Worming your way out of Anglo-Saxon literature

July 7, 2000

"A moth ate words: to me that seemed a marvellous deed when I heard of that wonder, that a worm, the thief in the darkness, devoured a man's words, his glory-fast sayings and their strong foundations. The thieving guest was no bit the wiser for the words he'd consumed."

It is an undeniably elegant riddle, yet the Englishman who wrote it died more than a millennium ago. The bookworm verse, from the Anglo-Saxon Exeter Book, reveals the fragility of the written word at the heart of the Anglo-Saxon Christian society.

Robert DiNapoli, a scholar at the University of Birmingham, says: "Anglo- Saxon poets seem instinctively aware that the verse forms and poetic vocabulary they use emerged from an older, oral milieu, where the poet's voice commanded authority in its own right.

"Such awareness would register at some level as competing with the church's claims to absolute authority, which were predicated on the authority of written texts such as the Bible."

DiNapoli's research suggests that the transition from pagan to Christian culture was not as smooth as some have suggested and that memories of the native culture, with its heroic literary conventions, held their ground against the new creed in unexpected ways.

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