Bringing up the (Anglo-Saxon) bodies

Body

A reconstruction of early Anglo-Saxon feminine dress. The outer garment is a cloak dual-fastened by a pair of cruciform brooches (illustration by L. Martin, © L. Martin).

A few months ago a paper of mine came out in print called  ‘(Ad)Dressing the Anglo-Saxon body: corporeal meanings and artefacts in early England’.  It was published among a collection of papers edited by Paul Blinkhorn and Chris Cumberpatch called The Chiming of Crack’d Bells: Recent Approaches to the Study of Artefacts in Archaeology (see here). The paper was the result of a presentation I gave during a session at the 2012 Theoretical Archaeology Group conference run by Lisa Brundle, called Archaeologies of Bodily Gesture: Exploring Representation and Performance.  That paper was all about early Anglo-Saxon women’s bodies and dress, but in the published form I also wanted to explore some ideas about masculine bodies.

As far as I know, this is the first explicit application of body theory to the dress and jewellery of 5th- and 6th-century Anglo-Saxon England, which I find quite surprising given the prominence of actual bodies and their accoutrements in the archaeology of the period.  My approach was largely social anthropological, the starting point being Marcel Mauss’ classic 1934 essay ‘Les techniques du corps’.  I also wanted to explore some of Rodney Needham’s ideas about left and right from his edited (1973) volume Left and Right: Essays on Dual Symbolic Classification.  I readily admit that neither of these sources of inspiration is particularly cutting edge, but in my opinion both still have a lot to offer.

The paper itself was an offshoot of my work on Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches.  I realised that there were quite a few under-explored aspects of how these objects were actually worn, and how dress assemblages taken as a whole can help to reconstruct aspects of the dressed body, its shapes and sizes, its possible movements and its habits. Brooches in the archaeology of this period are often treated in quite a dry and technical manner. It’s my ongoing objective to try and put these items back into their lived context, in this case as intimate and formative elements of women’s bodies.

I explored a few different areas in the paper, the major topic being how dress and its accessories shape, conceal and expose areas of the body.  Dress is a means of not only making bodies culturally intelligible, but garments also create the actual, physical bodily form as it appears on an everyday basis. There is something almost theatrical about this performance of what is hidden, what is exposed, when and where.  The ‘why’, of course, is the crucial question. As you might imagine, what we can know about this from the evidence is pretty minimal, but the little we do know  is pretty valuable.  It may well be a cliché, but for me these kinds of questions are crucial to bringing these rusty old items back to life.

I was also interested in the position of glittering items on women’s bodies, and how these positions on the shoulders, throat, breast, wrists and occasionally the waist create constellations of signified body parts which were not only gender-specific, but also seem to have varied with age.  I also considered the depiction of gendered bodies in contemporary iconography of the period, which is almost entirely masculine, and quite explicitly so, and far more focused on heads (resplendent with curled moustaches) than it is on either male or female bodies.  Movement is the final aspect that I explored, looking at the kinds of movements that may or may not have been possible in different costumes, and the noises that some items of jewellery would have created during movement.

Of course, a lot of this kind of research is relatively (and necessarily) speculative, but I think it’s important that when we think about dress and jewellery, we envision it as both dynamic and interdependent on the various bodies that it shapes and creates.

Martin, T.F. 2014. ‘(Ad)Dressing the Anglo-Saxon body: corporeal meanings and artefacts in early England’, in Blinkhorn, P. and Cumberpatch, C. (eds.) The Chiming of Crack’d Bells: Recent Approaches to the Study of Artefacts in Archaeology, 27-38. British Archaeological Reports (International Series) 2677. Oxford: Archaeopress.