Þæt wæs god blog!
‘Many miles from the nearest town, built upon the wall of a ruined Roman fort, situated between land and sea: it is easy to imagine the boundary between the living and dead, past and present, breaking up at St Peter-on-the-Wall. This is a place where time may collapse into one moment, where a ‘medievalising’ of the here and now can occur. Yet it also offers a chance to think across large stretches of time. What words and things did the early medieval period leave behind of value? With access to higher education narrowing, what do modern medievalists want to leave behind for future generations? Is knowledge of the distant past a need, a right, a gift to be given, or a burden that weighs upon us?’
This was the prompt that seven other postgraduate researchers and I received for a project entitled ‘Interruptions: new ways to know the medieval at Bradwell’. We were asked to leave behind our comfortable world of Old English academia for an afternoon to participate in a most non-academic exercise of imagination, creativity, art and limited guidelines. To be perfectly honest, the first meeting for this project left me thinking, ‘What in middangeard have I gotten myself into?’ and ‘How can I get out of this without offending my supervisor?’ How could I be expected to explain my dissertation in a new and artsy way to an unknown audience, without reading a conference paper, without making a poster, simply using ‘items at hand’. Well, as should be expected in any dealings with my supervisor, ‘getting out of it’ was not an option, so while all of us were a bit skeptical and anxious about the day ahead, we also realised we had no choice but to wheedle our dissertation topics and obscure academic interests out of their hidey-hole of university discourse and into the strange and marvellous world of ‘Interruptions’. I think all of us surprised ourselves with the positive results of ‘interrupting’ the knowledge of the medieval both for our guests and for ourselves.
What follows is my response to the challenge of interrupting the ‘usual’ academic way of knowing my research. The others in the group did fantastic work, but I will leave it for them to describe themselves: see our project blog.
I decided to focus on a favourite theme of mine: the human aspects of the nonhuman (specifically, bleeding trees – see my Bloody Trees post from a year ago). I asked the guests to consider the following passage from Christ III, an Old English religious poem about Judgment Day from the tenth-century Exeter Book:
‘Ða wearð beam monig blodigum tearum
birunnen under rindum reade ond þicce
sæp wearð to swate. Þæt asecgan ne magum
foldbuende þurh frod gewit,
hu fela þa onfundun þa gefelan ne magun
dryhtnes þrowinga deade gesceafte.’ (lines 1174-79)
‘Then many a tree became bedewed with bloody tears under their bark, red and thick; the sap was turned to blood. No earth‐dweller can tell through wise understanding how much those inanimate created beings, those which cannot feel, experienced the suffering of the Lord.’ (my translation)
The idea of bleeding trees on Judgment Day appears in the apocryphal Fourth Book of Ezra 5:5: ‘Et de ligno sanguis stillabit‘ (‘And blood shall drip from wood’). The author of Paradise Lost, John Milton, was intrigued by this particular passage and wrote, ‘…the deadness of men to all noble things shall be so great, that the sap of the trees shall be more truly blood, in God’s sight, than their hearts’ blood….’ In other words, as humans lose their humanity, the nonhumans (the trees, for instance) become more human in comparison. Tree sap appears as blood or tears.
I invited our guests to think about mapping the human on the nonhuman in the little Anglo-Saxon chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall in Bradwell-on-Sea. The church was founded in 654 AD, and it was thus humbling to think of what a tiny ripple our presence made on its vast history. This history had been constructed by human hands, but all that remains of over 1000 years ago is the nonhuman – Roman stones and earthen foundations. I wanted to put the human back into this nonhuman space, and I invited the guests to think about what the ‘most human’ part of this space was to them: perhaps the wall where candles had been lit, the stone by the door worn away from countless pilgrims’ feet, the altar where so many have prayed, etc. I then gave each participant a stick (collected from the streets around my own north London neighbourhood) to place in that ‘most human’ part of the chapel.
The sticks had labels attached to them so that participants could write a few words indicating the significance and meaning of their ‘most human’ place. I compared these sticks to saints’ relics. As you can see from the medieval label on the textile relic pictured here, this bit of dirty cloth once belonged to St Benedict. Were it not for the label, this piece of material would have no significance, no meaning, to anyone today, and the same goes for these ‘stick relics’ – without a label, the human-created meaning would be lost. It would remain merely nonhuman. The participants marked where they placed their sticks on a floor plan showing the different layers of the chapel’s history. At the end of the day, I walked around the church taking pictures of these ‘stick relics’ in situ.
I invite you to take a look at the responses I got from the participants in the photos below, and the next time you enter an unfamiliar space, be it medieval or modern, religious or secular, think about where the human can be found in a nonhuman environment.
This event was in response to an initiative by Marc Garrett of Furtherfield as part of Colm Cille’s Spiral, a series of contemporary art and literature commissions and dialogues rethinking the legacy of sixth-century Irish monk Colm Cille, or St Columba. The Spiral curves its way across Ireland and the UK, starting and ending in Derry-Londonderry for City of Culture 2013. Artist Erica Scourti has been commissioned to observe and respond to ‘Interruptions’ with a new work to be presented in the autumn and at a final exhibition of all commissions in Derry in December. Colm Cille’s Spiral is a Difference Exchange project in partnership with The Centre for Late Antiquities and Medieval Studies (CLAMS), King’s College London.