Research Spotlight: Becca Drake

  • Studying: English and Related Literature (full-time).
  • Supervisors: Dr Nicola McDonald and Professor Matthew Townend.
  • Thesis Title: An eco-literary comparison of the maritime in Middle English romance and the Old Norse-Icelandic fornaldarsögur.
  • Research Interests: The Blue Humanities; Old Norse-Icelandic literature; late-medieval English literature; archipelagic studies; coastal literature; clif-fi; contemporary nature writing and ecopoetry

Thesis Overview

My thesis considers two groups of late medieval romance literature, Middle English romance and the Old Norse-Icelandic fornaldarsögur or legendary sagas, within the maritime environment of the North Atlantic. I contextualise my study of these within the Anglo-Icelandic stockfish trade of the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries.[1] My methodology is also shaped by the literary critical field of the blue humanities, which seeks to view texts from the ocean as opposed to from the more traditional position of the land.[2] I argue that, given their shared position in the oceanography (geography of the ocean) of the North Atlantic,  both English and Old Norse-Icelandic romance can be read through a specific North Atlantic ecological lens (or looking at the biological networks within a certain environment).[3] Through this watery lens, heroes come to resemble big fish, villains resemble slippery eels, and whole communities of people move to the same seasonal rhythms as herring. I argue that the human and the non-human co-exist side by side within the sphere of the North Atlantic, not unlike the medieval literatures of England and Iceland themselves.

What are you currently working on?

At the moment I am finishing writing a chapter all about how people in Middle English and Icelandic romance live with the sea. I’m looking at things like how the authors of those texts describe everyday activities in coastal maritime communities, such as fishing and flensing (which is what you do to butcher a whale that has been beached). I had a great research moment when I got to visit Grimsby during the summer of 2020 as part of my thinking about Havelok the Dane (c.1300). Havelok is thought to have been composed in the geographical area of the Lincolnshire fens, and Grimsby, on the north east coast of that area, is a key place in the narrative.

Tidal mudflats at Horse Shoe Point. Photo: Stephen Huws, 2020

Shopfront, Premier Seafoods, Grimsby. Photo: Stephen Huws, 2020

A significant part of Havelok’s narrative takes place in Grimsby where Havelok, the protagonist of the romance, grows up in obscurity in the upturned boat-cum-house of Grim the fisherman, who catches all kinds of fish to feed his royal ward:

Grim was fishere swithe (very) god,
And mikel couthe (very skilled) on the flod.
Mani god fish ther-inne he tok,
Bothe with neth and with hok;
He tok the sturgiun and the qual (whale),
And the turbot and lax (salmon) withal (also);
He tok the sele and the hwel —
He spedde ofte swithe wel;
Keling (cod) he tok, and tumbrel (porpoise),
Hering and the makerel,
The butte (flounder), the schulle (plaice), the thornebake.[4]

Havelok has to leave Grimsby during a famine (or perhaps, as the romance suggests, because he has eaten all the fish!), at which point he travels inland to Lincoln where he climbs the social ladder, becoming first a kitchen boy and then competing in tournaments. Doing well in these, Havelok earns himself a wife – Goldboru, the displaced heir to the English crown – and the couple return to Grimsby to eke out a life on a diet of only fish. They later leave Grimsby, of course, to retake their respective kingdoms in Denmark and England, but Grimsby remains an important place of departure and return.

My trip to the landscape around Grimsby really helped me to question Havelok’s connection to maritime landscape. It was a valuable exercise, as if I hadn’t actually gone to the Humber estuary and the fens I probably wouldn’t have understood how the landscape works in Havelok’s narrative. There isn’t a clear line between land and sea on the estuary, which is constantly shifting and changing. What’s more, the species living in the estuarine and fenland environment can be said to have adapted to it. This has made me think differently about the biological actors in Havelok. I’m looking at eels and how they can live both on land, in the fens for example, as well as far out at sea. They occupy a position in the borders of landscape, but importantly they also represent the liminal or in between areas of the narrative; this liminality is also present in the romance’s antagonists. For example, Godard and Godrich are both assimilated with eels, which is interesting since both these two earls and the eels they resemble occupy a slippery place in the narrative’s environmental and political landscape, somewhere between land and water and between the common and the royal elite. Eels therefore pose a number of interesting questions for Havelok.

Grainthorpe Haven. Photo: Stephen Huws, 2020

Geese over Grainthorpe Haven. Photo: Stephen Huws, 2020

I also had a bit of an ulterior motive for exploring the coastline at Grimsby, which is that as well as working on my thesis I am currently the poet-in-residence at Hull’s Maritime Museum. This is work that stems from my academic research, but which interprets the medieval through a more personal lens and brings it into conversation with my own experience of the present day. At the end of a long day exploring the coastline of the Humber and of hearing the sounds of the estuary – sea, grass, channels in the mud – I wrote down a couple of lines of poetry.

sapphire scales interlocked like marsh channels

scalloped by darting sandpiper wings.

When I got back to my desk I took those lines and tried to recall the atmosphere of Grimsby and the coast, which together with the text of Havelok in front of me helped those lines grow into a poem.[5]

I think a lot of doing the PhD for me has been learning how to find inspiration for research, and what works best for piecing together a coherent picture of a text. It’s been a welcome surprise to learn that actually sometimes just visiting the places you imagine or think to be connected to a text can open up your reading in unexpected ways. I’m hoping, once international travel is more of a possibility, to extend this experiential research practice to some of the Icelandic romances of my study by travelling to Iceland and encountering the maritime landscape there in a similar way. I also have to thank the Wolfson Foundation for their generous scholarship, which has allowed me to travel to these places to help my research reach towards its full potential.

[1] Stockfish is cod that has been wind dried at subarctic temperatures. It would have been a valuable food item as it could keep for long periods of time. Stockfish, or harðfiskr, is still widely available in Icelandic supermarkets today. If you ever get the chance to try some, there are some interesting recipes for stockfish stew in Thomas Austin, Two Fifteenth-Century Cookery-Book (London: Early English Text Society, 1888). See especially “xxv. Balloke Brothe”, p. 10.

[2] For a good introductory statement to the field of the blue humanities, see Philip Steinberg, Kimberley Peters, “Wet Ontologies, Fluid Spaces: Giving Depth to Volume through Oceanic Thinking,” Environment and Planning D: society and space 33 (2), pp.247-264.

[3] Steve Mentz coins the term, ‘oceanography’, or the geography of oceans, in Ocean, Object Lessons (Bloomsbury, 2020).

[4] Grim is said to have given the town of Grimsby its name. Indeed, Grimsby continues to be a busy fishing port, and the centre of North Atlantic fish trade with England, to this day.

[5] The final poem is due to be published in Reliquia 9 (Corbel Stone Press, May 2021).

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