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21.11.24 Ericksen, Reading Old English Biblical Poetry

21.11.24 Ericksen, Reading Old English Biblical Poetry

Junius 11 is a unique manuscript, containing as it does Old English poetic translations of scriptural texts with a gloriously ambitious illustrative scheme. The manuscript numbers the sections of all of its texts sequentially, as if they are to be understood as a single unfolding narrative of universal history, and it is usually described as containing four stories: the Old Testament trio of Genesis, Exodus, Daniel, followed by Christ and Satan, a less direct retelling of biblical texts which covers gospel and apocalyptic narratives. But this apparent clarity of design is easily disrupted: the Genesis narrative has been produced by splicing together two very different poems (the so-called Genesis A and Genesis B); Daniel may also be a composite poem, apparently incorporating a version of The Song of the Three Youths and perhaps tailored for this manuscript; and Christ and Satan was a later addition to the compilation, produced by a less competent scribal team. Even the ambitious illustrative and decorative schemes are unfinished, with no images after page 96 and fewer decorative initials from page 146. How then, asks Janet Schrunk Ericksen, was this book read, and what meanings does the act of its compilation create from its components?

The heart of this study is four chapters looking closely at different ideas in Junius 11: the Fall of the Angels in Chapter 1 (focused on Genesis A, Genesis B, and Christ and Satan), vision in Chapter 2 (exploring Daniel and Genesis B), book-learning in Chapter 3 (primarily discussing Exodus), and wisdom literature in Chapter 4 (on Christ and Satan). The Introduction introduces the manuscript and some ideas about reading and books in the period, and Chapter 5 contains an independent discussion of library contexts, working towards tentative but clear support for the manuscript having been produced at New Minster in Winchester.

Perhaps ironically given its ambition of reading the manuscript as a whole, Ericksen’s analysis is at its strongest when engaging closely with its poems. The discussion of sensory perception in Daniel(75-80) is sparkling; reflections on communal audiences for Exodus and its relationships with Latin poetry are immensely productive (100-14); and reading Christ and Satan in the context of wisdom poetry is brilliant (123-34, along with a very useful overview of wisdom poetry; this is a sequence that I will certainly use in teaching). There are also some stimulating reflections on anthologizing and excerpting (at e.g., 22-28) and on the idea of a book being defined by the company it keeps (at, e.g., 172), and there is a positive and productive direction of travel towards a principle of individual apprehension and experience in terms of categorization and coherence (at, e.g., 146).

What is perhaps surprising is that each time a chapter turns to considering a poem in the context of the manuscript, to seeking to apply some of these ideas, it becomes less productive and clumsier--the distinction between Genesis A and Genesis B, for instance, seems to be one that Ericksen assumes any reader would recognise (at, e.g., 51-52), when it is unmarked by the manuscript itself (no more than is the shift from Genesis to Exodus, but again this concept of textual division is not explored). The book would perhaps have functioned more effectively as that most old-fashioned of notions, a sequence of studies, rather than being framed as a monograph: every time it pays close attention to literature and language it is marvellous; but whenever it zooms out to frame that attention as particularly significant in the context of the manuscript, it becomes much shakier.

A consistent issue is the nature of the framing argument presented here. Despite the introduction’s use of Thomas Bredehoft’s suggestion of an interest in coherence, there is, as far as I am aware, no consensus that manuscripts such as Junius 11 were read sequentially in the period. But, as a single study, this book is proposed as a defence of the possibility of non-sequential reading. The time spent arguing that this is a possibility is time not spent discussing what non-sequential reading might actually look like and how it functions: as a monograph, this book is crying out for the sort of conceptual shape that Bredehoft and more recently Daniel Donoghue have sought to deploy when thinking about Old English manuscript presentation of poetry. [1] In particular, the role of a compiler is repeatedly mentioned as key to the shaping of meaning here with no reflection on how this may have functioned or what meanings were being created and how. [2] The idea that repetitions of the Fall of the Angels or the sacrifice of Isaac across the different poems invites comparative reading is a genuinely interesting one, but it needs to be unpacked and explored in context. How, for instance, does this sort of repetition function differently from a type-scene, such as beasts of battle sequences? And how is it different from generic repetition, such as that of structure in hagiography? It is difficult to disagree that the book encourages “readers to make cross-textual and therefore non-sequential connections” (191), but what does that then mean? What are the consequences of such connections? How are we to practically imagine the process of conversation and reflection? How does that relate (or not) to the illustrative scheme and to the fitt numbering and to the use of accents, spacing, and punctus seemingly designed to support oral delivery in this manuscript? And so on.

By contrast with these unanswered questions, sledgehammers are used to crack nuts throughout the book. For example, two and a half pages (69-71) are at least two more than necessary to establish that sight was understood to be important in the period, still less to return to the issue in order to argue that sight and understanding were associated (72-75). There is also some clumsiness that makes it difficult to recommend the book to undergraduates. Ælfric becomes Alcuin, his source, on page 64. On page 115, Robert E. Creed is misquoted as suggesting that Abraham could be murdered, where in fact the issue at stake with Isaac is that Abraham could become a murderer. [3] And there is, on the whole, a great deal of reliance on older scholarship, with little added to, for instance, Doane’s reading of the Genesis poems. And yet the book is not a satisfactory overview of scholarship on and issues surrounding Junius 11 either. The manuscript’s complicated codicology is not covered at all, and neither are potentially very telling issues such as the use of punctuation (a study of punctus and small capitals in Christ and Satan, for instance, could be very fruitful in considering how the texts were expected to be read). Similarly, it is frustrating to have no mentions of some highly relevant, more recent, work. As a range of examples, Tracey-Anne Cooper’s analysis of Tiberius A. iii has considerable conceptual crossover with Ericksen’s thinking about the role of a compiler as well as being a study of a comparable time and place; [4] Jill Fitzgerald’s “Measuring Hell by Hand” would add considerable value to Ericksen’s discussion of the very same scene of Satan’s measuring of hell (pp. 137-38); [5] and Carl Kears’ examination of the smooth shift from Exodus to Daniel would be at worst a stimulating counter-argument to ideas expressed here. [6]

Despite these criticisms, I should be clear that there is much to enjoy in Ericksen’s book. It is smoothly readable, asks creative and stimulating questions, and presents some brilliant close analyses. Using known holdings to think about scribal culture at different centres is an interesting and productive approach, and the reflections on the wider literary and theological contexts of its texts are well-informed and interesting. Its flaws, though, make it quite frustrating to read as a single study: while its contribution to our understanding of Junius 11 as a production may be limited, much of its thinking about the texts and their meanings is excellent.



1. Thomas A. Bredehoft, The Visible Text: Textual Production and Reproduction from “Beowulf” to “Maus” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Daniel Donoghue, How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

2. Compare, for instance, “‘Supervisors,’ ‘Directors,’ and ‘Compilers,’” pp. 280-92 in S. C. Thomson, Communal Creativity in the Making of the “Beowulf” Manuscript: Towards a History of Reception for the Nowell Codex (Amsterdam: Brill, 2018).

3. Robert E. Creed, “The Art of the Singer: Three Old English Tellings of the Offering of Isaac,” in Old English Poetry: Fifteen Essays, ed. Robert E. Creed (Providence: Brown University Press, 1967), pp. 69-82, at page 73.

4. Monk-Bishops and the English Benedictine Reform Movement: Reading London BL, Cotton Tiberius A. iii in Its Manuscript Context (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2015).

5. “Measuring Hell by Hand: Rogation Rituals in Christ and Satan,” RES, 68 (283) (2017): 1-22.

6. “Old English Mægen: A Note on the Relationship Between Exodus and Daniel in MS Junius 11,”English Studies, 95.8 (2014): 825-48.