16.01.08 , Zacher, Rewriting the Old Testament in Anglo-Saxon Verse

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R. M. Liuzza

The Medieval Review 16.01.08

Zacher, Samantha. Rewriting the Old Testament in Anglo-Saxon Verse: Becoming the Chosen People. New Directions in Religion and Literature. London: Bloomsbury, 2013. pp. xxii, 189. ISBN: 978-1-4411-3477-6 (hardback) 978-1-4411-8560-0 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
R. M. Liuzza
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Old English poetry, to the extent that it exists in the popular mind at all, is usually imagined as consisting almost entirely of the violent carnage of Beowulf and the gloomy meditations of The Wanderer and The Seafarer. Add a few Riddles, The Battle of Maldon, and a couple more elegies, and this is largely true even in the lower reaches of academic study--in surveys, anthologies, MA reading lists, and so on. But as Samantha Zacher points out early in this slim and elegantly written book, poetic versions of Old Testament narratives comprise roughly a third of the extant corpus. These poems--from Genesis to Daniel in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Junius 11, along with other works such as Judith in London, British Library MS Cotton Vitellius A.xv--may be less well known than the more famous heroic poems, but they are, without a doubt, equally important, and they deserve more attention. Poetic engagement with biblical narrative was a crucible for the construction of Anglo-Saxon national and religious identity. This book examines three Old English biblical poems--Exodus and Daniel from Junius 11 and Judith from Cotton Vitellius A.xv--for what they might tell us about Anglo-Saxon religious and political thought. In doing so it performs an important service to the scholarship on Old English poetry, moving thoroughly and finally beyond the naïve assumption that such biblical poems were simplified or sensationalized vernacular accounts of sacred history for the unlettered laity. Zacher reads biblical poetry not just as adaptations or translations or vernacular simplifications, but as serious exegetical works in their own right, and in doing so she deepens our understanding not only of Old English poetry but of medieval biblical interpretation as well.

Most modern critics who think about Old English biblical poems in their cultural contexts follow the lead of Nicholas Howe's seminal 1989 book, Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England. Howe argued that the Anglo-Saxons projected their own legendary history into the biblical story; they identified with the people of Israel as migrants from bondage to freedom, led by God across the sea to a promised land of plenty. Howe's persuasive reading has been widely accepted, but Zacher argues that it does not go far enough; she argues that Howe's "analysis of the trope of migration in Exodus misjudges and, to a degree, distorts the purpose and performative force of the poem... Reading the primary historical operation of the poem as nostalgia, he sees in it a regressive rather than a progressive utopian force at work" (xiii). Zacher argues instead that the biblical theme of divine election was adapted and altered for contemporary use; "far from merely serving as nostalgic reminders of former greatness, the Anglo-Saxon poets adopted the Old Testament narratives in order to make sense of their own political and religious situation" (xiii). Further distinguishing herself from recent trends in the criticism of these poems, Zacher argues that the poems in Junius 11 are not as dependent on the liturgy as is sometimes argued (by Barbara Raw and Paul Remley, among others); nor does the other common reading of the manuscript as an "epic of salvation" (as J. R. Hall put it) account for the disparate styles and choices of the individual poems.

Zacher looks for the social context and function of Old English Old Testament verse not only in Bede's legend of Cædmon but also in the many Latin biblical "epics" of the fourth to sixth centuries--Avitus, Juvencus, Sedulius, and Arator. But she downplays the indebtedness of Old English Biblical poetry to secular Germanic poetry--an odd choice, since the Latin biblical epics she cites as analogues were explicitly and deliberately modeled on classical Latin poetry. Why not imagine a similar sort of recuperative function for Old English biblical poetry, a sort of vernacular translatio studii? Zacher argues instead that the Anglo-Saxons chose the Israelites as new imaginary ancestors, presumably supplanting their actual Germanic forebears and precluding any nostalgic regard for them. Throughout this book Zacher stresses the indebtedness of the authors of these biblical poems to a Pauline and Augustinian understanding of scripture and history, in effect detaching them from their more obvious and, arguably, equally important roots in the secular poetic tradition. Her interest lies less in poetics than in politics.

Zacher sees the paramount concern of Old English Old Testament poetry as a "political theology": an attention to "the contractual relationship between God and his people, which is articulated by means of covenant and law that bind the individual and community to God's ordinances" (18). She rather daringly borrows this concept of "political theology" from the Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt, who insisted (based on his tendentious misreading of medieval history and political philosophy) on the necessity of a Sovereign Ruler, above the law, in all political systems. Zacher traces this notion of political theology back even further, however, to the Old Testament itself. She reads each of the poems she considers through the lens of this political theology, with Exodus depicting the "radical dependence" (23) of the Hebrews on God, Daniel the forfeiting of the election by the exiled Israelites, and Judith the re-definition of faithful nationhood in exile. Zacher refines this observation by discerning various aspects of the development of this idea: an "ecclesiastical model" found in Bede, Alcuin, and Wulfstan, where tropes of divine election and supersession are accompanied by warnings of divine retribution; a "sovereignty model" found in Alfredian and later expressions of sacral kingship, where Old Testament models of kingship are put forward as patterns and warrants for English royal authority; and an "interpretive model" found in biblical translators and poets, where the status of the Chosen People was transferred from the Israelites to the English "through the process of reading and hearing biblical poetry" (32).

A recurring point of reference for Zacher's study is the founding of the American colonies by the pilgrims, who used similar rhetoric and similar readings of the Old Testament to claim their own providential place in a new land; she acknowledges that the story of the Israelites' bondage and escape from Egypt "provided an attractive and remarkably elastic template for a wide range of liberation theologies in Western history and literature" (48), from the Crusades to the U.S. Civil Rights movement. As a parallel story of the appropriation and adaptation of biblical texts, the case of the pilgrim settlers in North America is enlightening, if not always flattering, especially with regard to their chilling exhortations to exterminate the native population and take their land, as God intended (121-22). Such comparisons may help us see the Anglo-Saxons in a different light, as settlers with blood on their hands and, at least in their own retrospective imagination, a steel-edged certainty in their hearts.

Turning first to the Old English Exodus, Zacher suggests that the poem creatively expands upon the "ethnogenetic myths" (32) of the Biblical text, viewing the covenant between God and the people of Israel as a contract available for individual participation, and so suitable for the foundation of English national identity. By this rereading the foundational story of the people of Israel becomes available for general use for any person, or people, seeking a special relationship with God. The poem is usually read as focusing on a single scene, the crossing of the Red Sea; Zacher argues that the poem's "sweeping politico-theological vision" (49) expands much more widely, from the first covenant with Abraham to the monarchy of David. The long digression on the tribes of Israel (Exodus 299-361), for example, looks forward from the moment of triumph to future discord, with Judah ultimately emerging as the inheritor of the covenant.

She points out that "the poet employs a range of mnemotechnical devices that encourage personal reflection and meditation upon the covenant as personal contract" (49). The sophisticated wordplay of the poem works to form a "picture of puns" (64, a term borrowed from Mary Carruthers) in which the Ark of Noah, the Ark of the Covenant, the Tabernacle of the Temple, and the Church all become linked in memory in a concatenation of images and ideas, including too the Ark of Memory, carrying the treasure of Salvation in the reader's breast. As the rational soul, which Zacher identifies with the lifes wealhstod of the poem, interprets the poem and heeds its message, the audience too becomes a community bound by the covenant.

The Old English Daniel is a loose translation of the biblical Daniel 1-5 and the liturgical Song of Azarias. It departs from its Old Testament source to introduce a number of passages that stress the disobedience of the Jews and their loss of the covenant with God, changing the theme from the translatio imperii of successive kingdoms--as foretold in dreams and prophetic revelations--to a notion of what Zacher terms the translatio electionis, "the transfer of chosenness away from the Jewish people" (33) to others, including Christians, and ultimately the Anglo-Saxons themselves. By rewriting the story of the faithful Israelites in exile to a story of the disobedient Jews who forfeit their covenant, and shifting the burden of election from a people's law to an individual's faith--manifest even in the narrator's use of the first-person gefrægn ic and geseah ic formulas--the poem makes room for the reader to become chosen, or converted like Nebuchadnezzer to God. Zacher describes this bold departure from the biblical text as "one of the most important and extreme examples of 'strong translation' in Anglo-Saxon England" (111) and "a bold experiment in narratology" (112), an exceptionally confident revision of the usual understanding of the scriptural text to make room for the audience as active participants, not passive readers of an historical narrative. She argues that this shift of focus is in keeping with a Pauline understanding of divine election--that the covenant once given to the Jews could be transferred to others, a community of individuals bound not by observance of the law but by faith. Naturally this Christian understanding fundamentally rewrites the Old Testament; it is not clear, however, whether the Old English poets are themselves undertaking this revision, from their reading of Paul or Augustine, or simply following the general trend of exegesis throughout the Middle Ages, reading the Old Testament primarily as the story of a series of precursors of the Christian faith.

Next, Zacher considers the Old English Judith. In a sensitive reading of this difficult poem, she argues that the poet revises the notion of "holy war" presented in that challenging deuterocanonical work, both the assassination of Holofernes by the heroine's guerilla actions and the larger-scale battle between the Israelites and Assyrians. Introducing the idea of divine providence in the outcome of battle, the poem turns the biblical holy war into a patristic "just war." By demonizing the Assyrian leader Holofernes and idealizing the heroine Judith, the poem makes its oppositions starkly overdetermined--it is not enough that the Assyrians are attacking the Jews; Holofernes must also be deofolcunda (Judith 61) and mordres brytta (90), and Judith must be radiant, holy, utterly pious. Perhaps this exaggerated contrast is explicable in some dire historical moment of the poem's creation, now unknown; perhaps it is better justified in sections of the poem now lost. Zacher argues that even in the poem as it now exists, such exaggerated rhetoric helps universalize the conflict of the Jews with the Assyrians, adding a moral and even apocalyptic element to the biblical account. Again swimming against the current of recent scholarship, she argues against an overly psychologized and sexualized reading of Judith's character--her appearance as a wundenlocc 'curly-haired' seductress, her decapitation of the drunken impotent Holofernes as a symbolic castration of the Assyrians--in favor of a political reading of her agency as a just warrior. She works to distinguish the concept of "just war" from that of "holy war," though the two are generally conflated in popular rhetoric and in historical accounts; it was just as small a step in the Middle Ages as it is today from a war justified by political necessity to one sanctioned by divine mandate, or from a defensive counterattack to a crusade. I am not entirely convinced that early medieval political theorists were any better than modern pundits at keeping the two notions separate, and indeed both the biblical Judith and the Old English Judith can be read in support of any number of political propositions about the propriety of war, even of assassination, when it is believed that God is on one's side. But it is certainly true, as Zacher points out, that the Old English poem omits references to the Assyrians' intended destruction of the Jerusalem temple and suppression of Jewish ritual; instead they deserve defeat and annihilation simply because they are heathens, and their destruction and damnation are described with grisly relish. At the same time the poem downplays the original text's emphasis on Jewish law in favor of a theology of election by faith. The Jewish people themselves are depicted in a cautiously ecumenical way, without reference to specific practices or rituals; their homeland is not Jerusalem but Bethulia, and it is Judith's fervent faith that brings her victory, not her careful adherence to ritual or law.

In all these poems, Zacher argues, while the Jews are not demonized or portrayed in an unfavorable light, details of Jewish ritual and practice are omitted in order to universalize the action and make it more attractive to an Anglo-Saxon audience, marking the fact that the status of chosen nation had been "transferred to the New Israel, defined rhetorically as the Anglo-Saxon Christian community" (157). At the same time, she notes, the poets were sensitive to the cultural and political contexts of the biblical texts--works of exile, voices from the diaspora, cries from persecuted minorities--and wrote their different poems in response to these different sources. Perhaps neither of these observations is especially surprising, and without any specific knowledge of when, where, and for whom these poems were written, we may never be able to rise above such generalities. But the book's thesis is well-argued, carefully deployed, engagingly presented, and thoroughly explicated. Its cogent reading of Old English biblical poems as political and exegetical works is a welcome addition to the small but growing body of criticism on these texts. Anyone interested in Old English poetry, Anglo-Saxon identity, medieval biblical exegesis, or the history of political philosophy will find much to admire and ponder in this book.

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