Medieval poetry in modernity

Twenty years ago, the connections between medieval and contemporary literature had been little studied and were hardly recognised, let alone understood; many authorities used to dispute that Old English was properly part of the canon of English Literature at all. Over the last twenty years, Professor Chris Jones’ research has established and explored the influence of medieval poets on modern and contemporary writers. Drawing on extensive archival research, he has identified numerous unnoticed allusions to and quotations from medieval literature in the work of nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first-century poets. Although Chris Jones’ early work concentrated on twentieth-century uses of Old English, more recent work addressed twenty-first-century Old English, as well as influences from Middle English and Middle Scots on contemporary poetry. His publications on these topics include Strange Likeness: The Use of Old English in Twentieth-century Poetry (Oxford University Press, 2006) and Fossil Poetry: Anglo-Saxon and Linguistic Nativism in Nineteenth-century Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

Still from episode 5 of BBC’s Five Fables, ‘The Fox, the Wolf and the Farmer’
Still from episode 5 of BBC’s Five Fables, ‘The Fox, the Wolf and the Farmer’

One of Chris Jones’ most exciting discoveries concerned new archival evidence of Heaney’s first encounter with the medieval Scottish poets Henryson and Dunbar. As a result of this research, Chris was invited, with his St Andrews colleague Professor Ian Johnson, to contribute to the BBC’s TV adaptation of Heaney’s version of Henryson’s fables. Five tales were animated, with Heaney’s translation voiced by voiced by Billy Connolly and ‘talking heads’ contributed by Professors Jones and Johnson. Five Fables was screened on BBC Two Northern Ireland in 2014; full episodes are available on BBC iPlayer and in the USA on Amazon Prime.

As a result of the success of this TV adaptation, Chris Jones was invited to contribute to an app version of the Fables in collaboration with Waddell Media, Faber and Touchpress, a company specialising in high-quality literary apps. The app requires Heaney’s Modern English text to be alternated and compared with Henryson’s medieval Scots, so Professor Johnson was commissioned to record the entirety of the medieval Scots in original pronunciation keeping pace with Connolly’s delivery so that the two audio files are interchangeable. Chris Jones contributed extensive notes for the app, which went on to win Torc ‘best app’ award at the Celtic Media Festival in 2015.

Chris Jones has also created digital remediations of Old English riddles. In March 2020, he was invited by Double Elephant, an Exeter-based print workshop, to take part in a collaborative project facilitating wider public interaction with some of the contents of the famous Exeter Book (a medieval manuscript housed in Exeter Cathedral Library) that was inaccessible during the Covid-19 lockdown. This resulted in a multimedia, digital version of Riddle 57, animated using crowd-sourced artwork, with which users can interact by making choices from three newly commissioned translations to create their own composite translation of the Old English out of a total of 2,187 possible variants. This site has been featured in BBC Spotlight and was selected by the BBC as one of their ‘Culture in Quarantine’ projects for Galleries, Museums and Archives.