Call for (short) Papers! Kzoo 2020

CFP (ICMS “Kzoo” 2019): Critical Bibliography in Premodern Studies (A Roundtable)

The Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School invites proposals for short presentations for a roundtable session at the International Congress on Medieval Studies (ICMS) in Kalamazoo, which will take place May 7-10, 2020. Our roundtable continues to explore the notion of “Critical Bibliography”—that is the study of books as physical objects—in the context of the premodern world. The Fellowship and now Society was created at Rare Book School which is famous for its expertise in Early Modern Anglo-American print books. By design, nevertheless, our range—temporal, geographical, and material—has grown each year and we wish to continue that trajectory by thinking about what Critical Bibliography means in for scholars of premodern book-objects from around the world.

We seek proposals from scholars (one need not be a member of the Society to participate) whose work engages with new and emerging methodologies in the study of premodern materialities across the wide range of disciplines that constitute medieval studies today. Given the current critical interest in medieval race, global networks, and critical medievalisms, we especially welcome proposals that engage with these topics through the lens of critical bibliography. Through this roundtable, we hope to explore the role that “Critical Bibliography” plays in the work of premodernists whose work may not fit into the established traditions of book history or manuscript studies, as well as enrich the efforts of those working in these subfields.

Please submit abstracts of no more than 200 words to Damian Fleming ( no later than September 13, 2019. Informal inquiries about this Roundtable and the Society are welcome at the same email at any time.

Reminder: one may participate on a roundtable such as this as well as present a paper in another session.


The New York Play of the Crucifixion

Before my piece in @voxdotcom, the most likely time for me to really speak about my roofing experience and medieval culture was in reference to the York Play of the Crucifixion, my favorite of the so-called cycle plays. Particularly appropriate for Good Friday.

The cycle plays were collections of dramatic retellings of biblical stories from later medieval England. On the feast of Corpus Christi in June the guilds-people of a town would put on these plays on pageant wagons pulled through the city. Each guild would have a short play telling all of Christian time from Creation until the Last Judgement. These plays were creative & interpretive taking sometimes single sentences from the Bible and fleshing them out into mini dramas with multiple speaking parts.

One of the fullest collections of these plays survives from the city of York. Of the 47 plays the largest number not surprising have to do with the life of Jesus and most of them deal with the events of Holy Week. One entire play is devoted to the logistics of the crucifixion & it’s this play that makes me think about my roofing days. Because this play about literally attaching Jesus to the cross and raising it up is told entirely from the point of view of four surly workers who have a very shitty job to do. They sound just like the guys I used to work with. Not only do they complain about the work, they make all kinds of inappropriate crude jokes while performing the work. The work of nailing Jesus to the cross and raising it up. All of which would have been performed on stage with another actor portraying Jesus.

90% of the dialogue in this play is what my dad would have called “bitching & moaning” or “belly aching.” The kind of crude banter that takes place on a job site especially when the boss is not around. The tone of dialogue reminds me of the conversations of roofers on a hot roof. In her recent edition for @broadviewpress Tina Fitzgerald calls it “cringe-worthy”. Definitely. It’s dark dark humor with an aggressive edge. It’s performative “humor” that does not cause joy. The roofers I worked with constantly “joked” but rarely laughed. It’s vicious humor. A way to cope with the extreme often inhumane conditions on a roof.

I remember telling my dad once that it’s funny that medieval people imagined Hell as a place of extreme heat, endless labor noxious fumes and boiling tar & pitch. It’s a fucking roof. It’s what I studied during the year & did during the summers.

And that’s the other thing, if you’ve never been there you cannot imagine how  crude the language on a roof can be. “Fuck” serves as every part of speech as well as punctuation. I had no idea my dad could talk this way until I got on my first roof. Everybody talks that way. You have to talk that way. So when I first read and taught the York Play of the Crucifixion I was like “i know these guys; I’ve worked with these guys” But most of my students have never had the particular experience of working brutal physical labor on a crew. So I endeavored to translate the York Play to what it would have sounded like if the guild performing it was Long Island roofers. I never finished it, but here’s my opening of my draft of the New York Play of the Crucifixion.

WARNING the language in what follows is extremely crude and offensive. There are more than 35 Fucks in 2 pages.


Pages from NewYorkCruxMOD

If the Play works, Jesus’s final lines on the cross become vividly poignant: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” Referring to the four men who have crucified him as well as the literal audience in York on a summer day who have laughed along with them


as the kids say, “I feel that.”

The play cuts back to the workers though and doesn’t even let that sink into before the banter continues again. The final line if the play is basically “let’s get the eff out of here, this is a waste of time

I find this take on the central event of Christianity devastatingly acute. At the same time as this play, affective piety was a huge deal: putting yourself in Jesus’s place or the place of Mary at  the cross. But I think it’s brilliant to suggest it’s bold of you to assume you would have been on the right side of history at this moment. This play points at the audience and says you would have laughed too.

Maybe but this is a very hard take to sell. I once made a course poster for the class in which we read this play. I wanted it to be provocative, but not disingenuously so. It literally raises the question we addressed in class: Can the Crucifixion be Funny?

A student at my school was apparently offended enough by this poster to tear it down, look me up, and come visit me in my office. He was very upset. As calmly as I could I tried to give him a quick overview of quite frankly the history of Christian literature. I think it was my best approach. I didn’t want to get into a “free speech” debate. Instead I used it as an opportunity to try to introduce some diverse Christianities to a student who immediately self-identified as Christian. He was strongly under the impression that Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was the “most accurate” depiction of the what happened to Jesus. That film is a fascinating cultural object informed by medieval devotional practices but also utterly 21st century.

Image result for passion of the christ

But that’s a thread for anther day!

For now, never forget the bright eyed young priest on Long Island in the 90s who opened today’s homily “Happy Good Friday!”

Nor forget not the older woman in front of me who said aloud, “Idiot”

Sir Gawain’s Impostor Syndrome

This is a thread I wrote on twitter the other day. If you’re not on twitter, enjoy! If you are on twitter, you can see the same thing here:

I was thinking about Gawain’s imposter syndrome this morning & (blessed be my bike ride) realized the whole of Sir Gawain of The Green Knight could be read as metaphor for / grad school academia 1/

Like Gawain is vocal abt his imposter syndrome/humility topos “least of your knights” and all that. Like he believes it (so I guess he’s not that guy in your MFA). He’s the relatable grad student/academic. We’re hoping for him even tho it looks like he’s throwing his life away 2/

But after he’s committed/done the beheading, it’s pretty awkward. Like everyone’s like “well done but sucks to be you” . Then time just flies. A year slips away without a trace. Boom, due date is nigh 3/

Then he gets armed bc that’s what you do; he thinks he knows what he needs; it’s like course work or foreign languages: knights wear armor. But he has no idea that all that prep will have no effect on his success / failure 4/

this is one of my favorite stanzas bc it like glosses over all the monster fighting bits to be like WINTER WAS WORSE. Like prepare all you want; do everything right, yer gonna be cold and miserable and no amount of training can prevent that 5/

Or another way: you never actually know what you are preparing for. Which is of course like the whole point of the whole poem. Whole second half: he *thought* he knew what he was preparing for & was ready for the risks/challenges but instead is thrust into a world where 6/

He doesn’t even what the challenges are. All that time at Bertilak’s castle is like a campus visit or starting a new job; it has all the trappings of welcoming social behavior but its actually a series of secret tests 7/

there’s def more to work out here, but this was in drafts on my phone so I just dumped it. The main other thought I had was just about the (anti)-climax to the whole poem. Can be very much like a PhD defense of even submitting a tenure case: 8/

it means everything in the world *to you* but it means very different things to the rest of the world & you’ll never be able to bridge that distance. Like the examiners/GK is like “You did great!” & Gawain’s like “but no this is nothing like I imagined” 9/

and he goes home and everyone’s like “YOU DID GREAT” & Gawain’s like “no.” And feels empty and isolated. And feels like an imposter even though everyone is satisfied with his work. Damn this took a turn I don’t know where to end this

Ok here’s the thing: I love Sir Gawain & the Green Knight and I love my own academic life (though the system is obv fucked). But one of the brilliances of SGGK is it embraces the reality of imposter syndrome. It doesn’t solve it, but it gives us a hero to know we are not alone /f





Brush up your Latin!

I’ve told this to a number of individuals, but I saw at least 3 mutuals thinking about these things recently, so I’ll sum up.

Aunt Bet’s Hobbit

When I was in sixth grade, my class read The Hobbit. I asked my Aunt Bet if I could borrow her beautiful hardcover copy of the book. She was the most generous person I know, so of course she said yes without hesitation.

Let me tell you a little about Aunt Betsy, my mom’s slightly older sister. You can call her Aunt Betsy or Aunt Bet. Everyone did: her dozens of nephews and nieces as well as their friends and friends of friends and anyone who had the luck to meet her. She was everybody’s favorite Aunt. She was generous, and kind, and welcoming, and smart, and interesting, and adventurous. She was my best friend and hero and mentor and teacher and second mom.


Aunt Betsy

Aunt Bet was in a car accident at the age of sixteen, broke her spine, and was paralyzed from the waist down. Some outdated medical decisions were made at the time which made her condition more complicated. She could get around in her wheelchair, but spent most of her life in a special bed that kept pressure off her skin. This meant she spent most of her time in her room and when you wanted to hang out with Aunt Bet you usually hung out in her room. This was fine, because her room was the GREATEST PLACE IN THE WORLD.

Aunt Bet was a perennial kid at heart. She always said she was sixteen for life. Every birthday we would celebrate her turning sixteen. But even if you think of her as a perennial teenager it doesn’t do justice to how cool she was. She preempted the 21st century by a few decades. She had a VCR—two VCRs, in fact—since the late 70s. If you are younger than 35 you will not appreciate the gravity of this, but the idea of watching things whenever you want—and rewatching things over and over again—used to be a radical concept. But Aunt Bet had hundreds of tapes of all kinds of stuff: old cartoons, classic movies, plays, Star Wars, Indiana Jones. She was YouTube before YouTube. Aunt Bet collected a wealth of culture and shared it with anyone who wanted, but especially her nieces and nephews. Because here’s the thing: we were at Aunt Betsy’s house, in Aunt Betsy’s room, all the time.


Aunt Bet, her cats (Sebastian and Augustine), and a selection of her many nieces and nephews, in the Greatest Place on Earth

The best sleepover location for me and my cousins was Aunt Betsy’s house. She would stay up all night with us watching movies, or playing games or cards, or just chatting and laughing. She had all the game systems in order: Intellivision, Atari, Nintendo, Super Nintendo, etc. And she loved playing as much as we did. She would happily and joyfully stay up until 4 in the morning playing Zelda with three 12-year-old boys.


Don’t hate on the Zelda II in my presence

She had early computer systems with complicated DOS Role Playing Games that would take over an hour to load then let us input inappropriate commands like “Chop Tom” (computer response: “That would give your brother a splitting headache”).


Swiss Family Robinson, the game

We were on the proto-internet chatting with strangers in the late 80s. We would play board games through the night, including unnecessarily intricate homemade tabletop ones like “Conquer the World” which took over ten hours to complete. She taught us how to play blackjack and poker, and our “for keeps” weekly games lasted until I was in my twenties.

Aunt Bet instilled in me my love of Science Fiction and especially Fantasy. She loved and shared her love of Star Wars, Star Trek, and the world of JRR Tolkien. Her adorable and heroic poodlish mutt was named Pippin, after Peregrin Took. She had an extensive library of everything from Dr. Seuss to encyclopedias and was as generous with all her books as she was with everything else in her life. So when my sixth grade class was going to read The Hobbit, I asked if I could borrow her beautiful hardcover edition, with a slipcover, gold runic letters around the border, and watercolor illustrations by Tolkien himself. Of course, she said yes without hesitation.


Aunt Bet’s Hobbit





Now I was a lazy fricking student. I disappointed almost every teacher I’ve ever had. For my big end-of-the-year book report (in either 4th or 5th grade) I choose a Garfield book. Yes, comic strips.


Subject of my first literary criticism

Yes, my teacher was shocked as well. I was far more interested in the idea of learning than anything that required work. I wanted to love The Hobbit and I wanted to be thought of as the kind of person that loved The Hobbit, but to be perfectly honest, my reading comprehension at that age was not spectacular. Having such a beautiful book to show off in class was in many ways a substitute for doing the hard work of reading slowly and carefully. I liked being praised with as little effort as possible, and this book gave me that.


it me

I started reading The Hobbit, but don’t remember being hooked right away. It is a challenging book for an average sixth grader. I had only gotten two and half chapters into it when I marked my page one night and went to bed.

Content Warning: Violence against books


I don’t remember when exactly I opened it again. It may have been in class when I discovered that the pen—just the interior of a ballpoint pen actually—that I used as a bookmark had leaked epically.


Osmosis is real people. Black ink had oozed into the middle of the book and bled through the fine cotton pages.  Seven pages were virtually obliterated.


A few more had noticeable ink on them.


In one direction, the bleeding only stopped because the glossy page which had a watercolor painting of Rivendell by Tolkien on it, which was now also ruined.


I had destroyed this book, this beautiful special book that one of the most important people in my life had lent to me.

I felt sick. I felt a weight of despair in the pit of my stomach. I could not begin to imagine confessing this to Aunt Bet. I could not imagine letting anyone know. I had no plan. But I knew I couldn’t tell. I was a cowardly little kid.


behold: a coward

Even though I knew I had done something terrible, I could not begin to imagine facing the consequences. I think I’ve always been a bit of a coward. So I didn’t say anything. We finished reading The Hobbit for class, and I didn’t say anything. I continued to see my Aunt Bet all the time. Throughout my childhood there wasn’t a week we didn’t see her, and I’m sure I wouldn’t go a month without sleeping over. And that did not change. I slept over. I played video games. I went to parties at her house. I stayed up late talking with my favorite person in the world. But I never said anything about what I had done to her book. Whenever I would think about it, I would push it down down down. This has always been my coping strategy: push down until I don’t even notice it.

Of course, it would pop into my mind. When I saw her book still in my room. When something about The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings was mentioned. And I would hope Aunt Bet wouldn’t say something. I certainly avoided those subjects around her for fear that she might remember and ask about her book.

I never said anything.

I finished 7th grade and never said a word. I finished middle school without mentioning the book.

I started high school with this weighing on my mind. Occasionally I’d find myself in a bookstore and check to see if they had something like her book. Sometimes they did; I could probably replace it for around $50. A lot, but not impossible. I thought about saving up and buying it so at least I could make a bold gesture when I finally confessed: “Look! I did something stupid, and hid it for too long, but I’ve done my best to make it up!” I would think. But I didn’t buy a replacement. I didn’t confess. I never said anything. I graduated high school.

I went to undergrad in town, so I continued to see Aunt Bet just as regularly. Heck, my main hangout during my college years continued to be her house, still playing video games and more often playing poker. But I still couldn’t say anything.

At this point it was pretty ridiculous. I was almost 20. When I thought about it, I wouldn’t feel great, but I was an adult and knew what I had to do. I would laugh at myself, but take no action.

I graduated college. I entered graduate school in Medieval Studies. The Hobbit was—and is—central to my sense of identity. I must have read The Hobbit three or more times in the meantime. I had my own crappy late 1980s paperback set of The Hobbit and LoTR. But I never said anything to Aunt Bet.

Screen Shot 2017-11-20 at 9.00.43 PM.png

not collectors’ items

The first Lord of the Rings movie was released in late 2001 and I had the honor of taking Aunt Bet to see it. She and I had a long tradition of going on special trips together. Once I had my driver’s license, I considered it a special honor to get to “chauffeur” Aunt Bet around. This was far from an onerous task, since Aunt Bet loved to do cool things, like go to Broadway plays, Shakespeare in the Park, and take train trips to Washington DC. A conductor in Penn Station once looked at Aunt Bet in her wheelchair and said “she’s just going to have to take the escalator.” We laughed about it for years. I can’t calculate the hundreds of hours Aunt Bet and I spent traveling together, often just the two of us. So I took Aunt Bet to see The Fellowship of the Ring with my wife and siblings and I forgot to mention the book I still had borrowed from her and destroyed 15 years earlier.

I don’t recall if I took the book with me when I moved to Toronto to get my Ph.D. in medieval literature, but I did move to Toronto, and never told Aunt Bet what I had done to her book. I got married and never said anything.

I had a child—a beautiful daughter whose middle name is in honor of Aunt Bet—and I never said anything. I was a fully formed adult, husband, father, as well as nephew to my favorite aunt and never said anything.

At this point, in my 30s, there was no longer fear. That achy stomach had long gone away; it was just a question of forgetfulness. We returned to New York at least once a year and we always made a point of visiting Aunt Bet at least once, but there is always so much to do, I would forget to say anything. Then, back at home I might see The Hobbit on a shelf and think about telling Aunt Bet and think how silly the whole business is, and think next time I see her I will tell her for sure. But it slipped my mind. I certainly wanted to do it in person.

I finished my Ph.D. and moved to Cleveland to start teaching and I forgot to ever bring it up. I got a tenure track job in Fort Wayne, Indiana and never brought it up. The Hobbit was certainly with me in Fort Wayne, and I always thought to myself—bring it next time we go to New York! Bring it and show Aunt Bet what had happened. Get this off my mind! Clear my conscience. But it always slipped my mind.

I started to become more concerned about failing to ever tell Aunt Bet about the book. She has always had a complicated medical history, and was in and out of the hospital throughout her life. I knew that Aunt Bet would not always be with us, and I was afraid that I might miss my chance to tell her about the book. I was now more afraid that my dear Aunt Bet would pass away and I never took the chance to tell this ridiculous story to her. I was afraid that this book could become a permanent reminder of my cowardice and inability to communicate with one of the most important people in my life.

The book was especially on my mind in 2010 when news about The Hobbit movie was coming out. We visited New York that summer as always, and we stopped by Aunt Bet’s house as always. We sat around her dining room table and drank tea and chatted about nothing and everything. And I remembered! I didn’t have the book with me, but I remembered to tell her what I had done to her book and how scared I was for so long and ridiculous I felt for having never said anything. Her face lit up. She thought it was hilarious. “Oh, Dame, you can keep that book.” Decades of relief flooded over me. It was so easy. I could have done this at any point in the last twenty years. But I finally had. I was so happy.


Aunt Bet’s dining room table, where poker is played, tea is drunk, and reconciliation occurs

Aunt Bet went back into the hospital for the last time not long after that. Things did not look good. I kept thinking I should try to call; I’d tell her to stick around so I could take her to see the new Hobbit movies when the time came. But she died in November of that year, right before Thanksgiving. I had a lot of thoughts when I found out she had passed away; when I found out that I would never see her again. But it did not take me long to think about her book. About the book she had given to me. The last conversation I ever had with her was telling her about her book. My last image of her is her smiling at my ridiculousness and extending her boundless generosity. This book was able to become for me a reminder of her kindness and spirit and inspiration.

Not long after Aunt Betsy died, I started reading the Hobbit to her namesake, my daughter. She was only six at the time, and although we read something every single night before bed, I didn’t know if she was ready for The Hobbit. Tolkien can be a bit verbose. But we started reading, and she never complained or got antsy or bored. If anything, she seemed to enjoy it more deeply than other things we read. She didn’t really ask questions though; she would just listen as I read long chapters; sometimes I thought she must have fallen asleep, but she never did. She was just still as can be, listening to every word. I partly suspected she liked it just because I would read to her longer than usual. I was caught up in my own enjoyment of rereading The Hobbit.  Storytime started to last more than the usual half hour, but I didn’t know how much she was actually getting out of the novel.

Towards the end, of course, Bilbo alone—as burglar—must enter the dragon’s cave and investigate the dwarves’ gold which they had travelled so far to recover. The tension was great, and my daughter could feel it.


At that age, she would often ask me to stop reading books that were “too scary,” but her sense of scary was usually more like “tense” or “suspenseful,” especially emotionally so. She’s always been deeply empathetic.

She didn’t stop me here though, but started talking about the book we had been reading together for weeks. “They didn’t think he was going to be brave,” she said in her sweet little voice. I was a little taken aback, since she hadn’t really commented on the book before this, but certainly impressed. She understood what was going on right now for sure. “That’s right,” I said. She went on, “He didn’t think he was going to be brave.” “Yeah,” was all I could reply. I was dumbfounded. It seemed her quiet self had been understanding far more of this novel than I realized. “But he was brave,” she concluded. Then thought for a moment. “That’s the best way.”

She turned back on her side so I could get back to reading to her, but my eyes were filled with tears. I couldn’t even express to my daughter how overwhelmed I was at her pointed literary criticism. She got it. At age six, she knew exactly what this book was about. They didn’t think he was going to be brave; he didn’t think he was going to be brave. But he was brave. That’s the best way.

It is the best way. And I was so happy to share it with her.

I wish I had her reading comprehension when I was six, or even in sixth grade. Maybe if I had read The Hobbit more carefully as a child I would have learned a valuable lesson sooner. Maybe I could have had the courage of Bilbo and faced my fear decades sooner: confessing a silly accident instead of becoming an accidental burglar for a couple decades. That would have been the best way. I am so glad a finally did though, before we lost Aunt Bet. I hate to think that this book could have been a permanent reminder of my cowardice in failing to be honest with one of the most important people in my life. Instead, I have this book as a gift which connects me, Aunt Bet, and my daughter. That’s the best way.


ethel sweet ethel-weard: the first scribe of the Beowulf manuscript

A few people have recently complimented me on my very first scholarly publication, “Eþel-weard: The First Scribe of the Beowulf Manuscript,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 105 (2004): 177–186. This short article was based on my very first conference presentation at the first Vagantes Conference at Harvard University in 2002, which itself grew out of my seminar paper for my Beowulf course I took with Antonette diPaolo (“Toni”) Healey during my MA at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto in 2000. All this to say, this article is pretty special to me, so I’m glad people are reading it and getting something out of it. At the same time, I can’t help feeling a embarrassed at my clunky, unpolished writing style. But that feeling probably never goes away. I am far more concerned about a type of argument I make in that paper which could be used to support white nationalist appropriation of medieval materials. I offer this post to make clear the problems with this article and suggest how I would change it.

The central argument of the article is unproblematic and I hope useful for scholars of medieval manuscript materiality and Old English literature.  Namely:

  1. There is an interesting thing in this manuscript (the “Beowulf manuscript”)
  2. People have rarely talked about it before
  3. It’s worth talking about

I have only more recently come to realize how close this article is to my current and ongoing projects, which are primarily concerned with the reception of Hebrew during the early English period (700-1100) and how this reception is manifested in understudied manuscript materials.

In the case of the Beowulf manuscript (London, British Library Cotton Vitellius A xv), the “interesting thing” is the use of the ethel rune ᛟ in place of the Old English word “ethel” (“homeland”) three times in manuscript, all written by the first of the two scribes of the poem. Seeing as everything we know about the poem Beowulf is dependent on this single manuscript witness,  little details like this are surely worth noting, especially since this is not a widespread scribal abbreviation. Thanks to the ever increasing easy availability of digital facsimiles of medieval manuscripts, these peculiar features of manuscripts are easier to discover and share than they ever have been before.


“swæsne .ᛟ.” (folio 143vBeowulf line 520)

ethel scyldinga.png

“.ᛟ. scyldinga” (folio 152vBeowulf line 913)

There is no question, there are runes in the only surviving copy of Beowulf! That is cool! What is even cooler is that the third and final ethel rune in the manuscript appears on the same manuscript folio that describes Hrothgar’s examination of the hilt of the giant sword Beowulf brought back from Grendel’s mere. Hrothgar reads the “runestafas” at the same time that a reader of the manuscript is presented with a runestaf.


“þurh runstafas” / “eald .ᛟ.weard” (folio 170rBeowulf lines 1695 and 1702)

In my 2004 article I argue that the occurrences of the rune can be understood with reference to the narrative content of the poem: when the poem is talking about Germanic peoples, the scribe, I argued, is more inclined to signal that with the rune. In retrospect, I went overboard on the significance of the rune here, and connected it to the scribe’s sense of some “glorious Germanic past.”

Screen Shot 2017-11-04 at 12.51.45 PM.png

Here is an evocation of all things glorious and Germanic and ancient, and the scribe is able to make the moment even more dramatic for the reader by drawing a rune right at the beginning of the speech.

I’ve never felt very strongly about that reading, and nowadays I would repudiate it. I recently realized that ethel / ᛟ, the word and rune, have been appropriated by white supremacists and neo-nazis. This should not have surprised me, since medieval texts and mythologies, perhaps most especially those associated with the European north, have a long history of being used in this way.


White supremacists in Charlottesville, from The Public Medievalist Credit: Charles Butler

The ethel rune was actually incorporated into some WWII-era Nazi symbolism. White supremacist narratives are obsessed with mythical fantasies of originary homelands, so the ancient germanic rune representing “home,” is not a surprising target. I could even imagine my 2004 reading of the rune in the Beowulf-manuscript being used to bolster such an appropriation: as if the eleventh-century scribe of the Beowulf-manuscript was trying to invoke an idealized germanic past. I no longer believe there is any justification for reading the rune in this way, and want to unambiguously distance myself from any perception of sympathetic beliefs.

Since writing that paper over a decade ago I have read and reread and taught Beowulf many times. I love the poem more every time I read any portion of it, but my understanding of it has changed significantly. I no longer imagine reading Beowulf as a celebration of germanic pre-Christian culture. I read Beowulf  as similar to the majority of extant Old English poetry: deeply melancholic, explicitly Christian, and critical of the pre-Christian culture it presents. In teaching Beowulf I try to guide students to see the tragic triad of women—Wealhtheow, Hildeburh, and Grendel’s mother—whose suffering epitomizes the destructive nature of the violent culture they are caught in. At the most recent Medieval Academy of America meeting, a series of panels on Feminist Approaches to Old English literature, organized by Robin Norris, Rebecca Stephenson, and Renée R. Trilling, included a paper by Stephen Yeager who presented a thoughtful reading of Beowulf as a poem written potentially for women and potentially by a woman. His reading, which drew upon the work of generations of feminist scholars before him opened my eyes to possibilities I am shocked I had never considered before, since they are so consistent with how I had already be reading the poem.

My mind also turned to my little ethel paper and thinking about the only manuscript of the poem, written by two scribes with two pointedly different styles of handwriting, The first scribe, who wrote the three ethels in the manuscript, was a generation younger than the second scribe. On paleographical hands, the scripts of the first and second scribe could be dated up to fifty years apart. But the “younger” hand wrote first, and the older hand took over halfway through the manuscript, right in the middle of Beowulf. 

Screen Shot 2017-11-14 at 9.20.30 AM.png

The change from the first scribe (first three lines) to second scribe of Beowulf on fol 175v

Over the years I’ve entertained all sorts of fantasies about the relationship between these two scribes: why they were working together; why the younger scribe copied the first half of the poem; why the first scribe stopped in the middle of the poem, maybe in the middle of a word. Yeager rightly raised the possibility that even the scribes of Beowulf could have been women. There is no particular reason to assume that any given manuscript was copied in a male rather than a female religious house.

Since then I’ve happily considered the possibility that the Beowulf scribes were women.  Maybe we even know the first scribe’s name: Ethel. After all, she signed the poem three times with the rune signifying her name. Signing one’s name via runes in an Old English poem is far from unheard of. One of the few named poets of Old English poetry, Cynewulf, is only known through his runic signatures. Similarly, “Farmon,” the scribe of the Old English gloss to the Rushworth or MacRegol Gospels uses the rune for the word “man” ᛗ to sign his name “Farᛗ”


The Rushworth or MacRegol Gospels (Oxford, Bodleian Auct D. 2. 19), folio 50v

Furthermore, Cynewulf’s poems—while written in traditional, alliterative Old English verse like Beowulf—are thoroughly Christian poems which in no way look back nostalgically on the germanic past. There is no reason to assume that use of runes in a manuscript context in anyway signals a connection to a real or imagined germanic past.

Now the name Ethel does not appear as a simple name in the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England database, but many Anglo-Saxon names begin with Æthel, both male and female. It would be very difficult to argue seriously that the rune could stand for a name and that we should read that name as a woman’s. I also acknowledge that the rune name ethel (“home”) and the name element Æthel (“noble”) are etymologically distinct.

Nevertheless, Beowulf and medieval literature broadly has been subjected to far worse fates. Political and cultural ideas are often projected onto medieval literature in highly troubling ways. This is most clear in the current resurgence of white supremacist rhetoric. But Beowulf is not theirs. There is so much we don’t know and will probably never know with any degree certainty about this amazing poem: when it was written; by whom; for whom; who read it or heard it read. So much of what we take for granted about this poem, however, has already been filtered though generations of problematic assumptions. The very field of germanic philology grew up alongside the nineteenth-century nationalistic movements which led to two world wars. We are almost always reading texts like Beowulf through the assumptions and desires of long dead scholars. Why not read them through our own?

As a teacher and scholar of Old English, manuscripts, and medieval literature, I hope the next time you read Beowulf you will at least think for a moment about its sole surviving manuscript; its two scribes; and maybe especially about the first scribe. I call her Ethel.



Medievalists read Moby Dick : cfp Kzoo2018

Medievalists read Moby Dick: A Roundtable

Call for Participants, #Kzoo2018

Why do so many medievalists especially love Moby Dick? What is it like for a medievalist to read Moby Dick against the background of medieval texts and material culture? How might we contribute to a broader understanding of this text using the tools of medieval studies? We envision a series of short presentations on a number of these issues followed by a capacious discussion of this text as viewed through our particular scholarly lenses. In a world where the humanities are increasingly dealing with scarcer and scarcer resources, we hope to open a discussion with our colleagues in American Studies and demonstrate to the wider scholarly world the benefits of broad interdisciplinary collaboration.

This is a call for participants who would be interested in giving very short (fewer than 5 mins) presentations followed by an open discussion. If you would like to join us, please send a short description of the topic you would like to discuss to

Damian Fleming:

before 1 September 2017.

A friendly reminder that roundtable participants are also free to present papers in other sessions.

Complete conference details here: