03.09.20, Stanley, Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past

Main Article Content

Carolyne Larrington

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.020


Stanley, Eric Gerald. Imagining the Anglo-Saxon Past: The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism and Anglo-Saxon Trial by Jury. Rochester: D. S. Brewer, 2000. Pp.. ISBN: 0-859-91588-3.

Reviewed by:
Carolyne Larrington
St. John's College, Oxford

This book is in fact a welcome reprint of Eric Stanley's The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism, first published in 1975, and based on a series of articles which appeared in Notes and Queries in the mid sixties, coupled with a new work on the evidence for trial by jury as originating in the Anglo-Saxon period. In The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism, Stanley reads and notes the evidence in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century German scholars, and English critics influenced by them, for the belief that it is possible to recover some notion of Anglo-Saxon paganism. This is accomplished by partial readings of Old English poetry, by excising the unpleasing Christian material in poems such as Beowulf or The Seafarer and by detecting surviving outcrops of pagan belief in the use of Wyrd, Metod or other ancient items of lexis. He traces the Romantic genesis of the belief that the Germanic tribes shared culture, customs and virtues, and that Anglo-Saxon society had in some respects preserved what had been lost on the Continental homeland, a belief which both nurtured, and was nurtured by, German Nationalism, and, eventually, Nazism. The chapter titles summarise the arguments made by early scholars: that the English are a Germanic people, that there was a rich oral poetic tradition which was irreparably damaged by the monkish interpolators, and that the Christian poetry which resulted had little merit. Following chapters are accounts of the emergence of criticism of the view that Christian culture deliberately set out to destroy Old English poetry, of the disintegration of certain poems to rescue their pagan core, and the tracking of gods and a pagan concept of Fate in the surviving corpus.

Stanley's method is to cite at length, both in translation and in the original; the absurdity, romanticism and persistence of the errors made by the early critics speak for themselves. He also chronicles the arguments against and rejections of the romantic view: robust common sense is found in John Earle, an 1880s' predecessor of Stanley in the Anglo-Saxon Chair at Oxford. Alarming, however, is the realisation that nineteenth-century views persisted as long as they did into the twentieth century, to the extent that even I.L. Gordon's edition of The Seafarer, published as late as 1960, can write approvingly "there is a remarkable freedom from clerical influence in its style and diction -- the poet has transformed his homiletic material into concepts which belong to a milieu nearer to that of Beowulf than to the more stereotyped school of poetry such as we have in the Cynewulfian poems." Stanley shows how Beowulf, The Seafarer and the gnomic poetry have been particularly prone to dissection; reminding us that even as sensitive a reader as Tolkien argued on the basis of intuition alone that the lines on the Danes' lapse into idolatry at the coming of Grendel were an interpolation.

In his original preface, Stanley noted that the attitudes he chronicles are now a thing of the past. In the last forty years it has become clear to Anglo-Saxon scholars that the typical Anglo-Saxon poet was most likely working at a centre of learning "which had, in a manner of speaking, the first hundred and fifty volumes of the Patrologia Latina on its shelves." He suggested, presciently, that the book would be of most use to those who were interested in the history of the discipline. Yet the old battles remain to be fought, at least in the minds of students who still seize on minute traces vestiges of paganism with enthusiasm for the exotic and unfamiliar. Reaction against Nazism may have done away with talk of "keeping unbroken the old Teutonic laws, unstained the old Teutonic faith and virtue," as Charles Kingsley expressed it, but the uncritical syntheses made by neo-paganism still threaten the understanding of the subject in the popular mind.

The new material in this book is a study of the idea that trial by a jury of twelve peers is an institution which has descended from Anglo-Saxon times, perhaps originating under Alfred. Stanley carefully unpicks the evidence for compurgators, or oath-helpers, twelve in number who swore to the truth of the accused's testimony and his character, the crucial difference between iudicia facere, delivering a verdict and recognoscere veritatem, uncovering the truth is a distinction that most legal historians have easily made. The problem lies in part in the fact that "jury" has referred to a number of different institutions in legal history; the survival of the "grand jury" in the US legal system, but not in the British, is a case in point. Stanley shows the likelihood of trial by jury originating post-Conquest, and that the references in the law-code III Aethelred to twelve sworn thegns probably applied only to the Danelaw, confirming what was probably local, that is, Danish, custom.

The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism was, when first published, the herald of the growing interest in the history of modern Anglo-Saxon study; that specific branch of medievalism in which Allen Frantzen's Desire for Origins (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1990) was a primary text for the history of US scholarship. The two studies published here have much to say, (still in the case of Anglo-Saxon Paganism) to historians of European Anglo-Saxonism about the beliefs which shaped the discipline we practise today.

Article Details

Author Biography

Carolyne Larrington

St. John's College, Oxford