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Name: Harry Wilkinson

PhD: History

Thesis Title:  The Night in Anglo-Saxon England


Thesis Description:

Experience of the night is fundamental to human life—especially so a thousand years ago in northern Europe, when lighting was a scarce and expensive resource. There has been no study of the night in Anglo-Saxon England or the ways in which darkness influenced life, literature, art, architecture, science, religious beliefs and practices in early English society. This interdisciplinary project will provide a new approach to the culture of Anglo-Saxon England by analyzing how night and darkness were perceived, understood, interpreted, and experienced. There is scope to investigate lights and lighting and what this meant in terms of early medieval social resources and religious ritual, as well as the impact of light, darkness, and dusk in the phenomenology of settlements and landscape. My MRes thesis (‘Creatures of the Night in Anglo-Saxon England’) is the stepping-stone, providing grounding in the sources, knowledge and skills, and functioning as a ‘proof of concept’ for the PhD, which will build on the interdisciplinary approach established by my MRes and BA theses.

My scoping study proves that this is a new topic, not previously subject to academic scrutiny and represents a gap in the academic knowledge of this period, its people, and their perception of the world. There are articles by Fouracre (1995), Semple (1998) and Pluskowski (2006) on tangential themes, much discussion of medieval dream narratives (Dutton 1994), and a comparative book by Koslofsky (2011) which considers the nocturnal in early modern England, but nothing that centres on the topic of ‘the night’, and conceptions and attitudes towards darkness in pre-Conquest England. The PhD will test the extent to which the Anglo-Saxons associated the night with magic (both divine and otherwise), monsters, and the unnatural. It will examine Anglo-Saxon understandings of light and its role in combatting darkness, both real and metaphorical. Anglo-Saxon evidence will be placed within its geographical, historical, and theological context by considering relevant sources originating from Scandinavia, Francia, and Papal Italy. A cross-disciplinary approach to evidence using literature, liturgy, history, linguistics, natural science, art and archaeology—starting with Bede’s scientific treatises, written in northern England where winter nights are long—will facilitate investigation of Anglo-Saxon attitudes to and experience of the night, and an understanding of their perception of light and darkness. This will broaden academic understandings of early English society, revealing how it perceived both the night and humans’ place within it. It will shed light on attitudes to something so large, ubiquitous and intrinsic to human experience that it is often forgotten. Darkness dominates half the life of every human on earth and shapes human interactions with the natural world.  Comprehending how people expressed conceptions of the night represents an opportunity to examine an experience shared by all humanity, and an experience essential to the human condition. 


Supervisors and Institution(s): 

Prof. Joanna Story (University of Leicester)

Dr. Richard Jones (University of Leicester)


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