Hana’s Interruption: Mapping the Human on the Nonhuman

I asked our guests to consider the following passage from Christ III, an Old English religious poem about Judgment Day from the tenth-century Exeter Book:

‘Ða wearð beam monig   blodigum tearum

birunnen under rindum   reade ond þicce

sæp wearð to swate.   Þæt asecgan ne magum

foldbuende   þurh frod gewit,

hu fela þa onfundun   þa gefelan ne magun

dryhtnes þrowinga   deade gesceafte.’ (lines 1174-79)


‘Then many a tree became bedewed with bloody tears under their bark, red and thick; the sap was turned to blood.  No earth‐dweller can tell through wise understanding how much those inanimate created beings, those which cannot feel, experienced the suffering of the Lord.’ (my translation)

The idea of bleeding trees on Judgment Day appears in the apocryphal Fourth Book of Ezra, 5:5: ‘Et de ligno sanguis stillabit‘ (‘And blood shall drip from wood’).  The author of Paradise Lost, John Milton, was intrigued by this particular passage and wrote, ‘…the deadness of men to all noble things shall be so great, that the sap of the trees shall be more truly blood, in God’s sight, than their hearts’ blood….’  In other words, as humans lose their humanity, the nonhumans (the trees, for instance) become more human in comparison.  Tree sap appears as blood or tears.

St Peter-on-the-Wall’s history was constructed by human hands, but what we see today (upon first glance) is the nonhuman – Roman stones and earthen foundations.  I wanted to put the human back into this nonhuman space, and I invited the guests to think about what the ‘most human’ part of this space was to them: perhaps the wall where candles had been lit, the stone by the door worn away from countless pilgrims’ feet, the altar where so many have prayed, etc.  I then gave […]

Some reflections on ‘Interruptions: New ways to know the medieval at Bradwell’

I had organised events before, but never in a remote church dating from the seventh-century; I’d asked scholars to speak about their research before, but had never asked them to interrupt their academic practices; I’d been nervous about arranging gatherings before, but had never been so uncertain about what might, or might not, unfold.

These were my concerns as the day for ‘interruptions’ – at once a challenge, a chance, and a choice to do something new with the early medieval – drew nearer.

It was a bewildering prospect: to invest time and energy into something and then to be suddenly cast into the role of a helpless observer; to put your trust in the talent and generosity of a group of people and yet to know that they, too, had doubts about what might actually take place.

After five or more years of studying it full-time, Old English has become valuable to me. Could an unconventional approach to medieval ‘scholarship’ expose or undermine its worth in some way?

I needn’t have worried. Improvisation gave the day its charm; spontaneity gave it its energy.

Drawing on the key features, figures and histories of the Chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall, a group of postgraduate researchers from King’s College London were invited to use the site to explore new and ethical ways of sharing their knowledge of the Early Middle Ages.

Vicky Walker started off by greeting everyone who’d come along and presented each person with what she called an ‘interrupted map’ of the site; these were partly visual, partly verbal maps, with words in Latin, Old English and Modern English to represent layers of time, constructed and collapsed into one space, recalling the medieval and Roman past, while also speaking for the […]