Monday, September 28, 2009

First Thoughts about the Hoard

Last evening, as I was sharing digital images of the Staffordshire Hoard with Rosemary, she said “It's too bad Nick didn't live to see this.” I agreed, and as I've thought about the hoard further today, I agree all the more. In this brief and informal essay, I hope to explore some of what the hoard may end up meaning for our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon past and of Beowulf in particular.

[For those who make it this far into this entry, but who still haven't heard of the Staffordshire Hoard, please check out this site, where the pictures are beautiful and brand new. The hoard was discovered in July 2009 and announced last week; it is the single largest discovering of Anglo-Saxon gold treasure of the modern era, with about eleven pounds of gold alone.]

Staffordshire hoard excavation from Dan Pett on Vimeo.

Nick Howe, of course, knew as well as anyone how problematic the date of Beowulf has been for Anglo-Saxon scholars, and how important: it was from Nick that I first heard the argument that the controversies over dating and historicizing the poem are perhaps our most productive strategy for making meaning from it. And as is well, known, Beowulf is a poem whose narrator seems fairly obsessed with golden treasure: the descriptions of treasure in the poem are frequnet, lovingly detailed, and thorough. What the Staffordshire Hoard tells us, if nothing else, is that hoards of (primarily) golden treasure were, in fact, possible in at least one seventh-century Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and one at least partially accommodated to Christian monotheism, and at least in this case associated with war.

Elizabeth Tyler's wonderful discussion of treasure words in Old English poetry makes part of my point here beautifully: in her discussion of The Battle of Maldon (about a battle fought in 991), Tyler notes that Maldon uses a highly conventional vocabulary of treasure, in which references to gold far outweigh references to silver. Significantly, exactly the opposite situation obtained in reality at the time: when the Danes were bought off in 991 and succeeding years, the payoff was in silver, and the coinage of the time is exclusively silver, with little gold in evidence anywhere.

If Beowulf is as late as its manuscript, of course, then it too simply uses a conventional vocabulary for treasure, in which gold is far more prominent than silver, except when the two are linked in formulas like “silver and gold.” But it's the details of the Staffordshire Hoard that then stand out: the gold literally outweighs the silver, by a four-to-one ration. Further, the assemblage of materials seems clearly to have been made in the context of war: the prominence (and sheer number) of sword-fittings makes any other context seem unlikely. And sure enough, we see warriors stripped of their gear in the poem. Likewise, when Beowulf's troop arrives at Heorot, their spears are foregrounded, but when Weohstan kills Onela's nephew Eanmund, he takes the sword to Onela and is given it as a reward—the uncle rewarding the slayer of his nephew because of a family feud. Hrothgar's hilt, of course, is the sign of Grendel's mother's death (far more so than the head of Grendel), and we see in the Staffordshire hoard some 80 gold pommel mounts, stripped, it seems, from sword hilts.

And there are hoards in Beowulf: the dragon guards a hoard, and when Beowulf kills it, he believes that the hoard will be a treasure to buy his people's future safety: a doomed hope, as it turns out, but a clear claim is made about what a hoard might be thought to do. The dragon hoard, of course, has been laid in the ground by the “last survivor” the final living member of a now-long-gone tribe, the hoard a kind of national treasury, useless to an individual. Likewise, the hoard of the dragon slain by Sigemund provides an opportunity for a discussion of good and bad kingship: hoards are to be used by lords who are gold-friends to their thanes—a source of wealth to be shared.

When all we had of Anglo-Saxon treasure hoards was the Sutton Hoo burial (and other burials), we could look at Sutton Hoo as deeply continental in contents and significance and ultimately too poor to reflect the poem's gold obsession. But the Staffordshire material—some 1500 items, even if most of them are small—seems Saxon to the bone, and it's big, big, big. When Sutton Hoo is the only treasure on the horizon, we can look at the poem's depictions of gold, swords, and hoards as a highly fictionalized depiction of a golden age, a long-ago time in which gold was thick on the ground and heros could find monsters worthy of a battle. But the Staffordshire materials seem to open up a completely different perspective: as late as the seventh century real Anglo-Saxon kings (or as near to it as can be determined from stuff dug up in a field) really did or could collect remarkable hoards of gold, and presumably they usually spent them as wise gold-friends would. That is, the social economy depicted in the poem may be far more like a real, historical Anglo-Saxon social economy than has ever been realized.

When I teach Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, I always point out the the historical King Arthur must have lived some eight or nine centuries before the poem, and that the poet freely anachronizes, dressing his characters in the armor, clothing, foodways, and social mores of the fourteenth century. What the Staffordshire Hoard may well suggest is that Beowulf might engage in an exactly parallel strategy: depicting a hero from centuries earlier, but dressed in gold, armor, and attitudes from very near the poet's present. It's a line of argument that Sutton Hoo does not make possible, I think: but the Staffordshire Hoard may well make it possible—the poem may get a surprisingly strong new argument for an early date: I'll go with the eighth century, putting the Hoard, perhaps, in the poet's grandfather's memory. Because what seems clear is that the conventional language of treasure may have been mobilized by the Maldon poet, but the practices (and the sheer wealth) that led to the Staffordshire Hoard seem so closely paralleled in Beowulf that it's hard to imagine that so many details are merely literary convention. The Beowulf poet's well known attention to gold may be its most remarkable point of historical accuracy. But the accuracy is not in how the fifth-century Beowulf and Hrothgar saw the world, but in how the seventh-century—and perhaps the eighth as well—saw and thought about war, treasure, and gold.

Perhaps in a year, or two, or twenty, I'll see more clearly than I do now if or how the Staffordshire Hoard changes our understanding of the poem. But right now, caught up in the excitement of the newness of discovery, it looks to me like Beowulf will never be the same. Because now we know just what an Anglo-Saxon could hoard (as opposed to bury in a grave, or lose, or throw away), and it's surprisingly like what the poem tells us. Who could have believed that the hoarding, of all things, was where the poem was telling us the truth?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

That class

It recently occurred to me that this month, I'm marking 20 years of college-level teaching, if you start counting in fall 1989, when I began work on my M.A. at Ohio State and teaching freshman comp. And I've been in a tenure-track or tenured job for a decade this fall.

I can't even begin to tell you how freaky I find all of that, since much of the time I still feel like I don't have a clue what I'm doing, and wonder when someone is going to call me out on it.

That feeling isn't helped this semester by having a class that's That Class. Those of you who teach know the kind I mean: the soul-sucking, lethargic, amoeba-like organism that starts as a gelatinous mass and gradually calcifies until it is utterly impenetrable. At first, I thought they were just quiet. Confused, maybe. In need of some more examples. But no: none of those things seem to be the problem.

It makes for a long 75 minutes, especially in a class (introduction to folklore) where I rely heavily on them contributing personal experiences and examples to illustrate some of the more abstract concepts and to help them begin coming up with topics for their fieldwork projects.

In those moments, 20 years of experience doesn't do me the slightest bit of good; I still feel like a panicky grad student who's run out of material halfway through class.

I suppose, though, that the benefit of experience is that I know (but have a hard time believing) that to a large degree, it's not about me. It's about a combination of bad place (room with chairs bolted to the floor), bad time (mid-afternoon), and bad karma. I taught the same course last semester, using the same texts, and the students had lots to say, asked lots of great questions, and generated that amazing kind of reciprocal energy exchange that makes a class work.

Still, it's discouraging. I ran into a colleague at the rec center this morning who's in a similar predicament with one of his classes. We agreed that just one section of That Class has the potential to unmoor you.

I read this recent editorial by Maureen Dowd with interest, since That Class has been getting me so down. The problem, as Dowd sees it? That women "tend to attach to other people more strongly, beat themselves up more when they lose attachments, take things more personally at work."

Well, yeah. I've been working on those issues for years. Longer than I've been teaching probably.

Easier said than done, especially when you feel like you've humiliated yourself in front of a class, doing just about everything but swinging from a trapeze to get some kind of response. And believe me, I haven't ruled that option out.

In case you missed the story about the zombie-alert sign earlier this year, above, click here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

More from Washington

In a recent post, Rose shared some of the vintage cookbooks she found at the Washington Antiques Fair the other weekend; we found quite a lot of interesting stuff there, I'm afraid, and I thought I'd share a bit more of it here, just because I feel like it. And because of the whole weirdness of serendipity and collecting: part of what makes collecting old stuff worthwhile.

So besides the vintage cookbooks and the handful of magic lantern slides that were kind of mutual purchases on both our parts (perhaps we'll manage to put together a magic lantern slide post sometime, if we can figure out how to get good images), I also was looking at all the old handwritten stuff I could find. I did find a big batch of old papers from Gabriel Raymond, onetime resident and mill operator from Lenox, New York. The papers date from about 1819 into the 1860s, mostly dealing with the mill, and with lots 66 and 67 of the Oneida Creek Tract, which Raymond seems to have owned. All sorts of interesting stuff, including papers relating to lawsuits (including two old Utica, New York folded letters with early 1830 stamped postmarks--long before postage stamps themselves existed) and a fascinating duplicate copy of a $1200.00 settlement receipt from the Erie Canal commissioners to Nathan Raymond, "damages which the appraisers on the Erie Canal have awarded to me for the injury which I have sustained in consequence of the use and occupancy by said canal of the waters of the Cowaston [sic?] Creek, whereby the saw mill located on said creek + below said canal is deprived of its accustomed supply of water."

But also, I ran across a "zip-lock" bag full of old envelopes (fifty-one envelopes, I think, most from 1870s and 1880s) complete with stamps, etc, for only $5.00. I doubt there are any rare stamps here (stamps were probably the first thing I ever collected, and my parents once tried to get all three of us kids hooked on collecting US stamps, and I still have all of my old collection). But the envelopes (the letters are gone from almost all of them) tell a story in their own unique way: most are addressed to one Jennie B Wallace, with some of the oldest (in the 1870s) addressed to Wellesley, Mass.

This woman must have collected these envelopes over some span of time; others are addressed to her at Pennsylvania Female College in Pittsburgh (later to become Chatham, I believe). I found these two especially fascinating for the addresses:

Remarkably, however, one of the envelopes addressed to the man who must have been Jennie's father was actually sent to Greeley, Colorado, our previous hometown:
That's "Care Mr James Ewing," (and the postmark is either "83" or "88") if any sharp-eyed readers wish to look him up in Greeley archives.

Most interesting of all to me in this batch of stuff, though was the long letter from one "Cousin Aleck" to "Bell" entirely undated and without an envelope, but I think ultimately from Jennie B's father, Rev. A. G. Wallace, D. D., to her mother, Bell, probably before their marriage. (And if I've got the genealogy wrong here, it's a shame, because the story is such a nice one.) But the letter starts out by quoting Shakespeare and then goes on, "I just now see why it is that the spirit of chivalry has died + love has languished so much in this boasted of 19 century. We are impatient; nothing satisfies us but railroads and telegraphs."

The second page of the letter especially caught my eye, as I'd always heard about letters written in both directions, but this is the first one I've ever had a chance to buy:

The second text is written in red or pink ink, to make reading the two parts of the letter easier, I suppose. But for those interested in the personal musings of those long dead (especially if you can make out the brown-ink text), here's a transcription of the pink: "Permit me to add another line. I intended to write merely a note but so long as there is any room I must write. Just as I was about to go to the Post Office Father and Mother came home. Both in good health. I had almost resolved to quit smoking, but Mother brought me some good cigars and so as I write the smoke curls gracefully around my head. Smoking is favorable to revery + my reveries at present are very pleasant for Clark has been praising your likeness as perfection. Last night I slept but 3 hours, am unwell, and now it is eleven P. M. so I am forced to close this letter already too long. Goodbye."

When one can find things like this, who would not be a collector?

Friday, September 4, 2009

When swine flew

--that would've been my response if you'd asked me how often Tom has canceled classes and stayed home when he's been sick. He's one of those cranky, stubborn sick people who stoically go to work, then come home, lie on the couch, and moan. (Needless to say, I'm the same way.)

But now that WVU has two confirmed cases of H1N1 and the President of the United States has not just given people permission to stay home when they're sick, but ordered them to, it's another story. Tom's been fevery and stuffy for a couple of days, so he's couch bound today.

And if you won't listen to the President, maybe you'll take the advice of the "Notorious F.L.U.":