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Old English Literature

Old English Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by R. M. LIUZZA
Copyright Date: 2002
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 528
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  • Book Info
    Old English Literature
    Book Description:

    Recognizing the dramatic changes in Old English studies over the past generation, this up-to-date anthology gathers twenty-one outstanding contemporary critical writings on the prose and poetry of Anglo-Saxon England, from approximately the seventh through eleventh centuries. The contributors focus on texts most commonly read in introductory Old English courses while also engaging with larger issues of Anglo-Saxon history, culture, and scholarship. Their approaches vary widely, encompassing disciplines from linguistics to psychoanalysis.In an appealing introduction to the book, R. M. Liuzza presents an overview of Old English studies, the history of the scholarship, and major critical themes in the field. For both newcomers and more advanced scholars of Old English, these essays will provoke discussion, answer questions, provide background, and inspire an appreciation for the complexity and energy of Anglo-Saxon studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12911-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. xi-xxxvi)

    The surviving remains of Old English literature are the flotsam and jetsam of a vanished world, manuscripts and fragments of texts divorced from their original context, most of them second- or thirdhand copies of unknown originals, many of them saved from oblivion only by chance or neglect. From these randomly preserved parts of a whole we are supposed to extrapolate a fluid and living system—a spoken dialect, a literary tradition, a moment in history—but it is sometimes difficult to imagine how to move from these discontinuous scraps to a reconstructed reality. The textual product reveals only traces of...

  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xxxvii-xxxviii)
  6. The Cultural Construction of Reading in Anglo-Saxon England
    (pp. 1-22)

    In these lines from “The House was Quiet and the World was Calm,”¹ Wallace Stevens offers a particularly modern description of reading as a private, meditative transaction between reader and book. The act of reading becomes a scene in which the reader is alone, distanced from the claims of domestic and public life. What is read is specifically a book, that is, the material form texts assume in a world shaped both by the technology of printing and by Romantic notions of the self. Thus, as Stevens says, the book as an object possesses “conscious being.” Under these conditions, the...

  7. Anglo-Saxon Lay Society and the Written Word
    (pp. 23-50)

    The study of literacy in Anglo-Saxon England in some ways resembles the hunt for a certain elusive type of sub-atomic particle: the direct evidence for its existence is negligible but the fact that it does exist can be inferred from its perceived effect upon its environment. When we scour the primary sources for references to reading and writing, to the literacy of individuals, to basic education and book-ownership, our haul is sparse indeed. Inferences drawn from scribal competency can be suggestive, but hardly provide a sufficient basis for general analysis of the quality and extent of Anglo-Saxon literacy. The conclusions...

  8. The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity Before the Norman Conquest
    (pp. 51-78)

    There are grounds for seeing an increasing sophistication in the development of a self-conscious perception of ‘English’ cultural uniqueness and individuality towards the end of the ninth century, at least in some quarters, and for crediting King Alfred’s court circle with its expression. King Alfred was not, as Orderic Vitalis described him, ‘the first king to hold sway over the whole of England’, which tribute might rather be paid to his grandson Æthelstan.² He was, however, as his obituary in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described him, ‘king over the whole English people except for that part which was under Danish rule’.³...

  9. Orality and the Developing Text of Caedmon’s Hymn
    (pp. 79-102)

    The modern editorial practice of printing Old English poetry one verse to a line with a distinct separation between half-lines distracts attention from a well-known and important fact, that Old English poetry is copied without exception in long lines across the writing space.¹ Normal scribal practice does not distinguish verses, reserving capitals and points for major divisions of a work.² In manuscripts of Latin poetry, however, quite another practice holds. Latin verses copied in England after the eighth century are regularly transmitted in a formal familiar to modern readers: verses are set out one to a line of writing, capitals...

  10. Reading Cædmon’s “Hymn” with Someone Else’s Glosses
    (pp. 103-124)

    According to the Venerable Bede, our first reliable English historian, English literature had a miraculous origin in the late seventh century in a religious somniloquy by an illiterate cowherd named Cædmon. Writing at least a half century after the miracle, Bede represents Cædmon’s Old English “Hymn” in only a Latin paraphrase in hisHistoria Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum.Our earliest vernacular versions of the “Hymn” appear, not as part of Bede’s text, but rather as notes later appended by scribes to two eighth-century manuscripts of theHistoria Ecclesiastica.¹ From its humble start as a marginal, secondary text, the vernacular “Hymn” first...

  11. Birthing Bishops and Fathering Poets: Bede, Hild, and the Relations of Cultural Production
    (pp. 125-156)

    Our title refers to two events in Old English literary history, both of which originate with Bede in hisEcclesiastical History.¹ According to Bede, Hild is worthy of memory at least in part because, as celebrated Abbess and Mother of the dual foundation of Streonæshalch or Whitby, she created an environment of spiritual instruction that produced five bishops. Twentieth-century historians, following Bede, also remember Whitby as a virtual “nursery of bishops,” to borrow, as others have, Frank M. Stenton’s evocative phrase.² The second event recalls an even better known literary moment when Bede bequeaths his society, and subsequent scholarly readers,...

  12. Kinship and Lordship in Early Medieval England: The Story of Sigeberht, Cynewulf, and Cyneheard
    (pp. 157-181)

    In an unusually lengthy entry¹ for the year 757, theAnglo-Saxon Chroniclerecounts a complex and well-crafted story, which the chronicler and his contemporaries presumably found interesting, dramatic, and perhaps even instructive and which modern scholars have never tired of retelling.² The story opens in 757,³ when Sigeberht, because of his “wrongful” acts, was deprived of his kingdom by Cynewulf and the councillors of the West Saxons.⁴ Sigeberht, who, like Cynewulf, was supposedly descended from Cerdic,⁵ retained control over Hampshire, perhaps as an underking.⁶ But later, after killing an ealdorman named Cumbra, who had long stood by him,⁷ Sigeberht was...

  13. The Thematic Structure of the Sermo Lupi
    (pp. 182-203)

    Sermo Lupi ad Angloshas attracted far more attention by its subject matter than have other Wulfstan sermons, because its apparent topicality is of interest to students of the Old English period. Like all Wulfstan’s sermons, though, it has been chiefly esteemed for its forceful oratory—it is this sermon, indeed, which is responsible for his reputation as a fiery orator in the Old Testament vein. Most readers have praised it more enthusiastically than Sir Frank Stenton did, when he stated that it ‘makes its effect by sheer monotony of commination’.¹ But even its admirers have regarded it as little...

  14. Social Idealism in Ælfric’s Colloquy
    (pp. 204-214)

    Ælfric’sColloquy¹ is, of course, first and foremost, a dialogue between a master and his pupils to give practice in the use of Latin at a conversational level. The pedagogic intention of the work is evident from the interlocutors’ habit of lingering over commonly used words in various grammatical forms: for example, in a few opening lines (2–11 ) the deponentloquiappears asloqui, loquimur, loquamurandloqueris,together with the nounlocutio,and within a little more than fifty lines (66–119 ) we find seven forms of the verbcapere,two of them occurring four times...

  15. The Hero in Christian Reception: Ælfric and Heroic Poetry
    (pp. 215-235)

    It may seem perverse to pursue the investigation of Germanic heroic paradigms and functions by first focussing on the work of Ælfric.¹ But if we are to consider the society in which most of the surviving Anglo-Saxon poems are copied and so preserved for us, it is in a sense even more perversenotto consider him. The bulk and influence of his work and his profound innovativeness in English traditions of composition are in many ways the single largest literary presence of the landscape within whichThe Battle of MaldonandBrunanburhare composed, and in which the extant...

  16. Didacticism and the Christian Community: The Teachers and the Taught
    (pp. 236-270)

    Scholarly tradition,” remarks Roberta Frank, “wants us to speak well of the works we study; there would be little point in talking about something that was not beautiful and truthful, not ‘interesting.’”¹ As for works, so, too, periods. Although Anglo-Saxonists may disagree about the emphases of their interpretations of the Benedictine reforms, the late tenth century is usually characterized with good reason as a “golden age.”²

    The contribution of the vernacular homilies to this “cultural renascence”³ of the intellectual and cultural achievements of the Anglo-Saxons, while appreciated, is nonetheless underestimated. The homiletic corpus offers the strongest evidence in the period...

  17. The Editing of Old English Poetic Texts: Questions of Style
    (pp. 271-283)

    Stylistics has not hitherto played a systematic or important part in the solution of editorial problems in Old English poetry. However, considerations of style may be used to augment linguistic factors in an attempt to produce a text that represents as closely as possible an editor’s apprehension of the original work. However diverse their approaches to the editorial task, this has been the aim of most editors; from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century, editors allowed themselves great latitude and thereby brought conjectural emendation into disrepute.¹ This practice was characterized by what George Kane describes as “excessive subjectivity, an...

  18. Anglo-Saxons on the Mind
    (pp. 284-314)
    M. R. GODDEN

    Peter Clemoes’s essay ‘Mens absentia cogitansinThe SeafarerandThe Wanderer’¹ drew attention to important similarities between the psychological theories of the patristic tradition and the way in which Anglo-Saxon poets present the workings of the mind. Further exploration has begun to show how rich a seam he has opened up, of interest for Old English prose as well as poetry. Anglo-Saxon writers have important and often novel things to say about the nature of the mind and soul, and their discussions touch significantly on a problem of continuing interest, the relationship of psychological ideas and linguistic expression. What...

  19. Sundor æt Rune: The Voluntary Exile of The Wanderer
    (pp. 315-327)

    Studies of the Old English poemThe Wandererexist, it has frequently been noted, in great quantities. The poem has been examined in the light of genre criticism,² psychoanalytic criticism,³ and the New Criticism,⁴ and has undergone iconographic,⁵ structural,⁶ rhetorical,⁷ and stylistic⁸ analysis. Some critics have looked at its dramatic features,⁹ and at least one at its romantic elements.10But despite the disparate cries from these several critical voices, scholars do seem generally to harmonize on the theme and structure of the poem:The Wandererfollows the development of a troubled soul from theeardstapa(“earth-stepper,” l.6a), who is subject...

  20. From Plaint to Praise: Language as Cure in “The Wanderer”
    (pp. 328-352)

    In recent years, it has become something of a critical commonplace to regard “The Wanderer” as a “Bildung” lyric, a poetic account of spiritual growth. Previous conflicts of interpretation concerning the identity of the speaker, the nature of his utterance (dramatic monologue, meditative dialogue, heroic soliloquy?) and the general ideological thrust of the poem have given way to a common reading of a quasi-didactic figure who, in the idiom of elegy, illustrates the growth of a mind, the way from pagan malaise to Christian comfort. As Robert Bjork points out, critics have come to underscore the poem’s self-enclosing structure—its...

  21. The Form and Structure of The Seafarer
    (pp. 353-380)

    One of the accepted precepts of medieval literary studies is that texts should be interpreted against the background of the culture that produced them and for which they were composed; but some texts are not obviously associated with any specialized background, and the Old English poemThe Seafarer—anonymous, untitled, unlocalizable within Anglo-Saxon England, and difficult to date within a period of about three hundred years—is a case in point. It is one of the poems in the Exeter Book, a manuscript written by a single scribe during the second half of the tenth century and now kept in...

  22. En/closed Subjects: The Wife’s Lament and the Culture of Early Medieval Female Monasticism
    (pp. 381-391)

    It has long been accepted critical practice in Old English scholarship to acknowledge that the Old English elegies employ the language of the Germanic-heroic world, of retainers and lords, to articulate a Christian world-view.² Those elegies which are generally believed to have male speakers—in particular “The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer”—are often read as poems which explore the various tensions between spiritual and worldly desires, and which apply traditional Germanic-heroic hierarchies to the relationship between God and man. Similarly, the speaker of “The Wife’s Lament” uses heroic language, yet it is not at all common to consider the language...

  23. The Devotional Context of the Cross Before A.D. 1000
    (pp. 392-403)

    In order to understand the milieu out of which arose crosses such as those at Ruthwell and Bewcastle and poems in Old English such asThe Dream of the RoodandElenein the Vercelli Codex, it is useful to sort out as clearly as possible the various elements of devotion, theology, and liturgy which provided the background and possible inspiration for these works. Several writers have already drawn attention to the monastic devotional traditions of the Anglo-Saxon period which influenced poetic literature and the iconography of the crosses.¹ Some have elucidated the links between the theology of judgment and...

  24. Stylistic Disjunctions in The Dream of the Rood
    (pp. 404-424)

    The stylistic disjunctions inThe Dream of the Roodare not a new topic. They have been treated explicitly and implicitly for many years from several different points of view. The most frequently noted disjunction occurs at line 78 where the cross, having completed its eye-witness account of the crucifixion, commences a homily explaining the significance of its experience. But there are others as well: at 27 where the poet switches personae from dreamer to cross, at 121 where the dreamer again becomes the speaker to describe his personal reaction to his vision and at 147 where the poet begins...

  25. God, Death, and Loyalty in The Battle of Maldon
    (pp. 425-444)

    InThe Battle of Maldon,said Humphrey Wanley, “celebratur virtus bellica Beorhtnothi Ealdormanni, Offae et aliorum Anglo-Saxonum, in praelio cum Danis,”¹ and two and a half centuries later another great Anglo-Saxon scholar summed up the traditional interpretation of the poem in terms which, though fuller, are not essentially different: “The words of Beorhtwold [Maldon,312–19] have been held to be the finest expression of the northern heroic spirit, Norse or English; the clearest statement of the doctrine of uttermost endurance in the service of indomitable will. The poem as a whole has been called ‘the only purely heroic poem...

  26. Maldon and Mythopoesis
    (pp. 445-474)

    How are we to readThe Battle of Maldon?

    A thousand years after the battle that this poem commemorates was fought, historians and literary scholars are no nearer consensus on this issue than ever, and for good reasons. Like most Old English verse, the poem does not explain itself. Long before twentieth-century theorists announced, with some satisfaction, the death of the author, the unknown author ofMaldonwas indeed quite dead, having left no trace of his identity or his reasons for composing this work other than what can be inferred from the text.¹ Mutilated by the chances of manuscript...

  27. Contributors
    (pp. 475-476)
  28. Index
    (pp. 477-480)