Tag Archives: Old English

Wiga, Wintrum Geong

One year ago today, the man about whom this blog post was originally written was lost to the world. All that is in my heart today – and believe me, I’ve tried all morning to blog about something, about *anything* else – are my memories of him and my sorrow at his loss, and my disbelief that it’s been a year already. A year.

My friend’s name was Neal. Today, I will remember him.

SJ O'Hart

Round about ten years ago now, I started studying for my Ph.D. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s effort, and it represented everything I had ever wanted to achieve. I loved my subject, I adored reading about it, I loved to write about it, and I was thirsty to learn.

I wasn’t too hot on getting up in public and speaking about it, but I figured that stuff would come later. It did, and I happily lectured and taught for many years.

But, back at the beginning, one of the things I took as a module that first year was Latin.

Image: rylandscollections.wordpress.com Image: rylandscollections.wordpress.com

I wanted to be able to read and understand the beautiful manuscripts I had the privilege of studying, and I wanted to be ‘fluent’ (if one can use that word about a language that isn’t really spoken, at least as a vernacular, any more); a lot…

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Wiga, Wintrum Geong

Round about ten years ago now, I started studying for my Ph.D. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s effort, and it represented everything I had ever wanted to achieve. I loved my subject, I adored reading about it, I loved to write about it, and I was thirsty to learn.

I wasn’t too hot on getting up in public and speaking about it, but I figured that stuff would come later. It did, and I happily lectured and taught for many years.

But, back at the beginning, one of the things I took as a module that first year was Latin.

Image: rylandscollections.wordpress.com

Image: rylandscollections.wordpress.com

I wanted to be able to read and understand the beautiful manuscripts I had the privilege of studying, and I wanted to be ‘fluent’ (if one can use that word about a language that isn’t really spoken, at least as a vernacular, any more); a lot of older scholarly texts in my subject, medieval studies, quoted passages of Latin without any translation as their authors would have expected anyone who read them to be able to understand them without difficulty. I also wanted to master a command of this beautiful and important language, just because it was an intellectual challenge.

One day, as I sat with my ‘Wheelock’s Latin’ trying to catch up on the previous lesson’s homework, a new student strode into the classroom. Tall, and handsome, dark-haired and blue-eyed, there was an air of friendliness and humour about him. He looked around the room, smiling broadly, and eventually settled on a vacant chair not far from me. He nodded a greeting as he took out his own book, and among his notes I saw some photocopies of an Old English text that I was also doing research into.

‘Are you doing Old English?’ I asked, excited to meet another person like me.

‘Yeah,’ he replied, still smiling – for this boy always smiled. ‘I love it.’

And so, a friendship was born. Our mutual incomprehension of Latin and our fear of the instructor and her impossible class tests gave us something to laugh about over coffee; our shared love of Old English meant we’d often sound out one another’s grammatical knowledge over lunch, engaging with the multiple meanings of certain words and the effects this had on the texts we loved. We’d work through translations together, discussing the beauty of the language and the blood-stirring stories. Sometimes, we’d just hang out and talk about the same old nonsense anyone talks about when they’re in good company.

He was fascinated by my Ph.D. thesis, then in its barest infancy, barely wobbling on its badly-researched legs. I shared ideas with him and drew strength from his enthusiasm. In return, I engaged with his research, which was on the Old English word ‘mod’ and its uses in different texts over time. This word has many meanings: Courage. Heart. Mind. Soul. Spirit.

He embodied them all.

At the end of our academic year together, my friend left my university to begin working on his own Ph.D. at Durham, and I bid him farewell with a heavy heart. I missed his good-natured banter, his scholarly excellence, his determination to get to the bottom of any linguistic or grammar-related issue, and his sheer enthusiasm for life. I looked forward to watching his career progress, and I hoped – one day – to meet him again. His smile never dimmed and his good humour never failed, and he was the sort of person who carries sunshine in his pocket – everyone was glad to see him, and he always made the day brighter.

Last Friday, I discovered through a message posted by my friend’s aunt that he had lost his life, suddenly and tragically. He was still living in Durham, far from his family in Connecticut. He had been ill, but his death came out of the blue.

The news stunned me. I sat at my computer, weeping, scrolling through the many messages left by his friends and loved ones on his Facebook wall, all of them saying the same things that were in my heart: ‘Too young,’ ‘What a wonderful man,’ ‘One of the greats,’ ‘Will be missed so much,’ ‘Brought joy wherever he went.’ It didn’t lessen my own shock and grief to see how deeply he was loved, but it did make me feel a little less alone.

I thought of his long-ago MA research, and the word ‘mod’, and how it had been the perfect thing for him to write about. He was heart, and soul, and courage. He embodied fullness of spirit. He was one of the best people I have ever known, and I will always regret that I allowed so many years to pass without seeing him in person.

The title of my blog post today means ‘A hero, young in years.’ It is written in the language my friend loved – Old English – and taken from one of the poems we discussed over those long-ago coffees, ‘The Battle of Maldon.’ I can’t believe the world has lost someone as bright, loving and intelligent as my friend, and I will miss him all the days of my life. All I can do now is hope he will live on in the memories of those who loved him, and keep the flame of his ‘mod’ alive in my own heart.

In Ireland, we have a saying when someone dies. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann. It means ‘Never will his like be seen again.’

In my friend’s case, it’s absolutely true.

A burial fit for a king. Image: alexpogeler.wordpress.com

A burial fit for a king.
Image: alexpogeler.wordpress.com

Human Nature

Happy April Fool’s Day. I’m not sure I altogether like this ‘holiday’, having been on the receiving end of one too many pranks as a younger person (in case I haven’t revealed this already, I’m extremely gullible), but if you’re celebrating – and not making a fool out of somebody else – then have a ball.

You could just do like this fella and gambol around in a funny costume for a while.Image: 123rf.com

You could just do like this fella and gambol around in a funny costume for a while.
Image: 123rf.com

It’s a Bank Holiday weekend here, craftily arranged by my husband and I in order to help us celebrate our anniversary (of course). It has nothing to do with the fact that most of the country is languishing in a chocolate-fuelled stupor this morning… We had a wonderful day yesterday for Easter Sunday; we spent it with two of our best friends and their young baby, where we all went on an Easter Egg Hunt. It was, of course, more fun for the adults than the child, and sadly, the adults ate all the chocolate, too. (In our defence, the baby isn’t able to eat solids yet. Honest!)

I’m not sure if it was our time with our friends that sparked today’s blog-thoughts off in my mind, or the TV programmes we watched when we got home (both dramas involving past eras), or some twisty combination of both, but in any case – today I’m thinking about human nature, and how people don’t really change over time.

What's this? Just a blog, medieval-style.Image: abdn.ac.uk

What’s this? Just a blog, medieval-style.
Image: abdn.ac.uk

We spent our day celebrating an ancient feast with our friends, a feast which most people would connect with Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus. But – as most people are aware – the feast of ‘Easter’ (named, even, after the goddess Eostre) is a lot older than the Christian faith. It has more to do with the time of year and the fecundity of the season, the return to earth of the flowers and creatures and crops that are necessary to sustain life, than it does with the much younger faith of Christianity. I am a Christian, but I am also a trained medievalist, so the feast of Easter has two layers of meaning for me. Our celebrations yesterday got me thinking about how people carry out rituals – the giving of chocolate, the symbolism of rabbits and ‘Easter bunnies’, the tradition of ‘April Fools’ – without really thinking about what they mean and where they come from, or even knowing how old the traditions are. It got me thinking about how people are the same from generation to generation. The things we do sometimes change, as do the circumstances in which we have to live our lives. But people – the essence of what makes us human beings – stays the same.

When I worked as a tutor, I was responsible for teaching my students about medieval language, literature and culture in Britain (mostly), but also in Ireland and Europe. I often started a class by asking the students to read a section of Chaucer, for instance, or an extract from Beowulf or one of the Old English elegies. Perhaps, if I was feeling particularly playful, I would give them a piece of poetry like this one (don’t worry, a translation follows!):

Mec feonda sum   feore besnythede
Woruldstrenga binom   waette sithan
dyfthe on waetra   dyde eft thonan,
sette on sunan,   thaer ic swithe beleas
herum tham the ic haefde.

(An enemy stole my life, and took away all my worldly strength; they wet me, dipping me in water, then took me out once more. I was left in the sun then, where I swiftly lost all the hair I had.)

My students would labour intensely over an extract of poetry like that, trying to work it out, looking at it like it had huge significance, doing their best to be intelligent. So, when I told them ‘it’s a joke’, they sometimes weren’t too impressed with me. The poem is an extract from Riddle 26 in the Exeter Book, a collection of Old English joke-verses. Some of them are crude, some of them scandalous, some of them groan-worthy, and some of them are still mystifying. This one, the narrative voice of which goes on to tell us that a knife cut away all its impurities, and that it was folded and pierced through with holes and bedecked with brown dye before being guarded between boards, decorated with gold and trusted with the Word of God, is telling us that it’s a book – more specifically, a Bible. You have to know, of course, that in the Middle Ages books were made of animal hide, which would be soaked to soften and loosen the hair, dried in the sun, and scraped with a blade to make it perfectly smooth… and once you know the answer, the whole riddle begins to click into place.

Each of the riddles presents the reader (or listener) with confusing images designed to make something everyday seem completely alien – all in the name of a big punchline, giving everyone who’s been sweating to work it out an ‘Aha!’ moment, where they can slap their thighs, laugh with one another and pretend that they’d unravelled it long before their neighbour had. So, in a way, my students’ efforts to understand the words mirror exactly the reaction that the original authors would have wanted. My students would (hopefully) learn from this that even though the sense of humour had changed a bit, the need or desire to laugh, to exercise the brain, to get one over on your fellows, to play a trick, were as much a part of the Anglo-Saxon world as they are to our own.

Human art, from any era, depicts a number of big themes; Love is one. Death another. Nearly everything else can be constructed out of some combination of these. Regret, Betrayal, Loss, Passion, Devotion, Adventure (which can be seen as the pursuit of one and the simultaneous avoidance of the other.) We no longer joust, and our sons no longer get sent to fight with the King, but plenty of young men and women still get sent to fight our modern wars. We no longer scare ourselves with stories of giants and headless horsemen; instead we use zombies and vampires (when we’re not falling in love with them, of course.) We love our children and our families, we want to protect our homes, we want the dignity of earning our own living, we want the freedom to live our lives as we see fit. None of these things are new to us. All of these things were known to our forebears too, all the way back to our earliest beginnings.

The past can sometimes seem very far away, and people who lived in previous eras can often feel like creatures of another world. But they’re not, at all. We are lucky to have the conveniences we do, which make the things our ancestors wanted – safety for our young, security for our crops, warmth for our homes, good health as long as we can get it – so much easier. So, it makes me glad that we still celebrate some of the old feast days, even if we don’t know why any more. It’s a precious connection to those who’ve gone before us, and a vital expression of human nature.

Anyway, on that note: Happy Easter!

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org