Friday, November 30, 2012

Dissertation Revelation: Pervasive Apocypha

When I first started writing my dissertation proposal, I knew that apocrypha were important in Anglo-Saxon England. Otherwise, why would it be suitable for a dissertation? Of course, many others have written about the subject, but I wanted to offer a larger scope, a fuller examination beyond just a few topics. So I planned a project in which I use each chapter to look at a specific apocryphal genre--extra-canonical gospels, Acts, apocalyptica--and how texts in that genre are adapted into Old English sermons. That's all been there from the beginning, and it still is.

But I recently had a revelation that pushed all of this forward for me. Apocrypha were not just important for the sermons, or for specific (mostly anonymous) authors who wrote the texts in which I am most interested. No, I realized something else. I realized an important fact about the transmission of apocryphal materials: namely, that apocrypha were pervasive.

That should have seemed obvious from the amount of scholarly discussion amassed on the subject. The collaborative SASLC volume on The Apocrypha, ed. Biggs is around 100 pages summarizing and condensing all of this scholarship, ranging across the range of Jewish and Christian apocrypha and pseudepigrapha that possibly influenced Anglo-Saxons. But, for my own topic--focused just on Christian apocrypha--the mass of media hadn't quite hit me until recently. I was writing about Ælfric and the apocryphal Acts of the apostles when it happened. The following is what I wrote.
Ælfric would have had access to apocryphal apostolic Acts all around him, in a variety of forms. Further confirmation of this notion is found in the extensive list of Latin works that Ælfric directly cites, as reconstructed by Michael Lapidge.[1] Including works by forty-two named authors, as well as several more anonymous titles, “These writings in sum,” Lapidge writes, “reveal him [Ælfric] as an author of very wide reading, particularly in patristic sources, and imply that he had access to a substantial library.”[2] Of the anonymous works, nine are apocryphal apostolic Acts. Since apostolic apocrypha comprise just one part of this array of materials, Ælfric (like the anonymous authors of the Vercelli and Blickling sermons) would have had little reason to regard them with suspicion; indeed, the inclusion of these texts in the same libraries--and, in some cases, in the same codices--as authoritative works by authors such as the Church Fathers would have likely encouraged his use of them.
That, in a nutshell, is the whole argument of my dissertation, and I've explored many more of the details in the few individual chapters I've written so far. But thinking about Ælfric finally put it all in perspective. Admittedly, that's the argument I've been making all along. That last point is the clincher for me, the idea that I've suspected along, but hadn't quite clicked the way it needed to for me to push the implications even further, closer to the polemical argument I want to make in my project. No matter how modern scholars have classified apocryphal materials, and no matter what bias they bring to these so-called "heterodox" texts, apocrypha were rampant in Anglo-Saxon England, and they were considered orthodox to Anglo-Saxons because they were just as pervasive as any number of other authoritative texts. Even for Ælfric--though some scholarship has not acknowledged it.

[1] The Anglo-Saxon Library (Oxford, 2006), 250-66.
[2] Ibid., 250.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

CFP: NEMSC Graduate Student Conference, March 16, 2013

I am currently in the midst of co-organizing a rotating graduate conference, which will be hosted this academic year by the University of Connecticut (my home institution). So I'm posting the CFP here in hopes of getting the word out to any and all interested attenders. Please feel free to pass it on!

30th Annual New England Medieval Studies Consortium Graduate Student Conference

Saturday, March 16, 2013
University of Connecticut

Abstracts from graduate students are now being accepted for the 30th annual New England Medieval Studies Consortium Graduate Student Conference, to be held at the University of Connecticut on Saturday, March 16, 2013. This year’s theme will be "Collaborations."

"Collaborations" is a concept that pervades both the medieval period and the field of medieval studies, and provides a major theme for considering a variety of relevant subjects. In its breadth, this theme is meant to encompass a wide array of topics from graduate students working in all areas of medieval studies. Toward this end, we welcome papers from an assortment of disciplines, including:

Anthropology — Archaeology — Art History — Byzantine Studies — Classical Studies —Digital Humanities — Gender Studies — History — History of Science — Islamic Studies — Judaic Studies — Language Studies — Literary Studies — Mediterranean Studies — Manuscript Studies — Musicology — Philosophy — Religious Studies — Theology

We also look forward to papers that incorporate or deal with notions of interdisciplinary or multi-disciplinary methods; and that examine the theme of collaborations theoretically.

Possible topics include (but are not limited to):
Collaborations in medieval culture
Receptions of the medieval in the modern world
Collaborations in academia
Interdisciplinary/multi-disciplinary methodologies
Theories of collaboration

The deadline for submissions is January 15, 2013. Abstracts of up to 250 words should be e-mailed to Brandon Hawk and Patrick Butler at Papers should be no more than 20 minutes in length and read in English. Graduate students whose abstracts are selected for the conference will have the opportunity to submit their papers prior to the conference to be considered for the Alison Goddard Elliott Award for the Outstanding Conference Paper.

For more information about NEMSC, see our website:

Friday, November 16, 2012

Among the Barbarians

I'll soon be attending my very first conference of the AAR -- American Academy of Religion. I'm hoping to blend in but if you don't hear back from me in a week or so, send in the marines.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Revisiting the "Judeo-Christian" Tradition

Just to toot my own horn for a moment, I have just co-edited a special issue of the journal Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception, 2:2 (2012) entitled "Revisiting the 'Judeo-Christian' Tradition." Some really wonderful essays there (and my mediocre one), especially in that many of them try (successfully, I think) to bridge chronological gaps and move between ancient/ medieval and modern.

Check it out at

Call for Papers- “New Media and the Middle Ages"

Hello all!  My dear old CUNY Grad Center just put out their call for papers for their 8th annual grad student conference.  It sounds like it will be a great conference this year.  Please excuse the shameless self-promotion!

“New Media and the Middle Ages"
8th Annual Pearl Kibre Medieval Study Graduate Student Conference
CUNY Graduate Center, New York, NY
March 1, 2013, 10am-4pm

The field of medieval studies has a relatively long and recognized history of scholarship assisted by technology. The 2013 PKMS Graduate Student Conference aims at addressing some of the key concepts, questions, and methodologies concerning the convergences between developments in both new and old technologies and our study of the medieval past.

One of the first to merge new advances in technology with humanities scholarship was a medievalist, Fr. Roberto Busa, who in the 1940s conceived and developed the Index Thomisticus, a tool for performing text searches within the massive corpus of Aquinas's works, in collaboration with IBM. Today dozens of digital resources are available for the medievalist: online collections of digitized manuscript images, full- text databases, online scholarly editions, and tens of thousands of books and journals.  One of the more recent and popular trends amongst medievalists in new media technology is the transformation of medieval texts and data- widely conceived- into new forms of media and technology. Projects such as Piers Plowman Electronic Archive and the Mapping Medieval Chester project exemplify only a few of the innovative applications of new media to our study of the medieval world.  Shared amongst these projects’ use of digital tools is an emphasis on remediation, taking data in one form and transforming and transposing it into another form of usable media. Additionally, through a greater focus on developments in contemporary technology, or as result of its proliferation, scholars and researchers have also become more attuned to the use, development, and creation of medieval technologies in the contexts of the written word, manuscripts, works of art, music, architecture, warfare, urban planning, and others. 

Papers might address such questions as:  What insights might digital humanities allow in our study of medieval texts, architecture, music, manuscripts, and art?  What kinds of multimedia objects or events existed in the medieval period, and how might we as modern scholars still have access to them? What are the consequences of considering medieval manuscripts, texts, and works of art as multimedia works? 

Other topics for presentations may include:
·       Translation and dictionary projects

·       Digital projects in the visual and performance arts     

·       Encoding of medieval manuscripts and printed texts

·       Management and preservation of digital resources

·       The cultural impact of new media

·       The role of digital humanities in academic curricula

·       Funding and sustainability of long-term projects

Graduate students, please submit your abstract of no more than 300 words by November 30, 2012.
Include your name and affiliation.
Papers must be 15-20 minutes in length.
Submissions should be emailed to

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Tracing Apocrypha, Medieval to Modern

The other day I started wondering about how to relate my dissertation research on apocrypha in Old English sermons to more contemporary topics. So, on a whim, I returned to a blog post by Michael Peppard that I had read about Pope Benedict XVI's quotation of a saying of Jesus (an agraphon) that ultimately goes back to the Gospel of Thomas. This lead me to the online papal archives (see here), where I started searching and reading around in Benedict's other sermons.

As I soon discovered, serendipitously, the papal archives reveal a wealth of information about Benedict's attitudes toward and uses of apocrypha. Benedict's sermons show a variety of references and appropriations of apocrypha, including allusions, citations, quotations, and narrative adaptations. Even more, his appropriations of apocrypha strike me as very similar to the ways apocryphal materials appear in Old English sermons--typology, allegory, and a number of other connections to Anglo-Saxon cultural currents. Perhaps I should not be surprised to find such strong resonances of the medieval (and such strong connections to Anglo-Saxon sermons) in Benedict's sermons, but I was. Here I share one instance that struck me, with some thoughts about the parallels I found.

Benedict's 2007 Easter Vigil sermon (April 7, 2007) provides a remarkable appropriation of the Harrowing of Hell, drawing on the Psalms, Jonah, and the familiar imagery of Christ's descent in apocryphal materials--however traditional this motif has become, filtered through centuries of authorities.[1] For full effect, I quote the passage in full:
Let us return once more to the night of Holy Saturday. In the Creed we say about Christ’s journey that he "descended into hell." What happened then? Since we have no knowledge of the world of death, we can only imagine his triumph over death with the help of images which remain very inadequate. Yet, inadequate as they are, they can help us to understand something of the mystery. The liturgy applies to Jesus’ descent into the night of death the words of Psalm 23 [24]: "Lift up your heads, O gates; be lifted up, O ancient doors!" The gates of death are closed, no one can return from there. There is no key for those iron doors. But Christ has the key. His Cross opens wide the gates of death, the stern doors. They are barred no longer. His Cross, his radical love, is the key that opens them. The love of the One who, though God, became man in order to die—this love has the power to open those doors. This love is stronger than death. The Easter icons of the Oriental Church show how Christ enters the world of the dead. He is clothed with light, for God is light. "The night is bright as the day, the darkness is as light" (cf. Ps 138 [139] 12). Entering the world of the dead, Jesus bears the stigmata, the signs of his passion: his wounds, his suffering, have become power: they are love that conquers death. He meets Adam and all the men and women waiting in the night of death. As we look at them, we can hear an echo of the prayer of Jonah: "Out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice" (Jn 2:2). In the incarnation, the Son of God became one with human beings--with Adam. But only at this moment, when he accomplishes the supreme act of love by descending into the night of death, does he bring the journey of the incarnation to its completion. By his death he now clasps the hand of Adam, of every man and woman who awaits him, and brings them to the light. (par. 6)[2]
It is true that the declaration that Jesus "descended into hell" is part of the Apostles’ Creed and Catechism of the Catholic Church,[3] yet the details added here fully align with apocryphal traditions developed and maintained in early and medieval Christianity. Reading this passage, I was immediately reminded of Blickling VII, which includes a long scene about the Harrowing of Hell. The motifs Benedict incorporates especially relate to iconographic traditions. For example, Benedict appeals to Christ’s cross as key in the Harrowing, and "the Easter icons of the Oriental Church," which are related to similar images in Anglo-Saxon psalters. Benedict’s quotation of Jonah and his incorporation of Adam in this scene are, in fact, typological, rhetorical, and poetic in ways that his medieval predecessors would fully endorse: Adam is not only the first man, with Christ as his typological mirror image, but also a symbol for all of humanity, redeemed from hell through Christ’s Crucifixion, Harrowing, and Resurrection--none of which are independent from the others.

This Easter Vigil sermon is also not devoid of appeal to cultural relevance. Like Anglo-Saxon sermon authors (like all sermon authors are called to do in Pope Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care!), Benedict situates the Harrowing in a contemporary context for his audience. He ends his sermon with an exhortation and a prayer that link the Harrowing with an allegorical spiritual need in the present:
Love made Jesus descend, and love is also the power by which he ascends. The power by which he brings us with him. In union with his love, borne aloft on the wings of love, as persons of love, let us descend with him into the world’s darkness, knowing that in this way we will also rise up with him. On this night, then, let us pray: Lord, show us that love is stronger than hatred, that love is stronger than death. Descend into the darkness and the abyss of our modern age, and take by the hand those who await you. Bring them to the light! In my own dark nights, be with me to bring me forth! Help me, help all of us, to descend with you into the darkness of all those people who are still waiting for you, who out of the depths cry unto you! Help us to bring them your light! Help us to say the "yes" of love, the love that makes us descend with you and, in so doing, also to rise with you. Amen! (par. 8)
For Benedict, as for medieval thinkers, the Harrowing is not merely an event of the historical past; it is soteriological; it is symbolic; it is continual, even up to the present; and it is an act in which believers are called upon to participate. Benedict's Harrowing imagery thus affirms the long tradition, from early Christianity, through the medieval, to the modern, even permeating the postmodern (on which Benedict himself has written in some of his books). In short, I would argue that Benedict's use of apocrypha is, to use the title of this blog, "Modern Medieval."

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Easter Vigil, Saint Peter’s Basilica, April 7, 2007, Vatican: The Holy See,, cited by paragraph.

[2] Biblical citations provided here are original to the transcription.

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, I.ii.2.5.1, Vatican,