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    The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature
    • Online ISBN: 9781139035637
    • Book DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637
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Book description

Informed by multicultural, multidisciplinary perspectives, The Cambridge History of Early Medieval English Literature offers a new exploration of the earliest writing in Britain and Ireland, from the end of the Roman Empire to the mid-twelfth century. Beginning with an account of writing itself, as well as of scripts and manuscript art, subsequent chapters examine the earliest texts from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and the tremendous breadth of Anglo-Latin literature. Chapters on English learning and literature in the ninth century and the later formation of English poetry and prose also convey the profound cultural confidence of the period. Providing a discussion of essential texts, including Beowulf and the writings of Bede, this History captures the sheer inventiveness and vitality of early medieval literary culture through topics as diverse as the literature of English law, liturgical and devotional writing, the workings of science and the history of women's writing.

Reviews

'This wide-ranging collection of essays surveys British and Irish literature of the early Middle Ages in all its linguistic variety and complexity … The value of this volume lies not just in its inclusion of the expected viewed in new ways but also in giving space to what is too often left out … Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates, graduate students, faculty.'

D. W. Hayes Source: Choice

'The intention of The New Cambridge History of English Literature [series] is to offer 'a broad synthesis and contextual survey of the history of English literature' that couples 'fresh perspectives' and 'essential exposition' in an 'accessible narrative'. This volume succeeds admirably in combining those goals … [It] offers a vision of an exciting and expansive literary culture of endless interpenetration, interlingual inventiveness, and ideological appropriation.'

E. J. Christie Source: Speculum

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Page 1 of 2


  • 8 - English literature in the ninth century
    pp 209-231
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637.011
  • View abstract
    Summary
    In dovetailing Britain's linguistic complexity into the biblical patterning of the story, Bede betrayed his firm belief in the superiority of Latin as the language of Roman Christianity and of literate education. Bede's preface to his Ecclesiastical History lacks a term for the cluster of islands stretching from the Shetlands to the Scillies of which Britain and Ireland are the two largest. Scholarship on script in Ireland and Britain in the early Middle Ages relies upon a manuscript-based approach, but is constrained by the small number of manuscripts surviving from this period. This chapter discusses commonalities and cross-currents by treating writing as a form of material culture. It reassesses the regional cultures of writing, books and literature in early medieval Britain and Ireland and concludes by emphasizing the multilingual environment of the transitional centuries between the Roman era and the Middle Ages.
  • 9 - The writing of history in the early Middle Ages: the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in context
    pp 232-256
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637.012
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Britain was permanently dislocated from the cultural metropolis, Rome, by economy, history and language. Scribes could evoke the splendour of late antiquity or the Carolingian court by writing a universalizing script such as Square capitals or Caroline minuscule, both used for centuries in many corners of the former Roman Empire. Indeed, Bischoff even characterized southern England as a Roman writing province until the early eighth century. It was only in the tenth century that English scribes regularly wrote a form of script developed in Francia and thus could be viewed as now affiliated to a Frankish script-province. In the 960s a hybrid script appears, in which Caroline letter-forms infiltrate the writing of Insular script. Frankish reformed centres and Frankish masters exerted a profound influence on Anglo-Latin script in the century before the Norman Conquest. Multiple collaborating scribes worked in monastic and episcopal centres, often a dozen or more, but as many as twenty in the case of tenth-century Canterbury.
  • 10 - The literary languages of Old English: words, styles, voices
    pp 257-277
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637.013
  • View abstract
    Summary
    This chapter explores three different relationships between writing and art that are absolutely characteristic of Anglo-Saxon culture: the use of script as image; the dialogue between script and image; and the way in which that dialogue changes when the object is made to speak. Placing inscriptions around, within or as a label to images is one of the simplest ways of combining text and image. The Anglo-Saxons invented the historiated initial, and the earliest surviving examples occur in the eighth-century Vespasian Psalter and the St Petersburg copy of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica. The Eadwine Psalter was produced at Christ Church Canterbury in the middle of the twelfth century. It is an Anglo-Norman rather than an Anglo-Saxon manuscript, but its heteroglossia, its use of Old English and the Anglo-Saxon past, and its speaking portrait of the scribe Eadwine make it a fitting work.
  • 11 - Old English poetic form: genre, style, prosody
    pp 278-308
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637.014
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Bede considers the English and the Irish alongside the other island peoples, the Britons and the Picts. A further linguistic complexity lies in the fact that southern Scotland was Brittonic-speaking and that what some scholars would claim to be one of the oldest poems in Welsh, Y Gododdin, emanates from this precise territory. The attraction for Irish scribes of a Welsh scriptorium suggests a productive literary tradition east of the Irish Sea and one with which they would have felt a certain familiarity. Cultural interdependence between secular and religious had long since been a feature of Ireland's intellectual life. How typical the Irish situation was of other areas of Britain is difficult to gauge in the absence of comparable evidence from Wales, Scotland and even Anglo-Saxon England. Nonetheless, following Bede in viewing the five languages and four nations of Britain side by side ensures that the varying pieces of evidence of English, British, Irish and Picts can illuminate each other.
  • 12 - Beowulf: a poem in our time
    pp 309-331
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637.015
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The history of Insular Latin literature is inextricably linked to the story of the establishment and growth of the Church. Obviously Rome, whence the missionaries came to convert the Anglo-Saxons, from the 590s onwards, was an important supplier of books. Later on Benedict Biscop, the founder of Wearmouth and then Jarrow, brought volumes home from his journeys to Rome, as Bede records. Aldhelm's intellectual formation included, alongside the Mediterranean orientation of Theodore and Hadrian, also Irish influence, perhaps from time spent on Iona. The story of Aldhelm's Enigmata and their influence brings another key figure in the history of Anglo-Latin, and to a whole new sphere of activity, the mission-field in Germany. Alcuin followed Aldhelm, Bede and others writing serves the needs of the classroom on spelling, grammar, rhetoric and dialectic. As secular biography, it is a first in Insular Latin literature, and was undoubtedly modelled on the Life of Charlemagne written by Einhard in the early ninth century.
  • 13 - Old English lyrics: a poetics of experience
    pp 332-356
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637.016
  • View abstract
    Summary
    This chapter examines textual production in the northern kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England from c. 699-821. From Charles Plummer's edition of the Ecclesiastical History to the work of C. W. Jones and Bertram Colgrave, Bede scholars have distinguished the miraculous from the historical. The 1960s and 1970s saw increased sensitivity to Bede's cultural and theological milieu. The idea that the saints' Lives were designed to attract royal patronage to a saint's cult and the monastery housing that cult in the competitive economy of the early north has gained scholarly acceptance. The anonymous Life of Abbot Ceolfrith and Bede's History of the Abbots of Wearmouth-Jarrow provide a rich background to our understanding of monastic development and practices in the north. Alcuin and Æthelwulf draw on Bede's History as source and inspiration in a variety of ways, but their combination of miracles and commemorative history calls special attention to visions of the otherworld as part of the living history of the northern kingdoms.
  • 15 - Saintly lives: friendship, kinship, gender and sexuality
    pp 381-405
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637.018
  • View abstract
    Summary
    The Anglo-Saxons so much belonged to the old world that Beowulf, though written in England and in English, is set completely in the Germanic world. Their farewell to ancestral shores and the subsequent landfall and invasion of Britain, later known as the Adventus Saxonum, must have made an incisive impression on the collective memory. Gildas shows familiarity with this Anglo-Saxon naval term, which is indicative of the cultural-linguistic interface between the indigenous population and the incoming conquerors. Widsith and Deor provide with windows on the Germanic world, not so much for the intrinsic value thereof, as for the benefit of the scops who are given to perform these poems. Things are different with Beowulf, Waldere and the Finnsburh Fragment, three poems that develop a full narrative centring around the heroic life. The Latin-Old English glossary, known as the Erfurt Glossary, was copied independently from another Anglo-Saxon manuscript, now lost, in Cologne in the first half of the ninth century.
  • 16 - Sacred history and Old English religious poetry
    pp 406-426
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637.019
  • View abstract
    Summary
    This chapter traces the ways in which confidence in English developed and was manifested in the ninth century. Latin undoubtedly remained the dominant literary language of Anglo-Saxon England for much of the ninth century, in so far as literary production can be identified as happening at all. As Mechthild Gretsch points out, the prose preface to the Old English Pastoral Care implies that 'Mercia was the only place where King Alfred had encountered some Latin learning and expertise in rendering Latin texts into the vernacular'. Alfred no doubt had in mind the model of rulership which combined authority and textual learning, for which both David and Charlemagne acted as important precedents. Court culture, with its political, spiritual and intellectual aspirations, provided a powerful context for the dissemination of Christian learning. The Old English Dialogues, apparently commissioned by Alfred and written by Wærferth, is the earliest of the ninth-century vernacular dialogues.
  • 17 - Performing Christianity: liturgical and devotional writing
    pp 427-450
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637.020
  • View abstract
    Summary
    This chapter shows how some of historical projects work to present the very monolithic English identity evident in the Alfredian genealogical prefaces. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle seems an ideal site to begin exploring the histories of early medieval England for a number of reasons. In the Exeter Book, for example, poems like Deor, Widsith and The Ruin show Anglo-Saxons looking back on their cultural inheritance as descendants of those Germanic mercenaries who displaced the Britons, and revelling in it. The Historia Brittonum attributed to Nennius was one of the most popular and widely read histories produced in medieval Britain. The Celtic histories found new life as evidence of a strong Christianity on the island long before the arrival of the Augustinian mission in Kent in 597. The version of history paints Harold as a usurper, justifies the Norman Conquest, and posits William's line as the rightful heirs to the English throne.
  • 18 - Riddles, wonder and responsiveness in Anglo-Saxon literature
    pp 451-472
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637.021
  • View abstract
    Summary
    This chapter explores the origins and development of the dialects collectively known as Old English. It concentrates on language usage: what culturally and historically specific meanings the words of the language had and what uses Anglo-Saxon authors put these words to. The two earliest Old English versions of the Hymn survive as additions to eighth-century Latin manuscripts of the Historia ecclesiastica. The story of the transmission of Cædmon's Hymn is a story of the change and development of the Old English language. Bede provides one early example of the role language played in establishing class-based identities in Anglo-Saxon England in his story of Imma. A number of specialized vocabularies existed in Old English in the areas of law, religion, poetry, science, astronomy and medicine, but perhaps the most significant is that group of words known as the Winchester vocabulary. Ælfric's language, although artful and engaged with the literary cultures of Anglo-Saxon England, was thoroughly Christian.
  • 19 - In measure, and number, and weight: writing science
    pp 475-498
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637.023
  • View abstract
    Summary
    This chapter considers how the poem's history meets people, and how its particular complexities and ambiguities challenge their own interpretive processes. It also shows how they encounter with its difference might produce an expanded vision not only of Beowulf but of the cultural dimensions, embodiments and temporalities that it evokes. It is hard, too, to pinpoint a prevailing cultural understanding of time within the Anglo-Saxon period. The works of scholars like Bede and Byrhtferth of Ramsey evidence a high degree of sophistication, cosmological and historical principles. Frank's influential argument eloquently makes the case for a time-savvy and historically aware Beowulf. The chapter considers how fluid are the boundaries between bodies, human or otherwise, but such fluidity is also evident in the conception of one, other, significant hall space, that of Grendel and his mother. It finally explains the most radical aspects of the poem, for it argues that identity and embodiment are also part of the poem's space-time continuum.
  • 20 - Legal documentation and the practice of English law
    pp 499-529
  • https://doi.org/10.1017/CHO9781139035637.024
  • View abstract
    Summary
    Old English literature is routinely characterized as backward-looking, nostalgic, gloomy and preoccupied with loss, suffering and contempt for the world. Transience is the basis of fame and of poetry, the movement that opens narrative, the occasion for imagination and representation, and these are also the conditions for thinking historically. The opening of The Wanderer raises all the issues of experience, singularity, wyrd and temporality that are also important to poems such as The Seafarer, The Dream of the Rood and The Ruin. The idea that binding one's thoughts is a prerequisite for meditation and thus a sound mind has a striking parallel in Gregory's well-known Regula pastoralis, translated into English by King Alfred, and this passage helps to clarify just what is at stake in The Wanderer. Old English lyrics usually incorporate history through formal elements, such as the ubi sunt catalogue or meditation upon ruin, which enable a shift from contemplation of personal experience to that of generations past.

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