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15.09.16, Amodio, The Anglo-Saxon Literature Handbook

15.09.16, Amodio, The Anglo-Saxon Literature Handbook

This substantial volume, whose cover features the striking image of St. Luke taken from the Lindisfarne Gospels, offers an overview of Anglo-Saxon literature and its cultural backgrounds. The advantage of a single-authored handbook can clearly be seen here, since Amodio has complied a systematic survey of the field with no major lacunae or overlaps. Structurally, the handbook consists of five separate parts of varying lengths. Part 1 is a relatively short section in which Amodio provides parallel "histories" of Anglo-Saxon England, seen respectively from the political, ecclesiastical, intellectual, linguistic, and literary perspectives. This section sets a tone for the rest of the volume in that it describes each topic with what may be called an orthodox outlook. As demonstrated by the useful political history and the concise literary history given here, this handbook is especially suited for undergraduate students who are interested in the literary history of pre-Conquest England. It may also be used as supplementary material for English majors who are taking an introductory course on the Old English language. In Part 1, Amodio also provides an insightful introduction to the oral and literate traditions of Anglo-Saxon literature, gesturing towards the intricate relationship between the two.

The main portion of the Handbook begins with Part 2, in which Amodio offers a survey of Anglo-Saxon prose. Sections in this part are arranged roughly in chronological order, beginning with the "Writings of King Alfred the Great" and ending with the work of Ælfric and Wulfstan. While the history of Old English prose begins and ends with such illustrious writers as the king of Wessex, the abbot of Eynsham, and the archbishop of York, those texts which fall in between are mostly anonymous: for example, homiliaries like the Vercelli Homilies and the Blickling Homilies, and prose compositions from the so-called Age of Alfred such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Old English Orosius. The anonymous Old English Bede is discussed side by side with the original Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. Being a general survey, the Handbook tends to foreground canonical texts such as Alfred's prefaces, Ælfric's Colloquy on the Occupations, and Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. But Amodio also takes up several lesser-known, yet interesting, texts that are rarely taught in the undergraduate classroom. These texts include Apollonius of Tyre, the Old English Martyrology, the Old English Life of St. Guthlac, and medical documents. In the section on medical documents, for example, Amodio touches on "Christian and non-Christian magical elements, including amulets, charms, spells, incantations, benedictions, and rituals" (106). Part 2 has the ideal format of a reference book, since the individual sections, which are kept relatively short, usually focus on individual texts. Each section begins with information about manuscript sources for the text and concludes with "Further Reading," offering a select number of items ranging from representative essays of the last century to monographs from more recent years. The middle portion of each section offers a summary of the contents of the text(s) in question, together with the author's own interpretation, often accompanied by a relatively long quotation, both in the original and in translation.

Part 3 of the Handbook is dedicated to Anglo-Saxon poetry. This is the longest part of the volume--almost two hundred pages in total--but its format is similar to that of Part 2. Amodio begins this part with an essay on the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition. He reminds us that the Old English poetic corpus is relatively small, only some 30,000 long-lines in total and hence roughly equivalent to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey combined. And yet, he continues, this is a "complex, magnificent, and strikingly varied body of poetry." Amodio here returns to the question of orality, underlining the importance of keeping in mind that "oral and literate ways of thinking are interconnected and mutually influential." On one hand, the Old English poetic corpus is, by definition, preserved in writing, but, on the other, it "depends heavily upon oral poetics" (143, 145). This introductory essay is followed by sections on Cædmon's Hymn and Bede's Death Song, the two earliest externally datable Old English poems. The rest of Part 3 is arranged in the order of the six-volume Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (hence, again, making it easy for readers to locate the texts they are looking for), beginning with the biblical narratives of the Junius Manuscript, followed by the religious poems of the Vercelli Book, and so on. Amodio's treatment of texts contained in the four major Old English poetic codices (all of which were produced, as he points out, in the late tenth century) is reminiscent of Stanley Greenfield and Daniel Calder's classic New Critical History of Old English Literature. And yet his interpretation of the individual poetic texts is sui generis. He often takes up passages that have not received critical attention, at least not in surveys like this volume: in the section on Azarias, for example, he quotes a sizable passage to underline the poem's "explicitly devotional" tone, especially in comparison with Daniel, the more "narratively driven" Junius poem, which, however, has a major overlap with this lesser-known Exeter poem (220). As for the last volume of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, The Anglo-Saxon Minor Poems, the Handbook discusses a selection of pieces, including secular poems such as The Fight at Finnsburh, The Battle of Maldon, and Durham, the dialogue-based Solomon and Saturn I and II, and catenulate verse such as The Rune Poem and The Menologium. Amodio's volume pays greater attention to manuscripts than do most of the surveys and handbooks from previous generations--a welcoming feature for readers of the twenty-first century. Block citations from Old English poems are lineated, but there is no caesura to separate the a-verse from the b-verse in each line. The bibliographical information in Part 3 is generally up to date, although readers may at times wish to see some of the more foundational publications referenced in "Further Reading" sections.

Part 4 of the Handbook consists of short essays on critical approaches to Anglo-Saxon literature. Amodio begins this part with such age-old topics as source studies and grammatical studies to underline the importance of traditional methods. He also considers more recent theoretical approaches such as gender, psychology, and orality. Two separate essays are devoted to "Christianity" and "Germanic legend." The fifth and last part of the Handbook is dedicated to "a few of the major and minor themes that percolate through the poetry and prose extant from the Anglo-Saxon period" (363). These themes include heroism, eschatology, fate, wisdom, otherness, and oral traditions. Parts 4 and 5, though relatively short, nicely complement the second and third parts of the volume, because they cover topics that concern two or more texts. In the essay on "Otherness," for example, Amodio refers to Grendel "as something of a poster-boy for this theme." But this descendent of Cain is not, he points out, the only monstrous figure worthy of photo-ops in the Beowulf Manuscript. In addition to poems like Beowulf and Judith, London, British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv includes a number of prose texts, and, of these, the Letter of Alexander to Aristotle and The Wonders of the East in particular present numerous monstrous creatures including a certain island's inhabitants whose eyes, like those of Grendel, "shine like lanterns on a dark night." It is therefore possible that the texts assembled in this manuscript were "selected precisely because they all focus on others and otherness" (376-377).

The Anglo-Saxon Literature Handbook is a useful guide for instructors of courses on Old English language and literature for undergraduate students. Since this volume has already been made available in paperback, it should be affordable to many of their students. For those who are interested in conducting research, the Handbook provides a bibliography at the end of the volume. Since Parts 2 and 3 of the volume have virtually no notes, and Parts 4 and 5 provide neither notes nor "Further Reading," those undergraduate students who have found research topics in this book may need to seek further guidance from their instructors. Similarly, graduate students may need to look for further bibliographical information on their own, but they would still likely benefit from reading through this volume for an overview of the field.