New Ways To Know The Medieval: Creativity, Pedagogy and Public Engagement with Colm Cille's Spiral

Francesca Allfrey, Francesca Brooks, Joshua Davies, Rebecca Hardie, Carl Kears, Clare Lees, Kathryn Maude, James Paz, Hana Videen, and Victoria Walker


Colm Cille's Spiral1 was a contemporary re-imagining of ideas from the distant past spread by the sixth-century Irish monk Colm Cille, or Columba, patron saint of Derry-Londonderry (Northern Ireland), through an ambitious collaboration of artists, writers and academics that took place between June-December 2013. It was devised by Clare Lees for King's College London's Centre for Late Antique and Medieval Studies and by Difference Exchange, an independent arts organisation based in London. The Spiral project brought early medieval scholarship and twenty-first century artistic practice into engagement to explore creative, critical, cultural and pedagogic approaches to early medieval culture inside and outside the academy. It used Derry-Londonderry's status as the UK City of Culture 2013 as a point of contact and departure. It fostered networks between artistic and academic professionals and funding bodies across the UK and Ireland to investigate how Colm Cille's legacy might speak across arts practices, academic disciplines and cultural contexts, and to challenge modern definitions of the relation of scholarship to performance. It was funded by the King's Cultural Institute, Derry-Londonderry UK City of Culture, Creative Scotland, Arts Council Wales, Newcastle University, and Dublin City Council.

The Spiral was composed of six sites of activity or "knots" based in Derry-Londonderry, Glasgow, Lindisfarne and Bamburgh, London and Essex, Dublin, and Llandeilo and Lichfield, which tracked the journeys of the Columban mission along once-vital perimeters and sea routes. The word "knot," a term borrowed from early medieval art, was used to distinguish the distinct projects which unfolded at each site, and to describe how each element of the project weaved together discrete strands of thought and practice and in turn formed part of the whole "spiral." Curators and artists worked together at each site to produce new artworks and exhibitions which explored key aspects of the Columban legacy. The artworks and performances were accompanied by talks and discussion in each knot of the Spiral, enlightening and inspiring new understandings of a fascinating shared history of the islands of Britain and Ireland. The commissioned works, each exhibited at their originating sites, were re-presented in December 2013 in Derry-Londonderry as part of the UK City of Culture 2013 celebration.

The events described and analyzed in this essay were developed initially as part of the London and Essex knot, before becoming autonomous projects. Furtherfield, an arts organisation based in Finsbury Park, London, was the partner institution for this knot and the project was led by Marc Garrett of Furtherfield in collaboration with Clare Lees, Josh Davies and Difference Exchange—Ben Eastop, Tim Eastop and John Hartley. Working under the rubric "Ethical Knowledge," Garrett commissioned the artist Erica Scourti and a group of postgraduate students from King's College London to explore how the intellectual and cultural ambitions of the Columban mission might be engaged in the twenty-first century. The students (some of whom now have their doctorates) all contributed to this essay, with particular contributions by Francesca Allfrey, Kathryn Maude, Hana Videen and Victoria Walker. They were challenged to consider how their knowledge of and research in Old English literature and early medieval culture might be re-presented more broadly as part of a large-scale public art project for a non-specialist audience. The knot provided the students with an opportunity to think creatively and artistically about their own critical practice, collectively as well as individually.

The project also developed the interests of Lees in creativity and medieval studies, evidenced in her undergraduate and postgraduate teaching as well as publications. As we worked on the various events connected with or arising from Colm Cille's Spiral—performance and public participation, word collection and donation, sound recordings and social media, collaboration with artists, with the public and with each other—we discovered and were offered new ways to engage with Old English language and early medieval culture. These new methodologies and ways of thinking enriched our sense of ourselves as scholars exploring the earliest medieval centuries creatively and pedagogically.


Interruptions: New Ways to Know the Medieval At Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex


The first public event arising from "Ethical Knowledge" took place in July 2013 at St Peter-on-the-Wall, an Anglo-Saxon chapel in Bradwell-on-Sea, Essex, UK, founded by Cedd in the mid-seventh century. Initial ideas were developed in two workshops at King's College London, one led by Garrett, one by Lees. Allfrey, Kears and Davies had previously journeyed to the site by bicycle to begin to think about its place in the landscape and explore the opportunities and limitations of the site. One serious limitation was the lack of technology at St Peter's, which forced the students to rethink their usual methods of presentation, pedagogy and engagement.

As members of the public began to arrive at the event, students stationed themselves in various places around the site, inside and outside the church, offering different ways of connecting to the early medieval through artistic interventions. Visitors moved at their own pace, encouraged by Victoria Walker's "interrupted map" of Old English, Modern English and Latin words and pictures, distributed in random order. Rebecca Hardie experimented with translation and perception, asking guests to select Old English words for things or emotions from a pre-assigned list and to find written equivalents placed on items across the site. Hana Videen explored connections between the human and nonhuman, using the bleeding trees of the Old English poem Christ III to provoke guests to find the most "human" parts of St Peter's. Kathryn Maude exchanged stories of forgotten women, swapping guests' reflections about women "lost in the margins" in their personal histories for stories about Anglo-Saxon women. Outside, Carl Kears, inspired by his own journey to the church by bike a few weeks earlier, invited visitors to imagine viewing the chapel from the sea in the seventh century—contemplating exile, they saw St Peter's anew as a site of sanctuary and looked at manuscript images of the Ark (at once a ship and a church). Francesca Allfrey gave guests recordings of The Seafarer, read by James Paz, to listen to as they walked along the shore, before discussing how the past's spatial and sonic traces might be recovered.

The event encouraged the students to confront what they believed to be relevant and valuable about their research. The combination of a lack of technology available at St Peter's and a non-specialist audience meant that they had to think beyond their more traditional encounters with Anglo-Saxon material in the classroom. All but one of the students had experience teaching medieval literature at university level and was familiar with the questions of relevance and difference that can dominate classroom discussion.2 However, this event, and the Spiral more broadly, presented a different challenge. It wasn't enough for the students to try and persuade their audience that this material was relevant to their lives. Instead the students were required to use their own creative practice to uncover common ground between the medieval and the contemporary that they might explore in dialogue with the participants. Prompted by St Peter's unique location and rich history and given the freedom to explore emotional, personal responses to Anglo-Saxon poems and histories, the students formulated new ways of approaching the medieval that extended their existing pedagogic skills and encouraged them to rethink the creative possibilities of their research. Their challenge was to take the lessons of this event and to develop the next phase of work with Colm Cille's Spiral.


Old Words Made New and the Old English Word of the Day


Disclosure: Old Words Made New took place at Furtherfield in November 2013. As preparation for the event, the students invited people to submit their favourite Old English words on social media, particularly Twitter and Facebook. Suggestions came from academics, people who had taken a required literature class as an undergraduate and remembered a couple of words, and many who had never formally studied Old English at all. A list of all the words donated was compiled to use at the event. On the day itself, a wall in the Gallery was painted white and several cans of black paint and paintbrushes were to hand to create a wall of Old English. The location (Finsbury Park, a large public park in North London) guaranteed a diverse audience, composed of local families and dog-walkers who happened to be passing through as well as students and academics who had heard about the event. The students showed the visitors the list of words, asked them what they knew about Old English, and told them about the word-collection project. Visitors could listen to Old English read aloud on MP3 players, as well as read various translations of a passage from The Dream of the Rood prepared by the students, as they walked round the Park. As with the event at St Peter's, the students' projects asked the visitors to examine the connections and disconnections between the contemporary and the early medieval in language, song, culture and environment. Some people remembered studying Beowulf in translation in school or seeing the film; others had taken an Old English module at university. Some didn't know a word of Old English and in that case the visitors were asked to choose a word from the list of "donations." The students explained the meanings of the words and explored their modern cognates, and then the visitors painted them on the wall. These words on the wall became a wordhord.

This event, which took place via social media and then in the social spaces of the gallery and park, produced a rich collection of words drawn from specialist and non-specialist alike. Among many other words, the word scildweall (shield-wall) was painted on the gallery wall, as was treow (tree, also truth) with an illuminated capital "T." There was a particularly large group of words written near the ground at child's height, words that captured a child's imagination like wyrm (dragon/snake/worm) and wyrd (fate). Some of the children signed their names or painted smiley faces beside their work. Norse futhark (runes) made an appearance, as did a stick-figure illustration of a battle, an exclamation mark, and some hash-tags. One woman wanted to know what the word for "warrior-queen" would be, and because none of the students and staff could provide an answer, the students made up a Old English cognate for her to use, cempacwen (literally "warrior-queen," but not actually found in Old English). A little girl painted her name on the wall—Teagan—and taught the students a new word. Although previously unknown to the students, teagan is Old English for "to dress" or "to prepare."

Figure 1. (Roll over to enlarge.) The "wordhord" at Furtherfield, Finsbury Park. November 2013. Photograph by Hana Videen.

Not long after Disclosure, Hana Videen decided to tweet an Old English word of the day. The Twitter account "Old English Wordhord" (@OEWordhord) now has over 13,000 followers and an accompanying blog and Facebook page. These adaptations of the wordhord promote the history of the English language through daily posts of Old English words and definitions, often illustrated by complementary—and sometimes comedic—medieval manuscript images. The blog ( archives and catalogues the project. People respond to tweets and posts regularly. Sometimes they want to know the meaning of a particular Old English word, other times they note the similarity of Old English words to modern words in Dutch or German. Sometimes people make jokes about words or talk about how great it would be certain words were still used today—words like offrung-spic (sacrificial bacon) and gebêorscipe (beer-ship, like a fellowship but with beer).

There have been other adaptations of the wordhord, too, one for the "Midsummer Water Day" in June 2014, and another at the University of Southampton in the autumn of the same year. Catherine Clarke invited the wordhord to Southampton for her "Old English Flashmob," an all-day event to promote her new first-year module, "Multimedia Old English: Song, Skin and Cyberspace." Francesca Allfrey, Hana Videen and Victoria Walker travelled to Southampton to work with Clarke. Before then, however, the "Midsummer Water Day" on 29 June 2014 offered a further opportunity to develop ideas from the Colm Cille project.


A Midsummer Water Day


Programmed as part of a series of public events organized by LIFT (London International Festival of Theatre), Somerset House, and King's Cultural Institute, the Midsummer Water Day offered the students another chance to develop the pedagogic tools and activities formulated during the Colm Cille project. Held on the 21 June 2015, the Midsummer Water Day was devised as an opportunity to bring together researchers from across King's College London to explore the biological and cultural meanings of water and how it signifies across different academic disciplines. It was staged to coincide with the installation of Amy Sharrocks' Museum of Water at Somerset House. The students brought together a range of activities including magnet poetry, Bosworth-Toller online stations, fill-in-the-images copies of the Junius Manuscript, and listening posts for the "Water Sound Hoard." Each activity was a way to teach something of Anglo-Saxon language and culture and to discover new research questions. Importantly, activities were not simply presented for visitors to find their own way through: conversation and exchange was absolutely central to the event.

Part of the day was approached as a live version of the Old English Wordhord project, with Hana Videen using the @OEWordhord account to collect donations of water-related words prior to the event. Over 50 donations came from scholars and enthusiasts from around the world, a testament to the liveliness of the community around @OEWordhord. On the day itself the students used the donated words to form a "magnet poetry" board.

Figure 2. (Roll over to enlarge.) Magnet poetry, Somerset House, June 2013. Photograph by Hana Videen.

Throughout the day participants were encouraged to discover Old English water words by talking with the students and using the Bosworth-Toller website. Many visitors were also generous with their own knowledge: the stories and words exchanged between the students and visitors spanned languages from Old English to Finnish, Irish Gaelic to Hindi, considered translation ethics and purpose, and indulged in the joy of the coincidental—misleading or serendipitous—homophone across languages. Visitors used their newly discovered Old English words to compose temporary poems using the magnet board, sometimes combining them with other languages. Witnessing and participating in the conversations and poetic creation, with each exchange we saw how forms of meaning-making and temporal and spatial distances became elastic through play with sound and sense.

Kathryn Maude led a fill-in-the-image Junius Manuscript activity, which focussed on participation through drawing, and, for older children and adults, through conversation. She discussed the incomplete nature of the manuscript with the visitors, and explained the debates around what might be missing from it. Queries about the way the extant illustrations of the manuscript function alongside the text elucidated a key aspect of Anglo-Saxon studies: the unknowable. As visitors learned what the words on the page meant, and were invited to draw an accompanying image, discussion of how to decide what the "right" image might be led to conversations about image as translation, and the notion of correct translation. Debates—exciting and troublesome—surrounding the work of translating and reinterpreting old texts were explored. Visitors were asked to consider how to handle the missing and the incomplete ethically, and how these questions permeate the editorial practices that mediate between the past and the present.

Figure 3. (Roll over to enlarge.) "Fill-in-the-image" Junius MS activity, Somerset House, June 2013. Photograph by Hana Videen.

The "Water Sound Hoard" [links to sound file] was curated by Fran Allfrey and included readings of water-related words, phrases and extracts from prose and poetry in Old English and Modern English. These words were accompanied by field recordings by sound artist For The Floods; a creative sound work based on Riddle 7 by the poet Hel Gurney; and a recording of Sally Beamish's "Seafarer" piano trio with accompanying images by Jila Peacock. Listening to Old English aloud can reveal nuances in the sound and metre of the poetry difficult to access through text alone. But the purpose of the recordings was not just to make Old English comfortable or to deny its distance from modern English. Many visitors described the experience of listening to Old English as strange or odd, and found that the language felt alien, that the words seemed like spells or lost chants. The students discussed these experiences with the visitors and encouraged them to explore ideas of authenticity and originality in hearing Old English and Modern English together. At a practical level, having recordings of Old English words available was also useful in the conversations with visitors, as they were able to speak the words themselves with more confidence. Many found the repeated command to "sing" or "speak" Old English poetry irresistible once they were familiar with the basic sounds of the language.


A Medieval Crypt Performance In London


Later that year in October 2014, as part of King's College London's Arts and Humanities Festival, work which began with Colm Cille's Spiral found another context in a series of collaborative events that explored the traces of the medieval past accessible underground in modern London. The events began with a performance by Irish artist Ceara Conway, commissioned specifically for the crypt at St Etheldreda's Church in Ely Place. Conway had been commissioned by the Derry-Londonderry "knot" of Colm Cille's Spiral in 2013 and was keen to revisit some of the ideas encountered in that previous project. This event developed not only practices and ideas first expressed as part of the Spiral, but also developed personal and profession relationships that began with it. Conway researched the site intensely before visiting and her piece was a response both to the space and to discussions with Kathryn Maude about St Æthelthryth/Etheldreda/Audrey before she arrived. With students from the King's College London MA in Theatre and Performance Studies, Caroline Johnson, Cheryl Lee, Francesca McLoughlin and Sofia Talon-Johnson, assisted by Theron Schmidt, Conway's work, Thin Places, explored the medieval resonances of the church and its context. Conway's performance was followed by walking tours led by students Francesca Brooks, Gabriela Cavalheiro, Mami Kanno, Charlotte Knight, Kathryn Maude, and Hana Videen of three medieval crypts in central London, and culminated in a roundtable discussion on creative engagements with the medieval at King's College London. Walking tours and collaborative work with contemporary sound and performance artists were added to the students' repertoire of new ways to know the medieval.

Figure 3. (Roll over to enlarge.) St Etheldreda's Church, Ely Place, October 2014. Photograph by Hana Videen.


Conclusions and ongoing work


By engaging with Colm Cille's Spiral, postgraduate students at King's College London learned to work with a variety of partners in a range of settings and in collaboration with a remarkably interested and diverse audience. These projects took Old English out of the classroom and into the public spaces of London, Essex and Southampton. They drew on the scholarly and creative investments in the past of all concerned and they have led to further consideration about the relationship between creative practice and medieval culture in our teaching and research. In 2015 we reformed to work with undergraduates taking introductory and advanced courses in Old English to produce an experimental collaborative translation of the Old English Riming Poem [Event listing, blog]. For this, we also worked with undergraduate and postgraduate students from Royal Holloway, University of London, led by Jennifer Neville. The collaborative translation was performed with the aid of artists Caroline Bergvall, Forster&Heighes, and the poet Tom Chivers. Our work at King's College London with the "creative medieval" is now a major component of our teaching at all levels of the curriculum, undergraduate and postgraduate.

At King's, part of our interest in the "creative medieval" is of course driven by a desire to increase the appeal of medieval studies among students, but we are also interested in the history of creativity in medieval studies, which we feel has often been overlooked. Translation and performance are at the heart of Anglo-Saxon Studies. A teacher of Old English needs to develop pedagogic skills to ensure that students feel comfortable taking creative risks—whether that is venturing a new translation, or simply voicing an unfamiliar word. So one of the aims of the projects described in this essay was to encourage early career researchers and teachers to think about how creativity is threaded through their academic practice. Another, broader, aim of the Spiral, was to invite the public at large to consider how the early medieval is threaded through the contemporary. From this perspective, the project relates to the debates around the role of the "public medievalist" that have been unfolding recently online and at conferences.4 Indeed, the events which constituted and sprang from the Spiral revealed to us that the medieval is always public—at St Peter's, Furtherfield, Somerset House, and on the crypt tour, we met members of the public who, while they identified as non-specialists, were deeply invested in and knowledgeable about the Middle Ages. At every turn we were taught that knowledge and insight flows in both directions between the academy and the public. Indeed, we learned that "the medieval" itself is constituted by this interaction, which sometimes takes place in the university, but more often beyond, and that one of our tasks as students and teachers is to incorporate the vitality of this discourse within our practice. This is not to say that all members of the public are able to access the medieval equally, or that all medievalists enjoy equal access to public forums, but that the public are always one of our potential audiences, whether we acknowledge them or not.

1. Link:

2. See, for example, Samantha Rayner, "'Perced to the Roote': Challenges in Teaching Chaucer at UK Universities," Literature Compass 5 (2008), 195-206, for a discussion of introducing Chaucer to students who have no background in medieval literature. For an article with an Old English focus, see Kathryn Maude, "'Primitive,' 'Unsophisticated' and 'Irrelevant': addressing first year students' assumptions about the Middle Ages," Higher Education Research Network Journal 8 (2014), 33-43.

4. For a distilled version of Richard Utz's plenary at Kalamazoo, see [this link]. On the 'public medievalist' roundtable at Leeds IMC, July 2015, and ensuing debate see []; [this link]; []; []; and [].