Monday 19 January 2015

The Trans-Medial Everyman - an Analysis of the Relationship Between Medievalism and Modernity

The Trans-medial Everyman originated as part of the advanced module class “All the World’s a Stage,” in which my colleague Riad Nassar and I transformed the Middle English Everyman into a simultaneous theater and film production. Based on selected results of this theater fieldwork, this paper will question the relationship between medievalism and modernity.[1] I will do this with a theoretical and historical approach based on Latour’s critique of modernity, as well as with a synchronic approach based on Garfinkel’s studies in ethnomethodology. Latour’s understanding of modernity will serve as a model for my theoretical framework, while Garfinkel’s study of everyday methods of organizing and obtaining social order, will help to understand the working progress of adapting a medieval play into a trans-medial stage performance.[2]

Latour’s Notion of Modernity as Translation and Purification
For Latour, “the word modern designates two sets of entirely different practices, which must remain distinct, if they are to remain effective […].”[3] These two practices are namely translation and purification. Translation is the creation of mixtures between completely different types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture.[4] Purification on the other hand, is the creation of two completely separate ontological zones, the separation between nature and culture.[5] To be wholly modern, we have to consider translation and purification separately; as soon as we look at them simultaneously, we immediately stop being wholly modern.[6] 

This creates the “modern paradox” - through translation, we have a mixture of nature and culture, while on the other hand, we have the separation of them through purification.[7] As a result, a ‘modern tension’ arises.[8] In order to cope with this tension, Latour’s modernity relies on the four guarantees.[9] They separate nature and culture, and prevent an oscillation between them; but because modernity always has to cope with this underlying oscillation, modernity is never entirely modern.[10] Latour’s critique of modernity will allow me to look at how the students made these oscillations aesthetically productive. This means that under such conditions, the aesthetics of medievalism is a way to experience the fact that we cannot be wholly modern. If pre-modern societies are by definition societies that do not differentiate between nature and culture, then the oscillations imply our status of pre-modernity as well. The conclusion should therefore be that we are not as wholly modern as we want to be, and that the Middle Ages were not as wholly unmodern as we would like to think.

The Translation Process
One of the main tasks for the students was the adaptation of the medieval allegorical characters, who themselves are already hybrids.[11] The students thus translated the medieval characters according to what Garfinkel calls the “selection operations,” where a “paradigm” is chosen that is based on “a set of operations whereby a demand population is produced from a population of eligibles.”[12] As a result, from all the eligible allegorical characters, the students chose the ones which they felt would be most in demand to transport the moral of the play. An example of this is Kinship. The medieval allegorical figure of Kinship is one person, who embodies a large extended family. The students re-hybridized the allegory Kinship into a modern family: mother, father and a sibling, mixing nature and culture. 


Music also plays a great part in the translation process. It is used to create the mixture of nature and culture. In the chosen clip, music, as a cultural product, is mixed with the arrival of Death, a natural phenomenon, to create that untimely grim reaper effect. 

 Or here, where the man-made sound effect externalizes the natural process of death.  

Setting and music make up what Garfinkel calls the background expectancies. These background expectancies are a scheme of interpretation by the members of society, which is caused by a response to the background.[13] The background expectancies are formed by the complementary setting of each of the translated characters. This means that these newly translated characters become “recognizable and intelligible” to the students, as an experience from their own everyday life.[14] Therefore, it is the selection operations, the background expectancies and re-hybridization of the allegory together that constitute the translation process. 

The Purification Process

To exemplify the separation of nature and culture in purification, I have chosen Death and God. By giving death a human shape, it becomes a man-made construction. The students’ choice to represent Death as a femme fatale is in line with what Garfinkel calls the sex status. The sex status occurs in highly ceremonialized occasions, and is a temporary and playful variation of what the person can be.[15] The sex status is culturally induced, and can be played with when appropriate, while the alleged true natural gender is invariably separated from it.

Similarly, God in the modern adaptation becomes a human construction and acts as the externalization of normative judgement. In ethnomethodological terms, he acts as the “method of social inquiry.[16] This means that God decides the harm and its extent, the allocation of blame and a remedy. Because of this, he is part of Latour’s purification process as the fourth guarantee of the crossed-out-God lets him be part of nature or part of culture. God can be the natural providential power, while also being a culturally constructed God. He is therefore transcendent and yet immanent. He is removed from “the dual social and natural construction, while leaving him presentable and usable nevertheless.”[17] Being the figure of social inquiry enables him to be natural as well as cultural, and yet separate.

Following Latour’s critique of modernity, we have seen that the trans-medial Everyman mediates the paradoxical relationship between translation and purification. This mediation is indicated by the red oscillation in this diagram.
Translation and purification remain distinct, just the way Latour intends modernity to be understood. The modern constitution, and its four guarantees, however, are not successful in preventing oscillations, thus indicating our failure in being wholly modern. The constant switching between transcendence (nature) and immanence (culture) thus creates a space of discourse that “happens in the middle, everything passes between the two.”[18] You see that I have called this oscillation morality on my diagram, because I think that the result of this oscillation is the underlying moral of the play: in one instance the moral of Everyman is that of a Christian ontology, while just an instance later, it changes into the moral of a secularized ontology, in which the rule of living a good life is still just as valid.

In the context of modern adaptation of a medieval morality play, the mediation between translation and purification is realized through the fourth guarantee of a crossed-out-God, allowing modern “men and women could be atheists even while remaining religious.”[19] This is probably why modern students kept the figure of God as the embodiment of normative judgement. God was removed from the religious context and would be accepted by the audience as an authority nevertheless, by reinterpreting Christian theology and bringing his immanence and transcendence into play at the same time.[20] As “the all powerful God could descend into men’s heart of hearts without intervening in any way with their external affairs,” the moral of the good life is inherent and metaphysical, even to the students of today.[21]

-Irena Berovic

[1] As a contribution for the Beyond Borders Arts History Blog, this paper will only focus on a small number of examples from the theater adaptation. The translation process focusing on the adaptation from medieval play into film, as well as the process of purification highlighting the film and theater frame of the adaptation will not be included.
[2] Cp. Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology, 11
[3] Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 10.
[4] Cp. Latour, 10.
[5] Latour, 10.
[6] Cp. Latour, 11.
[7] Latour, 30.
[8] The relation here is that, if nature is not made by or for humans, it becomes transcendent, while culture, if only made by and for humans, is immanent. (Latour, 30) Latour takes immanence to mean ‘the inherent, the inner dwelling,’ from “immanere - to reside in.” (Latour, 128) Transcendence opposes immanence, as it defines the state of being independent of the universe, the state of being beyond. In the model of Modernity, immanence and transcendence create a tension.
[9] Firstly - men don’t make nature, nature has always been there / secondly - only humans construct society / thirdly - a separation of the natural and social world, as well as the separation of hybrids and purification. And lastly, the crossed-out-God, his removal from “the dual social and natural construction.” (Latour, 30 - 32.)
[10] Latour claims that modernity would be fine by itself as an entirely secularized ontology with no room for transcendence. Nevertheless, modernity produces an immanent transcendence, a form of globalized network that creates the ‘beyond’ of our social constructs of our own nature, and the nature of society. The oscillations mentioned therefore work against modernity as, “the transcendence of Nature will not prevent its social immanence; on the other hand, the immanence of the social will not prevent the Leviathan from remaining transcendent.” (Latour, 32)
[11] Allegories are the hybrids because they already are a mixture of something human and non-human. Take the grim reaper for example, he is represented as a man with a scythe, something very human, and yet he symbolizes death, something that obviously transcends the human sphere of experience.
[12] Garfinkel, 213.
[13] Cp. Garfinkel, 36 - 37.
[14] Garfinkel, 36.
[15] Garfinkel, 116.
[16] Garfinkel, 104.
[17] Latour, 33.
[18 ]Latour, 37.
[19] Cp. Latour, 33.
[20] Cp. Latour, 33.
[21] Latour, 33.

Everyman. Organization: I. Berovic, R. Nassar. Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, 2012.
Based on “Everyman” IN: Medieval Drama: An Anthology. Ed. G. Walker. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. Print.
Garfinkel, Harold. Studies in Ethnomethodology. Engelwood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1967. Print.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.

Irena Berovic is a medievalist with a special interest in Old and Middle English literature. She completed her BA degree in English Literature and Linguistics and her MA degree in English with a focus on "Medieval Foundations of Modern British Identities" in 2012. Since then, Irena has been working on her PhD thesis at the Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf, Germany, where she is currently also working as a research assistant, teaching Old and Middle English literature in the BA English program.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

A Review of Jon Cannon's Medieval Church Architecture

Hello Beyond Borders Readers,
As we welcome the fall season, Beyond Borders will now be writing on a quarterly basis. Between our quarterly posts, we welcome posts from guest bloggers and plan to keep you all abreast of our research and on-going academic thoughts. Those interested in guest blogging can email us at Thanks for your readership and we look forward to continuing dialogue with you all.
The Beyond Borders Team

Now for our new post! 

A Review of Jon Cannon’s Medieval Church Architecture

Over the past two years, Beyond Borders has been fortunate to have had a great deal of contact with our readers, guest bloggers, and other medieval academics sites and blogs. At first, our correspondences pertained to our posts, and met our original goal of creating an academic dialogue in a cyber-community. Later, our communications evolved to discussing ideas for conferences, interacting with other websites, and most recently, there has been an influx of information coming to us about recent academic publications. In this post I would like to give a brief review one of these publications, brought to my attention by Shire Books & Old House. Shire was founded in 1962 and over these many years has built an extensive library, including a rich selection of books related to academia and learning. This year Shire is proud to announce a new addition to their library dedicated to the study of British medieval architecture. Medieval Church Architecture by Jon Cannon is a short guide to learning and distinguishing the decorative styles that developed in Britain from the early Anglo-Saxon period to the High Gothic. As someone who is both a teacher and is continuing their education, I found this publication an asset to the study of medieval-built churches.

I’d firstly like to refer to Cannon’s introduction where he defines his intentions: “The aim of this book is to enable beginners to recognise these [medieval] styles as they appear in England.” I must agree with Cannon and Shire in this description. This publication is not for those well versed in the subject per se, but for those new to the study of architecture. The book is divided into chapters by style, with each chapter including an introductory synopsis, a section on the development of the style involving the historical events leading to the style, and an extensive “diagnosis” (as Cannon calls it) of the style which gives descriptions of the ornamental and structural details. The book also makes sure to highlight key terminology throughout the text and a glossary is included at the book’s conclusion. Having taught an art history survey, I wish I would have had such a vocabulary list for my students.  From an educator’s perspective, Cannon’s work is a helpful classroom companion. Most importantly of all, I feel that with this text, a student/beginner would be able to distinguish one style of British medieval church architecture from another.

The title suits well as Cannon describes the cultural translation between continental Europe and Britain, but the decorated themes covered are predominately those of British architecture, only bringing in a European example to set precedence for the rise of a particular style, rendering the book's reach more limited than the title initially suggests. Still, Cannon work does help to organise this information by focusing on six stylistic movements for British medieval architecture: Anglo-Saxon, Norman/Romanesque, Transitional (Romanesque to Gothic), Early Gothic, Decorated, and Perpendicular.  Each chapter is accompanied by images and diagrams. Along with categorising these styles, Cannon places an emphasis on the overlap likely to happen with the construction of both smaller and greater structures, resulting in a hybrid style that can make it more difficult to identify a style and date a structure.  Cannon’s categorisation and use of imagery build a visual lexicon for the reader.

I highly recommend Medieval Church Architecture for those new to architectural studies and educators looking for a classroom companion. This is a short read for an in-depth understanding of the ornamentation that defines the architecture of medieval Britain. Medieval Church Architecture will remain a permanent addition to both my personal and classroom library.

Shire Books has generously offered five copies of their recent publication, Medieval Wall Paintings, for Beyond Borders to share. The first five readers to contact us at ( shall receive a hard copy free of charge.


Wednesday 4 June 2014

A Magic Bowl for Love and Prosperity: Part I

With regard to the apotropaic efficacy of objects within the Islamic culture of esoteric beliefs and practices, the magic bowl occupies an interesting space. It bears many visual and textual similarities to portable amulets and talismans; however, it is not carried with a person on a day-to-day basis, but instead is used in particular instances for a specific purpose.[i] Emilie Savage-Smith’s interpretation of the Islamic magic-medicinal bowls within the Nasser D. Khalili Collection has provided the current academic discourse on Islamic amulets, talismans, and other ‘magical’ objects an indispensable examination of the textual and visual components of Islamic magic-medicinal bowls.[ii] Even though her analysis focuses upon magic-medicinal bowls, its interpretations may be used to address the significance of the other types of Islamic magic bowls because many of the inscribed elements she examines can be found on other apotropaic objects. 

Recently, I had the opportunity to examine an Islamic magic bowl supposedly created for love and prosperity. The bowl was made in Iran and likely can be dated to the pre-Modern time-period. The object is comprised of a myriad of sigils, magic squares, and partially inscribed Qur’anic verses. The purpose of my analysis was to interpret the bowl’s intended functionality through an examination of its aforementioned attributes as a means to contextualise it within the arena of the current corpus of scholarship concerning magic-medicinal bowls. Within this post, I will discuss one aspect of the magic bowl, the Seal of Solomon, which only occurs three times within the illustrative programme of the bowl, but is significant nonetheless. 

In the general tradition of magic, the Seal of Solomon along with the seals of various other prophets are commonly found on amulets and talismans.[iii] When the Seal of Solomon and the other prophetic seals are inscribed together, they are believed to “represent the mysterious name and the seal of the Almighty.”[iv] However, the Seal of Solomon may stand-alone and is often illustrated as a star in the shape of a pentagram or hexagram.[v] Within geometric symbolism, the hexagram and pentagram represent a cosmic expression of  “heaven and its reflection on earth, the divine and its reflection in creation and of the connection between heaven and earth, between the macrocosm and the microcosm, and between spirit and matter.”[vi] This reference to divinity and creation is reminiscent of previous discussions about the juxtaposition of the square and the circle, which Emily Tuttle has touched upon within her work and contributions to Beyond Borders and is something I will further elaborate upon within part II of this series. 

Aside from geometric symbolism, the seal contains religious and cultural significance as well. Within Islamic tradition, the hexagram is believed to be the sign of King Solomon and in Judaism, it is the Shield of King David.[vii] According to Gershom Scholem, the six-pointed star did not originate as a symbol of the Jewish monotheistic faith, but rather it was bound in magical traditions and used for talismans and amulets to protect against evil spirits.[viii] Within the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions, Solomon was thought to have magical powers that could control or exorcize demons and other spirits.[ix] Scholem further states that the “Arabs” showed tremendous interest in the occult sciences and that the name, ‘Seal of Solomon’, originated with them, but was inspired from the Jewish legends of Solomon’s dominion over spirits along with his ring that had the “Ineffable Name” engraved upon it.[x] E.A. Wallis Budge suggested that Muhammad sanctioned the use of inscribed amulets and, through the Qur’an, passed on to his followers the history of Solomon as a magician and the emphasis of the apotropaic qualities that the names of Allah held.[xi]

However, with this succinct inquiry into the seal’s possible relevance, the question remains as to why this symbol was incorporated into the illustrative programme of this particular magic bowl. One may postulate that a belief in the magical abilities of Solomon along with knowledge of the seal’s geometric and symbolic significance may have been an impetus for the creator of the magic bowl to incorporate the Seal of Solomon within the magic bowl’s magical and textual program in order to enhance the bowl’s potential efficacy. However, this, for now, must be left for further analysis especially with regard to the seal’s juxtaposition with other inscribed aspects of the magic bowl, which shall be discussed in part II.


[i] Emilie Savage-Smith, Science Tools & Magic, 72.
[ii] Ibid, 72-105.
[iii] T.Canaan, “Arabic Magic Bowls,” 94.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid; Gershom Scholem, “The Curious History of the Six-Pointed Star,” Scholem states that the terms for the geometric shapes of the hexagram and pentagram were both endowed with power, and were frequently interchanged within talismanic literature. Some amulet makers used the hexagram while others used the pentagram. Both stars were called the ‘Seal of Solomon’ and there was no difference between them, 245-246.
[vi] "King Solomon's Seal." Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; J.C. Cooper, 179-180.
[vii] T. Canaan, “Arabic Magic Bowls,” 94.
[viii] G. Scholem, 245-246.
[ix] Paul A. Torijano, “Solomon and Magic”, 110; C. Gruber, 140.
[x] G. Scholem, 246.
[xi] E.A. Wallis Budge, 33.

Wednesday 26 February 2014

Gilt Visions: Courtly Culture and the Otherworld in the Mabinogion

I have recently been examining the issue of ‘materiality’ in History of Art as part of my PhD research. Rather than discuss my research directly, I want to explore the issue of materiality in the medieval literature of Wales. In order to make this a more manageable post, I will be examining materiality in the first four tales—Branches as they are commonly called—of the Mabinogion as signs of the Otherworld entering into the narratives.[1] To briefly introduce the Mabinogion, it is a collection of medieval Welsh prose stories, first referred to as such in 1795 by Willam Owen Pughe and later popularised by the first English translator, Lady Charlotte Guest. Many of the stories appear in the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest, both fourteenth-century manuscripts. Scholarship generally agrees that the tales are derived from earlier sources, likely oral traditions, best seen in the older poetic verses that crop up throughout the text. While the first four tales of the collection follow a general, if episodic, linear progression, the subsequent tales do not. The stories themselves contain monsters, giants, wondrous landscapes, magic both active and passive, enchanted items, and a purposely archaic view of the past, which allows the tales to exist in a nebulous historical time far removed from our present and even before the scribes of the two aforementioned manuscripts.
Welsh (?) Gold Hoop Brooch: 7th Century

As for the Otherworld, John Carey initially defines the Otherworld at its most minimal as ‘a place inhabited by supernatural beings and itself exhibiting supernatural characteristics’.[2] Carey goes onto define this further, noting how the Otherworld appears in a spatial paradox with the mundane, oftentimes separate while at others imminent.[3] Additionally, Carey notes how time operates differently in the Otherworld, while the human and nonhuman inhabitants of the Otherworld oftentimes possess preternatural characteristics.[4] Josef Baudiš too notes that the Otherworld can also be seen through an ethnic lens, whereby ‘an alien race and a distant country might have been regarded as an Other World’ perhaps arising from ‘some prehistoric expedition[s]’.[5] Alfred Siewers goes onto define the term further as containing, ‘associations with ancestors and art as well as with the natural world…connected with everyday human experiences through prehistoric mounds, trees, the sea, lakes and rivers’.[6] This element of the Other and of wonderment, appearing simplest as magic, can help mark instances of when the Otherworld can be seen in the narrative. Carey observes, ‘to the ancient Irish the Otherworld lay not only beyond the limits of existence, but also at the very heart of society’, allowing for an Otherworld that is both imminent and distant, expressed in the language of courtly culture and its sumptuous material.[7]I will be examining these moments of overt materiality, defined as such by explicit reference to key aspects of clothing and other accoutrements, in the first four Branches as markers of the Otherworld.

Now, explaining materiality could fill at least one blog post, if not a series of them. For the moment, materiality will be regarded as the nuanced term that it is. While containing connotations of material culture, materiality is not connected to materialism. Rather, materiality engages with the material nature of objects, animate, intimate, and even conceptual. The inanimate can address cultural meanings and uses of anything from gold to bones, while animate may engage with ideas of living bodies (or animated material say as tales of weeping statues). As for the conceptual, think of the issues involved with crypto-currencies like Bitcoins or the like; their immateriality is itself an aspect of their material nature, albeit an inversed one. Finally, the viewer doesn’t have to always be conscious of the nature of the material in question, which Daniel Miller calls ‘the humility of things.’ Miller explains, ‘The less we are aware of them, the more powerfully they can determine our expectations by setting the scene and ensuring normative behaviors, without being open to challenge. They determine what takes place to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so’.[8] A simple thought experiment to become aware of this can be done by either visually and/or physically examining foreign currency. It feels different, looks different, weighs differently, may not fit into a wallet properly, and the ability to spend it is impeded dependent on the location of where the currency is in the world at that moment in time. Either our fascinations or annoyances with the currency highlight how we engage with money both as a concept and as an object, via its material. Indeed, the more one engages with the new currency the less strange or false it may appear. Simply put, the study of materiality is the study of how materials influence and are influenced by human behaviour.

Italian Brocade Textile: 14th Century

Looking to the First Branch, the Otherworld almost immediately enters the narrative. Pwyll is seen out hunting in the woods, whereupon a group of white hounds with red ears take down a stag in a clearing. Sioned Davies and Andew Welsh both note the importance of white and red as markers of the Otherworld in Welsh and Irish literature.[9] Despite Pwyll’s initial captivation by the hounds, Pwyll ignores this Otherworldly clue and instead drives the pack away. Arawn, the owner of the dogs, eventually enters the scene and chastises Pywll, who then seeks to make amends to the strange but clearly noble figure. Arawn is described as wearing clothes of a ‘light grey material’ carrying ‘a hunting horn’, and is in fact preceded by his dogs, both an Otherworldy sight as well as a symbol of his rank.[10] Arawn’s clothing is described in contract to the silence on what Pwyll may have been wearing. While this occurrence occupies a liminal place in a clearing in the woods, a common motif in Otherworldly encounters, it is preceded by a display of courtly culture.[11] This marvel is further seen in the magic of Arawn and his kingdom of Annwfn, meaning ‘deep within’ or ‘un-world’.[12]Arawn escorts Pwyll to his land, where Pywll is met with ‘the most beautifully adorned buildings that anyone had seen’.[13] Pwyll, enchanted into Arawn’s form, is dressed in a ‘golden garment of brocaded silk’.[14] The realm of Annwfn is filled with beauty and wealth, both agriculturally as denoted by the feasting and monetarily through the display of precious metals and gems. Even the inhabitants are more beautiful, beyond that of Pywll’s own realm. Annwfn appears as a distinctly Otherised place, conforming to nearly every definition of the Otherworld listed above, specifically that of a location separate from the mundane world.[15] Later on in the tales, when the character of Rhiannon first appears, she is seen ‘wearing a shining golden garment of brocaded silk on a big, tall, pale-white horse’.[16] After failing to overtake her horse, which always outpaces Pwyll despite not appearing to walk faster than a calm gait, Pwyll notes that ‘some magical’ explanation is to blame. Having spent time in the Otherworld, Pwyll sees what he was not able to before, the presence of the magical through its physical and material markers.

This is not the only tale to feature sumptuous culture marking both earthly elites and otherworldly entrances. In the Third Branch, in a moment of preternatural skill once again associated with the nobility, Manawydan and his companions must flee each town after earning the ire of local craftsmen. Manawydan and Pryderi are able to become exceptional craftsmen in saddle making, shields, and shoemaking seemingly instantly in the narrative, and eventually the local English craftsmen run the group out of town. After failing to settle in England, Manawydan leads the group back to Arberth where after a year of living off the land magic once again appears in Dyfed. In the Fourth Branch, Lleu’s entire narrative trajectory is defined by gaining cultural status markers of manhood, from the weapons that Aranrhod unwittingly fashions him, to the creation of Leu’s wife, Blodeuedd, by Gwydion from flowers. Even Leu’s birth is couched in terms of sumptuous material. After Lleu is birthed by Aranhood in an overtly magical scene involving her stepping over a magic wand, he is simply dropped, abandoned by her, ‘a small something’, which Gwydion notices and takes upon himself to raise.[17] Following the pattern of perception and sumptuous markers, Gwydion wraps the ‘something’ in brocaded silk and hides him in a chest. It is not until an unspecified amount of time later that Gwydion hears the boy moving in the chest, appearing in a metaphorical birth scene surrounded by fabric.[18] Following Leu’s magical birth he is given time to mature in expensive fabrics and enters the narrative again in a metaphorical birth scene. Finally, in the Second Branch, a large Cauldron of Rebirth is introduced. Dead soldiers are placed in the cauldron, after which they emerge alive but mute. While not overtly obvious to our contemporary eyes, even discounting its enchanted state and discovery, the Cauldron of Rebirth is itself a large cauldron, which is tied conceptually to feasting, access to raw materials, and to the craftsmen need to undertake such a task. While not being gold, silk, or leather, the cauldron equally calls attention to sumptuous culture, albeit in a different way.
Welsh Bronze Cauldron: 16th Century

The Otherworld moves throughout the Four Branches from existing as a separate exotic location seeped in magic, preternatural skill, and beauty to lying within the blood and families of the characters. Sumptuous culture, tied to both the Otherworld-as-location and courtly culture, highlight potential Otherworldly encounters by being introduced near important personages. Brocade silk, brooches, and cordovan leather adorn both earthly elites and otherworldly figures, uniting them through the material of finery. Not only does this material appear often in the introduction of powerful characters, it also appears in later tales beyond the first four Branches, most notably in The Dream of the Emperor Maxen. Sumptuous material provides a link between earthly figures and Otherworldly counterparts, with the Otherworld inhabitant described as simply possessing more elite materials and items. While this may be acting as formula to indicate the wondrous, it also subtly ties the more mundane is not preternaturally skilled elites to the magical Otherworld. Material, as much as landscape or even overt displays of magic, connect the two worlds. As such, not only  can sumptuous material be seen as elite, it can also be seen as possessing an quality of the fantastic, providing contemporary readers a view into the ontological importance of elite material culture.

By Samuel

Gold Hoop Brooch: Copyright The British Museum

Brocade Textile: Copyright The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Medieval Cauldron: Copyright The People's Collection Wales


[1] Now I preface this section with an overt acknowledgement that I am using translated texts; I engaged with this text as an art historian rather than a linguist, and my thoughts reflect this.
[2] Carey, John, ‘Time, Space, and the Otherworld’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 7 (1987), pp. 1-27, p. 1.
[3] Ibid.: 13-4.
[4] Ibid,: 14.
[5] Baudiš, Josef, ‘Mabinogion’, Folklore 27 (1916), pp. 31-68, p. 40-1.
[6] Siewers, Alfred, Writing an Icon of the Land: the Mabinogi as a Mystagogy of Landscape’, Peritia 19 (2005), pp. 193-228, p. 200.
[7] Carey, John, ‘Time, Space, and the Otherworld’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 7 (1987), pp. 1-27, p. 15.
[8] Miller, Daniel, ‘Materiality: An Introduction’, in Daniel Miller, eds., Materiality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), pp. 1-50, p.5.
[9] Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 228; Welsh, Andrew. ‘Doubling and Incest in the Mabinogi’, Speculum 65 (1990), pp. 344-62, p. 351.
[10] Dogs appear in several other gift exchanges between nobles in the Four Branches.
[11] Siewers, Alfred, Writing an Icon of the Land: the Mabinogi as a Mystagogy of Landscape’, Peritia 19 (2005), pp. 193-228, p.200.
[12] Ibid.: 201-2.
[13] Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 5.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Carey, John, ‘The Location of the Otherworld in Irish Tradition’, in The Otherworld Voyage in Early Irish Literature ed. J. Wooding (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000), pp. 113-9, p. 118.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Davies, Sioned, The Mabinogion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 356.
[18] Sheehan, Sarah, ‘Matrilineal Subjects: Ambiguity, Bodies, and Metamorphosis in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi’, Journal of Woman in Culture and Society 34 (2009), pp. 319-342, p. 327.