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.


  1. […] 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 […]

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