Dr Christopher Monk specialises in Anglo-Saxon studies. He taught for four years at the University of Manchester in England before embarking on a freelance career as a public cultural historian. His recent endeavours include a heritage project with Rochester Cathedral where he has collaborated on an interactive, ‘turn-the-pages’ medieval book, and an editorial advisory role for The Salariya Book Company for its forthcoming children’s book about the life of an Anglo-Saxon peasant. He blogs as The Anglo-Saxon Monk: www.anglosaxonmonk.com/blog.
It’s a great pleasure to be asked to write a guest post for JB’s blog. Janis [Editor’s note: JB Lyle = Janis B. Lyle] has always been very kind about my own blog, which I write as my alter ego, the Anglo-Saxon Monk, a slightly self-righteous and occasionally irreverent Benedictine from eleventh-century England. The fact that I have this monkish persona to maintain makes me question whether I should be ‘guesting’ for Janis as the real Dr Monk or, indeed, as that somewhat ridiculous, transhistorical monastic fellow. (Please note, he’s actually quite loveable once you get to know him.) So my apologies if I slip between the two.
The core reasons behind creating the Anglo-Saxon Monk actually reveal an awful lot about me as a researcher and writer. Yes, I write what I hope is robust academic material on Anglo-Saxon culture, but I also can’t resist poking fun at it all. (It’s just a tiny stick I make use of.) You see, I like humour; I like to think I have a sense of humour; and, personally, I learn things better when I laugh. In a way, I find it difficult to prevent the two, research and comedy, from intersecting; I refer to it as my marriage of mirth and mind. Whether or not the two have actually consummated their relationship is difficult to say… but perhaps I shouldn’t create that imagery for you right now – after all, we have only just met.
What I’m really saying here is that medieval history and culture is not the preserve of devoutly serious academics with wizened souls. Far from it. In fact, since I crawled out of my cloistered world, about fifteen months ago, and out into the light of social media, I’ve begun to properly appreciate just how many lovers and devourers of all things medieval there are. Yes, we are simply unavoidable in cyberspace: thousands of ever-so-slightly crazy people with unhealthy obsessions about sword-wielders, dragon-slayers, conquerors and queens, not to mention the more sensible, talented folk who can actually do medieval things. Those I’m just a bit jealous of.
Now I said ‘core reasons’, didn’t I? Well, despite my admission of poking fun at the medieval and its celebrants, the medievalists, I also think that this psyche of looking backwards into the distant past, if I may call it that, is inherently important. In other words, medieval matters! It matters because interest in medieval histories, languages and cultures is, I would suggest, often a reflection of the need to satisfy the inner person and passions – call it soul or spirit, if you wish – through an engagement with past peoples. Not only do we look at, or to, the medieval period because it interests us intellectually, but also because it gives us something back emotionally. And, with the example in mind of those with the gift of writing historical fiction, it fosters creativity, which in turn sparks the imagination. Such medieval matters, then, are not mere fripperies but rather are to be cherished and nurtured.
At times, I get a bit fed up, here in the UK, with what seems like a burgeoning cultural bias towards real knowledge and study, and important, proper, future-bound careers: life-saving science being an obvious example. I’m sure it’s the same in the US and other countries. Now, don’t get me wrong: hopefully, more girls and boys (especially girls) can now aspire to being doctors, scientists, engineers, innovators and inventors, compared to the kids who inhabited my world of basic education back in the late 70s and early 80s. But there are other needs and aspirations that need to be met and validated.
From my own experience, those academics working in the humanities seem to have to prove their worth; the arts are rarely acknowledged by others outside as being intrinsically valuable. No, those in these fields of study need to demonstrate ‘impact’. I think we’re expected to prove that we can cure cancer with literature, or somehow history should rival the discovery of graphene’s remarkable properties of strength and conductivity, which, incidentally, was described by the two Nobel laureates who made this discovery as ‘mucking about in a lab’. (Ah, maybe mucking about with a blog might gain me some recognition, after all.) I could moan on, and I will: Scientists get the lion’s share of government education funding and so the likes of History and Literature (and God forbid that we should mention the creative arts) are, apparently, luxuries in our societies. Grumble, grumble.
But perhaps you’re not quite feeling like listening to some old curmudgeon rant on about the neglect of the arts; perhaps you would prefer me to tell you a little more about what I actually get up to in my research. My sincere apologies if you’d already started to glaze over.
Well, one of the things I’ve been fortunate to be involved with recently is a heritage project for Rochester Cathedral in England. ‘Hidden Treasures, Fresh Expressions’ is a major development for England’s second oldest cathedral. It’s a marvellous opportunity for its people to bring to the nation, and beyond, the wonders of its history. At the centre of the project is a permanent exhibition which will feature the cathedral’s most precious treasure, Textus Roffensis (‘the text of Rochester’). And this is where I come in, since I’ve been working as the project’s history and manuscript expert.
This medieval codex dates to around 1123 but its contents are far older, as it contains unique copies of the most ancient law-codes in England, the so-called Kentish laws of the seventh-century. Now, just in case you are unable to contemplate anything but Magna Carta in the context of English medieval law – and that would be understandable – let me just say that written English law goes back to the year 600, when a certain King Æthelberht of Kent (or Ethelbert, even Bertie would do) had his judgements transcribed onto vellum, and not, may I add, in the language of Rome, oh no, but in his beloved Germanic tongue, which we now call Old English. Imagine: the moment English went from runes to a language of the book! You will now empathise with me, I trust, as I simply cannot resist saying, “Move over, Magna Carta, you’re so thirteenth-century!” Sincere apologies, there. That was the Anglo-Saxon Monk side of me getting a bit carried away.
Janis asked me if I would mind writing about one of the documents in Textus Roffensis that would truly grab the attention of her readers. So what do you fancy? There are over 450 pages to indulge in. Perhaps something from Alfred the Great’s Domboc, his great set of laws? We could take a look at its preface which contains Alfred’s version of the Ten Commandments. On second thoughts, Alfred leaves out one of the commandments, so maybe it would be best to avoid flirting with blasphemy, which a rehearsing of his edited version of the very words the Lord himself carved into stone may well cause us to do.
Or perhaps we could take a look at the foundation charter of Rochester Cathedral? It has the most beautiful historiated initial! Ah, maybe not, for though it purports to date back to the aforementioned Æthelberht, it just so happens to be a fraudulent document. Those naughty Anglo-Saxon monk-scribes!
How about we combine the spiritual with the literary? Yes! Let’s do that. So, did you know that Textus Roffensis is quoted in Lawrence Sterne’s eighteenth-century novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy? Of course you did! Well, perhaps you read that bit but didn’t quite realise it was a quote from Rochester’s great medieval book.
For those of you who are not familiar with Tristram Shandy (and, here, the Anglo-Saxon Monk would roll his eyes heavenward), it was for a few years, during the late 1750s and early 1760s, an insanely popular comic novel, written in nine volumes, that met with both extravagant praise for its somewhat bizarre humour (for example, the narrator-hero fails in the first two volumes of the work to even get himself born) and incandescent condemnation for its indecency (why, the narrator-hero obliges us with an enlightening description of the moment of his conception!).
So, never one to shy away from the indecent, let me now explain which part of Textus Roffensis Mr Sterne quoted from, and why this can be conceived of as spiritual:
In volume three of the novel, the hero’s father hands a certain Dr Slop a copy, from his personal collections, of an excommunication curse ‘writ by Ernulphus the bishop’ of Rochester, which Dr Slop obligingly reads aloud.
Now, it is a long excommunication curse. Very long. We might say, if we were being kind, comprehensive. So, not wishing to clog up Janis’ blog space, I will refrain from quoting the Latin and offering you Sterne’s translation in full, but rather go straight to the indecent bit.
Please, please discontinue from reading further if you are, even in the slightest, prone to deep blushing at the mere appearance of profanity on the page. If, however, you have a particularly strong constitution, you may actually, via this link, listen to the curse being read out, nay performed, by Michael Wood, Professor of Public History at the University of Manchester, and well known TV historian.
Whatever the case, please do bear in mind that this is not a text intended for titillation (shame on you, if you thought that for even one moment) but rather a deeply religious document, most probably originally penned sometime in the early medieval period (i.e. the eleventh century or earlier) by one of the worthiest of Roman bishops for the spiritual safety of the Holy Church. Indeed, everyone should know how to curse an excommunicant. They who abandon the Church deserve nothing less – surely?
Now let us just skip the reference, in the opening words of the curse, to the authority of God Almighty, the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and of the undefiled Virgin Mary, mother and patroness of our Saviour, not to mention all the celestial virtues, angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, powers, cherubins and seraphins, and all the holy patriarchs, prophets, and all of the apostles and evangelists, and all of the holy innocents in the sight of the holy Lamb. For I think we probably already knew that to utter an excommunication curse we would need to do a fair amount of invoking of various spiritual authorities.
And let’s just take it as a given that we need to damn our former communicant wherever he may be found, be that in the house or the stables, the garden or the field, or the highway, or the path, or the wood, or in the water, or in the church – what’s he doing there! Yes, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of cursing, and focus on the fellow’s processes of life. One, two, three, after me:
“May he [you are allowed to insert the name of a former acquaintance here] be cursed in living, in dying. May he be cursed in eating and drinking, in being hungry, in being thirsty, in fasting, in sleeping, in slumbering, in walking, in standing, in sitting, in lying, in working, in resting, in pissing, in shitting, and in blood-letting.”
There we have it, our author of this curse was so moved by his divinely ratified wrath that he blurted out a couple of rather naughty words – worthy of an appropriately emphatic delivery, no doubt. I will, however, come to the defence of our curser, here, by pointing out that Sterne’s choice of pissing is a little on the colourful side of possibilities for the Latin mingendo, though I understand the aesthetics here: ‘in urinating’ or even ‘in micturating’ wouldn’t quite have the same flow, would it? (Or perhaps I should have said ‘the same vigour’?)
As for the other profanity, the naughtier of the two words without doubt, well I don’t believe Sterne was a million miles away in his choice for translating the rather coarse cacando. Incidentally, those of you with a penchant for informal English may recognise here the etymological associations of the lovely word cack.
Now, if you so desire, you can go on to curse the excommunicant in all the faculties of his body. You know how this goes: from the hair of his head, through his thighs and his genitals (it’s very important that this tragic fellow not be allowed to reproduce), right down to his grubby toenails.
Alas, I must conclude, for I have taken up far too much of your time, I know. I merely want to say to you all that I hope that in using this example from Textus Roffensis I have demonstrated the intrinsic value of medieval culture. Indeed, not only have we gained insights into the behavioural and cognitive processes of peoples of the past, but we have learned a rather handy curse to boot. Perhaps, however, one best learnt in Latin: so after me, maledictus sint mingendo cacando.
JB’s postscript: Don’t know about you, but I want to see the blasphemy. By the way, fellow Americans, we’re more used to seeing the spellings “cherubim” and “seraphim,” but those aren’t typos.