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22.03.06 Barajas, Old English Ecotheology

22.03.06 Barajas, Old English Ecotheology

Courtney Catherine Barajas’ first book, Old English Ecotheology: The Exeter Book, sets out to identify ecotheological elements in the writings of Ælfric and Wulfstan, and then to find these in the works of the Exeter Book. This volume is the second such work to have tackled the poetry of the Exeter Book from an ecotheological perspective, and expands on arguments put forward by Corrine Dale in The Natural World in the Exeter Book Riddles (Cambridge, 2017). As Barajas successfully demonstrates in these pages, approaches to the environment in the works of Christian Old English writers are broadly comparable with the ecojustice principles put forward by the Earth Bible Team of theologians at the turn of the second millennium.

The introduction identifies connections between the present environmental crisis and environmental change in the period c. 700-1100, arguing for “the existence of an Old English ecotheology [...] which anticipates by nearly a millennium” the earth-consciousness of the Earth Bible Team (15). Apocalypticism in the homilies of Ælfric and Wulfstan’s homilies is reviewed as part of a claim for the “rhetoric of environmental collapse and restoration” (19). Wulfstan, writing about earth after the Fall, refers to the destruction of cattle and land by storms, and earth being barren or rich in weeds (16), and Ælfric writes about earthquakes, pestilence, and famine (18), both commentating on the apocalypticism of Luke 21. Barajas sets out to identify ecotheology in the homilies of the two, with a view to seeing if this can then be found in the Exeter Book, a manuscript produced at around the time Ælfric and Wulfstan were writing, which is presented as a “representative of the larger corpus of Old English poetry” (26).

Chapter 1 focuses on Ælfric and Wulfstan, with a view to showing how the six ecojustice principles of the Earth Bible Team (intrinsic worth; interconnectedness; voice; purpose; mutual custodianship; resistance) can be identified in their homilies. A good deal of the evidence here is solidly convincing, though more difficult to uncover in some areas than others. As an example, the principle of voice, that “Earth is a subject capable of raising its voice in celebration and against injustice” (57) is discovered in earthquakes, pestilence, famine, and the movement of celestial bodies in one of Ælfric’s homilies (58), this supporting the argument that Ælfric and Wulfstan believed “other-than-human beings were able to cry out in praise and against injustice” (69).

Chapter 2 shows the “interconnectedness of the Earth community” imagined in The Order of the World and Maxims I (81), identifying the demonstration of this as perhaps an “important goal of Old English poets” facing “increasingly dramatic change in the years approaching the millennium” (97) in “one of the oldest genres of Old English literature” (75). Chapter 3 makes a convincing case for the Exeter riddles revealing “a profound interest in understanding and amplifying the lived experience of the other-than-human beings at the end of those connections” (103), using two bird riddles (6, 7--using Craig Williamson’s numbering), two horn riddles (12, 76), and three wood-weapon riddles (3, 51, 71), the approach being illustrative rather than exhaustive. Greater representation of the material culture and environmental history of early medieval England and its connected regions would strengthen and support the readings in this chapter. Chapter 4 makes a case for reading The Wanderer and The Ruin as eco-elegies, defined as “explorations of changing relationships within the earth community” (145). In The Wanderer, Barajas argues, a “process of traumatic exile, mourning, and re-engagement with a new environment is an essential part of the journey leading to the Christian wisdom espoused in the latter half of the poem” (150). The Ruin is taken as a “complex meditation on the mutual custodianship of the Earth community, and the power of the other-than-human to resist destruction at human hands” (175).

Chapter 5 focuses on Guðlac A, the analysis aiming to “show that its primary concern is Guðlac’s relationships with this holy landscape and the other-than-human members of his community” (183). This reviewer finds it difficult to agree that “most readings” of the poem “do not consider the landscape to be a meaningful participant in the drama of the poem or in Guðlac’s life” (182); Britton Brooks’ monograph Restoring Creation: The Natural World in the Anglo-Saxon Saints’ Lives of Cuthbert and Guthlac (Cambridge, 2019) is a good example of this, though not mentioned. Literary perspectives would also be well served more generally by knowledge of fenland and its inhabitants, as detailed by (e.g.) Susan Oosthuizen in The Anglo-Saxon Fenland (Oxford, 2017), there having been more than one “early medieval English imagination” (195). As is often the case, this reviewer maintains the view that writing about the literary environments of the Middle Ages can only be improved by knowledge and representation of the material environment.

Old English Ecotheology is most successful in demonstrating, as Barajas writes, that rather than being “a mere backdrop to human experience and desire, the natural world is active participant in the drama and the emotional valence of these texts” (38), and her conclusion, that the Exeter Book “reveals a worldview which acknowledges infinite connections between human and other-than-human members of the Earth community” (210), is a convincing reflection of the many lives that populate the pages of this manuscript.