Interview with Matthew Firth

RSJ Blog: Hello Matthew, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview for us!

You’ve done a fascinating study on the ‘Character of the Treacherous Woman in the passiones of Early Medieval English Royal Martyrs’. Can you give us some background about why you chose this fascinating subject? Why these three royal women in particular?

Matthew: The starting point for this article, as with so much of my research, was the reign of Æthelred ‘the Unready.’ It was a reign that began in murder. Æthelred succeeded to the throne in 978 around the age of ten, following the assassination of his half-brother Edward ‘the Martyr.’ At his side was his mother Ælfthryth. Ælfthryth would wield significant political power in Æthelred’s minority and likely served as queen-regent.

She is a fascinating figure of late tenth-century English history. In contemporary sources Ælfthryth is a powerful and politically active woman: charter witness, landholder, legal advocate, reformer, patron of female religious houses, mediator with the king. She was also England’s first-known native-born queen-consort to be anointed as such. Yet, in the minds of the post-Conquest hagiographers and historians who relayed Edward’s assassination, Ælfthryth’s agency was anathema and it was she, in her thirst for power, who was the architect of Edward’s murder. This is a tradition that seems to start about a century after the event, and there is no contemporary evidence for her involvement in the plot.

So, as I began to research Ælfthryth’s evolving legacy, I also began to notice similarities between her characterisations and those of other royal women in early English saints’ lives. And here there are two tropes running parallel. Firstly, that of the so-called ‘boy-king’ martyrs, a reasonably common sub-genre of English hagiography which revolves around the murder of an innocent. And secondly, that of the ‘wicked queen,’ which is something of a universal motif with biblical and classical precedents. My survey of these saints’ lives landed on three cases that typified the intersection between these tropes: St Æthelberht of East Anglia and Queen Cynethryth of Mercia, St Kenelm of Mercia and his sister Cwenthryth, and Edward and Ælfthryth. The question then became, what underlies this literary construct? What societal attitudes would inform the transition of such royal women from early English history into stock literary antagonists at the hands of post-Conquest writers?  

RSJ Blog: Is this a well sourced area of royal studies? Did you encounter any challenges during your research?

Matthew: It’s a bit mixed. The ‘boy-kings’ of pre-Conquest England received some significant attention in the twentieth century. Even if commentary on the role of the female antagonists in their stories is limited, it does mean there is a body of scholarship to draw on. It also means there are accessible transcriptions of the texts, though only the Life of St Kenelm has an up-to-date critical edition. The Passion of St Æthelberht in particular could use a new edition as significant new manuscript traditions have come to light since it last received dedicated attention in 1917! This said, I am fortunate that in all cases the hagiographies exist in multiple manuscripts and that many of these have been digitised. Though the secondary challenge that then presents itself is sorting out which narrative tradition each manuscript belongs to; the lives of Æthelberht, Kenelm and Edward each have multiple progenitors.

RSJ Blog: Finally – can you tell us about any projects you’re working on at the moment?

Matthew: I’m mainly working on my thesis at the moment (which is what my supervisors want to hear!) – there I’m looking at the historicity of depictions of early medieval English kingship in the sagas of Icelanders. Which said, I do have a couple of other interesting projects on the go.

I recently published an article on the importance of sea-power to English kingship in the tenth century in the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology with Dr Erin Sebo, and we’re collaborating again on an article examining the fabrication of King Hiarni in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum. She and I also have an edited volume in the works on extreme or alien emotive display in medieval North Sea cultures. We’re quite excited about that project, it’s bringing together an excellent group of scholars from Celtic, Scandinavian, English and Frisian studies working across history, literature and archaeology disciplines.

Otherwise, I’m working as a research assistant on the Flinders University-led project Exiles: Medieval Responses to Isolation. One of the outputs from this will be a collection of themed essays for an upcoming issue of Neophilologus. For that, I’m writing an article, together with my colleague Cassandra Schilling, that looks at queenly exile in Old English literature and the correlating experiences of widowed queen-consorts in tenth-century England.

And that’s probably enough to be going on with! There are a few other projects on the horizon, but for now the thesis beckons…

RSJ Blog: Thanks again for talking to us!

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