JustinLarsen.net | Research



Material Culture and Anglo-Saxon Literature

We have a relationship with the objects that surround us. Be they as simple as a shoe or as complex as a personal computer, the things we have and use say a great deal about us. One need only think about how people use their smartphones and how that knowledge changes the way we interact with others to arrive at the conclusion that this relationship between people and objects, as well as the relationship between people withobjects, is a significant part of our social organization.

This relationship is so defining in our everyday consciousness that it even affects the way we understand and appreciate literature. We explore the transformation of language and interaction by means of emoji and blog about 19th century novels, all while using objects like typewriters, floppy disks, and rotary phones as symbols, where one kind of object stands in for an object of an entirely different nature. One need only think of pop music to understand how deeply rooted the mobile phone has become in our collective consciousness.

Sutton Hoo Shoulder Clasp.
Photo by Rob Roy via Wikimedia Commons

If this kind of relationship between people and the objects they buy, sell, use, and discard is true for English speakers in the 21st century, it stands to reason that it might very well be true for English speakers of the past, as well. In fact, we know from archaological digs, translated saints' relics, and other physical remains of Anglo-Saxon culture that things mattered to the early English a great deal, though the haze of centuries makes it difficult for us to understand exactly of how these relationships were conceived. My main research interests lie in examining the way Anglo-Saxons understood and represented their material world in their written language. In what way did objects affect everyday speech? In what way did they affect the written word? How can we tell the difference? Archaeology certainly informs our understanding of literature; can literature and language reshape the way we think about the archaeological record and the cultures that created the things we find?

Even more specifically, my interests lie in the poetry of the Exeter Book. As the most varied of the four surviving Anglo-Saxon codices of poetry, the Book contains a great deal of information regarding the Anglo-Saxon material world; it is, after all, a product of that world, and its contents certainly reflect the material environment in which it was made. Riddles and elegies, hagiography and poetic reshaping of religious narrative, each will have its own intersection with the objects of everyday use, and those intersections can teach us a great deal about Anglo-Saxon England.

Please forgive the overwhelming lack of images; this is a draft.

Conference Presentations

"No Bed & Breakfasts for Benedict Biscop: Travel and Hospitality in Anglo-Saxon England"
2014 Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association Conference, Denver, CO.

In this short examination of the kinds of recorded hospitality we see in Anglo-Saxon England, I apply Hans Conrad Peyer's categorizations of Germanic hospitality within two well-travelled contexts: the historical figure of Benedict Biscop and the literary figure of Beowulf. This analysis is central to the understanding of the Anglo-Saxon concept of "host" and "guest" and reshapes how we must consider the identity of the traveller in Old English texts.

Although this may seem to be more focused on the details of travel, the realm of hospitality is immersed in the material; those who leave behind their homes must count on others for food, shelter, comforts, and material needs in some way, whether they are freely given or exchanged for another good or service. This is made especially clear in Peyer's categorization by the separation of "simple" hospitality from the other main types; in this case, although the guest may share shelter and a fire, they receive little to no other support, including food or beverage.