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Anglo-Saxon ‘things’ could talk. Nonhuman voices leap out from the Exeter Book Riddles, telling us how they were made or how they behave. In The Husband’s Message, runic letters are borne and a first-person speech is delivered by some kind of wooden artefact. 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 as a gallows and a rood. The Franks Casket is a box of bone that alludes to its former fate as a whale that swam aground onto the shingle, and the Ruthwell monument is a stone column that speaks as if it were living wood, or a wounded body.

This book uncovers the voice and agency that these nonhuman things have across Anglo-Saxon literature and material culture. It makes a new contribution to ‘thing theory’ and rethinks conventional divisions between animate human subjects and inanimate nonhuman objects in the early Middle Ages. Anglo-Saxon writers and craftsmen describe artefacts and animals through riddling forms or enigmatic language, balancing an attempt to speak and listen to things with an understanding that these nonhumans often elude, defy and withdraw from us. The active role that things have in the early medieval world is also linked to the Germanic origins of the word, where a þing is a kind of assembly, with the ability to draw together other elements, creating assemblages in which human and nonhuman forces combine. Anglo-Saxon things teach us to rethink the concept of voice as a quality that is not simply imposed upon nonhumans but which inheres in their ways of existing and being in the world; they teach us to rethink the concept of agency as arising from within groupings of diverse elements, rather than always emerging from human actors alone.

Enigmas, agency and assemblage
James Paz

Chapter three considers how the interpretation of the Franks Casket is bound up with movement. It opens with a brief overview of previous criticism on the casket in order to look at how different scholars have read it, but especially how they have moved around the box as they endeavour to solve its riddles. Is there a correct order in which we might read the casket? Can the reader finally solve it? The casket could instead be seen as a ‘thing’ that itself has the ability to move those who encounter it. In doing so, it actively forms human identities. The second part of this chapter explores the Franks Casket as an assembly. Lorraine Daston defines things that talk as embodying a tension between their chimerical composition and their unified gestalt. In this way, the Franks Casket is a thing that can be seen to circumscribe and concretise previously unthinkable combinations, becoming a paradox incarnate.

in Nonhuman voices in Anglo-Saxon literature and material culture
James Paz

For Jane Bennett, those who wish to take the claims of thing theory seriously should slow down and try to linger in those moments during which they find themselves fascinated by objects. Anglo-Saxon culture invites us to cultivate a lingering fascination with the blade that melts like ice at the turning of the seasons, the candle-clock that burns too swiftly, the stone monument that crumbles and fades, the bone that endures as a relic, human and animal skin that does or does not display the corruption of death. The second chapter of this book is therefore concerned with the ‘thingness’ of time. By refusing to remain fixed within one form, the speaking creatures in Old English and Anglo-Latin riddles invite human readers to rethink how our own bodies, as things among other things, may cross categories of age, role and gender over different stretches of time.

in Nonhuman voices in Anglo-Saxon literature and material culture