Playing with medieval visions, sounds, sensations

The theme for this year’s arts and humanities festival at King’s was announced as ‘Play’ way back in spring 2016. A few of us PhD students in the English department had known for a while that we wanted to put together an event to explore our academic interests which sit slightly outside of our main PhDs: namely, a wide range of work that can be called ‘contemporary medieval’ [1].

We enjoy the work of writers such as Patience Agababi and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, who have rewritten Chaucer; Caroline Bergvall, whose performances and poems play with modern and medieval literature and language; the gorgeous artefacts from the King’s Archives; and a whole range of other work that has transformed medieval texts over time – we’ve written about some on this blog.

A workshop in progress. c. David Tett
A workshop in progress. Photo: David Tett

We decided therefore to initiate some more play with medieval things, and invited participants to join us in workshops rather than lecture halls. We wanted to create a memorable encounter with these medieval poems, and an opportunity to be playfully creative. We also wanted to engage many senses: aural/ oral, textual, and visual. The workshops were imagined as a ‘first step’ for those new to Old or Middle English or, for those who were current or prior students, an exercise that would be something totally different to the things that they usually do in a classroom.

We decided on two poems to explore during our workshops: the Old English Dream of the Rood and Chaucer’s The House of Fame.

We chose these poems for a few reasons, practical and academic: both are long enough poems to break down into chunks for a workshop; both are ‘dream visions’; and both have not been either translated into new texts or images on a large scale (compared with, say, Beowulf or the Canterbury Tales). They are full of exciting sensory moments: brilliant lights or images, movement between earth and sky, and in both texts more than one voice speaks.

House of Fame workshop in progress!
House of Fame workshop in progress!

In the room we had a range of materials for making, pens, pencils, typewriter, scanner/ printer, newspapers and magazines, as well as images of manuscripts and medieval art, maps and diagrams, and copies of ‘new medieval’ work that inspired us. We realized that what we included in the room would shape the creative ideas that participants had, and their understanding of the meanings of the poems, but we encouraged everyone to gravitate to the materials they found most interesting.

We really enjoyed the sessions, and were surprised and happy with the way people responses to our strange old poems. We discussed what ‘medieval’ means today. We had some philosophical conversations what ‘translation’ is (were we making versions, remixes, new work, retellings of the poems?). We discussed the development of the English language, and wondered about why some words had lasted through the Middle Ages when so many had disappeared. We even discussed medieval science and theology in some detail.

Above all, we were excited to see how people’s collages, translations, or new poems really got into the spirit of the festival theme, ‘Play’, with some touching, hilarious, insightful, and simply surreal results!

Carl Kears at 'playing with medieval visions' evening. Photo: David Tett
Carl Kears at ‘playing with medieval visions’ evening. Photo: David Tett

‘Playing with medieval visions…’ came to an end with a day-long exhibition of the workshop art and texts, followed by talks from Fran Brooks on the medievalism of David Jones, and Carl Kears on the ‘new Old English’ treasures of the Eric Mottram archive.

In the spirit of the small press relics found in the Eric Mottram archive, we pulled together the work made by everyone into two zines: new editions, if you like, of The Dream of the Rood and the House of Fame. Thank you to all our participants who came – whether to workshops, the exhibition, talks, or all three. We hope these little books are a fitting way to remember all the conversations, creations, and play!

‘Playing with medieval visions’ team: Fran Allfrey, Francesca Brooks, Charlotte Knight, Carl Kears, Charlotte Rudman, and Beth Whalley.

[1] ‘contemporary medieval’ is borrowed from medieval scholars Clare Lees and Gillian Overing.

‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’  were a series of five workshops, an exhibition, and symposium organised by PhD students for the Arts and Humanities Festival 12, 13, 17, 21 October 2016. Participants were invited to play with Chaucer’s ‘House of Fame’ or the Old English ‘Dream of the Rood’ , using them as starting points for new textual/ visual work. The events were generously supported by the AHRI and by the Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies at King’s.

New Old English: The Eric Mottram Archive

by Carl Kears

The King’s College London Archives house the collections of a variety of scholars and writers who spent their careers researching and re-creating the medieval past, including Walter William Skeat, the renowned Anglo-Saxonist, and Maureen Duffy, whose illustrious career in poetry, fiction and scholarship has repeatedly returned to the Middle Ages for its subject matter.

The archive of Eric Mottram (1924-1995), a prestigious poet, editor and academic who established the discipline of American Studies, is not a place one would expect to find a hoard of artifacts, little-press publications, books, posters and photographs concerned with re-imagining medieval texts, places and events. But, as editor of Poetry Review from 1972-1977, Eric Mottram collaborated with and published a number of writers who sought to revive poetry—and build new cultural hubs of creativity—through a fervent rethinking of poetic form and of poetry’s connection to local communities, and, moreover, through imaginative responses to literary survivals from the Anglo-Saxon age.

Fig 1. Letter from John Porter and Bill Griffiths to Mottram. c. King’s Archives.

The archive demonstrates how Mottram was a key player in the ‘British Poetry Revival’ and also how he corresponded with and edited poets such as Basil Bunting and Bill Griffiths. These correspondents were producing new ‘versions’ (as Griffiths called them) of medieval works during this time. Many illustrious and curious items in the Mottram archive have remained undiscovered and betray a half-hidden history of alternative translation and bookmaking that stemmed from a will to make the distant past accessible, interactive and new. Driving the ‘revival’, Mottram received work that utilised the wrought language of the early medieval period (including new pamphlets of poetry and prose), as well as playful and colourful renderings of and responses to the medieval world. Mottram’s role as a catalyst for exciting new translation projects can also be seen in the personal address found in this copy of John Porter’s Beowulf sent to Mottram in 1975. Published by Bill Griffiths’s Pirate Press, this important translation of Beowulf was Mottram’s suggestion. [Fig. 1]

Fig 2. A New Old English poem for the solstice by Bill Griffiths. c. King’s Archives.

Bill Griffiths, Mottram’s protégé, would send his mentor Christmas cards written in Old English. This one here is a ‘New Old English poem on the solstice’ [Fig. 2], sent to Mottram in 1984, and, rather than translating a work of Old English poetry, Griffiths composes a completely new poem in the Old English language. Likewise, this ‘map’ of Kingsbury church Griffiths designed for Mottram contains directions and information written in Old English. [Fig. 3]

Fig 3. Kingsbury Church by Bill Griffiths. c. King’s Archives.

The archive shows how Mottram nurtured, edited, corresponded with and drove a diverse range of writers who repeatedly returned to the potential of Old English literature not only as an inspiration but also as a body of material that could be the source for rather dramatic re-thinkings of book-making. During the 1960s and 1970s, British poetry underwent a feverish sea-change, propelled by explosive writers and transformative, rebellious voices that looked to the languages, literature and materials of the early medieval past for spark, style and rejuvenation.

Carl Kears is Lecturer in Old and Middle English at King’s College London.

All images are from the King’s College London Archives, an amazing resource open to all. Find them online and on twitter @KingsArchives.

The treasures of the Eric Mottram archive, which include pamphlets and chapbooks of poetry, illustration, and original writing in Old English inspired ‘Playing with medieval visions…’  public workshops for the Arts and Humanities Festival 2016 led by CLAMS postgraduate students. You can see the results of the workshops here.

Playing with medieval things: Caroline Bergvall

In a series of posts, the organisers of ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ explore some of the pieces of work, modern and medieval, that have inspired these workshops.

Caroline Bergvall’s multimedia project Drift (2012) is difficult to talk about neatly and succinctly. But here goes…

The work comprises of performances – for voice, music, and digital screen – and a book containing poetry, visual art, and a ‘researcher’s log’ which notes down some of Bergvall’s writing and making processes. Drift retells the story of the ‘left to die boat’ –  a dingy which set off from Libya in March 2011, in which sixty-three migrants of the seventy-two on board died while drifting for fourteen days, despite being sighted by NATO boats within the coalition’s maritime surveillance area. At the same time, neither more nor less importantly, Drift explores medieval poetry: most obviously the Old English poem, ‘The Seafarer’, which is dissected and reassembled throughout the new work.

Watch and listen again to even just the first minute of the video above. Bergvall plays with language in a number of ways: choosing translations based on which words sound similar rather than what they mean, or deliberately mis-translating or mis-pronouncing words because of what they look like.

Take just the first line of the Old English Seafarer for example:

Mæg ic be me sylfum soðgied wrecan…

[Keeping the word order: ‘May I of my self true stories tell’; or literally: ‘I may tell a true story about myself’]

And now Bergvall’s words:

Let me speak my true journeys, own true songs
Maeg ic, I can make my sorry tale right soggy truth
sothgied sodsgate some serious wrecan my ship
sailing rekkies tell Hu ic how ache wracked from

From one line of Old English Bergvall has spun out five lines. Each Old English word is teased and tested and stretched. ‘Soðgied’, in truth pronounced ‘soth-yed’, is here turned into ‘sodsgate’: a transformation that always reminds me of when I was first learning Old English, I would always accidentally read ‘ð’ as ‘d’. Also, to note, I’ve used the book version of the text to get the spellings for this section, but hearing the poem aloud the words more obviously reveal their playfulness, for example ‘some serious wrecan my ship’ could be ‘some serious wreck-an my ship’.

In meddling with Old English, Bergvall plays with ideas of authority and truth. She uses this 1000 year old poem to explore own linguistic background, which includes Norwegian, French, and English. The fact that she then transforms the story into the horrific tale of a failed migration from Libya to Italy further turns the Old English poem on its head. A song from the North of Europe, by a people who thought nothing of roving around the seas in search of new lands to call their own, becomes an account of refugees from South of the Mediterranean, voicing stories of people who could only dream of freely claiming rights to live in a new land.

[Via poetry foundation
The actual form of Drift on the page further disrupts language and stories. One particular passage retells the same part of a sea voyage over an over again, recounting the moment that a boat falls into trouble. Old and new words quite literally mingle and fall together across a white page, or during performances they drift about untethered across a digital screen, or are broken apart in Bergvall’s voicing of them.

Bergvall’s play with medieval words and ideas about migration alongside a contemporary report of the migrant crisis asks us (those of us who feel lucky enough to ‘belong’ anywhere at least) to question our own position in the world. How did we get to where we are now? What journey, how long ago, led us to this point? By breaking up language, and weaving together modern and medieval English, French, and Scandinavian words Drift muddies the waters that define where the medieval ends and the modern begins, and where stories of ‘Old England’ belong alongside tales from new Europe.

We hope that during ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ workshops participants will be able to tell their own stories using Chaucer’s ‘House of Fame’ or the Old English ‘Dream of the Rood’  as starting points. Book your place now on eventbrite for workshops on Thursday 13 October and Monday 17 October.

Playing with medieval things: Studio Weave’s Paleys upon Pilers

In a series of posts, the organisers of ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ explore some of the pieces of work, modern and medieval, that have inspired these workshops.

The Paleys upon Pilers [image via Studio Weave]
The City of London is full of architectural juxtapositions: the Roman London Wall is barely-there in the shadow of the brutalist Barbican towers; churches with spindles for spires shrink among the colossal ploughman’s lunch (the  Gherkin, the Cheesegrater… we wait for the Apple); the bulbous Walkie Talkie turns the Tower of London, previously London’s tallest building, into a toy.

Another such structure that jostles for a view between glass and steel megaliths is, at once, medieval and modern. Studio Weave’s Paleys Upon Pilers stands – well, floats – in the middle of a roundabout at Aldgate. Its precarious stilts hoist it above buses, its woven internal rooms are just too far away to explore.

Studio Weave explain their inspiration from Chaucer’s texts on their website:

From 1374 to 1386 Chaucer lived in Aldgate, above the confluencing bustle of the City. During this time, he wrote The House of Fame and The Parliament of Fowls.  Both of these dream poems include images of a fantastic dream-like temples elevated over large, strange landscapes. It is possible to see the correlation between these places and Chaucer’s own home in Aldgate…

…In the House of Fame, there are two edifices, a temple of glass filled with golden decorative images and niches, and a sumptuous palace on a mountain of ice that sits at the confluence of all words – as in Aldgate, Chaucer sat at the confluence of paths in and out of the east of the City of London. In the valley below, there is a 60-mile wide spinning wicker house of gossip, also perhaps an analogy for the City.
Via Studio Weave

Studio Weave’s Paleys of Pilers brings together images from two poems, the House of Fame and the Parliament of Fowls, and from Chaucer’s life. I love the idea that the Paleys is both of this world – a hide-away from the city for anyone with the means to to clamber or fly up into its nest-like space – and of some place else, between the earth and the sky. Its little legs could be landing gear, it may be about to take off back to a higher place.

To make this Paleys, Studio Weave blended poetry, historical fact, fantasy, and the modern experience of hectic London, making a structure that is at once very here and now, and of somewhere else, some time ago.

During our Playing with medieval visions workshops, we’ll be asking: what parts of our lives do we bring into translations? What correlations do you see between your places and the places, sounds, sensations, of medieval poems? Where do new creations made from medieval things belong?

Join our ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ workshops, and translate Chaucer’s ‘House of Fame’ or the Old English ‘Dream of the Rood’ into new texts, images, and whatever other multimedia trickery we can squeeze into one room! Book your place now on eventbrite.

Playing with medieval things: Jila Peacock

In a series of posts, the organisers of ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ explore some of the pieces of work, modern and medieval, that have inspired these workshops.

A potential problem with translating a poem into images is that you may end up fixing the meanings of ambiguous or polysemic words. However, it’s wrong to state that this is a problem associated only with translation into images. All languages – including Old English – have words that carry all sorts of meanings that cannot be translated perfectly with a single English language equivalent.

Images can explore the multi-faceted nature of poems in the same way as written translations can. Just like words, line and form and colour can carry many meanings, imply others, and trigger associations with further images, words, and feelings for a reader or viewer.

A feature of Old English poetry that makes it particularly frustrating difficult fun to translate is its use of kennings. A kenning is a word built from the joining of two others, as a metaphor for something else. For example: hwæl-weġ, ‘whale way’, means the sea. Aelfscinu, ‘elf-shining’, can be translated as beautiful. But these kennings carry other meanings or reminders: to speak of a whale way is to think about the ocean as a home to animals larger and more powerful than humans. Perhaps if we still called the sea by that name we’d be less likely to fill it with rubbish. ‘Elf-shining’ carries with it ideas of supernatural beauty, and, for Anglo-Saxon ears, perhaps danger. Elves were not the friendly pixies we might imagine today but could be a troublesome force of nature, so an aelfscinu woman is not simply pretty. These two words alone would present a text or visual translator with some tough decisions!

A double page spread of Jila Peacock’s images from The Seafarer, published by Sylph Editions

Jila Peacock’s images of the Old English ‘Seafarer’ poem tackle just such a slippery kenning. The image above accompanies a passage of the poem that talks about the anfloga at line 62b:

Text from

Scholars can’t decide what anfloga means. It can be translated literally as ‘lone-flyer’. But is it referring to the speaker’s spirit which has flown off at line 58a? Or is it an albatross calling the seafarer back to his boat? Or is it a metaphorical thing with no body or shape, describing the pull of the sea? Or is it a mix of all of the above?

Jila Peacock’s image allows for all of these interpretations: an enormous bird carries, or flies with, a human-like figure, above a expanse of ocean, and a boat whose cargo is too small to see. Is the boat waiting in the harbour (the sea seems too still to be open water) as the seafarer dreams of returning? Or, is the seafarer beside the sail, feeling the sensation of flying over the waves? The figure with the bird could be spirit or imagination, or Peacock could be imagining the speaker more literally and fantastically: they have been fetched up out of their bed to return to their boat by a great lone-flyer.

Check out Jila Peacock’s website for her other ‘Seafarer’ images: she creates a world that shifts from gloomy to serene for the voice of the poem to speak through. From page to page her black and white monoprints depict swirling seas then calm mirror-like surfaces, whirling gulls then a shining, still moon.

We’re looking forward to our Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations workshops where participants will be able to translate Chaucer’s ‘House of Fame’ and the Old English ‘Dream of the Rood’ into images. We’re interested to see whether people choose to create literal or abstract translations, or whether whole new narratives might be made! Book your place now on eventbrite!

Playing with medieval things: Patience Agbabi

In a series of posts, the organisers of ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ explore some of the pieces of work, modern and medieval, that have inspired these workshops. telling-tales-agbabi

see my jaw dropping neat Anglo-Saxon, I got ink in my veins more than Caxton and it flows hand to mouth, here’s a mouthfeast, verbal feats from the streets of the South-East…

Telling Tales Prologue (Grime Mix), Patience Agbabi, 2014.

Patience Agbabi’s Telling Tales has been called ‘versions’, ‘adaptations’, ‘updates’, and a ‘remix’: ‘restyling’ and giving Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales a ‘thrilling new life'[1]. During our ‘Playing with Medieval Visions, Sounds, Sensations’ workshops, we’ll be asking our participants to think about what they might call their own work made as a result of an encounter with the medieval. Which term do you prefer? And where does ‘translation’ come in?

Every single poem in Agbabi’s collection is written or spoken in a different style. I have been lucky enough to see Agbabi performing on a couple of occasions, and of course snapped up the book, and I’ve found myself falling in love with some characters and their voices, turned off by others. I like to pretend that the book was actually written by a group, that each character is a real person speaking through the pages. Watching her perform, I almost convincing myself that Agbabi becomes her medieval-modern creations as she slips into different roles as she recites. On releasing the Tales, Agbabi noted how

some critics, working to impossibly tight deadlines, have made the mistake of thinking that most of the poems are written in rap form. Maybe it’s because I is Black and have occasionally written raps. Maybe it’s because the set up is a poetry slam, making people mistakenly think that means rap…[2]

She also pointed out, the RAP Canterbury Tales are another project by another poet entirely! As Agbabi notes, summarising Telling Tales as the ‘rap Canterbury Tales’ ignores so much of what makes it exciting and important poetically, and also socially and politically. Agbabi’s tales weave themselves into the historically white, historically male canon of English Literature, showing how ideas about love, guilt, betrayal, romance, greed, change or crystalise, transcend or become rooted in, places, times, and peoples. ‘Traditional’ forms (rime royale) are forced to work with new words, whilst newer forms (grime) voice ideas from the medieval past. Agbabi herself has said that ‘Chaucer’s original is brilliant. It’s probably the best work of English literature, in my opinion’, but these tales – and associated performances – remake what ‘the best poetry’ can be, what ‘English literature’ (according to much of people’s experience of the subject) can do.

Since the publication of Telling Tales, Agbabi has been involved in another project that reshapes what belongs to English Literature, to England. Refugee Tales, a series of events and a collection of stories, also takes its departure from Chaucer, that safe bastion of Englishness, to give voice to the marginalised, to those who have not been welcomed into this green and pleasant land. It’s another of my favorite ‘new medieval’ things.[3] I’m finding myself wanting to copy out so many more quotes from Agbabi’s blog to talk more about her poetry… so please do go and have a nose around on it yourself if you’ve never come across it before. She was so generous with her blogging in the creation of Telling Tales, it’s a fantastic insight into the creative process!

I’ll just finish with one more quote from her to introduce the video below, and to explain why, in our workshops in October, we’ll be reading aloud as much as possible: ‘like Chaucer’s original, Telling Tales was primarily a book written to be read, but also to be listened to and viewed live'[4].

[1] See publisher Canongate’s listing