Medieval Midlands Student Blogs for British Library

Rebecca Lawton, award-holder of the British Library AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership on the theme of ‘Understanding the Anglo-Saxons: the English and Continental Manuscript Evidence’, has written her first blog post for the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts Blog. Read it here!

In her post, Becky, who is supervised by Professor Jo Story (University of Leicester) and Dr Claire Breay (British Library), comments on ‘The Letter Book of Archbishop Wulfstan’.

Well done Becky!

Featured image:  Extract of a letter from Alcuin to King Æthelred of Northumbria, from the Letter Book of Archbishop Wulfstan, England, c. 1002-1023, Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV , f. 114r © British Library



An Exciting Time for Medievalists in the Midlands

It has been a great few years for Medieval Studies in the Midlands. First we had the discovery of the remains of Richard III by the University of Leicester, then the celebrated Birmingham Qu’ran manuscript at the University of Birmingham, as well as an Anglo-Saxon cure for MSRA at the University at Nottingham.

Aside from these headline grabbing events, one of the great things about being a postgraduate in the Midlands in the last few years is the increasing collaboration among universities in the region and the possibilities that have arisen from this.

As a Byzantinist, it’s fairly understandable that I’ve spent a good amount of my time over the past two years travelling to Birmingham, which is hallowed ground for Byzantine Studies – and indeed the study of the Eastern Mediterranean more generally. Although I’ve spent a good amount of my time consulting obscure texts at the university library, the main reason for spending so much time at Birmingham has been to attend the seminar series for the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. I’ve been attending these since the first year of my PhD and have found it an excellent way to broaden my understanding of my subject area and to meet other people working in my field.

Centre for Byzantine...

Schedule for the CBOMG Studies Seminar Series

I knew from attending last year that the seminar series was popular, which isn’t surprising given that it’s been going for forty years! But this year’s seminars have been better attended than ever before. I’ve learned to get myself to the Whitting Room as early as I can, since of the five seminars I attended last term, there was a lack of chairs in at least four (and if my memory isn’t faulty, the fifth as well). This seems to be largely a consequence of the strength of the departmental community at Birmingham, as well as the quality of speakers the Centre attracts. The topics have ranged from the seventh century to the thirteenth, from textiles, numismatics, histories, literature and just about everything in between. Needless to say, a lot of this falls well outside my own area of expertise, but I find that it’s important to make an effort to expose myself to new ideas. As a historian who works overwhelmingly with textual sources, I certainly find it thought provoking to see an archaeologist or an art historian approach things from an entirely different perspective, or even tell me what I’m doing wrong from time to time!

To this end, I’ve often found seminars I know little about to be the most thought-provoking. My knowledge tends to get a little hazy when we get to the twelfth century, Coin Outlinebut I found Michael Angold’s paper on Nicholas Mesarites fascinating, largely because I was grappling with the same issues he spoke about, namely innovation and exceptionality, at exactly that time. Likewise the talks by Michael Jeffreys and Margaret Mullett both referred to works outside my own period, but their observations on genre, audience and form related to several works that I’m working on myself. This made me consider whether or not the categories that I (and others) have used are a little too rigid. Anthony Kaldellis’ paper on the 10th and 11th centuries was probably the one I picked out as having the most immediate importance to my research. In terms of scope, I certainly couldn’t complain: he demolished the conventional picture of landholding in eastern Asia Minor and demonstrated just what a watershed the Seljuk invasion of Asia Minor was, as well as rehabilitating the previously maligned emperor Constantine IX. Finally, Jonathan Shepard’s paper on the extent of trade networks between Byzantium, Britain and beyond proved especially provocative to me given how sceptical most intellectual historians seem to be about external influences nowadays.

Staff House, University of Birmingham

Staff House, University of Birmingham

After the seminar, a short trip across the centre of campus takes us to the Staff House for post-seminar drinks and chat. A consequence of having such a department with such a long-standing tradition is that the postgraduate community here is large, proficient and very welcoming. I’ve found that getting to know staff members and fellow PhD students has been one of the most rewarding products of attending the series. My only real regret so far is that I haven’t been able to keep abreast of their research as much as I’d like, given that I’m only in Birmingham every fortnight or so. All this comes down to the pressures on time that every PhD student is forced to contend with, but I would certainly encourage new PhD students to take any opportunity to attend events outside the confines of their own university or department. In the short term it can prove difficult to reconcile with your other commitments, especially if there is a lot of travelling involved, but I find that, in the long term, the effort is certainly worth it.

Carl DixonCarl Dixon is a 2nd year PhD student at the University of Nottingham, funded by the Midlands3Cities consortium. His research focuses on the Greek sources of the Paulician heresy.

Images: ‘Richard III‘ © Wolf Gang; Birmingham Qu’ran; Ancient Biotics Project © University of Nottingham; ‘Staff House, University of Birmingham‘ © sw77.




Papers are invited for the 2016 EMREM two-day interdisciplinary symposium, to be held at the University of Birmingham on Thursday 5th and Friday 6th May 2016. The theme for this year’s event is ‘Chaos and Catastrophe; Restoration and Renewal’.

Postgraduate speakers from all fields of EMREM (Early Medieval, Medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, Early Modern, c400-c1700) are welcome to share their research and build networks at this friendly and well-established symposium.

Possible topics might include, but are not limited to:

Civil Wars                                        Restoration

Dynastic Feuds                                Legitimacy

Reformation                                    Counter-Reformation

Providential Disasters                     Conservation and Resilience

Disease and Famine                        Medicine and Containment

Memories of Catastrophe                Visions of Utopia

Death of a Leader                            Coronation

Collapse of Empire                          The New World

Sudden Death                                  Ars Moriendi

Apocalypse                                      Resurrection

Suffering                                         Hope

Papers should be 20 minutes in length. Please send proposals of approximately 300 words, OR 1000 words if applying as a panel, to by 1st March 2016.

We have normally been able to provide the conference free of charge and with grants available to cover reasonable travel costs for speakers. We are confident that we will be able to do the same this year.


EMREM logo

Image © Gabriel Calderón


Quadrivium XI: The Academic Book of the Future

‘Identity, Use and Creation of Academic “Books” for Medievalists’, 25-26 February 2016, Centre for Textual Studies, De Montfort University

This is a two-day training event for doctoral students and early-career researchers in medieval studies, partially supported by the AHRC-funded projects The Academic Book of the Future and the Quadrivium Network. Registration is now open at the Quadrivium website.

The event addresses questions surrounding the academic books for medievalists. In the 20th century, an academic book for medievalists was relatively easy to identify. It often embodied at least 20 years of rigorous scholarship. It was often a thick volume, hardcover, and published by a reputable publisher. It was a big, significant and eye-opening book, which would be read, referred and used over and over by all scholars in the field.

The new digital technologies have brought about a modification in the methodologies for researching, producing and delivering the scholarship. The merit of digital environment for scholarly publishing may now seem to be more than self-evident. Now that creating the ‘impact’ of our research on the world beyond academia is a compulsory element for our academic career, one may naturally think that publishing the digital ‘books’ (or resources) and distributing them online is the way to go. Indeed, many current researchers in the field have produced digital academic ‘books’.

The scholarly community, however, has not come to a consensus as to what a digital academic ‘book’ looks like. How do we identify ‘a digital academic book? How do we create it, and do we want/need to create it? If we make one, then, how do we ensure that all scholars in the field can continue to use it for years to come? And, how does the emergence of the academic book in digital format influence the way we create, use and value the print academic book? The event will consist of hands-on workshops drawn upon existing expertise and experience the Quadrivium team gained by working on AHRC-funded digital projects.

Feature image: ‘Plates’ by Tom Garnett.


IMR 3 Minute Thesis competition 2015

The Institute for Medieval Research invites PG medievalists from all institutions and departments to present their research and its significance in no more than three minutes for a chance to win the IMR 3MT® Competition. There will be two prizes: one determined by a panel of three judges and another determined by audience vote.


Click here to enlarge.

The competition will take place on Wednesday 9 December, 5–7pm, Room A11, Highfield House, University Park.

The rules for the competition are more relaxed than the official 3MT® rules and are designed to be more accessible to students in the early stages of their respective courses. Read them here PDF format. We aim to bring together medievalists from a variety of departments and give them the chance to present their research in a supportive environment.

To enter, please email Carl Dixon ( with your name, thesis title, department, and supervisor name(s).

Deadline for entries: Friday 27 November 2015.

New Medieval Seminar Series at UoN

Roberta Cimino, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of Nottingham, has put together a new postgraduate seminar series for medievalists.

The seminars are aimed at PG students and early career researchers from all disciplines and institutions, but all students and staff are welcome!

The first session will be held on Wednesday 11 November, 12.30-2pm in Room C53, Humanities Building, University Park, University of Nottingham. This session will focus on coins: Anja Rohde will be discussing the design of early medieval English coins (and why Aethelred the Unready has a mohawk!) and Mariele Valci will be talking about a coin hoard from the Forum of Nerva.

Seminar Series Poster

A second session is scheduled for Wednesday 9 December (details TBA) and these seminars will become a regular occurrence in the spring semester.

Please contact Roberta Cimino ( for more details.

Join TOEBI (Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland)!

Dear Medievalists,

You are cordially invited to become a member of TOEBI (Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland). TOEBI is a key organisation to join for anyone pursuing an academic career in Old English related matters or indeed for anyone with a serious interest in Old English language and literature. Postrgraduates often overlook TOEBI, assuming that only teachers can be members. However this is not the case and postgraduate students are very welcome.

Why should you join?

  • The first and most important reason is to have the opportunity to meet the academics who are making things happen in British and Irish universities.
  • TOEBI awards bursaries to help postgraduate students and early-career researchers to attend conferences.
  • The annual TOEBI conference is itself a stimulating and comfortable environment in which to present a paper. We had some very interesting papers this year on everything from Beowulf to Bede, passing by digital technology.
  • Student membership is only £5 p/a

We very much hope you will join us soon. Here is the link to the web page:

If you have any questions please email me at:

Warmest regards,

Eleni Ponirakis

TOEBI Postrgraduate Rep.

Image: ‘The beginning of Beowulf’, Cotton Vitellius A. XV, f.132, The British Library. Full image available to download on British Library Flickr page

A Medieval Guide to the ‘Old Stones’ of Derbyshire

On 23rd July 2015, fifteen early medievalists from the University of Nottingham set off to tour the “old stones” of Derbyshire. “Old stones” may seem like a strikingly unspecific term, but we needed a title that covered a Neolithic stone-circle, a great number of stone crosses and cross-shafts, and other examples of medieval stone carving. The majority of what we visited consisted of Anglo-Saxon stone work, and it was with such a piece that we began our trip.

Brailsford Warrior, Anglo-Saxon Cross-Shaft © Emma Vosper

Brailsford Warrior © Emma Vosper

The cross-shaft in the churchyard of All Saints at Brailsford features a carving of a seated warrior with a sword across his lap and a shield in his hand – much comment was made on the endearingly benign expression on this warrior’s face. Paul Cavill reminded us of the scene in Beowulf in which the feud between the Frisians and the Danes is reignited by the placing of a sword in Hengest’s lap.

Our next stop was St Bartholomew’s Church in the village of Hognaston. Above the entrance to the church is an early medieval carving of what appears to be a shepherd holding a crook amongst miscellaneous animals – some more easily identifiable than others. We discussed whether it was more likely that the figure actually represented the “metaphorical” shepherd; that is, a bishop with his crozier and congregation.

Crucifixion Scene, Anglo-Saxon Cross-Shaft,  Bradbourne

Crucifixion Scene, Bradbourne © Emma Vosper

There was much to see at All Saints Church, Bradbourne. Perhaps most impressive was a cross-shaft in the grave-yard, which featured on one side the crucifixion and on the other a group of less easily identifiable figures. The crucifixion scene includes very recognisable iconography. There is a figure either side of Christ, one piercing his side with a spear, the other collecting the blood. The sun and the moon on either side of the cross will be familiar to any students of crucifixion paintings in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, in which the celestial bodies can frequently be seen hiding their faces. There was also a mausoleum or crypt in the graveyard, which we were unable to date, but could potentially have been Anglo-Saxon, and the church itself featured a Norman frieze of beasts around one of the doorways.

Norman Door, Bradbourne © Emma Vosper

Norman Door, Bradbourne © Emma Vosper

Arbor Low proved to be quite a different stop. After trekking through a farmyard and over a short stretch of moorland, we came upon the Neolithic stone-circle (header image). All the stones are lying down, with an outer circle surrounding a number of stones in the centre. The views across Derbyshire from the monument were impressive, as were those from the nearby Gib Hill, an earlier burial mound. Though we were all very grateful that Eleni Ponirakis arranged the trip so splendidly, we were perhaps less appreciative of the painfully sour sherbet lemons she insisted we eat while our group photo was taken at Arbor Low…Click here to see the photo!

Lunch was the much awaited next stop on our journey. We had a hearty meal at the Royal Oak, Hurdlow; perhaps it was something in the Derbyshire air, but nearly everyone seemed tempted by the fantastically large pies. We set off towards Wheston, each vehicle a little heavier than before. In Wheston we saw a stone cross, probably fourteenth century, which depicted the crucifixion on one side, and on the other what seemed to be a virgin and child. Gathered around the cross, we ate the waffles that Eleni had also kindly provided.

Early medieval stone cross, Eyam ©  Judith Jesch

Stone cross, Eyam © Judith Jesch

From Wheston we went on to Eyam, the village known for quarantining itself during the plague in the seventeenth century. In the churchyard of St Lawrence’s we discovered the slightly mistitled ‘Celtic cross’, which is an eighth to ninth-century cross, carved with what appears to be Mary and the baby Jesus, among other images. We also spent some time inside the church looking at its wall paintings and learning about Eyam during the plague.

Our last stop was St Mary’s Church in Wirksworth. Though essentially a thirteenth-century structure, remains of Anglo-Saxon stone carvings stud the interior walls. To the side of the entrance is a carving of what seems to be a king and queen, the queen with her body in the shape of a heart, surrounded by separate carvings of animals.

The Wirksworth Stone, Wirksworth ©  Emma Vosper

The Wirksworth Stone © Emma Vosper

Elsewhere, the upper part of a male figure stands beside a snake’s head whose jaws are closing around an apple; it is very tempting to see this as Adam. Similarly impressive is the carving of a miner, in keeping with Wirksworth’s history as a centre for lead mining. Perhaps most striking, however, is the Wirksworth Stone, a fabulously preserved coffin lid found in the churchyard in the nineteenth century, which depicts scenes from the Bible.

Thank you again to our wonderful organisers, Paul Cavill, Judith Jesch and Eleni Ponirakis for an educational and entertaining day out in Derbyshire!

Amy Faulkner is just finishing her master’s degree in Viking and Anglo-Saxon Studies at the University of Nottingham. Her MA dissertation examines the depiction of scribes in Insular manuscripts, and questions the extent to which this reflects actual scribal transmission. 

Midlands Viking Symposium 2015

The twenty-fifth of April saw the annual gathering of those Viking- and Midlands-minded for the annual galore of shared interests which is know as the Midlands Viking Symposium. This year the symposium was held at the University of Leicester, which received a sizeable delegation in one of their basement conference suites. The symposium, as is the wont of symposia, started with an introduction and welcome speech by Dr Philip Shaw, acting head of the School of English in Leicester and the organising wizard behind the symposium. First up was the panel on ‘Migration, Space and Place’, which first featured a paper by Mark Jobling, who is part of the scientific component of the Diaspora Project at Leicester, and guided us through the scientific methods of proving that everyone’s ancestors are likely Vikings (at least in part).

Katherine Whitehouse from Nottingham

Katherine Whitehouse from Nottingham

He was followed by Katherine Whitehouse from Nottingham, who made a strong case for a culturally mixed border region where North meets South at the bottom of Northumbria, South of the river Humber. The final paper before lunch was by Oliver Harris, University of Leicester, who discussed the details of the beautifully rich Ardnamurchan boat burial, and accused the Vikings of meddling with historical evidence. After an excellent lunch and a look at the popular bookstall manned by Professor Judith Jesch selling the booklets from the Language, Myths and Finds project, the symposium continued at two o’clock.

Judith, Martin and Pragya at the book stall

Judith, Martin and Pragya at the book stall

Pragya Vohra from Leicester set the pace by sketching the portrait of King Cnut and discussing his history and the perception of his persona in the Middle Ages as well as explaining some of the common ideas about this well-known king in the present day. This was followed by a paper by Alaric Hall, University of Leeds, entitled ‘Sagas, Terrorists, and the 2008 Financial Crisis’, which was a fascinating discussion of the way in which Icelanders have used their Old Norse past in the twenty-first century during troubled times and in the media. Then, after a caffeine and cake refuel, it was time for the panel on ‘Ancient and Modern Runes’. Martin Findell, University of Leicester, gave the first paper of this panel, looking at runes and medievalism. Martin described the different ways in which runes are used outside of an academic context and the Middle Ages. Finally came my own paper, which was a discussion of the Canterbury Runic Charm and the different ways in which this material, and runes in manuscripts more generally, can be contextualised.

This was my first time at the Midlands Viking Symposium and I was very impressed indeed by the enthusiasm and the variety of people attending the symposium. The group of (mostly Midlands-based) academics mingled seamlessly with the more general public, who gave up their Saturday to learn more about their one-time ancestors (at least in part) and added further to the symposium with a wealth of questions and comments. This was something that I personally had not anticipated and the slight fear of having a too boring, too detailed and too academic paper crept up, but I need not have worried, for both academics and non-academics were comfortable and keen to ask questions and give comments.

The symposium, as is also the wont of good symposia, ended with a trip to the pub where further discussion was undertaken. What impressed me most about the Midlands Viking Symposium was the relaxed and jovial atmosphere throughout, which is something I hope it will retain next year, despite being absorbed by the ‘The Viking World: Diversity and Change’ conference in Nottingham. That said, I am all on board for doubling the Viking jubilations!

Aya Van Renterghem is a teaching fellow and second-year PhD student at the Centre for the Study of the Viking Age at the University of Nottingham, studying the phenomenon of Runica Manuscripta and medieval perceptions of runes.

Kalamazoo Medieval Congress at a Glance

Providing a beginner’s guide to the largest medieval conference in the world is no easy feat in 800 words or less. Here are just some of the things to expect during your first visit to Kalamazoo. 

Kalamazoo in a Nutshell

The annual International Congress on Medieval Studies is the largest international medieval conference in the world, with over 3000 delegates in attendance. It brings together students and scholars from all disciplines who are interested in anything and everything medieval. An inside source told me that the conference brings in about $3 million for the local economy once you factor in things like travel, accommodation, sales, food and drink!

Where on earth is Kalamazoo?

The conference is held at Western Michigan University (WMU) in the small US city of Kalamazoo (Pop. 75,000), about two hours west of Detroit and two and a half hours east of Chicago.

WMU Lake

Goldsworth Valley Pond, WMU (click to enlarge)

The sessions themselves are held in several teaching rooms and lecture theatres across the large site. A minibus is even provided for those who aren’t up for walking, but it’s almost always quicker to do the twenty-minute trek across campus on foot. WMU is a very green campus, with a lake similar to the University of Nottingham’s, and with leafy halls situated in a similar setting to ‘The Vale’ at the University of Birmingham.

The Sessions

The conference lasts four days, and there are three main sessions a day (10AM-11:30AM, 1:30PM-3PM and 3:30PM-5PM) with larger keynote lectures at 9AM and in the evening. Complimentary tea and coffee is served in-between sessions and this can be a great time to network with other attendees.

The main sessions are normally three or four 15-20 minute papers based on original research, with an opportunity for Q+A or discussion at the end.

Sessions are provided on a massive variety of topics covering a broadly defined ‘medieval’ period of roughly 400-1600AD. You’ll often find yourself torn between several papers in different sessions that you really want to attend. There are also a number of sessions devoted to modern approaches to the Middle Ages, such as those on J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and even medieval-themed video games!

Where to Stay

Accommodation is… interesting! It all depends on your budget.

For myself, a humble postgrad, I opted to stay in ‘The Valleys’, three massive multi-storey student halls of residence on campus. These halls contain large, basic rooms, which you can either share with a friend or have to yourself, with a shared bathroom. The problem with the shared bathrooms is that they’re accessed from individual bedrooms, not from the main corridor. The person sharing with you also has access to the bathroom via their own door, which means there’s worrying potential for your neighbour to walk in on you!  (Thankfully I avoided this fate, mostly through tactical coughing and whistling).

Each attendee is provided with a few sheets and towels, but otherwise the room is very spartan – breeze-block walls, simple wooden furniture, and no possibility of altering the radiator, which never seemed to switch off, even in the 25+ Celsius heat of a late Michigan spring!! Thankfully they’re building new accommodation blocks ready for 2016.

If your budget is a little less restricted, nicer accommodation such as the Radisson Hotel is available off-campus, and the conference puts on a free minibus from the centre of the city to the University which is about a 5-10minute drive.

Medievalists let their hair down!

It’s not all serious study and historical discussion though – there are plenty of informal opportunities to socialise with your fellow academics during the conference.

Evening receptions are hosted by different academic institutions and societies and often provide open bars and/or free food! It’s a great opportunity to talk to medievalists with similar interests to your own, but you’re free to attend whichever you like, regardless of your field!

On the final evening the University hosts a dance, which is a really surreal experience. The largest lecture room is transformed into a dancefloor with tables and bars at one side. A DJ plays a variety of classics until 1:30AM, and the whole event has the feeling of a family wedding – everyone is in a great mood, catching up with old friends, but no-one can really dance, and you see top-level professors attempting to strut their stuff…

A couple of less serious papers are also given on this evening, before the dance takes place. These are known as the Pseudo-Society papers and are generally a cross between stand-up comedy and academic lecture. Four papers were given this year, one of which linked Njal’s Saga to the origins of Ikea!

Kalamazoo is a fantastic conference and one that every medievalist should attend if given the opportunity. Just remember to bring plenty of money for the book fair and to leave expectations of luxury behind!

For more info, visit the conference website.


Tom Rochester is just finishing the 2nd year of a PhD in Medieval History at the University of Birmingham, studying the Venerable Bede and miracles. He gave a paper entitled ‘The Place of Luke-Acts in Constructing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History’ at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, 14th-17th May 2015. 

Results: Three Minute Thesis Competition

The Institute for Medieval Research, University of Nottingham held its first Three Minute Thesis® competition yesterday and the event was a huge success!

Medievalists from across the University came together to cheer on eight postgraduate contestants who each battled it out to win coveted prizes donated by and the King Richard III Visitor Centre, Leicester.

The contestants—MA students Hannah Ingram and George Smalley, and PhD students Erin Connelly, Carl Dixon, Eleni PonirakisAnja Rohde, Laura di Stefano and Kathrine Whitehouse—delivered impressive and time-efficient presentations, demonstrating the impressive breadth of medieval study undertaken at the University of Nottingham.

Three Minute Thesis Judges

Judges (left to right) Chris King, Claire Taylor & Judith Jesch

Judges, Dr Chris King, Prof Judith Jesch and Dr Claire Taylor, were faced with a difficult task when selecting one overall winner and two runners-up from the outstanding group of contestants. Fortunately, however, the judges were unanimous in their decision to announce Anja Rohde as the overall winner. Anja was visibly pleased when awarded with a collection of recently published books, a free subscription to’s online magazine and a bottle of wine as prizes.

Three Minute Thesis Anja Win

Winner Anja Rohde receiving her prizes

Just missing out on overall victory, runners-up Erin Connelly and Hannah Ingram each received a bottle of wine for their well-received presentations.

Audience members also had the opportunity to choose a winner by voting for their favourite presentation on ‘Eurovision style’ ballot papers. Voters chose Erin Connelly as the winner of the People’s Choice award and Erin was rewarded with two free tickets to the King Richard III Visitor Centre.

Thanks to the success of the event, the IMR Three Minute Thesis competition will return in the Autumn Term. Please check the Medieval Midlands Twitter account (@med_midlands) regularly for information on next term’s competition as soon as it becomes available.

Matt Hefferan and Emma Vosper would like to take this opportunity to thank and the King Richard III Visitor Centre for donating such incredible and well-received prizes!

‘Star Wars and/as medieval dystopia’: UoN Popular Culture Lecture Series

PhD student Emma Vosper reviews Dr Christina Lee’s examination of the medieval influences on Star Wars.

Since the release of the second trailer for ‘Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens’ on 16 April, Star Wars fever has been gaining increasing momentum across the globe. In their combined contribution to the University of Nottingham’s Popular Culture Lecture Series, Drs Christina Lee and Nathan Waddell tapped into this growing frenzy with a compelling analysis of the medieval and dystopian influences on George Lucas’ epic franchise.

In her half of the discussion, Dr Lee promoted a view expounded by Marilyn Sherman in 1979, two years after the release of ‘Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope’. Sherman observed striking parallels between Star Wars and the iconic and much-loved genre of medieval Arthurian romance. ‘For example, Luke gets his knowledge of the Jedi Knights and their noble values from the wise, mystical, and Merlin-like character, Obi-Wan Kenobi’.

Dr Lee expanded Sherman’s comments by examining several themes visible in the Star Wars franchise that are eerily foreshadowed in medieval literature. In doing so, Dr Lee raises an exciting question – is George Lucas a fan of medieval literature?!

A Doomed Empire

Roman RuinThe new trailer for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ opens by panning across a deserted landscape to a crashed Star Destroyer (one of the imperial warships featured in the original Star Wars films). For Dr Lee, this scene evokes the destruction of the Roman Empire as depicted in the Anglo-Saxon poem The Ruin. This poem gives a haunting description of the crumbling remains of a Roman city that has been ‘wasted by fate’ (wyrde gebræcon) and now lies in disrepair.

The religiously inspired notion that all humans are doomed to fall is hugely prevalent in Anglo-Saxon literature and Dr Lee highlighted that growing awareness of the Apocalypse (brought forward by the greed and corruption of mankind) was the cause of this damning perception of humanity. It is a perception apparently shared by George Lucas, whose original Star Wars trilogy focused closely on the inevitable victory of heroic rebels over a corrupt and self-serving system.

Wyrd: A Precursor to the Force?

The Ruin’s reference to wyrd (defined by the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary as ‘fate, fortune, chance’) was presented by Dr Lee as ‘a concept similar to the Force’. Scholars have fiercely debated whether wyrd is a Christian or pagan concept, but Dr Lee believes that it is neither. Instead, her discussion proposed that wyrd—a difficult idea to express in modern English—was entirely divorced from faith and that, to the Anglo-Saxons, it shaped people’s lives with greater authority than fate or chance alone. Was it a supernatural power more akin to the Force harnessed by Jedi and Sith than to the prophetic agency of fate? Dr Lee argues that this might be stretching the analogy too far, yet George Lucas may well have drawn upon wyrd—a concept that survived into Shakespeare’s age as demonstrated by his famous ‘Weird Sisters’ in Macbeth—when forming his ideas about the Force.


Guthlac 2Wastelands held huge significance for medieval authors as the dwelling places of monsters and other individuals who have been ostracised from society. A common trope in medieval literature is the self-banishment of the hero to a forgotten wasteland where he battles his inner demons. Dr Lee highlighted the striking resemblance between St Guthlac’s struggles in the Cambridgeshire Fens and Luke’s struggles on Dagobah. Guthlac was an Anglo-Saxon mercenary warrior who fought for King Æthelred of Mercia before renouncing his secular life to take holy orders.  He travelled to the remote island of Crowland in the marshy Fens where he battled demonic figures and proved himself to be a worthy soldier of God. Luke also travels to a marsh-filled land where he earns his right to the title ‘Jedi Knight’.

Fathers & Sons

Hildebrandslied KummerAnother tale that bears a striking resemblance to the Star Wars franchise is the Old High German text Hildebrandslied. In this work, Hildebrand meets his son, Hadubrand, on the battlefield. Hildebrand quickly realises that Hadubrand is his son and tries to convince him to come to his side. But Hadubrand, believing his father to be dead, thinks Hildebrand is trying to trick him and so father and son fight to the death. The similarity between this tale and the iconic ‘I am your father’ scene in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ makes it hard to believe that Lucas was a stranger to medieval motifs. The idea of a son fighting his father after refusing to believe his father’s claim to paternity is a common theme in medieval literary tradition. Yet instead of concluding that Star Wars is directly influenced by medieval literature, we should remember that many tropes popular in the Middle Ages have continued to the present day.

Dr Lee’s light-hearted but fascinating discussion was a welcome representation of medieval studies in the successful and well-attended Popular Culture Lecture Series. Since this blog post gives only the barest glimpse at her arguments, it is to be hoped that similar lectures will take place in the future!

Images: ‘Roman Town House – Dorchester’ © Elliott Brown; ‘Guthlac Arriving at Croyland’, Harleian Guthlac Roll Y.6 © A Clerk of Oxford; ‘Hildebrandsleid’ © The Chaucer Studio