2014 is turning out to be the year of the Norsemen! As well as visiting the Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the British Museum and attending the Midlands Viking Symposium in the spring, last weekend I took time out from working on my latest novel-in-progress to go to the Unlocking the Vikings conference at the University of Nottingham.
In common with last year’s The Middle Ages in the Modern World at the University of St Andrews, the focus of the two-day event was as much upon the various ways in which the Viking Age has been represented in modern culture as it was upon the history itself. There were so many excellent papers and presentations – too many to mention individually – but I’ve chosen some of what, for me, were the highlights of the weekend.
The first session of the conference focussed on the Vikings in fiction, something of great interest to me since the Norsemen feature prominently both in Tancred’s saga and in the wider story of the Norman Conquest. Historian and novelist VM Whitworth (University of the Highlands and Islands) spoke about developing Viking Age characters, and the need for authors to fully immerse themselves in the thought-world of their creations. Ruarigh Dale (University of Nottingham) discussed portrayals of berserkers in current fiction, and how modern concepts compare with the original descriptions of these warriors in the Norse sagas.
The conference also marked the conclusion of the Languages, Myths and Finds project, which aimed to investigate how Norse heritage and culture continue to make an impact in the twenty-first century, and the ways in which the Viking past is remembered and celebrated in Dublin, Munster, the Isle of Man, the Hebrides and Cleveland. Each of the regional teams presented their findings, which included the dramatic reveal by the Cleveland researchers of a previously unknown Viking runestone – an especially exciting discovery since, in contrast to Scandinavia, so few have been found in England.
As well as giving presentations at the conference, the teams also produced a series of booklets containing the findings of their research (pictured, above left): one for each of the five regions explored in the study. The booklets can also be downloaded in PDF form from the Languages, Myths and Finds website, where you can also find out more about the project and its aims. The video below from the University of Nottingham also gives a brief introduction.
Other highlights from the conference included a skaldic performance by Thor Ewing, featuring music on reconstructed Viking Age harp and flute, and a paper by Tom Birkett (University College Cork) on his experiences aboard the Sea Stallion – a reconstructed Viking ship based on the remains of Skuldelev 2, an eleventh-century vessel excavated at Roskilde, Denmark in 1962.
As always with these events, I came away brimming with ideas and armed with several pages of notes, furiously scribbled during the various talks and presentations. And who knows? Somewhere in all those notes might lie the inspiration for a future novel or two…
As well as giving a paper of my own on representing the Middle Ages in fiction, I also had the chance to meet and share ideas with historians and people from a wide range of other academic disciplines whose work involves the medieval in one way or another.
I was also privileged to be able to attend the lecture that closed the conference, which was delivered by Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney in what was probably one of his final public appearances before he died just a couple of months later.
Five of the keynote lectures, including Heaney’s, were recorded on video and have now been posted on the conference website for anyone interested in getting a taste of what the conference was all about. The five lectures are:
Saints’ cults and celebrity: the medieval legacy
James Robinson (National Museums Scotland)
Adapting medieval romance
Felicitas Hoppe (author and translator)
The worlding of medievalism: past and present in the early anthropocene
Bruce Holsinger (University of Virginia)
European ethnicity: does Europe have too much past?
Patrick Geary (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton)
“Feinyit Fablis and Ane Cairfull Dyt”?: a Reading with Commentary
Seamus Heaney (Nobel Prize-winning poet)
The week following the conference, the British Academy in London held a special event with Patrick Geary and broadcaster, actor and writer Terry Jones, chaired by Dr Chris Jones from the University of St Andrews, in which they reprised their presentations and discussed the continuing relevance of the Middle Ages. The video of this event is also now online on the British Academy website.
All of the lectures are well worth watching if you have the chance. Between them they give a fairly good idea of the variety of subjects that were discussed over the four days, exploring how ideas and misconceptions of the Middle Ages have informed, and are reflected, in disciplines as wide-ranging as literature, politics and even climatology, which was the focus of Bruce Holsinger’s particularly excellent talk – just one of my many highlights of the conference.
While many of these and other dramatisations dress themselves in the lavish costumes, scene-dressing and CGI that are the hallmarks of the so-called “sexy historical”, the content is often much less glamorous. The main focus of the discussion revolved around the prevalence and degrees of vice, debauchery and violence (including sexual violence) depicted in these programmes, their portrayal of women, and the ways in which they make use of the commonly held belief that the Middle Ages were a period in which life was “nasty, brutish and short”.
Clearly this is a very skewed and limited vision of the period, and yet it seems to be one that the US-based cable networks such as HBO, Showtime and Starz, who commission and in large part fund these series, have hit upon as a means of drawing in viewers. A similar formula can also be found in the treatments afforded to The Tudors and The Borgias. Why is it that this recipe has recently found success, and should we be concerned that the Middle Ages are getting such a bad press?
It should be noted that this new brand of “dirty medievalism” is, by and large, the preserve of the cable channels. Indeed in the UK, the BBC’s dramatic uses of the Middle Ages have tended to be oriented more towards family entertainment, with series such as Merlin and Robin Hood offering a very different depiction of medieval life: one that is gentler and interspersed with humour. Which of the two approaches, if either, presents a better reflection of the medieval reality?As a historical novelist, these discussions were of tremendous interest to me, since I often wrestle with similar dilemmas in my writing. Since my Conquest series is narrated by only one character, and a man of the sword at that, inevitably the vision of eleventh-century England that emerges in the books tends to be centred around themes of war, treachery and hardship. Of course the years immediately after 1066 were uncertain times, and undoubtedly bloody. Indeed one of my aims is to show that the struggle for mastery of England did not end with Harold’s death at Hastings, but was long and bitter.
Nevertheless, I’d hope that readers of my novels come away with the sense that kinship, duty and love did matter to medieval people, just as they matter to Tancred and his allies, and that there was honour to be found in their world. While treachery, backstabbing, power games and violence abounded, it seems strange to argue that these facets were peculiar to the Middle Ages, or that they were the main distinguishing features of that period. For that reason, as entertaining as these recent TV dramatisations are, there remains for some a nagging sense that, in limiting their vision, they do the Middle Ages a disservice.
Needless to say it was a fascinating discussion – one of many over the course of the conference. Even now, more than a week after coming back, I’m still working my way through and absorbing the various notes I made. I hope to share some more of my findings from my time in St Andrews in the not too distant future!
If you missed it last week, catch up with Part One of my report from “The Middle Ages in the Modern World”.
Being a historical novelist is all about bringing the past to life for a modern audience, so this conference seemed like the ideal chance to meet and share ideas with like-minded people from across the academic community who also happen to have the same love of the Middle Ages. And so I found myself in the company of 175 other delegates from 15 countries – some having travelled from as far afield as Australia, Korea and Canada – discussing how various aspects of the Middle Ages are represented today in literature, music, film, TV, climate change science and almost every other field imaginable.
I was there to deliver a paper entitled Representing the Middle Ages in Fiction, drawing upon my own experiences to discuss ways in which novelists might go about presenting their subjects in a historically responsible way. How rigorous should novelists be in their research? Can and should we hold them up to the same standards as professional historians? Accepting that a certain amount of invention and distortion is unavoidable in writing historical fiction, is there a certain point at which too much becomes unacceptable, and it descends into fantasy? What can historical fiction offer that non-fiction histories alone might ordinarily struggle to do?Lots of ground to cover, and lots of questions to try to answer, then, and all in a 20-minute paper! Needless to say it was a whistlestop tour through the world of the historical novelist. Also on the panel were Virginia Jenner from King’s College London with a paper on the various ways in which Isabel de Clare, the wife of the famous twelfth-century noble William Marshal, has been represented in fiction; and fellow author Christian Livermore from the University of St Andrews discussing the medieval tale of “The Three Living and the Three Dead”, and how she has used it to inform her latest work-in-progress, which updates the legend. As fun as it was to present my own paper, I was just as interested to hear theirs, and find out how other novelists have tackled similar issues in their work.
I also had the good fortune to meet and discuss writing with Felicitas Hoppe, a German novelist and recent winner of the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize – one of the most prestigious German-language literary awards – who gave a plenary lecture about the challenges of adapting medieval romances into fiction. Other brilliant lectures included James Robinson from the National Museum of Scotland speaking about the similarities between the cults of medieval saints and those of modern celebrities; Bruce Holsinger from the University of Virginia talking about how an extract from the Icelandic sagas has found its way into debates about global warming; and Patrick Geary from the Institute of Advanced Study, Princeton, examining how medieval ideas of European ethnicity still have political currency today.
Those were just a few of the highlights from the conference. More on those, and on the rest of my findings from my time in St Andrews, in Part Two of my report, coming soon!
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