Thursday, July 26, 2012

Madly Writing for Years Work in Old English Studies...

So, been busy, and a bit lazy.  Both simultaneously.  One thing that I've both been busy doing, i. e. reading and taking notes, and not writing up but playing on social media instead, have been my contributions to the YWOES.  So below are a couple of reviews in process that I thought some my be interested in.

Rosewell, Roger. Medieval Wall Paintings in English and Welsh Churches. Woodbridge: Boydell P, 2008. 380 pp. ill.

Art historians have been hailing the publication of this volume.  It is the first such book of its kind in half a century.  Rosewell provides in the six chapters with copious color plates a thorough handbook to wall paintings in churches.  After a brief introduction, the chapters cover the history of medieval wall paintings in brief, the what or iconography of the paintings, the patrons and painters who produced them, their methods of production, the interpretation of the works of art, and finally their restoration.  Rosewell also provides a gazetteer, a subject guide, a bibliography.  Perhaps most importantly, the photographs in the book are fabulous. 

That said, there is regrettably little of interest for the Anglo-Saxonist.  This is principally because according to Rosewell there are very few from the Anglo-Saxon period that survive.  In fact, that is a general problem with the subject: less than 10% of the medieval churches that survive in England and Wales have paintings or part of paintings that survive, and that percentage plummets for any church dated before the twelfth century. The few that do survive are mentioned or examined briefly, but not in great detail: the history portion for Anglo-Saxon churches covers a page and a half, including photographs. 

Of greater interest are later depictions in church painting of Anglo-Saxon saints.  St. Dunstan, St. Swithun and other Anglo-Saxon saints do make appearances in some churches, particularly in the twelfth century.  But though saints, even Anglo-Saxon saints, form a portion of wall paintings and other decoration, they are outnumbered by depictions of holy history, particularly biblical events.  So even here, while there is material of interest, the book is of limited use directly for Anglo-Saxon studies.

It is a book hailed by art historians.  It is a beautiful book with a great deal of information.  The author has written his work to straddle the lines between a scholarly and non-scholarly audience, an approach that has both strengths and weaknesses.  One such weakness is that when the author cites primary literature, there are no references given making tracing the reference difficult at best.  The select bibliography in the back is insufficient to overcome this frustration. But this is but one weakness in an otherwise very strong book.

Quite apart from what interest there is for the Anglo-Saxonist, the purpose of this assessment, there is an important argument that Rosewell makes in the book.  We are all familiar with the interpretation of stained glass windows, sculpture, and paintings in churches as “books for the illiterate”, depictions of  biblical stories, saints, and other matters related to the faith for those who could not read.  Rosewell rejects this interpretation of wall paintings (and by extension other forms of graphic art).  Rosewell places paintings in a different category to other forms of art, though: the church structure itself is not just the support of the painting, but the walls and plaster are the canvas.  More importantly though, he argues that paintings cannot be merely “books for the illiterate” since to derive meaning from the painting, one must know the story.  Rather he argues that the depictions of holy scenes are an integral part of the worship and liturgy, aids to contemplation and prayer, rather than didactic tools for the unlearned.  These need not be exclusive interpretations, but Rosewell does mount a good argument to reject the typical understanding of wall paintings in churches.

While there is little directly applicable to Anglo-Saxon England in the book, it nonetheless is an excellent overview of the subject.  Every photograph is printed in color and there are a number of details, the text is clearly written and informative. All in all, this is an excellent book and a good contribution to the field. 

Lightfoot, Emma, Tamsin C. O’Connell et al. “An Investigation into Diet at the Site of Yarnton, Oxfordshire, Using Stable Carbon and Nitrogen Isotopes.” Oxford Jnl of Archaeology 28 (2009), 301-22.

Yarnton in Oxfordshire, near Eynsham, called Erdington, has a long period of continual occupation.  The article here examines in particular remains found in a small cemetery covering the Nealothic, Roman, and Saxon periods.  The authors studied the isotopes of the remains in order to determine diet; in some ways the finds were unsurprising.  Fortunately, in other ways there were surprises.  For example, though the site is on a river, there was no evidence of a fish diet.  Yarnton was low status both before and after the Roman occupation; after the Romans left, the site seems to have been abandoned for a time though even within the fifth century Saxon buildings appear.  Crops shift somewhat during this period, not unusually in the shift from Roman to Saxon, from spelt to bread wheat.  But one unusual crop feature is the presence of emmer wheat.  Other crops make their appearances for the first time in the Saxon period: peas, legume, and crops grown for fodder.  Saxon and Roman inhabitants had higher levels of delta 13C isotopes indicating a diet that included animals with a higher proportion of those isotopes such as pigs and the consumption of fewer ruminates and horses.  An alternative explanation may be that these inhabitants consumed more millet or fat hen (a common plant known by other names such as wild spinach, goosefoot, pigweed, and other names). 

The study did not simply examine the diets of the human inhabitants.  The porcine bones indicate that the pigs ate an ominverous diet, perhaps more so than the humans but certainly more so than the ruminates and horses.  The canines inhabitants were the most carnivorous of all. 

In addition to these results, the article contains a large section on the materials and methodology with tables of results for those interested.