Archives of the North Atlantic

Interest in archives, inspired by the work of Derrida and Foucault, drives much recent scholarship on memory and temporality, but it remains a question how useful Derrida and Foucault are as models for study of the Middle Ages (K. Davis, “Time” [2012]; Brown et. al Documentary Culture and the Laity in the Early Middle Ages [2013]). Their emphasis on hierarchy and massive, large-scale collections is problematic for medieval archives, as is the fact that their work is informed by the practices of modern states and technologies. What, then, is an archive (or archives) in a medieval context? Much good work has recently been done on how legal documents participated in preserving and promoting institutional memory, especially in the context of the church (Tinti, Sustaining Belief [2010]; Tollerton, Wills and Will-Making [2011]; Snook, The Anglo-Saxon Chancery [2015]), but many of these projects study the work of a single archive or country, or do not engage with unofficial practices.  

Although “archives” are often understood to be collections of records and other documents, this seminar will explore the ways in which medieval people conceived the archive as constituted by other media as well, including coins, poems, cups, and ships. Archives are often distinguished from other collections like treasure hoards in that archives are deliberately gathered and maintained, curated by guardians over an extended period of time. What would it mean to imagine the Staffordshire Hoard as an archive, or to take up Martin Carver’s argument regarding Sutton Hoo that burial is “poetry,” and that  “A grave is not simply a text, but a text with attitude, a text inflated with emotion….like poetry, it is a palimpsest of allusions” (37)?

For Derrida, the archive is always bound up with the death drive: the archive would not exist without the desire to destroy, because our desire to preserve is bound up with our awareness of mortality. But this destruction is not merely a source of loss. Instead, the archive demands its own destruction in order that it may become replicable. In similar ways, medieval archives respond to loss, erasure, forgetting, and destruction by carefully cultivating materials that might survive that loss. Drawing on the work of Renee Trilling, we ask whether there is a nostalgia of the archive, what might be the temporalities of the archive, and what the archive’s relationship is to the affective possibilities of memory. The seminar should also appeal to those concerned with the future of the archive, especially in the age of big data or the Anthropocene.  

Archives have the potential to gather materials from a wide array of sources, and over a broad range of time. In this way archives are an excellent model for the work of the interdisciplinary seminar. We would be open to participants from a wide range of fields (history, literary studies, art, archaeology). We are particularly excited about the ways in which reconceiving the archive might help encourage interdisciplinary conversations among participants, and about the ways in which the seminar format would encourage either formal or informal discussion of the challenges in accessing and assembling bodies of primary texts among participants from diverse backgrounds.

While one prong of the seminar might examine how medieval peoples conceived the archive, a second prong of the seminar might examine how medievalists must reconstruct their own archives of the medieval past, and the special challenges encountered in doing so. By this we mean not just that one must have the proper knowledge and credentials (and sometimes a bit of luck) to gain access to manuscripts, but also the ways in which studying certain topics (music, the senses, daily life, etc.) requires the scholar to assemble materials not already gathered, or not even extant. We hope this kind of conversation might inspire fruitful ideas for future work, and that participants could share knowledge of Irish and Norse resources that scholars working on England might have less access to (and vice versa).

Session 1: Archives of Poesis: Compilation and Desire

Thursday, November 3rd

“Desiring Archives and the Arca Libraria of Aldhelm’s Enigmata
Peter Buchanan, New Mexico Highlands University

“The Exile as Curator – Inside the microarchives of Deor and Ermoldus Nigellus”
Ricarda Wagner, University of Heidelberg

“Revisiting the Proverbial Archive: Scribal Habitus, the Transmission of Latin-Old English Proverbs, and the Exeter Book’s Rhyming Poem
Brian O’Camb, Indiana University Northwest


Session 2: Archives of History: Networks, Scribes, and Manuscripts

Friday, November 4th

“Communing Before the Conquest: Some 10th- and 11th-c. Networks”
Erica Weaver, Harvard University

“Portable Network: An Abbot’s Books and their Transmission”
Brandon W. Hawk, Rhode Island College

“Document and Monument: London, British Library Cotton Tiberius A.iii and the Archive”
Matthew T. Hussey, Simon Fraser University


Session 3: Archives of the Dead: Memory and Memorialization

Saturday, November 5th

“Archiving the Dead: Commemorative Writing, Permanence, and Personhood in Anglo-Saxon England”
Jill Hamilton Clements, University of Alabama at Birmingham

“Interlace in the Hagiographic Archive”
Robin Norris, Carleton University

“Reflecting on Medieval Archives”
Jordan Zweck, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Mary Kate Hurley, Ohio University