Brian McMahon, Somerville’s new Chapel Director, is studying the literature of medieval Europe’s only commonwealth, home to the continent’s pioneer parliament.

What could be more appropriate for the man charged with overseeing Somerville’s famously non-aligned Chapel?

Icelanders have been writing down their much-loved sagas for more than 700 years and telling them for more than a thousand. Even today, Iceland prints more books per capita than any country worldwide.

“It’s their traditions of storytelling and dramatic poems that interest me the most,” says Brian McMahon, second-year PhD student and, as of Michaelmas Term 2014, Somerville Chapel Director. “The early literature was courtly but, uniquely among European polities in the medieval period, Iceland had no king. Landowners could vote, just like Tynwald on the Isle of Man. It was a form of national government as it relied on law – not monarchy.”

McMahon’s interest is not simply historical but also performative. Prior to his arrival at Somerville, he worked as an opera producer, and in his spare time he produces and performs with Reverend Productions.

The Sagas were resurrected as a focus for scholarship in the late 18th and early 19th century. Among those to make their mark on the field in the twentieth century were two Somervillians: Dame Bertha Phillpotts (1913, Lady Carlisle Research Fellow) and Ursula Dronke (1939, English).

“Phillpotts published a book in 1920 which claimed that there must have been Icelandic dramas too,” said McMahon. “A German scholar wrote against Phillpotts’s thesis, consigning it to near-oblivion for seven decades. Only in the 1990s did scholars begin to look again and her work was rehabilitated.”

In 1969, 1997 and 2011 it was Somervillian Ursula Dronke, Fellow and Tutor in Old Norse from 1950 to 1961, who produced a translation (with commentary) of the Poetic Edda, the collection of Old Norse verse that has inspired poets and translators for decades, among them WH Auden.

House of Prayer for all Peoples

McMahon was also struck by the fact that, uniquely among medieval European states, Iceland was a commonwealth with its own parliament, the Althing, to which all free men were invited. It is an appropriate trope (except, of course, for the ban on women participants) for Somerville College Chapel, founded by Emily Kemp, who arrived at Somerville in 1881, as a place where members of all nationalities could gather to pray.

“Somerville: a place of faith and doubt was the title of my first talk,” says McMahon. “In it, I quoted Emily Kemp, Agnes Maitland and Thomas Aquinas, all of whom have positive things to say on doubt. Coming up to Oxford, doubt can be accepted.

“The Chapel was never consecrated and it exists only insofar as it is used. The Chapel and Prayer Room are a blank canvas.”

Emily Kemp’s initial vision of a multidenominational Christian space has since been expanded to include services and meetings run by people from other traditions of faith and humanism. This term’s chapel card includes addresses from a Quaker Chaplain, a Catholic priest, a scholar of Daoism, a rabbi, an Anglican priest and an Oxford academic whose talk is entitled ‘Hold On, Hold Tight: Fairies, Love and Death’.

“Oxford is very much a spiritually and religiously diverse city,” says McMahon. “While they are here, lots of students find the chance to align themselves with a tradition they never knew. You can find specific denominations elsewhere but here there is a very precious chance to find out and explore.”

McMahon hopes that the Chapel continues to evolve as incoming students bring with them new traditions, ideas and priorities. He also wants to encourage a more inter-faith approach for the landmark services. Evolution has long been a constant in the life of Somerville College Chapel.

“There is now a termly Catholic Mass,” says McMahon. “There are also increasing numbers of weddings, baptisms and funerals here and I hope that trend continues. The Dance Society, film society and musical groups also like to hold events here.”

Somerville’s Chapel has not lost its vision to reach across the old divides.

The Somerville College Chapel term card is available.

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