Tag Archives: Anglo-Saxon

Against Hate: Why the study of medieval literature is vitally important

All of this controversy going on in Indiana with Mike Pence and the Religious Freedom bill has reminded me yet again that social justice is not something that we can (or should) separate from anything else we do as academics or human beings. Even when it seems like we are in the “bubble” of academia, not paying much attention to anything that has happened since 1500, we are reminded that some of us are not safe or welcome inside the bubble, and could be told to leave without fear of legal repercussions at any time. While the likelihood of me losing my brilliant colleagues in a mass discriminatory firing is probably pretty low, the fact that it is legal in the state that has otherwise been a great home to me makes me angry, as I know it does many others. It reminds me that the work we do is situated in a cultural environment that is exerting pressure and affecting our perceptions and those of our students all the time. As literary scholars, people who devote our lives to studying the expression of thought and feeling in the midst of cultural and historical forces, it is our duty to take an interest in our own historical moment, and show our students that there is nothing ‘natural’ or inevitable about the kind of attitudes that cause social injustices today.

In the midst of this anger, I have been asked to talk about why it is important to study Old English literature in my oral exams. Within the academy, it is easy enough to forget that the value of studying medieval literature is not self-evident. Students might find it esoteric and irrelevant to contemporary concerns, or feel that learning a dead language in order to read a bit of poetry is not worth the effort. Even worse are the people out there who do want to learn and study Old English, but for a terrifying reason. They celebrate Anglo-Saxon England as a time and a place where white heterosexual men were completely in charge, and any difference either did not exist or was not given any value within the heroic society. These people are out there on the internet, making comments on YouTube videos under Anglo-Saxon usernames.

Though we had mentioned this unpleasant element in passing during some of my Old English literature classes, I had not thought much about them other than feeling saddened by the fact that the literature that I spend my life studying was being made ugly by a group of people who wanted something that could use as rallying point for ignorance. Later, when I was reading the Early Middle English Owl and the Nightingale for the first time, I encountered it personally. The delightful Owl and the Nightingale contains elements of ‘flyting,’ a literary insult contest especially popular in medieval Scottish poetry in which the combatants use particularly creative and humorous language and imagery to hurl abuse at each other. The result is remarkably similar to a modern-day rap battle, and I decided to browse the internet for comparisons between the Owl and the Nightingale and rap battles, thinking that someone out there must have written a blog post about it, or made a funny video as part of a class project. What I found were the comments on this video, which implies that the predominantly African American genre is a poorer derivative of the work of earlier white artists. The comments section goes the extra mile by making this attitude explicit with a great deal of hate and racial slurs. I was crushed – I had been hoping to find some creative responses to the ways in which these two genres celebrate a similar impulse to engage in verbal combat in culturally specific ways, and what I found was sickening.

If the internet white supremacists simply kept to themselves and did not inflict their hate on the rest of us, it would be one thing. The nature of internet hate, however, means that it exists to spread itself around. Whether it is people like me who are just trying to study the Owl and the Nightingale or someone who wants to catch up on clips of the episode of Vikings that they missed, anyone who engages with Anglo-Saxon or other medieval literature on the internet is going to encounter it sooner or later. This is the environment our students are probably exposed to before they ever learn about medieval literature in an academic setting. They may already have an association between people who are interested in Anglo-Saxon England and hate, which saddening and disappointing if this turns them off, and so much worse if it encourages them.

It is up to us, then, to do something about it. As the people who study and teach Old English literature with an eye to the humanity of both the Anglo-Saxons and people of 2015, it is our job to show our students and everyone else that to study literature is to build bridges of understanding between ourselves and others, not to promote hate of any kind. This is not to say that everything was sunshine and roses in Anglo-Saxon England – the experiences of women, people who loved others of the same sex, religious minorities, people with disabilities and many others show that there was plenty of hate in medieval Europe. There are also, however, ways in which we can uncover the voices of these people and share the humanity of their experiences. In addition, we can historicize the negative responses of medieval people and show how they were different than those of contemporary people. This may seem like little consolation, but it helps us understand that people do not hate each other for ‘obvious’ reasons that remain constant across different periods.

Instead of focusing on hate, we can also highlight the things that we love about medieval literature, and celebrate the excellent medievalists out there on the internet who are combatting hate. We can look at things like People of Color in European Art History, a Tumblr shows that there were plenty of people of colour in medieval Europe, and examines the ways they were represented in Art. We can read the many volumes of good work published by scholars who aim to explore the concept of same-sex desire in the medieval period, starting with John Boswell and continued by people like Carolyn Dinshaw, Allen J. Frantzen, Michael Camille, and many others today. We can also just read the literature itself with an eye to the experiences of those who are underrepresented, and show our students that we can find these people if we look for them. In Old English literature, we can hear the voices of women as an oppressed class in The Wife’s Lament and Wulf and Eadwacer, and listen to a man who cares about and identifies with a victim of rape in Deor. We can read accounts of people who were not content to conform to their prescribed gender identity in the Lives of Saint Eugenia and Saint Euphrosyne, and see scribes who reinforce their gender non-conformity by using pronouns that match their performed gender instead of their biological one. We can show our students that when we celebrate and respect the culture of medieval Europe through its literature, we do so with an understanding of the more problematic elements and the people that were hurt by them, and that we can transfer our skills in understanding others to our engagement with other people today.

So, when it seems like our work on medieval England has very little to do with the hate and discrimination that we encounter in our twenty-first century lives, it’s important to remember that they are still intimately connected. Hateful attitudes infringe on the study of medieval literature, but we also have an opportunity to combat that hate through our research and teaching. Civic and political engagement are important ways to have a tangible effect on the legal aspect of our society, but we can still have an impact on people’s attitudes by doing what we do best: studying Old English literature.

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A Vibrant, Variegated, and Vivacious Revival

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I begin the official portion of my exam reading with a seminal book by a man whose name is one of the most magnificent in all of medieval studies: Thorlac Turville-Petre. His 1977 volume titled The Alliterative Revival aims to introduce the alliterative poetic movement of the fourteenth century as well as make it clear to his readers that there is one thing that this alliterative revival lacks – homogeneity. According to Turville-Petre, many readers have assumed for one reason or another that the poems of this period (including Langland’s Piers Plowman, the works of the Gawain-Poet, The Alliterative Morte Arthure, and a number of other romances, histories, and moral poetry) are stylistically uniform. He goes as far to refer to an early twentieth century theory that many of these texts were written by the same man “one of the most absurd literary hypotheses of all time” (28), which fell out of vogue when “it was pointed out that none of the proofs adduced in favour of the hypothesis had any substance and that the poems, being written in a variety of styles, with different metrical patterns and different dialects, could hardly be the work of one man” (28). While Turville-Petre rejects this theory as utterly ridiculous, he is slightly more patient, but still in disagreement, with those that assume an unbroken oral connection between that alliterative style of the Anglo-Saxon poets and the alliterative revival several centuries later. Overall, his argument depicts the poems of the alliterative revival as a movement of great creativity and diversity whose works resist any attempt to be reduced to derivatives of Anglo-Saxon poetry or one another.

One of the more intricate parts of Turville-Petre’s argument is his assertion that there is no good reason to believe that there was an unbroken line of oral alliterative tradition between the Anglo-Saxons and the alliterative poets of the fourteenth century. While there are many similarities between the poetry of the alliterative revival and Anglo-Saxon poetry, a closer examination of the English poetry of the intervening centuries, which has oft been neglected in literary studies (See Elaine Treharne’s Living Through Conquest), suggests that this sense of continuity may be misleading. Turville-Petre reasons that if such an oral tradition was in existence all along with no written trace, it would be difficult to reconcile this with the distinct and “loose” (8) style of Early Middle English alliterative works like Laȝamon’s Brut. Instead, he offers an alternative explanation for the most striking similarity between Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse and that of the fourteenth-century – the fact that the standard pattern of lines is based on the alliteration of all stressed syllables except for the last of the line. Turville-Petre argues that the reason that two different (albeit related) traditions might land upon this same practice is that the alliteration is a functional element designed to mark out the stressed syllables, and that “the last stressed syllable of the line is very seldom in an ambiguous position” (17). In addition, maintaining a difference between the last stress and other stresses allows it to “signal[…] the completion of a metrical unit” (17). While the author makes a convincing case both for the lack of evidence for an invisible oral tradition and the logical functionality of the alliterative style, the reader is still required to make a leap of faith to assume that two heterogeneous groups of poets separated by centuries might independently realize the efficiency of such a pattern. It seems more prudent to posit a more moderate view that the fourteenth century poets managed to revive some distantly version of alliterative verse, without necessarily requiring a robust oral tradition.

After establishing diachronic heterogeneity between Anglo-Saxon and fourteenth-century alliterative verse, Turville-Petre turns to celebrate the synchronic diversity of the later movement. His sentiments are echoed by Greg Delanty in the preface to the 2010 anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry in translation titled The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation, in which Delanty muses that “we tend to think of Anglo-Saxon poetry as issuing from the uniform voice of the great poet Anonywulf” (Delanty xv). In reality, the poetry of both traditions is full of diversity and originality, as Turville-Petre notes in prose worth quoting in its entirety:

It is the flexibility of the alliterative line that makes it so valuable to a writer of a long and diverse narrative poem full of action, description, argument, reflection and any number of topics demanding variations of pace and emphasis. In Morte Arthure and The Wars of Alexander the form proves suitable for the excitement and turmoil of the careers of those two great heroes; in Piers Plowman and Wynnere and Wastoure it can accommodate the niceties of theological discussion and political debate; in Patience and Purity[1] it can re-vivify Old Testament history. Nothing is more mistaken than the belief that alliterative style is a homogenous one. (Turville-Petre 50)

Despite the richness of the tradition extolled by Turville-Petre and several others since, many poems of the alliterative revival have not reached the ‘mainstream’ of Middle English literary studies in the same way as the work named authors such as Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and Malory. Turville-Petre ends his book by musing on the beauty and suitability of alliterative verse for a variety of topics, and ventures that “it may be time for a second alliterative revival” (128). Though it may be some time before contemporary poets take up the call to write in alliterative verse, it is certainly time for a revival of the study and teaching of this work.

[1] Purity is more commonly known today as Cleanness, the second poem in the Cotton Nero A.x manuscript. None of the poems in this manuscript have original titles, but have been given the names Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by modern editors. It was once pointed out to me by Dr. David Coley that if one retains the title of Purity, the four titles make up an alliterative line, with the first three titles alliterating and the fourth differing.

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Translating “The Wife’s Lament”

I made this translation of “The Wife’s Lament” for a class in Translating Anglo-Saxon poetry. It was meant to be a poetic translation, so I took the musical and lamenting nature of the poem and turned it into a ballad.

“The Wife’s Lament” is one of the most enigmatic poems in the Anglo-Saxon corpus, a body of literature that is never transparent at the best of times. Each critic that approaches the poem highlights the disputation about its meaning, and Murray McGillivray admits that “because the number of actors in this sad drama is unknown … and because the current situation of the speaker is so mysterious … we are free to speculate about who the speaker is and what her situation entails” (162). Since the meaning of the source text is far from clear, a so-called ‘faithful’ translation has little chance of making sense to its translated text audience. In this translation, I have transposed the wife’s song into a popular ballad form, and accepted McGillivray’s invitation to speculate on the speaker’s situation. Following Stacy Klein’s notion of the lament as a critique of the restrictiveness of female claustration, I have imagined this song as the tale of a woman who is forced into a religious community when her husband leaves on a long sea journey, and is not recalled upon his return. She feels exiled and alone because she has been separated from her kin, and the religious life seems foreign to her. The final section of the text constitutes advice for others in her situation to cope with the monastic way of life.

The Wife’s Lament

I sadly sing this song of mine,
Of my journey of misery.
I tell the tale as I grow old
True now as will ever be.

My exile-journey is full of woe
Since my lord went out to the deep,
My dawn-cares have been full of him
And all I have done is weep.              (8)

A friendless wretch, I went to seek,
A household for my need.
But the man’s kin thought to part our ways,
And set out to do the deed.

They willed us to live hatefully
Spread far across the land,
And while I yearned to be with him,
They did as they had planned.                        (16)

My lord ordered them to cloister me,
Where I had no faithful friend,
My lonely thoughts consumed my heart,
My spirits did descend.

I found my suited man was sad,
And thinking of a crime,
In joy we said we’d part at death,
But that was a different time.             (24)

Near and far I must take heed
Of my dear one’s enmity,
He made me live in an earthen cave
Beneath an old oak tree.

This old earth-hall has saddened me,
Its locale is dark and dim:
The valleys, hills and brambles
Make this dwelling very grim.            (32)

My lord’s departure seizes me,
When I think on it each day;
I know out there are lovers,
But it is here that I must stay.

There I must sit the summer-long day,
There I may curse my ban;
I might not rest my thoughts and cares
From longing for my man.                  (40)

If anyone shares my sad lot
May he harden his heart and mind,
He needs a glad demeanor,
His breast-care for to bind.

If he takes joy in his worldly self
Or is wrenched from his native soil,
Then he will sit in sorrow,
His heart in deep turmoil.                   (48)

His roof will be a stormy slope
All full of frosted stone
In dreary hall mid waters,
My lord will stand alone.

He’ll be thinking of the Joyous House
And so much sorrow will bear,
All woeful is the lover,
Who abides his Love with care!         (56)

 

 

References:

Klein, Stacy S. “Gender and the Nature of Exile in Old English Elegies.” A Place to Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes. Ed. Clare A Lees and Gillian R Overing. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006. 113-131. Print.

McGillivray, Murray. Old English Reader. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2011. Print.

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