Felice Lifshitz

title.none: Wormald, Times of Bede (Felice Lifshitz)

identifier.other: baj9928.0805.017 08.05.17

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Felice Lifshitz, Florida International University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Wormald, Patrick. Baxter, Stephen, ed. The Times of Bede: Studies in Early English Christian Society and its Historian. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Pp. xvii, 290. $74.95 (hb) 0-631-16655-6 (hb). ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.05.17

Wormald, Patrick. Baxter, Stephen, ed. The Times of Bede: Studies in Early English Christian Society and its Historian. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Pp. xvii, 290. $74.95 (hb) 0-631-16655-6 (hb). ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Felice Lifshitz
Florida International University

When Patrick Wormald died in 2004, he was in the process of collecting and annotating, for republication as a group, several of his essays on early Anglo-Saxon history. After his death, the project was taken in hand by Stephen Baxter. Those who knew Wormald, and keenly feel his loss, will likely derive great pleasure from accompanying him on his "painstaking ramble" (239) through thickets of early English sources. Patrick Wormald was a charming man, and that charm as an interlocutor is palpable in all the essays here. Indeed, to keep that charm alive appears to have been one of Baxter's goals. For instance, although the notes in to Chapter 8 were supplied by Jo Story, the text of that essay ("Corruption, Decline and the 'Real World' of the early English Church: Aristocrats as Abbots" on pages 248 266) "is substantially that read by the author in the church of All Saints' Brixworth on November 1st 2003. Minimal editorial interventions have been made so as to preserve the integrity and tone of the spoken version" (262). However, for those not motivated by personal links to Patrick Wormald, the collection is of limited value, for the quality of its component parts is extraordinarily uneven.

The collection includes one "must-read" article, namely "Bede, Beowulf and the Conversion of the Anglo-Saxon Aristocracy" (30 105). It is the earliest work in the collection, originally delivered as part of a lecture series at Cornell University in 1973 and 1974, then printed in a British Archeological Reports volume of 1978. [1] The essay is brilliant, and testifies to the powers of the young Wormald. Its republication now restates views that have been largely abandoned by younger generations of scholars in the wake of multiple methodological and even philosophical re-orientations in Medieval Studies, most notably the "Toronto Revolution" of 1981 concerning the date of Beowulf. [2] It appears from the Appendix and the extensive notes added to the original essay (71 81 and 98 105) that many developments of the 1980s and 1990s exasperated Wormald; the republication of this classic essay is a surprisingly effective way to press for a reconsideration of recent scholarly trends.

At the heart of the essay is the argument that Beowulf sheds important light on "the realities of seventh- and eighth-century England" (32) for "[t]he general atmosphere of life as it was lived by Bede's contemporaries, give or take a couple of generations, probably is reflected in [the poem]" (33). This is, in itself, controversial, given how many scholars have recently advocated a late tenth-century date of composition for Beowulf. But there is more here. Both the original essay and Wormald's additions set Beowulf within the broader context of the "Germanic Heroic Age" and its attendant literary monuments. For instance, Wormald's original discussion of the aristocratic audience of Beowulf included attention to the "barbarian and most ancient songs" favored (according to Einhard) by Charlemagne (44); his additional note on the matter challenges not only the usual suspects (such as Roberta Frank and Walter Goffart, key instigators of the Toronto Revolution) but also younger scholars such as Matthew Innes, who denies the existence of Einhard's "barbarian and ancient songs" and thus seems "to epitomize the lengths to which our generation of scholars will go to deny the reality of a generically Germanic warrior culture" (102). Wormald goes on to "emphatically agree" with Michael Richter that much heroic material did circulate orally in the barbarian West, and to reiterate his surprisingly persuasive argument that the fragmentary literary survival of such materials is due not to their scarcity or unimportance or late date of composition, but rather to "severe ideological pressures on the channels of transmission" (47) in the form of hostility on the part of proponents of a "Reformist" conscience (102) such as Bede, a "fundamentalist" who "accepted the full implications of the orthodox view that the unbaptized would probably not be saved[thus] he turned upon the heroes of the English pre-Christian past his unrivalled capacity for withering silence" (60). It is hard to deny that Bede's picture of Old English society is partial, and the work of Michael Richter almost certainly has been too little noticed of late amidst the rising tide of scholarly attention to the sophisticated Latinate manuscript culture of early Medieval Europeans. Much of what Bede and his fellow clerics left unsaid may well be revealed by attention to Beowulf, and that is Wormald's central point. It is to Wormald's credit that he searches distinctly more often for supplementary information that would fall under the rubric of "aristocratic social values" than under the more suspect rubric of "Germanic warrior culture." Although Wormald insists in an Appendix defending a pre-875 date of composition for Beowulf, "there was such a thing as a Heroic Age in the post-Roman West" (81), we need not return to a romantic, neo-Wagnerian vision of the early Middle Ages to appreciate the staggering elegance of Wormald's arguments in this essay.

As is clear from how Wormald wrangles in his updates and annotations with colleagues such as Goffart and Innes, The Times of Bede is best suited for a specialist audience whose members will be able to comprehend detailed scholarly disputes. A reader can sometimes feel like a helpless insect trapped in a tangled web of reaction and defense. For instance, Chapter Seven ("How do we know so much about Anglo-Saxon Deerhurst?"), originally published in 1993, already then included an "Appendix" (here 241 244) responding to a 1990 publication by Patrick Sims-Williams which had questioned sections of a 1986 article by Wormald; because the latter article happened to be cited in the Deerhurst piece; Wormald took the opportunity in 1993 to answer Sims-Williams through an Appendix, all of which (with a few additional annotations) is republished here. This unusual method of argumentation through annotated (re)publication somehow worked in the case of the Beowulf essay discussed at length above, but in the normal course of affairs it is better simply to write a fresh article than to expect readers to struggle with convoluted appendices and additional notes. Only dedicated specialists are likely to be able to stomach (relish?) such fare. Ironically, however, the specialist audience in question here surely already knows the other important essays in The Times of Bede, namely Chapters One, Three and Four of Part I ("An Early Christian Culture and its Critic"), essays drawn from the Jarrow Lectures,[3] Bonner's famous 1976 collection Famulus Christi,[4] and the star-studded Wallace-Hadrill Festschrift co-edited in 1983 by Wormald with Donald Bullough and Roger Collins.[5] Furthermore, anyone active in the field will also already know the updated bibliography (such as Dumville's discovery that the term Bretwalda is nothing more than a historiographical phantom based on a scribal error, described on 131- 132) with which Wormald has ornamented his older essays.

Yet, it must be said and emphatically so that the early essays in Part I (from 1976, 1983 and 1984 respectively) are uniformly insightful and enjoyable reads. Few will fail to appreciate the value of Wormald's argument that the idea of a unitary "gens Anglorum" may have originated with Gregory the Great (e.g. 119 120) before being disseminated by texts such as the Whitby Life of Gregory and Bede's Ecclesiastical History. These chapters also hold a certain historiographical interest, which might well be of use to young scholars just entering the field of Anglo-Saxon or early medieval studies. For instance, Chapter Four ("Bede and the Conversion of England: The Charter Evidence," on 135 166) takes us back to a time (1984) when Wormald, along with other luminaries such as Wendy Davies and Paul Fouracre, were just beginning to explore, from many different innovative angles, the uses of charter evidence. This early article still has value as a clear statement of what charter evidence is and how it can be utilized. It also includes a fabulous exposition of the nature of "bookland" and of the meaning of Bede's Letter to Egbert (especially 156 158), one which Wormald applies to good effect in all the subsequent essays in the collection (particularly those in Part II). Finally, the chapter also now includes a useful and reasonably up-to-date "Bibliographical Appendix" (158 161).

In a slightly different but still historiographical vein, Chapter One ("Bede and Benedict Biscop," on 329) is a potent reminder of the nave ways in which many scholars--before the literary turn and before the absorption of the lessons of Foucault and others concerning the power of discourse--used to approach the work of early Medieval historians. The views expressed by Wormald here, who sees the monk of Wearmouth-Jarrow as a cloistered Benedictine idealist whose worldview, like that of his mentor Biscop, "remained relatively unmodified by the values of the real aristocratic world around him" (14), seem almost quaint nowadays, particularly in light of the treatment of Bede in Walter Goffart's Narrators of Barbarian History.[6] Indeed, Wormald's Bede of Chapter One seems dramatically sheltered even in comparison with Wormald's Bede of Chapter Two, for what the latter consciously rejects due to his "fundamentalist" orientation, the former appears never even to have encountered. And Wormald's sense of Bede's innocence persisted. The new annotations to Chapter Three on the Bretwalda (which we now understand should be Brytenwalda or "Britain-ruler") mark another appearance of the reactionary Wormald distressed at attempts during the 1990s (by Simon Keynes and Sarah Foot) to see the very notion of a "Britain-ruler" as a historiographical construction owed to Bede himself. Such a politicized Bede sits ill with Wormald, who prefers "to see 'Britain- rule' as a counterpart to 'kingship of Tara/Ireland'.'Britain-rulers' were in origin Anglo-Saxon-Jutish versions of that temporary leadership against a common enemy--in this case of course the Britons which Bede himself attests for the Old Saxons" (132). Presumably (and this is not meant snidely) they were features of the post-Roman "Heroic Age" now rapidly receding from sight for the generation of Foot and Innes.

Part II of the collection, entitled "The Impact of Bede's Critique," falls below the standard set in Part I. It contains primarily minor essays originally published between 1988 and 2005. The oldest of these, namely "Æ thelwold and his Continental Counterparts: Contact, Comparison, Contrast" (169 206) is a solid piece of scholarship, but it is both irrelevant to the collection in which it now appears and easily available in its proper place, namely Barbara Yorke's 1988 collection on Æ thelwold, to which anyone interested in the subject is bound to turn.[7] Its presence in this collection is deleterious, for its tenth-century focus distracts from the main eighth-century concerns of the volume. The chronological intrusion of Chapter Five requires a redoubled effort from the reader to re-focus on the earlier period for the subsequent--and scarcely riveting--essays, all of which would now be virtually inaccessible (and perhaps rightly so) had they remained exclusively available in their original obscure places of publication.[8]

Chapter Six ("The Venerable Bede and the 'Church of the English,'" on pp. 207 228) makes the uncontroversial argument that Bede was not an Anglican, but did--as Wormald had already shown years earlier--espouse a view of the divinely-chosen gens Anglorum inspired by Gregory the Great. Along the way Wormald argues with a straw-man version of Walter Goffart,[9] before ending with the bafflingly rousing conclusion that "who is to say, in light of current controversies, that we have yet heard the last of this self-consciously Chosen Race, or of its sense of a unique political and spiritual destiny?" (219). In his additional notes, Wormald takes on the pop culture infatuation with "Celtic spirituality" (223 224) and wrangles with scholars such as Nicholas Brooks in the fragmented way that--by this point in the collection--had become too taxing for this particular reader (224 228). The chapters on the churches of Deerhurst and Brixworth (Chapters Seven and Eight respectively) are of exceedingly local interest; despite Wormald's (successful) attempts to connect their particular histories to points of wider significance, few readers will need to work through 38 pages of details concerning the histories of these particular churches in order to discover those points. Finally, the inclusion of the last essay in the collection ("Appendix: Hilda, Saint and Scholar (614 680)" on pp. 267 276) borders, frankly, on the insulting. The essay in question is the text of a 1993 lecture on women in the early middle ages republished here not only with no updates concerning or engagement with the voluminous scholarship of the past 15 years on the subject, but indeed without any citations or references whatsoever. In the context of a collection whose author was otherwise so visibly obsessed with both documentation and scholarly debates, someone whose own preference was clearly for "grossly overloaded annotation" (27), the decision to include a single article on the topic of women in such a lightweight and unscholarly form risks sending the message that women are a trivial topic whose study is not subject to the same scholarly norms as apply to the study of men. The field has, in any case, advanced so far since 1993 that it was completely unnecessary to republish this early (and already derivative) statement at all. The insult of the Appendix is compounded by the errors on the map of "Dioceses and minsters, to c. 850" on page xvii, which erroneously designates both Barking and Wimborne as men's, rather than (correctly) women's, communities.

It pains me to be so critical of this posthumous collection of essays by a scholar whom I both liked and admired. The moment the announcement came around on TMR indicating the availability of the volume for review, I eagerly wrote to volunteer, because I expected great things from the book (whose status as a collection of republished pieces was not at the time known to me). I was disappointed, and my responsibility as a reviewer is to prevent other readers from experiencing the same cycle of excitement and disappointment. I can only hope that neither Wormald nor those closest to him will take offense at my forthright assessment of the collection in its current form. Perhaps, had he himself lived to see it through the press, it would have been very different. Perhaps, indeed, the introduction he never had the opportunity to compose would have transformed the collection into a masterpiece. Unfortunately, we shall never know.


[1] R.T. Farrell, ed. Bede and Anglo-Saxon England: Papers in Honor of the 1300th Anniversary of the Birth of Bede (BAR 46; Oxford, 1978), 32 95.

[2] See the essays in C. Chase, ed. The Dating of Beowulf (Toronto, 1981).

[3] Many available as Bede and his world : the Jarrow lectures, 1958-1993 ed. Michael Lapidge. (Aldershot, England : Variorum, 1994). Wormald's Chapter Four, "Bede and the Conversion of England: The Charter Evidence," was the Jarrow lecture for 1984.

[4] Wormald's Chapter One, "Bede and Benedict Biscop," is reprinted from G. Bonner, ed. Famulus Christi: Essays in Commemoration of the Thirteenth Centenary of the Birth of the Venerable Bede (London, 1976).

[5] Wormald's Chapter Three, "Bede, the Bretwaldas and the Origins of the Gens Anglorum" is reprinted from P. Wormald, D. Bullough and R. Collins, eds. Ideal and Reality in Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Society: Studies presented to J.M. Wallace-Hadrill (Oxford, 1983).

[6] Walter Goffart, The narrators of barbarian history (A.D. 550- 800): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (Princeton University Press, 1988).

[7] B. Yorke, (ed.) Bishop Æ thelwold: His Career and Influence (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1988) pp. 13 42.

[8] Chapters Six through Nine of The Age of Bede are reprinted from: G. Rowell, ed. The English Tradition and the Genius of Anglicanism: Studies in Commemoration of the Second Centenary of John Keble (Wantage: Ikon Productions, 1992), 13 32; The Deerhurst Lecture, 1991 (The Friends of the Deerhurst Church, 1993); The 21st Brixworth Lecture, 2003 (The Friends of All Saints' Church, Brixworth, 2005); and J. Mellanby, ed. The St. Hilda's College Centenary Symposium: A Celebration of the Education of Women (Oxford, 1993), 93 103.

[9] The misreading of Goffart is particularly pointed on page 214 note 36.