Although I didn’t create the assignment below until about six years ago, when reflecting back on my decade-long teaching career, it stands out as the most memorable and satisfying experience. Once written, it was, by far, the one I reused the most in almost every literature course I taught. It is utterly adaptable for undergraduates at any level, nearly always inspires students to become more deeply invested in their learning, and receives the most positive comments in teaching evaluations. In other words, this assignment is my most successful one, and the one that reminds me every single time of why I wanted to teach in the first place. It is also fun to grade (said no professor ever!), and I mean that unironically. There is, hands down, nothing like seeing students grow passionate about their work and enjoy the hands-on learning experience. For me, this assignment is more about the process than the final product, and effort factors into the final grade in a major way. I always explain to students that creative endeavors do not always end up as planned, despite a great deal of hard work. Sometimes mistakes or flaws in art work out to become something even better than planned, and sometimes not. That’s okay here.
I gage their efforts with a proposal and verbal reports along the way. As a result, students can explore, in a trial and error fashion, without the fear that their grade will suffer dramatically if their project doesn’t turn out exactly right. Oftentimes, I worry that students don’t get enough opportunities for that kind of active learning in their traditional essay assignments in which the quality of their arguments matters most, and these projects have helped me to build space for that in a structured manner. And, as a side note, the quality of student work tends to end up being much greater than expected probably because some of the pressure is taken off of them by allowing more freedom and control. And since they choose their own learning adventure, they simply care more about it.
Unfortunately, I may never have the opportunity to reuse this assignment, but I can’t fathom letting it stay buried in my personal wasteland of old computer files. So, in the off chance that somebody will find inspiration for their own teaching practices, I provide it here to be copied, revised, and adapted at will in any way that suits your instructional needs. It can remain completely open-ended, or made as specific and narrow as possible. Every part of it is flexible. I’ve used versions of it at public schools and private schools, for freshman and seniors, for general education and specialized courses. It works in any setting. Please feel free to use any or all of it, keep it the same, or make it your own. If you have a moment, I’d love to hear about your version of the creative assignment and how it goes in the comments section below.
That the erudition of Irish scholars in the early Middle Ages was not always cast in a positive light is reflected in a letter, written nearly two centuries earlier, by Aldhelm, abbot of Malmesbury (d. 709). Aldhelm writes in admonishing language to his student Wihtfrith that he is none too pleased with the latter’s decision to go study in Ireland. He wonders why Wihtfrith would forsake the study of the Old and New Testament to read foul pagan literature, i.e., Virgil, which was apparently being taught in the monastic centres of Ireland. More colourful still is Aldhelm’s language in the oft-quoted passage below:
Quidnam, rogitans quaeso, orthodoxae fidei sacramento commodi affert circa temeratum spurcae Proserpinae incestum—quod abhorret fari enucleate— legendo scrutandoque sudescere aut Hermionam, petulantem Menelai et Helenae sobolem, quae, ut prisca produnt opuscula, despondebatur pridem iure dotis Oresti demumque sententia immutata Neoptolemo nupsit, lectionis praeconio venerari aut Lupercorum bacchantum antistites ritu litantium Priapo parasitorum heroico stilo historiae caraxere.
What, pray, I beseech you eagerly, is the benefit to the sanctity of the orthodox faith to expend energy by reading and studying the foul pollution of base Proserpina, which I shrink from mentioning in plain speech; or to revere, through celebration in study, Hermione, the wanton offspring of Menelaus and Helen, who, as the ancient texts report, was engaged for a while by right of dowry to Orestes, then, having changed her mind, married Neoptolemus; or to record—in the heroic style of epic—the high priests of the Luperci, who revel in the fashion of those cults that sacrifice to Priapus […].
But Aldhelm did not stop there. No, truly, Ireland held further dangers still than the dactylic hexameters of the Augustan poets of old. He continues:
Porro tuum discipulatum ceu cernuus arcuatis poplitibus flexisque suffraginibus feculenta farna compulsus posco, ut nequaquam prostibula vel lupanarium nugas, in quis pompulentae prostitutae delitescunt, lenocinante luxu adeas, quae obrizo rutilante periscelidis armillaque lacertorum terete utpote faleris falerati curules comuntur, […]
Moreover, I, compelled by this foul report, beg your Discipleship, genuflecting, as it were, with arched knee and bent leg, that you in no wise go near the whores or the trumpery of bawdy houses, where lurk pretentious prostitutes with luxury as their pander, who are adorned with the flashing burnish of leg-bands and with smooth arm bracelets, just as ornamented chariots are adorned with metal bosses; […]
It would seem that reading Virgil and engaging prostitutes go hand in hand, the beneficiary being equally worthy of damnation in Aldhelm’s eyes. It is a pity that we never find out whether Wihtfrith actually heeded his teacher’s advice or, indeed, what lines (facetiously penned in hexameter?) he may have tendered in response to assuage his anxious master’s fears. The letter to Wihtfrith, along with many others of Aldhelm’s writings, survives today only in William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Pontificum Anglorum, an early-twelfth-century history of the English bishops. Aldhelm’s letters are contained in Book V of the Gesta, the section of William’s work dedicated to the history of Malmesbury Abbey and to Aldhelm, its founder.
King Alfred and a Reindeer
Having now moved from Ireland, via Wales, into Anglo-Saxon England, we are coming to our final stop on the journey through language contacts, manuscripts, and riddles in North-western Europe. While this section does not contain a riddle or admonition, it deals with one of the most interesting examples of language contact that I have come across. And it involves no lesser a man than Alfred of Wessex himself. As I mentioned before, it is only natural to reflect, when two languages come into contact, how these are both different and alike. When I recently listened to BBC4’s In Our Time podcast on the ‘Danelaw’ (referring to both an area of Norse occupation as well as customs and legal practices), one of the speakers, Prof. Judith Jesch of the University of Nottingham, discussed the story of the voyages of the Norwegian tradesman Ohthere during his stay at the court of King Alfred. Alfred had acceded to the throne of Wessex in 871, the only kingdom within Anglo-Saxon England that was not under Norse rule at the time, and later in 886, Alfred negotiated a treaty with the Danish king Guthrum, establishing a border between their two domains. Apart from being a skilled military and political leader, Alfred was also invested in cultural reform and education, looking for inspiration across the Channel to what had been achieved as part of the Carolingian Renaissance. One of the areas that Alfred’s efforts centred on was providing translations of important Latin texts, especially theological and historical works. One of these works was Orosius’ Seven Books against the Pagans, by that time the standard source for world history. At one time, it was even believed that it was Alfred himself who translated the text into Old English, although this theory has now largely fallen out of favour. And it is as part of the Old English Orosius that we find the fascinating story of the voyage of Ohthere to Alfred’s court. Ohthere tells the king that he comes from the northernmost part of Norway, hardly inhabited, and brings him a gift of walrus tusks, containing precious ivory. Then he tells the king that:
He wæs swyðe spedig man on þæm æhtum þe heora speda on beoð, þæt is on wildrum. He hæfde þagyt, ða he þone cyningc sohte, tamra deora unbebohtra syx hund. þa deor hi hatað hranas; […]
He was a very rich man in those possessions which their riches consist of, that in wild deer. He had still, when he came to see the king, six hundred unsold tame deer. These deer they call ‘reindeer’.
Several insights can be gained from this little anecdote. As Judith Jesch points out in the podcast, there seems to have been no translator present at the conversation between Ohthere and the king. It must be that either Ohthere—as a tradesman—had sufficient knowledge of Old English to talk to Alfred; or that in turn, Alfred and the members of his court had sufficient knowledge of Old Norse to navigate the conversation; or indeed, that Old Norse and Old English were similar enough that, to borrow Jesch’s terms, linguistic differences could easily be negotiated. Such a negotiation is particularly apparent from the above passage by the introduction of the word for ‘reindeer’ into the English language. Since English had no word for this foreign animal, the Norse hreinn was borrowed into English as hrán (see Bosworth and Toller s.v. hrán), as Old Norse ei is equivalent to Old English á (that the reverse happened also can be seen through the borrowing of English personal names such as Æthelstan into Norse as Aðalsteinn). We can imagine Alfred’s clerk interrogating Ohthere as to what exactly a hrán was and why it made him so wealthy. Embedded in the wider context of the Old English translation of Orosius, we therefore find this fascinating exchange between Alfred the Great and a humble yet resourceful reindeer farmer from Norway.
This selection of anecdotes found and lifted from the pages of medieval parchment provides just a glimpse into the fascinating world of medieval Irish, Welsh, Anglo-Saxon, and Norse contacts. And just as the modern student diligently devotes their time to make sense of the difficult Old-Irish Paradigms and Selections from the Old-Irish Glosses, annotating their copy with helpful notes, so did medieval scribes annotate their Latin texts, spelling out difficulties and playing with languages. And as undergraduates and postgraduates apply to the most competitive and most coveted university programmes, either with or without the counsel of an academic mentor or advisor, so did Wihtfrith no doubt make Ireland his educational destination. And no doubt, when Alfred of Wessex received Ohthere at his court, we may not have anticipated learning so much about northern Norwegian fauna. What these examples teach us is that history and language, manuscripts and literature can never be studied in isolation, but must come together to allow us to construct the story of the past. And while the past may be a different country (pace Hartley), they don’t always do things differently there.
Marie-Luise Theuerkauf, Ph.D.
University of Cambridge
 Lapidge, M. and Herren, M., Aldhelm: The Prose Works. D.S. Brewer, 1979: 154.