Tag Archives: Deor

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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That came to pass, this also may!

As I continue to finalize my reading lists, I want to make sure I regularly read from all my lists, in order to form connections and keep my ideas flowing over the course of my exam process. I also want to keep practicing my Old English translation, so I have been concentrating on a poem that I have been turning over in my head since I read it for the first time several months ago in Seamus Heaney’s haunting translation: Deor. Much of its ear-worm quality comes from the fact that it has a repeating refrain – this makes it rather rare amongst Anglo-Saxon poems, as Bradley points out (362). It also particularly appeals to me because it involves a correspondence of lived experience between the speaker and figures from the past, as all are human with the capacity for suffering and triumph. Moreover, there is no distinction between the suffering of men and women – the anguish of a pregnant rape victim is depicted alongside a crippled and enslaved hero. What follows is my very rough translation of the poem, for which I consulted Murray MacGillivray’s notes and glossary, as well as several different translations. I intend to do a more poetic translation at some point in time, but this version will help provide a sense of what the poem is about before I dive any further into it.

 

Original: 

Ed. Murray McGillivray. Online Corpus of Old English Poetry (OCOEP).

Welund him be wurman    wræces cunnade.
Anhydig eorl    earfoþa dreag,
hæfde him to gesiþþe    sorge ond longaþ,
wintercealde wræce,    wean oft onfond,

5
siþþan hine Niðhad on    nede legde
swoncre seonobende    on syllan monn.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
Beadohilde ne wæs    hyre broþra deaþ
on sefan swa sar    swa hyre sylfre þing:

10
þæt heo gearolice    ongieten hæfde
þæt heo eacen wæs—    æfre ne meahte
þriste geþencan,    hu ymb þæt sceolde.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
We þæt Mæðhilde    monge gefrugnon

15
wurdon grundlease    Geates frige,
þæt hi seo sorglufu    slæp ealle binom.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
Ðeodric ahte    þritig wintra
Mæringa burg—    þæt wæs monegum cuþ.

20
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
We geascodan    Eormanrices
wylfenne geþoht;    ahte wide folc
Gotena rices.    Þæt wæs grim cyning.
Sæt secg monig    sorgum gebunden,

25
wean on wenan,    wyscte geneahhe
þæt þæs cynerice    ofercumen wære.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!
Siteð sorgcearig    sælum bidæled,
on sefan sweorceð,    sylfum þinceð

30
þæt sy endeleas    earfoða dæl.
Mæg þonne geþencan    þæt geond þas woruld
witig dryhten    wendeþ geneahhe,
eorle monegum    are gesceawað,
wislicne blæd,    sumum weana dæl.

35
Þæt ic bi me sylfum    secgan wille,
þæt ic hwile wæs    Heodeninga scop,
dryhtne dyre.    Me wæs Deor noma.
Ahte ic fela wintra    folgað tilne,
holdne hlaford,    oþþæt Heorrenda nu,

40
leoðcræftig monn    londryht geþah,
þæt me eorla hleo    ær gesealde.
Þæs ofereode,    þisses swa mæg!

 

My Translation

Welund himself knew misery by worms.
The brave man knew hardship,
had to himself for company sorrow and longing,
winter-cold misery; He often found woe,
since Nithhad by force laid a thin sinew-bond onto the better man.

That came to pass, this also may!

Beadohilde was not as sorrowful from her brothers’ death
as from her own thing,
that she certainly understood that she was pregnant;
She was never able to think confidently,
about what she should do.

That came to pass, this also may!

We found out that for Maethhilde,
many became the bottomless embraces of the Geat,
that the sorrowful love deprived her of all sleep. 

That came to pass, this also may!

Theodric possessed for thirty winters the city of Maeringa;
That was known to many. 

That came to pass, this also may!

We discovered the wolfen thought of Ermanaricus;
He occupied widely the people of the kingdom of the Goths.
That was a harsh king.
Many a man lived bound to sorrows,
woe in expectation,
often wishing that this kingdom was overcome. 

That came to pass, this also may!

He lived sorrowful, deprived of joy,
he grew dark in his spirit,
it seemed to him that the troubles would be endless.
I might then think that throughout this world the wise Lord changes enough,
shows honour to many a man, true splendor,
a portion of woes to some.

That I by myself wish to tell,
that I once was a scop of the Heodenings,
dear Lord.

The name ‘Deor’ was mine.

I had for many winters a good fellowship, a loyal lord,
until now Heorrenda, a man skilled in poetry,
received a privilege that the protecting lord once gave to me.

That came to pass, this also may!

Upon the first few readings of the poem, Deor seems like a poem of hope and determination in the face of adversity. The speaker relates various hardships of figures from Gothic legend, many details of which have been obscured by time, and insists in a recurring refrain that if their troubles came to an end, his lot likewise has a chance of improving: “þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg.” (l. 7, 13, 17, 20, 27, 42). There has been a great deal of consistency in translators’ approaches to this seemingly simple line – Seamus Heaney renders it with his characteristic simple elegance by having his speaker reassure himself that “That passed over, this can too” (Heaney 7). S.A.J. Bradley, known for his linguistically accurate prose translations, gives “That passed away: so may this” (7). Even Burton Raffel, who has been known to approach Old English translation with poetic creativity (such as his insertion of ‘a convent of wooden nuns’ into his version of “A Woman’s Message” (Raffel 36)), employs the phrase “That passed, and so may this” (7). Closer philological examination of the poem shows, however, that this short phrase may not be so easy to render into modern English as it seems. While one of the meanings given in Bosworth-Toller’s dictionary for “ofereode” is indeed “to pass, pass off or away, be over, come to an end,” another is “to come upon, attack (of disease, sleep, etc. ),” “to conquer,” or “to pass a moral limit, to transgress.” While all of these meanings might indicate that an event has happened, not all of them are a reassuring statement that since the mythological figures that the speaker has depicted have ended happily. The ambiguity is heightened by the fact that the poet often leaves the end of his mytho-historical vignettes unsaid, presumably relying on his audience’s cultural knowledge of the characters depicted within – knowledge that has in many cases not survived.

 An exception to this dearth of backstory concerns the story of Weland the Smith, which provides material for the vignettes in the first part of the poem. He is well-known in Germanic mythology, and Raffel uses Weland’s story to begin his translation on a triumphant note, letting readers know that the sorrow had indeed passed. He writes: “Wayland, a legendary smith whom Nithad had crippled and enslaved, forged himself metal wings, killed Nithad’s sons, drugged and violated Nithad’s daughter, Beadhild, and flew to safety. Nithad’s kingdom was Wermland, now Western Sweden” (Raffel 57). This backstory sounds triumphant enough, if one ignores the fact that the second character that Deor compares himself to is Beadhild, the drugged and violated. Furthermore, none of this triumph is related in the poem – only Weland’s maiming and enslavement in Nithad’s “wintercealde” kingdom is poetically rendered. We hear of cruel kings, raped and abandoned women, and a city that endured the occupation of a tyrant for thirty years. Yes, these happenings pass away, but this does not mean that those to whom they happen survive them with any sense of wholeness. Rather than taking solace in the fact that the men and women of old made it through their sorrows that passed over, the speaker may be preparing himself for the horror that may be visited upon him, now that he has lost the favour of his “holdne hlaford.” In this light, it might be more accurate to translate “ofereode” as “come to pass” in the dictionary definition of “to come upon, attack” rather than simply “pass over.” This robs the poem of its hopeful outlook, but I think it might restore some of the melodrama to Deor’s narrative – he does, after all, compare the loss of his job to some of the worst hardships imaginable. We will never know if Deor’s plight passed over, but my exams also may!

 

I would welcome other perspectives on Deor translation – anyone have a favourite translation or way of rendering the refrain?

 

Works Cited

 

Bradley, S. A. J., trans. Anglo-Saxon Poetry. London: Dent, 1982.

Heaney, Seamus. “Seamus Heaney reads Deor.” Poems Out Loud. W.W. Norton & Company. 24 August 2014                  <http://poemsoutloud.net/audio/archive/heaney_reads_deor/&gt;.

Raffel, Burton, trans. Poems from the Old English. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964.

 

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