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 present. In keeping with the tone of the event, no two envelopes were the same, adding a personal, individual touch to proceedings.

Standing near the entrance to the chapel itself, Becky Dobson performed an experiment in translation, a way of perceiving how people can interpret very different human characteristics and emotions from objects, based on the way they journey towards them. Becky offered two types of Old English words (material things and human emotions) to each person, who then had to repeat the word and hold it in mind as they searched for its written form, attached to various items across the site.

Audience members then had a choice of moving into the interior of the chapel or around the outside of the building. Within the chapel, Hana Videen encouraged the visitors to map the human within the ‘nonhuman’ space of the church. Hana explained how certain passages of Old English literature reveal how we can find the human in natural and constructed environments, be it trees, seas or the stone structures that remain from earlier periods. After speaking to visitors, Hana gave them ‘relic sticks’ (twigs and branches with labels attached to them so that participants could write down their thoughts) to place in the part of the church that they felt best represented the human to them.

The most intimate part of the day saw Kathryn Maude creating an exchange of stories about forgotten women, in an attempt to bring back those people who have been lost from history.  Seated in a dark, cool space in the chapel, Kath asked the visitors to consider those women who might have been ‘lost in the margins’ of their own family or personal history. In exchange for the visitor’s story about a forgotten woman of their past, she offered a story about an Anglo-Saxon woman. After this story exchange, the forgotten women of past and present were commemorated by writing their names on shells collected from the seashore.

This private and introspective moment within the chapel stood in contrast to Carl Kears’ more expansive and conceptual take on things outside of the building. Carl pointed out that the movement out of and around St Peter’s Chapel requires contemplation. He invited the visitors to pause and take in the view of the sea from behind the chapel, and to turn around again to imagine the height and shape of the stone building as viewed from the sea, from a distance out in those waters during the time of St Cedd’s arrival. Carl used this observational moment to think about exile in early medieval culture and in our own age.

After guests had taken a moment or two to ‘contemplate their exile’, Fran Allfrey assembled them together and drew upon the chapel and the surrounding environment to explore questions about creative translation from Old to Modern English. Fran led her group down to the sea. By this time, the visitors had had the chance to think about what the solid stone church can help us know about the past; now they turned their attention to other, more intangible, Anglo-Saxon leftovers of language and feeling. Fran explored the sound of Old English, providing visitors with an mp3 player with a recording of lines 91-102 of The Seafarer on their walk to the pillbox. Once at the pillbox, the group talked about people’s first responses to the recording and discussed what it is we think we can know about the past by entering a leftover space (the church) or listening to a leftover sound (the poem). Place and sound harmonised here in a surprising and spellbinding way.

It is not entirely true to say that I was only a detached observer of these proceedings; I participated in a disembodied, distemporal manner: my voice, recorded on the way to the pub the night before, came pouring out of the little black devices that Fran provided, intoning the following lines from The Seafarer:

 

Yldo him on fareð,    onsyn blacað,

gomelfeax gnornað,    wat his iuwine,

æþelinga bearn,    eorþan forgiefene.

Ne mæg him þonne se flæschoma,    þonne him þæt feorg losað,

ne swete forswelgan    ne sar gefelan,

ne hond onhreran    ne mid hyge þencan.

Þeah þe græf wille    golde stregan

broþor his geborenum,    byrgan be deadum,

maþmum mislicum    þæt hine mid wille,

ne mæg þære sawle    þe biþ synna ful

gold to geoce    for godes egsan,

þonne he hit ær hydeð    þenden he her leofað.

 

(Age fares over him; his face grows pale, the grey-haired man mourns, remembering past friends, the children of noble ones, given over to the earth. Nor when his life fades may his flesh-home taste sweetness, or feel pain, or row with his hand, or think with his heart. And though a kinsman may wish to strew the grave with gold for his brother, to bury it beside the dead, along with the many treasures he may wish to go with him, gold cannot be of any help to the sin-heavy soul before the force of God, even when he hides things here before while he still lives.)

 

The Seafarer seemed a very fitting poem for a site built upon the wall of a ruined Roman fort, between land and sea, where it’s easy to imagine the boundary between the living and dead, past and present, breaking and receding. Yet I didn’t realise until afterwards that these particular lines also resonated with my own role in the build up to the event and on the day itself, as well as with some themes that seemed to reoccur throughout the afternoon: this passage, after all, is about learning to let go of that which you hold dear.

It might also be significant that the lines are taken not from the very beginning or end of the poem but from somewhere within its middle: the event, likewise, appeared to create its own time and space in the midst of things. Clare Lees spoke to everyone about Colm Cille’s Spiral before they took part in the students’ presentations and gathered us all together to discuss the event before we left, yet I had the sense that ‘interruptions’ had already started the moment we stepped off the minibus – or perhaps long before that – and that its effects would linger within the stones of the chapel, melt into the grass and sand and sea, and, most importantly, find homes within the memories of those who attended.

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Audience reactions were always intriguing: from Clare Lees hearing an all too familiar poem anew in this unfamiliar land and seascape; to the look of surprise on Karen Overbey’s face when, having hiked to the chapel, she was asked to imagine approaching it from the sea in the seventh-century; and Brigid Main explaining how the event had changed her relationship with this building she’d so often worshipped in.

However, the event also ruptured the barrier between speaker and audience. I watched with interest as the visitors’ responses and questions sent the postgraduates’ research coiling back towards them.

I’ve only touched upon what unfolded on July 25th in this blog post, and have offered only one, limited perspective on the event; the beauty of ‘interruptions’ dwelt in the variety of viewpoints from which it was experienced. I look forward to hearing about those other perspectives in future blog posts and conversations.