Representing beasts in early medieval England and Scandinavia: an introduction

Bintley, M. and Williams, T. J. T. (2015) Representing beasts in early medieval England and Scandinavia: an introduction. In: Bintley, M. and Williams, T. J. T., eds. Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia. Martlesham: Boydell Press. ISBN 9781783270088

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A man stands with arms raised, brandishing spears in both hands; he appears to be naked apart from a belt and a sheathed sword slung from a baldrick over one shoulder. His head is adorned by a helmet – or it might be a head-dress – from which rise two horn-like projections, each one terminating with the head of a bird, clearly delineated with eye and beak. The birds (the curl of their beaks suggests they are intended to be understood as raptors) face each other, curving inward until they overlap and form a circle above the spearman’s clean-shaven face. To the right of this figure stands another apparition. He too holds a spear, thrust seemingly into the earth – or perhaps into the foot of his companion. He is drawing a sword with his right hand. This figure is clothed, perhaps even in armour, but a tail hangs down at his rear and his features are inhuman. He has the head of a beast.

Various overlapping interpretations have been offered for this striking image – it is Oðinn/Woden leading an ecstatic dance; a warrior in ritual transformation from man to wolf; a shaman enacting an initiatory rite; the dramatisation of a mythological scene. We will almost certainly never understand what message this image was truly intended to convey. What is clear, however, is that in this image the categories of beast and human are inextricably blurred, confused, confounded. Who here is the human? Which is the god, the animal, the hybrid? Does the naked spearman wear birds upon his head or do divine raptors control the body of a human puppet? Does a man wear a wolf’s clothing, or does a wolf wear a man’s? It is precisely this sort ambiguity in the representation of beasts and beast-identities that lies at the heart of this collection of papers.

The image on the cover of this book is a matrix of 7th century date, found at Torslunda in Sweden, and designed for the production of panels of decorated metal ultimately destined for the ostentatious helmets of an elite warrior aristocracy. Objects bearing this style of iconographic display are exemplified by finds from the Swedish cemeteries of Vendel and Valsgärde but also in similar objects from English contexts: the famous helmet from mound 1 at the Sutton Hoo cemetery in East Anglia and fragments from the Staffordshire Hoard found in the West Midlands. The precise mechanisms that linked England and Scandinavia in this period are hard to define with precision, but artefactual, iconographic, linguistic, literary and mortuary parallels demonstrate a degree of contact and the sharing of cultural concepts. The geographical remit of the papers presented in this volume reflects the fact that ideas about the natural world – especially the ways in which its fauna were represented and imagined – were fluid around what might be described as a ‘north sea cultural zone’: they certainly did not respect the political boundaries of modern nation states. How and in what ways ideas changed over time and were shared amongst the inhabitants of this zone will be explored by some of the chapters directly, but will also (we hope) be illuminated by the juxtaposition of studies treating the theme of ‘beasts’ from a variety of disciplinary and regional perspectives within these vaguely defined parameters.

Item Type: Book Section
Subjects: C Auxiliary Sciences of History > CC Archaeology
D History General and Old World > D History (General)
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
D History General and Old World > DL Northern Europe. Scandinavia
P Language and Literature
Divisions: Faculty of Arts and Humanities > School of Humanities
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Dr Michael Bintley
Date Deposited: 17 Jul 2015 13:18
Last Modified: 17 Jul 2015 13:35

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Last edited: 29/06/2016 12:23:00