contributor.author: Peter Dendle

title.none: Fulk and Cain, History of Old English Literature (Peter Dendle)

identifier.other: baj9928.0507.014 05.07.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Peter Dendle, Penn State, Mont Alto, pjd11@psu.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Fulk, R.D. and Christopher M. Cain. A History of Old English Literature. Series: Blackwell Histories of Literature. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Pp. ix, 346. 0-631-22397-5. ISBN: $34.95 1-4051-2181-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.07.14

Fulk, R.D. and Christopher M. Cain. A History of Old English Literature. Series: Blackwell Histories of Literature. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. Pp. ix, 346. 0-631-22397-5. ISBN: $34.95 1-4051-2181-5.

Reviewed by:

Peter Dendle
Penn State, Mont Alto
pjd11@psu.edu

Fulk and Cain's meticulous overview is an impressive sprint through the vast and varied landscape of Old English literature and letters. Though the emphasis is on summarizing the most recent secondary literature--that of the past 15 years--the individual discussions are well rooted in the broad context of historical scholarship. Old English scholars and students will find this up-to-date survey of the current state of knowledge--and of critical opinion--thoughtful and richly informative.

A History of Old English Literature now supplants Stanley Greenfield and Daniel Calder's A New Critical History of Old English Literature (New York University Press, 1986) as the definitive single-volume overview of Old English letters in critical context. A brief comparison of the two provides interesting insight into the shift in critical tastes over the past twenty years. Both works offer a panoramic overview of major genres and works, grouped broadly by genre. Both are diligent and thorough, making sure to discuss works of peripheral attention such as liturgical poetry, school texts, and scientific prose alongside more popular staples such as Beowulf and Cynewulf's poetry. Greenfield and Calder's history, however, offers a baseline of critical orientation: we are told that The Phoenix, for instance, is "a splendid piece of literature" while Maxims I B and C have "less force and unity" than Maxims I A (245, 260). The Old English Physiologus is stylistically "mediocre," but Beowulf is "universally recognized as the richest jewel in the treasure-hoard of Anglo-Saxon poetry" (242, 136). While we also wrestle an acknowledgment out of Fulk and Cain that "the general consensus that [Beowulf] is the finest work of Old English literature surely is not unfounded" (194), the current work studiously avoids critical evaluation. A History of Old English Literature strives to represent a factual rather than critical overview, focusing on scholarly controversies surrounding objective issues such as dating, authorship, sources, and intended readership. The result is a no-nonsense snapshot of the current state of thinking on these topics, with the authors sometimes taking sides on particular issues but more often simply presenting the competing views and dominant perspectives.

While they seldom make comments assessing a given work's artistic value, Fulk and Cain consistently orient the reader with proper historical and contextual information to allow for understanding and appreciation of the work's place (as nearly as we can reconstruct it) in the Anglo-Saxon literary community. Our modern interpretive prejudices are consistently drawn to the fore: post-Romantic literary sensibilities obscure the modern reader's ability to understand the medieval reader's pleasure in catalogue poetry, for instance, and in the case of wisdom literature, they also prevent us from relating to the "persistent predilection for sententious expression that, because it is universalizing, offends against the modern aversion to didacticism in a genre perceived to be devoted to personal expression" (164). While such hermeneutic reflections are commonplace in medieval studies, it is impressive how sensitive a perspective the authors offer for such a wide range of difficult genres, resulting in a unified appreciation of a literary milieu covering over four hundred years.

This literary milieu--the difficult world of Old English literature in context--is clearly an instance of what is referred to in the book's closing sentence as an "extreme textual alterit[y]" (234). The search for "alterity" is, arguably, a pervasive interpretive principle of Fulk and Cain's History, as the opening sentence makes clear: "one of the aims of literary studies in recent years has been to defamiliarize the most natural-seeming aspects of our own culture, to promote awareness of how our way of life is neither natural nor inevitable" (1). The appreciation of literature thus becomes primarily an examination of our own cultural and aesthetic preconceptions, even at the risk of relegating potential points of common ground between past cultures and our own to the realm of sentimentalism and nostalgia. The authors are undoubtedly right that such self-awareness is a necessary concern in Anglo-Saxon studies, since students first approaching the literature may be deceived into a false sense of familiarity. For instance, we may be tempted to find the brooding, existential anxiety permeating the lyrics such as The Seafarer and The Wanderer refreshingly modern. Our understanding of Beowulf's mournful pathos must be largely relinquished once we understand the historical prism through which these impressions come to us: they are bequeathed to us by Victorians "of a Romantic disposition" who "saw mirrored in these works their own tendency to melancholic introversion and awe of nature mixed with a Keatsian awareness of mutability" (180). One feels a little wiser, having many such faux familiarities exposed through the course of this comprehensive overview--though at the same time, one is left to wonder at times what is left but unbridgeable distance.

Specialists will find the authors' presentation of disparate points of view on numerous interpretive issues helpful. Fulk's background in historical philology allows for close attention to language in the presentation (and sometimes an opinion on the most plausible resolution) of these scholarly disputes. The broad core of Anglo-Saxonists will likely appreciate the sober, conservative sense of textual and philological orientation that keeps the work grounded. Proponents of some critical schools, on the other hand, may feel that the authors under-represent or unfairly dismiss their methods or conclusions--especially for the more theoretical branches of these schools. Some gender theorists and culture theorists may find that not all interpretive ventures receive equal appreciation in this overview, and post-modernists will find an ongoing critique of the very application of that school of thought to texts which cannot profitably be de-familiarized and de-stabilized because they come to us in a language that is already "radically uncertain" (211, and see 231, 234). The authors have generally done an admirable job of inclusion, however, demonstrating wide and deliberative reading tempered with judicious circumspection.

There is a considerable amount to absorb and reflect upon in Fulk and Cain's history. It represents a snapshot not just of the current state of thinking on individual works and authors, but captures the contemporary mood of the field somewhat in its very distance and self-reflectivity. The section on Beowulf, for instance, turns out to contain little about the contents of the poem, but spends its twenty pages or so on the history of various critical approaches to Beowulf: in short, it winds up being something of a history of Beowulf scholarship rather than a direct engagement with that text. The book takes it as axiomatic that Old English studies cannot be divorced from the evolution of diverse critical schools within historical contexts. The authors explicitly repudiate formal aesthetics as no longer reflective of current scholarly interests, and one is left with something of a sense of literature as a body of documents for an understanding of social history. In an age of scholarly suspicion for any textual analysis unaware of its own aesthetic, historical, and cultural presuppositions, this approach is--if at times disengaged--perhaps the most honest.

The authors close with a Conclusion that offers a necessary historical perspective on the evolution of the study of Old English literature from the earliest times (Norman England) to the present. The authors speak frankly of the "cultural work" (232) to which Old English literature has been deployed throughout the past 950 years, exposing our own responses as deeply rooted in unspoken cultural ideologies. This conclusion serves--as indeed the entire book does--as an occasion to meditate on the wider field of Anglo-Saxonism and on medieval studies as a whole. Fulk and Cain make very provocative claims about the deleterious effect that our inability to date Beowulf has had on Old English studies, for instance: apparently it continues to encourage an ahistoricizing approach and draws from formalist critical underpinnings which give other scholars of later periods the impression that Anglo-Saxonism is "antiquated and out of touch with the wider concerns of the profession, and even of medieval scholarship" (199). The authors meditate at the end of the book on the "crisis of relevance" that Old English literary studies currently faces (233), closing on the up-beat note that our field does have important contributions to make to literary studies as a whole. The focus in Anglo-Saxonism on recovering the material and intellectual context of the production of Old English literature is consistent with broader historicist interests in the field, and Old English scholarship can offer "valuable lessons on the mediation of language and culture" to a field preoccupied with alterity in general: Old English studies can "serve as a model for dealing with the complexities of extreme textual alterities" (234). This may be true, but by this point the History of Old English literature has become something of a defense of it.

If one does not already bring passion for and personal connection with Old English works to the table, one is unlikely to form them on the basis of this History. That is not its aim. Fulk and Cain have, however, distilled a prodigious amount of research into an accessible, tightly written work. A History of Old English Literature is formidable and authoritative; it will surely serve as an invaluable point of orientation for students or newcomers to a given work or genre, and a continuous reference work for scholars at all levels.