contributor.author: Gwendolyn Morgan

title.none: Green, Anglo-Saxon Audiences (Gwendolyn Morgan)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.044 02.09.44

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gwendolyn Morgan, Montana State, morgan@english.montana.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Green, Eugene. Anglo-Saxon Audiences. Berkeley Insights in Linguistics and Semiotics, vol. 44. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. Pp. xi, 235. $55.95. ISBN: 0-8204-4550-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.44

Green, Eugene. Anglo-Saxon Audiences. Berkeley Insights in Linguistics and Semiotics, vol. 44. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. Pp. xi, 235. $55.95. ISBN: 0-8204-4550-9.

Reviewed by:

Gwendolyn Morgan
Montana State
morgan@english.montana.edu

Anglo-Saxon Audiences applies modern linguistic and rhetorical strategies to extant Old English texts in order to discover aspects of their audiences' temperaments and mind-sets, which, in turn, the author hopes, may reveal something of the changing social conditions of the period. This, of course, is an ambitious undertaking, and Eugene Green is not always successful in his endeavor. He does indeed link rhetorical devices to particular purposes across a wide variety of genres, yet specific interpretations of the individual texts themselves offer little or no new conclusions, and while the picture of the Anglo-Saxon audiences which emerges is well supported, it is neither comprehensive nor, again, anything new. In short, we have a book which simply provides additional support for standard readings of Old English literature and perceptions of the culture which produced them.

Green's overall approach is to identify certain semantic and semiotic patters within the text and determine when one is used over another. For example, certain terms consistently and overwhelmingly may outnumber their synonyms in legalistic texts and edicts, but the frequency reversed in the synonyms' favor in sermons or homilies. More interestingly, certain rhetorical strategies -- admonition versus exhortation or command; inclusive first person grammatical subjects in contrast to third person or indefinite subjects; the pattern of exchanges in flytings -- are distributed according to rhetorical purpose across genres and thus seem to indicate certain general perceptions and patterns of thought in the audiences of the texts. Thus, for example, the ambivalence of the narrators in The Wanderer and The Seafarer in weighing rejection of Germanic warrior society and its pleasures of the mead hall in favor of eternal but ethereal Christian rewards is addressed too in the homilies. Authors of the latter texts thus employ inclusive pronouns (stressing Anglo-Saxon sense of community over the individual) and exhortation rather than command (appealing to the honor code and indicating a resistence to and suspicion of new ideas in the listeners) to persuade the audience to Christian behavior. Similarly, concerns for such things as stable political power in times of uncertainty, apprehension of the future, the standard idealization of strength, courage, and honor all are expressed through similar rhetorical patterns and in traditional phrases and scenes throughout the canon.

Green ranges far in his examination, from royal edicts and legal codes, to homilies and sermons, to a sample of the major works in the poetic canon -- Deor, The Battle of Maldon, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and, of course, Beowulf. Indeed, Beowulf becomes in the penultimate chapter of the book the lynchpin of the author's argument. Each of the major patterns and concerns identified in the preceding chapters finds expression too in the epic, and the conditions of the tale itself, says Green, are an accurate reflection of the instability of high Anglo-Saxon society and the culture's response to it. The concluding chapter identifies, as the introduction promised, a description of the Anglo-Saxon mind -- suspicious, resistant to change or the unknown, holding to traditional warrior society virtues -- and of social conditions, quite simply expressed as a culture in crisis, for both political and religious reasons.

The strongest chapter of Anglo-Saxon Audiences, however, comes early, in tracing the evolution of oath-taking in the culture from the earliest Kentish and West Saxon law codes to edicts and codes of Edgar, Aethelstan, Cnut, and Alfred, among others. The discussion includes identification of likely precedents in and apparent affinities to earlier and contemporary religious and legal codes on the continent, as well as a historical context explaining the changes in the practice. This is truly new grist for the mill and builds upon earlier work on the Germanic and Christian contexts of early English culture. On the other hand, Green's interpretations of the texts he covers and of Anglo-Saxon society itself offer nothing new, merely an extension of the linguistic/semiotic approach to them already employed by a number of scholars and an affirmation of the long established findings of literary criticism. And, as has been previously mentioned, except for the oath-taking argument, there is no real depth to the book's analysis, a fact which the author recognizes in the introduction.

Thus, Anglo-Saxon Audiences is ultimately more disappointing than enlightening for a number of reasons. First, its major conclusions are really nothing new: they merely confirm the understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture's various strata over the stages of its history established decades ago by literary critics and historians, and underlying most work in these disciplines for the last thirty or forty years. Similarly, the heroic, boastful, stubborn Anglo-Saxon warrior culture, with its concepts of oath-taking, wergild, honor, and so forth, has been around much longer as a commonplace to any scholar of the period. Yet, aside from an exceedingly few, cursory nods to previous scholarship in the disciplines of literary criticism and social historicism, Green does not seem aware of this. Perhaps equally disturbing is his assertion (as somehow new) of basic characteristics and strategies, and how they vary according to performance situation, established by Albert Lord and Walter Ong, and since expanded upon by others. Neither Lord nor Ong are once mentioned, even in the bibliography. The appalling lack of communication between academic disciplines addressing the same subjects demonstrated by such oversights may tell us something of our over-specialization in the academy today.

A final weakness of Anglo-Saxon Audiences lies in the actual presentation of the material. First, Green has certainly not been well-served by the book's copy-editors, for typographical errors of all kinds and magnitude run rampant through its pages. Spelling (e.g. "homilsts" for "homilists," "transcience" for "transience," and "then" for "than") and punctuation errors (mainly missing or misplaced periods and commas), and even subject-verb disagreements and sentence fragments litter the text. Second, the inconsistencies in heading or reference style and the most basic of typesetting errors, such as invalid line breaks or lack of paragraph indentation, also occur with sufficient frequency to distract and frustrate any reader. Needless to say, such carelessness cannot but seriously undermine the book's credibility.

All in all, Anglo-Saxon Audiences does not inspire confidence in this "new" approach to Anglo-Saxon studies. Certainly, it is always useful to try out a new vocabulary in describing or analyzing old material, but one would hope that such an exercise rendered new insights equal to the effort (according to the cover synopsis, ten years) involved, rather than just supplying additional evidence for well-established conclusions.