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Blood, sex, and dragons: Aldhelm of Malmesbury and the age of fanfiction

November 16, 2010

I have two spheres of geekdom: firstly, the one that I’m doing an MA in, medieval literature; and secondly, SF&F-slanted Internetty geekdom i.e. the usual kind people think of when they hear the word ‘geek’. To my eternal disappointment, the two overlap only very rarely (though when they do, the results are amazing.) However! Of recent days I have been reading the work of a medieval bloke called Aldhelm of Malmesbury, and feeling more and more like, were he alive today, he would have been one of us.

Aldhelm was a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastic: a monk who was subsequently elected first to an abbacy and then to a bishopric. If you haven’t studied the Anglo-Saxon period at some point you’ve probably never heard of him, which is something of a shame considering how important he was to English literature in its earliest stages (though, of course, the language Aldhelm would have written and spoken is almost unrecognisable to a speaker familiar only with the modern incarnation.) He was the most widely-read author of his age, even better-known at the time than was Bede in his, and wrote vast swathes of poetry and prose in both Old English and Latin. His Old English work is, sadly, lost; much of the Latin, however, survives. 

I spent an afternoon in the company of Aldhelm’s immense De virginitate (‘On virginity’) and various scholarly articles discussing it. The DV is a truly enormous, sprawling project of the kind called opera geminata (‘twinned works’) wherein the author treats the same subject twice, once in prose, once in verse; Aldhelm’s model was Caelius Sedulius, who wrote the verse first, but Aldhelm did it the other way round. In this case the subject-matter is (duh) virginity, specifically early Christian conceptions thereof and how it should relate to the monastic lifestyle (his audience was one of nuns); he gives as examples the lives of a whole pile of virgin saints, both male and female, most of whom died horrible deaths.*

One of the most important points – I would go so far as to say the most important point – to bear in mind when considering medieval literary texts is this: literary originality is a modern virtue. We, who live in an age where originality is highly prized – to the point of being zealously protected via strict copyright and cease-and-desist lawsuits – can have trouble getting our heads around the idea that it was not always thus. Quite the opposite, for a lot of history. The medievals held a very different view: for them, as for Wikipedia, originality was automatically suspect; the most trustworthy texts were those that explicitly drew on older ones, and thus had authority behind them.

The pressure to cite authoritative sources was heavy enough that plenty of authors engaged in a kind of dishonesty that might be called the topsy-turvy cousin of plagiarism: rather than claiming the ideas of others as their own (plagiarism), they would falsely attribute their own ideas to other sources in order to have the work accepted. Two notorious examples of this with which I happen to be familiar come from the Arthurian tradition: firstly, Geoffrey of Monmouth, who in his Historia regum Britanniae claims that he took the narrative from “a certain very ancient book in the British language” which is almost certainly untrue (though native British folklore does inform some parts of the Historia). Secondly, Thomas Malory, who peppers the Morte Darthur with variations on “as the French book sayeth” when he wants to give some detail the weight of tradition. Malory was working from earlier sources, but, tellingly, he mentions this fact far more often during passages that aren’t in them – that is, ones he made up.

This idea of authority as a necessary precondition for a text’s acceptability is utterly pervasive to medieval literature. Texts cite other texts and in turn other texts cite those, and the task of cross-referencing them is one of Herculean proportions. It’s not just narrative, either: the same reverence for authority is perhaps even more visible in ecclesiastical works, where there were extremely strong incentives (notably the desire not to be accused of heresy) for a clerical author to justify his position by reference to earlier theologians. Aldhelm’s De virginitate falls into both brackets – it is a didactic work of theology, but one which contains mid-book a lengthy narrative section relating saints’ lives, which are essentially fiction.

Placed in this context, medieval literature becomes a natural candidate for consideration alongside a genre that, at first glance, seems entirely unrelated, being as it is largely a product of the twentieth century: fanfiction. While the medium is different (print vs. nowadays, mostly, internet), the canons in use different (theological texts and some secular narratives vs. mostly-secular popular culture), the degree of sanction very different (encouraged vs. technically illegal) and therefore the practitioners very different (professionals, churchmen, Serious People vs. a mostly young, mostly female, mostly amateur modern fanfiction scene) . . . even though all the circumstances surrounding derivative work have changed drastically in the 1300+ years between Aldhelm and the Internet, there remain intriguing points of correspondence between the medieval and the modern ways of doing it.

As I was ploughing through the prose De virginitate (no, not in the Latin; in Lapidge and Herren’s excellent translation) I got a stronger and stronger impression that Aldhelm’s style reminded me of something that had nothing to do with early medieval Christian writing. There was something about the heady combination of labyrinthine similes, sentences that wound on for paragraphs at a time, mildly disturbing sexual imagery and thesaurus-in-a-blender vocabulary that seemed worryingly familiar. And lo, I had the revelation that led to the huge ramble above: of course, he was doing all the same things that inexperienced (in all senses) fanfic writers do today. And some non-fanfic writers, of course. (The glorious/godawful purple prose and obsession with dragons are distinctly reminiscent of Christopher Paolini, though Aldhelm never sinks to quite the same level.) The similarities between Aldhelm’s half-repelled, half-fascinated approach to sex and that of his spiritual successors, despite the disparities in age, can probably be explained by the fact that he was a lifetime monk.

Here, for your delectation, are some notable gems from the prose De virginitate, collected as I went through it.

Scores points for creating a disconcertingly glamorous image of disembowelment, with added credit given for the strange concept of a river of entrails.

  • Lofty Allusion Award / Award for Achievements in Alliteration: Scylla of solecism and Charybdis of colloquialism

I confess to actually quite liking this. It’s the sort of genially over-educated metaphor that one might expect to find coming from Stephen Fry.

  • My Studies Are Showing Through Award: labdacism and motacism

You get this when an amateur or ex-something-else writer gets the chance to mention something that actually concerns their professional/academic field and drops in a pile of technical terms. Happens less in fanfiction, but it’s definitely a noticeable phenomenon amongst writers in general. Done well and in context, it can work fine, but here it isn’t really relevant and the audience is probably not expecting technical Latin linguistic/elocutionary vocabulary. Labdacism and motacism mean, respectively, mispronouncing L’s and M’s.

He does this a lot. It may be worth noting that the latter two constructions are marginally less awful in Latin than in English, where the more flexible word-order means you can move the similar words apart rather than sitting them next to one another; but at least one of them is still superfluous.

  • Blackadder Award for Perfectly Cromulent Words: eptimemeres, gourmandising, whithersoever, ouzel, venomous bicuspids, chariness, rhetoricising, contumaciously, Pharisaical, fecundated, beautitude, pellucid, Simoniacal necromancy, bruited, starveling, euphoniously, vinolent, schismatics, stinking vomit of biliousness, hierophants, discrepant, odium.

I hasten to add that Aldhelm’s work differs in one notable respect from that of your average fanfiction writer: however tempting it may be to make fun of his style, there can be no doubt that every word of it was given the utmost thought, and it also displays a breadth of vocabulary and a command of grammar (a bigger issue in Latin than in English) that put most people’s – even most scholars’, I should think, given the reputation for impossible erudition he had in life – to shame. I enjoyed reading Aldhelm a great deal, even if a significant part of that enjoyment was wanting to see what on earth he would write next.

Aldhelm was made a saint some decades after his death. His feast day is May 25; by a serendipitous coincidence this is also Geek Pride Day,** celebrating the bizarre and arcane hobbies of geeks the world over. There is not yet, to my knowledge, a patron saint of fanfiction writers,*** and therefore I move that Aldhelm be nominated to the post. Sexual hang-ups, unhealthy interest in dragons, love of excessively prolix and empurpled prose, and a lot of gore: he is indeed one of us, and in the actual quality, quantity and vast popularity (remember, most widely-read author of his century) of his work, he remains an example to which we can aspire.


*As came up in conversation with another geek medievalist at a conference last year, medieval saints’ passiones reach truly spectacular heights of graphic disgustingness. The Passio of Saint Catherine is one of That Kind Of Anime waiting to happen.

**Celebrated as Towel Day by fans of the late and much-missed Douglas Adams, and as the Glorious Twenty-Fifth of May by those of Sir Terry Pratchett.

***Though there is a patron saint of the Internet: St Isidore of Seville, another medieval monk, who was one of the first people to think it worth gathering a vast body of miscellaneous information in one place for people to look up. His Etymologies was the Wikipedia of its day, condensing centuries of scholarship (and in some cases resulting in its source works being lost as people stopped bothering to look them up and just used Isidore). It’s full of urban legends, bewilderingly bad science, political/religious polemic against Jews and women, and things that are completely wrong.


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