York’s Anglian era (ca. 400-867) lasted longer than the city’s Roman and Viking phases combined. And yet it has been almost entirely eclipsed, in the current local heritage offer and marketing, by the relentless promotion of Romans, Vikings, Richard III, Chocolate, and the Emperor Constantine, all vital to the city’s tourist economy.
Traces of Roman York are visible in many places in the city: the remaining Roman stonework is signposted and the fortress’s footprint marked with brass studs, yet there are scarcely any reminders of the native population conquered by the Romans. Similarly with the astonishing discoveries of the Coppergate excavation displayed at the Jorvik Viking Centre: Scandinavian conquerors’ crafts, commerce, houses and toilets are all there. But what of the bloody transition from Anglian Eoforwic to Jorvik? The exhibitions in the Yorkshire Museum do convey a fuller picture, but not everyone steps inside. The dominant voice in the commodified public pre-modern heritage sites in York seems to come from the stones and stories that have a particular charge, a frisson which Viking warriors most certainly have, and the pre-Roman Brigantes, and later, Anglian monks do not.
To an early medieval historian, the eclipse of the Anglian era looks like a silencing, a flattening out of the moral complexity of the past. Traumatic violence can be sanitised, it seems, when we identify with the winners. No White Poppies to remember losses on both sides. Thus an exhibition about Viking weapons and battle wounds called ‘Skullsplitter’ is family fun while any treatment of the same themes for the contemporary world would come with a warning; the human remains of modern conflicts could not be displayed to gawk at. Perhaps, faced with all the horrors of current events, the grief of the distant past is just too distant, and so the cost of our concern for those on the losing side, would be too high?
It has been said that ‘you cannot slander the dead’. We who study the persons of the distant past are not subject to the ethical codes that apply to those who survey and interview the living; nor do we need to take account of the ethics of the treatment of physical remains of the ancient dead. How odd that in failing to attend to their voices, we might give the stories of the long dead less respect than their bones.
In the media stream, old and new collide. News from Lughansk, Crimea, Mosul, Syria and Tikrit hits the front page There is nothing glamorous about occupation, conquest and advanced weaponry anywhere, anytime. Nor about the Fall of Troy either. Why, then, should the Fall of Eoforwic to the Great Heathen Army in 867 be treated as a subject for rowdy celebration? I began to wonder how I might challenge this trend, not with the aim of censoring it, but instead, by finding a place to broadcast an alternative perspective, speaking for York’s ninth-century Anglians and questioning the tendency to sanitise the violence of the distant past. Twitter? A blog? Twitter offers speed, simplicity, and a forum for dialogue.
Since November I’ve been tweeting bulletins from York #OnThisDay 876-877, the first months of Viking occupation, first sporadically, then daily or several times a day. I was inspired by City of York Council archaeologist John Oxley (@yorkarchaeology). His daily #SoY tweets from April to July 2014 brought the 1644 siege of York to life event by event, in real time, in familiar locations. Terse messages gained suspense or poignance from their spatial connection to the modern city and to the actual date. It happened today, it happened on Mickelgate, it happened on the Mount. It reminded me of the insights of the great Romanian comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade, who illuminated the way ritual reenactment or retelling of events of illo tempore can become charged with energy and meaning.
I started with tweets from a Victorian translation of Simeon of Durham’s twelfth-century account of the Fall of York to the Great Heathen Army on 1/11/866, a late account, derived from lost earlier sources. The first weeks of the Viking occupation coincided with news of catastrophic ravaging through Northumbria up to the Tyne. When Simeon’s narrative ran out, I began to cast my net further. This was when the experiment began change the experimenter. I had to scrape the barrel to write tweets that didn’t depend on event-based history: the names of the days in the Julian calendar, the winter diet, the phase of the moon on a given night. Of necessity, a fair bit of repetition crept in. One Friday, I concocted an English language list of daily chores (imitating Old English alliterative verse) to make the point that eking out an existence might loom larger than political fortunes. Weekly variations on that theme became some of the most retweeted bulletins.
I also wanted sketch in the material conditions, politics, and mentality of the soon-to-be-crushed inhabitants of Eoforwic. Riven by factions, Northumbria was one of few early medieval kingdoms that had not outgrown regicide by the mid-ninth century. Did rival groups blame each other for the attack? Or did they curse the king of East Anglia who had bought off the attackers by giving them horses, making them much more mobile and dangerous than ever before? How did archbishop Wulfhere stay on in power? Intentional repetition would capture the grim tedium and fear of winter in the occupied city. For topics where I wanted to hint at some resonance with current events, twitter brevity was an advantage. Likewise, the character limit meant that challenging tweets that glorified Viking violence could only be done by question rather than argument. Recently the experiment brought a moment of vicarious panic. I knew I needed to get warriors in place for a certain event; last week I realized almost too late that if they didn’t start marching down from North Northumbria they could not be present at the appointed time.
Alongside conjuring a voice for York in 866-7, fostering local interest in the Anglian era was also an aim. I began to tweet images of objects from the Yorkshire Museum, to introduce manuscripts that might once have been in Alcuin’s library, and to quote Old English poetry (not from York, but evocative). There is nothing like dropping an image of a gold ring, a helmet, a superb sword, or a fine strap end into the twitter stream. The phone buzzes with echofon notifications: are we all magpies at heart?
Many years ago, a colleague asked what academia would be like if academic writing appeared anonymously. For anyone subject to REF, it’s hard to imagine such a world. I had observed the powerful effect of anonymity in shaping the character of the twitter stream of @herdyshepherd1 (before he announced his forthcoming book) as well as on the persona of the mysterious ‘gentle author’ of Spitalfields Life. I resolved to stay anonymous. The now-named herdyshepherd (James Rebanks) sometimes tweeted to say ‘it’s not about me it’s about the dogs, the sheep, the land’. Likewise, @AlcuinsLibrary’s twitter stream, not about the tweeter, but about the voices of the inhabitants of occupied York.
Twitter colonizes the user. Relying on Bufferapp to send bulletins from the occupied city automatically did not make me immune to the addictive chimes of echophon’s retweets and favourite notifications. The twitter story will end with swords and bloodshed; occupied Eoforwic will become Jorvik; I will wait to see if sharing the story this way creates any echoes.
@AlcuinsLibrary is an anonymous twitter feed.
Images courtesy of York Museum’s Trust: Licence here