Postgrad Forum #1 – Images of Iberia in Oswald von Wolkenstein’s poetry – Doriane Zerka

Oswald von Wolkenstein, via Wikipedia

This Thursday, Doriane Zerka from the German Department at King’s presented some of her research on Oswald von Wolkenstein (c.1376-1445). This eccentric polymath was a diplomat for the court of Sigismund I, a knight, and prolific writer. In his poems, Doriane explained, he retells his travels across Europe. Doriane’s focus is on his poetry about medieval Spain, or Iberia.

Doriane began by explaining how even introducing her research topic is a tricky task: with ‘Spain’ and ‘Europe’ as we understand them not yet established in the medieval period, there are a whole host of other place-names that describe the area. The different names for ‘Spain’ as a whole, or parts of Spain – Iberia, Galicia, Grenada – didn’t just have different connotations of the space they refer to. In her reading of Oswald’s poetry, these different names also carried various political or cultural meanings too.

Oswald’s poetry can be read as autobiographical. He tells his travels in particularly fantastical ways, casting himself alternately as a brave traveller, a charming courtier, and a proto cultural-tourist. He is equally happy to show off being adorned with rings in his ears and beard by the fairy-like ‘white hands’ of an Iberian queen as he is describing donning a ‘Moorish’ outfit to dance and parade in Grenada.

This map shows the kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula from 1270 to 1492. It shows how medieval kingdoms have shaped present-day Spain. Adapted from Muir’s Historical Atlas, 1911. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook.
This map shows the kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula from 1270 to 1492. It shows how  many areas of Spain have retained the names of medieval kingdoms. Adapted from Muir’s Historical Atlas, 1911. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Doriane explained how many scholars have read his poetry and then tried to prove it ‘true’ or ‘false’, searching for other records and letters which show that Oswald was where he said he was, when he said he was. But Doriane’s interest is to look at Oswald’s images and language closely, to read his motives for casting himself in so many various roles, which on the surface might contradict the sort of behaviour one might expect of a knight of a Western court. She explained how throughout his poems Oswald performs the role of the well heeled yet enigmatic diplomat. European courts in the Middle Ages were all about performances and personas. Writing the poetry was therefore an act of performance about performances. Oswald was shaping his identity through and within his writing.

Doriane suggested how we might also read a sort of ‘proto-orientalism’ to Oswald’s depictions of Iberia. I was really interested in Doriane’s discussion of this – especially, as Doriane mentioned, it can be difficult to apply modern theories to medieval texts. For me, however, through his poetry we can certainly see the recognisable actions of colonial powers that still cause problems today. Whilst he seems to have a genuine affection for the people and places he describes, Oswald was able to put on and take off the garb of a ‘Moor’ without any apparent impact on his political standing. Was Oswald truly celebrating other cultures in his poetry? Or was he just showing off his own social and political powers by playing dress-up with other cultures that he found exciting and exotic, before he ultimately returned to courtly life with Sigemund I? Did he admire the different cultures he found in Spain, or was he part of a colonial project laying foundations of treating different cultures as ‘Other’?

Thanks so much to Doriane for providing so many provocaitons and food for thought. Thanks also for reading aloud in Middle German, as an Anglo-Saxonist I love getting the chance to hear other medieval poetry!

– Fran Allfrey, co-organiser of the MRG

Doriane Zerka is a PhD candidate in the German Department at King’s College London. Her work considers depictions of Spain in medieval German literature, from the epic, lyric and travel writing genres. @dorianezerka

OETG #3 – 8 November: intertextual suggestions

Upon the third OETG meeting, we tackled a passage of The Panther which presented us with a rather striking image of the ‘striking animal’. Lines 38 – 39, in fact, go as follows:


These ‘three nights’ of the þeodwiga’s sleep cannot but prompt a parallel with Christ, and indeed the following lines do everything to encourage it:


The panther’s rise from slumber is associated with Jesus’ resurrection, consecrating this ‘marvellous beast’ to godly grace. However, the use of ellenrof complicates this understanding; here a substantive, it is translatable, according to Bosworth-Toller [], as ‘remarkably strong, powerful, daring, brave’, but it is its intertextual significance that really is worthy of attention. It is used, for instance, in Beowulf, in reference to Beowulf himself and to Wulfgar, both warriors renowned for their valour, thus evoking a prototypical warlike figure whose pluck and might seem hardly in accord with meekness, a feature which most would nowadays associate with Jesus Christ. The characterisation of the panther in this sense is suggestive of a superimposition, whether conscious or not, of different hues of meaning which may make a modern reader uneasy.

Detail from f. 139v of Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, where line 358 of Beowulf can be read. Note ellenrof, spelt as ellen rof, in the middle.
 This tendency to attribute to a same object seemingly discordant features is proper of other examples of Anglo-Saxon poetry, which share The Panther’s somewhat conflicting imagery, from The Dream of the Rood to Beowulf itself. This curbs a translator’s usual struggle for fluency and uniformity.

Perhaps, however, it is not really a question of reconciling two spirits, or of seamlessly weaving these suggestions in a coherent text. Rather, it is a challenge, in translating Old English poetry, to be able to acknowledge and integrate the disparate echoes which give depth and complexity to a text. It is a matter of discussing it in a dialogic, or dialectic, manner. What do you think? Will you discuss the text with us?

Antonio Lenzo – OETG 2016-17

OETG #2 – 25 October | Showing one’s true colours

We have been reminded this week how our modern English fails to map onto the language of the poet of The Panther, as we try to make sense of a creature that defies our modern English dictionary definitions and mental images of ‘a panther’. For the poet, the visual image of the (a very specific kind of) panther is key: it’s an imagined creature that lives in and is the realm of wonder. As such, it spells its being out visually, as in l. 19a-20b (with two versions of translation shown):

19 ðæt is wrætlic deor, wundrum scyne
That is a striking animal, with stunning colours
He is a marvellous beast, wondrously brilliant

20 hiwa gehwylces;
Of every shade;
In every hue,

We wonder how this colour-creature translates into modern English. Does colour hit the right tone, or should we rather speak of hues or shades, as our two translators have done? ‘Hue’, being phonetically closest to ‘hiw’, has an interesting etymology, as the following two OED entries (dating back to 971) reveal:

1. Form, shape, figure; appearance, aspect; species. Obs.
2. Colour. Down to the 16th c. app. exactly synonymous with ‘colour’; but it appears to have become archaic in prose use about 1600, for it is included by Bullokar, Cockeram, etc., in their collections of ‘Hard Words’, and explained as = ‘colour’. In modern use it is either a poetic and rhetorical synonym of ‘colour’, or a vaguer term, including quality, shade or tinge of colour, tint, and applicable to any mixture of colours as well as to a primary or simple colour.

The first entry’s meaning is ambiguous. ‘Form’, ‘figure’ and ‘species’, for example, mean both the outer contours or outer type of somebody or something, as well as a representation, an embodiment, of something else. (Incidentally, the latter meaning has in most cases become obsolete just as the 1st entry above.) The Bosthworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary points to a similar tension when listing, besides ‘colour’, both ‘appearance’ and ‘symbol’ under ‘hiw’. May the panther thus be a literal ‘image’ of this paradox that is inherent in ‘hiw’ / ‘hue’? If so, as well as being classifiable and knowable as the species ‘panther’, the poetic panther here then is imagined through both its colours (as per 2nd entry) and its ‘marvellous’, unknowable qualities, being through its appearance, very much in the spirit of neo-Platonism. Thus the panther may be showing its true colours, quite literally.

The panther’s colours and hues are then compared with the iconic, biblical colours of Joseph’s coat, rich in colour and hue:

21 […] Iosephes / tunece wære telga gehwylces/ bleom bregdende,
[…] Joseph’s / Tunic [that] was woven with/ Every colour,

The description of the panther that follows these lines is an exercise in creating a superlative for the panther that exceeds all previous superlatives, even Joseph’s blessed coat. The panther is ‘blæc brigda gehwæs, beorhtra ond scynra’, ‘Shining brighter and more beautiful in every variety’, and ‘wundrum lixeð’, ‘Gleams with wonders’. Being asked to visualise the – or, a – panther that actively ‘gleams with wonders’, we are not being invited to know the nature of the species ‘panther’. What is clear, however, is how intensely this poem rejoices in translating the unknown, or unknowable, into the realm of the known, or knowable, through words and images, even at the expense of creating a clearly outlined form.

Jenny Baer – OETG

The Panther as imagined by James Merry, responding to CLAMS graduate Hana Videen's translation of the text. Find out more about their collaborative project
The Panther as imagined by James Merry, responding to CLAMS graduate Hana Videen’s translation of the text. Find out more about their collaborative project

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.