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The Heroic Age

Issue 3

Summer 2000

The purpose of the Forum section is to give scholars a place to debate existing theories, propose new theories, and offer extended reviews of existing scholarly works in a more detailed and formal manner than is possible on existing discussion lists. The Heroic Age welcomes essays for this section in response to this essay or on any other topic within the parameters listed above.

The Canonicity of Two Edgar Poems

J. C. Weale,
University of Wales, Bangor

 Abstract: Very often one encounters debate as to exactly which texts can best be tailored to a beginner's course in Anglo-Saxon, and dissatisfaction with the teaching canon as it is presently defined by the available readers. Introductory Old English courses must consider not only the language of the texts, but their cultural resonance and their usefulness as tools to illustrate and refer to the wider corpus of Old English literature. Whilst the texts available in readers do allow this, teachers of Anglo-Saxon often wish to use extra-canonical texts to illustrate cultural or literary points which particularly interest them. This short piece offers an extremely brief sketch of a lecture which uses two passages of heightened rhetoric from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to illustrate to students the political interplay of Church and State during this period. [2 files ]

In a recent discussion on AnsaxNet, several teachers of Anglo-Saxon expressed dissatisfaction with the Anglo-Saxon teaching canon as it presently stands, and outlined extra canonical texts that they would either like to teach or do indeed include in their current curriculum. The debate was begun by Roy Liuzza, who stated that he was

 torn between the desire to offer new and interesting texts (like the 'Old English Dreambooks' or the lesser-read poems like 'Vainglory' or 'The Order of the World') and the sense that there really is a canon of teaching texts. Canonical not only because the texts which constitute it have been thoroughly read, glossed and commented on, but also because they form a useful background to any further reading.1

Whilst it is true that these texts do offer a useful background to other Anglo-Saxon works, the canon, as it stands, risks causing certain dichotomies and erroneous conclusions in the minds of students. Of particular interest to me is the tendency students have to view prose texts simply as exercises. Students tend to consider their given prose texts as being useful as primary sources or tools, with which to practice their grammar, but as having little intrinsic literary value. Poetry tends to be viewed as more literary. Liuzza also commented on this, positing that this effect was due to the tendency to teach grammar and syntax simultaneously with prose texts, a technique dictated by the technical ability of the student2. By the time classes begin to concentrate less on grammar and more on the literary and cultural aspects of texts, the students have begun to read verse. James Earl has experienced the same difficulties, and has attempted "to overcome the impression that prose texts are non-literary, and only pedagogical" by placing them in a cultural context3. Peter Richardson notes the validity of this approach, stating that

 putting the emphasis of a course upon cultural questions (not necessarily at the expense of linguistic or literary ones), helps keep some of the standard readings fresh. 4

He further notes that

 many of the selections in Mitchell and Robinson expand to allow larger discussions of vernacular literacy, kinship, gender, ethnogenesis, state formation, etc. 5


A concrete example of this technique was given by George Clark, who uses the entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle6 relevant to The Battle of Maldon7 in order to improve his students' understanding of the cultural background of the poem.8

The techniques suggested thus far concentrate as much upon stressing the cultural relevancy of the texts already taught as upon adding new texts to the cannon. The tendency is to place individual texts within their cultural context. What seems to be lacking, however, is an emphasis of literary movements during the period. For the purposes of this paper, and because it is my own particular area of interest, I want to consider how one might best illustrate the general literary background of texts which stem from the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. I would like to propose that by using two texts from the Chronicle it is possible to give students an insight into the two great institutions which governed Anglo-Saxon society, the Church and the State. Such an insight would allow students to grasp that the works of individuals such as Wulfstan and Ælfric were part of a coherent movement on the part of both State and Church. In deference to the fact that this paper will be read by those with a limited knowledge of Anglo-Saxon, as well as by scholars of the subject, I make reference, where possible, only to fully glossed material or to editions containing the original text and a translation.

Students often have difficulty grasping the complexity of Anglo-Saxon society, and one often finds oneself reiterating that the Anglo-Saxon period was not the "Dark Ages". An example I use to illustrate this in class is visual association. I use an overhead projector to "flash" the image of a reconstruction of a Viking camp at Trelleborg, of the kind that would have been found during the tenth and eleventh centuries, at my students. However, before telling my students what the image they have seen is I ask them what impressions they gained from the image. A representative set of answers would include words such as "round", "pattern" and, above all, "ordered". At this point, I explain that the picture is a reconstruction of a Viking settlement, and I am greeted with surprise. Students tend to think of Anglo-Saxon and Viking society as disordered. Even if they do leap beyond the stereotype of the "organised" Normans and "disorganised" Anglo-Saxons, they find it difficult to link the concept to literature, and especially to prose. Such a concept of disorganisation colours their understanding of the Anglo-Saxon literary corpus itself. Because of the limited number of texts they read, they lack insight into the movements of the literary corpus, and therefore of how the needs of the establishment dictated the trends in that corpus. In general, they find it difficult to conceive of the corpus as a whole. It is hard for them to grasp that the body of Old English literature is an expression of an organised society, and it must be explained to them that such literature could only be produced by an organised society. In order to provide students with a holistic view of the canon they study, I suggest the use of a lecture entitled The Functions of Literature: The Anglo-Saxon Church and State. The lecture, and two satellite seminars associated with it, is intended to consider two excerpts from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which usefully illustrate aspects of the cultural background of later Anglo-Saxon literature. These two pieces are generally entitled The Coronation of Edgar9 and The Death of Edgar10 (sub. annals 973 and D 959 respectively). The pieces have been chosen for three reasons. First, the grammar and syntax of both is reasonably simple without being simplistic. Thus both could be given as mid-term pieces, used to stretch the students linguistically whilst bridging the transition from simple prose to more complex verse and alliterative prose. Second, both incorporate literary techniques common to the canon, for instance the use of heroic epithets or polysyndeton, and this would allow teachers to cross-reference the literary techniques used in these pieces with other pieces in the canon. Third, both demonstrate the political concerns of the Church with the stability of the State, and demonstrate the socio-political tone of the period.

The Coronation is an interesting piece of poetry. It combines elements of annalistic prose (for instance Her Eadgar ws . . . to cyninge gehalgod 11 ) with typically poetic epithets (for example the reference to Christ as bremes cyning12, which might be compared and contrasted with the use of heofonrices Weard13 in Bede's account of the poet Cædmon14 ). More than this, however, the piece offers, in poetry, an illustration of Alfred's philosophy that the King, or State, needs the Church in order to function effectively. Alfred's comment upon the necessity of gebedmen 15, in his translation of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae16, offers the secular point of view that the State must use the Church as a tool for efficient government. 'The Coronation', by contrast, functions from the viewpoint of the Church. Whilst Alfred considers 'gebedmen'17 to be tools to be used by the King, The Coronation illustrates the Church's philosophy that the King was an extension of the Church. It does this by, for example, comparing Edgar's coronation with the ordination of a bishop, stressing the fact that Edgar was ordained upon Pentecost, one of the periods when it was customary to ordain bishops. The piece also stresses the Church's approbation of Edgar's coronation, by stressing the presence of priests and monks at the ceremony preosta heap, micel muneca reat18 (I consider such concepts in depth in a forthcoming piece of work). Students should be encouraged to read this piece in political as well as literary terms. They should be asked to consider not only what concepts the language of the piece illustrates (for example the King as vicarius Dei19 ), but also how such concepts functioned in the interaction between Church and State. Reference should be made to the fact that the literary renaissance of the monastic reformation was, at least in part, politically driven. Record keeping, and the formulation of written laws, was a function of learning and education upon the part of the monastics who manned the scriptoriums. The establishment of more monasteries, and the education of monks, did not only lead to a religious reformation. It also led to the institution of a complex political system, which lent stability to the nation, and to a framework within which the literature that survives today could be recorded.

The stress of such societal concerns leads naturally into a consideration of the subject matter of the second piece, The Death of Edgar. This piece is not poetry. Jost (1923) argued that it was alliterative prose probably composed by Archbishop Wulfstan, and for the sake of convenience I follow his assumption. Certainly the language of the piece is reminiscent of Wulfstan texts, for example the intensification of adverbs through the use of "to" ("to swyde"20). More relevant here, however, is the way in which the piece expresses certain philosophies of the nature of kingship and the interaction of the King, as a personification of State, and the Church. Particularly relevant is the stress placed upon Edgar's promulgation of the Church and the law "He arrerde Godes lof wide and Godes lage lufode"21 , and the statement that Edgar's reward for such good government was the peace granted to him by God. Note should also be taken of the reference made to the proper order of society according to the Carolingian ideal; God is King above Edgar, granting him gifts such as peace, whilst Edgar rules his lords as a Christian king and is supported by the Church.

The consideration of peace and law in this Church text, and it should be stressed to the students that the Chronicle was an ecclesiastic text, can be easily compared to Wulfstan's use of the Sermo Lupi as a statement of the need for peace22. It should also be made clear to the students that, not only does The Death of Edgar share the same author as the Sermo Lupi, but the political ideas in both are, essentially, the same. At the same time, it should be stressed to students that the philosophies of the two pieces are not the same simply because the pieces share a common author, but because these philosophies were common to the Church at that time. To this end, one might make reference to the fact that Ælfric, in his Natale Sancti Swyduni Episcopi, also uses Edgar as an exemplum of good kingship "eadgar cynincg pone cristen-dom ge-fyrdrode" (Whitelock 1952). This is because, although students probably won't be familiar with this work, they will all study that author, allowing them to date the philosophy by reference to an author of the same period.

Interestingly, although Wulfstan lauds Edgar for his good kingship in The Death of Edgar, he also, in a sudden change of register, criticises the King for his involvement in "heen eowas" ("heathen customs"). The criticism of Edgar's love of "foreign vicious customs" illustrates rather well that Wulfstan was a man of his time. This criticism probably refers to Edgar's encouragement of the Danelaw, of which Wulfstan, as a lawmaker, would have been well aware. Wulfstan's reasons for criticising Edgar, however, probably stemmed from the fact that the archbishop was living in a period in which the Danish invasions were approaching their zenith, the late tenth and early eleventh centuries. This fact allows one to raise two points for consideration by the students. Firstly, Wulfstan's attitude towards the Danes is that of an Anglo-Saxon living in a society besieged, and reference might here be made to the text of Maldon. This would allow the lecturer to contrast the essentially literary Church view of the Danish invasions as an unavoidable evil exacerbated by the cowardice of those defending the nation (the view is present in the Sermo Lupi) with the more politically astute (and I use that term with reservation) view that the Viking invasions were, in part, made worse by the political ineptitude of the king and his counsellors. Secondly, it should be made clear to the students that, although Wulfstan was writing in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, assuming that he was the author of this piece, the passage was interpolated into the Chronicle under annal 959. The manipulation of the chronology of the Chronicle in this way may be given to the students as evidence of the fact that the Chronicle does not simply constitute the annalistic recording of events. It was used, at least in this case, as a didactic tool and a literary vehicle for Church philosophies. The lecturer could then very easily expand upon this point, stressing to his or her students that, whilst it is easy to view such texts as history or simply pedagogical exercises in translation, the Chronicle is actually composed of various literary styles. Reference could here be made to Cynewulf and Cyneheard and the stress the piece lays upon faithfulness towards one's lord, and the consequences of betrayal. Such concerns are, of course, very similar to those in Maldon, allowing the students to contrast the themes of one of the earliest pieces of prose we study with those of one of the later pieces of poetry.

I am aware that the texts I suggest are not all encompassing, and do not bind the entire canon. For instance, the highly literary concerns of texts such as The Wanderer and The Seafarer do not sit easily in the socio-political framework outlined above. However, the point that without an organised society, as illustrated by this approach, these verses would probably not have survived to be studied by us is still relevant.

Another issue, especially relevant to academia today, is the costs that students are faced with when texts not already present in the readers are introduced into the canon. Bruce Gilchrist suggests that students should

 download various poems from the Old English webpages . . . . One advantage [of this] would be that students could rearrange the poems on the page to their liking, respacing, margins etc., and thus making their own edition. It would also show them how to access Old English webpages 23. . . .

It has been my experience, within a British institution, that the web is a tool which undergraduate students do not use to its full advantage. As long as note is taken of the possibility of web-based plagiarism (and software is now available to counter this) students can only benefit from an introduction to the web-based canon and the grammatical aids associated with it.

In conclusion, I have offered, through example, the basis for a lecture which shows the relevance of The Coronation and The Death of Edgar to a variety of other texts within the canon, and which allows references to be made to various other works in the canon. By indicating to students common thematic and cultural concerns, I would hope to encourage the students to view the texts they study as a 'gestalt', centering upon the canon as a whole, and not just the sum of its parts.






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Copyright © J.C. Weale, 2000. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright @ The Heroic Age, 2000. All rights reserved.