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The history of Beowulf’s sandwich: A sketch about ‘fake news’ from 1909

This post is the first in a series on the reception of the Old English poem Beowulf in the Netherlands. The post centres on a popular sketch about ‘fake news’, first performed in 1909, with the title ‘De geschiedenis van het broodje van Beowulf’ [The history of Beowulf’s sandwich]. Regrettably, the text of this sketch has been lost, but an attempt is made here to reconstruct it on the basis of scattered newspaper reviews.

Mr. A. W. Kamp (1847-1945): A performance artist at the start of the twentieth century

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Announcements of performances by A.W. Kamp featuring ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ in Leeuwarder courant (05-10-1909), Sumatra post (26-03-1910) and Goudsche Courant (04-01-1917)

‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ is first mentioned in 1909 as part of a playlist of a Dutch performance artist A. W. Kamp. Kamp performed the piece in various towns across The Netherlands between 1909 and 1917. In 1910, he even took his performance to the Dutch East Indies, where he performed at various ‘white societies’. The apparent author of the sketch was one ‘Max Speyer’, whom I have not been able to identify further. To date, it appears as if A. W. Kamp has been the only person to have performed the piece. Who was this perfomance artist?

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Sketch of Mr. A. W. Kamp by R. van der Hem on the cover of A. W. Kamp’s Eigen liedjes, vertalingen en bewerkingen [Own songs, translations and adaptations] (The Hague, 1927)

Anthonij Willem Kamp was born on 2 februari 1879 and received a law degree from the University of Leiden. He later worked as a lawyer and journalist. He had a love for poetry and, in addition to translating various works from English, French and German (including pieces by Shakespeare, Goethe and Voltaire) into Dutch, he wrote his own songs and sketches. Kamp appears to have enjoyed some popularity in his own days, even though he is no longer well-known today. The following words of wisdom attributed to Kamp by a Dutch quotation website suggest he was primarily a humorist: “Humour desires to temper the tragedy of life.”

Indeed, newspaper reports on ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ praise Kamp as a comic performer. One advert for Kamp’s performance guarantees “a great laughter-success” (Haagsche courant, 30-12-1916), while many reviewers praise his command of voice, mimicry and funny accents:

In the field of performance, he is like a caricature-artist in the world of painting. He performs with his voice, his posture, his flexible face, almost like a mad man. But at all times that which he provides remains recognisably the silliness that he has found in the everyday doings of human beings, which he so goofily exaggerates that the audience blurts with laughter. (Middelburgsche courant, 11-02-1909)

‘Beowulf’s sandwich’, in particular, was reviewed favourably as “a most entertaining piece” (Amersfoortsch Dagblad, 12-03-1913).

The history of Beowulf’s sandwich: A reconstruction

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The text of ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ has not survived, but, on the basis of five relatively detailed newspaper reviews (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), it is possible to give a rough reconstruction of the contents of the sketch.

Act I: How it really happened

The young prince Beowulf is brought to school by his father’s master of arms. Along the way, he loses his sandwich, which ends up in the mud. A hungry girl brushes off the dirt with her skirt and eats it. This is the only fact in the sandwich’s whole history, the rest is fantasy, made up by various individuals who recount the story in different ways and contexts.

Act II: The history of the sandwich in the Provincial Newspaper of Krussa, the favourite magazine of Berengarius XIX

A sensationalist reporter for this court magazine paints a grand image of the scene: the generous prince Beowulf gracefully feeds the poor with his goose liver pie.

Act III: The history of the sandwich in the social-democratic magazine ‘The Scorpion’

A labourer, speaking with a thick rural accent, retells the story as an example of the unjustifiable gap between the elite and the lower classes, who are forced to eat the elite’s mud-covered scraps.

Act IV: How cardinal Vaporetto recounts the history of the sandwich in the acts of the canonization of Beowulf

Taking on the guise of a whiny old cardinal, Kamp relates the ‘Miracle of the Holy Beowulf!’. No doubt, the sandwich here acted as a miraculous relic. During one performance, the audience reacted so enthusiastically to this bit, that Kamp himself burst out laughing himself.

Act V: The history of the sandwich in the catalogue (no. 480) of the National Beowulf Museum

The crust of Beowulf’s sandwich ultimately ends up as a curiosity in the National Beowulf Museum. The curator praises the crust as a most important piece of evidence for the history of nutrition.

Act VI: A historical-critical research into no. 480 of the catalogue

A historian painstakingly questions the authenticity of the crust of Beowulf’s sandwich on the basis of thorough research of the ways flour was processed in the early Middle Ages.

As one contemporary reviewer put it, ‘The history of Beowulf’s sandwich’ is “a wonderful satire on the unreliability of tradition and the exaggeration of reports and the pedantry of scholars” (Nieuwsblad van Friesland, 06-10-1909). Today, we might associate the various partisan and biased reports of Beowulf’s sandwich as examples of ‘fake news’.

“Beowulf’s sandwich” as an idiomatic expression for ‘fake news’

For as far as we can trace, the phrase “Beowulf’s sandwich” was used only once without an explicit mention of Kamp’s performance. On 14 April 1910, it was used in a letter to the editor of Het nieuws van den dag voor Nederlandsch-Indie [The News of the Day for the Dutch East Indies] in order to complain about an exaggerated news report on the active volcano Tangkuban Perahu (Java):

Mister Phyto writes to us:

The description of the activity of the Tangkuban Perahu has by some newspaper correspondents been made into a repetition of ‘Beowulf’s sandwich’. They have looked for an effect in foolish exaggeration.

According to the letter writer, reports on the volcano’s being covered in one and a half meters of ash due to a destructive eruption that destroyed all nearby flowers were nothing but a pack of lies: the ash didn’t even come up to 15 centimeters and there had never been flowers in the first place. The use of the phrase “Beowulf’s sandwich” to classify this exaggerated report is intriguing and may be attributed to Kamp’s performances in the Dutch East Indies earlier that year – apparently the sketch had made quite an impression and the letter writer assumed his readers to be familiar with the phrase. Regrettably, this idiomatic expression for ‘false or exaggerated reporting’ did not stick – but it is never too late for a comeback: Make fake news Beowulf’s sandwich again!

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© Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog, 2018. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thijs Porck and Dutch Anglo-Saxonist Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb

Splitting Anglo-Saxon Hairs: Cuthbert’s Comb

Vikings, Alfred the Great and ninth-century England – The Last Kingdom (BBC; based on the Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell) will undoubtedly spark an interest into the Anglo-Saxons. On this blog, I will regularly discuss some of the historical and/or cultural background of The Last Kingdom, without major plot spoilers.

Priest Beocca (The Last Kingdom; BBC) (Source)

In the first episode of The Last Kingdom (UK airdate: Thursday, 22 October, 9 pm, BBC 2), the priest Beocca tells the young Uhtred that he should have the boy ‘swear by Cuthbert’s comb’. This post deals with the real Anglo-Saxon object that served as the inspiration for this remark: the comb of Saint Cuthbert.

St Cuthbert (d. 687)

Scenes from Bede's Life of St Cuthber: Otters lick Cuthbert's feet; Crows bring Cuthbert lard; Cuthbert in his coffin. © The British Library, Yates Thompson 26 (Source)

Scenes from Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert: Otters lick Cuthbert’s feet; Crows bring Cuthbert lard; Cuthbert in his coffin. © The British Library, Yates Thompson 26 (Source)

Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne is one of the most famous Anglo-Saxon saints. He spent most of his life on the islands of Lindisfarne and Inner Farne, where he combined the roles of hermit and bishop. He is fascinating for many reasons, but what stands out most for me is his relationship with animals: otters licked his feet, he shared a fish with an eagle, his horse found him some food and crows gave him hog’s lard (which he used to polish his shoes with). He died in the year 687 and he was buried in Lindisfarne. When his coffin was opened 11 years after his death, his body was found to be fully intact: proof that he was indeed a saint. He was put in a new coffin, which was placed inside the church, above ground, near the altar.

Cuthbert’s coffin has a long and exciting history (that we will skip for now) and, after an eventful sojourn through England, ended up in Durham Cathedral. In 1827, the grave in which Cuthbert was thought to have been reburied was opened and they found his bones (no longer intact, this time), along with various relics, such as a travelling altar, a gospel book (now in the British Library), a pectoral cross and an ivory comb.

The comb in Cuthbert’s coffin

Cuthbert’s Comb  (Source)

Cuthbert’s comb is about 16 cms long and 12 cms wide, with coarse teeth on the one end and fine teeth at the other. This seventh-century comb is an example of a ‘liturgical comb’, which priests would use to fashion their hair prior to celebrating mass. Scholars have noted certain similarities to Mediterranean combs of the same period; this, along with the fact that the comb was made of elephant ivory, demonstrates the big Mediterranean influence on Anglo-Saxon monasticism (on Cuthbert’s comb, see MacGregor 1985: 79).

Keeping Cuthbert from becoming Chewbacca

The ivory comb is described for the first time by the twelfth-century Benedictine monk and hagiographer Reginald of Durham (d. c. 1190), who wrote a book about miracles attributed to Cuthbert. He records an interesting story about how the comb was used to tame the deceased saint’s ever-growing hair. A tenth-century monk named Elfred, Reginald reports, would occasionally open Cuthbert’s coffin in order “to cut the overgrowing hair of his venerable head, to adjust it by dividing it and smoothing it with an ivory comb and to cut the nails of his fingers, tastefully reducing them to roundness”. Reginald also tells us that Elfred would now and again show some of his cuttings to his friends and hold the saint’s hair in flames. Exposed to the fire, Cuthbert’s hair would glisten like gold; cooled down, it returned to its former hairiness. Reginald further tells us that “the ivory comb, perforated in its centre” was placed in Cuthbert’s coffin (source of story: here) – where, apparently, it still was in 1827.

So there you have it: Cuthbert’s comb is well worth swearing by, if only because it allowed a tenth-century monk from keeping St Cuthbert from becoming St Chewbacca.

St Cuthbert (Source) and St Chewbacca (Source)

St Cuthbert (Source) and St Chewbacca (Source)

Works refered to:

MacGregor, Arthur. 2015. Bone, Antler, Ivory & Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period. Abingdon: Routledge.