Bede starts a line of pearls

A History of Old English Literature. First edition - Old English Literature
May 27, 2005

The buoyant state of Old English studies is reflected in these two recent surveys of the literature. Neither offers conventional literary criticism, and indeed R.D. Fulk and Christopher Cain make a virtue of this, identifying their target readership as students, and their teachers, who are committed to a “renewed emphasis on historicism”. In fact (though non-medievalists tend to find this challenging), engagement with historical context has always been a prerequisite for a rewarding exploration, theoretical or otherwise, of the literature of the Anglo-Saxons. There is already plenty of formalist criticism of the texts, some of it very good, for students to move on to.
Fulk and Cain’s excellent introduction properly stresses the Latin background of so much Anglo-Saxon literary production. It is followed by a brief orienteering chapter on the “chronology and varieties” of the literature. Then we are taken through a fairly standard series of genres - “liturgical and devotional texts”, “wisdom literature and lyric poetry” and so on.

In line with the historicist approach, the treatment is assiduously even-handed, with little space given for personal intervention by the authors, but with plenty of up-to-date bibliographical reference (a great strength of this book). The style is lucid and engaging, and these chapters offer welcome alternatives to the overused introductory essays to which students are currently directed. A concluding chapter on the evolution of “Anglo-Saxonism” and the wider importance of Old English studies is attractively upbeat.

Daniel Donoghue’s approach is as historicist as that of Fulk and Cain’s in many ways (and he starts with two familiar “defining moments”, the beginning of Old English poetry as told by Bede and Alfred the Great’s programme of education in the vernacular), but he offers some more conventional literary analysis, too, with quotation in Old English and translation.

But the organisation is avowedly esoteric. Eschewing conventional genre division, Donoghue surveys a range of texts under five headings: “The vow”, “The hall”, “The miracle”, “The pulpit” and “The scholar”. He admits to the arbitrariness of these categories, but he avoids the risk of producing merely a scrapbook and wins us over by the intelligence of his connecting narrative and the elegance of his writing; only occasionally may we feel like protesting, as when the seafarer limps in at the end of the chapter on “The hall”. Some of the discussion is probably too elliptical for the true beginner, but much of the material is excellent: the chapter on “The pulpit”, for instance, offers an accessible illustrated explanation of the Christian impulse for exegesis and its literary consequences.

Both these books are recommended. The serious student of Old English literature will find Fulk and Cain invaluable for their comprehensiveness; Donoghue offers not an alternative but a complementary and often invigorating approach for undergraduates and those finding their feet in the subject.

Richard Marsden is senior lecturer in Old English, Nottingham University.

A History of Old English Literature. First edition

Author - R. D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain
Publisher - Blackwell
Pages - 346
Price - £50.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 0 631 22397 5 and 1 4051 2181 5

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