The Medieval Review 12.08.12

Magennis, Hugh. The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature. Cambridge Introductions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 217. $75 hb. 978-0-521-51947-2. $25.99 pb. 978-0-521-73465-3.

Reviewed by:

Tom Bredehoft
West Virginia University

Hugh Magennis's Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature attempts, as its Preface indicates, "to open up the subject of Anglo-Saxon literature for those approaching it for the first time--while endeavoring not to 'dumb down' that subject" (ix). As such, it attempts to survey the state of the field, and this review thus necessarily also has some of the character of a review of the state of the field as well.

After a useful introductory chapter outlining Anglo-Saxon history, Magennis moves into his second chapter, "Developing literary traditions." Here, discussion of Old English poetry's oral, Germanic background leads into a section on writings in Latin, followed by a section addressing Old English prose, followed by a section on "Traditions of Christian poetry." A brief and engaging reading of the Bookmoth riddle caps the chapter. Chapter 3 slices the material across a different dimension: varieties of narrative, but starting again with heroic poetry, then moving into Biblical literature, history, and hagiography. Chapter 4 tackles non-narrative materials: homiletic writings, wisdom literature, and elegies. A final chapter discusses "Anglo-Saxon afterlives," which reflects the apparently growing importance of Anglo-Saxonism within the field, before a final section points readers towards additional resources (translations, editions, the Dictionary of Old English, and the like). All of this, of course, is covered well, and much of the contemporary state of the field is reflected accurately here: Magennis has been a distinguished scholar in the field long enough to know it and write about it well.

In general, all original materials are presented in modern translation, with scattered examples given in Old English, and individual important words sometimes cited in Old English or Latin. There are a number of maps, diagrams, and exemplary black-and-white facsimiles of manuscript pages, and these are generally well-chosen, although the reproduction of a drawing of the runes on the western face of the Ruthwell Cross (39) is blurry and may be misleading about the shapes of some runes. A number of what might be called sidebars, printed on a gray background, offer explanations, or examples, or timelines, and they seem to be designed for the kinds of contemporary reading habits we associate with undergraduate readers. Certainly, there is enough visual variety in the book to prevent many readers from being overwhelmed by an especially consistent typographic presentation.

As it is a book primarily intended for undergraduate readers "with some background in literary studies" (ix), I hoped this book would do more to address what is most exciting and attractive about Anglo-Saxon literary studies for such an audience. Magennis, unfortunately, has almost nothing to say about the work of digital medievalists, among whom Anglo-Saxonists are prominent, and the field is presented as one in which there are a few occasional scholarly debates, but seemingly even these do not actually generate excitement or controversy. Likewise, the inclusion of a full chapter on "afterlives" seems to implicitly hint that maybe Anglo-Saxon studies are interesting for their relevance to other periods, rather than intrinsically interesting or important on their own.

As the short shrift given to digital topics reveals, Magennis's vision of the state of the field is, perhaps not by intention, somewhat backwards-looking, rather than forward-looking. Perhaps the task of synthesis which a book like this demands prevents one from focusing much upon the future and upon new discoveries and new directions, but the very audience of this book would seem to encourage (if not demand) a perspective more directed towards the future. As such, it seems necessary to address two interrelated areas where Magennis's book articulates a state-of-the-field consensus position that downplays or oversimplifies some of the dynamism of contemporary Anglo-Saxon studies.

The first of these is how the book deals with issues of history and historicization, and how those issues play out in the field as a whole. Magennis, as noted, devotes his first chapter to giving a historical background, and the final chapter, on afterlives, is also historically organized. In the middle chapters, though, historical reality is hardly an issue: the literature of the Anglo-Saxon period is largely presented ahistorically. In one egregious example in chapter 2, "Developing literary traditions," Bede and Alcuin are discussed before Aldhelm. Equally troublingly, Old English verse is understood as embodying a continuous, essentially unchanging presence throughout the period. Magennis's claims on this issue include the following: "Poetry memorializing [the Migration period] seems to have been composed in England throughout the Anglo-Saxon period" (37); "secular Old English poetry would have continued in oral form throughout the period" (67); and "Many poems must have been composed that have not survived" (69). One suspects, of course, that it is the second of these three claims that underwrites the other two, but all three claims appear to be based more clearly in a romanticizing view of the period than in any sort of hard evidence. That this romanticizing view is still common in the field cannot be denied, I think, but its presence and prominence discourages efforts to historicize Old English poetry. The claim of stasis and continuity means we need not worry about things like actual dates of composition, because this kind of poetry was always being produced during the period. I will be the first to admit that historicizing Old English poems is difficult indeed, but the effort should be made, rather than avoided via a questionable (and I would say demonstrably incorrect) claim of essential poetic continuity and stasis.

Perhaps it will be useful to come at this issue from another perspective. Magennis repeats the standard line about the "four major poetic manuscripts" (69) that relegates the 5200 lines of the Paris Psalter to a secondary status, although this is more poetry than in Nowell, Junius, or Vercelli: only the Exeter Book has more poetry. Here, Magennis is certainly articulating the consensus position in the field, but that consensus position is just as obviously prejudicial: the demotion of the Metrical Psalms to "non-major" status has everything to do with modern scholarly desires to see the Old English poetic tradition as stable across time, and consequently not worth the work of historicization. But if the meter of the Metrical Psalms exposes an evolving verse tradition (rather than merely bad versification, the claim that allows or derives from a belief in poetic continuity and stability), scholars would need to consider much more carefully the possibility that the four "major manuscripts" of poetry were antiquarian curiosities, rather than living literature. Historicizing means attending to how these poems and books functioned in context, and when Magennis writes of Beowulf that "we can only be certain that it was being read in the closing years" of the period (82), he may be imagining an audience of readers for which there is no real evidence: few if any readers' marks in any of these four books, few of these poems surviving in multiple copies, few examples of quotation or recycling of texts from all four of these books.

Some readers of this review may recognize that I have made similar arguments for a more effective historicization of Old English verse elsewhere, and that observation brings me to my second critique of the consensus position of the field, as articulated by Magennis. Specifically, although Magennis graciously cites my article on "AElfric and Late Old English Verse" to suggest that the question of the proper genre label for AElfric's rhythmical compositions has been reopened, he dismisses the possibility that they are poems when he writes "I would prefer to view [them as] heightened prose" (65). Yet, I hope I may point out that I made an argument in that essay; I tried to draw a conclusion on the basis of evidence and logic. The consensus of the field may, indeed, prefer to continue to think of AElfric and his "rhythmical prose," but the academic enterprise, I think, must do more than operate on the basis of preference.

It is important to reiterate that Magennis's positions on historicization and Old English meter may well be accurate summaries of the common consensus positions across much of the field: my critique here lies with the state of the field itself, rather than with Magennis's presentation of the consensus positions. But to the degree that Magennis downplays debate in favor of consensus, I suspect that this book misses at least one important opportunity: the chance to attract undergraduates to this field as one alive with controversies and real problems in need of solutions. Instead, consensus positions are presented here that show Anglo-Saxon literary studies as only partially and inconsistently invested in historicization; as very little concerned with the theoretical or technological questions so important in other literary fields; and as comfortable with preferring its old and traditional positions. In that sense, Magennis fairly, accurately, and even usefully articulates what remains the center of the discipline: but the most exciting work, the work that the stated audience of this book might most want and need to read about as they consider careers in our area, is the work that is either expanding the boundaries or challenging that comfortable old center.