Archive for the ‘Wisdom Literature’ Category

Space, Place, and landscape

Fen Remnants outside Crowland, Lincolnshire, England (Justin Noetzel, 2009)

Fen Remnants outside Crowland, Lincolnshire, England (Justin Noetzel, 2009)

*“Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock.” Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory

*“Landscape is first of all an effort of the imagination—a construed way of seeing the world which is distinctive to a people, their culture, and even their anticipated means of encountering the holy… Landscape is always an expectation which is brought to the environment, an interpretative lens placed over an otherwise dull, placeless void.” Belden C. Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred

*The landscape that is constructed in the Old English poetry and Latin Vita of St. Guthlac is a “cultural image of the physical environment that mediates between the human mind and nature.” (Alfred K. Siewers, “Landscapes of Conversion: Guthlac’s Mound and Grendel’s Mere as Expressions of Nation Building”)

Wisdom Poetry

1. What was the function of wisdom poetry for Anglo-Saxon culture, and what does it tell us about cultural beliefs and values? What differences exist in content or style between Maxims I and Maxims II?

2. What metaphors and images are the most prevalent, and why? (Lightness and darkness come to mind, for instance). How do the heroic cultural values compare to the Christian ones, and does one ethos in any way conflict with the other?

[***When we discussed this question, Anthony recommended A Store of Common Sense: Gnomic Theme and Style in Old Icelandic and Old English Wisdom Poetry by Carolyne Larrington. She is a fantastic dinner companion, by the way, because Michael and I had the pleasure to join her, Dr. Acker, and a few others at the London Grill in Kalamazoo a few years ago.]

The Seafarer and The Wanderer?

Norse Wisdom Literature: “Hávamál” from The Poetic Edda

-The poem’s context in Exeter Book with so much other wisdom literature “indicates how attractive to the AS mind was the rehearsal and propagation of received wisdom and knowledge in formulaic utterances, and the exercise of intelligence, often of ingenuity, in probing through the surface form of things to their inner construct and in perceiving in circumstantial detail of events the general precept. Broadly speaking, all this lore is anthropocentric: knowledge—of the phenomena and creatures of the physical world, as of kings and communities of history and the accrued experience of the human condition—is highly prized in so far as it forms a pattern according to which the discerning individual may rough-hew the ends of his own life.” (Bradley 344)

-Section A begins with nature of wisdom poetry and discusses the order of life on earth; Section B (and C) discusses nature, materialism, daily human activities, and proper gender roles; Section C discusses kings, warriors, and poets (and their proper places)

-Cotton Tiberius B MS Context and what precedes and follows this poem: “Menologium defines the process of the liturgical year, by which men may make the purposive orderliness of sacred history the organizing principle of daily living; Maxims II offers general precepts about the divinely ordained laws of the natural world and of the human hierarchy; and the [C-version of the Anglo-Saxon] Chronicle keeps the historical record of the actual vicissitudes of governing and being governed in an imperfect and transient world” (Bradley 512)

-the proper order and place of all things with the formula “X sceal on Y”: the wolf must be/ lives in the grove, the boar must be in the woods, etc.; the thief must go about in the dark weather, the demon/troll/monster must dwell in the fen, alone within the land (“þeof sceal gangan þystrum wederum. þyrs sceal on fenne gewunian ana innan lande.”)

3. What did you find interesting about the less famous and less read Old English poetry (e.g. The Rune Poem, Metrical Charms, and Durham)?

4. What culturally constructed worldview (beliefs, values, landscape, geography, etc.) do these poems illustrate?


Is “is so slippery, cold, / glitters like glass or gems / fashions a floor of frost– / Marvelous thing to behold!”

Eoh: “Yew is a tree that has rough bark / stands firm in the earth / protects the hearth . Rooted deep, it lights up parks.”

Ac feeds pigs who feed humans, and used for ship-construction

Aesc makes good shields

Heroic, Elegiac, and Other Poetry

-Previous Discussion Topics:

1. Poetics of Space and Architecture in “Guthlac A”

2. “Lichoma ond Sawl”: Bodily Conflict in the Poems

3. The Medieval British Fenland-Literature Tradition

4. Exeter Book and Other Anglo-Saxon (Dis)Continuities

Anglo-Saxon Landscapes

  • Metrical Charms (Raffel 216) (find them here)

-“the charms are directed against a wide array of maladies and misfortunes, including fevers, flux, dysentery, nosebleed, wens, chicken-pox, a noxious dwarf, various wounds, the theft of cattle or horses, evil spirits, the loss of a swarm of bees, unfruitful land, and aches in the eyes, ears, stomach, and teeth” (Fulk and Cain 42)

-conceptions of land: Charm for Unfruitful Land involves digging turfs from the edges of your land and mixing them with your cows’ milk, a splinter from each kind of tree on your property, and holy water…

[***Here’s a follow-up question: this poem describes the binary pairs of the world’s creation, including sky and river, waves and land, flood and fields, but the OE for that last pair is “flod wið flode.” Am I crazy, or should that last OE word instead be “folde”?]

  • Durham (D&M 125; Cambridge, Univ. Lib. Ff.1.2)

-“Known through Britain this noble city. / Its steep slopes and stone buildings / are thought a wonder; weirs contain / its fast river; fish of all kinds / thrive here in the thrusting waters. / A great forest has grown up here, / thickets throng with wild creatures; / deer browse in the deep dales” (1a- 8b)

The Fens…

5. Where does mythology, hybridity, and a hybrid landscape fit in this dichotomous world?

[My argument: Delineated coastland is easily understandable, as in the land and sea dichotomy expressed in Maxims I and The Order of the World, but the symbolic fens and the geographic Fens of modern Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire are metaphorically hard to define and don’t fit the simple land and water binary. The Fens muddy the waters in this attempt at distinction (pun intended) and are more three-dimensional space than simple two-dimensional coastline. Here the land and water exist together in a tumultuous and hybridized state—the water of the Fens (both medieval and modern) is often silty and sandy, and therefore hard to navigate, and the land can be so muddy and watery that it is difficult to pass on foot. This land/water hybridity made the landscape hard to pass through physically and difficult to comprehend intellectually, and so the Anglo-Saxon people encoded fens and swamps as a monstrous entity and an isolating force. This claim is demonstrated by the examples below where fens act as an impenetrable boundary, a corruption of the gift of life, a reeking and stagnant plague on the landscape, the location of harmful plant and animal life, and the abode of monsters of demons.]


 6. What the hell is this poem really about? Does it fit better as an anonymous elegy, or a story from Germanic legend that the audience should know, or a riddle with s specific solution? History, myth, or metaphor?

-“Wulf is on an island, I on another. An island of forts [that island is secure], surrounded by swamp. That island belongs to bloody barbarians: Will they receive him, if he comes with force? (“Wulf is on iege, ic on oþerre. / Fæst is þæt eglond, fenne biworpen. / Sindon wælreowe  weras þær on ige; willað hy hine aþecgan, / gif he on þreat cymeð. Ungelice is us” (4a- 7b).

-Alfred describes how water (grace, love, sacredness, and “the drink of life”) is a gift from God that He “pledged for the well-being of His people” (1a- 2b), and Gregory’s text supplies a refill of water for Alfred’s readers

-Water’s source is heaven, and it is drawn from there by “a chosen few / Who make scared books their study” and carefully spread the word among mankind, but, others “pour it freely over the land, / Though care must be taken lest it flow / too loud and fast across the fields, / Transforming them to bogs and fens [fenne]” (19b- 21b)

-“enjoyable for their wit and its poetic expression, are also of critical importance for the insight they afford into the intellectual structure of the As mind. The mentality which can simultaneously engage with the sense of the literal statement and with implicit and ‘truer’ import of the concealed meaning is a mentality alert to symbolism and allegory; and not surprisingly techniques of the riddle may be traced in poetry of other genres where ambiguity and systematic symbolism or allegory are deliberately cultivated” (Bradley 368)

7. How does Beowulf fit into all of this nonsense?

-Grendel is described as “se grimma gæst… mære mearcstapa, se þe moras heold, fen ond fæsten” (“the fierce creature, the famed border-wanderer, he who occupied the moors and fens as his stronghold” (102 104)

*“The incredible nature of [the Guthlac stories] is irrelevant to the argument; the spirit which created them is an indisputable fact. They show something of what the barrier of the fens meant in the lives of people at this time. Only familiarity with the region in its most somber aspects can do justice to the fears of these early settlers. Many centuries did not assuage their terror; and at last the horror of the fen passed into tradition—so deeply was it grounded in the Saxon mind. Nor were all the horrors imaginary. They had indeed a very substantial foundation; for the Fenland was a pestilential place ‘of-times clouded with the moist and dark vapors’ [e.g. ague and malaria]” (H. C. Darby, The Medieval Fenland)

8. What other Landscapes or spaces are especially noteworthy in the Anglo-Saxon World (e.g. in The Wife’s Lament)? Where else is this kind of cultural construction of a landscape present? What about the later medieval world, or areas other than England?

[***This question guided much of our conversation. Amanda brought up the crumbling Roman stone- and earthworks that are being reclaimed by nature in The Ruin, and Thomas wondered how fens figure in gothic literature. Anthony added two examples of hybridized culturally constructed –scapes (Eolus’ mixed sky and sea in The Aeneid, and Prospero’s chaotic land and sea storm in The Tempest) and mentioned a tantalizing detail from The Brut that involved ponds, fish, and elves. Beth compared the Fens to the somewhat analogous otherworldly mist in Irish mythology, which blurs that land/ sea differentiations, and we also discussed peat bogs and coasts and their respective preservational (e.g. Seamus Heaney) and liminal powers. Nicely done, y’all—nicely done.]


Select Bibliography [***slightly enhanced from the paper handout]

Acker, Paul. Revising Oral Theory: Formulaic Composition in Old English and Old Icelandic Verse. New York: Garland, 1998. Print.

Aertsen, Henk. “Wulf and Eadwacer: A Woman’s Cri de Coeur—For Whom? For What?” Companion to Old English Poetry. Ed. Henk Aertsen abd Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr. Amsterdam: VU U P, 1994: 119-144. Print.

Daniëlli, Sonja. “Wulf, Min Wulf: An Eclectic Analysis of the Wolf-Man.” Neophilologus 91 (2007): 505–524. Print.

Delanty, Greg and Michael Matto, Ed. The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. Print.

Desmond, Marilynn. “Voice of Exile: Feminist Literary History and the Anonymous Anglo-Saxon Elegy.” Critical Inquiry 16.3 (1990): 572-590. Print.

DiNapoli, Robert. “The Heart of the Visionary Experience: The Order of the World and its Place in the Old English Canon.” English Studies 79.2 (1998): 97-108. Print.

Fulk, R. D. and Christopher M. Cain. A History of Old English Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005. Print.

Howes, Laura L., Ed. Place, Space, and Landscape in Medieval Narrative. Knoxville: U Tennessee P, 2007. Print.

Howlett, David Robert. “The Gnomic Collection of Verse in the Exeter Book.” Philological Review 34.2 (2008): 51-78. Print.

Jolly, Karen. “Father God and Mother Earth: Nature-Mysticism in the Anglo-Saxon World.” The Medieval World of Nature. Ed. Joyce E. Salisbury. New York: Garland, 1993: 221- 252. Print.

Klinck, Anne L. The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s U P, 1992. Print.

Kries, Susanne. “Danish Rivalry and the Mutilation of Alfred in the Eleventh-Century Chronicle Poem The Death of Alfred.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 104.1 (2005): 31-53. Print.

Lees, Clare A. and Gillian R. Overing, Ed.  A Place to Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes. University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State UP, 2006. Print.

North, Richard. “Metre and Meaning in Wulf and Eadwacer: Signý Reconsidered.” Loyal Letters: Studies on Mediaeval Alliterative Poetry & Prose. Ed. L. A. J. R. Houwen and A. A. MacDonald. Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1994: 29- 54. Print.

O’Camb, Brian. “Bishop Æthelwold and the Shaping of the Old English Exeter Maxims.” English Studies 90.3 (2009): 253-273. Print.

Overing, Gillian R. and Marijane Osborn. Landscape of Desire: Partial Stories of the Medieval

Scandinavian World. Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1994. Print.

Park, Yoon-hee. “The Meaning of the Cotton “Wulf” Maxim in the Context of Anglo-Saxon Popular Thought and Culture.” Medieval and Early Modern English Studies 16.2 (2008): 247- 263. Print.

Raffel, Burton, Ed. Poems and Prose from the Old English. New Haven: Yale U P, 1998. Print.

Shippey, T. A. “The Wanderer and The Seafarer a Wisdom Poetry.” Companion to Old English Poetry. Ed. Henk Aertsen abd Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr. Amsterdam: VU U P, 1994: 145-158. Print.

Sorrell, Paul. “Oaks, Ships, Riddles and the Old English Rune Poem.” Anglo-Saxon England 19 (1990): 103- 116. Print.

Stanley, E. G. “Wolf, My Wolf!” Old English and New: Studies in Language and Linguistics in Honor of Frederic G. Cassidy. New York: Garland, 1992: 46- 62. Print.

Tasioulas, J. A. “The Mother’s Lament: Wulf and Eadwacer Reconsidered.” Medium Aevum 65.1 (1996): 1- 18. Print.

Tigges, Wim. “Snakes and Ladders: Ambiguity and Coherence in the Exeter Book Riddles and Maxims.” Companion to Old English Poetry. Ed. Henk Aertsen abd Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr. Amsterdam: VU U P, 1994: 95-118. Print.

Wehlau, Ruth. “Rumination and Re-Creation: Poetic Instruction in The Order of the World.” Florilegium 13 (1994: 65- 77. Print.

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