I met Eleanor during Freshers’ Week 2014, amidst the whirlwind of introductory sessions for ASNaCs (students in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic) during which they crammed our heads full of information that, in my case at least, was immediately pushed out by other things. We sat at the back of the room, exchanging memes about Achilles and Patroclus, and that was it. We were friends.
I know there must have been more to it than that — what was it about Eleanor that made eighteen-year-old me think she was a safe person to talk to about queer readings of mythological figures? — but that’s what I remember. Being overwhelmed, sitting next to Eleanor, and exchanging memes.
This proved to be an accurate representation of how our friendship would progress, and now here we are, near enough seven years down the line. We’re a long way from the versions of ourselves who first embarked on their medievalist journeys, but a lot of things have stayed the same. And today we thought we’d talk a little bit more about how we ended up studying what is probably Cambridge’s most obscure subject. How did we find out it existed, and what made us think — in an era of high tuition fees — that this was what interested us? Were we budding medievalists from the cradle, or was everything new?
This isn’t intended as an advertisement for the ASNaC course in particular, but since it’s where we both started our medievalist journey (and where Eleanor has continued hers), it seemed like a good starting point to kick off our Blog Bodies series.
This is our first discussion post, so we’re still figuring out the logistics — let us know what works and what doesn’t!
Finn: For me, the road to ASNaC very much started with children’s books. Specifically, one children’s book: The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, which my grandma gave me when I was about ten — it sparked an interest in Irish music and folklore that later led to me becoming an Irish dancer. It also probably latched onto roots laid down by my childhood obsession with The Load of Unicorn by Cynthia Harnett (a historical novel about Caxton, the printing press, and Sir Thomas Malory, first published 1959), the nightmares I had after reading The Owl Service by Alan Garner, and of course, the huge influence of Tolkien on my childhood. You’ve definitely mentioned Alan Garner and Susan Cooper to me as influences, so did you have a similar experience?
Eleanor: I definitely didn’t have as good an idea of what I was interested in as you did! I found ASNC the absolutely classic way, by going onto the Cambridge website and seeing it at the top of the alphabetical list of subjects. But the books I read as a kid, and then as a teen, definitely set me up to be enthusiastic about it once I’d found it. Like you said, I read a lot of Alan Garner (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor) and Susan Cooper (The Dark Is Rising Sequence) – at the time, I didn’t realise just how much they were both drawing on ASNC-type lit and folklore: it’s more that I picked up The Vibes from them, and then when I saw ASNC on the website, The Vibes appeared. History-wise, I was a massive fan of Rosemary Sutcliff novels, and some of my favourites were set in the Late Antique and early medieval period (Beowulf: Dragonslayer, the entire series from The Eagle of the Ninth to Sword at Sunset), so I knew in theory that I liked the period. Even so, I absolutely didn’t anticipate just how much I was going to love it!
Finn: To be fair, I found ASNaC by accident while poking around on UCAS, so we have that in common. And we could probably do an entire post just about our childhood reading experiences, if people would be interested (let us know in the comments!). But for now… getting started as a nerd. I had no prior experience with medieval history or literature — I hadn’t studied it at school or anything. I’d been researching ‘Irish mythology’ for writing purposes for a couple of years, but most of my sources were… unreliable, and it wasn’t until a few months before starting at Cambridge that I actually read Táin Bó Cúailnge rather than relying on Edwardian retellings. It was a big learning curve. What about you, did you have much of a medievalist background?
Eleanor: Does being into Julian of Norwich count? But in all seriousness, I was in a very similar position to you, really. I hadn’t covered medieval history since my first year of secondary school. My school was unusual in focusing on the 16th and 17th centuries for A-Level History, so I knew that I liked looking at earlier history, and the further back the better – I liked immersing myself in a version of society very different from my own. And I knew that I enjoyed the language element of medieval studies because I’d done Latin (thank you, Catholic school) – and even that was unusual in our cohort: I’d done Latin up to A-Level, but most people were starting from scratch, and the people in the intermediate classes with me had largely dropped it after GCSE. But I had no real experience of studying the medieval period at all! So it was a big shift to go from “all dates start with 19- or 20-” to “all dates start with 15- or 16-” to “all dates start with something between 4- and 10-”.
Finn: My school pretty much only focused on the 20th century, so I’m a bit jealous you got to do earlier stuff! I know there’s a stereotype that everyone’s studied the Tudors a million times, but I just did the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations over and over again… it’s one of the reasons I didn’t take History A-Level, I couldn’t face doing it again.
I have to say, there were definitely moments in first year when I was profoundly disappointed by the way that the Irish material didn’t live up to my Romanticist expectations. Most of my sources as a teen were from the 19th century, or relied on scholarship that was, so I went into it expecting gods and fairies. Instead, I got a lot of monasteries. Like, a lot. The amount of ecclesiastical history involved was something that really hadn’t clicked for me before I started. Of course, as you know, I ended up going purely literary and hiding from the concept of mythology, so I got over that, but… are there ways in which ASNaC destroyed your dreams or preconceptions?
Eleanor: I definitely had some preconceptions, going in, about the degree to which things would be “pagan” – euhemerized gods showing up in the literature, Secret Pagan Mindsets sneaking into the Christianity, all that sort of thing. Stuff that’s less studied these days, or that arose based on faulty assumptions in the first place. I do remember going into my first Welsh lecture and being told “we basically have no evidence about pre-Christian religion preserved in our lit, and also, the Mabinogi are definitely not as old as some people will tell you”, and going “…oh. Wait, what? Then why am I doing this course?” But what I realised pretty quickly was that things didn’t have to be explicitly non-Christian to be interesting – they just had to be weird. And the early medieval period has plenty of weirdness! Every time someone told me, “it’s more complex than that,” I just got more enthusiastic about digging down into the complexity. And I think we both found that the literature doesn’t necessarily have to preserve the secrets of an earlier time in order to speak to us. It speaks just fine on its own.
Finn: Yeah, medieval Christianity is way weirder than your bog-standard modern English church where everything’s very respectable — something you never see represented in pop culture depictions of the medieval period! Saints’ lives are wild. And I agree about the literature not needing to preserve secrets to be interesting. That doesn’t mean I dismiss all possibilities of mythological survivals or whatever, but it does mean I don’t really care if they’re there or not.
Did you know going into it what your focus would be? It was always the Irish material that drew me, but I flirted with the idea of Old Norse for a while (which I ended up dropping after first year), and I made a valiant attempt at Welsh in final year before returning to my true love. But you seemed a bit more consistent in terms of what papers you took.
Eleanor: I knew that I liked Old English, and I did end up taking it all through undergrad, so in that sense, yes. But I thought Old English lit, and Scandinavian and pre-Conquest English history, would be way more important to me than they actually ended up being! Everywhere I applied outside of ASNC, I was originally applying for things like Viking Studies! Welsh was kind of a neat add-on for me at first, because I thought it looked cool and I liked going on holiday in Wales. I really struggled with the language to start with, too. It wasn’t until I started writing essays on Welsh lit, and learning how beautiful englyn poetry was and how gloriously weird Welsh Arthuriana is, that I discovered I wanted to keep doing it and actually make it my focus. (And look at me now – these days I focus on saints, and I had no idea I had any interest in saints’ cults until my third year of undergrad!)
Finn: I applied for English and History at most other places… but I’m really not a historian, I’m definitely a literature person. Funny how we can be wrong about these things. Fortunately, though, we ended up in the same place, or I wouldn’t have one of my closest friends <3 And maybe one of these days we’ll get you to tell everyone here about some of those saints’ cults!
So that’s where we started — where are we now? I’m finishing up an MA in Early and Medieval Irish at University College Cork, and Eleanor is doing a PhD in the ASNaC department at Cambridge, researching a 14th-century manuscript of saints’ Lives and trying to pin down where it was made.
And we exchange memes about medieval lit.
A lot of memes.
Some things never change.
You can find Eleanor here: @englynsmith
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