Things that Talk: Nonhuman Voices in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Culture
Dr James Paz
Anglo-Saxon ‘things’ could talk. Nonhuman voices leap out from the Old English riddles, telling us where they came from, how they were made, what they do. Readers of The Dream of the Rood will come across a tree possessing the voice of a dreaming human in order to talk about its own history. In Andreas, we read about stone angels, emerging from the wall into which they have been carved, walking and speaking and raising the dead. Away from the manuscript page, we find inscribed artefacts (swords, rings, brooches, caskets) that use their voices to remind us of their makers and owners, while others want to talk about themselves instead of the humans who crafted them, recalling their former fate as living creatures.
This module asks students to consider how nonhumans might be as active and talkative as humans are in the earliest English literature and culture. We will question how far we can stretch critical concepts such as ‘voice’ and ‘agency’ before they break or fail. We will rethink ideas about the animate and inanimate; the differences between human, animal and artefactual bodies; the relation between human speech and nonhuman sounds; and what separates the manmade from the natural, the owned from the autonomous.
All texts will be read in translation, but students will be encouraged to engage with relevant passages of Old English under the guidance of their seminar leader. The recent poetic anthology, The Word Exchange (2011), containing OE texts and facing-page translations, is highly recommended. A standard anthology of Old English literature in translation such as Kevin Crossley Holland’s The Anglo-Saxon World or Craig Williamson’s Beowulf and Other Old English Poems is required. Handouts will be provided where texts are not widely available.
This is a list of secondary and therefore non-compulsory reading
Bitterli, Dieter, Say What I Am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009).
Bredehoft, Thomas A., ‘First-Person Inscriptions and Literacy in Anglo-Saxon England’, ASSAH 9 (1996), 103-10.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ed. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethic and Objects (Washington DC: Oliphaunt Books, 2012).
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome, ‘Stories of Stone’, in Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 1/2 (Spring/Summer 2010), 56-63.
Garner, Lori Ann, ‘Anglo-Saxon Charms in Performance’, Oral Tradition 19:1 (March 2004): 20-42.
Hanawalt, Barbara A. and Lisa J. Kiser, eds. Engaging with Nature: Essays on the Natural World in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (University of Notre Dame Press, 2008).
Karkov, Catherine E., The Art of Anglo-Saxon England (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2011).
Kay, Sarah, ‘Legible Skins: Animals and the Ethics of Medieval Reading’, Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies 2/1 (2011), 13-32.
Leahy, Kevin, and Roger Bland, The Staffordshire Hoard (London: British Museum Press, 2009).
Liuzza, R. M., ed. Old English Literature: Critical Essays (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2002).
Murphy, Patrick J., Unriddling the Exeter Riddles (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2011)
Niles, John D., Old English Enigmatic Poems and the Play of the Texts (Turnhout: Brepolis, 2006).
Pasternack, Carol Braun, The Textuality of Old English Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).
Paz, James, ‘Æschere’s Head, Grendel’s Mother and the Sword that Isn’t A Sword: Unreadable Things in Beowulf’, Exemplaria 25:3 (Fall 2013), 231-51.
Robertson, Kellie, ‘Medieval Materialism: A Manifesto’, Exemplaria 22:2 (2010), 99-118.
Robertson, Kellie, ‘Medieval Things: Materiality, Historicism, and the Premodern Object’, Literature Compass 5/6 (2008), 1060-1080.
Steel, Karl, How to Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages (Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 2011).
Webster, Leslie, Objects in Focus: The Franks Casket (London: British Museum Press, 2012).
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