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InFocus: Dr Alex Woolf

This week, The Saint had the honour of speaking to one of the most beloved members of the Medieval History faculty as he spoke to us about his journey to St Andrews, Lord of the Rings, and the future of HS2.

Dr Alex Woolf’s journey to St Andrews wasn’t the plod through postgraduate degrees we associate with most lecturers and professors. Having first gone to UCL to do Scandinavian studies, which included spending some time in Norway, he dropped out.

“I was just not good enough at the modern language and I also wasted a lot of my time in central London. Moving from a small town to central London, it was way too distracting. I spent an awful lot of time in Virgin Megastore and hanging out with interesting people and going to shows and gigs. I was just rubbish at the academic work.”

Following this, Dr Woolf spent four years working a variety of jobs from the foreign exchange bureau at Brighton railway station, to a hamburger restaurant in Richmond upon Thames. He said, “Whilst I was doing that I thought, ‘Well here I am doing jobs I hate for six days a week. I might as well have another go at university and do something I really enjoy, even if it’s just for three years, at least I will have those three years.’

“I went to Sheffield to do a joint honours degree in Medieval History and Medieval English. Neil Young the musician once said that he never tried to drive down the middle of the road, he found the ditch more interesting. I’m not sure if [I] found driving in the ditch particularly interesting, but I did do my fair share of driving in the ditch.”

Dr Woolf said his love of the early Middle Ages comes from his exposure to Tolkien at a very young age. When asked who his favourite character from The Lord of the Rings is he said, “This is probably showing signs of me not being particularly politically correct or something, but I was always drawn to Aragorn and Eomer.”

He sees Tolkein’s work as a “gateway drug” to his discipline, with Tolkein himself taking much from his own study of the period Woolf specialises in. He points to the similarities between the elves of The Lord of the Rings and the monks of the early Middle Ages.

“The elves have a monastic element to them. The idea of them singing sadly as they set off over the sea is lifted from Gildas’ account of British refugees going to the continent in his sixth century work, De Excidio Britanniae, where almost exactly the phase that Tolkein uses to describe the elves leaving the Grey Havens.”

However, the expert on Dark Age Scotland does think Tolkein’s work has coloured the image some have of the culture of the early middle ages.

“The idea that you have horde[s] of goblins and things and you fight great existential battle[s], that’s not something you find in mediaeval literature or legends. Usually, when you encounter goblins or monsters, they are usually solitary or in single families living somewhere because they derive from pagan ideas of a spirit of a place, who often became regarded negatively during Christianisation.”

Dr Woolf believes that the society of the Dark Ages — a term he still finds useful despite it not being in vogue with others in his field — still holds important insights on how we could live today.

When asked if we have lost something of the society of the Middle Ages, Dr Woolf says, “I think we have. I think it is a fundamental problem that we have with liberal democracy. The idea of democracy that we have is derived from classical Athens, but was also practised in places like free state Iceland and so on. Depends, really, on everyone being engaged, and we are just too far away, so that ordinary people like you and me feel alienated from where the major decisions are being taken. In modern Scotland, you are less handshakes away from the First Minister than the Prime Minister, but you are still one of five million people, getting your voice heard is hard. Whereas in the early mediaeval world, those people would only have been two or three handshakes away from power.

So was Medieval Society more democratic than our own then?

“That’s an interesting question. A lot depends on your definition of democracy. I think it may not have been more democratic. It may have been more participatory [....] Local communities had this participatory element in the early Middle Ages, but the interaction with royalty was always problematic. The king was, to some extent, running a protection racket [....] I have no utopian views about the early Middle Ages. I think people were more directly involved in decision making, but of course there were also slaves. There were pros and cons.”

Given Dr Woolf’s concern for local democracy, it seemed fitting to ask him about the cancellation of HS2 to Manchester.

“I would have started in Manchester and gone as far as Birmingham.” He said “I don’t think anyone needs to get to London. London doesn’t need more people. London is full of people. I think joining Manchester to Birmingham would be a good idea. One of the things that really bugs me about that debate, it must bug a lot of people in Scotland and I know it bugs people in the northeast of England, is that Manchester, the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ is barely in the north! I concede it is in the north, but it reminds me of when the Northumbrians conquered Pictland. They created a Bishopric of Pictland and they put it at Abercorn near South Queensferry, even though it was the bishopric for controlling the whole of the area as far as Orkney.”

As the interview comes to a close, there is one final question to be asked of Dr Woolf: Will he be the latest historian to start a podcast? After thinking it over for a few minutes, Dr Woolf told The Saint, “We shall see.”

Image: Dr Alex Woolf

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