15.11.09, Jorgensen, McCormack, and Wilcox, eds., Anglo-Saxon Emotions

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Brandon Hawk

The Medieval Review 15.11.09

Jorgensen, Alice, Frances McCormack, and Jonathan Wilcox, eds. Anglo-Saxon Emotions: Reading the Heart in Old English Language, Literature and Culture. Studies in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2015. pp. x, 308. ISBN: 978-1-47242-169-2 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Brandon Hawk
Rhode Island College
brandonhawk@gmail.com

While the field of emotion studies is a relatively recent--and, in many ways, still emerging--academic endeavor, this volume includes a wealth of essays contributing to that scholarship with a historical look back at Anglo-Saxon England. It is easy to see throughout these essays how analyses of past cultures add to our knowledge and help to establish ways of contextualizing emotions both past and present. As Alice Jorgensen states in her introduction to the collection, "There are many different definitions of emotion, but most of them associate it closely with people's values, needs and goals" (4). This sense of multiplicity is echoed throughout the volume, as each contributor highlights the complexity of emotions in the extant archive and with varying methodologies. Indeed, diversity is also pronounced in the contributors themselves, including a range of international voices, representing established and early career scholars, males and females, and an assortment of disciplinary backgrounds.

As with most edited collections, Anglo-Saxon Emotions begins with an introduction--yet Jorgensen presents not only a precursor to the following essays but also a key contribution in its own right. She establishes some of the primary topics and contexts for reading the book as a whole: defining and discussing emotion and emotion studies; emotion in Anglo-Saxon England; studies by modern scientists and humanists interested in modern emotion psychologies; scholarly groundwork already laid for examining Anglo-Saxon psychologies; ways in which subjects intersect across contributions; and the possibilities of further work going forward. Jorgensen also offers overviews of the contributions that move beyond summaries in order to build an overall picture of emotion in early England from their conclusions.

The five essays following the introduction provide models of methodological framing with broad-ranging implications. Antonina Harbus expands on her previous work (for example, her 2012 book, Cognitive Approaches to Old English Poetry) to explore "The Cognitive Basis of Emotion in Old English Poetry," making the case for more sustained scholarship incorporating "how emotion is represented in literature" (i.e. literary studies) and "how literary texts can trigger emotional reactions" (i.e. cognitive science) (20, emphasis added). In "The Limited Role of the Brain in Mental and Emotional Activity According to Anglo-Saxon Medical Learning," Leslie Lockett similarly draws on her previous work (for example, her 2011 book, Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions), using Anglo-Saxon medical literature to trace distinctions between Latinate and Old English perspectives on the mind, its physical location in the body, and humoral medical concepts that challenge modern, anachronistic assumptions. Daria Izdebska takes up "The Curious Case of TORN: The Importance of Lexical-Semantic Approaches to the Study of Emotions in Old English" to demonstrate a robust linguistic methodology for corpus-based approaches related to specific terms--particularly relying on knowledge of relevant Germanic and Indo-European cognates, print resources like Bosworth and Toller's An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary and A Thesaurus of Old English, as well as digital resources like the Toronto Dictionary of Old English and Web Corpus. Stephen Graham examines "Emotion and Litotes in Old English Poetry," finding that literary oppositions (and appositions) portray not binaries but complex, ambiguous, and subjective ways of reading contrasts in poetic evocations keenly linked to artistic intentions and audience interpretations of semantic negations. With "An Embarrassment of Clues: Interpreting Anglo-Saxon Blushes," Jonathan Wilcox offers an overview of his subject encompassing biblical, patristic, and Anglo-Saxon texts, honing in on specific instances with incisive examinations of Old English translations of psalms and Apollonius of Tyre as centerpieces for different types of blushing.

The remaining essays offer a shift from more methodologically focused contributions to specific case studies. In "Naming Shame: Translating Emotion in the Old English Psalter Glosses," Tahlia Birnbaum employs the influential work of Cassiodorus to make sense of vernacular glosses in the Royal Psalter that represent Anglo-Saxon vocabularies and attitudes indicating shame as an integral part of salvation, conversion, and looking toward Judgment Day. Following topically, Jorgensen's contribution uses the lens of "Learning about Emotion from the Old English Prose Psalms of the Paris Psalter" to understand "scripts" through which Anglo-Saxons learned to organize knowledge of emotions, mainly through promptings of active devotional experience at work in the psalms translations. Also concerned with devotional experience, in "Those Bloody Trees: The Affectivity of Christ" Frances McCormack demonstrates how the compunctive tears of the rood-trees in the third section of the Exeter Book Christ--and ranging across many other comparable examples in Old English and other Germanic poetry--exemplify a physical response of piety for readers to follow. As a natural pair, the essays by Kristen Mills and Erin Sebo deliver complementary readings of emotions in Beowulf. By exploring "Emotion and Gesture in Hroðgar's Farewell to Beowulf," Mills challenges modern (particularly post-Victorian) biases about masculine emotional actions in order to rehabilitate the king's tears as a multifaceted and intricate display of paternal feelings. Sebo approaches sorrow from a different perspective in "Ne Sorga: Grief and Revenge in Beowulf," charting the connections between revenge, personal loss, and subsequent emotions, reading the poem's grieving figures as literary examples of cultural assumptions and emotional actions. Judith Kaup, with "Maxims I: In the 'Mod' for Life," reads the wisdom poem as a representation of emotional and intellectual qualities coming together in a single faculty, arguing that viewing this text as educational for the pursuit of happiness also reveals integral aspects of the poem's structural characteristics. Ronald Ganze suggests that examining "The Neurological and Psychological Effects of Emotional Duress on Memory in Two Old English Elegies"--namely, The Wanderer and The Wife's Lament--leads to diagnosing the speakers with forms of post-traumatic stress disorder and accounting for some of the puzzling aspects of these poems as symptomatic failures of memory retrieval. Finally, Mary Garrison provides both an overview of "Early Medieval Experiences of Grief and Separation through the Eyes of Alcuin and Others" as well as a specific study of her subtitle, "The Grief and Gratitude of the Oblate," which focuses on first-person accounts in Anglo-Latin texts (especially letters) and modern attachment theory to understand Anglo-Saxon expressions about losses like separation from friends and death--using evidence ranging in geography and time to create a full picture.

Although the organization of the volume, Jorgensen's comments in her introduction, and this review bifurcate the contributions into those focused more on general theoretical methods or specific case studies, the divide is not so clear-cut. Those authors emphasizing method offer salient examples to ground their conceptual arguments, while those authors studying specific texts provide relevant frameworks for further studies. Authors aptly navigate between forests and trees, providing overviews of their topics as well as specific instances gesturing toward further uses of methodologies, salient texts ripe for examination, and other areas for future discovery. Nuanced and variegated notions of Anglo-Saxon emotions and scholarship on them emerge in all of this. In this way, all of the contributors validate the need for both theoretical reflection and sustained textual engagement through models useful for the growing field of medieval emotion studies.

While contributors muster a range of sources for evidence, the majority of studies in this volume rely heavily on Old English poetry. This may not be surprising, given disciplinary emphases on the poetic corpus, especially in literary studies. Certain essays also draw on and feature other texts representative of prose and glosses (primarily psalter glosses), although there are few representatives of Anglo-Saxon preaching texts (anonymous, Bedan, Ælfrician, Wulfstanian, or otherwise). Garrison's study helpfully widens the field to Anglo-Latin literature, which is often overshadowed by the vernacular corpus. Aspects of these studies also prompt (for this reviewer, at least) a desire for examinations of emotions using non-textual sources such as visual arts. Related to Izdebska's linguistic study, for example, what more might be said about the visual context of the Old English word torn ("anger," "wrath," "grief") on the Franks (Auzon) Casket? Or how might emotions be seen in the artistry of images--possibly even in relation to Old English biblical literature--like those in Junius 11? Such quibbles, however, merely indicate the potential of work that might still be undertaken in this field now that the groundwork has been laid.

While this book will appeal foremost to other Anglo-Saxonists specializing in emotion studies, the cross-section of relevant readers has a much wider potential. Many of the readings gesture beyond emotion specifically, simultaneously pointing to the centrality of emotions to Anglo-Saxon culture and various related subjects. There are also topics here for specialists on areas outside of Anglo-Saxon England; one strikingly recurring connection to other Germanic languages and literature, including Continental and Scandinavian cultures. Readers will find a range of ideas related to religion, literary form, philology, theory, historical reconstruction, and cultural studies in general. There are also substantial conclusions to be taken up by scientists involved in contemporary emotion studies, who could surely benefit from humanistic examinations like these to contextualize knowledge of modern emotions. It is hoped that this volume represents one more advance toward bringing such interdisciplinary study together more fruitfully across a wide spectrum of academic inquiry.

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