Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Medieval Literature I Didn't Know II

Its time now for the continuation of the series. In fact probably past time. I thought that perhaps what I would do is introduce you to the subject of my dissertation. The Letter to Sigeweard is one of those texts that I few people check and may refer to from time to time, but so far there is only one single article on it, written by my adviser as a matter of fact. So not a lot of scholarly attention has been paid to it.

It's a letter written to an Anglo-Saxon nobleman about 1005. The occasion seems to be that Sigeweard, the nobleman, has been pestering Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham, already a well-known vernacular writer, for copies of his works or an original work. Aelfric says that he was at first relunctant, but Sigeweard's good works convinced him, and so Aelfric writes this letter.

Nothing is known of Sigeweard. He may have signed the foundation charter for Eynsham, but the orthography of his name in the charter and in the letter are different, and neither contains any further identifying information, so the charter signer may be a different man.

The Letter is interesting. In my edition it runs about 750 lines. It seems to be an almost off the cuff production as if Aelfric didn't know quite what he wanted to do or talk about. So he begins homiletically talking about the necessity of doing good works and what happens to those who do evil works, and by the way, that reminds him of a verse about how God did a good work at creation....which leads into a treatment of the creation of the heavens, the fall of the angels, the creation and fall of humanity and the results of said event and the typological meaning of Adam and Eve. At this point Aelfric seems to have settled on his approach in the letter and mentions that he will discuss the books of the Bible beginning with those Moses wrote. He picks up with the Noah cycle, then Abraham....and after 150 lines on Genesis through chapter 22's sacrifice of Isaac, he spends 8 lines talking about Isaac, Jacob, and the 12. He then moves on to Exodus, focusing entirely on the deliverance aspect, barely mentions Leviticus and Numbers, chats a little about Deuteronomy. And so on throughout the Bible to the book of Revelation.

After this, he's reminded that the author of Revelation is John, and it just so happens he can tell Sigeweard a bit of something about that apostle, and so gives a translation of Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, III.25, a story about John and a young thief. While Aelfric knows this work in its Latin translation by Rufinus, in this case he is translating from Paul the Deacon's homiliary, compiled under Charlemagne and highly influential (thanks Derek!), where we find 3 homilies on John for Dec 27, inclusive of this one. After the story on John, Aelfric turns to other matters: he reflects on the structure of society: 3 legs on which the king's throne stands (laborers, those who pray, and those who fight) and he intimates that those whose job it is to reflect on these things ought to. He further translates and adapts directly from Eusebius via Rufinus "about the Jews", that is, Eusebius quotes long passages from Josephus' Jewish War on the fall of Jerusalem that Aelfric shortens but nonetheless paints a less than pretty picture. He concludes by warning Sigeweard about drinking too much.

Such a summary, though accurate, does little justice to the letter, and I won't be able to do so here either since I've written 400 pages on it! But in addition to those matters, there is some discussion of typology, some discussion of the ages of the world, some discussion on catechetical information, some discussion on current politics c. 1005. The letter is in many ways a microcosm of all Aelfric's works: a little homiletic and catechetical, a little hagiography, a little about other theological concerns on which he has written.

Turning to my own work on the Letter, I try to make a case for:

1) Aelfric's canon of the Bible is influenced by the 3 pandects produced at Wearmouth-Jarrow in 716

2) Aelfric is influenced by several Old English poems

3) Aelfric makes multiple, implicit anti-Aethelred comments in the Letter

4) He is NOT saying different things in his Judith homily and in the Letter

5) Aelfric's career must have begun earlier than is usually supposed and probably at Glastonbury

I know before I walked into my adviser's office in 2002, I hadn't heard of the Letter and didn't know that much about Aelfric, having spent my MA career looking at Bede and the age of Alfred. Now I know quite a bit.

Its an interesting work. It not only tells us a lot about Aelfric and his beliefs and concerns, but would be a useful teaching text for beginning Medieval students, and fairly easy to read as a beginning Old English piece. In fact, Skeat included it in the first 6 editions of his Anglo-Saxon Reader with such an aim in mind.

I hope I've sparked a little interest in the Letter to Sigeweard, but not too much so I can get a few publications out of it before your articles do!


BTW: I should mention a few things:

1) My thanks to Derek Olsen of Homilaria and Haligweorc for mentioning to me that the section on John was listed in Smetana (bib forthcoming).

2) Stephen Carlson, if you're reading, I managed to work Papias into it a couple of times, thought you'd find that of interest.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Long, Boring, Homiletic Sort of Post

There's a lot of heat this summer, and much of it is being generated around medieval theory. There was first the Allen piece and the subsequent furor; here where I asked for comments on some new material at The Heroic Age there's a minor kerfluffel; and now there's a blog that is essentially an ad hominem against JJ Cohen and the rest of the In the Middle crew.

What is it about theory that has people up in arms? Well, before addressing that, let me get into some nitty gritty details about things. First, let me revisit the Allen Furor.

Back in May folks undoubtedly recall the reactions over the piece Charlotte Allen published. My own take take on the issue was commented on here as well. Good friend, imbibtion partner, and fellow blogger Dr. Nokes of Unlocked Wordhoard had a few things to say about the Allen furor.

He's right about many things. Many responses were merely ad hominem, engaging in the same sort of tactics that Allen herself engaged in. Many responses were justifiably angry. But it was not our finest hour.

Scott points out several things before getting to the meat of his response: 1) there are a lot of papers at Kalamazoo that are not great....and he explains well why that is a good thing! 2) that there are some very big "fault lines" I think was the word he used between literary theorists and historians, linguists, and even others who use different kinds of approaches to literature, much less theologians and others in our field. And there are: many a medievalist would have some significant problems with the applications by medieval literary theorists, at least by some. I know I've had my problems with the "cookie cutter" approach where 3/4 of a paper is a summary of Derrida or other theorist, and 1/4 pressing a piece of medieval literature into the Derrida model described (and sometimes misunderstood!), and having finished, the author will read next year on the same model applied to a different text. Yes, we all have our problems with this. And we should. And we should also keep in mind that such papers are the not the private reserve of literary theory, but occur in other subfields too. And we should remember, especially those of us who dabble in philology yet, that philology lost its place as Queen of Sciences in the 19th century largely because of philology done badly, "theoretical sound changes argued in detail based on theoretical languages by theoretical speakers in some far off forest in ages long gone by" as one writer put it. I've made that point before, I'll likely make it again. 3) Scott also makes the point that we medievalists properly study the Medieval, not Medievalism (though I would argue that there is little difference: studying the medieval, even within the medieval period, also MUST mean studying how the medieval is mediated. In my own work for example I talk about how the text I've edited is situated in its original context as a letter, but also the various uses it was put to and audiences who used it in the 11th, 12th, 13th, 16th, 17th, 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries and how those audiences appropriate(d) it. That's a kind of medievalism, but seems to me to be a necessary part of what we do. Whether that can be compared to say Arthurian movies or medieval-like fantasy novels etc I suppose is in the eye of the beholder, but I obviously would say yes.)

Scott goes on though and relates some things that perhaps we've missed: the Allen piece is good news! HMMMM, not sure about that Scott.....

1) Scott points out that the Weekly Standard printed an article about us medievalists. That means we're important. And that is good news. There's no such thing as bad publicity.

I disagree. The Weekly Standard published a piece that bemoaned the state of academia, or one small part of it as indicative of the whole. That doesn't mean that they think medieval studies is important except as something to point to in order to further the agenda I mentioned in my own reaction to the piece.
Think of it this way: The Jews in Germany or for that matter in the pogroms of Czarist Russia received plenty of press. They were important! The ills of the world were caused by them! And they were eradicated, attacked, killed, arrested, murdered....and that's the light report.

No, I don't think that Allen, The Weekly Standard, et al are out to get medievalists and remove them from the planet, or that they blame us for the ills of academia. We were convenient, not important, a convenient illustration of the ills of the humanities in academia that Allen and her ilk are out to save. While my example above is extreme, and I could choose less extreme or emotive examples, it illustrates that all publicity is not good (unless one is a celebrity in need of publicity), and being considered important are NOT always positives.

Cast your mind back for a moment though. What caused this furor? Allen made fun and mischaracterized over 3000 participants in Kalamazoo as all doing "theory", theory to be made fun of and poked at as not worthy of consideration. When the discussion came up on the primarily history oriented discussion list, Mediev-L, many had sympathy with Allen's points, if not her tone and method. One scholar went on record as saying that he thought the whole point of the article was to point out the bankruptcy of post modern theory, and he agreed. Without addressing whether po-mo theory is bankrupt and is ruining medieval studies, the interesting thing is how that issue creates strong feeling. Even blog friends have addressed the issue in various comments and blog postings, I won't link to them to avoid finger pointing and further negativity. Besides, defending theory and theorists is not my intent here.

And now we have a new furor. The new member of the medieval blogosphere, In the Medieval Muddle, has set itself up as a response and "antidote" to the theory oriented blog In the Medieval Middle. The problem, as anyone following the drama has noted, is that the blog is set up not to offer what it claims is better theory, but to respond with personal attacks against J. J. Cohen and the ITM crew. Were it simply a case of disagreement or presenting a different model of doing theory in Fields Medieval, that would be a welcome addition to the medieval blogosphere. But those who've been following know that the level of discourse has degraded, personal attacks all round. Its human nature that when one feels attacked, not just challenged, but attacked, to attack back. And so it goes.....were I a little more cynical I'd say the mind(s) behind the Muddle was deliberately poisoning the water not only for the purpose of personal negative reinforcement, as pathetic as that is, but further to create drama by which to further advertise his blog, and by doing so attracting attention, personal positive reinforcement.

Appeals for a higher level of discourse, perhaps not phrased as well as they might have been, were nonetheless met first with "wait, we'll eventually get there" while providing not substantive indication that such would be the case, and the level of discourse quickly devolved into ad hominem attacks on posters. Pointing out the logical fallacies inherent points made against Cohen were equally met with scorn. To take one example, Cohen in a comment on ITM said he had experienced a moment of transcendence while walking and heard the chirp of a bird. The Admin of Muddle jumped on this suggesting that Cohen meant instead the Buddhist concept of Mindfulness. When pressed by one poster, the Admin insisted he had searched Sartre, Kant, and other theorists and thinkers and couldn't find any such notion of transcendence. Yet, he seems to have missed the discussion of transcendence and the role of birds and bird-song that has taken place in Western poetry (and to a lesser extent in theology) that follows along the Aristotelean, late medieval categories, categories a medievalist might be expected to follow. Mindfulness, with its intentional review of thoughts, the attentional stance to rise about those thoughts, is at best an analogue to what Cohen was talking about, but certainly wasn't it. No one likes to be shown to be wrong in public, and the expected ad hominem attacks followed quickly, and more attacks on Cohen and ITM.

It has been in some ways a rather sordid summer. All the poison, anger, and frustration, and all of it being expressed over theory. Not our finest hour, we, including present writer, too often have responded in kind. We can not just ignore it and let if fester. Nor should we respond by lowering ourselves to that level. We're professionals. We know our subjects. Let's engage on that level. Surely there is room for theory, and if you disagree with how someone is doing it, well, provide a different model. Please. I've got to learn somehow!

By allowing the Allens, the Muddles, and the dissatisfaction to continue will only continue to poison the field overall. Let's not do that. Ok, end of sermon. I hope someone takes me up on it.

In the Medieval Muddle

Some of you are aware that a new blog on theory, generally attacking In The Medieval Middle, has arisen: In the Medieval Muddle. That blog has now been shut down, as following the link will show.

HERE'S AN OPPORTUNITY FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO ARE INTERESTED AND ABLE TO DO THEORY!..There is obviously interest in discussing theory by some people in the blogosphere: there is room for more than just the folks at ITM. This is a chance to do some theory without the ad hominem poison of the middling Muddle blog.

I've been thinking of an email list devoted to theory if there is interest. Let me know if you're interested.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Non-Medieval Content

Ok, this has nothing to do with the medieval, but being a huge Dr. Who fan, Classic and New, I thought this worth posting:


With Harry Potter conferences and sessions at conferences, I'm boggled that its taken so long to devote some academic thought-processes to the Doctor.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Query and Help

I'd like to get some feedback, spilling over my two blogs Heroic Age and The Ruminate.

I'm interested in anyone's reactions to the current issue of HA's:

1) State of the Field piece


2) the new "theory" column piece Absent Beowulf

Readers might be interested to note that starting with the next issue, there will also be a regularly appearing Philology column.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

It is Finished

Well, more or less---the dissertation is done. No more writing until I put it into a book. Now for the defense date....if anyone is interested, after I've done some editing, I'll post a link here.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Medieval Literature I Did not Know I.d

For this apparently last post on Worcester Fragment A, I thought I would list some bibliography here, some of which has already been mentioned in the series or in the comments. But I thought it might be useful to included a list, not that there is that much written on this.

Brehe, S. K. Reassembling the First Worcester Fragment Speculum, Vol. 65, No. 3 (Jul., 1990), pp. 521-536

Frantzen, Christine. The Tremulous Hand of Worcester: A Study of Old English in the Thirteenth Century Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991 pp. 70-1.

Heningham, Elanor K. "Old English Precursors of the Worcester Fragments" PMLA vol LV #2, June 1940 291-307

N. R. Ker. Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon p. 466-7

Moffat, Douglas. "The Recovery of Worcester Cathedral MS F 174" Notes and Queries ns. 32 1985 300-2.

Cannon, Christopher. The Grounds of English. Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 34-41.

I haven't included dissertations or editions.