Going on a Medieval Vision Quest & Filming the Birth of the Spanish Language with Dr. Ryan Szpiech

In the latest, two-parter, episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages,” Ben and Will sit down with Dr. Ryan Szpiech, associate professor of Spanish and director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Michigan. We chatted about the hidden power of language, his path into Medieval Studies, vision quests in rural Spain, parallel histories, and creating a documentary on the beginnings of the Spanish language.

Going on a Medieval Vision Quest with Dr. Ryan Szpiech

Our conversation with Dr. Szpiech ranged from the deeply personal to the global. We spoke of the challenges we can face during our school days, when we are trying to work out who we are and who we want to be. But we also spoke of how a single man, Alfonso X of Castille, was able to recognise the value of other people and other cultures in his own period and shape the destiny of the Spanish language. It is a testament to the power of the individual. Alfonso was a king, yes, but he was driven, ambitious. His works had a profound impact on the world today, and it was fascinating to hear how Dr. Szpiech tackled researching, and presenting his findings, on such a complex individual.  

Filming the Birth of the Spanish Language with Dr. Ryan Szpiech

His research on Ramon Martí, a 13th century Dominican monk, is a helpful reminder that academic work can yield all kinds of results. It gave him the chance to collaborate with other scholars like the Medieval Institute’s own Dr. Thomas Burman. He published an edition of Martí’s “The Dagger of Faith.” He wrote a more theoretical article on what it means to use an alphabet. Primary sources (that is, the medieval texts or objects that medievalist scholars use) can have all sorts of strange quirks and features. One of Martí’s was citing the Quran in Arabic, but using Hebrew letters to write it. Dr. Szpiech shows us that these eccentricities or even problems can be goldmines for research.

Dr. Szpiech’s personal story is proof of the power of the written word, and of the study of the humanities more broadly. He was open and honest during the conversation. Initially set on a course of his own choosing toward neuroscience, he was utterly blindsided by profound ideas captured in prose and poetry. His pivot to Medieval Studies has netted the world a brilliant medievalist doing rigorous work that makes historical figures not only intelligible to modern audiences, but also captivating in their own right. He also reminds us of two things: everyone is on their own journey, and success takes hard work. It is easy, as a graduate student, to look at the talented graduates and professors around you and assume that they were all naturally gifted scholars. That they were destined to be scholars. But Dr. Szpiech’s story shows us the value of passion and dedication, no matter the path.

Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.

Will Beattie & Ben Pykare
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame

Aglæca: Awesome Opponent or Uncanny Invader?

One of the most challenging Old English terms to translate is the enigmatic aglæca, a term that has prompted an extensive amount of ink spilled. Earlier translators tended to gloss the term as “monster,” a definition that applies to the most frequent usage in the corpus. In this vein, J.R. Clark Hall’s Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary defines aglæca (m.) as “wretch, monster, demon, fierce enemy” and the related term, aglæc (n.) as “trouble, distress, oppression, misery, grief” (15). Similarly, Bosworth Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary offers these six definitions for aglæca (n.): “A miserable being, wretch, miscreant, monster, fierce combatant.” These foundational sources substantiate the many translations that render the term as “monster,” albeit with neutral exceptions such as “fierce combatant” when referring to positive figures and heroes.

A close up of a stone

Description automatically generated
Beowulf Manuscript, atol æglæca “terrible æglæca” BL, Cotton Vitellius a.vx. f145v.

Recent critical editions, however, reflect a different trajectory. These editions shift to something more akin to “fierce combatant” than “monster.” For example, in Beowulf: A Critical Edition, edited by Bruce Mitchell and Fred Robinson, the term appears as “fierce combatant, adversary” (241). Similarly, Klaeber’s Beowulf: Fourth Edition, edited by R.D. Fulk, Robert Bjork and John Niles, glosses aglæca (m.) as “one inspiring awe or misery, formidable one, afflicter, assailant, adversary, combatant” (347). Lastly, the University of Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English [DOE] adheres to this trend, in glossing the term as “awesome opponent, ferocious fighter.” None of these more recent editions include “monster” or “wretch” as definitions for the term, nor do any related terms such as “demon” or “miscreant” that carry an unequivocally pejorative sense.

The new convention attempts to solve a longstanding problem associated with Beowulf. In that poem, references to both monsters and heroes provoked a blatant inconsistency, which glossed negatively in referencing the monsters and positively in referencing the heroes. The proposed solution to this inconsistency was located in a reference to Bede as the aglæca lareow aglæca teacher, master, preacher.” Given Bede’s renowned for learned equanimity, it was reasoned that the term could not denote a pejorative meaning. Accordingly, the now conventional glosses, “awesome opponent, ferocious fighter” applied equally to demonic monsters (Satan in Juliana and Grendel in Beowulf), heroic warriors (Beowulf and Sigemund in Beowulf), missionary saints ( St. Andrew in Andreas) and the venerable scholar (Bede in the prose text, Byrhtferth’s Manual).

A painting of a person standing on a monkey

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Depiction of Mambres with book contemplating Hell’s torments: from a scientific miscellany, England, mid-11th century, Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1,  f. 87v.

The Old English poem Beowulf contains the majority of uses of aglæca forms in the entire literary Old English corpus. Indeed, 20 of the 34 iterations of aglæca occur in the poem (159, 425, 433, 556, 592, 646, 732, 739, 816, 893, 989, 1000, 1259, 1269, 1512, 2520, 2534, 2557, 2592, 2905), and 11 iterations apply specifically to Grendel (159, 425, 433, 591, 646, 732, 739, 816, 989, 1000, 1269), marking him as the primary aglæca in Old English literature. Outside of Beowulf, the term aglæca features predominantly for Satan and his demonic minions, marking the term as principally associated with devils. Including Grendel, references to explicitly demonic monsters as aglæca occur in 24 of its 34 occurrences, suggesting either a demonic or monstrous association and underscoring that aglæca often carries a pejorative sense. Moreover, if we apply a critical lens to some of the heroes in Beowulf who are labeled aglæca, namely Heremod, Sigemund and Beowulf himself, as Griffith, Koberl, Orchard, Gwara and others have done, the pejorative could then extend to the heroic figures in the poem.

In sum, the term is used primarily throughout the corpus to refer to monsters or demons—and above all Satan and Grendel. But, it is also notably used to describe heroes in Beowulf, Saint Andrew in the Old English Andreas, and most bewilderingly of all, to describe Bede. Alex Nicholls points this out in his transformative article highlighting this outlier reference to a renown and highly respected church father as an aglæca, which rightly prompted careful study aimed at reconsidering the Old English term’s semantics based primarily on the unusual context in which the term appears in this text, “Bede ‘Awe-inspiring’ Not ‘Monstrous’: Some Problems with Old English Aglæca.” And, while we commend this thoughtful reconsideration, we would argue that in fact the article may ultimately have had too large an impact on the semantics of the term, especially defined neutrally as “awesome opponent” as it appears in Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English. As in with other terms, here seems one where two definitions could help, one for the predominant usage of the term, and one that also accommodates the single prose use of the term for Bede. 

Detail of a miniature of the First Temptation of Christ: from a Psalter, England (Oxford), c. 1200–1225, Arundel MS 157, f. 5v.

One glaring problem with this solution is that the modern sense of “awesome” is primarily—almost universally—positive, which is diametrically opposed to what the extant lexicographical evidence suggests with respect to the semantics of aglæca. Instead, the sense is principally and overwhelmingly pejorative. Thus, we would argue that “awesome opponent” as a modern English translation does not bear out across the corpus. We contend rather that “awful opponent” would better capture the general sense of the term in the vast majority of contexts in which aglæca appears. But, even this isn’t quite right. 

Unfortunately, the DOE’s second definition provides an equally unsatisfactory solution in opting for “ferocious fighter” as a translation for aglæca. As Mark Griffith observes, if the term merely signifies an “formidable opponent,” or something similar, “then it is very curious that it is not used of other figures in the poetry who could be appropriately so labeled” (35). The term aglæca is a noun traditionally understood to be derived from a compound that combines a form of the ege, which Bosworth-Toller defines as “fear, terror, dread, awe” with a form of the verb lacan, which Bosworth-Toller defines as “to swing, to wave about, to play, to fight.” Thus, defining aglæca as “ferocious fighter” erases the wondrous and terrifying quality [ege] and strips the term of one of its formative elements.

Nichols offers “awe-inspiring” thereby maintaining the “fear” sense in the term, the semantics would apply to both monstrous figures (like Satan and Grendel) as well as marvelous/wonderous heroes. It is ege or “awe” in the sublime and wondrous sense of the term. We would argue that “monster” is actually not so bad a translation as the concept of “wonder” and “monster” in the medieval period were interwoven in the early medieval literature. Indeed, Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short’s A Latin Dictionary, generally regarded considered the best resource for medieval Latin, offers two definitions of monstrum:

1.) a divine omen indicating misfortune, an evil omen, portent
2.) a monster, monstrosity (whether a living being or an inanimate thing)

This wondrous, portentous quality—this uncanniness—is consistently applicable to aglæca —from Satan to Bede. There is of course also the combative aspect of the compound, which seems in every case to correspond to not only an intruder but something akin to a fearsome marauder—an uncanny invader.

Image of a scribe, perhaps Bede, from Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 2r.

This brings us back to Bede—the one lone positive iteration that seems not to carry a pejorative sense—which occurs in a text from later than most iterations (11th century) and is also the only iteration of the term in prose writing. While this use of the term for Bede is puzzling, though far from inexplicable, it seems overkill to disregard the pejorative sense that applies to the term in 33 of 34 iterations and interpret the semantics of the term as neutral because of a single outlier, especially one removed from the poetic and to a lesser extent the historical context in which the majority of uses of the term appear. Moreover, if we consider the possibility of including “wondrous intruder” as a definition for aglæca, it better applies to Bede’s supernatural visitation. While we are in no way advocating for a return to rendering aglæca as “monster” in modern English translations of Beowulf, nor do we consider “awesome opponent” or “ferocious fighter” suitable definitions for aglæca, because the former definition suggests disingenuously probative semantics and the latter disregards the sense of ege “awe” contained in the term. If the term aglæca is understood as a “wondrous intruder” or an “uncanny invader” it applies more neatly to all the Old English contexts in which the term appears. But even these translations lack satisfaction as they largely elide (or at least diminish) the fearful, pejorative sense carried by at least the major of the contexts in which the term appears. This is in part because the word “wonder” and its related forms in modern English are regarded much more positively, whereas an Old English wundor could certainly be marvelous in either a neutral or miraculous sense, but could equally be regarded as monstrous.

Richard Fahey & Chris Vinsonhaler
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame & CUNY University

Selected Bibliography & Further Reading

Fahey, Richard. “Grendel’s Shapeshifting: From Shadow Monster to Human Warrior.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. Medieval Institute: University of Notre Dame (October 27, 2021).

—. “Enigmatic Design & Psychomachic Monstrosity in Beowulf.” Dissertation: University of Notre Dame (2019).

—. “The Lay of Sigemund.” Medieval Studies Research Blog. Medieval Institute: University of Notre Dame (March 22, 2019).

Griffith, Mark. “Some Difficulties in Beowulf, Lines 874-902: Sigemund Reconsidered.” Anglo-Saxon England 24 (1995): 11-41.

Gwara, Scott. Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

Köberl, Johann. The Indeterminacy of Beowulf. Lanham, MD: University of America Press, 2002.

Nicholls, Alex. “Bede ‘Awe-inspiring’ Not ‘Monstrous’: Some Problems with Old English Aglæca.” Notes and Queries 38.2 (1991): 147-48.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “Beowulf, Lines 702b-836: Transformations and the Limits of the Human.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 23.4 (1981): 484-94.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-Manuscript. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 1995.

Schulman, Jana K. “Monstrous Introductions: Ellengæst and Aglæcwif.” In Beowulf at Kalamazoo: Essays on Translation and Performance, 69-92. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2012.

Vinsonhaler, N. Chris. “The HearmscaÞa and the Handshake: Desire and Disruption in the Grendel Episode.” Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 47 (2016): 1-36.

Leaving the Beaten Path with Dr. Andrea Robiglio

In the latest episode of “Meeting in the Middle Ages,” Ben and Will sit down with Dr. Andrea Robiglio, professor of History of Philosophy at KU Leuven. We spoke about the wide world of pre-modern philosophy and the ways in which the field of philosophy is at heart a “vain struggle to define something.” We also discussed the works of Dante Alighieri and Thomas Aquinas, both of whom illustrate the surprising truth that the many of the conceptual practices we take to be modern have deep roots in medieval philosophy and theology.

Dr. Andrea Robiglio, professor of History of Philosophy at KU Leuven

During our conversation with Dr. Robiglio this month, the sheer range and interdisciplinarity of the professor’s work was staggering. “Interdisciplinary” is something of a buzzword in Medieval Studies at the moment, and it can sometimes result in superficial or imprecise research. But Dr. Robiglio does far more than merely gesture to neighboring fields in his work. He weaves together intensely close readings a la literary studies, in-depth historical analysis, and, of course, precise philosophical insights. We moved from recent historical fiction to early 20th century scholars, from Dante to Umberto Eco and back. His research is a trove of the riches that can be found when one takes a holistic view, pursuing different threads and weaving them together. It seemed natural to us, then, to title this episode “Leaving the Beaten Path.” He may have been more comfortable calling himself a “Pre-modern Philosopher,” but it was clear to us that his integration of Latin and vernacular(s) texts, from a whole host of authors and composers, into an analytical approach that is as ready to embrace the secular as the religious makes him a formidable medievalist.

A recurring theme in our conversation was that of modernity in philosophy. We tend to think of our postmodern world, with its proliferating multiplicities, as a response to the grand theories of modernism. It is a response, we tell ourselves, to modernism’s tendency towards teleology, structures, and hierarchy. But in so many ways, postmodernism is a medieval phenomenon. The Middle Ages, at least in Western Europe, grew among the ruins of the centralized, systematized Roman Empire. Medieval society tended towards localisation, a tangled web of nodes each representing conflicting groups and interests. For Robiglio, it seems that figures like Dante and Thomas Aquinas also resist hierarchy in their writing and draw on a wide range of sometimes conflicting sources. Aquinas was willing to push back against the hegemony of religious thinking and introduce secular philosophy into his work. Perhaps to the point that the distinctions between the two categories start to blur. It’s a remarkably postmodern kind of thinking. As people say, “there’s nothing new under the sun.”

Thanks for listening. See you next time in the Middle Ages.

Will Beattie & Ben Pykare
Medieval Institute
University of Notre Dame