Wednesday, August 09, 2006

"they looked particularly good next to his bright begonias"

York minster is selling 14th C stonework for use in suburban gardening projects and for dealers to resell to American souvenir hunters via eBay.

Favorite quote: "“If York Minster wanted to paint the outside pink, they probably could." And you know, perhaps they should.


Eileen Joy said...

This article reminds me of a flak that occured not too long ago among Anglo-Saxonists over the sale of A-S artifacts on eBay [the horror, the horror, etc.]. I wrote an essay, published in the Old English Newsletter, basically trying to defend the notion that "conservation" is not always the best route toward understanding artifacts from the past. The essay touches upon A-S artifacts, but also the controversy surrounding Yad Vashem's recovery of wall paintings by Bruno Schulz discovered in a house in Ukraine and also upon the Holocaust Museum in DC, and finally, the detritus of 9/11. I copy here that essay:

“What Counts is Not to Say, but to Say Again”: A Response to Thomas A. Bredehoft, “Anglo-Saxonists and eBay”

Eileen A. Joy

[Thomas Bredehoft’s original essay appeared in OEN 37.1]

If there is one palpable anxiety that runs throughout Bredehoft’s essay about the ethical considerations surrounding the sale of Anglo-Saxon artifacts on the on-line auction service eBay it is the concern, as Bredehoft himself articulates it, that “the global market for medieval items makes it possible that they may be taken so far from their context as to end up being entirely unrecognizable and hence entirely valueless.” For Bredehoft, the primary problem with the traffic in medieval artifacts (or any valuable cultural artifacts, for that matter) is that once those artifacts enter the international marketplace they are removed from their “original archaeological contexts,” and thus lose their most authentic cultural meaning and value. They will become, in Bredehoft’s words, “decontextualized”; moreover, they may end up in the hands of persons who do not possess the requisite understanding of and appreciation for their historical value. And yet we might recall that if it weren’t for the voracious collecting endeavors of sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century antiquarians such as Sir Robert Cotton and Sir Robert Harley, who purchased books and artifacts with the zeal of black market scoundrels (Cotton was even briefly jailed in 1629 for owning state papers deemed seditious by the Crown), the British Museum would have lacked its chief founding collections. Even after the founding of the British Museum in 1753, Parliament often dragged its feet when it came to raising the funds for the conservation and proper presentation of the Museum’s holdings, so much so that many of them, including the Beowulf manuscript, suffered damage that could have been avoided. We might also remember John Leland (1503-1552), who traveled extensively throughout England before and after the Dissolution in order to inspect as many libraries as he could for the purpose of “saving” books and manuscripts for the Royal library. Although he claimed to have been directed by a royal commission from Henry VIII to collect the “monuments of ancient writers,” there is no evidence of such a commission, and it is quite likely that Leland “invented” it in order to undertake his self-directed “recuperation” project. [2] Finally, most of the greatest collections of medieval antiquities in North America, such as the Getty collections in California and the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York City, would not have been possible without the individual, non-specialist, rich, voracious, and occasionally unscrupulous collector. Rich tycoons and speculators will always possess the means and wherewithal often lacking in state and academic institutions—though these nevertheless often benefit in the end through endowments and donations.

But why do we always assume that the museum or library is always the best place for the artifact to end up? In his Introduction to Bredehoft’s essay, R.M. Liuzza writes that although many medievalists “naturally assume that objects deemed to be part of a nation’s cultural heritage (but which objects?) ‘belong’ in a museum (but which museum?) and should be entrusted to the care of ‘experts’ for study and preservation (but on what terms?) … these assumptions, along with the definition of terms like ‘culture’ and ‘heritage’ and ‘nation’, are by no means universally shared.” Even a term like “original archaeological context” is vexed and problematic with regard to the question of where it is, exactly, we believe cultural artifacts should be housed and conserved and “re-presented” once they are “recovered.” Indeed, I would argue that it is precisely the cultural artifact’s free market circulation through the global agora that ensures the best possible forms of its future survival. This circulation allows the artifact to be freed from the traditional (and sometimes stifling) constraints of provincial, and even, nationalist “boxes” that ultimately limit the fullest possible range of its cultural appropriation and re-appropriation—without which the item is often either “dead on arrival” or placed into the service of suspect accounts of hegemonic historical memory that often gloss over the messy social relations inherent in the transmission and replication of material culture.

I do not want to imply here that museums and libraries (whether private or state-funded) have not done an excellent, even heroic, job of rescuing, preserving, conserving, interpreting, and making publicly available important cultural treasures in a manner that allows us, quite literally, to both read and write history (to “see” the past, as it were, and to place it into meaningful critical and social dialectics); rather, I want to argue that we need a more nuanced understanding of what we think we mean by “original” cultural context, and why we think it is so important that we must worry over its displacement. Furthermore, if we are going to have a vigorous discussion about claims of ownership of the past, I would ask that we commit ourselves to a rigorous theoretical examination of how medieval artifacts circulate in the world both as “things” and as bearers of “cultural meaning.” This will mean joining a theoretical discussion regarding “cultural appropriations” [3] long in progress in the fields of ethnography, sociology, archaeology, historiography, art history, and cultural studies, but also among medieval scholars in fields other than Anglo-Saxon studies. It will also mean recognizing, as Claire Sponsler has argued, that “[t]he tendency of medieval scholars to approach their task as one of salvage has privileged the ‘artifact’ as the focal point of study rather than the ‘process’ of cultural creation and transmission.” [4] Additionally, if we want to talk about “original archaeological contexts,” then we are also going to have to talk about what we think we mean by cultural “origins,” and we will need to pay some attention to the debates over “ethnicity” and “ethnogenesis” that are currently raging among historians, archaeologists, and ethnographers of the proto-historical and early medieval periods. [5] And as long as we are talking about ethics, I would also ask us to spend some time considering the ways in which our insistence on the maintenance of material artifacts within tightly-controlled cultural (and often, ethnically-defined) contexts unwittingly contributes to a process of historicism whereby extremely dangerous political movements—such as Nazism and Serbian nationalism—are able to use these “pristine” cultural objects (and the academic discourses built upon them) as powerfully creative tools for constructing specious collective identities, which identities are then deployed in the service of cultural destruction on a mass scale. [6]

If we are worried about the “open market” commodification of antique material culture, we might also remind ourselves that the tribal groups of early Europe were quite adept at commodifying a hybrid material culture, which they used to signify both individual and collective identity, as well as to articulate power relations. [7] We might also consider the fact that in the Anglo-Saxon period, collective identity was not necessarily static, and “ethnicity” was not so much a biological fact as a political construct. William O. Frazer has written that “there is still an inclination among archaeologists to view artefact ‘kits’ as signifiers of straightforward, unchanging group identities, rather than as the expressions of identities in particular social interactions, in which the acts of expressing are also the acts of identity formation.” [8] Just as social identity in the Anglo-Saxon period was the result of interconnected and varied social relations and differing, emplotted narratives, so, too, were the artifacts of the period reflective of heterogeneous and fluid social relationships, and therefore, as John Moreland has argued (against the “culture-history” approach), archaeological culture does not necessarily equal a supposed ethnic culture. [9] As Richard Hodges has shown in The Anglo-Saxon Achievement, for example, even the supposed “insularity” of the English cannot be taken for granted, as “many Anglo-Saxon objects occur on the Continent.” [10] Moreover, Anglo-Saxon artifacts themselves often reflect a rich cross-fertilization of cultural identities at a time of immense change. One expression of this, according to Hodges, “is the chip-carved jewellery of Late Roman times. This distinctive Germanic style is best known on decorated strap-ends, which commonly blend zoomorphic images of a central and north European antiquity with essentially classical forms” (24) Historically, archaeologists have striven to place these strap-ends in purely “Germanic” contexts, whereas more recently, it is generally agreed upon that they “reflect the change of identity of those in the northern frontier zones on the eve of Rome’s collapse” (25). Additionally, excavations of graves in places like Kent [11] have revealed evidence of connections between sub-Roman Britain, Gaul, and southern Scandinavia, which bequeaths to us a wealth of artifacts whose “original archaeological context” may be Kent, but whose “cultural meaning” can only be located in the confluence of a series of encounters—economic, political, and social (some direct, some indirect)—between various cultural groups. In this sense, the “identity” of the artifact is inextricably bound up with the metaphysics of these encounters, which we can only guess at, because in the final analysis, as Hodges also reminds us, “Archaeology often remains the driest dust that blows” (8).

The fact that the question of the “original context” of the artifact is always inextricably connected to multiple frames of reference and identity—personal and public, psychic and social, material and non-material—brings us right back to ethics. The Anglo-Saxon artifact sitting in its glass case at the British Library may seem fairly benign, and we would be hard pressed to imagine a controversy erupting over its supposed provenance and meaning, or its habitation in a national museum, partly because those who had the most to gain and lose from it are so far removed from us in time. But we would do well to consider the ramifications of some recent controversies over who should own and control the physical objects of the historical past. An illustrative case in point is the bitter international dispute that erupted in the spring and summer of 2001 when Yad Vashem, Israel’s main Holocaust museum, removed from a house in Drohobych, Ukraine five fragments of newly-discovered murals, depicting scenes from Grimm’s fairy tales, painted by the Polish Jewish writer and artist Bruno Schulz, who was shot to death by an SS officer in Nazi-occupied Drohobych (then part of Poland) in 1942. Many in Poland and Ukraine objected strongly to Yad Vashem’s removal of Schulz’s work, which they feel is a part of their living Polish and Central European Jewish heritage, but Yad Vashem insisted not only that Schulz’s work more properly belonged in their cultural and moral purview, but that they would also make the more able curators. It is often said of Schulz that he “was born an Austrian, lived as a Pole and died a Jew,” [12] but to the representatives of Yad Vashem who defended the removal of the mural fragments, because Schulz “was a Jewish artist—forced to illustrate the walls of the home of a German SS officer as a Jewish prisoner during the Holocaust, and killed by an SS officer purely because he was a Jew—the correct and most suitable place to house the wall paintings he sketched during the Holocaust, is Yad Vashem.” [13] Given Drohobych’s anti-Semitic history and the fact that the town contains no markers or monuments denoting its most famous son, perhaps Yad Vashem was right to take the murals; nevertheless, the debate raged through the fall and winter of 2001 and into the spring of 2002, with twenty-four American scholars of Central European history, art, and literature arguing in The New York Review of Books that Yad Vashem’s removal of the frescoes “represents an unconscionable statement of moral and cultural superiority” that is “an insult to the people of Central Europe,” as well as “doubly damaging to the local Jewish population which has remained in Drohobych.” [14] Most important, these scholars worried that Yad Vashem’s actions were a dangerous assault on the history of both the artist’s and the region’s “pluralism,” and since all of his work is set in Drohobych, “is it not the best homage to him to salvage some part of the world he loved, in situ?” [15] Here we see both the concern for honoring an “original” local context, as well as an attention to the multi-dimensional and “plural” nature of the historical artifact, which, perhaps, should not be “boxed in” too tightly, but how compatible are these objectives? Can the artifact, much like the individual who creates it, ever sit still? The answer is both “yes” and “no.”

Two weeks after the attack on the World Trade Center, a New York Times reporter was standing on the rooftop of an 18-floor building where “everyday objects” from the North Tower had blown over from Vesey Street and landed. One object that especially transfixed him was “a brown suede Martinez Valero slip-on. How had it gotten there? Had it fallen off as its owner escaped down a stairway? Or had it flown off as she tripped and fell, unable ever to reach safety? Was it simply sitting under her desk that morning, unworn, because she had not yet come into work? Or did it belong to someone whose face I had seen on a missing poster at St.Vincent’s Hospital? Surely, this shoe had a story to tell. But what was it? Horror? Relief? Loss? Salvation? The object was at once eloquent and mute, familiar and unknowable.” [16] Similarly, visitors to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. are often most struck—often into stunned silence—by the room in which there is nothing but a huge mound of gray shoes. Without having to read the text that accompanies them, everyone knows where they came from and what they mean, and the emotional effect of the exhibit is palpable. At the same time, part of this emotional effect stems from the fact that, while the “original” historical context for these shoes is well-known, the individual stories that attach to each pair are mainly unknowable. In the end, it is both their historical specificity as well as their mute inscrutability that arrests the viewer, and even terrifies. In the case of the Anglo-Saxon artifact, often uncovered, as Bredehoft indicates, by “amateur treasure hunters armed with metal detectors and shovels,” there is no contemporary history, no “fresh horror,” that could give the object a legible context, if even surmised, nor is there the specialist’s education. But even if an Anglo-Saxon scholar were to wander by at the moment of discovery, armed with his or her knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history and culture, the artifact, whether a coin or strap-end, brooch or buckle, would still be, like the North Tower’s flying “everyday objects” and that pile of gray shoes, both “familiar and unknowable.” Is there ever just one story that an artifact can tell us? Would that it could tell many, and keep flying along.

By citing Maurice Blanchot’s remark above, “What counts is not to say, but to say again,” I wish to suggest that it is not its salvage by “experts” and subsequent placement in a sheltered space such as a glass case in a national museum that will secure the Anglo-Saxon artifact’s history and cultural value for us, although it is a good place to begin (for capture is always better than loss, and nation-states tend to endure longer than individual estates); rather, it is in the understanding that the signifying power of material culture has always resided in the ability of physical objects to iterate different meanings in different times and places that we can begin to ascertain the artifact’s true historical meaning (and its staying power). Traditionally, the museum has functioned to place material culture in a stopping place of time, a place where history literally comes to a halt in the weight and texture of the thing itself, and all the psychic undertow and messy complexities of the past fall away, although, for me, it is precisely that psychic undertow—the thousands of individual memories—that always hovers in the air of the museum and haunts. Yes, museums have changed over the years and they have even become showcases for technological innovation leading to multi-layered and narratively rich presentations of their holdings (the Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. is one good example, as are the current plans for the development of an interpretive Memorial Center at “ground zero” in New York City), [17] but one cannot escape the fact that, in the end, the museum is a big box that holds things in and keeps things in their places. Alfred North Whitehead once wrote that “The elucidation of the meaning of the sentence ‘everything flows’ is one of metaphysics’ main tasks.” [18] And such might also be the task for the scholar of the artifact.


[1] My title is taken from a quotation from Maurice Blanchot, “Ce qu’il importe, ce n’est pas de dire, c’est de redire et, dans cette redite, de dire chaque fois encore une première fois”; quoted in Antoine Compagnon, Le seconde main: ou, Le travail de la citation (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1979), 7.

[2] On Leland’s career and book collecting, see May McKisack, Medieval History in the Tudor Age (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 1-7.

[3] A good place to begin, relative to a broad introduction to this academic discussion about cultural appropriations, would be the special issue of The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, edited by Kathleen Ashley and Véronique Plesch, titled “The Cultural Processes of ‘Appropriation’” (JMEMS 32.1 [Winter 2002]). Within the field of Old English literature, two important works for helping us to further ruminate and theorize the ethical considerations Bredehoft raises in his essay, are Allen J. Frantzen, Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990), and John D. Niles, “Appropriations: A Concept of Culture,” in Allen J. Frantzen and John D. Niles, eds., Anglo-Saxonism and the Construction of Social Identity (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997), 202-28.

[4] Claire Sponsler, “In Transit: Theorizing Cultural Appropriation in Medieval Europe,” The Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 32.1 (Winter 2002): 19.

[5] A good place to gain an overview of the debate among historians over ethnogenesis theory (Traditionskern) would be with the essays collected in Andrew Gillett, ed., On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages (Turnhout: Brepols, 2002). For an overview of current discussions about group identity among scholars of early medieval England, see the essays collected in William O. Frazer and Andrew Tyrell, eds., Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain (London: Leicester UP, 2000). For what is now termed the “historical archaeoethnological” approach to Anglo-Saxon identity, see the essays collected in John Hines, ed., The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1997), and Richard Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: Archaeology & the Beginnings of English Society (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989). For an overview of recent work in archaeology of the Anglo-Saxon period that is overturning conventional assumptions about the racial history and social relations of the period, see D.M. Hadley, The Northern Danelaw: Its Social Structure, c. 800-1100 (London: Leicester University Press, 2000), and Catherine Hills, The Origins of the English (London: Duckworth, 2003).

[6] As one example of this kind of destructive deployment of a group identity founded upon an intellectual discourse (itself founded upon faulty historical memories associated with a specific cultural site and medieval historical event—Kosovo, and the Battle of the Blackbirds in 1389), see Thomas Cushman, “The Sociology of Evil and the Destruction of Bosnia,” The Hedgehog Review 2.2 (2002), online at

[7] On this point, see the essays collected in Frans Theuws and Janet L. Nelson, Rituals of Power: From Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages (Leiden: Brill, 2000).

[8] William O. Frazer, “Introduction: Identities in Early Medieval Britain,” in Frazer and Tyrell, eds., Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain, 4. On this point, see also Siân Jones, The Archaeology of Ethnicity: Constructing Identities in the Past and Present (London: Routledge, 1997), and Dell Upton, “Ethnicity, authenticity and invented traditions,” Historical Archaeology 30.2 (1996): 1-7.

[9] See John Moreland, “Ethnicity, Power, and the English,” in Frazer and Tyrell, eds., Social Identity in Early Medieval Britain, 23-51.

[10] Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement, 9.

[11] See Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement, 30-32.

[12] Celestine Bohlen, “Artwork by Holocaust Victim Is Focus of Dispute,” The New York Times 20 June 2001. See also Dinitia Smith, “Debating Who Controls Holocaust Artifacts,” The New York Times 18 July 2001.

[13] “Yad Vashem’s statement regarding the sketches by Bruno Schulz,” May 2001; online at

[14] Alexander Maxwell et al., “Bruno Schulz’s Frescoes,” The New York Review of Books 29 November 2001; online at

[15] Padraic Kenney et al., “Bruno Schulz’s Wall Paintings: Reply,” The New York Review of Books 23 May 2002; available at:

[16] David W. Dunlap, “Oh, the Stories These Mute Pieces Could Tell,” The New York Times 31 March 2004.

[17] To see the plans for the WTC Memorial, “Reflecting Absence,” go to the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation’s website at:

[18] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: The Free Press, 1969); quoted in Ilya Prigione and Isabelle Stengers, Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature (Boulder, CO: New Science Library, 1984), 303.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Provocative (and evocative) essay. Did it generate any comments you can share?

On insularity and circulation and Anglo-Saxon (or English) identity ... the essay made me think of the Bermuda Historical Society Museum in Hamilton, where among the detritus of history assembled there I came across a small display of medieval coins. One of these was an Athelstan penny, and another had William the Conqueror. I asked the elderly man who watches over the collection how the coins came to be on the island, and he made me sit down in a comfortable chair across from him before confiding that he had no idea. They were most likely brought to Bermuda by a wealthy collector decades ago, then dropped off at the museum once the collector died. The gentleman then told me of his sadness at the fact that most children now born on the island would not be able to afford to live there as adults.

Nothing especially profound here, just a soup of nostalgia, identity fragments, pieces of the past, and impoverished imagined futures.

Eileen Joy said...

The essay, sadly, did not generate any comments except for a few emails from a couple of scholars who basically said, "thanks for writing that." But the Bruno Schulz/Yad Vashem bit is in my monograph-in-progress--in a chapter that looks at the restoration of Leonardo's "Last Supper" and the "Electronic Beowulf," viz. some theorizing about who "owns" the past, how best to "restore" it, etc. so I'll get to expand on that [this semester!].