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Hugh Magennis

Anglo-Saxon Literature

The C am bridge In tr o d u c t io n to

Anglo-Saxon Literature HUGH MAGENNIS Queen's U niversity Belfast

An approachable and stim ulating introduction to Anglo-Saxon literature, this book provides indispensable guidance for students on this im portant and rew arding area of literary studies. Key individual works including ゲare discussed in detail, w ith m odern English translations, and the literature is placed in larger historical and theoretical contexts. The structure, style and layout of the Introduction are attractive and user-friendly, w ith illustrative figures and textboxes, and it includes a section on resources for studying Anglo-Saxon literature, guiding the reader on how to investigate the subject further. Overall, the book enables a thorough understanding and appreciation of artfu l and eloquent works from a distant past, w hich still speak pow erfully to people today.

C am bridge

Introductions to L ite ra tu re

This series is designed to introduce students to key topics and authors. Accessible and lively, these introductions will also appeal to readers who want to broaden tneir understanding of the books and authors they enjoy. • Ideal tor students, teachers and lecturers • Concise, yet packed with essential information • Key suggestions for further reading

Cover illustration: a detail from the 'Lindisfarne Gospels' © The British Library Board. C'otton Nero D. !V, fo. 29r.


J_ ll[

ISBN 978-0-52V73AÓ5-3

The Cambridge Introduction to

Anglo-Saxon Literature





The C am bridge In tro d u c tio n to

Anglo-Saxon Lite ratu re An approachable and stimulating introduction to Anglo-Saxon literature, this book provides indispensable guidance for students on this important and rewarding area of literary studies. The chapters are clearly organized by topic, and significant attention is paid to key individual works, including Beowulf, The Seafarer and writings by Bede. All textual quotations are translated into Modern English, with the original language texts carefully explained. The Introduction synthesizes and develops dominant approaches to Anglo-Saxon literature today, integrating Old English and Latin traditions, and placing the literature in larger historical and theoretical contexts. The structure, style and layout are attractive and user-friendly, including illustrative figures and textboxes, and Magennis provides guidance on resources for studying Anglo-Saxon literature, informing the reader of opportunities for investigating the subject further. Overall, the book enables a thorough understanding and appreciation of artful and eloquent works from a distant past, which still speak powerfully to people today. Hugh Magennis is Professor of Old English Literature and Director of the Institute of Theology at QueenJs University Belfast.

C a m b r id g e

C o n te n ts

U N IV E R S IT Y PR E SS University Printing House, Cambridge CB2 8BwS, United Kingdom One Liberty Plaza, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10006, USA 477 Williamstown Road, Port Melbourne, VIC] 3207, Australia 314-321,3rd Floor, Plot 3, Splendor Forum, Jasola District Centre, New Delhi - 110025, India 79 Anson Road, #06-04/06, Singapore 079906 Cambridge University Press is part o f the University of Cambridge. It furthers the University's mission by disseminating knowledge in the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.

List o f illustrations Preface Acknowledgements List o f abbreviations

page viii ix xi xii Information on this title : © Cambridge University Press 2011 This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place w ithoutthe written permission of Cambridge University Press. First published 2011 A catalogue record fo r this publication is available fro m the British Library Library o f Congress Cataloging in Publication data

Magennis, Hugh. The Cambridge introduction to Anglo-Saxon literature / Hugh Magennis. p. cm. - (Cambridge introductions to literature) Incluaes bibliographical references and index. ISBN 978-0-521-51947-2 (Hardback) - ISBN 978-0-521-73465-3 (Paperback) 1 . English literature-Old English, ca. 450-1100-History and criticism. 2. Civilization, Anglo-Saxon, in literature. 3. Civilization, Medieval, in literature. I. Title. PR173.M34 2011 829.09-dc22 2010046162 ISBN 978-0-521-51947-2 Hardback ISBN 978-0-521-73465-3 Paperback Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this publication, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.

Chapter 1 Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature Beginnings: Bede’s story of Caedmon Studying Anglo-Saxon literature: perspectives and perceptions Anglo-Saxon literary history: an outline Migration and after The early centuries of Christian Anglo-Saxon England Vikings, and the emergence of Wessex Later Anglo-Saxon England: the later tenth and eleventh centuries Caedmon's Hymn: reading an Old English poem Postscript: what’s in a name?: Anglo-Saxons, Anglo-Saxon and Old English

l 1 9 16 17 19 23 26 30 33

Chapter 2 Developing literary traditions


Old English poetry and its oral Germanic background Writings in Latin Bede Alcuin Aldhelm Other writers

36 45 47 49 50 52 v


Contents Writings in Old English prose The ninth century and writings associated with King Alfred ^Elfric and later prose writings Traditions of Christian poetry Postscript: Riddle 47: words oral and written

Chapter 3 Varieties of narrative Heroic poetry Action and the hero Beowulf Biblical literature: translations and adaptations in Old English 7wふ认 : a biblical adaptation in Old English verse The past and its meaning: writing history Bede^ Ecclesiastical History o f the English People The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Christian heroes: writing about the saints A virgin martyr: Juliana An English saint: vEltric^ Passion of St Edmund Postscript: gained in translation

Contents 53 56 62 66 73 76 77 79 82 84 93 96 103 110 116 123 127 130

Chapter 4 Belief, knowledge, experience: some non-narrative strands 133 Old English homilies Explaining scripture: on the Innocents Moral exhortation: Wulfstatfs Sermon o f the Wolf to the English Wisdom and lore The riddles of the Exeter Book Old English elegies Two secular elegies: W ulf and Eadwacer and The Wife's Lament Religious elegy: The Seafarer Postscript: genre and manuscripts

133 137 140 143 149 153 156 158 162

Chapter 5 Anglo-Saxon afterlives, medieval to modern: later uses and appropriations of Anqlo-Saxon writings Medieval continuities Early modern: recovering Anglo-Saxon England The long eighteenth century: history and politics Nineteenth- and twentieth-century perspectives Creative writers and Anglo-Saxon literature: from Wordsworth and Longfellow to Heaney and the present Postscript: Riddle 60 and The Husband's Message translated by ^ïaran Carson Appendix: resources for studying Anglo-Saxon literature Bibliography Index

165 166 168 172 175

179 187

190 195 212




1.1 Sutton Hoo shoulder clasp, one of an identical pair in the British Museum page 18 1.2 Map: England in the eighth century 20 1.3 Liber generationis: beginning of St Matthew's Gospel in the Lindisfarne Gospels: London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D. iv, f. 27r 22 1.4 Map: The Danelaw 24 1.5 St Dunstan's Classbook: drawing of St Dunstan kneeling before Christ: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Auct. F.4.32, f . l r 28 2.1 Map: Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain 38 2.2 Runes on the west face of theRuthwell Cross 39 2.3 Beginning of the Preface to the Pastoral Care. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hatton 20, f . l r 54 2.4 Map: Old English dialects 57 2.5 Exeter Book, end of Juliana: Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS Dean and Chapter 3501,f. 76r 71 3.1 Beginning of St John’s Gospel in the Lindisfarne Gospels*. London, British Library, MS Cotton Nero D. iv, f. 211r 89 3.2 Page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Parker Manuscript): Cambridge, Corpus Christi College Library, MS 173, f.10a 111 3.3 Benedictional of St ^Ethelwold: St Etheldreda: London, British Library, MS Add. 49598, f. 90v 119 4.1 Cotton Mappamundi: London, British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B. v, f. 56v 147

This book is primarily for readers with some background in literary studies but little or no knowledge of writings produced in Anglo-Saxon England. It is hoped that the book will also have interesting things to say to more advanced students but its guiding intention, in line with that of the Cambridge University Press series to which it belongs, is to open up the subject of Anglo-Saxon literature for those approaching it for the first time - while endeavouring not to ‘dumb down’ that subject in the process. The designation Anglo-Saxon literature is one that encompasses writings in *01d English1but also includes texts in the other literary language in use in the period, Latin. Latin was always the language of a small elite in AngloSaxon England but as the language of learning and of the Christian church it was the medium for some of the most important writers of the penoa. Ola English, the earliest form of the English language, was the vernacular lan­ guage of the Anglo-Saxons. English has undergone such profound changes in its history that Old English is largely incomprehensible today to those who have not studied it. Hence the need for translations in this book, from both languages. Quotations from the literature are mostly given here in Modem English but some glossed words and phrases in their original language are included and some longer passages are quoted in the original, with explana­ tory commentary. Old English literature has always attracted more literary critical attention than Anglo-Latin, and that balance of emphasis is reflected again in this book, but I aim to give more consideration to writings in the latter language than they have usually received in introductions to Anglo-Saxon literature in the past and to integrate treatment of Old English and Latin as much as possible. In the following pages I will also be setting out to give a sense of the issues that have particularly concerned critics, and do so especially today, providing an introduction therefore not simply to Anglo-Saxon literature but also to Anglo-Saxon literary studies. The first chapter flags up some of the major strands to be discussea later in the book, using a passage from the great Anglo-Saxon historian Bede as a




starting point. The chapter also presents a discussion of modern perspectives and perceptions of Anglo-Saxon literature and a concise outline of AngloSaxon literary, and cultural, history. Chapter 2 then offers a more detailed overview of what have been seen as the major literary traditions of the period, with sections on Old English poetry and its oral background (emanating as it does from pre-literate times), on traditions of Latin prose and poetry, on prose writings in the vernacular, and on the adaptation of Old English poetry to Christian uses. Chapters 3 and 4 look at kinds or genres of literature produced, the former chapter treating varieties of narrative, specifically heroic poetry, translations and adaptations of the Bible, history writing, and accounts of those Christian heroes, the saints, while the latter chapter surveys some non-narrative strands - sermons, writings of wisdom and lore, including riddles, and, a particularly attractive 'kind1 of Old English literature in modern critical perception, the so-called elegies. The final chapter considers Anglo-Saxon tafterlives,, later uses and appro­ priations of Anglo-Saxon England and its writings, from the Middle Ages onwards, including a section on creative writers from Wordsworth and Longfellow, via Tolkien, to Heaney and the present. Each chapter also has a number of text boxes and a 'postscript' on a particular topic related to the content of the chapter. The final postscript takes the form of a new verse translation by the distinguished poet Ciaran Carson. The volume ends with guidance on resources for studying Anglo-Saxon literature and a bibliography of works cited, both of which components offer possibilities and opportunities for taking the subject further, as I hope many readers will wish to do. In approaching Anglo-Saxon literature we come into contact with and try to understand artful and eloquent works from a distant past, which can still speak powerfully to people today. In a similar way the poet of the short Old English poem The Ruin considers the buildings left by a great former civilization and exclaims wonderingly that in creating these works from the past A mind instigated its quick-witted idea, ingenious in the use of ring(-pattern)s. [Mod monade myneswiftne gebraegd, hwsetred in hringas.] In the following pages, I hope to introduce readers to the mind(s) and ideas, quick-witted and otherwise, of Anglo-Saxon literature.

A c k n o w le d g e m e n ts

I would like to thank my friend and colleague Ivan Herbison for many enlightening discussions on topics relating to this book, which is the better for his wise advice. I also wish to thank for their constructive suggestions the anonymous readers for Cambridge University Press of earlier drafts of the book. At Cambridge University Press, I am particularly indebted to Sarah Stanton for her astute general guidance and to Rebecca Taylor and Liz Davey for steering the book through production. One section in Chapter 3 of this book draws upon material from Hugh Magennis, Germanic Legend and Old English Heroic Poetry', in Corinne Saunders (ed.), A Companion to Medieval Poetry, © Wiley-Blackwell(2010), reproduced with permission of the editor and publisher. The List of Illustrations provides descriptions of maps and images used in the book. I wish to thank individuals and institutions for granting permission to include this material. Illustration 1.1 is © The Trustees of the British Museum. 1.3, 3.1,3.3 and 4.1 are © The British Library B oard.1.5 and 2.3 are reproduced with the permission of The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. 2.5 is reproduced with the permission of Bernard J. Muir; acknow­ ledgement for this image is also due to Exeter Cathedral Library as the custodian of the original manuscript. 3.2 is reproduced with the permission of The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. I am very grateful to Ciaran Carson for producing translations of the Old English poems The Husband's Message and Riddle 60 for this book. Ciaran Carson retains the copyright for these translations. Ï understand the quota­ tion of other copyright material in the book to fall within the terms of 'fair dealing' for the purposes of criticism and I have limited such quotation to a small proportion of the text of any one work. The sources of translations from Anglo-Saxon and related texts are indi­ cated in references in parenthesis. Unattributed translations are my own.

A b b r e v ia t io n s

C h a p te r 1

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, ed. Krapp and Dobbie Early English Text Society Original Series Supplementary Series Manuscript(s) Publications o f the Modern Language Association of America

B eginnings: Bede's story o f Caedm on

1 9

Studying Anglo-Saxon literature: perspectives and perceptions A n g lo -S a x o n lite ra ry history: an o u tlin e M ig r a tio n a n d a fte r



T h e early c en tu ries o f C h ristian A n g lo -S a x o n E n g lan d V ikin g s, a n d th e e m e rg e n c e o f W essex



Later A n g lo -S a x o n E ng lan d : th e la te r te n th a n d e le v e n th cen tu ries


Caedm on's Hymn: re a d in g an O ld English p o e m


Postscript: w h a t ’s in a nam e?: A n g lo -S axo n s, A n g lo -S a x o n a n d O ld English


A world of literature has survived from Anglo-Saxon England, wide-ranging in subject matter and varied in literary approach. The literature encompasses (among other things) exciting tales of heroic action about Beowulf and other legendary figures, expressions of Christian teaching, meditations on the great questions of life and death, and ingenious and playful compositions. In it the secular is creatively combined with the spiritual and the unserious can be startlingly mixed with the serious. Developing over the course of half a millen­ nium and composed in two languages, Latin and Old English, Anglo-Saxon literature has proved endlessly interesting to those who know it and offers new 110rizons for those coming to it for the firsttime. The present chapter presents an introduction to this Introduction, working in the first instance from the particu­ lar to the general in the opening section and then going on to put together historical and contextualizing frameworks for approaching the rest of the book.

Beginnings: Bede’s story of Caedmon A famous episode from Bede5s Ecclesiastical History of the English People may serve to flag up some of the dominant themes in the study of Anglo-Saxon Xll


Cam btid/ß

to Anglo-Saxon Literature

literature th»t thli book «cplorei. The passage tells the story of the poet Caedmorii whom Bede presents as the first person to compose Christian poetry in the Englilh UngUAge. For Bede, Caedmon is an originary and transformative figure. Bede (c 673-735), a Northumbrian monk, was an intellectual leader of the early medieval world, a prolific and influential writer, in Latin, in the tradition of Christian scholarship inherited from the great 'fathers* of the church of earlier centuries. In the Ecclesiastical History he tells the story of the early history of Anglo-Saxon England and in particular of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons from Germanic paganism to Chris­ tianity, and conversion is at the core of his story of Caedmon.

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


d ig n ity . W h e n he a w o k e , he re m e m b e re d all th a t he h a d s u n g w h ile asleep a nd soon a d d e d m o re verses in th e sam e m a n n e r, p ra is in g G o d in fitt in g style. In th e m o rn in g he w e n t to th e reeve w h o w a s his m aster, te llin g h im o f th e g if t

he h ad received, a n d th e reeve to o k h im t o th e abbess. He w a s th e n b id d e n to describe his d re a m in th e presence o f a n u m b e r o f th e m o re le a rn e d m e n a n d also t o re cite his song so th a t th e y m ig h t all e x a m in e h im a n d d e c id e u p o n th e n a tu re a nd o rig in o f th e g if t o f w h ic h he sp o ke ; a n d it seem ed clea r to all o f th e m th a t th e Lord h ad g ra n te d h im hea ve n ly grace. T hey th e n read t o h im a passage o f sacred h is to ry o r d o c trin e , b id d in g h im t o m a ke a song o u t o f it, if he c o u ld , in m e tric a l fo r m . He u n d e rto o k th e ta s k a n d w e n t a w a y; o n re tu rn in g n e x t m o rn in g

he re p e a te d th e passage he h a d been g ive n , w h ic h he had p u t in to e xc e lle n t verse. The abbess, w h o re c o g n iz e d th e g ra c e o f G o d w h ic h th e m a n h a d received, in s tru c te d h im to re n o u n c e his secular h a b it a n d t o ta k e m o n a s tic v o w s . She a n d

B e d e 's a c c o u n t o f t h e p o e t C aed m o n

all h e r p e o p le received h im in to th e c o m m u n ity o f th e b ro th e rs a n d o rd e re d th a t

In th e m o n a s te ry o f th is abbess [H ild ] th e re w a s a c e rta in b ro th e r w h o w as specially

c o u ld b y lis te n in g to th e m a n d th e n , like som e d e a n a n im a l c h e w in g th e cu d , he

m a rk e d o u t b y th e g ra ce o f G o d , so th a t he used t o co m p o s e g o d ly a nd re lig io u s

tu rn e d it in to th e m o s t m e lo d io u s verse: a n d it s o u n d e d so s w e e t as he re cite d it

songs; th u s w h a te v e r he lea rn e d fr o m th e h o ly S criptures by m eans o f in te rp re te rs ,

th a t his te a ch e rs b e ca m e in tu r n his a u d ie n ce . (Bede, History, IV, 2 4 ; trans.

he q u ic k ly tu rn e d in to e x tre m e ly d e lig h tfu l a n d m o v in g p o e try in English, w h ic h

C olg ra ve a n d M y n o rs 1 9 6 9 , pp. 4 1 5 -1 9 )

he s h o u ld b e in s tru c te d in th e w h o le course o f sacred h is to ry . He le a rn e d all he

w a s his o w n to n g u e . By his songs th e m in d s o f m a n y w e re o fte n in sp ire d to despise th e w o rld a n d to lo n g fo r th e hea ve n ly life. It is tru e th a t a fte r h im o th e r E n g lish m e n a tte m p te d to co m p o se re lig io u s poem s, b u t n o n e c o u ld c o m p a re w ith h im . For he d id n o t learn th e a rt o f p o e try fr o m m e n o r th r o u g h a m an b u t he received th e g if t o f song fre e ly by th e gra ce o f G od. H ence he c o u ld never co m p o s e a n y fo o lis h o r triv ia l p o e m b u t o n ly th o s e w h ic h w e re c o n ce rn e d w ith d e v o tio n a n d so w e re f itt in g f o r his d e v o u t to n g u e t o u tte r. He had lived in th e se cu la r h a b it u n til he w a s w e ll a d va n ce d in years a n d he ne ve r lea rn e d a n y songs. H ence s o m e tim e s a t a fe a st, w h e n fo r th e sake o f p ro v id in g e n te rta in m e n t it had b e e n d e c id e d th a t th e y s h o u ld all sing in tu r n , w h e n he s a w th e h a rp a p p ro a c h in g h im , he w o u ld rise u p in th e m id d le o f th e fe a s tin g , g o o u t a n d re tu rn h o m e . O n o n e such o cca sio n w h e n he d id so, he le ft th e place o f fe a s tin g a n d w e n t to th e c a ttle byre, as it w a s his tu r n t o ta k e c h a rg e o f th e c a ttle th a t n ig h t. In d u e tim e he s tre tc h e d h im s e lf o u t and w e n t t o sleep, w h e re u p o n he d re a m t th a t so m e o n e s to o d b y h im , sa lu te d h im , a n d ca lle d h im b y nam e: 'C a e d m o n / he said, #sing m e s o m e th in g / C aedm on a n s w e r e d ,1 c a n n o t sing; th a t is w h y I le ft th e fe a st a nd ca m e h e re because I c o u ld n o t s in g / O n ce a g a in th e sp e a ke r said, ^Nevertheless y o u m u s t sing to m e .’ 'W h a t m u s t I sin g ? ’ said C aedm on. ’ S in g ’ , he said, 'a b o u t th e b e g in n in g o f c re a te d t h in g s / T h e re u p o n C aedm on b e g a n to sing verses w h ic h he h a d n e v e r h e a rd b e fo re in praise o f G o d th e C re a to r, o f w h ic h th is is th e g e n e ra l sense :#N o w w e m u s t praise th e M a k e r o f th e h e a ve n ly k in g d o m , th e p o w e r o f th e C re a to r a n d his co u n se l, th e deeds o f th e Father o f g io ry a nd h o w he, since he is th e e te rn a l G o d , w a s th e A u th o r o f a ll m arvels a n d firs t created th e heavens as a ro o f fo r th e ch ild re n o f m e n a n d th e n , th e a lm ig h ty G u a rd ia n o f th e h u m a n race, cre a te d th e e a r t h / This is th e sense b u t n o t th e o rd e r o f th e w o rd s w h ic h h e sang as he slep t. For it is n o t possible to tra n s la te verse, h o w e v e r w e ll c o m p o s e d , lite ra lly fr o m o n e la n g u a g e to a n o th e r w ith o u t so m e loss o f b e a u ty and

Caedmon the simple cowherd becomes Caedmon the inspirational poet. Bedels chapter goes on to say that he eventually ^ang* (canebat) the story of the whole of the Book of Genesis and that he also related many other events from the Old Testament, as well as covering Christ^ life and death and manyother aspects of Christian teaching. None of these other compositions of Caedmon has survived and we do not know how many of them Bede knew himself, but for him C^dm on^ poetry represents a beginning, and a divinely inspired one: many other poets came after Caedmon, Bede reports, though none could compare with him. Bede’s narrative of Caedmon and his poem (the poem is usually referred to as Caedmon^ Hymn) is an engaging one in which an account of a wondrous episode is combined with a strong element of human interest. For a modern reader new to Anglo-Saxon literature the passage is likely to be somewhat disconcerting in the way that it brings together history and miracle, but this defamiliarizing feature is also useful in suggesting the differentness as well as the accessibility of early medieval writings; we will find that in many ways these writings challenge, and indeed problematize, modern assumptions about literature. Seamus Heaney, whose translation of Beowulf has probably done more than any other publication in recent times to stimulate popular interest in the poem, and by extension in Anglo-Saxon literature more widely, refers to Beowulf as 'a work of the greatest imaginative vitality, a masterpiece*


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

but also as a tremote, work (Heaney 1999, pp. ix, xii, respectively). Bede5s History could also be described as ca work of the greatest imaginative vitality, a masterpiece' and it too is in essential ways different, and demote5, from modern experience. One recent commentator on the History^ while insisting that it is a great work, advises, *It is far more constructive to read Bede as representative of a quite foreign community, distant and strange, whose thought world should be approached with caution' (Higham 2006, p. 48). In the particular case of the Csedmon story Bede gives us a 'myth of origins5 which, though it undoubtedly simplifies the story of the beginning of Christian poetry in Old English, throws interesting light on a key literary development in the period. The passage may be used conveniently, if somewhat impressionistically, to highlight other important issues of concern to readers of Anglo-Saxon literature as well as that of defamiliarization and accessibility, just mentioned. Points about Anglo-Saxon literature arising from our passage for us to bear in mind from the beginning include the following: Old English and Latin: The bulk of the texts discussed in this book were composed in Old English, but it is important also to pay attention to Latin literature. Latin too was a literary language in early medieval England; indeed Bede’s iïisto/y itself must be seen as one of the great literary monuments of the age. Writings in Old English have certainly been perceived as representing the most distinctive and the most significant body of literature from the AngloSaxon world but Latin, the language of learning, produced works that are of the highest interest in their own right as well as providing an important background for Old English literature. In this book the term 'Old English literature1is used to refer to writings in the vernacular, while the broader term *Anglo-Saxon literature' should be understood to include Latin writings as well. Translation: This point about two languages alerts us to the central importance of translation in Anglo-Saxon literary culture. Christian Latin texts and Christian Latin traditions are translated, adapted and appropriated by vernacular poets and prose writers. At the end of the ninth century BedeJs History was itself translated into Old English prose (for the Old English text of the Csedmon episode, see Marsden 2004, pp. 76-85). In our quoted passage we see a notable instance of translation in the story of Caedmon: according to Bede, Csedmon, who has no direct access to religious writings in Latin, is instructed by 'interpreters5and then brings forth sweet poetry 'in his own tongue, that is the language of the English5. Interestingly, however, in Bede we get Caedmon^ Hymn not in Old English but translated into Latin; some manuscripts of the History also include the poem in Old English (written in the margin, and the Old English version also appears in the Old

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


English translation of the History), and indeed scholars still debate whether this Old English text is in fact Caedmon^ original poem or a back-translation of Bede’s Latin. As will be brought out particularly in Chapter 3, especially with reference to the Bible, to translate is inevitably to change (a topic touched on by Bede at the end of the second paragraph of our passage above); the process of translation changes the source text, and the effect of the translation is to change the receiving culture, a double-sided 'conversion5 taking place. It would not be overstating things to say that the impact of translation decisively shaped Old English literature; translation contributed crucially to the ways in which it developed. And the fact that the study of the Latin sources of Old English texts figures centrally in the work of Anglo-Saxonists (as will be apparent in later chapters) can be seen as reflecting the importance to the discipline of ideas of translation in its broadest sense. Ovality and textuality: A third point that is brought out by the passage from Bede concerns the oral origin and dimension of Old English poetry, a topic to be explored further in Chapter 2. Caedmon performs his poetry orally ('then he began to sing verses which he had never heard before') and he composes it orally. Miraculously in a dream, he acquires mastery of the demanding structures and techniques of an experienced traditional oral poet, including alliterative metre and the formulaic language that makes oral composition possible. In the story of Caedmon orality meets textuality, as the ‘interpreters’ transmit to him written Christian teaching and he recasts it in ‘extremely delightful and moving poetic language’. For Csedmon’s poetry to be preserved for posterity it would have had to be written down and we don^ know to what extent that happened with his work. But when something is written down it is also largely fixed in a particular form, whereas oral performance is by definition fluid and variable. Old English poetry was written down, of course (otherwise we could not read it today), a develop­ ment that represents a key cultural transition. It is thought that most surviving Old English poetic texts are literate compositions (rather than transcriptions of oral performances) but they still make use of the same kind of oral-derived poetic art that gave form to Caedmon's poetry. Old English prose: Another point arising out of examination of the Bede passage concerns the tradition(s) of Old English prose. I noted above that Bede^ History v/^s among the Latin works translated into Old English prose, in the late ninth century. The establishment of Old English prose as a medium for the expression of sophisticated intellectual thought is among the most signifi­ cant literary developments of the Anglo-Saxon period. As explained more fully in Chapter 2, the instigation of the process is traditionally associated with


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

King Alfred of Wessex, though the emphasis on Alfred (reflecting what looks like another myth of origins) somewhat oversimplifies the situation. The establishment of literary prose in Old English involves the fashioning of an appropriate vocabulary and syntax and eventually the formation, in a period of great dialectal diversity, of a standard literary language. Bede, a foundational figure in the construction of Englishness, has Caedmon singing poetry in ‘English’ but the English he composed in was his native Northumbrian; later in the period the language of Wessex would emerge as the literary language for England as a whole,‘England, in the later Anglo-Saxon centuries being a political concept that can be applied more convincingly than in the age of Bede. The surviving corpus of Old English prose is many times larger than that of verse and includes much material of great literary as well as historical interest. And, integrating prose with characteristics of verse, in the writings of the most prolific and accomplished producer of Old English prose,疋 lfric of Eynsham (c. 9 6 5 -c.1010), a style lucidly expressive of intellectual discourse combines with rhythmical and alliterative features derived from the indigenous tradition of Old English poetry. Manuscript transmission: As stated above, written literature is largely fixed, whereas oral literature is fluid and variable. It should be noted, however, that in the manuscript culture of Anglo-Saxon England texts were ^ e d 1 to a much lesser degree than they are today in the age of print. Even Latin texts are subject to some deliberate variation, not to mention acci­ dental error. For example, some copies of our passage from Bede begin (111 this monastery of Streanaeshalch [Whitby]5, not (In the monastery of this abbess5. With Old English texts the potential for variation is very much greater, since these writings were often, in the case of prose, texts for use which could be changed and adapted to suit particular purposes (we will see that ^Elrric tries, unsuccessfully, to insulate his writings from such reappro­ priation), while in the case of verse the formulaic aspect of the poetic language in itself facilitated variation in copying by scribes who were tuned in to the poetic language. In the copies of the Old English Caedmon's Hymn, for example, there is variation at one point between Bede’s ‘children of men’ and 'children of earth' (Old English celda barnum versus eoröan bearnum, both of which phrases are metrically and semantically possible); copies of C^dm on^ Hymn also show dialect variation: we have versions in Old Northumbrian but the poem was also 'translated' into the West Saxon dialect, which became dominant later (see O’Donnell 2005). In practice most Ola English poems exist in only one manuscript copy but since there are theoretical issues about the status of texts in the period the modern editorial concept of the ‘best’ text of a work is difficult to apply.

Approacnmg Anglo-Saxon literature


Christian and secular: Caedmon's poetry also opens the way for the inter­ action of Christian and secular values and ideas in Old English poetry, an important theme in the chapters that follow. Cgedmon applies the traditional Old English poetic art, inherited from the pagan Germanic past, to a Chris­ tian subject matter, thereby giving a new form to the subject matter. As well as providing a metrical form, that art brings with it a repertoire of themes and associations from the secular world. Casdmorfs Hymn is too undevel­ oped to illustrate fully the potential- and indeed the problems - of this interaction, which was one that involved tension and contradiction, reflecting inherent differences between Christian teaching and the views and outlook of Germanic poetry, with its preoccupation with the heroic deeds and values of this world. Old English poetry ranges from purely secular poems of heroism and violence set in a warrior society, the kind of thing that Bede would regard (as he puts it in our passage) as foolish and triviaF poetry, to religious narratives and treatises that directly express Christian teaching. In between are writings that incorporate elements from both traditions, and such writings include what have been seen as some of the most interesting works in the Anglo-Saxon corpus. As explained more fully in Chapter 2, poems like The Dream of the Rood, which portrays Christ going to his death like a young hero preparing for battle, and The Seafarer, which transforms heroic glory into striving for heaven, exploit the intersections and the radical disjunctions between Christian and secular in masterful ways. A monastic dimension: Bearing upon a number of these previous points (particularly, perhaps, the immediately preceding one) is the fact of the monastic and, more broadly, Christian milieu of much Anglo-Saxon litera­ ture. Most of the scribal work in the period was done in monastic scriptoria, ‘writing-houses’. It is not surprising therefore that religious themes figure so prominently. The Anglo-Saxon literature we have was in a sense self-selected: what got written down and preserved was what was perceived to be relevant to those who controlled and participated in the textual culture of the time. A key figure in the history of Old English prose, King Alfred, came from secular society but even he had his clerical/monastic advisers and guides and much of the writing associated with him has a religious dimension. This monastic milieu is illustrated in Bede^ story of Caedmon in his History. Bede himself writes his History from a monastic point of view, telling an 'EcclesiasticaV History in which religious figures loom large: his greatest English hero of all is the Northumbrian monk and bishop Cuthbert. The poet Caedmon is absorbed into the monastic life under the maternal care of the abbess Hild, secular becoming religious. This monastic dimension of Anglo-Saxon literature being the case, it is notable that so much secular


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

literature was also preserved. Why were monks interested in reading about the feats of secular heroes, as in Beowulf, and why interested in outpourings of grief and longing arising from love between the sexes, as in The Wife's Lament and Wulf and Eadwaceri Why would they want to preserve in precious books Old English riddles not only about the wonder of the world but also having graphically sexual double meanings? We are glad that they did, but the variety and range of surviving literature should alert us> while taking account of the scribal context in which the literature was produced, to the danger of oversimplifying the culture(s) of the time. The historical picture is one of complexity. Old English poetry: 'beauty and dignity': A final observation arising from consideration of the Bede passage concerns the aesthetic quality of Old English poetry. Bede insists on the beauty of Caedmon's verse, which is 'extremely delightful and moving'; he acknowledges that his Latin trans­ lation cannot convey its 'beauty and dignity1 {decoris ac dignitatis). Cffidmon^ poetry may not have survived (apart from, perhaps, the Hymn), but Bede’s description can fittingly be applied to much of the Old English verse that has come down to us. This verse was deeply appreciated in its own day, being copied and recopied into manuscripts in some cases over many generations. And the qualities of Old English poetry, its power and expressiveness and its cleverness and artistry, are among the chief things that modern readers value in it. The poetry tells us much about the AngloSaxon world but it is also deeply appealing as poetry, having richness, variety and artfulness. Now, many readers of the present book will have little or no knowledge of Old English, which means that we have to rely mostly on translations in illustrating the literature. Here we are caught in the bind that Bede identified nearly thirteen hundred years ago: *For it is not possible to translate verse, however well composed, literally from one language to another without some loss of beauty and dignity/ Translations are necessary but, particularly in the case of verse, inadequate. We have to live with this reality for the purposes of this book but as we proceed I will also include some short passages in the original with explanatory commen­ tary, which I hope will give readers some immediate sense of the distinctive qualities of this enthralling literature. It would be possible to bring out other important considerations relevant to Anglo-Saxon literature by means of reference to our passage from Bede. The point about Bede’s identification of Caedmon’s language as ‘English’ and, more generally, about Bede's role in the construction of Englishness could certainly have been developed further, and perceptions of identity, including linguistic identity, will be a topic that will inevitably come up in

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


liter discussion. Related to this question of identity would be the observa: tlon that Caedmon’s name is actually not Anglo-Saxon but ‘British’, which Opens up the fraught subject of relations between Anglo-Saxons and Britons in the early Anglo-Saxon centuries, and therefore also that of the make-up 〇f the ‘English people’ in that period. Other features that I could have picked up on in the story of Caedmon include the presence of a female tuthority figure in a society that is often characterized as strongly 〜 patriarchal. Also, a more narrowly literary point, the passage includes a Mream vision’, a type of narrative represented elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon literature, most famously in the poem The Dream of the Rood. And indeed there may well be features that readers have noticed that I have not mentioned at all. The passage from Bede is an interesting narrative in its Own right but it also provides a suggestive point of entrance into the wider •ubject of Anglo-Saxon literature. My discussion of it has by no means exhausted its critical possibilities.

Studying Anglo-Saxon literature: perspectives and perceptions This book is histoncist in its approach to the literature that it deals with. It seeks an understanding and appreciation of the literature in relation to the mstorical omtext atid circumstances of its production and reception. In this respect the book places itself very much in the mainstream of current critical thinking in the Add of Anglo-Saxon literary studies, and indeed historicizing approaches of one kind or another have been dominant throughout the history of the discipline. Understanding and appreciation of the literature of the past, especially of the feirly remote past, is inevitably provisional and incomplete, of course, but particularly in recent decades knowledge about Anglo-Saxon England and about its place in the early medieval world has increased greatly, throwing new light on the literature in exciting ways and adding to the foundational work of previous scholarship. As one senior scholar put it, writing in 1995, What we know about the Anglo-Saxons has increased so dramatically since 1950 that those of us who became interestea m them before then can only blink with astonishment at the advances in our knowledge of their language, their literature, their mstory, their culture, their material circumstances, their way of life, and their attitudes to life and the mysteries which lie beyond it. (Mitchell 1995, p. 99) The Anglo-Saxon period is no longer the ‘dark age’ to critics that it once was. But of course we still have not stopped learning about it; new discoveries are


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

still being made about the literature and about the historical context - as I write this book the first stunning reports of the newly discovered Stafford­ shire Hoard* of Anglo-Saxon gold artefacts are coming out - and there is still much to discover. Indeed, even the basic work of the recovery and editing of texts continues: although most surviving texts had been printed and were receiving critical attention by the end of the nineteenth century (and much earlier in some cases), there are still some that have not yet been published or that exist only in very unsatisfactory and out-of-date editions. Anglo-Saxon studies have been going for a long time but for those in the field, with previous work being reassessed, new information being processed and new scholarly tools coming to the fore, it has the feel of a young and expanding subject. And with a literature as inexhaustibly rich, and in many cases as enigmatic, as that of Anglo-Saxon England there will always be issues of cognition and interpretation which will remain open and indeterminate, particularly in the poetry. As explained below, even short poem like Casdmorfs Hymn falls into this category in a number of ways. The basis of a historicist approach to literature is the principle of the 'situatedness5 of the literary work in a historical context. What also distin­ guishes current historicist thinking, however, is a self-conscious awareness that the critic is also situated in a particular historical context and that history is constantly being revised and reconceived. The emphases of Anglo-Saxon studies in the past have reflected and contributed to larger cultural preoccupations and have changed as these cultural preoccupations have changed. In earlier centuries Anglo-Saxon literary studies participated in ideological constructions of national and religious identity, for example, while today they tend to problematize such constructions. And while much work in Anglo-Saxon studies still follows traditional approaches and meth­ odologies, current scholarship also engages productively with contemporary critical and cultural issues and indeed has been in the forefront of key methodological developments, notably perhaps in the area of the application of digital technology and its theory (see, particularly, Foys 2007). Anglo-Saxon studies have moved on from earlier paradigms, but in some quarters perceptions of them have not moved on in the same way, so that for some critics the discipline remains tarred with the brush of previous reputa­ tion. Terry Eagleton has recently written that ßeoww//Ultimately retains its pride of place in English studies mainly due to its function, from the Victorian period forward, as the cultural tool of a troubling nationalist romance with an archetypal and mythological past5 (Eagleton 1999, p . 16). Eagleton is writing about Beowulf in particular but would doubtless apply the same sentiments to Anglo-Saxon literature as a whole. He is seeing Beowulf as

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


tainted by dubious nationalist and imperialist associations, whereas in fact it is possible - and indeed essential- to get beyond these in our study of the poem and of the wider literature. It is true to say that from early on in its modern history Beowulf acquired a national and institutional status that made it something of a sacred cow of English literary history and that it retains a kind of canonical position in English studies which can be legitim­ ately questioned. For many English students down the generations Beowulf was all the Anglo-Saxon literature they encountered and, to quote the critic and translator Michael Alexander, they tended to view it as ca sort of dinosaur in the entrance hall of English Literature, (Alexander 1973, p . 10). Beowulf is not conceived of in these ways in todayJs scholarship. If any­ thing, Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon texts have been used to undermine inherited constructions, including, as illustrated most strikingly in Seamus Heaney's Beoww//translation, constructions of nationality and literary trad­ ition. Heaney recognizes the role that Beowulf and other early English writings have played m the development of a national, English, literature, but in translating it he makes it something else. He writes from an Irish and a postcolonial experience, not an English one, and he addresses his translation of the poem to the readership of the ‘global village’ ( Heaney 1999, p. xiii) rather than appealing to shared cultural origins. Michael Alexander, writing in the 1970s, reflects unicultural perceptions when he writes of Beowulf^s standing 4at the beginning of our literature* (Alexander 1973, p . 10); for Heaney such a concept of 4our literature5 would be problematic: who is the our here? Who does it include, and who does it exclude? Heaney5s engage­ ment with Beowulf raises issues of language and identity and of cultural connections, and this can be said of the study of Anglo-Saxon texts more widely (see further, Magennis 2011). A dominant historicist approach of Anglo-Saxon studies as they devel­ oped over the past two hundred years, and one that can be seen to have influenced Eagleton's troubled perception, was that of philology. Philology might be defined as the systematic study of the language of the past from a historical and comparative perspective and m relation to other evidence about culture. Philology was conceived of as a science of language. It was interested in language as an autonomous system and sought through rigor­ ous analysis to reveal the underlying 'laws^ that operated in it across time and space. Building on the study of Latin and Greek from the Renaissance period onwards, philology came to fruition in the 1800s; its classic method0 1 0 gy was developed in the romantic era and refined thereafter, chiefly in Germany. From Germany it was imported into Britain, with considerable reservations there about the desirability of this ^German-made* science


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(Shippcy 2005» p . 10), and into America, more enthusiastically (Frantzen 1990; Hall 2001) . Philology’s project was fostered in Germany by national pride about the past and philology itself fostered such pride, seeing early texts as expressing ethnic origins and ethnic identity; philology played a key role in the development of ideas of Germanness, which were increasingly expressed, with considerable stridency in some quarters, as the century went on (Benes 2008). Philology became increasingly marginalized in the twenti­ eth century, but it served as a basis for more current approaches and its techniques are still seen as providing essential tools for editors and lexicog­ raphers. Without philology we would not have recovered Old English literature to the extent that we have, and we wouldn’t be able to read it and other medieval literature competently. The trouble that many twentieth-century and earlier (see Palmer 1965, pp. 79-84) literary students had with philology was that it was not able to discuss literature as literature (an observation, it might be added, that could equally be made of'new historicism, today). The critic Frank Kermode recalls that when he was studying Old English in the 1940s the interests of the teachers were 'exclusively philological and antiquarian': texts were rarely examined as literature by these teachers but 'provided them with a great variety of complicated scholarly problems, and it was in these that they wanted to involve their students5 (Kermode 2001,p. 2). One of the great exponents of philology was J. R. R. Tolkien, who once wrote, C1 like history, and am moved by it, but its finest moments for me are those in which it throws light on words and names!5 (quoted in Shippey 2005, p . 18). To unsympathetic outsiders such interest in the minutiae of language could be portrayed as pedantry which failed to see the wood for the trees, but in philology small observations could lead to far-reaching conclusions, and philology demonstrably provided remarkable insight into the study of the past. Tom Shippey has written recently of 4the immense stretch of the philological imagination' (Shippey 2005, p. 21). It has become increasingly recognized, indeed, that nineteenth-century philology provided a foundation for the 'linguistic turn, that brought language to the centre of intellectual debate in the twentieth century. For Michel Foucault philology modified 'the whole mode of being of language5 (Foucault 2002 [original edition 1966], p. 306), thereby transforming the basis of knowledge. As Tuska Benes points out, (The constructivist understanding of language that itself underlies Foucault’s philosophy has deep roots in nineteenth-century Germany’ (Benes 2008, p. 294) (according to constructivist theories, language shapes human experience and thought rather than being a passive instrument controlled by the speaker).

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


J. R. R. Tolkien is widely known today as the creator of enduringly popular fantasy literature but he was also one of the major figures in Anglo-Saxon literary studies in the twentieth century, his background in medieval English and in philology providing indeed an essential foundation for his fiction. An academic publication by Tolkien in 1936 proved to be a turning point in the study of Beowulf and by extension of Old English literature. This was his essay (based on a lecture) 'Beowulf. The Monsters and the Critics', in which, arch-philologist though he was, Tolkien argued that Beowulf should be read as a great poem, not just as a philologically interesting document. It would be oversimplifying things to say that Tolkien^ essay was the beginning of the literary study of Old English texts but it certainly succeeded in getting scholars to think differently about Beowulf. It is after the Second World War that concentrated literary study of Old English poetic texts takes off, and literary interpretation becomes a central interest (see Magennis 2011, pp. 73-5). The period after the Second World War also saw the advent of two approaches to literature that were non-historicist in their underlying principles, formulaic studies and formalism. Formulaic studies taught that Old English poetry was orally composed and that the poets systematically used ready-made verbal formulas and formula systems as an integral part of their compositional technique (Magoun 1953), a theory that presented a consider­ able challenge to conventional critical assumptions. Formulaic theory was impacting on Anglo-Saxon studies at about the same time as formal criticism became influential in literary criticism, particularly through the writings of the American 'New Critics3. Formal criticism involved the close reading of literary texts as organic unities in which the precise words and their order determined the unique meaning of the work of art. Both of these schools, diametrically opposite in their approach to literature, affected the study of Old English poetry, though in their application both needed to be modified: it came to be recognized that poetry could have a formulaic character without necessarily being oral (Benson 1966), while formalists had to take the formulaic character of the poetry on board in close reading of texts (e.g., S. B. Greenfield 1955). The best critics of Old English poetrywriting today are good close readers but also sensitive to the effect of formulaic tradition and indeed, as mentioned in the previous section, of textuality upon that tradition. In our present period the concern of the New Critics with formal unity and with the idea of the poem as a 'well-wrought urn, (to refer to the title of a classic text of formalism, Brooks 1947) has been replaced for many scholars by an interest in the contradictions, tensions and instabilities that


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

can be discerned in texts. To discern these requires close reading, of course: deconstructionists as well as formalists have to be good close readers. In current historicist approaches to Anglo-Saxon literature close reading is often used to bring out the complexities and frictions of a changing histor­ ical picture. Among other features distinctive of Anglo-Saxon literary studies today is ä concern with the manuscript context of particular texts, which tended not to receive due attention in the past; the manuscript context provides crucial information of how texts were used and understood in the period. Today detailed attention is paid too to such prose writings as homilies and saints5 lives, which had been relatively neglected by previous scholarship but which were major literary forms in the period and tell us much about Anglo-Saxon 'attitudes', as well as being interesting in their own right. And the Latin literature of the period is being studied alongside the Old English literature to a greater extent than happened in previous generations, reflecting the understanding that both literatures are intimately interrelated and are expres­ sions of a larger common culture. Finally, to mention one other distinctive feature of Anglo-Saxon literary studies today, it used to be thought that texts that came from after 1066 or a bit later were not of much interest to Old English scholars, but it is now recognized that (01d English' culture con­ tinued at some level down to the thirteenth century: post-Conquest English vernacular literature is now being reassessed and is recognized as throwing new light on the history of the time (see Swan and Treharne, eds., 2000; Treharne 2006). Before concluding this section there is one possible impediment or limita­ tion to historically based criticism of Anglo-Saxon literature that we need to take account of. We are able to locate much of the literature, particularly the prose literature, in fairly narrow historical contexts that are defined and reasonably well understood. Granted, there are plenty of anonymous Old English prose texts that we still cannot place temporarily or geographically and some that we may never be able to, but the bulk of the major prose works can be placed confidently in specific contexts, as can most Anglo-Latin literature. It is, rather, Old English poetry that presents insurmountable problems in terms of origin and provenance. This is partly because Old English poetry is overwhelmingly anonymous and partly because it mostly survives in versions written in ‘standard’ West Saxon, a form of language in which texts that were non-West-Saxon in origin (like Caedmon's Hymny for example) were transmitted, as well as West Saxon ones. But the crucial difficulty in dating Old English poetry stems from the inherent character

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


of the poetry itself. This character of Old English poetry has recently been well summed up by Elizabeth Tyler, who refers to the 'timelessness1 of the poetry (Tyler 2006, p. 3). Rather than seeking to relate their work to a specific time (or place) Old English poets cultivated a quality of timeless­ ness, a quality that is reflected, for example, in an attachment to archaic diction. Poets certainly influenced each other but the underlying poetic diction and stylistic conventions that they employed remained stable over many centuries and poets actively worked to ensure that they continued to be so. As Tyler puts it, this stylistic stability was not just a matter of the passive adoption of tradition on the part of poets: 'the distinctive conven­ tionality of Old English verse was sustained by the active choice of poets to use convention, rather than being generated by tradition’ ( Tyler 2006, p. 5). We know that The Battle of Maldon was composed after 991 since that was the date of the battle that the poem commemorates. There are some features in the language of The Battle of Maldon (ed. Marsden 2004, pp. 251-69) which might be seen as reflecting its lateness5 but generally the poem has that quality of timelessness referred to above: it does not set out to present itself as a post-991 poem. As for Beowulf, dates of compos­ ition have been proposed ranging from the seventh century to the early eleventh (the unique manuscript of Beowulf comes from the early eleventh century) and there is no real consensus on the topic among Beowulf specialists today. Agnosticism reigns with reference to the dating of most other poems as well, though some of them must have come before others (there is evidence that the poet of the verse saints life Andreas knew Beowulfi for example: Riedinger 1993, Jagger 2002). We can still apply historicist approaches to Old English poetry in broad terms, however, and can view the poetry as reflecting ideas and ideals which must have continued to be perceived as relevant throughout much of the Anglo-Saxon period. But, becoming more specific, if we cannot identify the date of origin of most Old English poems, we are able fairly precisely to date the manuscripts in which they have come down to us. We can thus identify at least one reception context for any given poem in the period, that of when we know that it was being read (and read out) in a particular manuscript. As it happens, all the major extant manuscripts of Old English poetry date from late Anglo-Saxon England, from the later tenth and early eleventh centuries, a fact that in itself bears out the longevity of the poetic tradition and also provides evidence that the tradition was valued as speaking relevantly to the concerns of that age, including (as we have seen) those of people in religious life. Old English poetry was inherited by the late Anglo-Saxon period, being read, no doubt,


Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature

The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

in some ways as it had always been read but also perhaps being reappro­ priated for particular ideological purposes relevant to the time; and, as the example of The Battle of Maldon, for one, suggests, it could still provide a living and productive literary medium. Old English poetry can be read historically at a number of levels but one of them has to do with the concerns that can be identified as particularly current in late Anglo-Saxon England (see, for example, Niles 2007, Howe 2008). Questions of the use and audience/readership of Anglo-Saxon literature will be among those to be considered in the course of this book.

Anglo-Saxon literary history: an outline In our context of historicizing the literature it might be useful at this stage to identify briefly some landmarks in Anglo-Saxon history, with particular reference to their literary significance, relating literature also to aspects of Anglo-Saxon art. To the outside observer Anglo-Saxon England can easily seem a fairly monolithic entity with few features to distinguish one period within it from the next. The quality of ‘timelessness’ that we have noted to be a feature of Old English poetry might be thought to bear out such a percep­ tion. But of course Anglo-Saxon history spans the whole period from the first arrival of Germanic settlers in Britain in the fifth century to 1066 and beyond, a period of more than six hundred years. At the beginning of it the incomers were pagan and pre-literate tribal groups in conflict with the indigenous Celtic kingdoms and with each other. By the end of it, a yet later group of immigrants, the Scandinavians, had been absorbed and a kingdom of England was in place, supported by the doctrines and the structures of the Christian church. By the end of the period too a substantial body of sophis­ ticated vernacular written literature had been produced, while the admired Latin works of the earlier Anglo-Saxon centuries continued to influence writers of the learned language. Scholars traditionally distinguish a number of phases in the history of Anglo-Saxon England, each of which differs from the others in significant ways. In the following widely accepted construction four periods are iden­ tified, though it should be borne in mind that they mostly overlap with each other and that alternative structurings might also be devised, which would bring out different themes. Before sketching our four phases, I supply a timeline giving some relevant dates in Anglo-Saxon history. At the end of this section I will also include a timeline of dates from the wider early medieval world.


S o m e s ig n ific a n t d a te s in A n g lo -S a x o n h is to ry 449

B ede's d a te fo r b e g in n in g o f s e ttle m e n t o f 'A n g le s , Saxons a nd


A u g u s tin e b rin g s R om an C h ris tia n ity to K e n t

6 25?

S u tto n H oo ship b u rial


K in g O s w a ld in v ite s th e Irish m o n k A id a n fr o m Iona to c o n v e rt

6 5 7 -8 0

H ild abbess o f W h itb y ; a c c o rd in g to Bede, d u rin g th is p e rio d

6 7 3 -7 3 5

Life o f Bede


D ea th o f C u th b e rt, b is h o p o f Lin d isfa rn e


D ea th o f A id h e im

Jutes' in B rita in

th e N o rth u m b ria n s C aedm on co m p o se s th e firs t re lig io u s p o e try in O ld English

7 5 7 -9 6

O ffa k in g o f M e rc ia

7 82

A lc u in a t C h a rle m a g n e 's c o u rt

7 93

V ik in g raids b e g in ; sacking o f Lin d isfa rn e


D anes’ firs t w in te r in E ngland

8 7 1 -9 9

Reign o f A lfre d k in g o f W essex; th e p e rio d o f th e A lfre d ia n


A lfre d d e fe a ts th e Danes a t E d in g to n ; T re a ty o f W e d m o re ,


W e s t Saxon v ic to ry u n d e r K in g A th e ls ta n a t B ru n a n b u rh

9 5 0 -1 0 1 5

A p p ro x im a te d a te s o f th e fo u r m a jo r O ld English p o e try codices:

9 5 9 -7 5

Reign o f Edgar, W e s t Saxon k in g o f ali E ngland

tra n s la tio n s a n d th e b e g in n in g o f th e Anglo-Saxon Chronicle s e ttin g u p th e 'D a n e la w *

Exeter B o o k, Junius M S, V e rce ili B o o k, Beowulf MS 9 5 9 -8 8

D un sta n a rc h b is h o p o f C a n te rb u ry

9 6 3 -8 4

/E th e lw o id b is h o p o f W in c h e s te r

9 7 8 -1 0 1 6

Reign o f /E th e ire d II ('th e U n re a d y ')


B a ttle o f M a ld o n

1003-2 3

W u lfs ta n a rc h b is h o p o f Y o rk

1 005- c . 1 0 1 0

/E lfric a b b o t o f Eynsham


D anish S w e yn a c k n o w le d g e d as k in g o f E ngland

1016-3 5

Reign o f C n u t (C a n u te )


E d w ard th e C o n fe sso r king

1 066

B attles o f S ta m fo rd B ridg e a n d H astings: W illia m I, *the C o n q u e ro r', k in g

M ig ra tio n a n d a fte r The early Anglo-Saxon period is the period of the immigration and settle­ ment of Germanic tribes in Britain and of the establishment and consoli­ dation of the structures of Anglo-Saxon power over much of the southern and central part of the island. Extending from the middle of the fifth century to the end of the seventh and later, this is largely a pre-Christian


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F ig.1.1 Sutton Hoo: one of an identical pair of small shoulder clasps (width 5.4 cm), gold with inset garnet and glass, with detachable hinge pin period and also a period - for the Anglo-Saxons - before written literature; and so by definition we have no literary record for much of the time, though archaeologists have plenty to tell us about the period (see, notably, Hines, ed., 1997). The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, for example, of probably 625, has been shown to reflect a pre-Christian culture but one that may also be at a point of transition to Christianity (Carver 2000). The treasures of Sutton Hoo, now among the glories of the British Museum, include many gold artefacts of amazing artistry and craftsmanship, often set with garnet and other fine minerals (see Figure 1.1). These artefacts are executed in styles based on animal and other kinds of interlace and on abstract and geometric patterns. The Sutton Hoo objects and the wealth of other such pieces from early Anglo-Saxon England bear witness to the sophistication of the pre-Christian culture of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and, just as pre-Christian poetry would influence later literary traditions, their designs and techniques were creatively appropriated and adapted by Christian artists. There was written literature produced in Britain in this period but it was of Celtic not Anglo-Saxon origin. One of the best-known Latin writings from

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


this time is the Briton Gildas's On the Ruin and Conquest o f Britain (c. 540), which presents the pagan Anglo-Saxon conquest of the Christian Britons as a calamity; later Gildas’s book would serve as a source for Bede’s ffofory, which portrays the Anglo-Saxon colonizers as the rightful inheritors of Britannia. Also related to this period are traditions of vernacular Celtic heroic poetry, of which the most famous example is the Gododdin. The Gododdi% an elegiac celebration of British resistance against the invaders, survives in a manuscript from much later and is in a later form of the British language (Middle Welsh) but the original may date back to the early seventh century. Although we have no written Anglo-Saxon records from the time, Old English poetic works written down later, or versions of them, may have existed in some oral form in this early period. And although this was not a Christian period, it was one that later, Christian, Anglo-Saxons would look to respectfully as foundational to their culture. It figured centrally in peopled consciousness right down to the closing decades of the Anglo-Saxon age (Howe 1989). The Old English poet of The Battle of Brunanburh (ed. Marsden 2004, pp. 86-91), another poem for which, unusually, we can supply a date after which it must have been composed (it commemorates a battle that took place in 937), is one who invokes the arrival of the AngloSaxons when he exclaims of the famous battle that the poem celebrates, Never until now has there been greater slaughter on this island, never more people felled before this with the sword’s edges, since the time when, as books tell us, ancient authorities, the Angles and the Saxons (Engle and Seaxé) landed here, sought Britain (Brytene) across the broad seas, proud warriors and noblemen keen for glory, defeated the Welsh ( Wealas) and seized the land, (lines 65b~73)

The early centuries o f Christian Anglo-Saxon England The period from 597 to about the second half of the eighth century is the period of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, the period in which Christian culture takes root and Christian institutional structures are developed and strengthened. The year 597 was when the Roman missionary Augustine and his followers first landed in Kent, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the people; Irish missionaries would arrive in Northumbria a few decades later, led by Aidan. Our indispensable source for this period is Bede's Ecclesiastical Historyy though it is increasingly recognized that the


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

F ig .1.1 Sutton Hoo: one of an identical pair of small shoulder clasps (width 5.4 cm), gold with inset garnet and glass, with detachable hinge pin period and also a period - for the Anglo-Saxons - before written literature; and so by definition we have no literary record for much of the time, though archaeologists have plenty to tell us about the period (see, notably, Hines, ed., 1997). The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial, for example, of probably 625, has been shown to reflect a pre-Christian culture but one that may also be at a point of transition to Christianity (Carver 2000). The treasures of Sutton Hoo, now among the glories of the British Museum, include many gold artefacts of amazing artistry and craftsmanship, often set with garnet and other fine minerals (see Figure 1.1). These artefacts are executed in styles based on animal and other kinds of interlace and on abstract and geometric patterns. The Sutton Hoo objects and the wealth of other such pieces from early Anglo-Saxon England bear witness to the sophistication of the pre-Christian culture of the early Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and, just as pre-Christian poetry would influence later literary traditions, their designs and techniques were creatively appropriated and adapted by Christian artists. There was written literature produced in Britain in this period but it was of Celtic not Anglo-Saxon origin. One of the best-known Latin writings from

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


this time is the Briton GildasJs On the Ruin and Conquest o f Britain (c. 540), which presents the pagan Anglo-Saxon conquest of the Christian Britons as a calamity; later Gildas^ book would serve as a source for Bede^ History^ which portrays the Anglo-Saxon colonizers as the rightful inheritors of Britannia. Also related to this period are traditions of vernacular Celtic heroic poetry, of which the most famous example is the Gododdin. The Gododdin, an elegiac celebration of British resistance against the invaders, survives in a manuscript from much later and is in a later form of the British language (Middle Welsh) but the original may date back to the early seventh century. Although we have no written Anglo-Saxon records from the time, Old English poetic works written down later, or versions of them, may have existed in some oral form in this early period. And although this was not a Christian period, it was one that later, Christian, Anglo-Saxons would look to respectfully as foundational to their culture. It figured centrally in peopled consciousness right down to the closing decades of the Anglo-Saxon age (Howe 1989). The Old English poet of The Battle of Brunanburh (ed. Marsden 2004, pp. 86-91), another poem for which, unusually, we can supply a date after which it must have been composed (it commemorates a battle that took place in 937), is one who invokes the arrival of the AngloSaxons when he exclaims of the famous battle that the poem celebrates, Never until now has there been greater slaughter on this island, never more people felled before this with the sword’s edges, since the time when, as books tell us, ancient authorities, the Angles and the Saxons (Engle and Seaxe) landed here, sought Britain (Brytene) across the broad seas, proud warriors and noblemen keen for glory, defeated the Welsh (Wealas) and seized the land, (lines 65b-73)

The early centuries o f Christian Anglo-Saxon England The period from 597 to about the second half of the eighth century is the period of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity, the period in which Christian culture takes root and Christian institutional structures are developed and strengthened. The year 597 was when the Roman missionary Augustine and his followers first landed in Kent, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the people; Irish missionaries would arrive in Northumbria a few decades later, led by Aidan. Our indispensable source for this period is Bede*s Ecclesiastical History, though it is increasingly recognized that the


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South Saxons

F ig .1.2 England m the eighth century process of conversion must have been more complex than Bede's account, written from a particular point of view, suggests. These centuries constitute an important period in secular politics as well as in religion, with continuing contraction of the area still under British rule and a changing balance of power between the developing Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: in the eighth century Mercia, particularly under the long-lived King Offa, becomes the most powerful kingdom, eclipsing the previously dominant Northumbria. As far as literature is concerned, however, it is the coming of Christianity that is profoundly influential in this period. Christianity brought written literature and it brought learning (see Figure 1.2). To what extent Christianity transformed the life of ordinary people at this time is a good question (see Blair 2005, p p .135-81) but the period certainly saw major intellectual developments. The seventh and eighth centuries are when many of the most celebrated works of Anglo-Latin literature were

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produced. As described in more detail in Chapter 2, three names stand out in particular, that of the Northumbrian Bede, biblical commentator, historian and polymath; that of an earlier figure, the West Saxon Aldhelm (d. 709), erudite spiritual guide and formidable stylist in prose and verse; and that of Alcuin of York (c. 735-804), theologian, biblical scholar and prolific letterwriter, and a leading member of the intellectual circle of the emperor Charlemagne in Francia. A substantial body of Latin compositions by other writers was also produced, ranging from saints' lives, books of religious instruction and commentaries on scripture to academic riddles. Discussing the scholarly resources available in England in this early period, one of today's leading commentators writes, 'Anglo-Saxon libraries were stocked to the point where, for several centuries, they could sustain the schools and scholarship which put England in the vanguard of European learning5 (Lapidge 2006, p. 30). A particular focal point of intellectual life in the period was the monasteries of Northumbria, which not only produced Impressive literature but also art works of the highest achievement, among which are the Ruthwell Cross, a sculpted high cross with a complex scheme of iconography, and the Lindisfarne Gospels, a manuscript in vibrant colour that stunningly integrates Christian and secular artistic traditions. In the Lindisfarne Gospels animal interlace and other types of exuberant ‘insular’ patterning are transferred to the page and combined with continental artistic models. Learned and imaginative, Northumbrian monasticism drew upon the influence of Irish traditions and maintained links with Italy, but was itself very much in the intellectual forefront of its day (see Figure 1.3). With regard to vernacular literature, this appears to have been a rich period poetically, though we have few existing compositions that we can confidentiy date to it. The seventh century is the century of Csedmon, of course, and some of the extant poems may come from this time: Bede says that many other religious poets came after Caedmon, quite apart from his secular counterparts. A text in runes corresponding to part of The Dream of the Rood is carved onto the sides of the Ruthwell Cross (probably from the first half of the eighth century) and a short poem from early Northumbria is attributed by a contemporary to Bede (on the Ruthwell and 'Bede* poems, see below, pp. 38-9 and 33, respectively). Aldhelm too is supposed to have performed oral songs in the vernacular, as a way of attracting crowds before turning to more serious religious matter (see also p. 51,below). Bede is also reported by his contemporary to have been working on an Old English translation of the first six chapters of the Gospel of John at the time of his death (see Colgrave and Mynors 1969, pp. 582-3), presumably into prose; of this, however, no trace remains. This translation by Bede would antedate surviving Old English literary prose considerably, since the literary


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Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


prose traditions that we know about appear to have their beginnings only in the ninth century. Among prose documents in English that do survive from this early period are laws, the recording of which in writing represents a radical cultural development, from oral to textual. It is significant that this development coincides with the Christianizing of secular authority that marks the post-597 period; the first written laws date from c. 614, in Kent. The opening clauses of one of the early law codes, those of King Wihtraed of Kent (695), reflect the extent of the church's political power less than a century after Augustine’s arrival: the first two clauses of the code stipulate (trans. Swanton 1993, p. 3): 1 . The Church shall have freedom from taxation; and they are to pray for the king, and honour him of their own free will, without compulsion. 2. [Violation of] the Church’s protection is to be fifty shillings, like the king’s. Vikings, a n d the em ergence o f Wessex An entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a collection of annals in Old English covering the whole of the Anglo-Saxon period and beyond, records the beginning of Viking attacks in England and the disturbing portents that preceded the first raid, on a defenceless monastery (trans. Crossley-Holland 1984, p_ 39): 793 In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter.

F ig .1.3 Liber generationisy 4The book of the ancestry [of Jesus Christ]* (Matthew LI): Lindisfarne Gospels

Throughout much of the ninth century and also later, Anglo-Saxons were greatly preoccupied with the threat and the reality of Viking raids and invasion. In 851 the ‘great army,arrived, wintering in England for the first time, and by the closing decades of the century the invaders were on the verge of conquering the whole country. Only King Alfred of Wessex held out against them, managing eventually to stem their advance and preserve his own rule, but only at the expense of accepting the setting up of the ‘Danelaw’, a vast area in the north and east which was administered under Danish law. The Danelaw reflected the reality of Danish settlement as well as Danish military strength in England; the Scandinavians were feared invaders but many of them were peaceful settlers, who lived alongside and in close relationship with their Anglo-Saxon neighbours, becoming integrated into


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Anglo-Saxon society. The two languages, English and Norse, are thought to have been mutually comprehensible (Townend 2002) and would have co-existed for some time before the Scandinavian settlers adopted English, influencing it permanently in the process with their own linguistic usage. This influence is reflected only minimally in Old English writings because of the stability of English literary conventions in the period, but it comes out strongly in Middle English texts and is still very much apparent in the English language as spoken to this day (see Figure 1.4). England remained ‘partitioned, until well into the following century and the settlement of large numbers of Scandinavians in the Danish area would shape the culture of northern England permanently, but in the tenth century Alfred^ successors established their rule over the whole of England, including

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


the Danelaw. A decisive battle occurred at a place called Bnmanburh in 937 (as celebrated in a poem mentioned earlier), at which the forces of Wessex, under King Atheistan, defeated a Scandinavian army and secured West Saxon hegemony. It is from this time on that England becomes a reality as a political entity rather than purely as an imagined community. The kingdom of England wouid, however, have the renewed threat of Scandinavian conquest to face later in the tenth century. This turbulent period was not a promising one for intellectual and literary activity, with monasteries being despoiled and ecclesiastical life disrupted; and a drop in standards of learning had been perceived even before the effects of the wars with the Danes were being fully felt. Latin cultural life falls away badly in this period and there are few productions either in Latin literature or in art to compare with those of the previous centuries• 人nd yet the later ninth century is one of the most productive periods of all in the history of Old English literature, as it is in this period that vernacular literary prose can be seen to proliferate. The development of Oia English literary prose is particu­ larly associated with King Alfred and though other, non-West-Saxon, trad­ itions had also developed in the ninth century (the Old English version of Bede5s History, for example, seems to have been produced in Mercia rather than Wessex), it is clear that the king was a key influence on and participant in vernacular literary culture at this time. His sponsoring of the English language as a medium for sophisticated literary discourse reflected his com­ mitment to learning and education but must also be seen as stemming from his valuing of the language itself and of the sense of national identity that it expressed for him. We learn from the Latin Life of King Alfred, written by his clerical adviser Asser, that the king would learn by heart and recite vernacular poems (ch. 76; trans. Keynes and Lapidge 1983, p. 91). It is Old English prose that Alfred is particularly associated with, however; and indeed, as well as commissioning works from others, he himself engaged in the translation of works in Latin, produced with the help of a group of learned clerics. Most of the literary products associated with the age of Alfred were translations into English prose. One £original> prose composition was the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the first part of which covers the whole of AngloSaxon history, in annal form, down to 891; afterwards it would be kept up in various versions until well into the Norman period (a page from a Chronicle manuscript is reproduced below, p . 111).While we cannot with certainty link the Chronicle to Alfred, it was produced in Wessex in his reign and is strongly ‘Alfredian, in outlook, and it is most likely that Alfred commissioned it. In view of Alfred's literary activity he is often referred to as the 'father of English prose'. This large claim on his behalf requires considerable qualification to say


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thl l«»lt but he was certainly of great symbolic importance both in the Anglo-Saxon period and later. Later Anglo-Saxon England: the la te r te n th a n d eleventh centuries The last phase of Anglo-Saxon history was highly productive in literary terms, particularly in English. As has been mentioned previously, we are unable to date most Old English poems with much precision, but we know that the traditions of Old English poetry were still being vigorously main­ tained in late Anglo-Saxon England, as evidenced by the production of poems which we are able to date, by the influence of Old English poetry on prose writers of the time, and by the active transmission of existing poems through manuscript copying. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of surviv­ ing Old English poems are preserved, most of them uniquely, in manuscripts that can be dated to the later tenth or early eleventh century, including the four major books that contain most of them (see below, p. 70). It is also the case that most extant manuscripts containing Old English prose belong to the later Anglo-Saxon period as well. This was clearly a period of considerable literary activity and one in which in a sense the promise of the age of Alfred can be seen as at last fulfilled. Alfred's programme of education and translation was an ambitious one but it seems to have petered out after his death, and the first half of the tenth century, a time of political struggle for hegemony in England, was not a period notable for learning and writing. It is in the second half of the tenth century and later that we get a sudden flowering particularly of religious literature, and this was still going strong when the power bases of AngloSaxon culture were shattered by the Normans. Later Anglo-Saxon England is the period of ^Elfric, the most prolific vernacular writer of all, of the preacher and purveyor of political thought Wulfstan, archbishop of York ( d . 1023), and of a number of other heavyweight named authors (in English and Latin), as well as a host of anonymous ones. The foundations for much of this literary activity, and certainly for the work of ^Elfric, were laid in what is referred to as the benedictine reform5 of the second half of the tenth century. As the name implies, the Benedictine reform movement was monastically inspired. Taking its lead from developments on the Continent in the Carolingian period (that of the dynasty of Charlemagne), the movement sought to establish and disseminate, after a period of considerable decline, high monastic, liturgical and pastoral standards in England. The outlook of the reform is to be seen too in the religious art of the period, which contrasts strikingly with that of earlier

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


Anglo-Saxon England. Later Anglo-Saxon religious art is remarkable for its Intellectual and spiritual depth (see, for example, Raw 1997). In it, instead of the exuberance of the emphatically non-classical insular tradition, we see a naturalistic approach to representation, a cultivation of Mediterranean styles of decoration and the adoption of a ‘Roman’ display script, all of which signal the English church^ relationship to the European mainstream, though art, like literature, also develops in distinctively Anglo-Saxon ways. Representa­ tive of the art of the period are the image of Christ from 4St Dunstan^ Classbook’ (see Figure 1.5) and illustrations from a remarkable service-book, the ‘Benedictional of St 及 thelwold’ ( see p . 119). Leadership of the reform is associated particularly with the three dominant ecdesiastical leaders of the time, Dunstan (c. 910-88), archbishop of Canter­ bury (he of the ^lassbook7), Oswald (d. 992), bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, and ^Ethelwold (c 905-84), bishop of Winchester (who commissioned the tBenedictional,); but tnese three crucially also had the political backing of the powerful King Edgar (943-75; reigned 959-75) - to •uch an extent indeed that the reform has been described as a tcourt-driven, movement (Blair 2005, p. 350). iEliric wrote about things eternal but his writings also strongly reflect the times in which he lived, as do those of his contemporary Wulfstan. And, after a period of relative stability under the admired King Edgar, those times were times of political conflict and insecurity. In the reign of the weak ^Ethelred II (978-1013 and 1014-16) (^Ethelred (the Unready1), Scandinavian attacks resumed with devastating effect. Wulfstan^ most famous sermon, the apoca­ lyptic Sermon of the Wolf to the English was written for the English people 'when the Danes persecuted them most, which was in the year 1014 from the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ' (trans. Swanton 1993, p . 178; for the Old English text of the sermon, see Marsden 2004, pp. 209-20). In 1013 the Danish Sweyn briefly became king of England and his son Cnut reigned from 1016 to 1035, later to be followed by his son Harthacnut. Interestingly, however, with Danish rule in England the sky did not fall in. Cnut was seen to conduct himself as a devout Christian king - even going on pilgrimage to Rome in 1027 - and one of his key advisers was the fiery Wulfstan of York. As we are learning in more detail from current scholarship, Scanamavian culture was emphatically represented at the courts of the Danish kings of England, who patronized composers of skaldic verse for example (Townend 2001), but their rule and leadership were integrated into Anglo-Saxon patterns. The end of Anglo-Saxon culture as politically dominant came not with Danish rule, which ended in 1042 with the accession of the home-grown Edward the Confessor, but with the Norman Conquest of 1066, sweeping aside the existing Anglo-Saxon order both secular and ecclesiastical. Even


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The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature jPuhnrft etff 押 t" H min ;Vfï tw

叫 *"


then, literature in Old English continued to be read and indeed produced throughout the eleventh century and also, intermittently, in the twelfth and even the thirteenth century. The latest surviving Old English poem is either Durham^ a poem in praise of that city, composed at the beginning of the twelfth century, or, depending whether one classifies its language as Old English or a transitional form of Middle English, The Grave, a salutary homiletic piece focusing on the decaying body in the grave, dating from the middle of the twelfth century. We have no fewer than 140 manuscripts from the period 1060 to 1220 containing Old English texts, many of them copied or recycled from pre-Conquest exemplars but some also newly composed. The number of individual Old English texts in these surviving post-Conquest manuscripts has been worked out as being about 800, a stunning figure that prompts a reassessment of the question of when Anglo-Saxon England really ended. The Norman ruling class may not have been studying and reading Old English texts but their subjects were, particularly texts of a religious nature, texts that were needed to cater for the spiritual needs of a population unable to access directly material in Latin or French.

A w i d e r w o r ld : s o m e d a te s in e a r ly m e d ie v a l E u ro p e a n h is to ry

410 432 437 493-526 507 511

R om e sacked b y G o th s; R om an leg io n s w ith d r a w fr o m B ritain B e g in n in g o f St P a trick's m ission to Ireland A ttila b e co m e s leader o f th e H uns Reign o f T h e o d e ric , fo u n d e r o f th e O s tro g o th ic k in g d o m o f Italy E sta b lish m e n t o f th e V is ig o th ic k in g d o m o f Spain D e a th o f Frankish k in g C lovis I, w h o had u n ite d th e Frankish trib e s u n d e r o n e ru le r

F ig.1.5 St Dunstan's Classbook (mid-tenth century): drawing of St Dunstan kneeling before Christ, with accompanying prayer, both done by Dunstan himself: text (top), *The picture and the writing on this page seen below is in St Dunstan’s own hand, ;( bottom), ask you, merciful Christ, to watch over me, Dunstan; may you not allow the Taenarian tempests [tempests of the underworld/hell] to have swallowed me upl


523 537 590- 604 673-8 711 720 734 771 c. 786 800 911 912 c. 930 1096-9

B o e th iu s w rite s th e Consolation o f Philosophy D e d ic a tio n o f St S ophia c h u rc h in C o n s ta n tin o p le G re g o ry th e G re a t p o p e M u s lim siege o f C o n s ta n tin o p le B e g in n in g o f M u s lim p e rio d in Spain M u s lim arm ie s cross th e Pyrenees fr o m Spain Im age w o rs h ip c o n d e m n e d b y th e G reek c h u rc h (iconociasm ) A ccession o r c n a rle m a g n e as k in g o f th e Franks (d. 8 1 4 ) W o rk be g in s o n th e G re a t M o s q u e a t C o rd o b a (c o m p le te d 9 9 0 ) C h a rle m a g n e c ro w n e d in Rom e as E m p e ro r o f th e W e s t F o u n d a tio n o f C lu n y A b b e y N orse s e ttle m e n t in N o rm a n d y b e g in s B e g in n in g o f th e p e rio d o f C lu n ia c re fo rm in Francia

First Crusade


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Caedmon's Hymn: reading an Old English poem

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


• O ld English also m a d e use o f an a d d itio n a l v o w e l, n o t in th e Latin system o f sounds, /€/ae ('a s h ’ ), th e p ro n u n c ia tio n o f w h ic h fa lls b e tw e e n a a n d e:

In this final section of the chapter I wish return briefly to Caedmon^ Hymn, which we can use to make a few points by way of conclusion. I quote the text of the poem (from Marsden 2004, pp. 80-1) in its West Saxon version (as mentioned above, Caedmon's Hymn also survives in the Northumbrian dialect): Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard, meotodes meahte ond his modgepanc, weorc wuldorfaeder, swa he wundra gehwass, ece Drihten, or onstealde. He asrest sceop eordan beamum heofon to hrofe, halig scyppend; middangeard monncynnes weard, ece Drihten, aefter teode firum foldan, frea aelmihtig. A possible literal translation of this would be: Now must we praise (herigean) the guardian of the heavenly kingdom, the might of the ruler and the purpose of his mind, the works (weorc) of the father of glory, as (swa) he of every wonder, the eternal Lord, established the beginning (or). He first created (sceop) for the children of earth heaven as a roof, the holy creator; then (pa) middle-earth the guardian of humankind, the eternal Lord, afterwards adorned (teode) for the people of the earth, the almighty master.

T h e O ld E n g lish w r i t i n g s y s te m W ith th e b e g in n in g o f w r itte n lite ra tu re in th e v e rn a c u la r in A n g lo -S a x o n E ngland, scribes a d o p te d th e Latin a lp h a b e t f o r O ld English te xts, o n an essentially p h o n e tic basis. S om e O ld English so u n d s w e re n o t re p re se n te d in th e L a tin a lp h a b e t, h o w e v e r, a n d to c a te r fo r th e se so m e n o n -L a tin le tte rs w e re used. It is th e o c c u rre n c e o f th e s e le tte rs in o u r te x ts th a t m akes th e m lo o k p a rtic u la rly stra n g e to m o d e rn b e g in n in g readers: • For th e th s o u n d (as in M o d e rn English this a n d thin) th e le tte rs B/ö ('e th O a nd (,t h o r n ,) w e re used; th e se le tte rs o fte n seem t o b e used in te rc h a n g e a b ly in O ld English te xts: eordan, )ba in C ae d m o n 's Hymn (b u t e lse w h e re w e fin d

eordan, da). T h o rn is a le tte r fr o m th e o ld G e rm a n ic ru n ic a lp h a b e t, e th is a d a p te d fr o m L atin


aelmihtig. • For th e s o u n d w scribes o f O ld English te x ts used th e ru n ic le tte r P /p ('w y n O :

peard, peorc. By c o n v e n tio n , th e le tte r w y n is n o t used in m o d e rn e d itio n s o f O id English te xts, w b e in g s u b s titu te d in ste a d (as w it h weard, weorc in o u r te x t o f C aedm on's Hymn), By c o n tra s t, th o rn , e th a n d ash are u n ive rsa lly used in m o d e rn e d itio n s . For a p a g e fr o m a m a n u s c rip t illu s tra tin g th e O ld English w r itin g system , see Figure 2 .5 , b e lo w (p. 71). The ru n ic a lp h a b e t is b rie fly discussed a nd illu s tra te d b e lo w , p. 38.

I will give a fuller account of the metrical features of Old English poetry in the next chapter but even from this quotation the structure of the verse stands out clearly, with its strongly differentiated half-lines and each pair of half­ lines being bound together by alliteration (in the system of alliteration used in Old English poetry any vowel can alliterate with any other: in line 4, for example, the e of ece alliterates with the o of or). Evident here too is a syntactical trait typical of Old English poetry, that of parallelism and appos­ ition, in which phrases in variation with each other create a sense of rhet­ orical elaboration: in the first sentence four things are identified as the object of praise, forming a series of phrases grammatically parallel or in apposition to each other, and throughout the poem a number of different ways of referring to God provide variation, while also suggesting in an appropriately hymnal manner the breadth of divine power. Variation is facilitated by the wide range of synonyms and near-synonyms that the poetic tradition makes available, with synonyms for God as lord particularly drawn upon in the Hymn; and variation is facilitated also by the frequent use of striking com­ pound words (for example, in the Hymn, modgepancy£mind-purpose,, wuldorfeeder, (glory-father,), part of the special vocabulary of Old English poetry. Also illustrated in the passage is the formulaic character of the verse: for example, the phrase ece Drihteny 'eternal Lord5, appears twice and heofonrices weard, guardian of the heavenly kingdom,, and monncynnes weard, 'guardian of humankind,, are variants of an underlying formulaic pattern or system; these same phrases are also found widely in other Old English poems. For Bede, Caedmon^ Hymn is the result of a wonder: Caedmon has received this 'art of singing* (canendi artem), some features of which I sketched in the previous paragraph, and he has received it not by learning it from other poets but spontaneously through the gift of God. The poem itself, a meditation on


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

the beginning of the Book of Genesis, is appropriately about wonder, the wonder of creation and the wonders of creation (wundra gehwcesy 'every wonder^, and it embodies its theme of creation, being itself the divinely inspired creation of Caedmon. Caedmon^s Hymn has been shown to pick up on important issues in theology; in the first sentence, for example, the objects of praise mentioned can be convincingly interpreted as referring to the Trinity, the ‘three persons’ of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The poem may not be structurally complex in the way that many Old English poems are but it is carefully crafted, following the course of God's work and emphasizing his care for his creation. Notably, it displays interesting and suggestive ambiguity at a number of points. The opening lines could be legitimately construed in a different manner from that reflected in my translation. The translation understands the subject of the opening clause to be we even though the pronoun is not expressed: 'Now must [we] praise.' This translation corres­ ponds to Bede^ Latin version, which has laudare debemus, (we ought to praise', but the first three lines of the Old English could also be understood to mean 'Now must the works of the father of glory praise the guardian of the heavenly kingdom, the might of the ruler and the purpose of his mind1. The sense can simultaneously be that we must praise God the creator and that his creation must praise him. Another ambiguity comes with firum foldan in the last line of the poem: this phrase makes sense as ‘for the people of the earth’ (as in the translation above), but it could also be taken as parallel to middangeardy £middle-earth, (thus exemplifying variation), in which case the sense would be that the guardian of humankind 'adorned middle-earth, the earth for peopled Audiences in Anglo-Saxon England could have under­ stood the phrase in either way or both ways. Potential ambiguity is a feature of Old English verse that some poets evidently exploited, a feature that the very light or non-existent punctuation of the manuscripts also facilitated. Ambiguity is sometimes present in prose texts as well but it is particularly in verse that we find it, where it provides richness and depth of meaning. To revert to a point that came up earlier in the chapter, this again makes life difficult for the modern translator and confirms the desirability of engaging with the original text. Even in translation, however, something of the power of the original literature can be got across, and when translation is supplemented with guided quotations in the original, as in the present book, aspects of the subtiety and suggestive­ ness of the literature can also be brought out (I hope). Beck cdebrates the vernacular poetry of Caedmon. He himsdf was a scholarly writer of Latin prose and verse. His pupil Cuthbert reports, however, that on his

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


death-bed Bede recited a poem in Old English, noting that he was 'skilled in the art of poetry in our language^ {erat doctus in nostris carminibusy ed. and trans. Colgrave ana Mynors 1969, p. 580). Needless to say, this poem was not Toolish and trivial5; appropriate to its setting, it is about the souFs departure from the body in death. It is a five-line poem of a single sentence, the sense of which is as follows (for the Old English text, see Marsden 2004, p . 169): Before the inevitable journey (nedfere, literally ^eed-journey5) no one will become so wise in his mind that there is no need {pearf) for him to consider, before his going hence (heonengange), what good or evil (hwcet godes oppe yfeles) may to his soul be adjudged after the day of his death. (This is the West Saxon version: like Ceedmon's Hymn, Bede's Death Song exists in Northumbrian and West Saxon versions, with some variation between the versions.) Did Bede compose the Death Song himself? Perhaps he did, though Cuthbert doesn’t quite say so; he could have being reciting a poem he knew. Whether Bede was the composer of the poem or not, it is interesting that the last composition associated with him brings him and C^dm on strikingly together. In these two figures, regarded as foundational by later Anglo-Saxons (and by modem Anglo-Saxonists), the Latin and vernacular traditions of Anglo-Saxon culture intersect in crucial ways.

Postscript: what’s in a name?: Anglo-Saxons, Anglo-Saxon and Old English This book follows the long-established convention of using the term ^ngloSaxon, to refer to that period in English history stretching from the first settlement of the Germanic tribes in Britain in the fifth century down to the Norman Conquest of 1066. The composite adjective is a convenient one, though it is also one that, as Susan Reynolds points out in a seminal article published in 1985, 'invites us to beg questions and confuse our own ideas with those of the period we study* (Reynolds 1985, p. 414). The word ‘A nglo-Saxon’ is widely current in popular usage today, with connotations Stretching from the colloquial (‘Anglo-Saxon’ being a term for speech that is plain, unvarnished and even crude) to the ethnological (aspects of which are further refined in the term ‘WASP’, for example); as described below (pp. 176-8), in nineteenth- and twentieth-century ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ the


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

pre-Norman period and its people, wrongly imagined as an ethnically pure group, were appropriated for racialist purposes in Britain and America. It should be added that, as well as ‘Anglo-Saxon’, the term ‘English’ used at the beginning of this paragraph begs a few questions as w ell- notably: when does ‘English’ history begin? Forms like Angli Saxones began to be used from the ninth century, mostly by continental writers, to distinguish the Saxons who had settled in Britain from those still living east of the Rhine. Among the descendants of the settlers themselves, the compound was never widely in use: Latin Angli (Old English Englisc) was the norm in the period as the collective adjective/noun for the whole 'English5population, a formulation that generalized the meaning of a word which referred originally to one perceived group among the immi­ grants, the northern Angles, while the term Saxones (Old English Seaxe) continued to be used to refer specifically to the inhabitants of the southern kingdoms. As Reynolds notes, the name Angli Saxones (and variants) was adopted in their titles by some West Saxon kings, who were ‘perhaps using such forms to help them build bridges towards parts of the country that were, or had once been thought of as, quintessentially Angle’, but the usage ‘had become rare by the later tenth century1 (Reynolds 1985, p. 398). Reynolds is thinking of instances such as King Alfred styling himself Angul-Saxonum rex, 'king of the Anglo-Saxons', and King Athelstan referring to himself as OngolSaxna cyningy *king of the Anglo-Saxons5; such usages are not widely found, however. It is likely that Bede's use of the term Angli in the generalized sense, as in our passage about Caedmon, was influential in its widespread adoption in later usage (Wormald 1994). The compound name (never common) dropped out of use and it did not reappear until it was adopted by the antiquarians of the early modern period who began to study early English history and literature. The terms 'English Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon, are found from the beginning of the seventeenth century as referring to the people living in England before the Norman Conquest, with the form ‘Anglo-Saxon’ soon gaining ascendancy. From the early seventeenth century 'English-Saxon1 and £Anglo-Saxon, also began to be used to refer to the language of the pre-Conquest period, first adjectivally, as in one of the citations given in the New English Dictionary/ Oxford English Dictionary - 'Foky the English-Saxon word for people5 (1605) - and then it was also used as a noun, so that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tAnglo-Saxon, was the commonest name for the language. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, 'Old English* had almost entirely displaced ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in this sense. At a time when modern humanities subjects were defining and establishing themselves,

Approaching Anglo-Saxon literature


the adoption of the name *01(1 English5 reflected the desire of scholars to view the language of the Anglo-Saxons as part of English. In the first volume of the New English Dictionary (1888) James Murray, while recording instances of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ being used as the name of the language, writes that the Dictionary itself 'uses Old English not Anglo-Saxon to refer to the language’. The issue of the name was part of larger ideological and political debates in the academic world, a legacy of which is that today Anglo-Saxon literary studies are normally pursued in university English departments. Note, however, the continuing (unique) existence of a Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge (on the establishment of the department, see Frantzen 2001,pp. 478-9). The use of the term 'Old English5for the language of the Anglo-Saxons has long been uncontentious and the present usage is likely to remain normal practice in the future. Language politics live on, however, and even 'Old English5 can be seen as something of a loaded term. Recently the suggestion has been made that Old English should be called something else. Specifically, since Old English is just as much the ancestor of modern Scots as of modern English, it has been asked whether scholars might not think of devising a name for the language that did not include the ostensibly privileging word ‘English’ ( Scott 2007)• We would be unwise to hold our breath waiting for such a change of nomenclature but this suggestion raises an interesting point about language perception and ownership. What5s in a name? Often a great deal.

Developing literary traditions

C hapter 2

Developing literary traditions

O ld English p o e try a n d its o ra l G e rm a n ic b a c k g ro u n d Bede



W ritin g s in Latin 47

A lcu in A ld h e lm

49 50

O th e r w rite rs


W ritin g s in O ld English prose


T h e n in th c e n tu ry a n d w ritin g s associated w ith K ing A lfre d


/E lfric a n d la te r prose w ritin g s T ra d itio n s o f C hristian p o e try



Postscript: Riddle 47: w o rd s o ra l a n d w r itte n


Old English poetry and its oral Germanic background The arrival of settlers from parts of what is today north Germany and Denmark in Britain in the fifth century was part of a larger pattern of migration of Germanic tribes in late Roman and post-Roman western Europe. In the fifth and sixth centuries Germanic tribes, sharers in common social and cultural values and speakers of varieties of what in prehistoric times had been a single language, moved out from east of the Rhine and from Scandinavia and conquered many areas of the Empire, transforming the political landscape in the process. The Romans had already had military dealings with Germanic tribes in previous centuries and indeed our earliest account of Germanic culture comes from a Roman writer of the beginning of the second century, Tacitus, in his ethnographic work Germania (trans. Mattingly 1970). Tacitus, drawing an implicit contrast with his own world, which he perceived to be decadent, presents the Germanic tribes as fierce but virtuous barbarians, socially cohesive and with strong bonds of group loyalty. He was not writing about Anglo-Saxons in those days, of course, 36


but Tacitus^ account, when carefully sifted, throws some light on values that the colonizers of Britain would have embraced. In a modem myth of origins nationalists today fondly, if simplistically, look back to this migration period as the time when the Europe of nations has its beginnings (Geary 2002), and this period was idealized too by Anglo-Saxons and other Germanic people in the early Middle Ages. They saw the fourth to sixth centuries as a heroic age and their secular poetry focuses on these centuries as a time of legendary exploits and epic conflicts. Poetry mernorializing this time seems to have been composed in England throughout the AngloSaxon period - none of it, incidentally, set in Britain - and we have survivals of other traditions of Germanic poetry in Old High German and in Old Norse, the latter of which was still going in the thirteenth century. In all such traditions we see a heroic world displayed, in which the centre of attention is the lord and his retainers, bound together by ideals of reciprocal loyalty, seeking glory and praise on the battlefield and acting out their social life in the context of the hall, the scene of feasting and drinking and of gift-giving. Most of the migrating Germanic tribes eventually ended up speaking the established languages of the areas in which they settled. The Anglo-Saxons, however, not only replaced existing power structures in the parts of Britain that they conquered but they also dominated linguistically. Scholars debate the question of how many Anglo-Saxons came to Britain in the fifth century and also to what extent the incomers interacted with the Britons (see, e.g., Hills 2003, Brooks 2006) but it is notaole that, apart from place-names, only a handful of British (Celtic) words were borrowed into the language of the settlers, perhaps less than a dozen altogether: examples still in use in English are bin, brock [badger1] and eraぎ• The few loan words from Celtic were introduced alongside more numerous borrowings from Latin in the time before and during the settlement period, borrowings reflective of the influence of Roman cultural sophistication (Latin words introduced into Germanic in this early period include such examples, still current in English, as wine, peppen copper and mile). In what was assuredly an ethnically mixed Britain in the early Middle Ages (see Figure 2.1), the minimal influence of Celtic on Old English is an indication of the autonomy of Anglo-Saxon language and culture. The Anglo-Saxons did not assimilate themselves to indigenous cultural practices as happened elsewhere in Europe, bringing instead a new beginning in much of lowland Britain based on their own culture. Their word for the Celtic inhabit­ ants of Britain was wealh, 'Welsh*, the basic meaning of which is 'foreign, slave'. The culture that they brought was one of what has been called 'primary orality' (Goody and Watt 1968). In the world in which the early AngloSaxons lived, tradition, knowledge, belief and law were normally transmitted


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

entirely by word of mouth, remembered and uttered. Some groups among the early Anglo-Saxons did make use of a writing system, runes, but runic writing represented rare esoteric knowledge; it was known to the few and employed for restricted purposes that did not include the extensive inscription of literary texts. Runes were used for epigraphical statements of commemor­ ation and ownership and perhaps in magic rituals (Page 1999). Later, runic letters would be incorporated into manuscript texts, and one Old English poem, the poem of the cross on the Ruthwell Cross, is carved in runes, but the culture of the early Anglo-Saxons was essentially oral (see Figure 2.2). The English f u t h o r k 1, ru n ic a lp h a b e t, ca lle d a fte r its firs t six lette rs

^ f

> F R k u

(3 o



N o te th e a n g u la r c h a ra c te r o f th e le tte rs, w h ic h a re su ita b le f o r c a rvin g o n w o o d , s to n e a n d b o n e . R eflective o f th is k in d o f w ritin g , th e e ty m o lo g ic a l m e a n in g o f th e O ld English v e rb w ritanf ' w r i t e \ is ' c u t score* (in c id e n ta lly , th e ve rb *to re a d ,,

rsedan, has th e g e n e ra l m e a n in g 'd e c id e , guess, in te rp re t7, a n d is re la te d t o reedels, 'rid d le , in te rp re ta tio n 1).

Developing literary traditions


Fig. 2.2 Runes on the west face of the Ruthwell Cross: the top line and beginning of the right side reads -f Crist wees on rodiy 'Christ was on the cross’ In a world of primary orality, as explained by Eric Havelock with reference to early Greece, poetry performs a vital social function, (that of preserving the tradition by which [the members of the society] lived and instructing them in it5 (Havelock 1986, p. 8), and the poet is an important figure. In Old English the oral poet is referred to as the scop and his primary place of performance is in the aristocratic hall, where he entertains the lord and his family and followers. In the great hall Heorot in Beowulf, for example, there is the (clear song of the scop\ swutol sang scopes (line 90a). With the coming of Christianity, written literature would develop in Anglo-Saxon England, introducing new literary forms but also adapting


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

existing tradition to new purposes (as we saw in the story of Caedmon). While it is thought that most surviving Old English poetry is literate rather than oral in composition, it is all underlain by oral characteristics inherited from the pre-literate era and actively maintained; and indeed oral features of Old English poetry can be seen to have influenced other literary traditions, most evidently Old English prose. Old English poetry moves beyond the performance of the scop in the hall but it retains structural and stylistic essentials that derive from its original non-textual context. A passage in Beowulf (ed, Klaebèr 2008,lines 867b-74a) shows us a scop in action, spontaneously composing a poem in honour of Beowulf^ victory over the monster Grendel. The passage depicts orality and, like all Old English poetry, itself reflects features distinctive of oral tradition: At times a thegn of the king, a man laden with eloquence, mindful of songs (gidda gemyndig), who remembered a multitude of stories from the whole range of ancient tradition, found new words, properly bound together (soöe gebunden). The man began again artfully to treat of Beowulf^ exploit and successfully (on sped) to relate an apt tale, to vary his words (wordum wrixlan).

Developing literary traditions /





Type D, o r h a ltin g by sta g e s' ( / / \ x ) : f)eod〇阳 V h 作

Guthlac), E le g ie s ' (in c lu d in g The Seafarer b u t also secular pieces), Widsith a n d

tnoTuij* rmcpl

c/ niT^ ダ } デ ロぬ

l’n w K ntoiinn デ

す 〇 邯 pmithci C-cntiす卜卜『

デ 出 ” 0^ 尸 2I

o th e r c a ta lo g u e po e m s, o th e r a ssorted po e m s o ffe rin g in s tru c tio n a n d lore, and riddles. It is surely to th e Exeter B ook th a t th e fo llo w in g d e s c rip tio n fr o m an e le v e n th -c e n tu ry Exeter b o o k -lis t r e f e r s :./. mycef engiisc boc be gehwilcum f)ingum on ieoöwisan geworht, 'o n e larg e b o o k in English o n va rio u s subjects, c o m p o se d in verse’ . The Junius M a n u s c rip t (O x fo rd , B o d le ia n Library, Junius 1 1 ) (fo rm e rly re fe rre d to

tinotnan irnmim li3?pmn W tn Tinclarn

-jre ^ tb p u ^ i m } m rft»

n a rra tiv e p o e m s Genesis, Exodus a n d Daniel a n d also a b ib lica lly in sp ire d w o r k on

In vim itjrp iftc a c m w

C h ris t's tr iu m p h o ve r Satan, Christ and Satan. The O ld T e sta m e n t pieces w e re

c o p ie d c . 1 0 0 0 , w it h Christ and Satan b e in g a d d e d s o m e tim e in th e fo llo w in g c o m p le te d , o f line d ra w in g s illu s tra tin g n a rra tive episodes. The ß e o i^ u /f M a n u s c rip t (L o n d o n , B ritish Library, C o tto n V ite tliu s A. xv), a

on ln ^ a p iftriu in

as th e /C a e d m o n , m a n u scrip t), a p o e try -o n ly m a n u s c rip t c o n ta in in g th e b ib lica l

q u a rte r-c e n tu ry . This large-scale (c. 3 2 3 x 1 96 m m ) b o o k co n ta in s a series, never

m ftilrm


ycrjia'n -ge-

tlJ F p 下ImiTR 1T1邮 | j iw

r e 伽 細 !? . J34,



1 太 一 れ 出 卯 卜 扣 吨 仰 で で ••ニ


: マ

m o d e s t-size d ( c . 195 x 1 1 5 -3 0 m m ) a n d u n s p e cta cu la r m a n u s c rip t o f th e early e le v e n th c e n tu ry c o n ta in in g Beowulf, th e b ib lica l n a rra tiv e poerr\ Judith (in c o m p le te ) a n d th re e prose te x ts , th e Life o f St Christopher (fra g m e n ta ry ),

The Wonders o f the East (illu stra te d ) a n d The Letter o f Aristotle, tales o f

m arvels. The m a n u s c rip t w a s d a m a g e d b y fire in 1フ3 1 , s u ffe rin g sin g e in g o f th e p a g e edges.

A p art from Caedmon (and perhaps Bede) we have the name o f o n ly one other O ld English poet whose w orks are still extant, Cynew ulf, whose 'signature' in

Fig. 2.5 The Exeter Book, £ 76r: the end o f Juliana^ incorporatine

runes is cryptically incorporated into the text o f the poems

‘signature、‘C YN EW U LF ( A w n r〆 ),beginning on the fifth line. Note that the text is wntten continuously in manuscripts o f Old English poetry, not üplit up Into verse lines.

Apostles and Elene (both

in the Vercelli Book) and

The Fates of the

Christ II (*The Ascension,)


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature


Juliana (both

Developing literary traditions


in the Exeter Book. See Figure 2.5). M any religious poem s,

in cluding those by Cynew ulf, are distinguished by th eir learning and their


Riddle 47:

words oral and written

richness o f im agery, com bining C hristian thought w ith features derived from

Riddle 47y from

G erm anic tradition. W h ich brings us fin ally to the issue o f the textuality o f O ld English poetry again. O ld English poetry was o rig in ally a purely oral m edium and even when it acquired a literate dim ension w ith O ld English poems being w ritten dow n and then composed as w ritten texts, it was still very m uch designed fo r oral perform ance, cultivating oral techniques and aural effects and in some cases preserving the fiction o f the perform er as


In the oral perform ance o f

w ritten texts the texts become available to non-literate as well as literate audiences, enabling them to participate in the textual culture o f w ritin g and m anuscripts. M any O ld English poetic texts also appeal to the eye, however, having not o n ly aural but also visual effects, w hich encompass layout,letter form s and illustrations. Such texts are clearly intended to be seen as well as heard. In the Junius M anuscript, fo r exam ple, the text is illustrated w ith linedrawings, and I have just m entioned the signatures o f Cynew ulf, w hich w ould not be accessible in oral perform ance. N ot o n ly are the letters o f C yn ew u lf^ name w orked in to the text o f his poems in ru n ic letters in these signatures but in one o f them ,

The Fates of the Apostles,

the letters o f the

the tenth-century Exeter Book, is a scholarly playful six-line

poem in w hich a speaker describes the strange occurrence o f a m oth/w orm eating words:

A moth ate words; to me that seemed a marvellous event when I heard about that wonder, that that worm had swallowed up some man’s song, a thief in darkness had consumed the mighty saying and its firm foundation. The thieving stranger was not one whit the wiser when he swallowed those words. In the o rigin al O ld English (ed. M arsden 2004, p. 316) the poem reads,

Moööe word frset. Me J>uhte wraetlicu wyrd, J>a ic t>set wundor gefraegn, J>aet se wyrm forswealg wera gied sumes, J>eof in J)ystro ^rymfaestne cwide and J)ses strangan staJ)〇l. Stselgiest ne wees wihte Ipy g le a w ra ,乜e h e 》am w ordum swealg. The 'scholarly 1 aspect o f Riddle 47 is borne out by the fact that it is based on a

name (in the variant spelling ‘C ynw ulf’ )are jum bled up,appearing in the

Latin poem by Sym phosius. The Latin poem is even shorter than the O ld

order F,W ,U ,L ,C ,Y,N . Letters, rom an as well as ru n ic,are also jum bled

English and reads as follows in translation:

and reversed in some o f the O ld English riddles, adding to the sense o f puzzling ingenuity that characterizes these poem s. In

The Rune Poem

(though the m anuscript is no longer extant) each lin e begins w ith a runic letter in alphabetical order, evidently follow ing the Latin abecedarian m odel, w hile in the lyrical piece

The Husband's Message a kin d

o f secret message in

Worm Letters have nourished me, but I have no idea what letters are. I have lived in books, but am none the more studious for it. I have devoured the Muses, but I myself still havent benefited.

runes is incorporated in to the text, so enigm atic that critics disagree about

The Latin, w hich begins by giving the answer to the

its interpretation.

conceit, applying literally and m etaphorically the idea o f eating words: scholars

W ritten O ld English verse m ight lend itself naturally to oral perform ance,

enigma, presents an elegant

are nourished by words, bookw orm s literally eat books, words and all. The

therefore, but m anuscript features o f m any existing poetic texts, along w ith

poem situates itself in a context o f Latin study, literature and the Muses: it is a

the learning that they reflect, make it clear that these com positions are deeply

literate poem about the w orld o f reading, a w orld that is sometimes invaded by

im plicated in textual ways o f th in kin g and that they w ould have had a sim ilar

these annoying pests w hich eat into books. The im plicit message o f the poem is

readership indeed to that o f Latin literature in the period (see further

a kin d o f superior self-endorsement o f those who can appreciate the higher

M agennis 2001, pp. 9 5-8 ). W e have traced differing litera ry traditions in this

things in life, like this

chapter but have also noted significant elements o f overlap between them . It

it is a one-idea poem , w ith the same idea repeated in three variations.

is appropriate to end w ith these in m ind and in particular to emphasize


The poem is clever, but hardly highly w rought;

W hen we turn to the O ld English version, we find som ething that

is highly

points o f sim ilarity between Latin literature and intellectual vernacular

w rought. Tht* speaker is no longer the bookw orm itself but a fascinated,


personalized, observer. A nd the speaker puts the riddle im plicitly, giving clues

The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature


Developing literary traditions


but not actually asking readers what the subject is, and certainly not telling

England, but the m uch m ore com m on pattern in the early M iddle Ages was

them the answer. The poem is full o f wordplay, including a lot o f artful

fo r poems to be read out, to an audience. A reader sees but an audience

alliteration that isn^ taken over in the translation, as in the sequence

word wrcBtlicu wyrd ('m arvellous event') and wyrm (tw orm ,)>and an image o f theft is developed, in peof^thieT) and stcelgiest ('thieving strangerO. Also the

chearsl The poem exists, therefore, on the border between the oral and the

(tw ord,),

w ritten. W ritin g , not speech, has become p rim a ry in it, superseding utter­

O ld English emphasizes the greediness and destructiveness o f the bookw orm ,

becomes destructible in a way that was inconceivable in the oral age. The

in contrast w ith the Latin emphasis on it as going about its business nourishing

firm foundation o f a saying is no longer the oral trad itio n but the physical

and sustaining itself. Here it is devouring

page, w hich the w orm eats into.

the m odem w ord ^et-saw 1) and

{frcet, suggestive o f sharp swallowing {forswealgy swealg).

teeth, as in

There is m ore to the O ld English poem than the Latin, and when we lo o k at it closely, it is also telling us som ething interesting about its m om ent in history. In an im portant sense this poem is about the transition from o rality to textuality that was taking place in peopled experience in the early M iddle Ages. In particular, as people entered the A nglo-Saxon schoolroom they m oved from a w orld o f tradition al o ra lity to one o f literacy and gram m aticality, w ith its com pletely different way o f thinking about language. The Latin riddle exists purely in the w orld o f w ritin g, but the O ld English one encom ­ passes both tradition al oral knowledge


w ritin g, in w hich language

becomes a m aterial thing, ‘codified, . In the w orld o f w ritin g the idea o f a w orm eating words is striking but com prehensible, when it is explained: words are m aterial things in a physical object, a book. In a purely oral w orld eating words is incom prehensible. A nd yet o u r O ld English riddle also posits an oral w ond, m w hich the speaker has heard


about this w onder and in w hich the m oth/w orm swallows

not w ritin g as such ('letters5) but utterances, some man's song m ighty saying




In a sense, the m oth relates to the w orm as the oral w ord relates to the w ritten w ord: one th in g changes in to another. The com ing o f w ritin g can be seen as radically transform ing the trad itio n al oral w orld , and it provokes anxiety as well as w onder on the part o f the speaker: the w orm is portrayed as a th ie f ^tealing^ words and their firm foundation. The poem has the inter­ esting idea that the words


to someone - some man's song. W hen

they are w ritten dow n they can be stolen, w hich is not possible in the w orld o f pure orality. The poem itself is w ritten in a m anuscript, and therefore presum ably not im m une from the bookw orm . It is w ritten dow n, but it is com posed in the trad itio n al oral style o f O ld English poetry, appealing to listeners. It is h igh ly aural in its effects, and unlike in the Latin version there is no m ention o f letters o r books, even though the poem exists in a book. W e can im agine individuals reading the poem on their own in Anglo-Saxon

ance: knowledge can now be stored and saved but in the process it also

Varieties o f narrative


an approach also to be follow ed in the next chapter, on non-narrative

C hapter 3

literature; in m ost instances these w ill be w ritings that are w idely perceived as ‘m ajo r’ w orks o f A nglo-S axon literature.

Varieties of narrative Heroic poetry The critical term 'O ld English heroic poetry 1 is used to refer to vernacular Anglo-Saxon verse that portrays the ethos and culture associated w ith the age H ero ic p o e try

A c tio n a n d th e h e ro

Beow ulf

o f the pre-C hristian G erm anic tribes o f the late Rom an and post-Rom an


w orld, as im agined in later centuries (see further, M agennis 2010, on w hich


some o f the present discussion draws). O ld English heroic poetry constitutes


Biblical lite ra tu re : tra n s la tio n s a n d a d a p ta tio n s in O ld English

a useful critical category and a venerable one in m odern scholarship but it is one in to w hich we m ust be careful not to im p o rt rom antic associations from


Judith: a b ib lical a d a p ta tio n in O ld English verse 93 96 Bede's Ecclesiastical History o f the English People 103 T h e >Ang/o-Saxon C hrom .de 110 C hristian heroes: w r itin g a b o u t th e saints 116 A v irg in m a rty r: Juliana 123 A n English saint: /E lfric 's Passion o f St Edmund 127 Postscript: g a in e d in tra n s la tio n 130

T h e past a n d its m e a n in g : w r itin g h istory

times nearer to ou r ow n. The critic and clergym an Stopford Brooke, w ritin g at the end o f the nineteenth century, is am ong those who com bine the elevation o f the heroic life as perceived in Anglo-Saxon literature w ith a distinctly racial appreciation: he discerns in the poetry 'th at steady consist­ ency o f national character, that clinging through all d ifficu lty to the aim in view, that unrelenting curiosity, that desire to do better what has been done' (Brooke 1892, I, v ii), and he particularly compares Beow ulf to Lord Nelson: G en tle like Nelson, he had Nelson's iro n resolution' (1 ,29). Lee Patterson has w ritten recently o f the

ideology o f im perial heroism that flourished in

V ictorian England 1 and o f its links w ith values associated w ith the Germ anic The literature discussed in this chapter is the literature o f secular and

heroic age. O ne figure that he focuses on is W . R Ker, whose influential book

C h ristian narrative and its m eaning. It encompasses the tra d itio n o f heroic

Epic and Romance

was published in 1897; Patterson highlights K er^ cele­

8 69 -7 0), inherited from

bration o f the heroic age and explains that (he saw the essence o f the M iddle

the pre-C hristian past and developed to new uses in the period , and it

Ages as residing in the G erm anic spirit o f the north - a spirit that was

encompasses too strands that represent C hristian-Latin-derived form s o f

gradually corrupted by the dom inance o f southern, and specifically French,

w ritin g , that contrast strikin g ly w ith the heroic inheritance but can also

influences5 (Patterson 2000, p . 148). Such appropriation tells us m ore about

interact w ith it creatively, integrating, as w ell as opposing, aspects o f what

m odem perceptions than about O ld English literature itself, and in recent

we m ight refer to as the w orld o f Ingeld (on Ingeld, see above, p. 50). In

decades com m entators such as M artin Cam argo (1981),John M . H ill (1995)

p o etry w ith its 'm u ltitu d e o f stories 5

(Beowulf, lines

attending to C hristian-Latin-derived strands this chapter focuses on three

and Stefan Jurasinski (2004) have sought to extricate the poetry from the

in particular, b ib lical, h istoriograph ical and hagiographical, considering

rom antic associations it acquired in earlier criticism and w hich still persist in

(respectively) treatm ents o f the great events and figures o f the Bible,

some quarters.

accounts o f the course or h isto ry and its m eaning, especially w ith reference

The su rvivin g corpus o f O ld English texts recognized as heroic poetry is

to A nglo-S axon E ngland, and w ritings about the edifying and exem plary

sm all and consists m ostly o f narrative verse but includes too the 'catalogue 1

exploits o f the saints. In discussing varieties o f narrative, w hich represent


a substantial and varied p ro p o rtio n o f su rvivin g A nglo-S axon w ritin gs,

*heroic age1 and celebrates the

I w ill focus particu larly in each case on one o r m ore representative texts,

and the lyric piece



(143 lines), w hich m em orializes individuals and peoples o f the



and patrons who preserve their glory;

(42 lines), w hich is com m only also classified as an


Th§ Cumbridgê Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

Varieties o f narrative


l i ttlUftUy lilte d am ong the heroic poems as w ell. O ther poem s too,

Such application o f traditio n al form and ideas, along w ith their widespread

lu d l M Oth ^


people whose h isto ry it records. That h isto ry is recorded, on the m odel o f

叩 tn ^ t^*tnfcu

h;fr trtö^v *tinv4löc^fn«-n dèn ru, hoi and hete, and rypera reaflac derede swylDe (Dearie; and us ungylda swyde gedrehtan and us unwedera foroft weoidan unw^stma. For^am on (Dysan earde waes, swa hit |Dincan maeg( nu feia geara unrihta fela and tealte getrywöa aeghwasr mid mannum, (ed. Marsden 2004, p. 214) [For long now, nothing has prospered here or elsewhere, but in every region there has been devastation and famine, burning and bloodshed over and again. And stealing and slaughter, plague and pestilence, murrain and disease, slander and hatred, and the plundering of robbers have damaged us very severely; and excessive taxes have greatly oppressed us, and bad weather has very often caused us crop-failures. Wherefore for many years now, so it seems, there have been in this country many injustices and unsteady loyalties among men everywhere, (trans. Swanton 1993, p . 180)]

ness (and, says W ulfstan, the acts o f the English are worse than those o f the Britons ever were); and ending, in a sustained peroration that incorporates the restatement o f key religious obligations and social values highlighted earlier in the hom ily, w ith an appeal to the people to repent and to th in k upon the final judgem ent that awaits them . Throughout, W ulfstan is the

Wisdom and lore

preacher adm onishing his audience but in doing so he consistently uses the hom iletic first-person-plural pron ou n , thereby avoiding the im pression o f

If the hom ilies introduced in the preceding paragraphs represent the litera­

his dissociation from that audience o r rejection o f them but instead asserting

ture o f religious knowledge and instruction, the w ritings considered in the

a sense o f com m unity in w hich he too participates.

present section represent the literature o f knowledge and instruction in

W ulfstan,like 疋lfric ,was concerned to prom ote in his w ritings the Bene-

broader senses, and they com bine the religious w ith the secular. The types

dictine-reform ideal o f a C hristian society in w hich the ‘three orders’,the

o f literature that I wish to pick up on here are som ething o f a m ixed bag but

(m onastically inspired) church, the w arrior-class or n o b ility and the w orking

they have it in com m on that they reflect the w idely evident enthusiasm o f

people (on the ‘three orders’ see Powell 1994),were led by a good kin g guided

Anglo-Saxon w riters in transm itting various kinds o f w isdom and lore,

by right-m inded ecclesiastical leaders, but the


Sermon of the Wolf shows


w orld in w hich such an ideal is very far from being achieved. W ulfstan w ould see his desired social order based on firm hierarchical




com positions that offer instruction, advice and knowledge

from the proverbial and com m onplace to the obscure, to the learned. The texts under consideration

the folk-bw ed

and from here bear

The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature


Belief, knowledge, experience


striking witness to the fondness o f w riters in the period fo r the cataloguing o f

discourses givin g social, m oral and religious guidance, and dem onstrations o f

in form ation and wise sayings and to a fascination w ith w hat people today

obscure knowledge. Two su rvivin g poem s,

m ight call the w eird and the w onderful. Some o f the w isdom and lore that

o f short sententious generalizations o f the kin d that also occur in divid u ally

this literature contains is u tilitarian enough but m uch o f it also seems to have

throughout O ld English poetry, as when (to give just one example) Beow ulf

Maxims 1 and IIy consist


a broader cultural role, confirm ing inherited understandings o f the w orkings

exclaims as a tru th , 'Better it is fo r each m an that he avenge his friend than

o f the w orld and o f society, offering ways to accomm odate to existing

that he m ou rn m uch1

paradigm s that w hich is strange, and expressing w onder at God's creation

norm ative quality, assuming acceptance in the m inds o f righ t-th in kin g

w hile at the same tim e reflecting strategies fo r categorizing that creation in its

people. The 67-line

rem arkable variety.

w hich m ay be seen as typifyin g this kin d o f verse:


Maxims II

lines 1384b-85). Such utterances have a

has the follow ing sequence (lines 26b-33a),

A n d going along w ith this interest in w isdom and lore is an appreciation A dragon must dwell in its barrow, old and proud w ith its treasures. A fish must in the water bring forth offspring. A king must in the hall give out rings. A bear must dwell on the heath, old and fearsome. A river must flow dow nhill, grey as the sea. A n arm y must rem ain firm together, a troop thinking on glory. There must be loyalty in a nobleman, wisdom in a man.

and cultivation o f cleverness, puzzle and paradox. The poet o f the short poem

The Ruin, fo r example, is delighted by the ingenuity o f ancient builders whose (hwcetred in hringasf (line 1 9 ) and that o f Riddle 47 (see above, pp. 73-5) relishes the 'w ondrous event, o f a

w ork he observes - "ingenious in ring-design

m oth eating words and is w itty in describing it. Indeed, literary rid d lin g itself, w hich is rich ly represented both in A nglo-L atin and in O ld English strains, is a product o f the Anglo-Saxon love o f verbal cleverness and play, as is the com position o f acrostics, abecedarian and rune poem s, and surely also the attachm ent to herm eneutic Latin, all o f w hich form s show delight in the

The m axim poems, like m ost o f the Anglo-Saxon literature o f w isdom and

display and m anipulation o f knowledge. The O ld English riddles also in corp­

lore, integrate secular w isdom in to a C hristian w orldview . A t the beginning

orate elements o f popu lar tradition , transform ing them , however, in artful



丁hough an extensive corpus o f w ritings o f w isdom and lore has survived

Maxims I it is insisted that 4G od is to be praised first* (line 4), while Maxims II intertw ines statements about nature and culture w ith acknow­ ledgem ent o f G o d ^ power and knowledge. As Paul C avill has recently put it,

from Anglo-Saxon England, m ost o f this literature has received relatively


little attention in m odern scholarship, partly, no doubt, due to the fact that it

ing o f reality, quite deliberately focusing on the everyday, the typical, the

doesn5t conform very w ell to m odern litera ry expectations and preconcep­

social, the natural, in order to b u ild up a fram ew ork w hich potentially

O utline, and in the process construct, an A nglo-Saxon understand­

tions. Such w ritings were clearly o f great interest to Anglo-Saxons, however,

com prehends all hum an and natural phenom ena and sets the whole con­

and they reveal a lo t about their ou tio o k and w orldview . Best know n am ong

struct under the om niscience o f God* ( C a v ill1999, p . 183).

them , w ith the exception o f the riddles, are the O ld English poems expressing

A recent survey o f O ld English


o f 'secular learning' (H ollis and

sententious w isdom and advice, b u t even these have languished in the

W rig h t 1992) identifies pragm atically five broad divisions, com prising (prov-


erbs*, in cluding translations fro m Latin learned traditions as w ell as native

o f texts

m ore

im m ediate


their appeal to

m odern


T. A . Shippey points to a distinguishing characteristic o f the £poems o f

proverbial lore; ^ialo gu es5, notably those o f

w isdom and learning*, as he calls them , as being th eir im m ediacy and

wise Solom on provides answers on points o f obscure knowledge; 'rom ance5

Solomon and Saturn, in

w hich the

am bitiousness: (They do not hesitate to make the m ost sweeping generaliza­

(here I w ould prefer a designation like 'w ritings about faraway places^,

tions about m en, G od, nations, the state o f the w orld , even the nature o f


the universe’ ( Shippey 1976, p . 1 ) .These are not characteristics valued in

o f Ramsey and

m ost m odern criticism ; and the poem s are also perceived as lacking in

ing to the litu rgical calendar; and the vast area o f *magico-medical literature1

obvious principles o f structure.

(again the label is problem atic, however: see below ), com prising herbal

The poems that make up this Sententious w isdom , group include collec­ tions

o f observations


the w orld


hum an


Alexanders Letter to Aristotle and Wonders of the East, "Byrhtferth computus\ the latter consisting chiefly o f calculations pertain­

remedies and other treatments and in form ation , including charm s, the purpose o f w hich

is to ward o ff particular illnesses and

m isfortunes.


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

Belief, knowledge, experience


There is overlap between O ld English and Latin texts, and indeed the

Enchiridion (Manual)

o f the Benedictine-reform scholar Byrhtferth, a com ­

pendium (w ith diagram s) o f astronom ical and calendrical in form ation, is w ritten partly in Latin and partly in English, and there is overlap too between prose and verse: dialogues (including those o f Solom on and Saturn), charms and proverbs, for example, exist in both form s. Verse literature o f w isdom and lore w ould have been in existence before the com ing o f w ritin g, and in its oral and w ritten form s verse m ay be seen as having a m nem onic function, using m etrical features to render content m ore m em orizable, as w ould have been the case w ith the catalogue poem


for example, w hich lists

peoples and leaders from the heroic age, o r w ith the verse charm s, the rhythm ical form s and repetitive phrasing o f w hich (often m ixin g O ld English and Latin and incorporating unintelligible words) lend themselves to m em ­ orized incantation. As is the case w ith Anglo-Saxon w ritings generally, the bu lk o f the litera­ ture o f lore and learning survives in m anuscripts from the tenth century and later. This literature w ould have been produced m ostly in religious centres, where it w ould have provided texts o f interest to scholarly m onastic readers but also, as we saw to be the case w ith hom ilies, m aterial fo r use in the secular w orld - notably, perhaps, under this heading, m edical remedies. A m ong the m aterial o f interest to monastic readers w ould be learned handbooks from Latin-C hristian trad itio n , including w orks on such topics as the natural w orld, chronology, rhetoric, poetics (Bede, fo r exam ple, had w ritten on all o f these subjects) and geography, under w hich heading we can place the w ritings about faraway places m entioned above. W ritin gs about faraway places express perceptions about centre and m argin and about otherness, com plicated in the case o f Anglo-Saxon Eng­ land by the teachings inherited from classical geography that put what we still refer to as the ‘m edi-terranean’ lands at the centre o f the know n w orld and B ritain itself at the outer edge (see Figure 4.1). In an earlier chapter we saw the West Saxon account o f the voyages o f Ohthere and W ulfstan negotiating such categories and they continued to be o f concern to Anglo-Saxon thinkers (see Lavezzo 2006).

Fig. 4.1 The ‘Cotton Map’ ( British Library MS Cotton Tiberius B. v [c. 1050]), showing Britain and Ireland in the bottom -left corner

Anglo-Saxon knowledge about distant countries was largely second- and third-hand, relying on accounts o f some travellers (the eighth-century saint W illib a ld visited the H o ly Land, for example) but deriving in the m ain from

O ld English version o f the

classical trad itio n as transm itted by authorities such as Orosius and Isidore

century m anuscripts (one o f w hich is the Beoww//manuscript, the other being

and developed in accounts o f m onstrous races dw elling in the exotic east.

the m anuscript that also contains the C o tto n Map*, an Anglo-Saxon

A m ong the latter are the Latin

Liber monstrorum

("Book o f Monsters*),

thought to be an Anglo-Saxon com pilation o f the period 650-750, and the

mundi). A

Wonders of the East,

brief quotation from the

preserved in tw o eleventh-


Wonders of the East (trans. Swanton


p. 230) may serve 丨 o illustrate the kin d o f lore transm itted in this tradition:


The Camündge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

Belief» knowledge} experience


16. Then there is another island south o f the [river] Bryxontis on which men are born w ithout heads, who have their eyes and m outh in their chests. They are eight feet tall and eight feet broad.

based on experience o f G o d ^ natural w orld as they understood it and as part o f

17. Dragons are born there which are in length one-hundred-and-fiftyfeet long, and are as thick as great stone columns. Because o f the size of

to litu rgical symbols and practices comes from the perspective o f m odern

popular religion rather than being m agical. Unease about the w ay charms amalgamate ideas from fo lk culture w ith references to C hrist and his saints and rationalism rather than from observers in the period itself.

the dragons, nobody can travel easily in that country. 18. From this place to another kingdom on the south side o f the ocean, is measured three-hundred-and-twenty-three o f the lesser stadia m iles, and tw o-hundred-and-fifty-six o f the greater called A nd Homodwfcü, that is (doubtfully men’, are born there. They have a hum an form down to the navel, and from there on the form o f an ass. They have long legs like birds and a gentle voice. If they notice or see any man in those lands, then they go far off and flee. The fascination w ith m onstrous races and strange customs in distant lands persisted righ t to the end o f the M iddle Ages, o f course, and beyond. As alluded to above, am ong the wisdom and lore that w ould have been o f use in the secular w orld as well as in the m onastery are m edical remedies and related w ritings in the vernacular. As explained by Karen Jolly, vernacular m edical m anuscripts reflect an effort on the part o f textual com m unities to meet popular needs: *Just as penitentials, liturgical m anuscripts and hom ilies functioned as aids to the clergy,so too the m edical books served as manuals o f instruction and transm ission o f Anglo-Saxon religious folklore concerned w ith alleviating people's physical and spiritual ills. The overlap between physical and spiritual well-being is obvious in these texts; the developm ent o f C hristian remedies was therefore very m uch part o f the effort to create an Anglo-Saxon C hristian tradition that met the needs o f the populace5 (Jo lly 1996, p . 131). The literature that has been categorized as cm agico-m edical,is a particularly interesting, though little-studied, textual grouping, w ith in w hich we find classical m edical lore com bined in an integrated m anner w ith pre-C hristian ritualistic practices and a C hristian w orldview . A n essential com ponent o f this literature are the charms that com bat ailm ents caused b y dem ons, elves,dwarfs

T w o m e tric a l c harm s

(trans. Glosecki 2009, p, 41) T h e O l d E n g lis h B e e C h a r m

Against a swarm of bees take earth, cast it with your right hand under your right foot, and say: I seize it under foot: Kve found it now. Lo! earth has might over all creatures and against malice and over mindlessness and over the mighty man with his mighty tongue. And thereupon, when they swarm> throw gravel over them and say: Victory-wives! sit: sink to earth nowl Never to the woodland wild may you fiyf Be as mindful of my fortune as folks all are of food and home. Against a D w arf Against a dwarf take seven little wafers like those one offers [at Mass], and write these names on each wafer: Maximianus, Malchus, Johannes, Martinianus, Dionisius, Constantinus, Serafion [the names of the saints known as the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus]. Then one should sing the charm that follows here, first in the left ear, then m the right ear, then over the person's crown. And then have a virgin go in and hang it around his neck; and so do for three days, and he will soon be well. Spider creature came right in here had his harness in hand: you’re his horse, he claimed! and to your neck tied reins! Then they began to rise from the land. As they left the land their limbs grew cool, Then in she dashed the dw arf s sister f Then she ended it all and oaths she swore: no hurt would come to harm the sick, nor whoever gets the lore and learns this charm and knows how to chant this charm as well. Amen, Fiat [So be it].

and other m ysterious inhabitants o f the natural w orld. A substantial num ber o f these charms survive, including eleven in verse o r having passages o f verse included in them . As pointed out b y Jo lly (1996, p . 100), m odern com m en­ tators, whether w ritin g from a scientific progressivist standpoint o r rom antic­

The riddles o f the Exeter B ook

ally searching fo r the pagan G erm anic roots o f Anglo-Saxon culture, have

The Exeter B ook contains som e one hundred riddles, one o f them in Latin,

tended to regard such m aterial as largely m agical in character (hence the

the rem ainder in O ld E nglish (ed. ASP R I I I [the num bering o f the ASPR

designation (m agico-m edical,) but Anglo-Saxons w ould have viewed it as

ed ition is adopted lM n ]( also ed. W illia m so n 1977). These riddles are


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

Belief, knowledge, experience


poem s w hich vary in length from one lin e to m ore than a hundred, w ith

appreciation and critical understanding o f the riddles as poetry. Thus, for

the m ajo rity o f them being less than tw enty lines lon g (the Latin one,

exam ple, attention has recently been draw n to the literary techniques o f the

has five lines). The riddles are clever pieces o f w ritin g fo r clever

riddle poets and specifically their playfiilness and use o f m etaphorical

readers, w ho m ust decipher the teasing puzzle o f w hat is being cryptically

language (N iles 2006); the indebtedness o f the riddles to the conventions o f



Riddle 90,

The O ld English riddles are h igh ly allusive and m etaphorical in their treatm ent o f a subject m atter that encompasses the sublim e and the rid icu ­


has been stressed (B itterli 2009); and their interrelationship

w ith oral folk trad itio n has been argued (M u rph y forthcom ing), the latter view presenting a com pelling challenge to an o rth odoxy that insisted on the

lous and that ranges from descriptions o f dow n-to-earth objects to topics o f

entirely bookish character o f the O ld English riddles. The riddles are indeed

abstruse learning. They clearly were designed fo r the appreciation o f discern­

bookish, according to this persuasive new reading, but they draw upon

ing Anglo-Saxon readers, w ho w ould have been puzzled, entertained, edified

oral as w ell as learned trad itio n , transform ing that oral trad itio n in a

and, in the case o f the riddles w ith sexual content, shocked b y what they read.

self-conscious and artful manner.

Though the riddles m ight have been read ou t as w ell as read privately, their

As alluded to above, often the object o f the riddle is personified and takes

ideal audience w ould be readers who have the text visually in fron t o f them .

the role o f speaker, telling the reader about itself and its experiences, as is the

They are composed in the oral-derived style o f O ld English verse, w ith its rich

case w ith

w ord-hoard and inheritance o f evocative poetic images, particularly from the

Riddle 5, w hich


Tm by nature solitary, scarred by spear And wounded by sword, weary o f battle. I frequently see the face o f war,and fight hateful enemies; yet I hold no hope o f help being brought to me in battle, before Tm eventually done to death.

heroic w orld, but these are texts that also appeal to the eye through their use o f ru n ic letters and other features o f visual presentation. In the m odern period the O ld English riddles have fascinated scholars and exercised th eir ingenuity fo r approaching two hundred years, and interest in them continues to be as lively as ever, w ith exciting new w ork on them indivi'dually and as a group being produced by toda/s scholars. M uch o f the academic w ork on the riddles has been concerned w ith ‘solving ,them , responding to the in vitation in the text w hich is often directly expressed by a personined speaker as cSay what I am^ £W h at am I called?', and so on. For, unlike in the Latin

enigmata discussed

earlier in the book, these riddles d o ^ t

come w ith answers. Scholars have lon g been engaged in the task o f providin g convincing solutions that account fo r the clues laid out in the riddles,clues that are often straightforw ard enough b u t can also be paradoxical, contra­ dictory, far-fetched and deliberately obfuscating. In m any cases the scholars have succeeded but there are still plenty o f examples that continue to baffle or that have been given rival solutions that are hard to adjudicate between.

(lines 1-6; trans. Crossley-Holland 1979, p. 27) In

Riddle 9 another speaker

relates its life story:

In form er days m y m other and father forsook me for dead, for the fullness o f life was not w ithin me. But another woman graciously fitted me out in soft garments as kind to me as to her own children, tended and took me under her wing. (lines 1-6; trans. Crossley-Holland 1979, p. 31) Elsewhere the speaker is not the object itself but an observer who *saw a

C racking the code o f in d ivid u al riddles requires knowledge o f a wide range o f

strange creature1 or 'heard5 about som ething; earlier (see above, pp. 73-5) we

m edieval learning, lite ra ry convention and social practice, and some key

looked at the tbookw orm , riddle,

factors fo r solution m ay never be recoverable. Researchers persist w ith their efforts, however, throw ing new ligh t on old problem s and occasionally producing satisfying o rigin al solutions to apparently intractable puzzles. But current approaches to the O ld English riddles are interested in some­ th in g m ore than doing detective w ork on in d ivid u al poem s. The questions o f what kin d o f literature this is, w hat traditions in fo rm it and what it was doing in its period are very m uch to the fore, as is a concern w ith the


Riddle 47,

w hich begins,

A m oth ate words; to me that seemed a marveUous event when I heard about that wonder.

The answer to a particular riddle may be an everyday object, like a plough or a key, or it may be a domestic or wild animal or bird, or an aspect of nature, like wind or water» or a topic from the world of religion or learning. 'Creation1itself U th t lubject of two of the riddles, one which is the mighty


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

Belief, knowledge, experience



Riddle 40, a poem o f 107 lines, and it is incom plete. The second Creation' (Riddle 66) is a m uch shorter poem , w hich ends w ith the conventional

the earthy h u m ou r o f folk trad itio n and an awareness, perhaps, that sex m ay

challenge to the reader:

be ridiculous but is an appropriate topic therefore fo r a type o f literature that,

I fill far and wide all the corners o f the earth and the ocean streams. Say what m y name is. (lines 8b-10; trans. Crossley-Holland 1979, p. 86)

censoriousness in the sex riddles, however, w hich indicates an appreciation o f

as suggested above, encompasses the sublim e and the ridiculous. These double-m eaning riddles continue to raise eyebrows, as they must have been designed to do in their own period, but it should be emphasized in concluding this too b rief introduction to them that they are am ong the cleverest

The range o f subject m atter is heterogeneous indeed and the riddles overall m ay be seen as reflecting a perception o f the richness and variety o f G o d ^

in the collection and the densest in their use o f m etaphor — poems like the ^n ion * riddle have (one m ight say) rich layers o f m eaning that we can w ork to

creation and o f the delight-giving interconnectedness o f things. As C raig

peel away in close analysis. They are highly crafted poems in what is a highly

W illiam so n puts it, the riddles constitute *a profound statement about the

crafted genre, as continuing study o f it serves to confirm ever m ore strongly.

categories o f hum an perception and the power o f hum an im agination’ (W illiam son 1977, p. 27). Through im agination, w onder is revealed and

B y the way, the accepted solutions to

Riddles 5

and 9 are tshield, and

‘cuckoo’, respectively.

the o rd in a ry is shown to be extraordinary. This is all very edifying, but a good num ber o f the Exeter Book riddles have obvious sexual double meanings, w hich they elaborate w ith evident relish. As shown b y Patrick M urphy, *sex riddles* are w idely found in later folk tradition but are developed w ith particular know ing artistry in the O ld English collection. O ne example is

Riddle 25, quoted

here in C rossley-H olland^ lively

Old English elegies The term ‘elegy’ has been applied by scholars to a num ber o f O ld English

and alert translation, though inevitably translation fails to capture all the play

poem s found, uniquely (like the riddles), in the Exeter Book. The ‘elegies,do not occur together in the m anuscript but are spread out am ong other poems;

and possibilities o f the origin al and some lines could be taken differentiy:

it is their sentim ent and content rather than th eir location that have drawn


scholars to view them as a generically related group. A n d as well as the

at m y hands except for m y slayer.

‘elegies’ as a specific group o f poems, critics also refer to an ‘elegiac m ood , m ore w idely in O ld English verse, w hich has been seen as reflecting a

a strange creature, for I satisfy women, a service to the neighbours! N o one suffers I grow very tall, erect in a bed, Tm hairy underneath. From time to time a beautiful girl, the brave daughter o f some churl dares to hold me, grips m y russet skin, robs me o f m y head and puts me in the pantry. A t once that girl w ith plaited hair who has confined me remembers our meeting. Her eye moistens. (trans. Crossley-Holland 1979, p. 46)

The agreed answer to this riddle is ^ n io n 5, though there is a game going on in it o f leading the reader up the garden path, so to speak, to a different solution. Interestingly, in the m anuscript Riddle 25 is im m ediately follow ed by a riddle on a very religious topic, ‘B ible’. M u rph y explains the presence o f

pervasive them atic interest o f the poetry. A n influential defin ition o f O ld English elegy was provided by Stanley B. Greenfield in 1966: a relatively short reflective or dramatic poem embodying a contrasting pattern o f loss and consolation, ostensibly based upon a specific personal experience or observation,and expressing an attitude towards that experience. (S. B. Greenfield, 1966, p . 143) M ore recently, Anne L. K lin ck, the editor o f w hat is now the standard collected edition o f the ‘elegies, ,has w ritten , [T]he concept of 'elegy* in an Anglo-Saxon context provides us with a convenient locus for particular themes: exile, loss o f loved ones,

sexual activity lo o k ridiculous and therefore b rin g o u t the superiority o f

scenes o f desolation, the transience o f w orldly joys. The elegiac themes are presented in a lyrical-reflective mode w ith characteristic features such as monologue, personal introduction, gnom ic or hom iletic

religious life (M urphy forthcom ing). There is a tone o f delight rather than

condusion, and refrain o r rhyme.

riddles like

Riddle 25

in a m onastic m anuscript b y arguing that they make

These «tructural features, like the


r fM

ia iB




The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature scenic elements, are not peculiar to elegy, and no elegy contains all o f them, but the conjunction o f several o f them in the same poem is distinctive.

(Klinck 1992, p . 11)

The idea o f an elegy genre is viewed w ith some scepticism in current scholarship, as reflected even in o u r quotation from K linck, w hich presents the grouping as convenient rather than one based on firm com positional principles. W e referred above to nineteenth-century understandings o f heroic literature; sim ilarly, we need to recognize here that the category o f elegy is, historically, a construction o f the nineteenth century, fu lfillin g desires about poetry as personal expression that developed as part o f the rom antic aes­ thetic. As has recently been w ritten, ïle g y as a com positional class is a projection o f the sensibilities o f the R om antic Age back onto the early M iddle

Belief, knowledge, experience


W u l f a n d E a d w a c e r (19 lines), in which a female speaker expresses sickness of heart at her separation from W u lf. T h e W i f e rs L a m e n t (53 lines), also spoken by a female and expressing sorrow and bitterness in a situation of separation from a loved one. Res/gnat/on (118 lines), combining a meditative opening section with the image of a voyage in the second part; some critics regard the two parts as two separate poems. T h e H u s b a n d 's M e s s a g e (54 lines), in which a male figure sends a message to the wife from whom he is separated, telling her that he has overcome his troubles and asking her to join him in his new life; some scholars would combine T h e H u s b a n d 's M e s s a g e with the poem immediately preceding it, R i d d l e 6 0 \ others link in with T h e W i f e 's L a m e n t . T h e R u i n (49 lines), in which the speaker observes the effects of time on a ruined building and imagines the splendid life of those who once inhabited it.

Ages . . . V ictorians o f a rom antic disposition saw m irrored in these works their ow n tendency to m elancholy introversion w ith a Keatsian awareness o f m utability* (Fulk and Cain 2003, p . 180). This kin d o f poetry corresponded satisfyingly to the values o f the rom antic aesthetic and soon achieved p riv il­ eged objectified status in the canon as an im portan t genre. O bjectifying the idea o f O ld English elegiac poetry brings significant dangers, however, inclu din g that o f skewing perception o f O ld English literature as a whole. The poems generally viewed as m aking up the perceived group are also a disparate lo t in m any ways, not least in the fact that some o f them are purely secular w hile some are religious, and there is disagreement about exactly w hich poems should be included in the group. Nonetheless, characteristics o f the kin d identified above have been seen as givin g reasonable pragm atic justification fo r the *elegy5 label and it w ill be helpful to em ploy it here, on the understanding that it does not represent a sharply delineated category b u t,in K lin ck’s w ords, a ‘convenient locus’.

There is variety in the voices heard in the elegies and a variety o f attitudes displayed.

The Wife's Lament and Wulf and Eadwacer are distinctive in


the form or h igh ly em otional utterances by female speakers livin g in the heroic w o rld , who refer to their personal experience in love-relationships and who express the overw helm ing feelings o f pain arising from that experi­ ence. O ther Elegies* are m ore restrained in th eir expression o f em otion, as is the case w ith

The Husband's Message^ w ith The Ruiny in w hich

sometimes associated, o r

w hich

The Wife's Lament


the speaker is an im personal

figure, observing the relentless effects o f tim e in the w orld rather than undergoing personal suffering him self. O ther poems express consolation, as is seen in

Deor^ w hich,

referring to distressing experience both in past legend

and in the speaker^ ow n life, has the refrain-line, ^aes ofereode; pisses swa maeg5, 'T hat passed away; so can this*.

Deor also

has a m ention o f the V ise

L ord1 as the bringer-about o f change in the w orld, thus introducing a P o e m s c o m m o n ly c la s s ifie d as e le g ie s

C hristian note. O ther poem s again, notably

The Wanderer and The Seafarer^

are thorou gh ly C hristian in the message they derive from personal experience (in the order of their appearance in the Exeter Book): T h e W a n d e r e r (115 lines), describing personal experience and observation and leading to a conclusion that recognizes earthly transience and looks for security with the Father in heaven. T h e Seafarerd 24 lines)/which fs strongly homiletic in its response to experience in the world and urges that we should strive to attain eternal blessedness. T h e R i m i n g P o e m (87 lines), contrasting the speaker's former happiness to present sorrow, with a homiletic conclusion, rejecting woridliness and looking to heavenly joy. D e o r (A 2 lines), referring to stories of sorrow overcome in the legendary past and looking for (earthly) consolation in the future.

and from the observation o f earthly transience. In this respect they contrast radically w ith the stance o f TTie

Wulf and Eadwacer,

Lflme 故,TTie

Messfl坪 and

in w hich religion plays no part.

Such variation reflects the looseness o f (elegy5as a category, and although all the poem s in the perceived group display a selection o f the themes referred to by K lin ck, it should be borne in m in d again that elegiac themes in O ld English poetry are not confined to o u r Exeter B ook poems but are also represented elsewhere. Beyond the elegies group, critics p o in t to the (elegiac m ood, in the poetry, in w hich w ntim ents and ideas sim ilar to those o f the elegies are given expression. EleglftC p tlM g e ii expressing sorrow , loss, regret, the experience o f


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

exile and the awareness o f transience, occur notably in


Belief, knowledge, experience

in w hich two


it's different with us! For my W ulfs far-joumeyings I waited with hope. When weather was rainy and I wept/ when the battle-bold man embraced me, l took some pleasure, but it pained me too. Wulf, my W ulf, wanting you, your rare arrivals, have made me ill asorrow ingheart,nothungerforfood. Do you hear 'Eadwacer'? Our poor whelp Wulf bears to the woods. It’s easy to sever what never was seamed: our song together, (trans. Greenfield 1986)

passages in particular are often highlighted in this regard, the (song o f the Hlast su rvivo r”’ ( lines 2247-66) and the ‘father’s lam ent fo r his dead son’ ( lines 2444-62). A short extract from the latter passage m ay serve to suggest the kin d o f feelings to w hich it pow erfully gives voice: Sorrowful he sees in his son^ dwelling place the wine-hall deserted, the sleeping-place wind-swept, devoid o f joy, - the horsemen .sleep, the w arriors in the grave; there is no music o f the harp, delight in the courtyards, as once there were, (lines 2455-9) Traditional form ulaic language, both in the lines 7 3 ,7 8 ) n o t in this w orld but the next. The language o f exile features centrally in the poem . A t the beginning the

in th eir non-religious content, though the poems also seem to resist this in their insistence on a this-w orldly perspective. Someone like iE lfric w ould

speaker unhappily treads the paths o f exile

surely not have thought these secular elegies to be suitable reading m aterial

w inter seascape, contrasting his miserable experience w ith the joys o f society:

fo r his m onks b u t a m ore inclusive attitude is reflected in the Exeter Book,

he has on ly the sea-birds fo r his ‘entertainm ent,(to gomene,line 20):

even though some o f its poem s, fo r example the to as

Christ i) ,

Advent Lyrics (also


reflect the influence o f Benedictine reform ideals that

the mew singing instead o f the drinking o f mead,

w ould very m uch have approved of, w hile others, including some o f the A m on g the latter group is

The Seafarer

(trans. Bradley 1982, pp. 329-35;

line 15) in a

the noise o f the swan instead o f the laughter o f men,


elegies themselves, express strongly renunciatory messages.

(wrceccan lastum,

(lines 21-2)

As in the secular trad itio n , as represented in heroic poetry and in elegies such as

The Wif^s Lament

fo r o rigin al text, see M arsden 2004, pp. 221-30), the m ost adm ired, and the

is presented a» •

m ost com plex, o f the elegies, to w hich it is appropriate briefly to tu rn in

draw ing

the idea o f exile at the beginning o f

The Seafarer

dwply distressing one. In the trad itio n that ITie upon h 6N | o il« and alienation from com m unity provide

is the


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

Belief, knowledge, experience


archetypal expression o f unhappiness. In this trad itio n life has no m eaning

relates that Paul retreated further and further in to the desert, eventually

away from com m unity, and solitude has no attractions. C om m u n ity is the

fin din g the rem ote spot where he (spent the rest o f his life in prayer and

basis o f cultural life, and life away from com m unity is engaged in o n ly by

solitude' (trans. W h ite 1998, p, 77).

outcasts, fugitives and tragic figures, who strive to gain re-adm ittance into

This im pulse was strongly reflected in B ritain and Ireland in the early

steals a rich object from the

M iddle Ages. In Anglo-Saxon England it is seen in the lives o f the popular

dragons hoard in order to use it as a gift to w in back the favour o f his lord)

saints Cuthbert and Guthlac, fo r example, both o f w hom actively chose the

com m unity (like the m an in

Beowulf \^ho

o r w ho w ork to reestablish com m unity in th eir place o f exile (as the h u s ­

ascetic life o f solitude. A n d the trad itio n o f volu n tary

band' appears to have done in The Husband's Message when he asks his partner to rejoin h im in a new life). Some figures o f exile, like G rendel,


descended from the cursed race o f C ain, wage w ar from the wilderness against the bright hum an w orld from w hich they are excluded. U niquely in

The Seafarer, however, the

speaker goes on w illin g ly to im pose

peregrinatio pro amove

'exile fo r the love o f God', according to w hich individuals w ould entrust

themselves to the sea in boats and travel to wherever the Lord brought them , is a particularly striking Irish and Anglo-Saxon instance o f the renunciatory im pulse. Indeed, in a celebrated article, D oro th y W h itelo ck argued that this very custom is what is litera lly being described in

The Seafarer The Seafarer should be actual peregrinatioy the custom

(W hitelock

a kin d o f exile on him self. A fter the description o f the harsh life endured at

1950). W h ile it is now accepted that


sea w ith w hich the poem opens (lines l-3 3 a ), and in the ligh t o f this

sym bolically and not as a call fo r

does throw

description, the speaker im m ediately proceeds to express his passionate wish

ligh t on the ou tloo k o f the poem .

to set sail on the high seas, tu rn in g his back on land and hom e and seeking the place o f foreigners: And so thoughts now beat against m y heart, that I should venture for myself onto the towering seas,the tum ult o f the salt_waves on every occasion the desire o f m y m ind urges m y spirit to travel, so that far from here 1 may seek the homeland o f alien people,

(lines 33b-8)

In another w ay too (i.e., as well as supplying an image o f earthly hardship and unhappiness),the secular them e o f exile provides a pow erful literary tool fo r the poet o f The Seafarer. This theme is used in the poem to give im aginative expression to the profound


concept o f exile, as inherited from the

Bible and the w ritings o f the fathers o f the church. A ccording to this m eta­ phorical concept, w hich is w idely represented in Anglo-Saxon hom iletic w ritings, the hum an race was put in to exile by the fall o f Adam and Eve and yearns to return to its true hom e, w hich is w ith G od. The possibility o f such a return, a jou rn ey hom e from exile, was opened up fo r members o f the hum an

This is paradoxical in the context, and from the perspective o f the secular

race by the atonem ent o f C hrist. The great narratives o f exile and jou rn ey in the

trad itio n , it is an incom prehensible choice. In The Seafarer the revolutionary nature o f this choice is highlighted by the poem ’s awareness o f the hardships

O la Testament were seen in C hristian trad itio n as figures o f this universal

that the exile w ill endure in venturing on a sea-voyage and b y its appreciation o f how appealing are the joys o f life ‘on land’. The choice o f

The Seafarer

makes no sense from the secular perspective,

b u t it makes very great sense from the perspective o f renunciatory C hristian

hum an con dition ,to w hich C h ristian ity itself offered the o n ly remedy. A ccording to this tradition , we are all in exile, and death is the solitary journey w hich m ay lead to salvation. The Seafarer dram atizes this solitary journey, giving a v ivid representation, indeed, o f the onset o f death itself and present­ in g an urgent message o f salvation in the lig h t o f the recognition o f life on earth

spiritu ality, w hich form s a key context fo r the interpretation o f the poem . In

as a life o f exile. Thus C hristian and Germ anic concepts o f exile, along w ith the

rejecting earthly com fort and com m unity and em bracing hardship the

related idea o f a sea journey, interact in a dynam ic and shifting way in bu ild in g

speaker o f

towards the poem ’s C hristian message.

The Seafarer

is doing what ascetic Christians had done at least

from the th ird century when the m onks o f the Egyptian desert were seeking salvation through renunciation. The fathers o f m onasticism o f this tim e,

L ife o n e a r th as e x ile , in s o m e O ld E n g lish h o m ilie s

m ost fam ously the herm its A n ton y and Paul, lived lives o f heroic striving in the solitude o f the desert. A ccording to his biographer Athanasius o f A lexandria, A n ton y experienced the ascetic im pulse from an early age: 'H e was not content to stay at hom e b u t , . released trom all w o rld ly ties, eagerly entered upon ä harsh and arduous way o f life’ ( trans. W h ite, p . 10). Jerome

Because of the sins of the first man, Adam, we were cast out of the homeland of Paradise and sent into this world of exile, and we are thus in this world as if we have here no homeland. Concerning this, the apostle Paul said, fDum sumus in corpore peregrinamur a domino1. He, St Paul, said, 'While we are in the body, we


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

Belief, knowledge, experience

are in exile from God*. From here we may earn for ourselves the eternal homeland and true joy. { V e r c e l l i H o m i l i e s , XI [ed. Scragg 1992, p. 223]) We are in the foreign land of this world - we are exiles in this world, and so have been ever since the progenitor of the human race broke God's behests, and for that sin we have been sent into this banishment, and now we must seek hereafter another kingdom, either in misery or in glory, as we may now choose to merit. ( B l i c k l i n g H o m i l i e s , II, trans. Morris 1874-80, p. 22 tnnodified]) For our country is Paradise, to which we cannot return by the way we came. The first-created man and all his offspring were driven from the joy of Paradise, through disobedience, and for eating the forbidden fruit, and through pride, when he would be better than the Almighty Creator had created him. But it is greatly needful to us that we should, by another way, avoid the treacherous devil, that we may happily come to our country, for which we were created. (^Ifric, C a t h o l i c H o m i l i e s I, VI) [trans. Thorpe 1844-6,1,119]) Such a hom iletic message is h igh ly relevant in the m onastic context in w hich the Exeter B ook w ould have been read. W e m ight puzzle about the place o f

The Wife's Lament and Wulf and Eadwacer in the m anuscript The Seafarer cspeaks the language9 o f those who have w ithdraw n from

but the

w orld, seeking salvation through renunciation. It should also be said, however, that the message o f the poem is not o n ly fo r m onks and nuns. In

The Seafarer it {scefore, lin e 42).

is stated that

everyone has

anxiety about their ^ea-voyage*

In this statement the poem universalizes the theme o f

seafaring in a w ay that demands n on-literal interpretation, b u t

The Seafarer

does not specify what form such renunciation should take fo r people reading o r hearing the poem , as they strive to attain the bliss o f their heavenly hom e.


to their codicological environm ent are also vital in throw ing light on Anglo-Saxon literature and its uses, and these circumstances m ust be taken account o f along w ith any discussion o f kinds o f literature; and indeed they m ust feed in to such discussion, as I hope they have in these chapters. Thus,as w ell th in kin g about the Vercelli B ook hom ilies, say, in relation to other hom ilies, it is h ig h ly relevant to read them in the context o f the m anuscript as a whole in w hich they occur and in rd a tio n to the poems that it also contains. Such perspectives are increasingly throw ing interesting ligh t on in d ivid u al w orks and on groups o f w orks that appear together, providin g com pelling evidence about their purpose and reception (see, fo r instance, w ith reference to the Vercelli Book, Zacher and O rchard 2009) and about perceptions o f literature in the period. To h igh ligh t just a few examples, researchers have recently used m anuscript evidence to ask questions about the use and afterlife o f w orks by ^Elfric (e.g. Kleist 2009) and W ulfstan (e.g. W ilco x 1992); the religious themes that particular m anuscript com pilers are drawn to (fo r views about the Exeter Book, for example, see Conner 1993, M u ir 2000); the way

Beowulf might

have been read (see above, p. 93); and,

m ore generally, structural patterning in O ld English poetry (Pasternack 1995). Scholars debate principles o f organization and structure w ith in m anu­ scripts, particularly those that contain a wide range o f kinds o f literature. One example am ong m any is the m ostly O ld English m anuscript Cam bridge, Corpus C h risti College 2 0 1 ,p u t together in the m id eleventh century w ith contents that include a translated fragm ent o f the Mow 阳tic Agreemenf, hom ilies and laws by W ulfstan, other legal texts, the rom ance


Apollonius of

items on English saints, an excerpt from the translation o f Genesis,

some religious poetry, and m aterial in Latin. The m anuscript has been characterized as a (hodge-podge’ (Clemoes 1960) but one recent commen-

Postscript: genre and manuscripts

tator persuasively argues that a penitential them e in a Lenten setting under­

D ivid in g them into genres o r types has lon g been recognized as presenting a

lies the collection and that forgiveness is a recurring theme across its apparently disparate items (A nlezark 2006).

valuable perspective on the w ritings o f Anglo-Saxon England (and elsewhere,


m anuscripts were

evidently carefully organized, fo r example

o f course), allow ing critics to group w orks together and thereby enabling

according to the church calendar, others have close them atic unity, such as

the m odelling o f lite ra ry traditions and affiliations. The present chapter and

collections o f selected hom ilies, while others can be shown to have been

the previous one have aim ed to offer an understanding o f Anglo-Saxon

composed increm entally, w ith m aterial added on to an existing core (Scragg

literature by adopting such an approach. The generic approach gives a

2009, pp. 6 1-2 ). M anuscripts represent the m aterial rem ains o f literary

valuable intertextual perspective, b u t it m ust be acknowledged that, like the

h istory and analysis o f them provides a key means o f locating and historiciz-

editing o f in d ivid u al texts, in doing so it runs the danger o f abstracting works

ing the literature. The m anuscript context o f Anglo-Saxon w ritings has

too m uch from th eir m anuscript context. C onsidering the m ake-up o f

tradition ally been somewhat neglected by litera ry critics but is now receiving

m anuscripts and view ing in d ivid u al item s and groups o f items in rd a tio n

concentrated attention, especially as the resources and tools o f the digital age


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

increasingly make new possibilities available for studying m anuscripts, and indeed fo r givin g w ide access to images o f them (Treharne 2009, p . I l l ;

Chapter 5

see fiirth e r Lee and O ’D onnell 2009). Aspects o f the visual appearance and layout o f m anuscripts were touched on earlier. In concluding the present postscript it is w orth em phasizing the poin t that O ld English texts, particu larly poetry, lo o k very different in th eir m anuscripts from the w ay they do in m odern editions and translations. N ot

Anglo-Saxon afterlives, medieval to modern: later uses and appropriations of Anglo-Saxon writings

on ly do the o rigin al m anuscripts lack the titles, paragraphing, punctuation and capitalization that we fin d in printed editions and translations but, as was pointed out w ith reference to Figure 2.5 above (p. 71), in the case o f

M edieval continuities

poetry they are not even set out in verse lines but are w ritten continuously, like prose. A m odern printed edition o r translation recreates the text

Early m odern: recovering Anglo-Saxon England 168 The long e ig h te e n th century: history and politics 172

according to the principles and conventions o f p rin t technology, effacing

N in e te en th - and tw e n tie th -c e n tu ry perspectives



the m anuscript context and the particularities o f m anuscript presentation in

Creative w riters and Anglo-Saxon literature: fro m

the process. W e need the printed edition, as we need the translation, but

W ordsw orth and Longfellow to Heaney and th e present

should be aware that even an edition is a kin d o f translation. It mediates a

Postscript: Riddle 60 and The Husband's Message translated by d a r a n Carson 187

text that w ould otherwise have been inaccessible but in doing so it incorpor-


ates 压 particular interpretation o f that text. Interpretative possibilities were m ore open fo r the Anglo-Saxon readers o f the origin al m anuscripts. It has been suggested that hypertext digital editions offer a m ore enabling w ay o f

This chapter offers a b rie f overview o f the perception and reception o f

presenting m anuscript texts than does p rin t (see especially Foys 2007); this

Anglo-Saxon England and its literature after the Anglo-Saxon age itself.

m ay well be the case and such editions have begun to appear (e.g. O ^ o n n e ll,

Anglo-Saxon literature has been read and used in one way o r another

ed., 2005, M u ir, ed., 2006; see further Lee and O ^ o n n e ll 2009), though it

throughout later history, and images o f A nglo-Saxon England have been

is still very early days in the digital age for us to know how editing techniques

wielded p o litically in a succession o f cultural contexts, w ith the idea o f pre-

w ill develop. It should be added, however, that digital technology mediates

Conquest England often being invested w ith sym bolic significance. Today

too, if in a different w ay from p rin t technology.

Anglo-Saxon artefacts are am ong the m ost popular exhibits in museums in B ritain, and when the Staffordshire H oard was first put on display in 2009 people queued around the block to see its treasures. In recent generations Anglo-Saxon w ritings have fired the im agination o f creative w riters, m ost fam ously perhaps Tolkien and Heaney, and we have got used to appropri­ ations, particularly o f


in popular culture. Such appropriations have

included novels, com ic books and graphic novels, retellings fo r children, anim ated film s, illustrated translations and adaptations, com puter games, m usical versions, and H ollyw ood m ovies (see Staver 2005, George 2010, C lark and Perkins 2010). To m ention o n ly the latter, there have been five

Beowulf films

in the past

decade or so. O f these the m ost high-profile has been Robert Zem eckis’s 2007 version, a big-budget production in a ‘perform ance-capture’ anim ation form at, but other cinem atic adaptations have proved popular as well. Par­ ticu larly notable, and interesting I th in k, are

The 13th Warrior

(1999), w ith


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature


A n ton io Banderas, directed by lo h n M cTiem an, and

Anglo-Saxon afterlives, medieval to modern


(2008), w ith

century) exhibits a transitional fo rm o f early English w hile still preserving

Jim Caviezel, directed by How ard M cCain. The latter uses a science-fiction plot

O ld English form s. D eveloping the m etaphor o f the grave as a house, the

fram ew ork to render the m onster theme plausible fo r a tw enty-first-century

poem (ed. Short 1976, pp. 292-3) begins,


audience and incorporates ecological and postcolonial themes, as well as plenty

De wes bold 3 ebyld Öe wes molde im ynt

o f violence. The form er is based not directly on Beoww//itself but on the 1976 th riller

Eaters of the Dead by

blends story elements from

the best-selling novelist M ichael C richton, who

Beowulf w ith

docum entary inform ation from a

tenth-century source w ritten b y an A rabic traveller. The novel is in trig u in g ly

er J>u iboren were, er 9u o f m oder come.

[For you a house was b u ilt before you were born ; the ground was intended fo r you before yo u came from yo u r m other.]

postm odern in its b lu rrin g o f fact and fiction, w hich disconcerted C rich ton in

O ld English spelling appears here in a m odified form (w ith

retrospect, and the novel and the film take on new resonances in the post-9/11

exam ple), but the gram m ar is essentially that o f O ld English, and the A nglo-

cultural context: Banderas plays a sophisticated M uslim observer o f a Ger­

Saxon poetic m etre is still recognizable.

m anic culture presented as alien and undeveloped. There has also been a


fo r



The interest in the English past in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is not

directed b y Sturla

confined to non-N orm an outposts but is also very m uch in evidence in Anglo-

Gunnarsson (2005), a m uscular if somewhat ponderous retelling, w ith G erald

N orm an circles. This is ä period h i^ ily productive in Latin w ritings about

Butler, and one other H ollyw ood version, Graham Bakers

Anglo-Saxon saints, for example, m ost o f them w ritten by N orm ans. Indeed it

Canadian-Icelandic co-production,

Beowulf and Grendek



w ith Christopher Lam bert (the less said about the latter, the better, I th in k).

has been remarked that *[t]he vast output o f this period makes the pre-

Recent appropriations bring out the otherness o f the Anglo-Saxon and

Conquest Latin hagiography o f England seem meagre by com parison, (Love

G erm anic past (at the beginning o f this bo o k I quoted Heaney referring to

1999, p. 227). A n d there is a wave o f large-scale Latin histories o f England,

the Vemoteness* o f Beowulf) as w ell as its perceived n obility. Such themes are

w hich make inform ed use o f Anglo-Saxon sources, some o f w hich sources arc no longer extant. The leading figure am ong this group o f writers is W illiam o f

not new. Anglo-Saxon w ritings and the w orld associated w ith them were also being appropriated in com parable, though also in contrary, ways in earlier periods, influencing im portant litera ry figures and playing significant roles in

M alm esbury (c 1085/90-c.1143),a m onk o f m ixed N orm an-English parentage, whose History of the Kings of England (Gesta regum Anglorum) and

intellectual life and popular culture.

History of the Bishops of England (Gesta pontificum Anglomm) o f medieval historiography. W illia m


Medieval continuities

are key works

draws upon Bede, the


Asser and other sources, some unidentified, to tell the story o f

English history dow n to the early twelfth century, later bringing it up to date w ith his

As pointed out in Chapter 1 ,O ld English literary traditions persisted after the

Contemporary History {Historia novella). H e views England as having a

proud history but fo r W illia m the country went into decline in the later Anglo-

N orm an Conquest fo r up to two centuries in some places. There was

Saxon centuries and the N orm ans brought welcome new life. He castigates the

con tin uity in the copying, revision and com position o f O ld English texts,

behaviour o f clergy, m onks, nobles and com m on people in the period before

particularly, but not only, o f hom iletic and hagiographical m aterial. A n d long

the com ing o f the Norm ans (see especially

after the Conquest we also fin d careful scholarly glossing and annotation o f

M ynors 1998, pp. 458-61). W illia m has some criticism s o f the N orm ans too

Gesta regum, III.

245; ed. and trans.

O ld English m anuscripts from earlier centuries, m ost notably by the figure

but they are m ild by com parison. He writes o f the Norm ans indeed that *they

identified from his trem bling script as the Trem ulous H and' o f W orcester, a

are o f aU nations the most hospitable, they treat strangers w ith the same respect

learned m onk w ith m astery o f the older language, w orking in the late twelfth

as each other1. He adds, *The standard o f religion, dead everywhere in England,

and early thirteenth century to facilitate the continuing use o f Anglo-Saxon

has been raised by their arrival: you m ay see everywhere churches in villages, in

w ritings am ong contem porary readers (Franzen 1 9 9 1 ).Eventually knowledge o f Standard O ld English fades and the language o f vernacular texts becomes

towns and cities monasteries rising in a new style o f architecture; and w ith new devotion ou r country flourishes, so that every rich m an thinks a day wasted if

identifiable as Early M iddle English, a process that we can see taking place in

he does not make it remarkable w ith some great stroke o f generosity, (III. 246;


ed. and trans. M ynors 1998, pp. 460-1).

Peterborough Chronicle^ fo r

example. A poem like

The Grave (m id-tw elfth


The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature

Anglo-Saxon afterlives, medieval to modern

W illia m is profuse in his praise o f Bede, in whose steps he sees him self as


draw upon). These scholars were followed in the 1560s by a ‘second generation’,

follow ing, and other historians o f the pen oa were equally in BedeJs debt, and

referred to as the Parker circle. Under the auspices o f M atthew Parker, arch­

equally adm iring o f h im . The

bishop o f C anterbury 1559-75, this group established the study o f the O ld

Ecclesiastical History

was a m ajor object o f

study in A nglo-N orm an England, to the extent that by the m id-tw elfth

English language on a firm footing and brought O ld English w ritings in to the

century, as N . J. H igham w rites, Bede V a s w ell established in the role o f

public dom ain. The m ajor themes o f this second phase o f activity have been

the founding father o f English H istory, m ined com paratively indiscrim inately

identified as ‘the focused study o f legal texts änd the ArtgZo-S似》 C/inm idA the

fo r stories and “facts” and w idely subjected to the plagiarism by w hich

exam ination and exploitation o f manuscripts fo r the evidence that they could

intellectuals o f the period showed th eir appreciation’ ( H igham 2006, p. 28).

contribute to contem porary religious debates, and the appearance o f the first

The use o f Anglo-Saxon literature and h istory in the later M iddle Ages is a

printed editions o f O ld English texts* (G raham 2 0 0 1 ,p. 418). Parker him self was

topic that was opened up by some o f the contributions in a volum e published

a tireless collector o f m anuscripts in the period after the monasteries had been

in 2000 (ed. Scragg and W einberg 2000) and that is being pursued in current

dissolved and m uch o f their contents destroyed o r lost; it is thanks to him that

research. Chaucer and Gow er m ay not seem to offer prom ising avenues for

we have one o f the great collections o f m edieval English m anuscripts, now in the

such research but C haucer^

of Constance^

Man ofLaw^s Tale and

its analogue, Gower^s


Parker L ibrary at Cam bridge. A second great collection w ould be assembled in

feature Anglo-Saxon N o rth u m bria, a rem ote land where hea­

the early seventeenth century by Sir Robert C otton (1571-1631), now in the

thens, having previously expelled the B ritish Christians, are themselves

British Library, though part o f it w ould be lost in a fire o f 1731,

beginning to convert to C hristianity. Both these versions have been seen as

The study o f w ritings from Anglo-Saxon England participated in the

using images o f Anglo-Saxon England to h igh ligh t concerns about sover­

politics o f the tim e, both secular and religious. The era o f Parker was one o f

eignty and iden tity in the late fourteenth century (Lavezzo 2006; Lees fo rth ­

fierce religious controversy, o f course, w ith the Protestant R eform ation in

com ing), though the emphasis on Anglo-Saxon England and its h istory is

England at its height. Parker had succeeded the C atholic Robert Pole as

m ore pronounced in the source o f the Chaucer and Gow er tales, the early

archbishop and was zealous in cham pioning Protestant teaching. It was under

fourteenth-century A nglo-N orm an


o f N icholas Trevet, than in

the M iddle English versions themselves (Frankis 2000).

his direction that the T h irty-n in e Articles that defined English Protestantism were established. The first O ld English texts to be edited and printed (by

B y the tim e o f Chaucer and Gower, O ld English texts had become a closed

Parker and his associate John Joscelyn, in 1566 o r 1567) were w orks by ^ lf r ic ,

book, so to speak, though vernacular literary traditions o f alliterative poetry

o f w hich the m ost prom inent was his h o m ily fo r Easter from the Second Series

showing continuity w ith O ld English verse were still flourishing in late medieval


B ritain, and Bede5s

the public, though not w ithout some judicious tweaking in the editing (see

Ecclesiastical History

rem ained popular (Gransden 1992,

Catholic HomilieSy a h o m ily on

the Eucharist. This h o m ily was presented to

pp. 1-29). Anglo-Saxon England also features in M iddle English romance

Leinbaugh 1982), as evidence that the ancient English church d id not sub­

(Rouse 2005), It is on ly w ith the efforts o f Tudor antiquarians in the sixteenth

scribe to the popish doctrine o f transubstantiation but understood the sacra­

century that knowledge o f the O ld English

to be recovered,

ment to represent the body and blood o f C hrist sym bolically. The h o m ily was

however, and that Anglo-Saxon England begins to be perceived as constituting a

language begins

popular w ith religious polem icists throughout the next century and beyond,

subject o f special interest and relevance to the concerns o f the present.

serving to draw an em phatic lin e between England and Rom e. N o t fo r these early m odern ideologues the idea o f Rom e as ‘capital o f Anglo-Saxon England’ (see above, p . 1 0 1 ):it was a case o f'n o t Angles, but Anglicans', as it were.

Early modem: recovering Anglo-Saxon England

For Elizabethans like Parker the distinctive Englishness o f the English church was already apparent in the Anglo-Saxon centuries. The fact that that

The early m odern recovery o f O ld English can be traced back to the studies in

Englishness was expressed in the vernacular