Author: John Stanley Martin
Old Icelandic was the sixth language to be introduced into the curriculum of the University of Melbourne. When the university opened its door to students in April 1855 the only languages were Latin and Ancient Greek. After a long campaign French and German were introduced in 1881. Then Dutch came in 1942 and Old Norse in 1944.
Augustin Lodewyckx (1876-1964), a Belgian, was the driving force behind this expansion of the curriculum in the 1940s. He had gained an abiding interest in and love for the language and literature of mediaeval Iceland when he was a student in Germanic languages at the University of Ghent. Moreover, as a leader in the Flemish national movement, he became enthralled by the love of freedom he discovered in the Icelandic family sagas and in the reawakening of the Icelandic sense of identity during the 19th century. “
On 1914 Lodewyckx planned a journey around the world in search of an academic post at a university either in the Antipodes or in North America and he arrived in Melbourne when the First World War broke out. Since he could not return to his occupied homeland, he was advised by the Belgian consul to stay in Melbourne. He found work as teacher of German at Melbourne Grammar School and then was appointed lecturer in German at the University of Melbourne when his predecessor, a German national, was dismissed.
In 1931 Lodewyckx was at last able to realise a dream, which had haunted him since his student days. He visited Iceland during a sabbatical year and became even more enthusiastic about the country as well as its people and its language. When he returned from his second sojourn in this northern paradise in 1939, he gathered together a group of people who were fascinated by his descriptions of his travels. The members of this group kept regular meetings at “Huize Eikenbosch”, the Lodewyckx home, and adopted the name of Íslandsvinna félagið (The Society of the Friends of Iceland).
These enthusiasts heard more of the professor’s visits to Iceland and discussed articles and books which they had read. As chairperson they chose Dr Anna Mühl, an American psychiatrist, who was currently working at the University of Melbourne.
An unexpected event for the group was the visit to the Lodewyckx home by María Markan, a famous Icelandic opera singer, who was on tour in Australia in 1940. She later wrote, “These people invited me to an evening meal and I was very moved when I saw the table. In front of my table setting there was an Icelandic flag amongst freshly-picked flowers.”
It was from this club that the pressure came for the introduction of Old Norse as a university subject. Unaware that the Japanese were going to attack Pearl Harbour in December 1941, the Council of Melbourne University had already decided to introduce Dutch as a university subject because of the proximity of the Netherlands East Indies. Naturally Lodewyckx became the lecturer in Dutch and, because of the difficulty of obtaining course literature from Europe in the wartime situation; his wife typed the material needed with many carbon copies. Interest became greater with the arrival of Dutch refugees.
When the first students of Dutch, many of whom were in the Íslandsvinna félagið, had finished their two-year course, they persuaded their teacher, Professor Augustin Lodewyckx, to establish a course in Old Icelandic.
Consequently in March 1944 with Gordon’s Old Norse grammar and copies of Hænsa Þoris saga in their hands, the second class in Old Norse in the Southern Hemisphere began at the University of Melbourne. The first class was at the University of Sydney the year before. At the end of the academic year the participants decided to continue meeting at the Lodewyckx home in Mont Albert every second Saturday and thus Íslandsvinna félagið became the Old Norse Reading Circle. From then on there were two groups – the class in Old Norse at the university and then the Reading Circle at the Lodewyckx home. ”Huize Eikenbosch” in Mont Albert, 12 kilometres from the centre of the city. “Huize Eikenbosch” was a large old house from the 1880s with an enormous garden which the professor ended carefully and in which he grew all the vegetables needed for the kitchen. When he retired in 1948 both groups met at “Huize Eikenbosch” on alternate Saturdays and this continued until his death in 1964.
Behind this unusual paedagogical operation there were four powerful women: Edith Cameron, Rosa Grün, Sara Gundersen and Monika Killeen, who formed the “Old Norse quartet”. Then there were those who came fairly frequently and others who came occasionally or when they were passing through Melbourne.
Edith Cameron played an important role in the university as the secretary of the Student Union. Trained as a nurse, she served in the Australian Army in the First World War. There she was awarded the highest medal from the British Red cross for serving under enemy fire in 1918. Then trained in domestic science, she was employed in the newly-opened cafeteria in the Student Union. Ultimately, she took charge of whole enterprise and its multifarious activities. She studied every language available at the university: first French and German, then Dutch, Old Norse, Hebrew. Arabic and Italian, pronouncing each langauge with a marked Australian accent, just as she had learned colloquial Arabic during the war.
In the group was Rosa Grün, Edith Cameron’s right hand. She was a gentle, somewhat retiring, highly intelligent and cultured person. Born in Vienna in a well-to-do Jewish family, Rosa had studied psychology, languages and education at the Univeristy of Vienna and taught English and German in a secondary school. After Hitler’s Anschluss in 1938, her brother had migrated to Melbourne and she followed, arriving in Melbourne in December 1939. She happened to find a flat in the same block as Edith Cameron. The latter, who loved the Old Testament, which she read diligently in modern Icelandic, was thrilled to have a living representative of the children of Israel nearby and took the refugee under her wing. Rosa was introduced to the Lodewyckxes immediately, took part in the first course in Dutch in 1942 and in Old Norse in 1944 and became a permanent member of Old Norse Reading Circle. As soon as Rosa was naturalised in 1944 (before which she was classed as an “enemy alien”), she was appointed as German teacher in a private girls’ school, where Edith’s sister by chance was principal.
A third person who played a key role in the circle was Dr Sara Gundersen, a medical specialist. She was the daughter of a Norwegian merchant, who became the consul of Norway, when his homeland gained its independence from Sweden in 1905. She was a pioneer from the first class in Old Norse. Vilbergur Julíusson, an Icelandic teacher and later school principal who lived in Melbourne in the early 1950s, wrote that Dr Gundersen had confided in him that the Old Icelandic sagas had saved her life. She had been seriously ill and her heart specialist had suggested that she should devote herself to a new interest which was not too psychically strenuous. A good friend of Mrs Anna Lodewyckx, she became involved in the Old Norse world. She was of great value in the Reading Circle because her relations in Norway had sent copies of Snorra Edda, Heimskringla and other texts which the class was studying. Professor Lodewyckx had forbidden any reference to English or German translations, but he had not mentioned any translations of the Old Norse classics in Norwegian. He had no idea that his disciples met weekly in Sara Gundersen’s flat and secretly made great use of her skills in the Norwegian language.
A fourth person who entered the group a little after it started was Monika Killeen. She was the Latin teacher at university High School. She was a perfectionist and the others were dependent on her skills in the translation of difficult passages in the Poetic Edda and in skaldic poetry. Tragically she was killed in a moor accident in December 1946 and was deeply missed by the Reading Circle.
Every year there were between two and seven students in the beginners’ class and between eight and twelve in the Old Norse Reading Circle. An indispensable member of the group was Mrs Anna Lodewyckx. The initiated called Professor Lodewyckx “Kapo” and his wife “Moeloe” – the names in Flemish which the couple’s son, Axel, created from them as a child when they lived in the Belgian Congo. For both groups it was a blessed relief at 16.00 hours when Moeloe and her auto tray were heard trundling along the corridor with the afternoon tea, to be served in her famous Danish crockery with the blue musselmaled pattern and such delicacies as her nasturtium sandwiches.
Moeloe remained for the second half of the lesson and the atmosphere became definitely more relaxed. She spoke seven languages fluently. Born in South Africa of Scandinavian parents, she spoke Swedish with her mother, Norwegian with her father, Danish with an adopted grandmother, Afrikaans with the servants and English at school. Later she acquired French and German. She claimed that it was not necessary at her age for her to learn Old Norse, the ancient language of her ancestors. She was well able to follow the text with her excellent Norwegian translations. Even her otherwise strict husband could not complain because she was the monarch in her own principality.
The high point of the Old Norse Reading Circle was its contribution to the Festschrift in honour of Kapo’s 75th birthday. Amongst the 20 articles from his colleagues, friends and former students there was a contribution from his Reading Circle on Tyrfing’s sword and the waking of Angantýr from Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks. The delighted old professor was sure that this text was the first written in Old Icelandic in the Southern Hemisphere. He had no idea of the many, many hours of sweat and toil that went into his students’ production as well as the number of glasses of red wine that had been consumed.
The beginners’ class on Old Norse was held every second Saturday at “Huize Eikenbosch” between 15.00 and 18.00 p.m. and the advanced group met on the other Saturdays. The course material for the beginners was Gordon’s An Introduction to Old Norse and Hænsa-Þórissaga and chapters from such texts as Heimskringla and Njálssaga for the Reading Circle during the period in which I was involved - 1956-1957 and 1960-1964
Augustin Lodewyckx, a philologist in the old classical European tradition and also in Henri Pirenne’s liberal historical school, had no idea that his students in both groups had other occupations during the week besides studying Old Norse. He had unrealistic expectations, but since is disciples respected him so highly, they felt duty-bound to prepare the text set for the following class as carefully as possible.
It was Edith Cameron who solved the problem. During the time of my involvement, she invited the beginners to her home every Tuesday evening and the old gang of enthusiastic every Thursday evening. We got to work after a quick meal, which she had prepared beforehand, and then went through the passage set for the following class. Those in the Reading Circle came sheepishly with the forbidden translations - Edith Cameron with her English texts, Rosa Grün with German and Sara Gundersen with Norwegian and we sometimes continued until the last tram passed Edith Cameron’s door. The old professor sometimes praised his disciples for their satisfactory progress, totally unaware of their secret meetings at Edith Cameron’s flat.
However, sometimes the members of the Reading Circle came to the end of the prepared sections too quickly and were not prepared for what followed. Then Edith, who well knew the old man’s weak side, came forth with her divertive tactics.
She was interested in botany, zoology and especially ornithology. Therefore she asked complicated questions on animals, birds and plants which she had seen in some text. Totally unsuspecting, the old professor started climbing up the latter in his study, where we gathered, to fetch some reference book relevant to the specific question, delighted that his students were interested in such abstruse points.
When I had finished my B.A. in French and German and returned from a holiday in New Zealand to enrol in a Diploma of Education, Miss Coverlid, the power behind the throne in the German Section, suggested that I should enrol in the Lodewyckx class in Old Norse. She gave two reasons – she hoped that I would continue with my studies in Germanic languages to enrol later in an M.A. and she thought that I would find the university’s paedagogical studies rather boring. Therefore, she suggested that I should contact Miss Cameron in the Student Union. My heart sank! Many students regarded her as an unchained dragon. She ruled the Student Union with a hand of steel and several times I had crossed sword with her. I had been an advertising agent for the German Dramatic Club and all negotiations concerning hire of the theatre went through her hands. It took me some days to pluck up courage to knock on her door. Miss Cameron had heard that I would come and, instead of confronting a fire-breathing dragon, I was received so hospitably. She was so glad to get a new recruit that she nearly embraced me. She rang Moeloe and it was agreed that I should present myself at “Huize Eikenbosch” the following Saturday at 15.00.
That afternoon I entered another world – a European environment from the 19th century in the middle of the Antipodes. The professor bade me welcome and without losing any time invited me into his study and opened Gordon’s grammar on page 6 and asked me to translate “Þat var einn dag at Freyr hafði gengit í Hliðskjálf ok sá of heima alla; en er hann leit í norðrætt, þá sá hann á einum bœ mikit hús ok fagrt” I must have looked stunned, but she said, “You have studied Old High German and Gothic, it is easy with a little help.” I was amazed that it worked – slowly, but with the professor’s help. “It happened one day that Frey had gone to Hliðskjálf and looked out over all the worlds and when he looked out towards the north, then he saw on a farm a large and beautiful house”
Lodewyckx decided that I should come to him every Saturday during March. The next week another neophyte turned up, Graeme Hughes, a brilliant fellow-student who studied German, Dutch and Russian and was the lead actor in the department’s Dramatic Club. The professor decided to my horror that German would be our langauge of communication. The course literature was as usual Gordon’s grammar and Hænsa-Þórissaga, but it was decreed that we should also use Finnur Jónsson’s edition of The Poetic Edda. He chose this edition because it was available in Melbourne. Our fortnightly lessons began in April, but the professor suggested that we two should also go the Old Norse Reading Circle, in the hope that we could slowly catch up. Like the Egyptians of old, he was a hard taskmaster.
The initiates in the Old Norse Reading Circle were studying The Poetic Edda. That meant that we went twice a week for coaching by Edith Cameron.
Soon we were initiated into this world of wonder and delight and were invited to call the professor “Kapo” and his wife “Moeloe”. The year went by far too quickly and we two were sometimes invited to stay behind after the class for dinner. The house’s home language was Dutch during the day and French or German for dinner. For us Australian boys from a monolingual background life in the Lodewyckx household was an unforgettable experience. But the main aspect was our introduction to mediaeval and modern Iceland and its language, culture and literature. Naturally we became enthusiasts for Iceland.
When I was teaching in the country from 1955 to 1957 over 200 kilometres from Melbourne, Lodewyckx expected me to come often to Melbourne to take part in the Reading Circle. When I arrived in Reykjavík in 1958 to study at the University of Iceland, Sigurður Nordal, the grand old man of Icelandic literature and a friend of Lodewyckx, became my mentor. He and my two professors Einar Ólafur Sveinsson and Halldór Halldórsson were amazed that I had read so much literature.
When I returned to Australia in 1960 having been at the University of Iceland in 1958 an the University of Vienna in 1959 and was even more enthusiastic about Iceland, old Lodewyckx was so impressed that he instituted a scholarship under his wife’s name – The Anna Lodewyckx scholarship – to help Australian students study in Iceland.
Lodewyckx continued with his two groups of students until his death in 1964. In 1959 Professor Ian Maxwell of the English Department began to take part in Lodewyckx’ Old Norse Reading Circle. He proved to be of great value in the class and, as a master conversationalist, enjoyed sparring with Moeloe during the afternoon tea. Moreover, he was of enormous help to the ageing Kapo, particularly when he was stricken with cancer towards the end of his life.
In reality it was Maxwell who gradually became the unofficial leader, but as a true gentleman he always deferred to the elder man. At this time the classes could not have functioned without Maxwell. When Lodewyckx died, Maxwell moved the Reading Circle to his room at the university and it functioned there for about five years, whilst beginners joined the equivalent class in the English Department. Later he united the advanced group to his Friday Reading Circle.
Some years after Lodewyckx had introduced Old Norse into the curriculum of the Department of Germanic Languages, in 1946 to be exact, a little group of staff members in the English Department gather together to read the Old Icelandic family sagas. The activist was Keith Macartney (1903-1971) - academic, actor and theater director – who had returned to Australia from Cambridge in 1936 to undertake the teaching of Anglo-Saxon, Middle English and Drama Studies. He finally became a professor and had a great influence on Melbourne theatre world.
Some participant in Macartney’s unofficial reading circle had studied Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse at British universities, but for those who had not had this opportunity he began a private language course in Old Norse.
It appears strange that an institution as small as the University of Melbourne – the only university in the city - had two independent groups of enthusiasts who read Old Norse literature. Perhaps the reason was that the Lodewyckx Reading Circle was comprised of people from off the campus, with the exception of Edith Cameron.
Macartney received great help from Henk Kylstra, the lecturer in Dutch, who had studied Germanic Languages, including Old Norse, in Amsterdam in 1942. The next year he was forced to go underground because he would not sign a document indicating agreement with the leaders of the German occupation. Continuing his studies after the war, Henk went to Iceland for a month in 1947 and learned to communicate with the modern inhabitants with astonishing rapidity. He was appointed lecturer I Dutch on a four-year contract from 1948 to 1952. He attended the Lodewyckx Reading Circle a few times but found that the group in the English Department better suited his interests.
Macartney asked Kylstra to lead the Old Norse Reading Circle in 1949. Amongst his participants there five people who later became highly important teachers and researchers and who played a significant role in literary and academic life in Australia and beyond. In the group there were Tom Dobson who gained great prestige in the English Department at the University of Melbourne as a dedicated teacher of older forms of the English language; Alec Hope who became professor of English at the Australian National University in Canberra and had the reputation of being one of Australia’s leading poets; Leonie Kramer who became professor of Australian literature at the University of Sydney and was chancellor from 1991 to 2001; Ian Maxwell who has already appeared in this account and will appear soon as being, along with Lodewyckx, one of the two great figures in the teaching of Old Norse; Bruce Mitchell who travelled early to Oxford University, where he taught Anglo-Saxon and gained a great reputation for his research and textbooks.
Augustin Lodewyckx on sabbatical leave in Europa in 1949 and his beginners’ class in Old Norse was suspended for the year. When he returned, he reacted negatively to the fact that Kylstra had been poaching on his field during his absence. But the dean of the Arts Faculty explained that Kylstra’s class was not for enrolled students but for interested teachers and researchers, who voluntarily took part.
But with the growing interest in Old Norse amongst students of the English Department – Maxwell included translations of sagas in his highly popular course on epic and romance – the Arts Faculty agreed to approve of a course on Iceland’s old language and literature for students of English. Macartney was far too occupied otherwise to take on the teaching, but fortunately Kylstra was ready to take the classes, which began in 1950. However, the fact of Old Norse being taught in the English Department did not appear in the faculty handbook strangely enough until 1952
When Kylstra’s contract finished in 1952, he returned to the Netherlands after a period as a translator. In 1962 he came back to Australia to take up a lectureship in English at the University of Queensland and is still living there after his retirement. At times he managed to run courses in Old Norse in Brisbane.
After Kylstra’s departure Macartney was the teacher in Old Norse and in 1954 he enlisted the help of Ian Maxwell (1901-1979).
Ian Ramsay Maxwell was born in Melbourne and after his studies in Arts and Law he tried to earn his bread as a lawyer from 1926 to 1931. During the Great Depression there was so little work for young lawyers that Maxwell decided to sail to England to study further at Oxford University. Then he was appointed as lektor in English at the University of Copenhagen. This was a special position for a resident native-speaker. There he came into contact with Otto Jespersen, a leading expert on English grammar and on the use of the English language. These two were as different from one another as night is from day; Jespersen was a descriptive linguist and Maxwell a proscriptive stylist. Nevertheless, they became good friends and each admired the other so that they complemented one another. On one occasion Jespersen said to Maxwell, “Sir, you are a moralist and I am an observer.”
During his time in Oxford, Maxwell developed an interest in Samuel Johnson’s normative attitude to grammar and stylistics and this fascinated Jespersen. The Dane once stated that over many years he has been observing and describing how speakers of English use their language, but now he has found someone who is able to explain how English ought to be spoken.
Maxwell became a lecturer in English at the University of Sydney in 1936 and later professor of English in Melbourne. He had a complex and charming personality; his literary interests were extraordinarily broad and he was an expert on all sorts of subjects from bookbinding to boxing. As a lecturer and public speaker he was a magician. He attracted not only students enrolled in his courses, but many people from other faculties and even beyond the university. Twenty years after his second visit to Iceland local people were still talking about his unforgettable lectures on Robbie Burns and T. S. Elliott.
Maxwell’s participation in Kylstra’s class for teachers and researchers in 1949 proved to be a turning point in his life. He had earlier read translations of the Icelandic sagas by William Morris, but now he met the language face to face and this confrontation because the catalyst which led him to a deeper reality, which fascinated him to the end of his life. From this time on Iceland and its ancient language and literature became his all-embracing delight, which was only strengthened by his two visits to Iceland in 1952 and 1959.
Maxwell helped Macartney in the first classes in Old Norse in the English Department from 1950 to 1953. Then he took on the total teaching load and continued for 25 years. The advantage when he retired in 1966 was that he had more time to read and teach Old Norse. On one occasion when Dame Leonie Kramer visited him, she made the comment that he “spoke, read, ate and dreamed Old Norse”. Year after year he experimented with different textbooks and material, but like Lodewyckx he always returned to Gordon’s grammar. As well he produced a mountain of duplicated material for students, some small and others larger, which he dutifully bound as booklets. His outstanding production was a glossary to Hákonar saga góða. It was not merely a word-list but a paedagogical tool for beginners and from the first lines of the saga the student was introduced to the language and its grammar.
Maxwell formed a group of enthusiasts who met on Fridays in his room from 6.00 to 6.00pm. Anyone who had studied Old Norse was welcome to come and read and translate sagas. There could be between six to fourteen participants present. The distinctive feature of Maxwell’s room was the large map of Iceland, which he had painted on the wall with many of the names of farms recorded. This map was of inestimable value to his disciples. At 6.00 p.m. Maxwell took out his whisky bottle and invited those present to partake and often invited anyone who had time to join him at dinner in the staff club.
Soon Maxwell gained an international reputation for his research and teaching. His contribution was so significant that Professor Gabriel Turville-Petre from Oxford University, doyen and expert on mediaeval Iceland’s culture and literature in the English-speaking world visited Maxwell and his circle in Melbourne three times– 1965, 1967 och 1974.
In summer Maxwell often took a little group of students to his secret camp in the bush, on crown land, far away from civilisation, belonging to Australia’s queen. The students loved the experience of living in Maxwell’s primitive huts and of reading Icelandic sagas in the Australian bush.
When Gabriel Turville-Petre made his first visit to Melbourne in 1965, the temperature was over 40º and Maxwell believed that the drastic change of climate from a freezing English winter to a hot Australian summer could be perilous for the poor Englishman. Therefore, he immediately gathered a group of a little group of enthusiasts and they drove to the camp, deep in the bush and in turn the members of the group kept on pouring cold water from the nearby creek over the astonished world expert.
When Maxwell retired in 1966, he had to move to a smaller room at the university. The participants in the reading circle were sad at the loss of the wall-map of Iceland. He continued teaching the beginners’ class and conducting the Reading Circle until he fell ill in 1978 and then Robert Priestley, psychologist, founder of the university’s student counselling and later associate dean of the Arts Faculty, took charge of the teaching of Old Norse in the English Department.
After Maxwell retired as professor but not a teacher of Old Norse, a number of his colleagues banded together to produce a Festschrift under the title Iceland and the Mediaeval World: Studies in Honour of Ian Maxwell. Gabriel Turville-Petre and I were the editors. While we were waiting for financial support for printing, we presented his with the typed text on his 70th birthday and later with the printed volume in 1974 during an official celebration of the 1100th anniversary of the settlement of Iceland. The book contained 17 articles and a poem by Alec Hope (1907-2000)
Much travelled, much winning in the realms of gold,
All whom he taught to chare his enterprise
With Milton drank the milk of Paradise,
Observed the human comedy unfold
With Scott, with Boswell visited the Grand
Cham’s territories or heard True Thomas sing.
These held his youth, but with Time’s ripening
The North’s Valhöll became his Promised Land.
In Fjords and fells his country of the heart,
Its elder tongue his treasure. I see his there
As his friends see him, smiling at the chart
Of Iceland, a Viking looking from his eyes,
The man of action in the scholar’s chair,
Like Gunnar gentle and his Ari wise.
(Gabriel Turville-Petre and John Stanley Martin, eds, Iceland and the Mediæval World: Studies in Honour of Ian Maxwell. Wilke and Company Limited, Melbourne, 1974, p. 1)
When Maxwell’s health became weak around 1976, Robert Priestly and Del Chessell, one of Maxwell’s best students, helped with the teaching at times and gradually took over the whole responsibility. Ian Ramsay Maxwell died in 1979 and his death ended a period of the university’s history.
In 1969 I was appointed to the lectureship in Swedish and Old Icelandic at the University of Melbourne. I concentrated on Swedish literature and history and the Swedish tutor on the language. As Professor Maxwell, who was in retirement was available in his room day every day and had endless time at his disposal, it was best to leave the teaching of Old Norse to him. My aim was to build up the Swedish Section and this task took up all my energy. Sometimes, I helped Maxwell with the teaching and of course took part in his Friday Reading Circle.
In 1974 Professor Gerhard Schulz, head of our department, asked me to introduce a half-year course on Germanic myths and heroes for the more advanced students of German, Dutch and Swedish. For that reason the course was conducted in English. Obviously there was a strong bias towards Old Norse material in translation. From then on I took two half courses a year on a variety of Old Norse topics, including a langauge course at times.
When Maxwell died, his two helpers, Adele Chessell and Bob Priestley, continued teaching his course for the rest of the year. After that I was asked to teach a beginners’ course in Old Norse in 1980 for students in English and Germanic Studies. There were usually between 12 and 15 participants. Gradually I built up a duplicated course for beginners. Ian Maxwell’s students had often commented that they needed an introductory course before they began to read his duplicated version of Hákonar saga góða and its glossary which was subtly geared to introduce Old Norse vocabulary and grammar to students as they progressed into the saga.
Even if the teaching of Old Norse had ceased in the English Department on the death of Maxwell, the course was still listed in the faculty handbook. Teaching of Old Norse began again in the English Department in 1983 when Margaret Birtley taught a beginners’ course. She was one of Maxwell’s students, who had continued her studies in Old Icelandic at Oxford Univeristy, studied in Iceland as a recipient of the Anna Lodewyckx Scholarship and was currently employed at Monash University as a tutor in English.
In 1984 some rather short-sighted lecturers in the German Section of the Department of Germanic Studies complained that some half-year subjects for advanced students were being taught in English. They were referring to Old Norse and Germanic linguistics. The Germans were in a majority at a staff meeting and it was decided to have all courses in German, Dutch or Swedish, but not in English.
Dr Marion Adams, the astute head of the department did not willing to let the valuable course in Old Norse vanish from the curriculum of the university, suggested that we could mount a course for the whole faculty under the title of “Interdepartmental Course in Viking Language, Literature and Culture”. She suggested the use of the word “viking” as bait to attract customers. We received enthusiastic support from the English Department and the Faculty of Arts gave permission for the introduction of the course. Margaret Birtley and I presented the course together, beginning in 1985, and fortunately we had access to the Magnus Magnusson’s TV series on Vikings in the langauge laboratory.
The course was a great success from the beginning and after two years Margaret Birtley took up a position of lecturer in Museum Studies at another university. But she left an indelible mark on the course, and it was taught by me with on-going improvements until 1998, three years after my retirement. I began the course in 1999 with the help of Dr Mindy MacLeod, one of our bright students, and then handed over to her. That year there were 35 enrolled students, the largest number that we ever have had.
From then on the course was not always presented every semester, sometimes because of mistakes in the departmental handbook or because of the lack of a teacher.
Then one semester was taken by Mindy and another semester by Tom Neill, an Australien doctoral student in mediaeval history at the University of Göteborg, who had returned to Australia. Yet the enrolments have ranged from about 20 to 35.
For the last three years Dr Katrina Burge had been in charge of the teaching of Viking Studies and had constantly refined and improved the syllabus. Indeed, as I look back over the 33 years during which Old Norse has been taught in our department, I realise that the course presented this year to 31 students is the best ever, because Katrina had been able to incorporate some of the modern techniques of historical and linguistic research.
Then suddenly and unexpectedly we heard in April that the executive of the School of Languages had decided to discontinue Viking Studies. I was the one who wrote the draft in 1992 for the establishment of the School of Languages and the universal request from student and staff was to create a body for the improvement of standards. It was also stressed not to create a “super-departmental” administrative structure. But, in the restructuring of the Arts Faculty in 2005, the existing small departments were gathered together in clusters.
This draconian and unexpected decree came five months before the report of the “expert” committee to suggest radical changes in the Arts Faculty to cope with the massive debt and not anticipate the introduction of the revolutionary “Melbourne Model”. I sought confirmation from the then dean, Professor Belinda Probert, and she replied on 27th April 2007 “The reason is that neither the School nor the Faculty is able to continue to offer Viking Studies because of the absence of appropriately qualified staff and strategic decisions being made about the focus of both Historical Studies and Languages and Linguistics.” There was no proper investigation by the enemies of Viking Studies and appropriately qualified staff is available.
Unfortunately, Viking Studies and Old Norse are victims of what some claim to be the questionable internal politics. Despite a long and rich tradition of 64 years with 31 enrolled students this year and with a gifted and inspiring teacher, Old Norse is going to vanish from a pathetically impoverished university. Requiescat in pace.