It’s been just about a month since I returned from Europe so it’s a good opportunity to post a little bit more about the trip. I traveled to England and France on a grant from my amazing school, and Mama Jones decided to come along for the larks.
That’s us in the pub. Bless.
The primary purpose of the trip was curriculum development, so this post will focus primarily on the academic side of things, though I will probably follow this post with an addendum or two.
The essential question guiding this trip was: how do visual components integrate with narrative in the early medieval era? I was particularly looking at the Anglo-Saxon era as I teach Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon texts, and visual elements from this era are sparse. I sought to look at manuscripts, artifacts and art, and examine how the visual narrative of the Middle Ages emerged. Ultimately the goal of this study was to enrich the medieval portion of my curriculum through the integration of visual elements and artistic expression.
London provided a wealth of resources and set the tone for a rich two weeks of study. The primary stops in this leg of the trip were the British Library and the British museum. At the British library, I was able to see the original Beowulf Manuscript, Lindesfarne Gospels, as well as numerous illuminated medieval manuscript. In addition to being on display, many of the manuscripts were digitized and therefore able to be examined on a closer and more interactive level.
The British museum contains one of the most prevalent collections of art and artifacts from the Anglo-Saxon era in the world, found in a burial mound at a site called Sutton Hoo, which we would visit later in the trip.
Time spent in London helped provide a helpful framework for the rest of the trip, in that I began to look for the categories of artistic expression. Much of the early Medieval artistic expression was functional (jewelry, armor, etc) or religious (reliquary caskets, sacred memorials, croziers), until the emergence of illuminated manuscripts and the integration of text and image.
Oxford was a return to my academic roots and felt like a homecoming of sorts. One of the most helpful aspects of this stop was being able to meet with one of my former professors. I explained to her the objectives of this trip, the itinerary, and the curriculum. We discussed some of the ideas surrounding the art and texts, and she gave some very helpful recommendations and guiding ideas
Oxford also held the Ashmolean Museum, which contains another extensive Anglo-Saxon exhibit, drawn from sites around Oxfordshire. Sutton Courtenay and Asthall Barrow are two of the most notable of these examples.
The town of York has retained much of its medieval aesthetic, from the city wall that still wraps around most of city centre, to its turreted medieval gates, to the architecture of many storefronts.
Two highlights from this particular visit were time spent in the stunning York Minster Cathedral, and a visit to the Jorvik Viking museum.
The York Minster has been beautifully preserved, and I paid particular attention to the use of stained glass as visual narrative.
The Jorvik Viking museum was a tremendously helpful supplement, as the Norse influence on Anglo-Saxon literature is significant to a reading of Beowulf in particular. The museum was built on an actual excavation of a Viking village that once existed on that site, but even that village was believed to have been Christianized and included Anglo-Saxon settlers as well. At one point the museum featured a ride around a recreated village where the wax figures were speaking Old Norse, Welsh, and Old English.
Jarrow, located on the River Tyne just outside Newcastle is home to a museum called Jarrow Hall. This museum is devoted primarily to the life of the Venerable Bede, one of the most influential Anglo-Saxon historians. I’m a little bit obsessed with his telling of the tale of Caedmon’s Hymn, and I am currently reading his Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
His writings, artifacts, and biographical highlights were on display in one part of the museum, while the other part held a recreation of an Anglo-Saxon farm.
It also hosts a stone cross, commissioned in the early 2000s, which replicates and ties in elements of the Ruthwell Cross and others.
Woodbridge and Sutton Hoo
As mentioned earlier, Sutton Hoo is one of the most significant burial sites to Anglo-Saxon scholarship. It’s a bit off the beaten path, so we stayed in a little village called Woodbridge, an adorable little harbor town.
The site itself has many components. There is a museum that tells the story of Anglo-Saxon King Raedwold, believed to have been buried there. He was a Christian King, but buried in a pagan style, a fact very pertinent to the conflicting values discussed in Beowulf as well. The museum offered many resources on the site, including a lecture and video, as well as recreations of the burial ship and artifacts found, as they might have appeared in their day.
That site also featured the preserved home of the landowner, Edith Pretty, who commissioned the opening of the burial mounds. The story of the events leading up to the excavation of the site is a fascinating one that I hope to incorporate into the curriculum next year, at least in brief. Lastly the property, which is extensive, still features the burial mounds, and I was able to spend some time touring those as well.
Canterbury Cathedral is tremendously important to a study of medieval literature, as it is not only the destination of the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales, but it is also the site of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom.
In addition to the historical preservation of the Cathedral’s significance, the museum has a tremendous amount to offer that was relevant to my specific interest in visual narrative. There was much to see in terms of stained glass, tapestry, and relics, the latter of which is an important facet of studying the Canterbury Tales. Like York, the city is proudly medieval and has retained much of its medieval charm.
Given the time required to travel, the time spent in Paris was relatively brief, but very helpful. And also just magical and Parisian. The biggest resource relating to curriculumwas the CLUNY Medieval Art Museum, which houses a rich collection of medieval art and artifacts.
From relics and functional art of the early years to the more fanciful tapestries like the Lady and Unicorn series, this museum represents thoroughly the development and evolution of European Medieval art.
Bayeux has been a dream destination of mine for many years as it houses the Bayeux Tapestries.
The event depicted, the medium of depiction and the narrative itself have been a critical component of the curriculum, and a reference point that connects to many other events and ideas. Seeing the tapestry up close, along with listening to a detailed narrative was tremendously valuable.
I came back from the trip not only equipped with many fun little posters and classroom things, but also with many ideas for integrating art and visual expression into the curriculum. Aside from being helpful, this is an era particularly close to my heart, and traveling with this specific focus meant my medieval field trips wish list coming true! (Because that’s definitely a thing)