James Paz

James Paz

 

My background is in English and Creative Writing and sometimes I wonder how I got from there to early medieval material culture. I didn’t take classes in Old English until the final year of my undergraduate degree, but it was here that I discovered how ‘hands on’ you could be with this early literature: in translation work, particularly, you can read critically while also creating or ‘crafting’ something new. My interest in translation and the making of new old poetry led me to realise that, in Anglo-Saxon culture, literary texts were not only translated from language to language but could be ‘transposed’ from one kind of material object to another. Many texts survive in manuscripts, yes, but you can also find poems on stone monuments and riddles on boxes of whalebone.

My doctoral thesis (completed in January 2013) showed that Anglo-Saxon ‘things’ can talk. On the one hand, nonhuman voices, keen to tell their own stories, leap out from Old English poems like The Dream of the Rood or the Exeter Book Riddles; on the other hand, a large number of surviving Anglo-Saxon artefacts, such as the Alfred Jewel or Ædwen’s Brooch, speak in the first-person and utter poems, riddles, charms, curses. As such, the earliest English literature displays a deep interest in the voice of the object: the ‘nonhuman condition’ was as important as the human and the book was only one of many readable objects in early medieval culture.

Now that I have finished my PhD, I’m keen to find ways of communicating my research to non-specialist groups (the idea of ‘speaking objects’ usually sparks curiosity in people, whether they are interested in the distant past or not) and in using unconventional pedagogical methods to facilitate this. The idea of encountering an object with limited or no prior knowledge, slowly unravelling its meaning and returning to it again and again with fresh insights, therefore appeals to me: I believe that this can create a more playful approach to museum pieces and cut through disciplinary boundaries. It is for this reason that I look forward to participating in the 100 Hours Project.

Moving forward, I will be pursuing my wider interest in historical narratives about literature and science, technology and craft. This interest is reflected in some of my postdoctoral work, including an article on Eilmer the Flying Monk, an eleventh-century inventor who made a pair of artificial wings and leapt from a bell tower, flying for a furlong before a violent gust of wind unsettled him, so that he plunged to the earth, crash-landing and breaking both his legs. I’m also co-editing a collection of essays on Medieval Science Fiction (forthcoming 2014), addressing the recurring omissions of the Middle Ages from histories of science fiction – and indeed histories of science. In line with a lot of my other work to date, the collection combines critical and creative approaches and will unite medievalists and scientists, critics and creative writers.

 

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