Arnie's Class-Preparation Notes for English 211 Old English Literature (AKA Anglo-Saxon):

“Wanderer,” “Wife’s Lament,” “Battle of Maldon”


Fundamental Questions About the Study of Literature: How Early Literature and Conventions of its Creation/Performance/Preservation Expose Our Assumptions


Making the work—prose as the genre of fact b/c no rhyme or meter or alliteration; parataxis or “and then” coordination of narrative and formulas for record keeping narratives; poetry as the genre of art, and oral-formulaic verse; Milman Parry and Albert Lord with the Iliad and Odyssey, and in Serbia; impromptu performance of traditional content guided by metrical rules for combining and varying phrases (half-lines); plot types, revenge, travel in strange lands, bride-theft, rescue from prison; o-f composition’s survival among illiterate but sophisticated Central European tribal peoples in “singing villages” where literacy was unknown (literacy devalues oral tradition, freezes narrative evolution, leads to transitional texts captured by dictation; Parry’s rule—if the donkeys are still frightened of automobiles because they’ve never seen them, there still may be singers living there.


Listening to the work--lord-vassal relations among the nobility built on service promised in return for protection/reward (“the gift-giving” in “Wanderer,” “heriot” and “the horse that his lord had owned” in “Maldon”); reputation/honor vs. “outlaw” status of oath-breakers and the sanctity of OE/ME “trouðe” [Mod.E. “truth” + “troth” or fact and promise]; lordship, kinship, fosterage, marriage, and hostage-taking as states conferring special social status; the poet’s special status as recorder of deeds, distributor of praise of good deeds and blame of the bad to all future generations and affecting all one’s kin, those alive, unborn, and dead (“Maldon” as Byrtnoth’s and Offa’s fame and the death-warrant for Godric, Godwine and Godwig, sons of Odda); instruction, remembrance, praise, blame, word-play, and reaching through time and space to touch other minds.


Preserving the poem—manuscript production by scribes, almost always clerics, using calf-skin (“vellum”) or other hides bound between boards (often beech wood, source of German “buch” or “book”—a beech-bound-thing); Old and Middle English regional dialects (roughly North, South, East and West of England) and phonetic spelling in pre-printing-press writing; scribes as “filters” of what survives (copying errors, censorship of pagan or erotic texts, tastes in literature); loss of MSS due to deliberate destruction (esp. 1536, the “Dissolution of the Monasteries” and burning of their libraries by order of Henry VIII), accidental damage (“Maldon” maimed at front and back—outside pages lost first?), and fire (Robert Bruce Cotton’s library burned in 1731, “Beowulf” and “Maldon” scorched, more destroyed, Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose); early Elizabethan “antiquarian” print editions, eighteenth-century development of scholarly editing and research methods, and the C19 learned societies (Early English Text Society [EETS], Selden Society, etc.) as sources of scholarly editions to preserve MSS from human contact (Readers’ skin oils, acidic sweat, bacteria and accidental damage kill books—the greatest literature is “read to death.”). anthologies as products of American higher education and New Criticism's embrace of the Arnoldian (Matthew!) notion of literature replacing religion as the cultural anchor of modern society, "the best that has been written or said."


Religious texts: translations of biblical books, manuals of instruction (e.g., Ancrene Riwle or “A Rule for Anchoresses” Norton 153-55), prayers and saints’ lives or “legends” (Chaucer’s “Prioress’ Tale” and “Second Nun’s Tale”)

Chronicles: the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” tradition in various monasteries sharing early events from Genesis through local events, windstorms, wars, fires, comets and other strange sights, anticipating the Second Coming and Resurrection (“Millenarianism”).

Charters, court records, wills, proclamations: the written text as the authenticator of royal or noble or religious authority; documents with seals, chunks of turf from deeded fields, broken-bladed swords and knives signifying past service (“title swords” like Arthur’s); forgeries, especially charters, and “multi-stranded” mentalities re: trouðe as a pledge one might make to many; fiction as forgery of reality (Joyce Portrait).

Recipes, cures, and charms: language with “virtue” or the power to make things happen, relations between cooking, medicinal concoctions, and poetic incantations (spell ex-“spiel” to sing, charm ex-“carmina” song), uses of songs and short poems as mnemonic formulae and as timing or counting devices in processes like sword forging and cooking.

Battle poems (“epics”): the poet’s social role as memoirist, assigner of praise to the virtuous and blame to the wicked, constructer of “fame” or reputation in current and future worlds.

Laments (“elegies”): the poet’s social role as memoirist, remembering valuable things lost in time, pain of memory as a healthy tonic to forestall unhealthy exuberance (poet as doctor—Aristotle on catharsis and satire as social “cure” of folly and crime).


Artistic invention vs. mere record-keeping.

Linguistic variety and attention to form as an expression of content

Creation of dramatic personae in addition to mere historical persons, authorial voice and implied audience.

Experiments with “voice” including irony, humor, and dramatic “prosopoiea” or impersonation (another of the “crimes of fiction writing” with forgery).

Influence on later writers—the traditional writer’s “school” sequence of translation, imitation of the model form on new topics, fusion with other models, and innovation of forms.  (E.g., Seamus Heaney translates Beowulf in 2000—what’s he up to?)