Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
24.02.07 Atherton et al. (eds.), Ideas of the World in Early Medieval English Literature

24.02.07 Atherton et al. (eds.), Ideas of the World in Early Medieval English Literature

Two salient questions emerge from the title of this volume. Firstly, what is meant, or might be understood, by “the world” in the early Middle Ages? Secondly, what constitutes early medieval English literature: literature written in English, or literature written by English people? And, if the latter, who were the “English”? Answers to these questions emerge over the course of the sixteen contributions to the volume, but by its end the categories of the world and English literature remain--necessarily, and productively--unsettled.

The introduction to the volume establishes a familiar bridge between Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica and the reigns of Alfred and the West Saxon kings that followed him, in literary terms represented most forcefully by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. This bridge enables travel between Bede’s documentation (or construction) of a gens Anglorum and the late ninth- and tenth-century idea of the angel-cynn: “the people whom we would now call ‘the English,’ though at the time these ‘English’ should be understood as being various nations of similar origin and of similar language and culture living in southern Britain” (14). The vagaries of that statement (various...similar...southern) indicate the labile nature of the term, and what it may include and exclude. At their best, the contributions to this volume acknowledge the contingent nature of “early medieval English literature”; at other times “English,” “the English,” “the Anglo-Saxons” and “England” are too readily taken to be stable terms of reference (e.g., 17, 43, 127, 225, 365).

Different kinds of world are encountered in the course of the volume. In Part I (“Here, There, and Everywhere”) the focus is on the known geographical world, extending from Britain and other Atlantic islands to India. In “Alfred and the East,” Daniel Anlezark considers King Alfred’s correspondence with Patriarch Elias III of Jerusalem, and the tantalizing record of the expedition of a certain Sigehelm and Athelstan to Rome, and thence “on Indea to sancte Thome and to sancte Bartholomeae.” This expedition is mentioned in three versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles under the year 883 (another two versions have “on Iudea,” and one omits the record), apparently in connection with a vow made by Alfred while taking London from the Danes. Even if little can conclusively be said about Sigehelm and Athelstan’s journey, Anlezark helpfully outlines what “India” might have meant for the audience of the Chronicle, and the region's associations with Thomas and Bartholomew. Alfred’s “Asian diplomacy” (44) may in the end have reaped little more reward than the medical remedies for diarrhoea and other ailments sent by Elias to the King (and preserved in Bald’s Leechbook), but regal vision in the 880s clearly extended to the Holy Land and beyond.

Subsequent essays explore other Old English representations of the Holy Land and the far east. Rachel Burns examines the description of Saturn’s travels in the near east in the Solomon and Saturn poems, comparing their apparently disordered nature (“the fortress of Crete, the wood of Egypt, the waters of Midia” etc) with the practice of the dérive championed by psychogeographers since the 1950s. Whereas psychogeography typically considers wandering to be a form of anti-authoritarian subversion, in the Old English poems Saturn’s drift is a sign of error to be corrected by the “geographical and mental fixedness” (93) promoted by approved reading. S. C. Thomson next offers a fluent, often witty, reading of the prose texts of the Nowell Codex: the Passion of St Christopher, The Wonders of the East, and Alexander the Great's Letter to Aristotle. Thomson sees these texts negotiating between the self of the reader and the Other of the peoples, places, plants and myriad creatures of the east: Alexander provides the negative exemplum of the self in extremis and in excess; the Wonders warn against losing the self through co-habitation with the Other; while Christopher advocates the dissolution of self in the figure of the saint. The reading is at times over-schematic and insistent, but supported by considerable learning (particularly on the Christopher tradition) and alert to the interconnections of the texts in their manuscript context. The two final essays in this section consider works of Ælfric of Eynsham. Luisa Ostacchini argues that Ælfric's Life of St Thomas presents India as foreign and peripheral to his audience, whereas Rome “was at once foreign and recognizable” (135) in the text, while Kazutomo Karasawa clarifies an ostensibly confusing description of the Crucifixion in Ælfric's Catholic Homilies, in which Christ faces west while his hnol (crown of his head) holds the east.

In Part II of the volume (“A Place in the World”) the focus turns to rather more Insular “worlds.” Daniel Thomas usefully dismantles Nicholas Howe’s influential argument that a “migration myth” runs through early English literature, in which the arrival of Angles, Saxons and Jutes in Britain was linked with Exodus to form a common English identity. Thomas carefully challenges Paul Battles’ reading (Anglo-Saxon England 29 [2000]) of Genesis A as a manifestation of the “migration myth,” arguing that the poem neither celebrates migration, nor invokes the ancestral history of its audience. The point is not to dispute the importance of the “adventus Saxonum” for a medieval English audience, but to question its connection with Exodus, and the notion that--à la the seventeenth-century Puritan migration to America--a narrative of “Anglo-Saxon” exceptionalism is an “ever-present” part of early English literature and culture. In subsequent contributions to this section, Britton Brooks considers the sound-world of Exeter Book Riddle 1, with its depiction of thunder and heavy rain; Eleni Ponirakis makes a persuasive case for the influence of Evagrius of Pontus’ Praktikos on Cynewulf's Juliana; Hanna Bailey contributes a bravura reading of the eleventh-century vita of St Rumwold at the intersection of landscape and local history; and Mark Atherton reconstructs key sites in the life of The Battle of Maldon’s Ealdorman Byrhtnoth--in the process producing an evocative picture of the topography experienced by the landowning class of Cambridgeshire, Essex, and East Anglia.

The increasingly local focus of Part II briefly shifts back to a more ecumenical perspective at the start of Part III (“Nation and Empire”) with Helen Appleton’s analysis of the world map and a zonal map contained in British Library, Cotton Tiberius MS B V (I). Appleton’s handling of these maps and their contexts is sensitive and well-informed. I remain unconvinced, however, by her reading of both maps in terms of the translatio imperii narrative described in Paulus Orosius’ scheme of the progression of empire from Babylon, through Macedonia, Carthage, and Rome. Such a reading depends on ignoring many details and shaping others to fit the argument: to give just one example, the two unnamed cities on the zonal map are read as Babylon and Rome, when they could just as easily represent Jerusalem and Constantinople. The following two essays consider English attitudes to some of their near neighbours. Caitlin Ellis’ “Good Neighbours? Representations of the Britons, Welsh, Picts, and Scots in Pre-Conquest English Sources” finds persistent tropes of military aggression, enslavement, racism, general disregard, and effacement from history in Anglo-Latin and Old English sources from Bede to Brunanburh. Ryan Lavelle, meanwhile, identifies a much greater level of engagement and interest in Danes, Northmen, and Frisians in English sources from the ninth to eleventh centuries.

The final two essays in Ideas of the World elaborate on the theme of “West Saxon imperialism” reiterated at various points in the volume. Paul Cavill reads The Battle of Brunanburh as West Saxon imperial propaganda. The poem’s rhetoric represents the battle in line with King Æthelstan’s styling as “rex totius Britanniae,” as the united West Saxon and Mercian forces triumph at the expense of their Scottish and Norse opponents. Francis Leneghan reads “The Death of Edward,” the last of six poems to appear in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, as a celebration of the West Saxon line represented by Edward the Confessor and his designated successor Harold--rather than as an epitaph, as it has more often been understood. Leneghan focusses on the copy of the C-version of the Chronicles that appears in BL, Cotton Tiberius MS B I, where it follows the Old English Orosius, a calendar poem (the Menologium) and Maxims II. Although the Orosius was copied in the early eleventh century and the other texts added mid-century by diverse hands (seven in total), Leneghan sees the manuscript as a reflection of “the imperialist world-view of the West Saxon royal house” (404). The problem with this argument is that it tends to flatten texts such as the Orosius, here pressed into service as an unambiguous statement of translatio imperii from Rome to Britain, in the absence of such a statement from the West Saxon imperialists themselves. In the end we don’t know why it was decided to copy the Orosius into Cotton Tiberius B I in the early eleventh century, and while the subsequently-made connection to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is clear enough, to style the manuscript a “project of vernacular historiography” (405, my emphasis) risks solidifying conjecture as fact.

In sum the contributions to Ideas of the World offer a rich, thought-provoking picture of aspects of pre-Conquest English literature. The volume does not, and perhaps cannot, provide a comprehensive account of English/Anglian/Saxon/Angel-cynnisc understandings of the world. Almost nothing, for example, is said about the celestial world, and there are lacunae even within the volume’s generally secular focus, with little examination of views of Africa, Byzantium, or--more surprisingly--continental Europe apart from Rome. Thus, while the index contains more or less a column of page references to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, “Francia,” “Gaul,” “Germania,” “Spain,” “Constantinople” and “Byzantium” do not appear at all. On the other hand, it would be difficult to emerge from reading this volume without learning a great deal. All the contributions show meticulous engagement with their topics. Along with tremendous erudition, there is consistent and fair-minded engagement with recent scholarly debates, as seen in the provision of helpful, up-to-date bibliographies at the end of each essay. There are only a handful of typographical errors (e.g., “logimus” for legimus [45], “hums” for humus [63], “oerum” for eorum and “transmarainis” for transmarinis [both 352]). Aside from the baffling decision to reproduce the thirteenth-century Psalter map on the cover, illustrations are well chosen, and the Tolkienish maps of Robin Alexander Lucas usefully support several chapters. At its most exciting, Ideas of the World in Early Medieval English Literature takes its readers into a conversation heading in new directions, and in some instances just getting started.