IMC 2018: Sessions

Session 620: Memory and Material Culture in Earlier Medieval English Texts

Tuesday 3 July 2018, 11.15-12.45

Moderator/Chair:Francis Leneghan, Faculty of English Language & Literature, University of Oxford
Paper 620-a'Don't let it be forgot': How the Medieval Memory of King Æthelstan May Have Inspired the Creation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's King Arthur
(Language: English)
Lori A. Lehtola, Department of History, Houston Community College, Texas
Index terms: Historiography - Medieval, Language and Literature - Other
Paper 620-bWhat Does Hrothgar 'Read' on the Giants' Sword-Hilt?
(Language: English)
Dorothy Lawrenson, Department of English, University of Edinburgh
Index terms: Language and Literature - Old English, Literacy and Orality
Paper 620-cMemory and Mimicry in the Transmission of Practical Skills in Early Medieval England
(Language: English)
Debby Banham, Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic, University of Cambridge
Index terms: Daily Life, Education, Medicine, Monasticism

Paper -a:
Æthelstan, a late Anglo-Saxon king and the first to rule a united England, was a great man who achieved great things that were remembered in contemporary literary compositions. Nearly two centuries later, his chivalrous exploits were still remembered, but this time through a medieval lens that romanticised the harshness of Anglo-Saxon life. Æthelstan, as portrayed by William of Malmesbury, may well have been the role model used by Geoffrey of Monmouth when he created Arthur; there are many striking similarities. This study has examined the pre-Galfridian British sources which mention Arthur, William’s work concerning Æthelstan, and Geoffrey’s portrayal of Arthur, to demonstrate how Arthur’s depiction in the literary sources changed to resemble that of Æthelstan.

Paper -b:
This paper posits that a consideration of whether and how Hrothgar can ‘read’ what is ‘written’ on the sword-hilt presented to him by Beowulf can aid understanding of how we ‘read’ the description of the hilt in the context of the poem. The hilt’s social meaning as part of a sword-presentation ceremony is undercut by its transformation from weapon to textual/aesthetic object, wherein meaning is conveyed by three distinct iconographic elements: abstract/zoomorphic interlace, narrative representation, and runic text. I discuss how Hrothgar might have interpreted this iconography in textual and artistic terms, given his probable illiteracy in the context of a predominantly oral-visual culture. I conclude that Hrothgar’s failure to understand the Christian message embodied by the sword-hilt, and subsequently to articulate that message in his sermon, represent a failure to use Christianity to reconcile the fatal contradiction at the heart of heroic society.

Paper -c:
Medieval medicine was not a scientia, learned entirely from books, but an ars, whose practical dimension had to be passed on by other means. Most medieval recipes consist of little more than a list of ingredients, plus the instruction to make them into, for instance, a drink or a poultice. The extra information had to be supplied by the user, drawing on memory and judgement. An experienced practitioner would have plenty of ‘tacit’ knowledge, reinforced by regular reiteration, of techniques learned in the first place by imitation, working alongside the master, committing processes to memory one by one, gradually building up the fledgling practitioner’s repertoire by drawing on the collective memory of their ars. This paper will explore the evidence for the roles of memory and imitation in medicine and other artes in early medieval England.