  I have accustomed myself to teach it by deconstructing its history as a tool for exploring the ways we look at the past.  But my reading of other texts and artifacts from early medieval Britain suggests that Beowulf—and other seminal texts like Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, or King Alfred’s translations—are not all that representative of the lived experience of people inhabiting those cultural landscapes.  Many of my colleagues have and are making the same point while studying less well-known materials or by reading between the lines of the famous texts. 

            To give one example related to Tarren Andrew’s point about the nature of gift giving in Beowulf:  Stephanie Clark in Compelling God demonstrates how we misunderstand early medieval gift exchange in prayer because we read it through a lens of capitalism where everything is a commodity for individual possession, rather than seeing prayer as a relational gift between and among people with their divinity, involving reciprocity without a price tag, as it were. [5] Both Andrews and Clark point out to us, “this is the water we are swimming in” and also “here is a different type of water others swim in.”  From these and other thought-provoking essays and books, I realize how the material commodity economy in which I live affects the way I understand both the early medieval people I study and my own understanding of prayer and reciprocity in community.

              Thus, the idea of kinship and community has been on my mind lately in relation to the sacred:  how kinship manifested in early medieval Britain, how we might cultivate it among scholars of early medieval Britain, but also how I live in community locally. These three are inextricably intertwined in this body-soul person.

And in this he showed me something small, no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and I perceived that it was as round as any ball.  I looked at it and thought:  What can this be?  And I was given this general answer:  It is everything which is made. I was amazed that it could last, for I thought that it was so little that it could suddenly fall into nothing.  And I was answered in my understanding:  It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God. 
Julian of Norwich, Showings (Short Text Chapter iv).

In the last year and a half, I have participated in a number of virtual pilgrimages, webinars, and discussion groups at various intersections of social justice and spirituality.   Most were quite intense and personal, as we journey together toward healing of broken relationships and repair of unjust systems. I ask myself:

  •             How should I choose my words more carefully and thoughtfully?
  •             How should I act locally and globally?

As is evident from citations and quotes in previous posts, what I hear and see from African-American, Indigenous, and Native Hawaiian Christians de-colonizing the Gospel and resisting systemic racism looks and feels more like Jesus and the Bible than what is coming out of most contemporary US white evangelical churches.  Moreover, “reading the Bible through non-western eyes” in this way resonates with my own efforts to study early medieval Christianities free of certain modern blinders. I hope to infuse these new understandings of prayer and kinship into my portrayal of Aldred in tenth-century Northumbria.

Aldred at the Battle of Brunanburh, hallowing water:

“why don’t you hold the sieve, while I pour the water.”  He thought the boy’s hands too unsteady to pour, so he took the jug from him and let the boy hold the sieve lined with finely woven flaxen cloth over the basin set on a small table beside them.

            As he poured, Aldred began to chant, “Exorcizo te, aque, in nomine Dei patris omnipotentis….”

            When he was done with the exorcism prayer, timed with the pouring of the water, he set the jug down and motioned the seive away.  Then he began the benediction of water, “Deus qui ad salutem humani generis maxima…,” asking God to purify the water with his divine grace so that wherever it be used, it would bring cleansing and healing, freedom and protection.

            The boy watched him with awe.  The water was now still and clear, the sieve having removed the debris and any remaining impurities sunk to the bottom of the basin.

            Through the whole procedure, it seemed that Aldred and the boy had stepped for a few minutes into another world.  The sound of Aldred’s voice cancelled that of moaning men, the water running and pooling seemed peaceful and comforting.  The two of them remained motionless for several minutes, staring at the water. 

           It seemed silly, in some ways, to take such slow care over this procedure, while men were dying all around them.  And yet, God was there in the water.  It had the power to cool the heat of battle and quench men’s spiritual thirst.

[1]  For some excellent guidelines on having these conversations, see Smithsonian Talking About Race  especially Being Antiracist.

[2] See blog posts Silence is not an option, “I Can’t Breathe,” and Reimagining Early Medieval Britain.

[3] Tarren Andrews, “Indigenous Futures and Medieval Pasts: An Introduction,” English Language Notes 58.2 (2020), pp. 1-17 at pp. 2-3.

[4]  See also Catherine Karkov’s “eutopia” in the previous post.

[5] Stephanie Clark, Compelling God: Theories of Prayer in Anglo-Saxon England (Toronto:  University of Toronto Press, 2018).

Posted by: kljolly | August 12, 2021

Re-imagining Early Medieval Britain II: Emerging Insights

The following is a continuation of the blog post from virtual Leeds 2020 on Re-Imagining Early Medieval Britain, both posts serving as background for a forthcoming essay on this topic.  These reflections are more autobiographical than is appropriate for a scholarly publication, and also still in progress as I seek to apply them to my historical fiction novel on Aldred chronicled on this blog.  I have inserted some zentangle wood tile images to break up the text. Apologies for special characters in Indigenous words not represented correctly in the WordPress font.

Post-colonial and Post-secular Insights from African-American and Indigenous Studies

            In focusing on magical realism in contemporary fiction, the earlier blog post delved into the effects of western binaries by citing primarily Kathleen Davis, N. T. Wright, and Martin Luther King.  In this post I would like to extend that exploration of ontologies into post-colonial and post-secular studies from African-American and Indigenous studies.[1]  These approaches not only deconstruct modern western ontologies that have constricted our thinking, but they also offer a means of escape for all of us, including scholars of early medieval Britain. 

            As noted in my earlier post, I am a white non-Indigenous person learning to listen to the voices of contemporary Indigenous and African-American spiritualities decolonizing minds, bodies, and souls.  I am grateful for the generosity of spirit found among cultural practitioners here in Hawai‘i and other Indigenous scholars, particularly the thoughtful invitation to medievalists from Tarren Andrews (Bitterroot Salish) to go beyond just “engaging with” Indigenous studies and enter into kinship relationships with a good heart (x.est spúʔus).[2]  In this ongoing process of listening and learning, I am endeavoring to apply these insights to a study of early medieval Britain, mindful of my own cultural limits and the risks of mis-appropriation. I begin with some deconstruction of the western binarisms and ontologies that have limited me.


            Ontologies, ways of categorizing human experience or perception of the world, easily fall into hierarchical chains.  Even the word ontology and associated categorical terms betray power differentials. Among Indigenous thinkers, Zoe Todd notes that “ontology is just another word for colonialism,” while Edgar Garcia points out that “What some people call myth, or some people call magical thinking — we might just call it ‘theory.’ Or ‘conceptuality.’”[3] The semantic shifts between terms such as ‘myth’ and ‘theory’ are rooted in western philosophical ontologies contrasting magic with religion or science, in ways applied by colonizers to subjugated cultures whose systems of belief and reason were denigrated or dismissed as irrational. 

            Similarly, scholars of medieval “magic” wrestle to escape the modern progress model of magic-religion-science.[4]  Naming as a means of othering, while categorizing along a system of hierarchical values, is rooted in language itself, particularly the power of Latin-based words with their scientific-sounding objectivity. Post-colonial push back on these linguistic ontologies highlights for those in the field of medieval European studies the need to recognize how deeply embedded this language is in our professional academic narratives, in turn revealing how our supposed scientific objectivity is riddled with inherent materialist biases against various forms of spirituality.[5]

            In response to this materialist bias in modernity, Arturo Escobar notes how “we are facing modern problems for which there are no longer modern solutions” and adds:

Given that we cannot be intimate with the Earth within a mechanistic paradigm, we are in dire need of a New Story that might enable us to reunite the sacred and the universe, the human and the non-human. The wisdom traditions, including those of [I]ndigenous peoples, are a partial guide towards this goal of re-embedding ourselves within the Earth.[6]

This call for a New Story should be heard by both historians and fiction authors, but particularly those at the intersection of the two:  those of us writing historical fiction need to break free of the modern western narratives of progress with its ontological hierarchies mapped onto the pre-modern.

            Resistance to these modern storylines comes also from within global Christian communities “decolonizing the Gospel” by reframing or decentering the dominant and hegemonic western Christianity that came to their shores with colonialist missionaries.[7] Liberation theology emerging from Latin American and African American thinkers restores an incarnational Gospel message. For example, Barbara Holmes in Joy Unspeakable, outlines the contemplative practices of the Black Church in the African diaspora.[8] She describes an embodied spirituality that both resists the gnostic-like dualism of modern white evangelicalism in the U.S. but also points us to a larger more diverse set of Christian practices of spirituality globally and historically.[9]

            Likewise, post-colonial Native American, Hawaiian, and other Pacific Islander “Jesus-followers,” to use one circumlocution avoiding the pejorative meaning attached to “Christian,” are working to restore a more holistic understanding of Indigenous Christianities free of western blinders.[10] Contextual theology suggests a dialogue between culture and an imported faith.  Imagine, anthropologist Matt Tomlinson suggests, Jesus as the Pig of God rather than Lamb of God, or consider Tongan theologian Sione ‘Amanaki Havea’s Coconut Theology, embodying Jesus as the Coconut of Life, which provides the bread and the wine for the Eucharist, as does kalo (taro) with fresh water for Hawaiian Jesus-followers.[11]

            Such acculturation of a proselytizing religion like Christianity is clearly evident in early medieval Britain, despite a Rome-centered narrative of universalizing and homogenizing.  Consequently, the emergence of distinctive British, Irish, or English Christianities should be considered normative not aberrant.[12]  For example, the hybridity of liturgical practice in the tenth-century Durham Cathedral Library A.IV.19 manuscript (the “Durham Ritual” or “Collectar”) that Aldred glossed and the community of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street modified, should not be seen only in terms of its adherence to or deviation from the monastic reform movement emanating from Wessex, as if on the periphery, but viewed at the center of its own assertion of Northumbrian spirituality.[13]

3 Sisters Garden

            Two further aspects of Indigenous ways of thinking are currently influencing my effort to write new stories about early medieval Northumbria.  One is the role of language in terms of word choice among modern Englishes, the subject of a forthcoming scholarly essay, and the second has to do with holistic views of the natural world.  Here I outline my current reflections on these two issues.

            The words we choose have stories embedded in them, connecting current generations to the ancestors.  As a consequence, reviving cultural memories through language education is central to contemporary post-colonial Indigenous movements, particularly the ways in which language is tied to a sense of place:

I ka ʻōlelo ke ola, i ka ʻōlelo ka make (in language there is life, in language there is death). This ʻōlelo noʻeau (wise saying) inextricably links our survival as a people to the survival of our language. Languages convey nuances unique to our own worldviews, cultures, and traditions.[14]

Imperialist assertions of English dominance suppressing Indigenous languages has done and continues to do irreparable harm to linguistic diversity and cultural identities.  Similarly, pidgin and creole languages developed by people of color under colonialism were and are often dismissed by language purists as “broken” English in favor of “standard” English. For example, Hawaiian Creole (HCE), locally called Pidgin, developed among settler colonialist workers whom plantation owners brought in from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and elsewhere in competition with one another, but who allied as laborers, but this form of Pidgin English also has roots in an earlier Pidgin Hawaiian (‘Ölelo Pa‘i‘ai). [15] Pidgins, along with the Indigenous language ‘Ölelo Hawai‘i, were disfavored or banned even before, but especially after the American overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, in favor of competence in standard English.[16] 

            In opposition to racist monlingualism (it is usually people of color whose bi- or tri-lingualism is disparaged), we need to move toward a narrative of multiple Englishes and the empowering creativeness of translingual environments.[17]  Despite colonialist English-only prejudices, creole languages are neither ‘primitive’ nor simplistic; rather, they are the opposite of a ‘pure’ or ‘original’ language. They were created and developed in multilingual environments to facilitate communication between groups, as more than likely occurred in early medieval Northumbria between the dominant English speakers in relation to Irish, Welsh, Cumbric, and Scots Gaelic, as well as Old Norse. Such language mixing does not imply equality.  The main lexifer for Hawaiian Creole is English, undoubtedly true also for the dominance of English speakers in early medieval Britain.[18]  Moreover, language hierarchies established by those in power exist within and between various Englishes and Creoles; conversely, for the underclasses, speaking “local” can be a source of pride and resistance. 

            The concept of purity in languages is also applied to culture and religion, notably an invisible standard of what is ‘Christian’ on a sliding scale with ‘pagan’, with either one rated at the top:  either valuing some mythical pure Christianity unsullied by local culture’s retention of pagan practices, or seeking some pure ‘original’ paganism stripped of its foreign Christian accretions.[19]  Whichever way you tip it, this scale is another instance of a linguistic ontology that inhibits our understanding of the past as well as the present.

            A second thread in contemporary Indigenous reactions to modern binaries is an emphasis on a holistic view of the human condition in relation to the Creator and the creation, sometimes linked to the Hebrew construct of shalom and its rich meanings for wholeness beyond just abstract “peace.”[20] So, for example, Keetoowah Cherokee descendant Randy Woodley connects the Biblical concept of shalom to what he and many contemporary Native American tribes in North America summarize from their common stock of stories and values as the “Harmony Way.”[21]  Similarly, contextual theology in Samoa draws on the concept of fa‘asamoa, the Samoan Way as a God-given culture.[22] Robin Wall Kimmerer, a professor of botany and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, combines the scientific lens of studying nature with a potent sense of connection to the natural world from a variety of Native American tribal storehouses of knowledge.[23]  

Mauna Paradox

            In the same vein, Native Hawaiians (Kānaka Maoli) are exploring the power of aloha for local and global transformations in how humans relate to the environment and one another, embodied in the Lökahi triangle integrating spiritual, natural, and communal dimensions.[24] In Ölelo Hawai‘i, aloha is a rich word that means far more than its usual English translation, commercial misappropriations, and pop culture (ab)uses.[25] The development of kapu aloha (protected or sacred way of loving the ‘aina or land) on Mauna Kea in opposition to the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) embodies that worldview.[26] As one colleague summarized in response to the kia‘i, or protectors, of Mauna Kea: ‘Language is a repository of the political ontology of a people. If that is taken, much else can be easily taken as well. Yet, revitalized language can be a weapon of protection’.[27] Aloha and the Lökahi triangle speak to a deep rooted sense of connection between sacred landscapes and humans in ways that bypass the binary of pagan versus Christian imposed on Indigenous and other convert communities who not only absorbed but also transmuted the Christian mission to create their own Christianities. 

            That these same acculturation processes happened in the conversion of European people groups in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages seems to have been forgotten as that particular cultural formation of “Christianity” claimed both exclusivity and universality in global dominance.  One way to restore and contextualize that history is to “reverbiage” our narratives recounting the emergence of various forms of Christianity in early medieval Britain.[28]

            This sensitivity to language in relation to a sense of place also raises questions about what to call the historic place-times we study and write about.  Recently I have taken to using the geographic insular term Britain instead of England.  The Northumbria in which Aldred lived in the tenth century was a place of shifting political boundaries within and around the island of Britain.  Even the island of Britain as a contiguous landmass defined by ocean boundaries somewhat deceptively implies a land-based territorial unity, when in fact connections across water often formed more easily than across diverse terrains within Britain.  Thus regions of Britain north of the Humber from the Iron Age to the eleventh century interacted in a North Atlantic world stretching from Scandinavia to Ireland as much or more than they connected with southwest Britain with its cross-channel continental connections. English-speaking communities in tenth-century Northumbria existed in a historic web of cultural identities and influences from Irish, Scots, Cumbrian, and Scandinavian languages and practices, different from and even resistant to West Saxon hegemony.  In the tenth century, the notion of a singular bordered “England” and a normative or homogenized “English” Christianity emanating from Wessex was not yet inevitable.[29]  Rather than tracing the emergence and triumph of what becomes hegemonic, we should seek to understand the plurality of experiences and the contested nature of the cultural landscape.

            To end on a positive note:  Deconstruction may seem like a negative enterprise, not to mention messy, but it is necessary in order to move into the stage of writing new narratives. Post-colonial and post-secular theorists and Indigenous scholars are not advocating a wholesale rejection of modernity via a return to some imagined pristine Indigenous or pre-modern culture, but are exposing the unstated philosophical assumptions undergirding western modernity and its globalization. In resisting the body-soul, secular-spiritual binaries, these holistic visions emphasize new ways of living and being that may sound impossibly utopian. But the human desire for a better world than the ones we have made drives most cosmologies and theologies across cultures, so should not be dismissed out of hand in favor of a modern western utilitarianism or pseudo-scientist materialism in our search for understanding the human condition through the study of the past.

            While drawing our attention to many of the dystopian fractures in early medieval Britain, Catherine Karkov offers an updated “eutopia” for our contemplation:

a happy place that can be realised—that would be a place in which diversity, compassion, and inclusion are vital operating methods. Eutopia, like utopia, is in opposition to the world as it is and holds out the possibility of real change. [30]

This happy place, for scholars and other post-modern humans, is an invitation to enter into a new set of scholarly and personal relationships.  It may be at times uncomfortable or disconcerting, especially when we recognize the power differentials between those of us with certain privileges and those who are in vulnerable positions. Developing kinships requires compassion and forgiveness, and will take time and patience to reach fruition.

Bridget’s Cross

[1] On post-secular theory, see Charly Coleman, “Review Article Resacralizing the World: The Fate of Secularization in Enlightenment Historiography,” The Journal of Modern History 82 (June 2010): 368–95; David Hanlon, “Losing Oceania to the Pacific and the World,” The Contemporary Pacific 29 (2017): 286–318 on Indigenous historiographies and “Deep Time”; and Karen Louise Jolly, ‘Anglo-Saxons on Exhibit: Displaying the Sacred’, in Jolly and Brooks (eds), Global Perspectives, forthcoming.

[2] Tarren Andrews and Tiffany Beechy, eds, Indigenous Futures and Medieval Pasts, English Language Notes 58.2 (2020), Introduction (pp. 1-17).  See also The Value of Hawaiʻi 3: Hulihia, ed. Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘öpua, Craig Howes, Jonathan Kay Kamakawiwo‘ole Osorio, and Aiko Yamashiro (Honolulu, 2020), which contains diverse reflections on the intersections between Hawaiian activism, Black Lives Matter, COVID-19 and other global-local issues.

[3] Zoe Todd, ‘An Indigenous Feminist’s take on the Ontological Turn: “ontology” is just another word for colonialism’, Urbane Adventurer: Amiskwacî blog post October 24, 2014 < > [accessed 5 April 2021]; Len Gutkin, “’Who Gets to Speak in Our Traditions?’: Edgar Garcia on the canon, Indigenous studies and talking with the dead,” Chronicle of Higher Education Opinion (interview), June 29, 2020 < > [accessed 5 April 2021]. See also Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London, 2012).

[4] See Karen Louise Jolly, “Magic and Science,” in The Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures, edited Helaine Selin (Dordrecht, 1997), reprinted in The Encyclopaedia of Classical Indian Sciences, edited Helaine Selin and Roddam Narasimha (Hyderabad, India, 2007); Jolly, “Medieval Magic: Definitions, Beliefs, Practices,” in The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: The Middle Ages (London, 2002), pp. 1-72; and Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1990; 2nd ed 2014; revised and expanded 3rd edition, forthcoming).

[5] Indeed, some peer reviewers’ discomfort with the use of the first person in scholarly essays reflects this desire for objectivity in academic discourse, the need to be impersonal and distant.

[6] Arturo Escobar, ‘Thinking-Feeling with the Earth: Territorial Struggles and the Ontological Dimension of the Epistemologies of the South’, Revista de Antropologia Iberoamericana 11.1 (2016): 11–32, at 15, 27 <> [accessed 5 April 2021]. Escobar in writing about Epistemologies of the South contrasts a western dualistic political One-World World ontology with relational, holistic ontologies among Indigenous communities.

[7] See Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: Rise of Global Christianity, 3rd edn (New York, 2011; orig. 2002); and Randy S. Woodley and Bo C. Sanders, Decolonizing Evangelicalism: An 11:59 p.m. Conversation (Eugene, 2020). On the missonary legacy in Hawai‘i, see Ronald C. Williams, Jr., “Claiming Christianity: The Struggle over God and Nation in Hawai‘i, 1880-1900” (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Hawai‘i Mānoa, 2013).

[8] Barbara A. Holmes, Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, 2nd edn (Minneapolis, 2017). For black liberation theology, see James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, rev. edn (Maryknoll, 1997, orig. 1975); and Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston, 1996, orig. 1949).

[9] On white evangelicalism in the U.S. and the Black church, see Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Grand Rapids, 2016); Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion (Downers Grove, 2018); Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, 2019); and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Black Church: This is our Story, This is Our Song (PBS, 2021) <> [accessed 5 April 2021].

[10] See Richard Twiss, Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys (Downers Grove, 2015).

[11] Matt Tomlinson, God Is Samoan: Dialogues Between Culture and Theology in the Pacific (Honolulu, 2020), pp. pp. 3-6; David Baumgart Turner, “Reconnecting Spiritual Roots in Our Faith Communities,” in The Value of Hawai‘i 3, pp. 178-81, at p. 179 for kalo and fresh water as Eucharist.  See also Michael W. Scott, “Boniface and Bede in the Pacific: Exploring Anamorphic Comparisons between the Hiberno-Saxon Missions and the Anglican Melanesian Mission,” in Global Perspectives, ed. Jolly and Brooks, forthcoming.

[12] Tiffany Beechy has pointed to a similar embodiment in early medieval insular aesthetics that resists the Augustinian neoPlatonism separating material and spiritual: “Consumption, Purgation, Poetry, Divinity: Incarnational Poetics and the Indo-European Tradition,” Modern Philology 114.2 (2016): 149–169.

[13] Karen Louise Jolly, The Community of St. Cuthbert in the Late Tenth Century: The Chester-le-Street Additions to Durham Cathedral Library A.IV.19 (Columbus, 2012).

[14] Katrina-Ann R. Kapā‘anaokalāokeola Nākoa Oliveira, “Aloha ‘Āina-Placed Ho‘omoana ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i: A Path to Language Revitalization,” in Handbook of Indigenous Education, ed. Elizabeth Ann McKinley and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Singapore, 2019), pp. 339–356, at p. 339.  See also Paige Miki Kaläokananiki‘eki‘e Okamura, “He Make‘e ‘Ölelo Hawai‘i, He Make‘e Lāhui: To Lose Our Language Is to Forget Who We Are,” in The Value of Hawai‘i 3, pp. 131-34; and Patricia Espiritu Halagao and Cheryl Ka‘uhane Lupenui, “Hawai‘i Breathes Multilingualism,” in The Value of Hawai‘i 3, pp. 186-93.

[15] See the Charlene Junko Sato Center for Pidgin, Creole, and Dialect Studies at the University of Hawai‘i,  <; [accessed 19 July 2021]; Katie Drager, “Pidgin and Hawaiʻi English: An Overview,” International Journal of Language, Translation and Intercultural Communication 1 (2012): 61-73; Christina Higgins, “Earning Capital in Hawaiʻi’s Linguistic Landscape,” in Unequal Englishes across Multilingual Spaces, ed. Ruanni Tupas (New York, 2015), pp. 145-162; and Halagao and Lupenui, “Hawai‘i Breathes Multilingualism,” p. 187.

[16] See Oliviera, “Aloha ‘Āina-Placed Ho‘omoana ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i,” pp. 340-41, and Nālani Wilson-Hokowhitu and Noelani Goodyear-Ka‘öpua, “Colonization, Education, and Kanaka ‘Ōiwi Survivance,” in Handbook of Indigenous Education, pp. 49-62.

[17] See A. Suresh Canagarajah, Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations (London, 2013), pp. 6-8 and 20-24; and Lydia Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity—China, 1900-1937 (Stanford, 1995).

[18] Although note above in Halagao and Lupenui, “Hawai‘i Breathes Multilingualism,” the influence of pre-plantation era Hawaiian and Polynesian Pidgins in which the main lexifer was not necessarily English.

[19] Jolly, Popular Religion in Late Saxon England: Elf Charms in Context (Chapel Hill, NC, 1996), pp. 18-34; Eric G. Stanley, The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism in Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past (Cambridge, 2000).

[20] See Makoto Fujimura, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making (New Haven, 2020), p. 20.

[21] Randy Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Grand Rapids, 2012), Preface, where he gives a brief synopsis of his dissertation research on the variations and commonalities among North American tribes. To summarize a worldview and set of values drawn over a long history of spiritual practices shared among various linguistic communities is no different than the kinds of credal statements found in other world religions, like Christianity, and in no way denies the existence of variations and branches within that religious tradition. 

[22] Tomlinson, God is Samoan, pp. 7-8. See also Lisa Sharon Harper, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right (New York, 2016); and Escobar, ‘Thinking-Feeling’, 11-32.

[23] Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass (Minneapolis, MN, 2013).  See her critique of the scientific lens (pp. 341-47) and also her discussion of the Thanksgiving Address of gratitude to Creation shared by the Haudenosaunee across tribes and around the world (pp. 107-118).

[24] For Lökahi as balance and aloha as compassion in a medical context, see “Traditional Health Beliefs: Native Hawaiian Values,” Stanford School of Medicine Ethnogeriatrics (2021) <> [accessed 5 April 2021]; in a social work context, see Thao N. Le and Pono Shim, “Mindfulness and the Aloha Response,” Journal of Indigenous Social Development 3.2 (August 2014): 1-11 (available at; and for one commercialized variation on the triangle, see Lani Kamauu Yamasaki, Live Lökahi™ (2021) <> [accessed 5 April 2021].  Emerging theological variations are not yet public.

[25] The decision to use italics for Hawaiian words is a fraught one because ‘olelo Hawai‘i is considered a primary, not a “second,” language in Hawai‘i. In this essay, I have chosen to use italics in order to emphasize the Indigenous meanings of words like aloha that have been Anglicised or misappropriated.

[26] For more information on kapu aloha on Mauna a Wākea, see Pu‘uhonua o Pu‘uhuluhulu (2021) <> [accessed 5 April 2021]; and Presley Ke‘alaanuhea Ah Mook Sang, “Pu‘uhonua o Pu’uhuluhulu University: He Kïpuka Aloha ‘Äina no ka ‘Imi Na‘auao,” in The Value of Hawai‘i 3, pp. 265-67.  See also the holistic global vision and insights from Höküle‘a, the Hawaiian voyaging canoe, through the Polynesian Voyaging Society at <>  [accessed 5 July 2021].

[27] Rachel Kuhn, personal correspondence.

[28] On “reverbiaging,” see Woodley and Sanders, Decolonizing Evangelicalism, pp. 18-20.

[29] See Karen Louise Jolly and Britton Elliott Brooks, “Introduction,” in Global Perspectives on Early Medieval England, ed. Jolly and Brooks (Boydell and Brewer, forthcoming); Barry Cunliffe, Britain Begins (Oxford, 2012); and Martin Carver, Formative Britain: An Archaeology of Britain, Fifth to Eleventh Century AD (London, 2019).

[30] Catherine E. Karkov, Imagining Anglo-Saxon England: Utopia, Heterotopia, Dystopia (Woodbridge, 2020), p. 239.

Posted by: kljolly | March 8, 2021

Pilgrimage 941

Last year I finished a draft chapter on Aldred’s pilgrimage with St. Cathroe in the year 941, which I have now posted as a page (warts and all, some typos yet uncorrected): 941 Pilgrimage. Earlier posts explored different aspects of this journey from Govan to Penrith:

Mainly I posted this still-rough draft now because I need to reference it in an essay I am writing, rather than quoting from it at length. The essay is a continuation of a paper I presented last year at the virtual Leeds Congress (transcript posted as Re-imagining Early Medieval Britain) and has the same title but continues into a discussion of language in historical fiction.

The 941 Pilgrimage chapter is very long, perhaps too long as I got carried away with saints’ lives recounted amidst the material conditions of a journey by sea and overland. If anyone has the patience to read through it and comment, feel free to put your advice or corrections in the comments section of this post.

Meanwhile, in a COVID bubble in California, I have been learning Zentangle from my artist sister (Ann, who made the Lindisfarne Gospel Luke quilt). I am her un-artistic guinea pig for preparing class lessons. These images, above and below, show one of my recent feeble efforts.

Zentangling not only echoes early medieval arts, it is also very meditative: I highly recommend it.

Posted by: kljolly | July 6, 2020

Re-imagining Early Medieval Britain

For those who were at the Virtual Leeds International Medieval Congress session on Fantasies of the Medieval and wanted to see a copy of my paper, and for those who missed the session, here is my script, “as is” with no notes or elaborations.  This is part of a larger work in progress.


For those who asked:  quilt behind me as I spoke.  Artist my sister, Ann Baum.

The focus of this study is on representations of spirituality in popular fictional medievalisms:  I am curious how and why some authors fail and others succeed in representing early medieval worldviews that contain beliefs and practices alien to western secularism.  The key problem impeding modern authors is in fact this western binary of medieval versus modern separating natural and supernatural, science and religion, secular and sacred, body and soul, heaven and earth.  I am arguing for a post-secular approach to primary source evidence, one that listens to decolonizing voices from Indigenous studies and from African-American spirituality. I am advocating for medieval historical fiction that rejects fantasizing and instead injects some “magical realism,” for lack of a better term.

Historical fiction set in the pre-modern past often discounts or explains away miraculous events or sacred encounters. Some authors do so by providing omniscient narrators with materialist, often reductionist, explanations for the events.  Others channeling a medieval person make these beliefs in divine agency personal and relativistic, non-verifiable events.  But the contemporary popularity of medieval fantasy suggests that such modernist historical fiction fails to capture something transcendent that many find missing in a post-modern world.  Medieval fantasy, and futuristic science fiction, both create alternative universes where the supernatural is natural. Similarly, the emergent genre of magical realism “suspends disbelief” according to the rules of modern fiction by naturalizing the supernatural in the experience of the subjective narrator.  While these genres may destabilize the gap, ultimately they often fail to escape the western binaries inherent in secular rationalism and its reactionary counterpart, Victorian-era romanticism. In short, heaven and earth as integrated in holistic early medieval worldviews survives today in fictional history as fantasized by those inhabiting a disenchanted world.

Before unpacking these observations, let me explain where I am coming from.  This presentation, half of my original abstract and session, focuses on fantasy and magical realism in historical fiction, while the other half in a virtual session on August 21 looks more closely at language.  In both, I am illustrating these issues via my own efforts to write historical fiction set in tenth century Northumbria.  On and off for a number of years, I have been writing a fictional biography of Aldred, glossator of the Lindisfarne Gospels and provost of St. Cuthbert’s community at Chester-le-Street.

So, the long and short of my intellectual journey in Braudelian terms. The longue durée of my career as a medievalist, and the formation of my mental landscape, is relevant for positioning myself here and now as a historian of early medieval Britain.  From my early college years, I was attracted to the writings of the Inklings and those who influenced them:  J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, G.K. Chesteron, and George MacDonald.  As an undergraduate, I majored in English literature with vague intentions of becoming a writer like them, and was subsequently drawn into medieval literature, particularly Old English.  So much so, that when I was in the master’s program, I switched from English into a self-designed Interdisciplinary program combining English, Religious Studies, and History.  My M.A. is actually in “Anglo-Saxon England” (more on that term later). I then migrated into the History Ph.D. program where I pursued popular religion in elf charms, which later led me into deconstructing magic, religion, and science.  The notable thread in this biography is religion:  that I am a practicing Christian plays a role in my emerging consciousness of this tension in the modern study of the medieval past.  The disciplinary hybridity also explains my belated return to writing fiction via history.

In addition to this long back story are the conjunctures of my life as a scholar in Hawai‘i: here I began engaging with world historical approaches that challenged western narratives, teaching in a diverse environment to students geographically, temporally, and culturally distant from medieval Europe, and most of all, listening to and learning from kanaka ‘öiwi about native Hawaiian worldviews that resist western binaries.  [should be a macron over the “o” but this font fails to have one]

The three recent événements bearing on this paper are first and foremost the native Hawaiian kia‘i , protectors of Mauna Kea blocking the TMT observatory on the “Big Island” of Hawai‘i.  The kia‘i have developed kapu aloha, strict protocols of care and love as part of a resistance movement that relies on Indigenous holistic ways of thinking about the sacred in the landscape—a view of the sacred much misunderstood by those operating in a binary worldview, such as my university’s administration with its divisions between STEM and “non-STEM” fields.  Second, the pandemic has laid bare the problems of modernity in colonialism, globalism, and tourism that force us to seek other ways of thinking about the human condition.  And third, the Black Lives Matter movement has consumed much of my attention in the last month since the police murdered George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, and Breonna Taylor, among so many others we should name. I firmly believe we are at a transformational moment, a reckoning with the past, and that historians and medievalists need to be actively involved in challenging western-dominated narratives, while toppling monuments to those narratives.

Looking ahead, I am teaching a class this fall on popular “medievalisms” with an ethics focus on issues such as racism.  I aim to challenge myself and my students to be social influencers and agents of change in popular culture.  I am not trying to turn them off to medieval literature or their favorite fantasy games, movies, or books:  they can still enjoy Beowulf, Arthur, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and the Vikings, but in raising their consciousness of embedded images and narratives, I want them to create new visions and write new stories.  As I am doing as well, writing historical fiction that incorporates sacred encounters and imagines embodied souls.

Perhaps my whole career, then, from my master’s thesis on elf charms and popular religion to the present moment teaching about medievalisms and writing Aldred’s story in tenth-century Northumbria has been about me trying to inhabit a worldview in which supernatural and natural, heaven and earth are not mutually exclusive.  In this task, I have been profoundly moved by native Hawaiian and other Indigenous worldviews on the sacred, as well as African-American spirituality.  However, I am saying this as a white non-Indigenous person who wants to listen and speak without appropriating someone else’s culture.  I am neither a scholar of Hawai‘i history or fluent in the language, ‘olelo Hawai‘i, but I am absorbing new ways of thinking, and that has an effect on what I write and say.  Insofar as decolonization and antiracism are local and global movements, they help us undo the colonization of the European past and deracinate our scholarly thinking of its western binarisms.

The question I am confronting in this present moment is this:  What does it mean for me, a western trained, white scholar who studies pre-modern European history, to attempt to write historical fiction about early medieval Britain while living in Hawai‘i and pondering how to be an antiracist?  Certainly my sense of place and displacement helps me be a better historian and writer.  But what am I giving back through my novel? How do I represent the beliefs, values, and behaviors, the good, the bad, and the ugly, of early medieval characters that is historically accurate and empathetic?  How can my novel rewrite the false narratives of the medieval European past in ways that help with decolonizing our minds today?

I offer two avenues for exploring these questions:  first, how historians might overcome western binaries by resacralizing the landscapes of the past using an epistemology of love; and second, how literary authors might sidestep fantasized medievalisms using historical fiction tinged with magical realism.

First, modern western binaries form conceptual boxes we struggle to think outside of. Kathleen Davis and others have highlighted the divide between the medieval as religious and feudal versus the modern as secular, capitalist and democratic, while others have pointed to the western invention of religion.  Theologian Tom Wright describes the Enlightenment’s split level epistemology as a recycled Epicurean philosophy, reflected in Gottfried Ephaim Lessing’s “broad, ugly ditch between the eternal truths of reason and the contingent truths of history,” wherein heaven and earth remain mutually opaque. Lessing’s ditch between the natural and the supernatural, between the present and the past, exists in our minds, a ditch between the medieval and the modern that seems impassable except by resorting to romanticism, relativism, or a gnostic-like dualism, a revived neoPlatonism in which the spiritual exists only on a universal plane separate from our bodies and our lives here and now.

Moreover, as Davis, Wright, and others point out, this Enlightenment ditch is inextricably tied to colonialism, imperialism, and racism.  Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” called out white Christian theologians on this binary:

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro… I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

King was not the first or the last to note that American racism is rooted in a white slaveholder Christian theology that is dualist, separating black bodies from souls.

Because these binaries are so deeply entrenched in our thinking, we need help to get us out of this divisive and destructive ditch that separates us from understanding the medieval past and ourselves, help that comes not only from re-examining pre-modern histories but from outside the modern western tradition.  In particular, decolonization forces us to re-examine the long nineteenth century of ethnic nation-state formation and its implications for studying early medieval Britain.  Those in the field of “Anglo-Saxon” or early medieval English studies are of necessity becoming experts on the Victorian era in which this field was founded and defined.

And here I should say a word about the displacement of “Anglo-Saxon England” as a deeply problematic term with a long history of racialized notions in the UK and the US, and around the globe via colonialism.  The recent, and long overdue, removal of monuments signals that this message is finally getting through.  The problem for historical fiction set in early medieval Britain is compounded by this racist nationalism, which is tied to the problem I am addressing here, how to escape the Enlightenment ditch between the sacred and secular.

Victorians responded to the Enlightenment rationalist project in part by romanticizing the early medieval past as the basis for Anglo-Saxon superiority, a colonizing of their own histories that cannot be separated from the legacy of imperialist Britain.  Nonetheless, some of my favorite authors, the Inklings, are products of this Victorian spirit of romanticizing as well as racializing the medieval past.  However, the Inklings are also good at resisting the western binaries, probably because of their medievalist Christian faith.  Williams and Lewis lean heavily toward Christian neoPlatonism.  Tolkien, though, is different in regards to divine immanence:  There is no presence of “God” in Middle Earth unless you examine his cosmology in the Silmarillion.  LOTR has an imagined pre-Industrial “beloved community” in the Shire hobbits, who are seemingly those romanticized British shopkeepers. Tolkien offloads the violent and imperialist ventures of that Anglo-Saxon heritage to the Riders of Rohan and the Roman/Byzantine Kings of Numenor and Gondor.  Nonetheless, I love LOTR, the books not the movies, and will continue rereading the Inklings because I think they invite us back to a pre-modern, pre-disenchanted world.

Former bishop of Durham N. T. Wright, whom I cited earlier, stands in that Inkling tradition when he argues against Enlightenment natural theology with what he calls an epistemology of love.  As a New Testament scholar, Wright challenges Lessing’s ditch by examining first century Christian views of the kingdom and parousia in the context of Second Temple Judaism’s understanding of the “world to come” as here but not yet.  This worldview in which heaven and earth were not two separate things is arguably present in early medieval Britain, as Helen Foxhall-Forbes has explored.  Wright asks historians to move away from the cold-hearted objectivity of western scientific history toward an active love of one’s neighbor, dead or alive. This epistemology of love is still living and present among many Indigenous cultures decolonizing their own histories. For example, in Hawaiian aloha is a rich word which, like the Hebrew “shalom” for peace, means far more than “hello” or “love.”  Aloha in Hawai‘i speaks to a deep rooted sense of connection between sacred landscapes and humans.  Hawaiian traditions teach continuity with the ancestors present in land, sea, and space, and concentrated in ritual spaces.  These ways of being can recall for us early medieval views of angels, saints, and other invisible presences made tangible in relics, the Eucharist, and consecrated liturgical spaces.

How do I apply this epistemology of love to writing historical fiction?  In loving Aldred, warts and all, I can begin to see how visible and invisible presences interacted in his every day life, rather than through the lens of prayer versus charm. As a member of a religious community, Aldred has a strong sense of place and of the power of ritual performance to connect heaven and earth.  For example, in a scene where the young cleric Aldred is sanctifying holy water for a priest at the brutal battle of Brunanburh, he and a young boy experience a brief eternal moment of purity as the water is transformed by the exorcism.

This brings me to the second avenue: how magical realism can enliven historical fiction without falling into medievalesque fantasy spirituality.  Both science fiction and medieval fantasy attempt to circumvent the natural-supernatural binary, either by giving a materialist explanation of superpowers located in alien intelligences and evolved post-humans, or by positing fictional histories in alternate worlds in the multiverse. Imagining other worlds can be an instructive exercise for creating better communities here and now, but for many, these fantasies are escapist and not transformative.  Whether utopian or dystopian, these zones let you play out your violent or erotic visions in a virtual reality, cathartic perhaps.  But binary thinking won’t let players cross back over from their magical virtual worlds into the crabbed and cold realities of materialism and scientism. Such fantasies of supernatural powers and presences provide at best faux spiritualities, ungrounded in any worthy epistemology and therefore unsustainable.

Magical realism applied to historical fiction has greater potential for filling in the ditch, despite its unfortunate binarist label of magic versus science.  Even before the emergence of the label, authors like Naomi Mitchisen and Sigrid Undset endeavored to re-enchant classical and medieval legends with a nostalgic paganism, romanticized Celtic spiritualities, and empowering female divinities.  Often such novels present Christianity as the disenchanting force, but I would argue that late antique and early medieval Christianities participated in a similar worldview regarding the immanence of the divine in an incarnate and suffering God.

Recently I have drawn inspiration from African American and Indigenous authors such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Ta Nahesi Coates’ The Water Dancer, Liberian author Wayétu Moore’s She Would Be King, and Kawai Strong Washburn’s Sharks in the Time of Saviors.  These stories show body and soul integrated in African and Indigenous experiences of visionary spiritual power, power to overcome, but tied to a strong sense of place, amid the gritty realities of suffering bodies.  For early medieval England, Frederick Buechner in the story of Godric achieves a similar integration of bodily life with an authentic Christian spirituality, demonstrating a deep empathy with the beliefs and practices of his protaganist’s world.  That is what I am aiming for in my novel on Aldred.

I get inside Aldred’s head, and avoid putting a modern mind into a medieval body, by doing what Aldred does:  transcribing texts bilingually, reading books he might have read, praying the Daily Office, visiting places he would have seen, and meditating on crosses and manuscript illuminations. For Aldred, translating Latin prayers with an Old English gloss is an act of listening to the voice of God, while chanting the psalms involves both listening and speaking to God.  As a bibliophile, Aldred reads a lot of the same books I do, so he can wrestle with the problem of evil at the battle of Brunanburh while reading Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.  Aldred’s belief in invisible spiritual agencies is tangible, in the liturgical prayers he performs to clear birds and demons from the fields. Like the Dream of the Rood narrator, Aldred has visions that he must figure out how to interpret within a Christian semiotic.  Even with an omniscient narrator, I don’t actually make God a historical actor in these scenes. Rather, God speaks through creation  to the inner person—not the modern Freudian “self” but the medieval concept of a soul inextricably tied to its body.

If it takes magical realism to re-embody souls and recover an epistemology of love, then that is my plan.  My study of early medieval Britain while living in Hawai‘i has led me to this point of departure. To answer my opening question:  I cannot just stop being a modern white woman in a dominant culture that has drawn sustenance from this early medieval English past.  But I can keep re-reading and re-writing it.

Posted by: kljolly | June 23, 2020

“I Can’t Breathe”

Langston Hughes, “Christ in Alabama”


Posted by: kljolly | June 15, 2020

Silence is not an option


HCHBLMimage credit:  Hawai’i Council for the Humanities


The Pōpolo Project




Posted by: kljolly | May 29, 2020


In the previous post I alluded to Easington as an “estate” transformed into a women’s religious community under Aldred’s mother Tilwif and sister Bega, and also that it had turned to growing flax for linen production.

My efforts to describe the household and its dependent vills led into an excursus on terminology, coincident with reading Rosamond Faith and John Blair’s recent works (see bibliography at end). “Estate” and “manor” are anachronistic terms I would prefer to avoid, but vill and tun have specialized meanings in early medieval texts that may be opaque to modern readers.

Easington and its dependent vills are described in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto (HSC) 22 as granted to one Alfred, whom I fictitiously identified as Aldred’s father.  They are listed and identified by Ted Johnson South as:

  1. Easington Esingtun NZ4143 primary vill of composite estate.
  2. Monk Hesleden: Seletun earlier a primary vill of a composite estate. OE sele+tun = tun with a hall.
  3. Little Thorp: Thorep NZ4242.
  4. Horden Hall: Horedene/Hortun NZ4242, dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  5. Yoden: Iodene (now Peterlee) NZ4341. HSC 19 Geodene,dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington. Others identify with Little Eden; some call Yoden Eden Hall.
  6. Shotton: Scotun/Sceottun I NZ4139.
  7. Shotton [Colliery?]: Scotun/Sceottun II NZ3940 tentative.
  8. Castle Eden: Iodene Australem also Geodene. dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  9. Hulam: Holum NZ4336, dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  10. Hutton Henry: Hotun/Hotoun NZ4236, dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  11. Twilingatun: Twinlingtun uncertain identity; guesses south of Hutton Henry; dependent of Monk Hesleden before Easington.
  12. Sheraton: Scurufatun/Scrufatun NZ4435.

Easington vill crop

As you can see on the map, all are south of Easington, clustered along the coast.

In this section of the chapter on Aldred becoming a deacon at Easington in 941, I describe the household and vill management.  Probably some of these details will be spread out in the chapter, but for now I wrote it all in one place:

            For the women of Tilwif’s community, the mornings were devoted to the collective work on the looms.  Younger women and the children, fatherless orphans, shared labor customarily done by slaves, the unfree, but here freely or freed by Tilwif and Bega and dependent on the hall for their daily bread while apprenticed in a craft in the household, on the farm, or in the grain fields. Under the supervision of the beekeeper, dairywoman, shepherd, and cowman, some of these household dependents learned to care for the farm animals, bees, pigs, laying hens, cows, and sheep.  Less for meat, the dairy animals provided excellent cheeses that were the main source of protein through the winter months, along with bread. They were self-sufficient at a subsistence level, if it came to that.

            But Easington, a tun with a lord’s hall, also oversaw eleven other vills within six miles to the south that paid feorm, each with about a dozen households.  The composite vill at Easington was granted by St. Cuthbert and the bishopric of Lindisfarne to Aldred’s father Alfred 27 years ago.  This rich resource area along the coast of Northumbria included a mix of ploughlands, meadows, woodland for pigs, grazing pasture, fisheries, mills, and dairies. Collectively, they had 45 ploughteams of four oxen each tilling and cultivating land to produce grain for bread and fodder for the traction oxen and other beasts essential for survival and the basis of thegnly landed wealth. Beyond sustaining the farm households of each vill, the surplus was uplifted to support Alfred’s noble warrior household at Easington and its ecclesiastical patron, St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street.    

            No wonder that at Alfred’s death at Corbridge in 918, these fertile Northumbrian vills were a prime target for viking invaders turned settlers, the infamous Onlaf and Scula.  Only through the divine intervention of St. Cuthbert, was most of the land, the twelve vills of Easington without Billingham, restored to Alfred’s family.

            With his only son Aldred in the church, Tilwif and her daughter Bega turned the Easington “tun” into a religious community, supported by its dependent vills.  Unusually, Tilwif had appointed as reeve a woman, her friend Ælfwaru widow of reeve Rædwulf; their son Nothwulf, acolyte at Aldred’s baptism, had gone a-viking and been killed, so she only had her daughter Wulflæd who was in charge of the dairying.  Ælfwaru supervised Easington and kept the accounts for the production and distribution of goods across the eleven other vills with their respective reeves.

            However, the main enterprise at Easington itself was no longer grain but the production of flax for the making of linen cloth.  The free farmers (geneat, boarders, cottagers) and tenants (geburas) who lived in the nearest vills of Thorp and Horton tended the tall flax in the fields, harvested it in the spring while it was still tender, soon now.  Then they would be retting the stalks in water to loosen the fibers, a smelly business going into early summer, and then scutching the rotting mess to separate the soft fibers from the woody stems and seeds (for linseed oil?).  The women and children did the heckling, combing the long fibers out to be spun by the young women, and finally woven into fabric by the senior women of the household on large looms.

            Most of this linen, like the wool they spun from from the sheep on their vill and surrounding vills, was left undyed, a creamy color sometimes whitened for chrismals and shrouds, rituals for birth and death.  However, one of the women formerly enslaved in a Scandinavian workshop in York was expert in dyes, so she was helping them develop a small industry in brightly colored linen.  Mostly his mother preferred to supply linen to churches for vestments, altar cloths, and wall hangings, but they subsidized this charitable but not very profitable work by selling some rich linens to traders for export.

I have tried to use pre-Conquest terminology without the post-Norman feudal tenurial connotations, following Faith’s Moral Economy argument.  An Old English “tun” (sorry, no long mark) is basically an enclosed household “estate,” not a “town.”  A Latin “vill” is an agricultural resource unit, not to be confused with modern “village” as a residential zone

Blair in Building Anglo-Saxon England tends to use “tun”  almost always with the qualifier “functional” preceding it, to indicate documented place names in the landscape.  He uses “vill” exclusively to refer to a “royal vill,” although vill is the operative Latin term in the HSC, and in Domesday Book’s post-Conquest assessments (not Northumbria, though, since DB only goes through Yorkshire).

I am avoiding “hide” and using “ploughlands” as a unit of measure in terms of the number of plough teams available for grain field production, the monetary unit of measuring land productivity and wealth in terms of cattle.  My guesstimate of 45 plough teams  in the 12 vills may be wildly inaccurate.  Ted Johnson South estimates, based in part on the 12th century Boldon Book, that each vill had 12-24 households, with an average of 4 carucates.  A carucate in Domesday Book is based on what a team of 8 oxen could plough in one season, but plough teams varied in size and probably had less oxen in this era.

The latter part of the section above also gets into the making of flax, relying on the work of Banham and Faith with some recourse to Wikipedia.  A later section attempts to describe spinning, right before the section on Tilwif’s sewing of the garments in the previous post and using Gale Owen-Crocker’s work:

            Bega knew [the proverb of 3 strands] well from the craft of twisting already spun flax or wool to make a three-ply thread for a stronger weave.  Even as they sat with Chad, she had her long distaff and spindle, spinning flax into thread as she listened.  Like most women, she carried distaff and spindle, sometimes tucked in her belt, to be brought out whenever they had time and hands free, since making thread was the longest task, and once made, quickly used up in the weaving into fabric.

            Frith [a catechumen for baptism] found the rotating spindle calming, taking him back to childhood with his mother.  Watching Bega’s thread form helped him learn the words Chad recited, since as an illiteratus he must learn by ear. Bega spinning the words taught him the Creed, since he already knew the Pater noster in English from Aldred.  He was also quite adept at catching her spindle whorl, the weight that caused the thread to spin faster, when it dropped to the ground.

Thoughts, comments, corrections, and suggestions more than welcome, especially from the experts cited or misused here!

FYI:  Rosamond Faith’s book is excellent for both pre- and post-Conquest rural life and for its application of the concept of “moral economy.”  I highly recommend it.


Banham, Debby and Rosamond Faith.  Anglo-Saxon Farms and Farming. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Blair, John. Building Anglo-Saxon England.  Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

Faith, Rosamond.  The Moral Economy of the Countryside:  Anglo-Saxon to Anglo-Norman England. Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Historia de Sancto Cuthberto: A History of Saint Cuthbert and a Record of His Patrimony. Ed. and trans. Ted Johnson South. Anglo-Saxon Texts 2 (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2002).

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Revised Edition. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004.

Posted by: kljolly | May 26, 2020

Fabric Art

Embroidered tapestry is a misnomer, as is often pointed out regarding the Bayeux Tapestry, which is actually an embroidered wall hanging. Many people use “tapestry” generically to mean any cloth hanging on a wall. Technically, tapestries are woven fabric art, while embroidery is the art of stitching on or in already woven cloth. Another perhaps anachronistic term may be “quilt,” patchwork cloth pieces sewn together and over-stitched with a backing and sometimes filler; and appliqué, pieces of cloth sewn onto fabric.

But all of these techniques–weaving, embroidering, quilting, appliqué, and many more variations on fabric art–were undoubtedly in use in early medieval Northumbria. It is just that the evidence for this artwork rarely survives, except under extraordinary conditions, such as St. Cuthbert’s vestments from the early tenth century (unfortunately, Durham Cathedral’s online collection does not offer images).

In the year 941 of my novel, Aldred finishes his pilgrimage with Cathroe and finally arrives home at his family’s Easington estate. Along the way, he encounters wall hangings in the church at Keswick, and again at his home church as done by his sister Bega. In addition, his mother Tilwif is making vestments for Aldred’s ordination as deacon (and for his sister Bega as deaconess, but that is another story).

However, fabric art is not my metier: like Aldred, I am a wordsmith. So I am reliant for inspiration and information on my artist sister Ann, art historian Carol Neuman de Vegvar who made an early intervention in Ohio where this all began, and the expertise of embroidery scholar Elizabeth Coatsworth as well as that doyenne of early medieval textiles, Gale Owen-Crocker (see bibliography at end). Any errors in this post are my own and subject to their very welcome corrections and additions.

First, the inspiration from my sister Ann, whose artwork hangs right where I can contemplate it at leisure. Umpteen years ago, she rashly promised to make me a quilt based on the Luke carpet page in the Lindisfarne Gosples (British Library, Cotton Nero D.IV):

She thereby embarked on a multi-year inter-state odyssey involving a team of artisans worthy of Eadfrith and his colleagues Æthilwald and Billfrith in the Lindisfarne Gospels. I will not recount the saga here, but the result is stunning:

This is, first of all, a quilt: fabric squares pieced together in blocks matching the background in the manuscript illumination. But it also uses appliqué to place the Greek cross and the other squares “on top” of the quilt as well as at the corners. Third, it is in some sense “embroidered” with machine quilt stitching in various patterns replicating the serpentine and vine scroll work of the original. Last and the most modern, yet recalling the work of the manuscript illuminators, is the fabric pen work highlighting the vine scroll stitching: gold on the cross, blue, red, and green on the bird and beast bodies.

Clearly not all of these techniques could be used in tenth-century Northumbria, but similar effects could be had using different tools. Hence, my recourse to the historians of textiles and embroideries.

In the Keswick church, Aldred encounters a series of wall hangings telling the story of St. Kentigern, although most of them follow the story of his mother St. Thaney. Here is the description of the first wall hanging through Aldred’s eyes:

Once he looked more closely, he realized that the wall hanging was not of simple construction, woven cloth embroidered with thread.  It was more like a manuscript illumination.  As tall as a man and as wide as his arms outstretched, the base fabric was a fine white wool tightly woven, framed by tablet-woven bands with intertwined endless patterns, such as those his mother and sister made. Over the white wool was a central panel of pale yellow linen squares forming a heavenly background for the story.  But the whole center of the hanging was taken up with brightly colored figures—people and objects cut out of linen cloth—overlaid in a technique he recognized from his mother’s handiwork, appliqué.  Then over these, someone had stitched outlines, faces, and designs in various patterns his sister would be able to name—some stitches like feathers, others crosses or chains, some thick, others flat to produce the appearance of depth. This embroidery reminded Aldred of a bishop’s stole, such as Cuthbert wore even now in his wooden coffin at Chester-le-Street.  The bright silk threadwork, silver, gold, blue, red, caught the flickering light of the lamps at different angles, bringing the people to life.

I thought about adding:

Later he noticed several small gaps, as if something had been cut away.  When he asked about them, he was told that bright gems and flat gold crosses had been removed to pay off the Vikings and prevent them from ripping the tapestries from the walls.

Or maybe they originally used gold and silver wire, since these wire techniques are found in Scandinavia, so I could have the artisan learn the craft from local Scandinavian women?

For the Easington church, I have his sister Bega designing and creating with other women the Luke carpet page. Here is Aldred’s first encounter with it:

     Aldred traced his finger over the interlaced beasts and birds on the wall hanging, flora and fauna in shades of blue, red, and green outlined in yellow.  His sister Bega had created a wonder greater than those embroidered cloths he had seen at Keswick church.  Not that the materials Bega used were superior—she had sewn it with rags from old clothes and leftover scraps of textiles from the loom, embroidered over with dyed threads, no fine gold thread here.

            No, what was amazing to Aldred was that she had recreated with precision one of the cross pages from the Lindisfarne Gospel book at Chester-le-Street, down to the last detail of colored squares and bird heads.  He recognized it as soon as he had entered the side door of the Easington church and saw it hanging opposite on the north wall.  The Gospel of Luke.  Not the size of a book page, but the size of a man.


            Standing back now from the embroidered cloth, Aldred’s eyes blurred and refocused.  What had stood out to him when he first walked in to the church was the golden equilateral cross dominating the center.  When he had come closer, he had realized that Bega had made this Greek style cross out of bright yellow silk with dense red interlace embroidery, to give the appearance of shimmering gold.  But after he had stepped up to the tapestry, his eyes were drawn to the birds and beasts in the rectangular boxes surrounding the cross, tracing his finger over the interlace just as he had done as a boy with Bega, examining the endless knotwork on the family horn, and on the many stone crosses he had encountered since then. 

            Now that he stood a few feet away from the textile, it was the ground of white and blue diamond squares alternating on red that rose to the surface, while the squared cross and boxes sewn on top faded into the background.

            He tried to recall the manuscript image in his mind’s eye.  He had not really noticed the colored squares before when contemplating the cross on a parchment page, but in textile they seemed to come alive.  The blue squares suddenly swam before his eyes, and then the white, as if he were looking at a mosaic pavement, like the Romans made, but under water.

            Focusing on one set, he realized that each of the larger squares not only combined with each other to form a bigger pattern of multicolored diamonds, but each colored block was made up of smaller squares of fabric sewn together, including the red squares fitted between them.  Moreover, the blue, red, and white fabrics varied in color and texture, probably because they were made out of scraps of cloth, a mix of wool and finer linen.  He reached out and touched one of the faded blue squares.  It reminded him of an old woolen tunic of his father’s that had been made into a robe for him as a boy of 7 when he was sent to Chester-le-Street for his education.  In fact he vividly remembered wearing that faded and too-short blue robe three years later, the day he was running to his dying Uncle Tilred.

            He stepped further back.  A shaft of sunlight from the south windows suddenly appeared, probably a break in the clouds outside.  Now it was the outer red border and the four corners of the tapestry that lit up.  He moved back in, and then squatted down to look at the bottom left of the four corner emblems, the two upper ones high above his head.  On a dark background, Bega had embroidered two marvelous birds with multicolored feathers and fierce beaked heads, trailing interlaced red and blue tails.

            Leaning to the right he looked at the emblem in the bottom center, mirrored above and on both sides.  Here again interlace, but with two mammal heads facing out.  To make the interlace stand out like gold in the manuscript, she had cleverly appliqued the bright yellow fabric against a black background.

            He stood back up and examined the central boss of the cross.  The square had four circles in it, each filled with endless swirls that made him sway, almost losing his balance.

For Tilwif constructing the deacon garments for Aldred and Bega, I am reliant on the work of Julia Barrow and Maureen Miller cited in the bibliography below.

     Meanwhile, their mother Tilwif was sewing their vestments for Easter, a chrismal robe for Frith, alb, dalmatic, maniple, and stole for Bega and Aldred.

            The long sleeved alb undergarment, like the chrismal robe, was simple white linen they had in abundant supply.  Bega already had such a garment, but Aldred’s from Govan as subdeacon was worn and stained from his travels, so she made him a new one. 

            The dalmatic over the linen alb was more colorful, a calf-length natural colored tunic with red stripes from shoulder to hem and along the sleeve edge.  These dalmatics Tilwif made from their fine wool for warmth in the cool church.  For the stripes, she used tablet-woven braids with variegated red threads and texture created with alternating warp (z)- and weft (s)-spun threads.  Some of the women spun their spindles sunwise to produce warp thread, some the opposite direction making weft. Combined in a chevron tablet weave of two different shades of red, these braided borders stood out from the plain white garment, a reminder of the blood of Christ that washed them spotless as the wool of the dalmatic onto which it was sewn.

            The maniple was a white linen hand-cloth for the deacons to carry over their arm, ostensibly to cover or wipe any utensils during the performance of the mass.  Their house had stacks of these folded rectangular cloths on hand, made from the fabric left after making other garments and altar cloths, and hemmed with simple stem stitches done by the girls learning to use their needles.

            The maniple, alb, and dalmatic were quickly made from materials on hand.  The stole, however, was a long embroidered scarf worn over the alb and peeking out below the dalmatic.  Tilwif had already finished Bega’s stole before Aldred’s return, so now she worked on his.  Both scarves were made of finely woven undyed linen, about 3 inches wide, but almost entirely covered in intricate designs similar to those on the Luke Gospel cross wall hanging in the church. 

            Bega’s scarf imitated the pale blues, reds, and greens of the interwoven beasts in the four rectangualr patterns surrounding the central cross, but at the bottom of both ends that would be visible below the dalmatic, she replicated the equilateral gold cross with the last of Gytha’s yellow silk and red thread used in the wall-hanging.

            Aldred’s scarf looked more like the four corner emblems, green and blue interlace all along it, terminating at both ends with the bird’s winged bodies and heads.  As his mother worked on it, Aldred admired how the embroidered interlace looked like feathers, but looking closely he saw that where the interlace emerged at the bottom, each had a sharpened point, like a pen quill, his favorite tool.  The bird heads themselves were white and appeared more dove like, symbolic of the Holy Spirit, the comforter.

I will save for a later post the description of Easington’s flax production for linen, their spinning and weaving operations, and the twelve vills.

Thoughts and suggestions welcome.



Barrow, Julia .The Clergy in the Medieval World: Secular Clerics, Their Families and Careers in North-Western Europe, c. 800–c. 1200. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Coatsworth, Elizabeth. “Stitches in Time: Establishing a History Anglo-Saxon Embroidery.” In Medieval Clothing and Textiles I, ed. Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005), 1-28.

Coatsworth, Elizabeth. “Opus What?  The Textual History of Medieval Embroidery Terms and Their Relationship to the Surviving Embroideries c. 800-1400.” In Textiles, Text, Intertext: Essays in Honour of Gale R. Owen-Crocker, ed. Maren Clegg Hyer and Jill Frederick, (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016), 43-66. 

Miller, Maureen C. Clothing the Clergy, Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe, c. 800-1200. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014.

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress in Anglo-Saxon England. Revised Edition. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004.


Posted by: kljolly | April 14, 2020

Govan Sarcophagus

Although I have not posted recently, now in this time of pandemic, here is what I have been working on since my last post. I have actually finished a long chapter set in 941 with Aldred trailing along with Cathroe’s pilgrimage from Govan to Penrith.

Along the way, I have taken a number of liberties with the historical record, including having them travel by ship and visit a number of holy sites such that the chapter has turned into a hagiographic marathon.  If anyone wants to binge-read saints’ lives, this chapter does it.  It also ponders a lot of stone monuments.

One of the liberties early on in the chapter tries to explain the “Constantine” sarcophagus at Govan that I blogged about when I visited in 2015.   Tim Clarkson recommended a visit to Govan, and his blogs Heart of the Kingdom and Senchus, as well as his books Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age and The Making of Scotland, have been essential reading for me.  So apologies to Tim for what follows!


This ninth century sarcophagus  is not only rare but also puzzling as to who was in it.  Although attributed to a “Constantine,” that connection as patron of the Govan church is tenuous at best.  And, even if a Constantine was encased in it, which one?

  • Possibly Pictish/Scots King Constantine I, Constantín mac Cináeda (d. 877), son of Cináed mac Ailpín (d. 862).  But why would he be buried in the church at Govan?
  • The hazy St. Constantine of the early seventh century, reputedly the son of Rhydderch Hael and a pupil of St. Columba, is only known from a twelfth-century account (Jocelin’s Life of Kentigern), with a Greek Orthodox feastday of March 11.  So how would his body be in a viking style sarcophagus of ninth century, and decidedly secular, manufacture?

So I invented a scenario for Aldred’s contemplation of the sarcophagus in the Govan church, comparing it to his fond memories of Cuthbert’s wooden casket:

           Today [March 11] was the feastday of St. Constantine, the patron of this church—not the great Roman emperor famous for his conversion, but son of a Strathclyde ancestor.  According to the brothers here, St. Constantine was the son of Rhydderch Hael (the Generous), king of Alt Clut.  He was purportedly tutored by the great Columba, founder of the Iona monastery, itself the mother of the Lindisfarne community to which Aldred belonged.  Aldred had never heard of this saint before coming to Govan, but certainly anyone connected to Columba was bound to have pursued a holy life.

            The bones of this saint rested in the east end of the church in a stone sarcophagus intricately carved, a much more solid edifice, if less angelic, than the carved wooden coffin of St. Cuthbert back at Chester-le-Street.  Alded had examined the sarcophagus soon after his arrival, discovering that it was of recent construction—its motifs reminiscent of the viking hogback stones dotting the landscape, rather than the older style of Iona two centuries before.

            To be sure, the sarcophagus had interlaced vines similar to many an Irish cross or Northumbrian gravestone.  But between the blocks of entangled vines were carvings not of saints or angels, but of animals, mostly powerful horses.  In the center of the side facing the nave, a decidedly warlike horseman rode after a stag, while a frame near the head on that side depicted a horse trampling a beast underfoot, which, Aldred supposed if you stretched it, might be Christ trampling the devil. 

            To Aldred’s mind, it would be a very fine coffin for a king named Constantine, a common  enough royal name, rather than a saint.  The Govan brothers had given only sketchy answers to his polite queries about what the carvings represented in the life of their patron. 

            Aldred guessed that the saint’s bones had been moved into this glorious stone coffin as the result of some kind of dispute between the churchmen and the rulers across the river [Partick], perhaps over their alliances with the Gall-Gáidhil, “foreigner-Gaels.”  Whether the Gaelgal were viking foreigners become Gaels, or Gaels become vikings was unclear, but their warrior ethos was abundantly clear.  Aldred had seen similar bands—and alliances—in Northumbria and in Ireland. 

            Was this magnificent stone sarcophagus a peace offering from the Gaelgal, a gesture toward being more Christian?  If so, their ideas about sanctity and warfare differed from his own community’s.  Aldred pitied St. Constantine his new stone home and thought longingly of St. Cuthbert.

Is this plausible?

Posted by: kljolly | November 15, 2019

Pilgrimage, sailing, and saint’s lives

Aldred’s journey homeward as a twenty-something includes a stint at Govan (Scotland), where he joins the pilgrimage of Cathroe.  I ambitiously outlined the ten-year period from Aldred at the Battle of Brunanburh to his return to Northumbria in an earlier post, Ubi Sunt, that set out my spring sabbatical writing agenda.  That was followed by an account of Aldred’s stay at Glendalough (Ransom) detailed in letters between Aldred and his family.  I then began a chapter that starts with Aldred meeting Cathroe in Govan, embarking on a pilgrimage journey that turned into an odyssey, at least for me.  I made great progress, learned a lot, and intended to post a series of queries on the blog, but then Life happened, I was back in the classroom…and this post delayed.

What started out as a road trip story based on the life of St. Cathroe’s pilgrimage turned into a sea journey and then into a series of saint’s lives recounted at each pilgrimage stop.  I had fun writing the chapter (which is not quite done) but also annotated it with a lot of questions about some of my choices and their historical viability.

1.  Languages. Aldred is living and traveling with people of different linguistic abilities:  Latin, English, Norse, Irish, Gaelic (Scots and/or Cumbric), Welsh.  Everyone in this northern region is probably at least bilingual, but in different combinations.  Some languages are related enough to have some mutual intelligibility (English and Norse, potentially).  Clerics raised in a religious community would find Latin a common language across unintelligible boundaries.  In the course of the chapter and Aldred’s encounters with different people, I have to explain how they communicated, in some cases with someone translating for someone else.  For Aldred himself, I am drawing on my own weak experiences with hearing/speaking other languages.  This is the background note I wrote to myself for the chapter:

Aldred may have spent two years in Ireland, and now finds himself in a Cumbric speaking kingdom, but he has no ear for learning languages orally or speaking them.  He grew up bilingual in his native vernacular Northumbrian English and Latin, but has trouble with Celtic languages, never really learns to speak them well, and has trouble sometimes following a story told aloud.  As a budding scholar, he feels stupid, but as a scribe he has discovered he is a visual learner: he sees words spelled.  He speaks Latin primarily with other clerics.  Lay nobles, household servants, ship’s crews are mostly bilingual or trilingual in English, Norse, Irish, or some form of Gaelic (Cumbric is lost to us, but similar to Welsh).

Throughout the chapter, I indicate when Aldred is having difficulty following something, or occasions when someone translates for someone else:  when the Norse serving boy, who can understand English and some Gaelic, doesn’t understand Latin, or stumbles over an unfamiliar English or Gaelic word; or when Irish clerics mix Latin and Irish in macaronic speech, Aldred has to ask questions.

Does this approach make sense? 



2.  Seafaring Pilgrimage.  The Life of Cathroe (Vita Kaddroe) indicates that Cathroe of Alba was escorted by Scots King Constantine to Govan, where he was received by Strathclyde (Cumbrian) King Dyfnwal, who escorted the pilgrim saint to his borders at Loida (Lowther).  The obvious way to proceed from Govan to Lowther would be overland, with the king itinerating through his territories and relying on the resources of his holdings there.   While traveling overland would make sense both for pilgrims on foot and for an itinerating king, it presents a transportation problem of horse-riding warriors versus on-foot pilgrims.  Going by ship is faster and easier, even though having to go the long way around Galloway.  And it allows me to have them make pilgrimage stops at Arran (St. Molaise’s island) and Whithorn (St. Ninian), which would not be on the itinerary overland.  This choice also forced me to learn a lot about tides, ships, and aquatic life.

Is this choice of traveling by ship too far-fetched?

More questions to come, but for now these are the two big ones.

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