Patrick Conner, West Virginia University’s Eberly Centennial Professor in English, began his career in the world of Anglo-Saxon literature quite by chance.
As an undergraduate English major, he was required to take a course on the history of the English language, and there he met Old English for the first time and loved it before he could even understand it.
Capping a distinguished career in the field, he has been inducted as an honorary member of the prestigious International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, a rare honor reserved for retired scholars in his field. The membership of the Society’s honoraries covers the best universities in nine nations.
“This recognition of a great and influential scholarly career is richly deserved,” said Department of English Chair John Ernest. “Pat Conner is a scholar’s scholar. He has been a great inspiration to me and a great friend and mentor to his colleagues at WVU, his students and to scholars in his field. Anyone pursuing a scholarly career could do no better than to follow Pat’s example of scrupulous research, devoted attention to the field and pure joy in exploration and discovery.”
From 1991-97, Conner served as the executive director of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists and as a member of the Executive Committee of the Old English Division of the Modern Language Association of America. He is the founder and co-editor of ANSAXNET, an electronic online discussion group dedicated to early medieval subjects and computing problems associated with them, unique when it was founded in 1985. WVU continues to host ANSAXNET.
He created a computer program called ‘The Beowulf WorkStation,” which brought together numerous resources for the line-by-line translation and study of the Old English poem, for which he won the Joe Wyatt Challenge in 1992 and influenced the look and feel of subsequent teaching editions of all kinds of texts online.
Conner has worked with the “Exeter Book,” the largest surviving collection of Old English poems and examined dozens of English and Latin manuscripts that date earlier than the Norman Conquest found in the British Library, and the libraries at Oxford and Cambridge among others.
He is the author of “Anglo-Saxon Exeter,” a study of the Exeter Book manuscript, of Old English poetry and of the institutions and cultures which produced it. He has written numerous articles on Old English and computing subjects and published “The Abingdon Chronicle,” a reconstruction of Abingdon Abbey’s contribution to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In addition, he won the Department of English’s Bordinat award for “On Dating Cynewulf,” a study that locates the Anglo-Saxon poet Cynewulf’s work between the late ninth and mid-10th centuries, which is much later than previous scholars had thought.
“When you read a work like ‘Beowulf’ in its original Old English, you have to look at every word so carefully that you begin to understand you will touch this text in a way you’re not likely ever to read any other text. It is an intimate act to read a text that closely, and I recommend it to every student of reading or writing,” Conner said. “I like working with old books, particularly manuscripts. It’s like our culture’s current love of those TV forensics shows like “Bones.” I have to look at every little detail, and if something is screwed up, such as a difference in the quality of the parchment or a slight change in the way a letter is formed, that’s a clue, and I have to ask ‘Why is it like this?’”
Two of Conner’s theories about the Exeter Book are widely known and well-respected. His first theory is an argument that the Exeter book was actually written in three pieces. Based upon analysis, he believes that the front piece is the oldest piece, the middle part was written most recently and the last part is the second oldest and helps to organize the poetry. He also believes that the Exeter Book was written in Exeter, England based upon the connections with other manuscripts he has turned up. Oddly enough, scholars have long thought that the Exeter Book was produced at Canterbury or Glastonbury.
“I want to know everything about the Exeter Book from the hides it was written upon to the content of other books we can associate with it since its first mention in the 11th century,” He said.
Conner’s most recent work has centered on the development of social and cultural literary spaces in Anglo-Saxon England, which produced some of the most powerful of our Old English poetry.
“I’m still trying to answer a question I heard mentioned when I was an undergraduate. ‘How was this poetry presented to its audience and how did that audience think about it?’ After 50 years thinking about it, I can speak cogently on that topic now for about twenty minutes. There’s clearly much to be learned,” Conner said.
He was honored with the 2010 Ethel and Gerry Heebink Award for Distinguished and Extended State Service for his exceptional dedication to the State of West Virginia through his renewal of the WVU Press as its Director/Editor from 1999-2008.
For more information, contact John Ernest, chair of the Department of English, at 304-293–9714 or John.Ernest@mail.wvu.edu.
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