Old English Literature: Critical Essays

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Wilcox
A great resource for students grappling with translating the works most often encountered in an introductory Old English course,as well as for those reading them in translation. Liuzza provides an elegant introductory essay suggesting the challenges and joys of interpreting literature written a millennium ago.
Nicholas Howe
This invaluable volume fills an obvious gap in the field by offering a series of first-rate essays that introduce students to the culture,historiography,and literature of Anglo-Saxon England. Liuzza’s introduction to the book is written with his characteristic lucidity,directness,and wit.
Daniel Donoghue
The essays in this stimulating collection are thought-provoking,never dull,and occasionally controversial. They represent some of the most exciting work in the field today.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300091397
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 518
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.15 (d)

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Old English Literature

Critical Essays

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09139-7

Chapter One

The Cultural Construction of Reading in Anglo-Saxon England

* * *


The house was quiet and the world was calm. The reader became the book, and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book. The house was quiet and the world was calm.

In these lines from "The House was Quiet and the World was Calm," 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 poet's claim that "the reader became the book" expresses a sense of causation that turns on the double meaning of "become": the reader takes on the form of the book by suiting or complimenting it. The act of reading imposes a trance-like concentration on the reader so that "The words were spoken as if there was no book." A characteristically Stevensian trope, the "as if" of this line asserts its opposite, the inescapable presence of the book in the scene of reading. This concentration is necessary because the reader "wanted much most to be / The scholar to whom his book is true." Stevens closes the poem by claiming audaciously that "truth in a calm world ... Is the reader leaning late and reading there."

With its chastened, even mundane, direction, "The House was Quiet and the World was Calm" asserts our shared belief that we read best alone, at night, becoming our book, desiring to be the perfect reader we honor as the "scholar." In this way, the poem would have seemed incomprehensible to a medieval reader shaped by classical practices and texts as they were absorbed into Christian culture. For it is precisely the quiet and solitude of Stevens's reader that would have disturbed a medieval reader accustomed to reading as a public, spoken act performed within what Brian Stock calls a "textual community":

What was essential for a textual community, whether large or small, was simply a text, an interpreter, and a public. The text did not have to be written; oral record, memory, and reperformance sufficed. Nor did the public have to be fully lettered. Often, in fact, only the interpres had a direct contact with literate culture, and, like the twelfth-century heretic Peter Waldo, memorized and communicated his gospel by word of mouth.

As the inclusion of orality proves, Stock's use of community is not primarily, if at all, metaphoric; it refers to an actual group of readers, listeners and interpreters. Under these conditions, reading and interpreting texts has the social effect of creating a community in which "individuals who previously had little else in common were united around common goals." Such a community depends upon but also in turn creates "a general agreement on the meaning of a text."

This sense of reading as a communal act, so hauntingly alien to Stevens's poem, may be taken as a useful model for considering reading as a performative event in Anglo-Saxon England because it introduces the necessary dimension of shared cultural practice. Later I will suggest that Stock's idea of a textual community holds for Anglo-Saxon England by examining the etymology of such Old English words as the noun raed and the verb raedan, and also by considering various Anglo-Saxon descriptions of the scene of readings But first I want to complicate Stock's concept of textual community by examining a counterexample that in its deviation from cultural norms of reading helps us to understand better the nature of these same norms.

As Augustine describes his long journey to conversion in the Confessions, he frequently interposes descriptions of his rhetorical and philosophical education. These passages usually center on his encounters with great figures and, more particularly, with them as readers. Thus Augustine explains his break with the Manicheans as dating from his discovery that he had read more widely than had Faustus, the famous teacher of that sect (Confessions, V. 6-7). It thus seems perfectly natural that as he approaches conversion in Milan, Augustine should describe the reading practices of Ambrose, the great Catholic bishop of that city. What surprises us, however, is that Augustine does not identify the works read by Ambrose but rather describes the silent and self-contained manner of his reading. In those moments when Ambrose was not fulfilling a public role, Augustine tells us, he would refresh his body by eating and his mind by reading. But, and the full force of Augustine's sed must be registered, Ambrose read silently: sed cum legebat, oculi ducebantur per paginas et cor intellectum rimabatur, vox autem et lingua quiescebant "but when he read, his eyes followed the pages and his heart pondered the meaning, though his voice and tongue were still" (Confessions VI.3). Augustine is careful to specify that Ambrose would read silently to himself even when others were present and might have approached him in conversation. This practice seemed so unusual to Augustine and others around him that they debated about (discedebamus) it and offered possible explanations for it. Perhaps Ambrose read silently so that those around him would not be able to interrupt him with questions about the meaning of the text before him. That is, Ambrose read silently to avoid functioning, in Stock's term, as the interpres. Or perhaps, Augustine suggests, Ambrose did so to spare his weak voice for necessary public occasions. In the end, Augustine can only assert that Ambrose must have had some good reason for reading silently.

This last comment in no way lessens Augustine's wonder at the sight of a man reading silently. For his is the wonder of a man who had spent his first forty years or so in reading aloud and in public diverse works on Roman rhetoric, Manichean doctrine, Neoplatonic philosophy, and Christian theology. This sense of wonder belongs, then, to a man who believed that the way to the truth was through the written word as performed or interpreted within a community. Whatever spiritual beliefs he held and discarded, Augustine never lost that faith in the written text. To suggest that Ambrose would have appreciated "The House was Quiet and the World was Calm" might be foolishly anachronistic, yet it reminds us not merely of the obvious point that conventions of literacy are culturally determined but also of the more necessary point that not all members of a community subscribe to such conventions at all times. Still, to the extent that he portrays Ambrose as a reader not unlike the scholar of Stevens's poem, Augustine does establish the terms of his own practice as a reader within a textual community: that it should be the speaking aloud of the written text in the company of others so that they might interpret its meaning. That such a community would produce discordant babble rather than interpretive dialogue holds only if we assume that it had no protocols for reading as evident as the signs admonishing "Silence!" in our libraries.

To move from Augustine's Confessions to the Old English raeed and raedan means encountering quite different conventions of culture, language, and literacy. Without denying these obvious differences, it becomes easier to make this move if we recognize that these words and their cognate forms in other Indo-European languages first denoted the act of giving counsel through speech. Recent scholarship on medieval literacy, as examplified most imaginatively in M. T. Clanchy's From Memory to Writen Record. England, 1066-1307 (1979), Brian Stock's The Implications of Literacy (1983), and Rosamond McKitterick's The Carolingians and the Written Word (1989), also offers some assistance for considering reading practices in Anglo-Saxon England. Two very recent books, both learned and subtle, focus moe specifically on pre-Conquest England: Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe's Visible Song. Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse (1990) and Seth Lerer's Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (1991). O'Keeffe develops a range of innovative techniques for examining manuscripts as evidence for Anglo-Saxon literacy, while Lerer draws productively on contemporary literary and literacy theory to construct a vision of that culture's "literate imagination." Yet since neither constructs its argument by examining what Anglo-Saxons as members of textual communities might have meant by raeed and raedan, or by absorbing the work of contemporary ethnographers, the following study will be something of a foray into unexamined territory. Perhaps the most useful of all guides for this foray is Tzvetan Todorov's salutary observation that: "Nothing is more commonplace than the reading experience, and yet nothing is more unknown. Reading is such a matter of course that, at first glance, it seems there is nothing to say about it." As Todorov goes on to demonstrate, there is indeed much to say about reading literary texts. Similarly, there is much to say about the word reading itself, despite the fact that it seems so utterly transparent in meaning.

The significance of raedan can be measured both by its complex etymology and by the range of its primary meanings, because together they establish that it denoted a variety of necessary functions within Anglo-Saxon culture. In his Indogermanisches Etymologisches Worterbuch, Julius Pokorny classifies the old English rxdan with other forms sharing the Indo-European root re-dh-, ro-dh-, r/??/-dh-, including Sanskrit radhnoti, radhyati "to achieve or accomplish" and the Common Germanic raedan. Important Germanic cognates include Gothic garedan, Old High German ratan, Old Saxon radan, Old Norse rada, and Old Frisian reda. As the etymological note in the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary explains, these Germanic cognates share the principal meanings of "to give advise or counsel," "to exercise control over something," and "to explain something obscure," such as a riddle (OED, s.v. read). This note adds further that only Old English and, perhaps following its lead, Old Norse extended the meaning of "to explain something obscure" to mean "the interpretation of ordinary writing." "Ordinary writing" must be distinguished from the original and specialized meaning of the Old English writan "to cut a figure in something" (Bosworth-Toller, s.v. writan, I), and more specifically, "to incise runic letters in stone." These runic inscriptions do not belong to the category of ordinary writing, and thus deciphering them would have fallen under one of the original senses of raedan, namely, "to explain something obscure."

The transition from reading something that is obscure, such as a runic inscription, to reading a written text in Old English or Latin-the "ordinary writing" of the OED-is crucial to the semantic development of the Modern English read. But this transition must be set in a semantic context rather different from that provided by the OED. Among the cognates discussed by Pokorny under the root re-hd-, ro-dh-, r/??/-dh-, but not listed in the OED, are a group of words that designate various forms of speech: Welsh adrawd "to tell or narrate" and amrawdd "conversation, discourse"; Gothic rodjan "to speak"; Old High German ratan "to consult or confer with"; Old Norse roda "to speak." This set of words makes explicit what lies implicit in the other cognates listed above: that the giving of counsel, or the exercising of control, or the explaining of something obscure could only have been a spoken act in the cultures that used these various languages before the introduction of writing. More specifically, these words are alike in denoting speech acts that posit an audience or, in the term used in this study, a textual community. In diverse ways, giving advice and solving riddles depend on a shared set of beliefs and body of knowledge. As these functions are performed through the medium of speech rather than writing, they become public means for creating and then enlarging the bounds of a textual community.

The various senses that cluster around the Common Germanic raedan share these two crucial features. With them in mind, it seems slightly more comprehensible that the English word read acquired the sense of "to com prehend a written text." Unlike raten, its cognate in German, read has not remained within its orginal senses. It has instead been extended to occupy he semantic category that in Gothic is divided between the two verbs redan and lisan, and in Modern German between raten and lesen. As a result, the English word for comprehending a written text has no etymological basis in the idea of collecting or gathering together letters and words to form the text as a whole, as do lisan, lesen, or the Latin legere. That our word has no metaphoric underlay of gathering or harvesting is quite surprising, whether one considers the linguistic relations between English, Gothic, and German, or the cultural influence of Latin on English during the formative Anglo-Saxon period.

Why then did the Old English not use the very common word gad(e)rian "to gather" as a calque, or morphemic translation, for the Latin legere but instead reserved it for translating the Latin collegere "to collect"? What conditions led speakers of Old English to conceive of comprehending a written text in ways that had not to do with gathering but rather with offering counsel or solving a riddle? The answer to these questions lies in the very nature of the medieval textual community as a group bound together by the reading aloud of texts to listeners for the purpose of interpretation. In a culture unaccustomed to the written text, the act of reading would have seemed remarkably like solving a riddle. For it meant translating meaningless but somehow magical squiggles on a leaf of vellum into significant discourse, even and most remarkably into sacred scripture. What was alien, opaque, seemingly without meaning becomes familiar, transparent, and meaningful when read aloud by those initiated in the solution of such enigma.


Excerpted from Old English Literature Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

The Cultural Construction of Reading in Anglo-Saxon England 1
Anglo-Saxon Lay Society and the Written Word 23
The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity Before the Norman Conquest 51
Orality and the Developing Text of Caedmon's Hymn 79
Reading Caedmon's "Hymn" with Someone Else's Glosses 103
Birthing Bishops and Fathering Poets: Bede, Hild, and the Relations of Cultural Production 125
Kinship and Lordship in Early Medieval England: The Story of Sigeberht, Cynewulf, and Cyneheard 157
The Thematic Structure of the Sermo Lupi 182
Social Idealism in AElfric's Colloquy 204
The Hero in Christian Reception: AElfric and Heroic Poetry 215
Didacticism and the Christian Community: The Teachers and the Taught 236
The Editing of Old English Poetic Texts: Questions of Style 271
Anglo-Saxons on the Mind 284
Sundor aet Rune: The Voluntary Exile of The Wanderer 315
From Plaint to Praise: Language as Cure in "The Wanderer" 328
The Form and Structure of The Seafarer 353
En/closed Subjects: The Wife's Lament and the Culture of Early Medieval Female Monasticism 381
The Devotional Context of the Cross Before A.D. 1000 392
Stylistic Disjunctions in The Dream of the Rood 404
God, Death, and Loyalty in The Battle of Maldon 425
Maldon and Mythopoesis 445
Contributors 475
Index 477
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