Gernot Wieland

title.none: Kabir, Paradise, Death and Doomsday in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Gernot Wieland)

identifier.other: baj9928.0211.010 02.11.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gernot Wieland, The University of British Columbia,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Kabir, Ananya Jahanara. Paradise, Death and Doomsday in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 210. $70.00. ISBN: 0-521-80600-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.11.10

Kabir, Ananya Jahanara. Paradise, Death and Doomsday in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 32. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 210. $70.00. ISBN: 0-521-80600-3.

Reviewed by:

Gernot Wieland
The University of British Columbia

Where, in the opinion of the Anglo-Saxons, did the souls of the righteous go after their death? This is the basic question Kabir's book seeks to answer. In answering it, she encounters orthodoxy and heterodoxy, popular and learned cultures, orality and literacy, and the clerical and the lay worlds.

In preparation for this review, I asked some of my colleagues the same question. One half of them answered "heaven," the other half "paradise." And when, primed by Kabir's book, I wanted to know whether there was any difference between "heaven" and "paradise," the usual answer was "no." On the first pages of her book, Kabir warns against the easy assumption that the modern theological view overlaps with that of the Anglo-Saxons. Eternal truths, it seems, can change.

So, where, in the opinion of the Anglo-Saxons, did the souls of the righteous go after their deaths? Kabir carefully examines the Bible, homilies, vision literature, saints' lives, private and liturgical prayers, and both early and late Old English poetry to arrive at an answer. And the answer is richly complex.

The Bible gives only a few clues: Lazarus of the "Dives and Lazarus" parable is taken to the "bosom of Abraham" (Luke 16:22); the good thief of the Crucifixion was promised that after his death he would be in "paradise" with Jesus (Luke 24:43); and Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:2 mentions a man "caught up to third heaven." Do these three different terms all refer to the same location? Revelation with its millenarian chronology and its Day of Judgement complicates matters as it seems to suggest that the souls of the righteous could not enter heaven until Doomsday, and thus gave rise to the natural question as to the whereabouts of the souls of the righteous between their deaths and Doomsday. And the Old Testament, which has Enoch (in the apocryphal 1 Enoch 32) and Elijah (4 Kings 2:11) assumed bodily to "heaven," adds the further question of the place of their sojourn between their assumption and the Day of Judgement. As Kabir makes abundantly clear, the "kingdom of heaven" is the final destination of the souls of the righteous, but considerable doubt existed in the minds of the Anglo-Saxons whether the "bosom of Abraham," "paradise," and "third heaven" were to be considered synonymous with "heaven," or whether they constituted an "interim paradise" in which the souls of the righteous awaited their final judgement.

Kabir begins her examination with Aelfric's attack against the apocryphal Visio Pauli and the equally apocryphal Transitus Mariae, and a description of these texts and their traditions. Augustine in De Genesi ad litteram denies an interim state, and Aelfric's discomfort with the Visio and the Transitus arises from the fact that they seem to allow for one. Aelfric, however, is not entirely consistent: in one homily he introduces a scheme in which the "good" are taken into heaven, the "not completely good" to a place where they are cleansed, and the "bad" to hell. Into this tripartite scheme Aelfric introduces a fourth category, good souls who are taken to rest: these do not immediately enter heaven, but at the same time are not subject to punishment either (chapter 2). Kabir finds similar four-fold schemes in the Old English prose texts "Three Utterances," the "Theban Legend" homilies, the homilies on Mary's Assumption, and the "Life of Margaret" (chapter 3). These four-fold schemes can also be found in the Anglo-Latin vision literature, specifically the vision of a monk of the monastery of Wenlock, which was reported by Boniface and Dryhthelm's vision in Bede's Ecclesiastical History. Kabir even suggests that Bede may have known about Boniface's account through an intermediary (chapter 4). Anglo-Saxon manuscripts containing private prayers, and those containing the liturgy for the dead show a curious dichotomy: private prayers seem to allow for a four-fold scheme, and hence for a delay in entering heaven, while the liturgy follows the orthodox path established by Augustine (chapter 5). Old English poetry, e.g. Genesis A, Christ and Satan, Christ I, Guthlac, Andreas, and the Phoenix, as representatives of "popular culture," shows considerable traces of the interim paradise (chapter 6), and even late prose texts, e.g. the "Prose Phoenix" are not entirely free from it (chapter 7), even though in the twelfth century there is a clear movement from the four-fold to a tripartite scheme (heaven-purgatory-hell). The major reason for introducing an interim stage (or two), according to Kabir, lay in the Church's insistence on the efficacy of prayers, alms, and masses for freeing the souls of the departed from either upper hell, if they needed cleansing, or from the interim paradise, if they were good, but not good enough to immediately enter into the presence of God. Throughout her book, Kabir traces the tension between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, when even orthodox writers admit heterodox notions, and between learned and popular culture, when even the learned are influenced by popular concepts.

The book is very successful in drawing attention to the fact that the Anglo-Saxons on the level of "popular culture," and, to a certain extent even on the level of clerical culture, held, or struggled with, a belief in an eschatology on four different levels. The tripartite structure as we know it from Dante (Paradise-Purgatory-Hell) established its supremacy only in the twelfth century and would therefore not be familiar to the Anglo-Saxons. Kabir is persuasive as she examines the wide range of texts enumerated above - vision literature, prayers, liturgy, poetry, etc. in both Latin and Old English. There is not much, if anything, that has escaped her attention.

A perfect book, then? Well, not quite, though the quibbles are small. This reader would have preferred a more linear narrative: starting with Aelfric, looping back to Boniface and Bede, and gradually returning to the eleventh century with the various redactions of Visio Sancti Pauli and the Transitus Mariae thrown in, stopping along the way to sample Augustine and Gregory and finally ending up in the twelfth century teasingly suggests a temporal approach while simultaneously withholding it. Nor can one argue that the book takes a thematic approach, as the orthodox and heterodox notions of "paradise" clash in many of the chapters. The clash and the overlap between the two over the centuries clearly lies at the centre of Kabir's book, but this reader would have preferred a bird's eye view of the battle rather than being placed in the middle of it. Related to this non-linear manner of narration are the instances in which Kabir tantalizingly introduces a topic, but refers the reader to a later chapter in which the topic is dealt with more thoroughly (e.g. notes 100 and 102 on p. 46 which refer to pages 142-7 and 147-50 respectively; or on p. 58 where she asks a question, partly answers it, and then says: "The full answer must wait until the following chapter," which begins on p. 77). Cross-references of this sort of course occur in all books; there just seem to be more in Kabir's book than in others. At least once, Kabir herself trips up on her delaying tactics: on p. 81 she mentions that "Christian Latin poets such as Avitus, Prudentius, Cyprianus and Lactantius frequently evoke the terrestrial paradise of Eden through the classical topos of the locus amoenus." The footnote number 10 does not enlighten us to where these poets might do so, but tersely states "See below, p. 142." By page 142, however, she creates a new list: "poets such as Avitus, Cyprianus Gallus and Dracontius." Dracontius inexplicably replaces Prudentius and Lactantius. The brief early hints and the later explications, the movement backward and forward in time and themes is akin to the interlace narrative patterns which Leyerle has identified as typical of Old English poetry. Techniques, however, which enhance Old English poetry can be annoying and confusing in a modern critical book.

One other area in which the book could be improved is in its references to and discussions of manuscripts. On p. 55, for instance, Kabir refers to a "manuscript written in Anglo-Saxon script in the early ninth century and exhibiting several 'Irish symptoms.'" The footnote laconically refers the reader to "Wright, 'Redaction XI,' p. 34" and it is only on p. 57 that the manuscript is identified as "Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, pal. lat. 220." An earlier identification would have been useful. On p. 68 Kabir states: "As Corpus 303 is the later manuscript, it is not impossible that its author knew the Tiberius A. iii Life." These manuscripts had been introduced on p. 64 without dates, and neither the text nor the footnotes on the intervening pages provide that information. One last example: on p. 119 Kabir speaks about "two tenth-century manuscripts from centres of strong Anglo-Saxon influence, Fulda and St Gallen." Because of Boniface there can be no doubt that there was a strong Anglo-Saxon influence on Fulda, but the case for St. Gallen as being strongly influenced by the Anglo-Saxons still has to be made.

These minor criticisms aside, Kabir forcefully makes her point that our modern beliefs about the afterworld were not shared by all Anglo-Saxons, that the interim paradise was a concept that survived for a long time at the intersection between learned and popular cultures, and that orthodox notions only gradually replaced heterodox ones. The book deserves special praise for examining such a wide range of literature, leaving, as it were, no stone unturned in the search for traces of the interim paradise.