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13.06.07, Lockett, Anglo-Saxon Psychologies

13.06.07, Lockett, Anglo-Saxon Psychologies

Leslie Lockett scours the terrain of Old English poetry and prose to confirm her claim that a "hydraulic model" characterizes Anglo-Saxon thinking about emotion and mind. That model denotes a variable pattern of psycho-physiological reactions to one awareness or another and implies "localization of mental activity [producing such responses as distress, anger or triumph] in the midsection of the body, usually in the chest, and sometimes in the abdomen, but not in the brain" (6). "Hydraulic" comes to mind because such reactions involve felt pressure rising or falling, as though in a heated or cooling container. This is a folk model taken literally. It is widespread in the pre-Christian, classical world, in the Hebrew Bible and in medieval Irish, Old Norse and Old Saxon literature--something Lockett compelling shows. Taken literally, the language involved is little affected, if at all, by Neoplatonic concepts of the soul and of increasingly abstracted cognition.

Half of Lockett's analytically satisfying study sets out the presence of this largely emotional psychology--not a dynamic or depth psychology--in a wide array of texts from Anglo-Saxon England as well as cross-culturally. Half again focuses on the absence of a competitor model drawn from Christian Neoplatonism. Along the way, Lockett covers distinctions between the corporeal and non-corporeal as set out in elementary grammatical study and in Latin riddles. Abstractions are incorporeal, as is the unitary soul. Here she concludes, again, that the hydraulic model is not displaced by Anglo-Saxon schooling or by the instructions offered late, as by Alcuin, from the perspective of an Augustinian or otherwise learned conception of the soul and of an interior spark--that is, of intellectus and an interior light guiding successively abstracted stages of cognition to an at least partial vision of the forms underlying concepts and the classes of things. Between Bede's time and Alcuin's such conceptions were available only to a few, elite thinkers in a few centers. As Lockett gathers in her invaluable review, drawing upon studies by Michael Lapidge and others, the books most Anglo-Saxons had available to them do not reflect widespread dissemination of Christian Neoplatonism. Indeed, "every available form of evidence points" away from general access to libraries like Bede's or Alcuin's (181). After surveying several traditions, especially Platonic and Stoical thought in Christian circles, Lockett eventually concludes that the "lesser lights of Anglo-Saxon literary history," such as writers of poetry or homilies or prose hagiographies, learned about the soul, in all periods, and at all levels of education, mainly from Gregory's Dialogi and Isidore of Seville (224).

Anglo-Saxon Psychologies improves upon the significant work of Malcolm Godden, Antonina Harbus, Britt Mize, Eric Jager, Soon Ai Low, and Michael Matto by being impressively comprehensive in its overview of poetry and prose and of the Latin inheritance traceable in Anglo- Saxon England. The book's range and detail are extraordinary. No Anglo-Saxonist's library should be without this 495-page study. That said, this reviewer wishes for a better phrase than the rather unfortunate "hydraulic model," calling up, as it does, notions of water or some other liquid flowing in tubes or containers under pressure. What kind of mind is that, one might ask, if understood as fluid mechanics? Perhaps a "cardio-centric" model is a better phrase, appearing often in Lockett's study. If so, one could say the Anglo- Saxons had a cardio-centric theory of awareness and response, of course contained in the chest, involving constriction at times, heating up, as well as felt expansion. Such embodied notions express physiological sensations related to, or experienced while in, distress or else in some other sort of high, emotional state, such as anger or excitement. A sense of seething and welling up might accompany intense emotion, as when Beowulf's breast swells in anger and he lets loose a shout against the dragon (line 2550 and following). For most Anglo- Saxons, it would seem, strong feeling and thought are localized in the chest mainly, certainly not in the brain. Wisdom is in the breast, where thoughts are, says an Anglo-Saxon maxim. And the wise Man, we are told, sits separately at counsel, he who holds in his faith; he does not readily make known the sorrow in his breast, unless he already knows how bravely to work a remedy (see "The Wanderer," ll. 111–114). As Lockett shows, for Anglo-Saxons reason and emotion are not clearly differentiated classes of thought having different bodily seats. One might consider, then, how some forms of monstrousness may have struck those conversant with texts such as The Wonders of the East. Could the eight by eight men without heads, who have eyes and mouth in their chests, be an uncanny, literalized self-image (see paragraph 15 in Andy Orchard's text, found in Pride and Prodigies)? Such "men" are grotesquely misshapen, but somehow, psychologically, the hybrid sensory and emotional monster, emergent from within, might feel quite familiar to cardio-centric, Anglo-Saxon minds.

Lockett's study is amply and generously footnoted, with copious citations to secondary sources as well as to all of the primary ones. The index, however, omits the secondary sources, which, if present, would aid any curious reader interested in the small details of scholarly progress.