The Medieval Review 10.04.08

Blanton, Virginia, and Helene Scheck. Intertexts: Studies in Anglo-Saxon Culture Presented to Paul E. Szarmach. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 334. Tempe, AZ: ACMRS with Brepols, 2008. Pp. xxxi. 448. $57 978-0-86698-382-2. .

Reviewed by:

Renée Trilling
University of Illinois

This volume, produced as a tribute to Anglo-Saxon scholar Paul E. Szarmach, uses the rubric of "intertextuality" to organize a series of 26 essays on an impressive array of topics in Anglo-Saxon studies. Beginning with a brief but thorough academic biography of Szarmach by Donald Scragg and a complete bibliography of the honoree's work, the collection includes contributions ranging from notes on new sources and manuscripts (Wright, Gneuss, Wilcox) to suggestions of new contexts for understanding old artifacts (Trahern, Hill, Gretsch, Roberts, Neuman de Vegvar, Conner, Johnson). There are word studies aplenty (Lapidge, Orchard, McDaniel, Sauer), and even some detailed arguments about the dating of Beowulf (Frank, Damico). As the volume's title suggests, the essays highlight the fundamentally intertextual nature of scholarship in the field; they range across a variety of sub-disciplines, including literary study, history, art history, linguistics, numismatics, and paleography, to name but a few, and each essay bridges traditional divides between these fields. But these contributions also demonstrate the fundamentally intertextual nature of Anglo-Saxon culture itself. The artifacts we study are deeply embedded in cultural traditions that regularly combine Christian and Germanic traditions, religious and secular motifs, architectural and literary influences, and historical and contemporary narratives. One of the most profound contributions of this volume is its prominent demonstration that the disciplinary boundaries we frequently ignore as scholars were just as frequently ignored by the Anglo-Saxons themselves.

Part I of the volume focuses on "(Re)Framing Insular Texts," and that reframing takes many different forms. Some scholars look to the influences of the Latin schoolroom on Anglo-Saxon textual production; Michael Lapidge, for example, finds analogues for the construction of Old English poetic compounds in the Latin poetry that was widely used in Anglo-Saxon school curricula, and Mechthild Gretsch suggests that thinking of the frequently-discounted Resignation A as a classroom exercise in generating alternate titles for God may explain the poem's survival. Other essays similarly reevaluate accepted or traditional understandings of Anglo-Saxon texts. Thomas Hill sees the theme of child sacrifice underwriting the iconography of Christ's Nativity in Christ III, for example, while Joseph Trahern explores the shadowy borderlands between verse and prose in vernacular literature, and Jane Roberts finds unity in the meditative speaker of Vainglory's musings on a spectacular range of scripture and biblical commentary. Some framing takes place through word study; Roberta Frank discusses the difficulties with using vocabulary to date Beowulf, Rhonda McDaniel uncovers the gendered implications in translation through a survey of the Old English hnesce, and Andy Orchard reconstructs The Ruin through close attention to its lexical structure. Joel Rosenthal encourages us to recognize Bede's penchant for detail and exact numbers in the Ecclesiastical History--after all, what else would one expect from a expert on computus?

Part II, "Engaging Insular Culture," offers a series of explicitly interdisciplinary meditations on Anglo-Saxon texts. Two essays combine political theory with Anglo-Saxon literature: Malcolm Godden analyzes the political situation of Boethius' Rome and its reflection in the ninth-century Old English translation of De consolatione Philosophiae, and Helen Damico reads Beowulf's politically-savvy Wealhtheow as a literary reflection of England's own Queen Emma, a dab hand at court politics (and literary patron) in her own right. Contributions from art history include Carol Neuman de Vegvar's reading of the Franks Casket in the context of Old English wisdom poetry, and Frederick Biggs trawls the writings of AElfric for clues to the identity of two apostles in a Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 198 illustration. In the Irish tradition, Charles Wright finds analogues for an otherwise confusing etiology of why the left arm is shorter than the right, an interesting fact noted by both homilists and tailors. Catherine Karkov turns to architectural history to explain discrepancies in Goscelin's record of a chapel supposedly built by St. Edith at Wilton, while Robert Schichler uses numismatics to trace resentment towards a foreign ruler in a Harley Psalter illustration of Goliath. In one of the most innovative pieces in the collection, Patrick Conner traces the early history of Anglo-Saxon charitable brotherhoods in tenth-century guild records connected to the Exeter Book, and proposes guild banquets--rather than aristocratic feasts or monastic refectories--as performance spaces for vernacular poetry, suggesting that Old English poetry could be truly "public" discourse.

Part III, "Tracing Textual Transmission," looks in detail at the sources behind Anglo-Saxon texts. Tom Hall and David Johnson both look at traditions of scriptural commentary. Hall traces a motif of John as a soldier taking up arms both in the womb, in Blickling Homily 14, and in Hell, in the Exeter Book poem Descent into Hell, to the Greek exegetical tradition. In an attempt to explain both the obsession with land tenure and the battles with demons in Guthlac A, Johnson finds parallels to the biblical tradition of the Israelites in Canaan, tempted to sin but instead holding fast to virtue and turning the desert into a fruitful plain. Other studies look more explicitly at the process of transmission from and between sources. Joyce Hill, for example, compares AElfric's use of a homiliary of Haymo, which he tends to use to fill out an argument, with his use of the homiliaries of Paul the Deacon and Smaragdus, to which he appeals for apostolic authority; and E. Gordon Whatley lays out the equally complicated intertextuality of the two major Latin texts behind the Eugenia legend. George Hardin Brown examines the use of Ciceronian rhetoric in the time of Bede and Alcuin, demonstrating that early monastic mistrust of pagan rhetorical devices is ultimately replaced by a later appreciation for the possibilities of stoic virtue. The collection ends with the kind of detailed manuscript and word studies that are the bedrock of Anglo-Saxon scholarship. Hans Sauer surveys the semantic field of words for "people" in the Épinal-Erfurt Glossary and AElfric's Glossary, and the comparison of these two sets of vocabulary 300 years apart shows the development of a sophisticated range of terminology in vernacular writing. From an overview of manuscripts containing prose from the Vercelli Book, Donald Scragg posits the existence of a considerable library of texts that were the sources of that prose in Canterbury for the better part of the eleventh century. Helmut Gneuss outlines a series of new manuscript discoveries to add to the Catalogue compiled by Ker and its supplements by Ker and Blockley, and Jonathan Wilcox closes the collection with a bibliographic overview of recent discoveries in Old English texts, from binding fragments and wrappings to newly-discovered transcriptions of now-lost texts and, finally, to the work being done with technologies such as ultraviolet light and digital imaging to reconstruct the text of damaged manuscripts.

The essays contained in Intertexts have some commonalities and speak to one another in various and sometimes unpredictable ways. Each offers an original contribution to Anglo-Saxon scholarship and will serve as points of reference for future study. Each piece is thoroughly and diligently researched, and each makes a special effort to acknowledge its debt to Szarmach's work. Taken as a whole, this truly remarkable collection is a fitting tribute, and its range and breadth testify to the many different aspects of the field on which this scholar has already left his mark.