The Heroic Age

Issue 7

Spring 2004

Continental Business

Note: this column aims to present scholarship of interest to Heroic Age readers originally published in Dutch, French, and German and not available in translation. The summaries are intended not only to help the reader determine the text's interest, but also to present in some detail the most important ideas and evidence put forth, and whenever possible to refer to other scholarship unavailable in English. The reviewer would greatly appreciate bibliographical references from Heroic Age readers as well as requests for reviews.


Anglo-Saxon Women's Letters

by Michel Aaij, Ph.D.
University of Tennessee


Discussed in this review: Janine Cünnen (2000), Fiktionale Nonnenwelten: Angelsächsische Frauenbriefe des 8. und 9. Jahrhunderts [Fictional Nuns' Worlds: Anglo-Saxon Women's Letters of the 8th and 9th Century]. Heidelberg: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag. ISBN 3825310698. 364+xi pages, 1 illustration.

This is an ambitious work, with a two-fold thesis, each of whose parts might fill a book. First, Cünnen attempts to show that the Anglo-Saxon letters preserved for posterity indicate, in opposition to H.R. Jauß's claim, that there did exist a concept of fictionality before Chrétien de Troyes, a fictionality to be teased out of correspondence, especially by and to women, by studying its rhetorical schemes. Related is the author's intention to elevate the status of these letters to that of literature, by adding fictionality to their rhetoricity. Second, the author aims to connect these letters to Anglo-Saxon elegies, again, especially those featuring female characters or female narrators, to show that the concepts of fictionality in the letters are also indicators of fictionality in the elegies, and that the letters might be seen as a stage in the evolution from Latin poetry (of Venantius Fortunatus, Ovid, and Horace) to the literature in the vernacular.

Cünnen begins by attempting a definition of fictionality, mainly based on the work of German theorists and applied to Latin and early medieval poetry, and her first full chapter[1] leans toward Wolfgang Iser's concept of a triad made up of the categories of the real, the imaginary, and the fictional (Iser 1993). The real is the extratextual world--the 'real world' (which may include texts whose reality grounds the text at hand). The definition given of the imaginary is harder to pin down (Cünnen will be more specific later on), but seems to involve as yet unsorted and unfictionalized ideas. The fictional is the category of intentional acts, and goes well beyond traditional definitions of 'lie' and 'error'; Iser and Cünnen's interest is clearly to bypass the traditional dualistic opposition of truth and fiction. Cünnen traces Greek concepts of truth and genre through Homer and Aristotle to conclude that, in the shift from orality to literality, poetry, initially divinely inspired and true but finally polyvalent and to be interpreted, acquires a (as yet undefined) different relationship to truth. For early medieval Latin poets, the genre distinctions of fabula, historia, and argumentum do indicate a systematic awareness of truth, but do not yet create a concept of ficton, a theory which according to Jauß comes about only through written literature in the vernacular at the time of Chrétien. Cünnen's onus, prompted by the existence of a vernacular literature in Anglo-Saxon written shortly after the Anglo-Saxon conversion, is to push back this limit; a second corrective consideration is that both insular and Latin literature have not yet been given sufficient attention by continental scholars of fictionality, surely a lofty goal (48-49).

Chapter 3 promises to take up Anglo-Saxon epistolary writing, and starts with a history of rhetoric and grammar. Cünnen discusses Cicero, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, Quintillian, and Aelus Donatus, and then briefly the problems of patristic philosophers in applying pagan rhetorical theories to the exposition of Christian truth, and Augustine's combination of eloquentia and sapientia (60). Cünnen ends the chapter with a brief overview of Anglo-Saxon rhetorical theory, discussing Aldhelm, Bede, and Alcuin, and briefly mentioning Boniface, whose importance as a grammarian she says was short-lived (71). Their work continues classical rhetoric and the importance of their texts in the educational system ensured that classical concepts and terms constituted what conscious poetics there might have existed (74; Cünnen quotes Campbell 1967).

Chapter 4 consists of a short overview of classical epistolary writing. Horace's letters resemble Boniface's in that both present a writer who is a friend and advisor; Ovid's Heroides (and later Propertius's elegies) are important in their lyrical qualities and approach elegy and complaint, and Cünnen finds themes which will recur in the Anglo-Saxon collections, such as "speaking through the letter," absence of the addresse, and direct address of the addressee ("halved dialog") (79). Epistolary writing in the century or so around the birth of Christ is greatly influenced by rhetorical theory, and early Christian writers depend mainly on Cicero; little interesting happens until, according to Cünnen, "society and centers of education separated themselves from the church and could develop a new selfconsciousness" (82). Chapter 5 is even shorter than chapter 4, and recognizes in the early Middle Ages the beginning of systematic form; letters feature five separate parts: salutatio, captatio benevolentiae, narratio, petitio, and conclusio, the latter a closing formula Cünnen later usually calls vale.

Chapter 6 finally delivers what chapter 3 promised: Anglo-Saxon letters; here the true analysis starts which should prove Cünnen's theses. The author locates the height of Anglo-Saxon epistolary writing in the eighth century, for reasons at least partly derived from her interest in women writiers: surviving letters from the tenth and eleventh century are only between men, whereas the earlier set includes letters to and from women. Cünnen comments on editorial separation of the corpus in a collectio pontificia (letters on theological matters) and a collectio communis (everything else); the letters Cünnen treats all fall under the latter heading (90). Before she treats the individual letters, she restates the terminology of the main themes: amicitia, fraternitas absentium, and "speaking through the letter." Amicitia is found especially in the common request for prayer (on p. 92, the author also locates the "halved dialog" in the topos of prayer request), and its ancestry goes back mainly to Augustine. Like amicitia, the theme fraternitas absentum parallels Anglo-Saxon elegy, according to Cünnen, in that a solitary persona complains to a loved one. Both themes occur in almost all Anglo-Saxon letters, reason enough for scholars (no reference given) to regard these themes as typically Anglo-Saxon; Cünnen maintains both themes have Augustine as a primary source (91), themes which again she states parallel those of Anglo-Saxon elegies. The frequent instance of fraternitas absentium in Augustine's correspondence in terms of separation by the sea (but Cünnen cites only two examples, both in letters to, not by, Augustine) provides the first firm thematic and verbal connection to the Anglo-Saxon elegies. The rest of the chapter is taken up by a catalog of Anglo-Saxon letters to and from women and a tabulation comparing themes in Bonifacian and patristic (Augustine, Hieronymus) correspondence. For Aldhelm, the criterion of gender leaves only the letter to Sigegyth; Cünnen also discusses the Epistola ad Acircium, even while she acknowledges this is not addressed to a woman nor a letter in the sense in which she has been using the term 'letter.' From the Boniface correspondence the harvest is far greater, yielding nine letters to and five from women (Tangl 10, 27, 30, 35, 65, 66, 67, 94, 96; and 13, 14, 15, 29, 97), all of which are summarized. Two conclusions worthwhile repeating are drawn: women studied and wrote, proving they received (or could receive) a similar education to men; women were active participants in the life of the church. Six letters to women by Lull (Tangl 49, 70, 98, 100, 128, 140), Boniface's successor in Mainz, and one letter to Lull by king Alhred and his wife Osgifu (eds. Haddan and Stubbs 434) are summarized; then the three Berthgyth letters (Tangl 143, 147, 148), Ælfled's letter to Adola (Tangl 8), Burginda's letter (edited by Sims-Williams 1990, 213-19) [2], and a letter by Aldhun, Cneuburga, and Coenburga (edited for instance by Jaffé 1964, nr. 46). Finally, Cünnen summarizes Alcuin's twenty-seven letters to women, all of which classified as from the collectio communis. She cites McGuire's comments regarding Alcuin's reserve in his correspondence with women, but does deny McGuire's thesis that "we move into an almost exclusively male world" (1998, 116); in fact, she says, his letters are evidence of a deep friendship with his female correspondents, whom he asks for advice and whose competence he values (150), and finds herself in agreement with Rosamond McKitterick's evaluation of the "learned queen, princess and noblewoman" (qtd. on 150). Cünnen summarizes: the Anglo-Saxon letters are firmly grounded in a common rhetorical tradition and share their main themes, amicitia, fraternitas absentium, and "speaking through the letter"; especially the Alcuin-correspondence indicates that women were equal partners sharing a rhetoric tradition and level of education (151).

Chapter 7 analyzes the rhetorical strategies and tropology/topology of the letters. Exordium, narratio, argumentum, and elocutio are discussed (but only the latter two are illustrated); the tropes of metaphor and personification Cünnen sees as most important in the correspondence, and she spends about seven pages discussing and illustrating them. She cites at length from Eangyth and Bugga's letter to Boniface (Tangl 14), though without any explication: that "animarum nostrarum naviculae" is metaphorical is obvious enough, but what this metaphor means when the authors using the metaphor in fact stayed home while their correspondent has sailed across to the continent is not self-evident--is it merely a figure? And what of the citation of Matthew 7.25 in the same sentence? Does mixing metaphors reflect poorly on these women's writing skills, or is there something in the connection between the traveling missionary in Germany and the women who remained in England[3]? Cünnen doesn't say, and in general has little to say about the historical and social background of the correspondents. The discussion of topology is more useful, and illustrates the topoi in the salutatio with (explicated) examples from Aldhelm and Boniface; those of narratio are illustrated from Boniface and Alcuin. Finally, locus amoenus is also treated, and well explicated and illustrated in terms of various contrasts, especially light and dark. Biblical citation serves a number of different functions, mainly emphasis and argument; the use of the bible connected to fictionality is to be treated in a later chapter. The rest of the chapter, some thirty pages, is taken up with a rhetorical and literary analysis of the letters. She concludes that all letters indicate varying degrees of literarity attained by the use of rhetorical figures and topoi, on the one hand, and by literary themes on the other. The difference between Alcuin and the others is most noticeable: Alcuin's style is least poetic (and we may note Cünnen's easy slippage from 'rhetorical' to 'poetic') and most sincerely pious. A second difference is between Burginda and the other correspondents, Berthgyth assuming a medial position: letters by women, Cünnen states, convey no information or knowledge but are purely literary, and thus approach the elegy in their devotion to a central theme. But Cünnen lets us guess at what that theme is: the content of Burginda's letter is discussed neither in chapter 6 or chapter 7, but this letter, addressed to 'Youth' and a plea for remembrance, hardly has the precise theme of Berthgyth's letters to her brother which implore him to come home and see her. The final section of this chapter gives a useful overview of the women's letters, their literary themes and topoi, and their citations from scripture.

The letters' approach of the elegy is to be discussed in chapter 8, which should be of interest to readers of The Heroic Age. Cünnen begins with a description of the Exeter Book and an overview of the four elegies involving women speakers or characters ("The Husband's Message," "The Wife's Lament," "Wulf and Eadwacer," and "Deor"). While competent, the bibliography is not really up to date nor helpful: only a few references are from the 1990s (and most of those are to editions of the poems; the only critical entries are two articles on dating Beowulf in a 1997 collection edited by Hildegard Tristram, Cünnen's mentor), and Cünnen could have found a very useful discussion of textual and critical issues surrounding "Wulf and Eadwacer" just across the German border, in Henk Aertsen's "Cri de Coeur"(1994). As it stands, Cünnen provides summaries of the poems which I happen to find valid, but without an appreciation of the historical development of her readings [4]. Cünnen's three themes (amicitia, fraternitas absentium, "speaking through the letter") are illustrated with examples, although the organization is not totally clear (a fault I find throughout the book): "speaking through the letter," exemplified by "Wulf and Eadwacer" and "The Wife's Lament" is strictly speaking impossible, and while Cünnen argues convincingly that those two poems in their fictive address do fit that theme, it is unclear to me why that theme is treated under fraternitas absentium. Some of her conclusions are simply too obvious: "The Husband's Message" is exceptional among the elegies since it expresses the promise of the end of exile and the promise of social reintegration (223)--but the poem of course is hardly an elegy in the usual sense of the word. And if Cünnen's earlier exclusive focus on women's letters was limiting but valid, in this chapter the focus on elegies thematizing the problems of women (218) is too narrow: her assertion that "Wie die Exil-Thematik, so ist in den Elegien auch die Trosttopik nicht religiös connotiert" ["Like the thematics of exile, the topic of comfort in the elegies is not connoted in a religious way"] (228) can only be made by excluding and even forgetting "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer," thus severely restricting the validity of the argument. Again there is all too easy slippage: whenever Cünnen says "the elegies" she means "these four elegies." If she concludes then that the topoi Curtius identified are not to be found in the elegies, and were therefore differently treated in vernacular and Latin texts (229), her thesis is quickly handicapped when we find, for instance, the rhetorical and even symbolic use of "affected modesty" (vis-à-vis God), "the imparting of wisdom," and "invocation of nature" in "The Wanderer" (Curtius 1990). The section that compares the verses that accompany some of the AS letters and the elegies finds Cünnen on firmer ground--but that alliterative Latin verse (occurring rarely) is the ultimate source of Germanic alliterative vernacular poetry is a stretch, even if phrased carefully (233). Problems arise again in the following section on the possible sources of Anglo-Saxon poetry, if only because the research is not truly up to date (the claim on p. 235 that scholars today still treat some elegies as laments for the dead is backed up by reference to an article from 1983); Cünnen's final argument in this chapter, that Anglo-Saxon elegies find their examples (if not their origins) in Ovid's Heroides and Venantius Fortunatus is neither revolutionary as a suggestion nor sufficiently supported as a thesis.

The final full chapter discusses "strategies of fictionality" in the letters, and Cünnen returns to Iser's triad. This chapter at least serves to clarify Iser's terms, especially the imaginary: Cünnen uses it to indicate the mass of experience that is not real, and that can be guided, given shape, by the fictional (which is always an act of intention). The imaginary worlds (of amicita, of fraternitas absentium), cross over to the real when res facta, elements of the extratextual worls, are brought into discourse--a request for prayer, for instance (267). But when fictional elements (usually rhetorical language or citation from scripture) are brought into the imaginary world of the letter, things change more drastically, and an "as-if" world is created. When Egburg writes to Boniface (Tangl 13) telling of her misdemeanors and sins, these take part of the imaginary world of Christianity, but may also contain references to 'something else,' as when she says "I, a sinner, cast myself at the feet of Your Eminence and call to you out of the depths of my heart and from the ends of the earth" (Emerton 2000). Likewise when Alcuin writes to Gisela and personifies Love and Compassion. In both cases, the boundary between imagination and fiction is crossed: "Fiction makes precise and organizes the as yet diffuse, unspecified, and unreferenced imaginary and steers it into circumscribed courses" (271). Fiction transcends the imaginary, and when an author fictionalizes, she does so not as an act of inspiration or creativity, but using standard formulas and images to attain precisely determined goals. Of course, a fictional image caused by an intentional act does not yet create a "fictional world," let alone a fictional nuns' world. In the last pages of the chapter, Cünnen attempts to prove her two-fold thesis, on the one hand, by stating that in the letters she discussed early medieval writers are enabled to thematize such uncommon emotions as love, sadness, and loneliness outside of the elegy, on the other hand, that the discussion can be gendered in that letters written by men contain extratextual (real) elements, whereas Berthgyth's and Burginda's letters construct only imaginary and/or fictional worlds (285). The first contention aims to 'pull' fiction away from just elegy (without establishing cause and effect), the second to create the fictional nuns' worlds of the title. Both claims, however, are dubious. The first, because not all early medieval writing is as determined by 'warrior society' as Cünnen seems to imply (Augustine's Confessions may serve as an example); the second, because Berthgyth's letters, in all their literary pathos, do betray at least one 'real' fact: she is saddened by the death of her parents and misses her brother.

If Cünnen's only objective were to establish that fictionality predates Chrétien, she has succeeded--but she could have done so in fewer pages. That this fictionality is predicated upon a gendered epistolary, and so more or less specific to nuns is quite another matter--in this case, an unproven matter. In an earlier review of the book, Christine Rauter spent little time on the actual argument, undoubtedly because she was so severely underwhelmed by the editorial care devoted to the book, and it is difficult to disagree with Rauter [5]. The subject matter is interesting enough to warrant reading it, but I come away from the book not just dissatisfied with editorial matters: the argument and its exposition leave plenty to be desired. The exposition is greatly hampered by lengthy sections on theories of fictionality, not all of which are directly relevant to the matter at hand (one need no longer argue, in my opinion, that 'fiction' is not a synonym for 'untruth'); it is hampered also by unclear organization on the level of chapters and paragraphs (this may partly be an editorial problem, or may betray the book's genesis as a dissertation)--and, as Rauter noted, the strange lack of an index, unclear appendices, and a bibliography full of errors. The argument itself remains far too contentious, as if the author was not entirely clear where the book's thesis should be focused on the rhetorical sources for Latin medieval epistolary, the origin of the vernacular (really, only Germanic) elegy, the relationship between rhetoric and fiction, the distinguishing characteristics (if such there be) of medieval women's writing, or the materiality or rhetoricity that may ground women writers fictionality. Each of these topics is worthwhile pursuing, and Cünnen goes to great lengths to bring them all together, but in the final evaluation her argument--which by the end of the book is somewhat unclear--fails to be convincing.

NOTE: 2004 is the 1250th anniversary of Boniface's martyrdom and will see extensive celebration in and around Fulda; please see the website of the Fulda diocese at Unfortunately, yours truly will be teaching summer school during most of those celebrations; if any of you, dear colleagues, attend the services, festivities (such as the Boniface musical--see, or exhibitions, I'd appreciate your comments and observations. 2004 might also bring more Boniface-related publications (I have already received a newly revised Dutch biography, which I will report on in the next issue), and I hope European readers will be kind enough to inform me of new scholarly work: I thank you in advance.


1. This is chapter 2; the three-page introduction is the book's chapter 1.

2. Christine Rauter, in her 2001 review of Cünnen's book, has also noted the red herring on p. 205, note 278: there is no text and translation of Burginda's letter in Appendix 2.
3. Cünnen cites Rau's translation (Bonifatii Epistulae, Willibaldi Vita Bonifatii: Briefe des Bonifatius, Willibalds Leben des Bonifatius. Ausgewahlte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters. Freiherr vom Stein-Gedächtnisausgabe, Vol. Ivb, Darmstadt, 1968); whether his translation or Cünnen's citation has left out the quotation marks around the Matthew quote I cannot ascertain, but in a book where most Latin citations are translated one would expect a closer correspondence between original and translation.
4. Note 24 on p. 218, that the summaries of the poems reflect the author's own interpretation and point of view, notwithstanding. Such an uncritical presentation of a person or text occurs elsewhere: see for instance the biographical note on Boniface, which approaches hagiography (105).
5. To Rauter's almost two pages of carefully gleaned errata I may add my own short list: p. 5 'Seale's,' p. 12 missing quotation mark after '(=Fiktion),' p. 36 'geprochen,' p. 54 'Ausgagspunkte,' p. 56 'mitsich,' p. 83 incorrect brackets '[oder prologus oder exordium],' p. 92 n. 25 'Disseration,' p. 99 n. 59 'Gile's,' p. 102 'baptizm' and 'well!.,' p. 108 'sachsen,' p. 128 n. 180 redundant '[sic],' p. 141 'Heilge,' p. 143 'Emahnungen,' p. 157 redundant '[...],' p. 158 incorrect comma after 'hat,35' p. 172 citation missing for quote and English translation from Sigegyth's letter, p. 218 incorrect font 'The Husband's Message,' p. 241 faulty spacing after 'Ehemann,' p. 259 'Alkuins,' p. 274 faulty spacing 'die nur.' Ellipsis and especially English punctuation around ellipsis in quotes is sloppy or awkard, see for example p. 84 'epistolary friendships, [.....] grew up,' p. 133 '[...] the practical teacher's passion' (producing a fragment), p. 246 'expressed, [...] And indeed,' p. 268 'quatior; [...].' and 'bedrängen, [...].' In general, the way punctuation and ellipsis are done throughout the book in Latin citation and English or German translation is bothersome and unelegant, and while German rules for punctuation differ from our use, I can't remember having read a German book where punctuation got in the way of reading in such an obvious manner.

Works Cited

Aertsen, Henk 1994. '"Wulf and Eadwacer": A Woman's "Cri de Coeur"--For Whom, For What?' Henk Aertsen and Rolf H. Bremmer, Jr., eds., Companion to Old English Poetry. Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit.

Campbell, Jackson J. 1967. "Knowledge of Rhetorical Figures in Anglo-Saxon England". JEGP 66: 1-60.

Curtius, Ernst Robert 1990. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Tr. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton UP.

Emerton, Ephraim tr. 2000. The Letters of Saint Boniface. New York: Columbia UP.

Haddan, Arthur West and William Stubbs, eds. 1878. Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents Relating to Great Britain and Ireland: Vol. 3, The English Church, 595-1066. Oxford: Clarendon.

Iser, Wolfgang. 1993. The Fictive and the Imaginary: Charting Literary Anthropology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

Jaffé, Philip. repr. 1964. Bibliotheca Rerum Germanicarum III: Monumenta Moguntina. Aalen, Scientia Verlag.

McGuire, Brian Patrick. 1988. Friendship and Community: The Monastic Experience. Kalamazoo: Cistercian.

Rau, Reinhold. 1968. Bonifatii Epistulae, Willibaldi Vita Bonifatii: Briefe des Bonifatius, Willibalds Leben des Bonifatius. Ausgewahlte Quellen zur deutschen Geschichte des Mittelalters. Freiherr vom Stein-Gedächtnisausgabe, Vol. Ivb, Darmstadt, 1968.

Rauter, Christine. 2001. "Review of Janina Cünnen's Fiktionale Nonnenwelten". Medium Ævum 70.2: 320-22.

Sims-Williams, Patrick. 1990. Religion and Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Tangl, Michael. 1955. Die Briefen des Hl. Bonifatius und Lullus, Monumenta Germaniae Historica, Epistolae Selectae 1. 2nd ed., Berlin: Weidmann.



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Copyright © Michel Aaij, 2004. All rights reserved.

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