Working in the Archives – Comments on Les Archives départementales du Nord

*This post contributes to the ongoing efforts of the medieval graduate students to offer insight and advice regarding the archives in which they have conducted research. For the first post, see Andrea Castonguay’s post on the Royal Archive in Morocco:

Les Archives Départmentales du Nord

Les Archives Déprtmentales du Nord (ADN) is one of the major state archives of France. The archive is located in Lille, in the northeastern part of France, right next to the Belgian border. ADN houses many of the most important administrative and economic documents of late medieval Burgundy.

Below, I will elaborate on my experience working in the ADN, offering some practical knowledge needed to make an archival visit productive. I will briefly discuss how to get to the Archives du Nord from Paris and Brussels, and then how to get to the archive proper using the metro system in Lille itself. Additionally, I will explain what is needed to access the archive, how to search for material, how to request that material, and how long the material takes to arrive.

How to Get There

There are two ways to get to Lille from the major travel hubs in France and Belgium, Paris and Brussels. In France, there is a direct train from the Paris Nord station to station Lille Europe. A one way ticket costs around 30 euro depending on the time of year in which you choose to travel. In Belgium, there is an indirect train from Brussels Central to Gare de Lille Flandres, with a switch in Tournai. If you are commuting from the Flemish part of Belgium, you will need to switch trains in Kortrijk/Courtrai. There are bus options for both, but if you are commuting daily to Lille from one of these centralized locations, they are prohibitively long in duration to be worth the euros saved.

Once arriving in Lille, your train will take you to either Lille Europe or Gare de Lille Flandres. Both train stations have metro stops on red line below the stations themselves. Lille Flandres also has a stop on the yellow line, which is a slightly faster trip to the archive. If you are going on the red line, go from Lille Europe or Lille Flandres to the stop Porte des Postes or Montebello. At either stop, the archive is less than a ten minute walk from the station. If you take the yellow line from Lille Flandres, get off at the Porte des Postes stop. At any metro stop in Lille, you can purchase a one-way metro card with two charges for 3.60 euro, or an all-day metro card for 5 euro. For your first few trips, I would suggest going with the all-day pass so that you can return to the city center for a nice lunch. The archive resides on the Rue Saint-Bernard.

How to access the archive, Requesting Manuscripts

As with many other archives in Europe, you must present your passport at your first visit to the archive so that you can get a Carte de Lecteur.  The important part of the archival research card is the Reading Number- it is this number that is required to request manuscripts to view.

You can request manuscripts by emailing the archive at, or going in person. In my experience, Les Archives du Nord are a very prompt archive in bringing requested material. They do not fill manuscript requests once per hour as many archives do in Belgium. It takes around fifteen to twenty minutes for the requested manuscripts to arrive. If you email them beforehand, they will have already pulled all of your manuscripts for the day. In terms of manuscript limits, you may only access twelve manuscripts per day. However, you can put in requests for larger amounts of manuscripts for each day of the week and they will oblige you, as long as your desired documents are not requested by another patron.

To search for manuscripts, you can use the online search engine on the Archives’ website, or the printed inventories at the archive. In my experience, the printed inventories are quicker to use, but it is of course dependent upon personal preference or particular material. If you are planning to look at Burgundian economic sources, looking first at the Les sources de l’histoire économique et sociale du Moyen Age. 2 : Les états de la Maison de Bourgogne edited by Robert-Henri Bautier, Janine Sornay, and Francoise Muret is a must. While Les sources includes economic sources from multiple archives, its regional and chronological listings of sources included in the ADN are immensely helpful.

As an important aside, the archive does not have Wi-Fi. The only internet access allowed in the archive is through their computers on the second floor. Furthermore, these computers can only access the archive’s online database, so you will be without internet while there unless you have data on your phone.

Quality of Life

Unfortunately, there are not many cafes near the ADN- many of the nicer cafes and restaurants are on the north side of the city, near the train stations of Lille Europe and Lille Flandres. You can get a nice lunch and drink at one of the breweries outside of Lille Flandres, or walk about half a mile to the town square to enjoy some of the nicest views in Lille.

What I have found to be the most effective is to bring a lunch to the archive- they have a coffee machine and a vending machine, but nothing more. If you finish your work early for the day, I recommend going early to catch your train and grabbing a bite to eat around the stations.  

Sean Sapp
University of Notre Dame

Monstrous Ethiopians? Racial Attitudes and Exoticism in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East’

The flare of recent racial tensions, especially in the wake of the Trump administration’s xenophobic rhetoric, has had repercussions in Charlottesville and across the United States. White nationalist organizations, such as the Alt-Right, have become the face of this hatred and have renewed national concern about the nature of race relations and prejudices in the United States. And of course, the internet has opened new windows and doors into impressionable minds and offered these groups new ways to the spread their toxic rhetoric.

As medievalists it is especially important that we do our part to counter the way in which White supremacist organizations, who have historically appropriated medieval literature into their rhetoric of hatred. It falls especially to Anglo-Saxonists, who have historically been caught in an unfortunate web of association with White Supremacist rhetoric, to explicitly set the record straight and to offer alternative models of medieval thinking about race and ethnicity. The fact is that 20th century Anglo-Saxonist scholarship has intellectually contributed—even helped to create—the romantic idea of the ‘Germanic hero’ (whether in the paragons of Beowulf or Siegfried), and without the work of literary and linguistic scholars of Germanic philology, Hitler’s Nazi rhetoric regarding the racial superiority of an imaged ‘Aryan race’ may not have been possible or at the very least may not have had the same type of intellectual traction.

Moreover, the persistent assumption that medieval people in Europe were necessarily racist, and that they collectively held attitudes of racial superiority congruent with modern White supremacist groups, is both dangerous and non-factual. This assumption contributes to the narrative that ethnic Europeans always considered themselves to be somehow cultural better than their neighbors to the south and east. With all this in mind, I wish to return to the sources—to a medieval text from Anglo-Saxon England—in order to reflect on racial attitudes and prejudices in so far as the text presents them. My discussion will center primarily the Old English The Wonders of the East, an Anglo-Saxon translation of the Latin De rebus in Oriente mirabilbus, which catalogues wondrous places, peoples and creatures from far way lands, generally somewhere in Africa or Asia.

Scholars Susan M. Kim and Asa Mittman have argued that Anglo-Saxon audiences would have likely considered the wonders described in the texts as truly existing and point out that, “the very status of the Wonders as wonders implies at once the stretching of possibility, and an insistence on the viability of the same possibility, at once the incredibility and the truth of the narrative” (1), leading to the conclusion that “the Anglo-Saxon readers and viewers of these texts probably considered them true” (2). The British Library agrees and states in their blog, describing the monsters illustrated in the Wonders: “belief in the existence of monstrous races of human beings was central to medieval thinking, although almost everything about them was open to debate and discussion.”

Marvels depicted in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East,’ BL Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f. 101r.

The Liber Monstrorum, a Latin text similarly interested in monsters and wonders and which Michael Lapidge has argued was composed in Anglo-Saxon England, presents his marvels with more skepticism. Its opening disclaimer casts serious doubt regarding the veracity of many of the marvels described and offers an alternative perspective noting that quaedam tantum in ipsis mirabilibus uera esse creduntur “only certain things in the wonders are believed to be true” and that most may in fact be rumoroso sermone tamen ficta “nevertheless rumor by false speech.”

But, what about when one encounters a ‘wonder’ in a medieval text which (however distortedly) attempts to discuss a group of people or species of animal, which does exist in places far from Europe? What does it say about racial attitudes in Anglo-Saxon England if an ethnic group—such as Ethiopians—is included in a catalogue of monsters? How might we read this?

Before we get to the passage describing the sigelwara ‘Ethiopians,’ let’s begin by briefly discussing the text as a whole and some of the other wonders in the collection. The Old English Wonders is found in two manuscripts, (BL, Cotton Tiberius b.v and BL, Cotton Vitellius a.xv—often called the Nowell Codex or simply the Beowulf-manuscript). One of the monstrous people included in the text is the blemmyae, known explicitly from the Latin source text but left unnamed in the Old English Wonders. What makes these people wondrous is their unusual physical appearance. It is said of these people:

The blemmyae depicted in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East,’ BL, Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f. 102v.
Old English Prose Modern English Translation
Þonne syndon oþre ealond suð from Brixonte, on þon beoð men acende buton heafdum, þa habbað on hyra breostum heora eagan ond muð. Hy seondon eahta fota lange ond eahta fota brade. Ðar beoð dracan cende þa beoð on lenge hundteontige fot-mæl longe and fiftiges; hy beoð greate swa stænene sweras micle. For þara dracaena micelnesse ne mæg nan man na yþelice on þæt land gefaran. Then there is another island, south of the Brixontes, on which there are born men without heads who have their eyes and mouth in their chests. They are eight feet tall and eight feet wide. There are dragons born there which are one hundred and fifty feet in length, and are as thick as great stone pillars. Because of the abundance of the dragons, no one can journey easily in that land.

The blemmyae are pretty unbelievable by modern standards, and today we would recognize such creatures as a fiction or fabrication derived more likely from the imagination than from experience. Emphasis is on the peculiar placement of his face and his enormous size, which is followed up by the corresponding reference to the enormous dragons also found in the wondrous domain of the blemmyae.

Physical description is front and center in the description of the panotii, another unnamed people known from the Latin source text. The panotii are described as follows:

The panotii depicted in Old English ‘Wonders of the East,’ BL, Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f. 104r.
Old English Prose Modern English Translation
Þonne is east þær beoð men acende þa beoð on wæstme fiftyne fota lange ond x on brade. Hy habbað micel heafod ond earan swæ fon. Oþer eare hy him on niht underbredað, ond mid oþran hy wreoð him. Beoð þa earan swiðe leohte ond hy beoð swa on lic-homan swa white swa meolc. Gyf hy hwilcne mannan on þæm lande geseoð oðþe ongytað, þonne nymað hy hyra earan him on hand ond fleoð swiðe, swa hrædlece swa is wen þæt hy fleogen. Going east from there is a place where people are born who are in size fifteen feet tall and ten broad. They have large heads and ears like fans. They spread one ear beneath them at night, and they wrap themselves with the other. Their ears are very light and their bodies are as white as milk. And if they see or perceive someone in their lands, they take their ears in their hands and flee far, so quickly that the belief is that they flew.

These wondrous people are likewise described as monstrous in size and are identified by their unusual facial features, namely large heads and fan-shaped ears. They are described also as having milky white bodies, and so here reference to skin color is one of the ways in which the text physically depicts and characterizes the racialized panotii. The passage goes on to describe their peculiar sleeping habits and speedy flight whenever they sense anyone in their territory.

Another group of people, described in the Wonders as hostes, Latin for ‘enemies,’ are also described firstly by their physical features—in this case their huge size and dark skin—and only after is the reference to their cannibalism.

The hostes depicted in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East,’ BL Cotton Vitellius a.xv, f. 102r.
Old English Prose Modern English Translation
Begeondan Brixonte ðære ea, east þonon beoð men acende lange ond micle, þa habbað fet ond sconcan xiifota lange, sidan mid breostum seofan fota lange. Hi beoð sweartes hiwes, ond Hostes hy synd nemned. Cuþlice swa hwlycne man swa hi læccað, þonne fretað hi hyne. Beyond the River Brixontes, east from there, there are people born big and tall, who have feet and shanks twelve feet long, flanks with chests seven feet long. They are of dark color, and are called Hostes. As surely as they catch someone they devour him.

In this passage, we are told of a people who are to a certain extent characterized by skin color, and so the racial element has now come into play—even violent racialization. In this example, we have reference to a group of dark-skinned cannibals. Still, it seems that, at least according the Wonders, the monstrous hostes are to be feared not because of their “race” or the color of their skin, but rather on account of their potentially life-threatening behavior. Nevertheless, this is a clear racialization and monsterization of the gigantic Hostes.

Another reference to dark-skinned people in the Wonders describes a group who live upon a marvelous mountain:

Old English Prose Modern English Translation
Ðonne is oðer dun þær syndon swearte menn, ond nænig oðer man to ðam mannum geferan mag forðam þe seo dun byð eall byrnende. Then there is another mountain where there are dark people, and no one else can travel to those people because the mountain is everywhere burning.

Here what seems wondrous is the mountain, described as ‘everywhere burning’ and possibly the fact that these people are able to live in such an inhospitable environment. While this is certainly a racialization of these peoples, I would suggest that what is being most marveled at is the mountain and the way it protects these inhabitants, and perhaps least of all that these people are described as swearte—‘swarthy’ or ‘dark’ in Old English.

Which brings us, at long last, to the passage on sigelwara or ‘Ethiopians’ in the Wonders, which begins not with reference to these people, but rather to the nearby marvelous trees, on which gemstones are said to grow.

The sigelwara depicted in the Old English ‘Wonders of the East,’ BL Cotton Vitellius a.xv, 106v.
Old English Prose Modern English Translation
Ðonne is treowcyn on þæm þa deorwyrþystan stanas synd of acende, þonon hy growað. Þær þa moncyn is seondan sweartes hyiwes on onsyne, þa mon hateð sigelwara. Then, there is a kind of tree, which grows there, on which the most precious stones sprout. There is also a group of people there of dark color in appearance, who are called Ethiopians (sigelwara).

Indeed it is the jewel-producing trees, which are the true wonder in this section, and the reference to the sigelwara appears as something of an afterthought, though they are characterized entirely based on their skin color, and therefore highly racialized. This physical feature is mentioned before the text promptly transitions to the next wonder in the collection.

Nevertheless, the Old English Wonders refers to Ethiopians in its list of marvels, and I would argue the text is most guilty of exoticism as it reflects a sense of wonder about different groups of people without any reference to respective racial superiority or inferiority. That these people were from a far away place and are described as visually different seems only to heighten the interest and intrigue. In other words, the Ethiopians are a wondrous people.

It is true that with the Wonders, we have a text that racializes and characterizes groups of people based on their physical characteristics, and so the text is—or at least can be read as—racist in this sense. However, it is important to note that white-skinned people are just as wondrous (or monstrous) as dark-skinned people in the text, primarily made marvelous by their status as strange, foreign and other. The Wonders demonstrates medieval fascination with the exotic and the marvelous, and the spatial orientation of the text may even reflect a desire to be elsewhere. Indeed, certainly in Anglo-Saxon England as with most of medieval Europe, people considered themselves to be living in something of a cultural backwater, and places to the south and east (whether cities such as Rome, Constantinople, Baghdad, or regions such as Ethiopia or India) were considered culturally superior in that they were places full of knowledge and wonders.

While the Old English Wonders of the East should by no means be taken as a representative of all medieval people’s perception or interest in exotic wonders (as no single text could), it nevertheless tells a somewhat different story about racial attitudes in Anglo-Saxon England than the narratives pushed by modern Neo-Nazi and White Supremacist groups, who we all know are the real monsters.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited:

British Library’s “Monsters and Marvels in the Beowulf Manuscript” (2013).

Fulk, R. D. The Beowulf Manuscript. Dumbarton Oaks, 2010: 16-31.

Kim, Susan M. and Asa Mittman. “Ungefrægelicu deor: Truth and the Wonders of the East.” Different Visions: A Journal of New Perspectives on Medieval Art 2 (2010): 1-22. 

Mittman, Asa Simon. ‘Are the ‘monstrous races’ races?’ Postmedieval 6:1 (2015):  36-51.

Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript. 1995.


London, British Library, Cotton Tiberius b.v fols.78v-87r.

London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius a.xv fols.98v-106.

Broken Water Law? Put Some Icelandic on It

Last week, a small newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing for the editor, Art Cullen. Cullen’s campaign against agricultural run-off into the Raccoon River was praised as “editorials fuelled by tenacious reporting, impressive expertise and engaging writing that successfully challenged powerful corporate agricultural interests in Iowa.”[1] Unfortunately, last month the judge dismissed the Des Moines Water Works’s legal suit against Sac, Buena Vista, and Calhoun Counties because agricultural drainage doesn’t count as “point source” pollution covered under section 301 of the federal Clean Water Act (1972).[2] The utility has no legal recourse for the damage of nitrate pollution to the drinking water source for 500,000 Iowa residents.

Water is different from most other legally protected resources because of its mobility and mutability. It doesn’t respect political boundaries despite legal statutes; water cannot be separated out from the physical world we inhabit – not even our own bodies. Stacy Alaimo emphasizes the ineluctable character of material agencies, “the often unpredictable and always interconnected actions of environmental systems, toxic substances, and biological bodies,” that cannot be ignored no matter how hard we try to control our environments. Ursula Heise, analyzing systems rather than agentic intra-action, argues that “what is crucial for ecological awareness and environmental ethics is arguably not so much a sense of place as a sense of planet—a sense of how political, economic, technological, social, cultural, and ecological networks shape daily routines.”[3] In other words, the local environment experienced by an individual cannot be separated from the multifarious aspects of global networks, nor can the global be understood without the local experience of limited primary interaction. We need a system that recognizes the physical and social interconnectivity of water as a part of our bodies, our basic rights, our livelihoods, and our common good.

Since our modern legal system is ill-equipped to deal with these challenges, I suggest an alternative model from the medieval period when people were more cognizant of their dependence on nature. Jónsbók represents an integration of the pre-existing Icelandic legal codes – primarily known to us from the Grágás law codes – and the Norwegian law code, Nyere Landslov (1271-74).[4] The Grágás law codes developed from an oral tradition whereby one-third of the legal code was recited each year at the annual Alþingi, or national legislative meeting where legal claims were resolved. The Jónsbók laws were written down in 1117 by unanimous consent (as the story goes) and two early fragmentary copies survive: Konungsbok (Copenhagen, Royal Library, GKS 1157 fol, c. 1260) and Staðarhólsbók (Reykjavik, Árni Magnússon Institute, AM 334 fol, c. 1280). A later manuscript – Reykjavik, Árni Magnússon Institute, AM 351 fol, fol. 1ra-64rb – provides the best manuscript witness since it includes the complete text of Jónsbók along with the 1294, 1305, and 1314 amendments.[5]

The most significant difference between the medieval Icelandic law code and modern U.S. water laws is in the rights and significance given to in-stream use of water, particularly fishing rights. To understand the U.S. system of water law one must first understand the 100th meridian division and how the landscape and precipitation patterns influenced the historical development of the law. Essentially, riparianism in the Eastern states functions through “the sharing of a watercourse by all of the landowners bordering it, regardless of whether a user had ever put water to work previously.”[6] West of the 100th meridian, precipitation is significantly less due in part to the impact of the Rocky Mountains on rainfall patterns.[7] Prior appropriation – qui prior est in tempore potior est in jure as the California Supreme Court wrote in the seminal case Irwin v. Phillips (1855) – holds that whoever is first to use the water has the first right to the water regardless of land ownership. Over time states began to protect certain uses or adapt riparian principles into the prior appropriation system, but although “[a] states constitutions or statutes declared water to public, … nearly all water was appropriated for private gain.”[8] Neither the riparian nor the prior appropriation systems originally included in-stream usage.

Jónsbók VII,56 creates a community obligation when it delineates the process for reclaiming one’s rights when in-stream rights have been compromised. Blocking the stream and passage of fish triggers the community obligation:

Each man may place nets in his part of the stream, but in such a way that the fish are able to swim up into every part of the stream. God’s gifts [i.e., fish] are to go to the mountain as well as to the shore, if they want to go. If, however, a man blocks the stream, then those men who own the stream higher up are to issue a five days’ notice summons from the assembly to the one who blocked the river to come and remove the blockage. If he refuses to move the blockage, then they are to ask for help to remove it. Each householder who refuses to go with him is fined an ounce-unit to the king. Those who illegally blocked the stream are to pay a mark to each man who lives higher up and who lost the right to fish because of the obstruction in the stream.[9]

Unlike earlier passages which limited recompense to the damages done (to land and animals) and a trespassing fee, persons who block the passage of fish in the river are required “to come and remove the blockage” upon notice by the local assembly. If the offender refuses to remove it, the burden passes to the community at large. Jb. VII,56, therefore, creates a community obligation to correct the damage to the free movement of fish within the river, presumably because it affects all the householders in the assembly regardless of whether they utilize their fishing rights. The damages owed are extended not just to the individual who lost the right to fish but to the king and to “each man who lives higher up” due to the obstruction. In this way, community obligation for the shared right for in-stream supersedes the diversion or obstruction needs of individual users while explicitly recognizing the necessity of river passage for fish populations. The fishing rights section of Jónsbók makes clear that while primary water rights conflict occurs at the immediate interpersonal level, the ripples of such actions impact other riparian owners, local householders, district assemblies, and the super-national treasury, as well as impacting the ability of fish populations to survive human intervention.

Medieval Icelandic code of water rights represents a more ethical and holistic perspective on water rights. Jónsbók-style limitations on water removals and blockages that impede fish migration and movement might have served as a restraining force on the proliferation of dams, water treatment facilities, and industrial waste discharge on the waters of the U.S. by requiring proponents to more thoroughly take into consideration not just other human users, but also the impact on nonhuman organisms, i.e. the flora and fauna that developed within and alongside the riparian biomes.[10] While the Clean Water Act (1972) has attempted to redress the problem of longterm environmental damage due to human actions, it is fighting an uphill battle against long-established rights where individual (mostly corporate) extraction rights are privileged over in-stream usage, the local community’s needs, the larger public good, and environmental concerns. We would be better served by a legal code that recognizes the intersections of needs and rights and Jónsbók provides us with a foundation to build on.[11]

Mae Kilker
University of Notre Dame

[1] Staff & Agencies, “Tiny, Family-Run Iowa Newspaper Wins Pulitzer for Taking on Agriculture Companies,” The Guardian, April 10, 2017, sec. US news,

[2] Donnelle Eller, “With Water Works’ Lawsuit Dismissed, Water Quality Is the Legislature’s Problem,” Des Moines Register, sec. Money, accessed April 15, 2017,

[3] Ursula Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global, (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2008), 55.

[4] Jana K. Schulman, Jónsbók: The Laws of Later Iceland, (Saarbrücken, Germany: AQ-Verlag, 2010), xv.

[5] Schulman, Jónsbók, xxii-xxiii. The amendments, in manuscript order, are King Erikr’s Amendments (1294/1295), King Hakon’s Amendments (1305), King Hakon’s Amendments (1314), and King Hakon’s Amendments (1308), which latter pertain only to Norwegian law. It excludes only three sections: royal women’s inheritance, the earl’s oath, and the presiding judge’s oath. Schulman terms the three omitted sections “unnecessary” in the new legal context of the late 14th century.

[6] “A Universal Sense of Necessity and Propriety” in History of Water Rights, n.p.

[7] Excluding, of course, portions of the Pacific Northwest where the biome is a temperate rainforest.

[8] “A Universal Sense of Necessity and Propriety” in History of Water Rights, n.p.

[9] Schulman, Jónsbók, VII.56 (263).

[10] For more on the co-evolution of human culture and nonhuman species within specific geophysical boundaries, see Wendy Wheeler, “‘Tongues I’ll Hang on Every Tree’: Biosemiotics and the Book of Nature,” in Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Environment, ed. Louise Westling. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 121-35.

[11] I’ll be presenting more on water law issues and the approach codified in Jónsbók at the ASLE biennial conference in Detroit (June 20-24).