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The Anglo-Saxons: Synthesis and Achievement

The Anglo-Saxons: Synthesis and Achievement

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The Anglo-Saxons: Synthesis and Achievement

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Oct 30, 2010


The popular notion that sees the Anglo-Saxon era as “The Dark Ages” perhaps has tended to obscure for many people the creations and strengths of that time. This collection, in examining many aspects of pre-Norman Britain, helps to illuminate how Anglo-Saxon society contributed to the continuity of knowledge between the ancient world and the modern world. But as well, it posits a view of that society in its own distinctive terms to show how it developed as a synthesis of radically different cultures.

The Bayeux Tapestry is examined for its underlying political motivations; the study of Old English literature is extended to such works as laws, charters, apocryphal literature, saints’ lives and mythologies, and many of these are studied for the insight they provide into the social structures of the Anglo-Saxons. Other essays examine both the institution of slavery and the use of Germanic warrior terminology in Old Saxon as a contribution towards the descriptive analysis of that society’s social groupings. The book also presents a perspective on the Christian church that is usually overlooked by historians: that its existence was continuous and influential from Roman times, and that it was greatly affected by the Celtic Christian church long after the latter was thought to have disintegrated.

Oct 30, 2010

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The Anglo-Saxons - Wilfrid Laurier University Press

The Anglo-Saxons

Synthesis and Achievement

The Anglo-Saxons

Synthesis and Achievement

Edited by

J. Douglas Woods and David A.E. Pelteret

Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data

Main entry under title:

The Anglo-Saxons : synthesis and achievement

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN 0-88920-166-8

1. Civilization, Anglo-Saxon - Addresses, essays, lectures. 2. England - Civilization - To 1066 -Addresses, essays, lectures. I. Woods, J. Douglas (Jon Douglas), 1942- II. Pelteret, David Anthony Edgell, 1944-

DA152.2.A53 1985       942.01       C85-098569-2

Copyright © 1985


Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3C5

85 86 87 88 4 3 2 1

Cover design by David Antscherl

The cover illustration is reproduced from the Book of Durrow, fol. 192v, by courtesy of The Board of Trinity College, Dublin. (See chaps. 6 and 8.)

No part of this book may be stored in a retrieval system, translated or reproduced in any form, by print, photoprint, microfilm, microfiche, or any other means, without written permission from the publisher.

Printed in Canada

This book is dedicated to

the memory of

Angus Cameron


Colin Chase

" weras"





David A. E. Pelteret

1 The Bayeux Tapestry: History or Propaganda?

Shirley A. Brown

2 The Boundaries of Old English Literature

Angus Cameron

3 Beowulf, Bede, and St. Oswine: The Hero's Pride in Old English Hagiography

Colin Chase

4 Domestic Peace and Public Order in Anglo-Saxon Law

Rebecca V. Colman

5 Two Early Anglo-Saxon Holy Men: Oswald and Cuthbert

John Corbett

6 The Celtic Church in Anglo-Saxon Times

Claude Evans

7 Anglo-Saxon Use of the Apocryphal Gospel

Antonette di Paolo Healey

8 The Image of the Worm: Some Literary Implications of Serpentine Decoration

Andrew J. G. Patenall

9 Slavery in Anglo-Saxon England

David A. E. Pelteret

10 Germanic Warrior Terms in Old Saxon

J. Douglas Woods

Bibliographical Essay

David A. E. Pelteret



The papers in this volume were originally delivered as lectures at a colloquium entitled The Anglo-Saxons and Their Neighbours held at Scarborough College in the University of Toronto in January and February of 1979. All the lectures have subsequently been revised for publication. Present at the colloquium were specialists in the period, other students and faculty of the University, and interested members of the non-university community. The editors hope that this volume will attract a similarly diverse audience. To assist those who have no special knowledge about the Anglo-Saxons, but who would like to be better informed about the topics covered in this book, a brief Bibliographical Essay has been provided.

The editors would like to thank Scarborough College, which sponsored the colloquium, and Professor Michael Gervers, who not merely initiated and organized the gathering, but also encouraged the contributors to turn their verbal presentations into written form. Thanks should also go to Mr. Paul Ellison and Ms. Migs Reynolds of the University of Exeter Computer Unit, to Mr. Bob Blackburn and Ms. Shirly Manimalethu of the University of Toronto Computer Service, and to Mrs. Elaine Nascimento and Mrs. Clara DeAbreu of New College, University of Toronto, for considerable help with the word processing of this text.

This book has been published with the help of a grant from the Canadian Federation for the Humanities, using funds provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

J. Douglas Woods

David A. E. Pelteret



      David A. E. Pelteret

Modern Western culture is deeply indebted to the Anglo-Saxons, for they preserved much learning from the Ancient world and helped disseminate it through Europe.¹ In the process, they developed a rich and complex culture. Yet many today perceive theirs as a barbarous age, a few brief centuries when nothing happened. The scholarly world is in some measure at fault here. There has been a tendency to concentrate on the reign of King Alfred, a few poetic literary works such as Beowulf, and the dramatic metallurgical artistry of the Sutton Hoo treasure. We are all, of course, to some degree in thrall to the culture of our age, and it is natural to respond most sympathetically to aspects of another culture that are nearest to our own. Yet we devalue the past if we do not seek to break these cultural shackles by perceiving another era on its own terms. In the papers that follow, all the authors have attempted to do just this so as to deepen our understanding of the Anglo-Saxons and their accomplishments.

In the first paper in this collection, Shirley Brown examines the Bayeux Tapestry, a work of art that records the end of the Anglo-Saxon era. We have long been aware, particularly through the work of Marxist art critics, that works of art should not be taken at their face value; consciously or unconsciously, art frequently embodies an ideology.² The Bayeux Tapestry is ostensibly a valuable primary source of information on the events surrounding the momentous year 1066, though it is clear from the borders of the Tapestry with their Aesopian references that it has an ideational structure more complex than the simple depiction of historical events.³ Professor Brown brings to the Tapestry both the eye of the art critic, notably in her observations on the spatial dimensions of the work, and of the historian, in her elucidation of the relationships between place and person (e.g., Harold and Bosham, Harold and Stigand). Her analysis prevents us from seeing the Tapestry as a neutral record of historical facts. Instead, we are forced to read it in a different way; the surface events portrayed retreat in importance in the face of a political case that is being argued. This perspective is frustrating for the historian of événements, yet I sense we are thereby moving closer to the intention of the artist(s) who produced this still enigmatic, but fascinating, work of art.

Students of literature have been drawn to the Anglo-Saxons because of their writings in the vernacular, unique both in scope and volume for their time in Western Europe. But as E. G. Stanley recently wrote of the Anglo-Saxons, "They did not design their writings to be read as literature; they lacked the concept literature and so they could not know that what they wrote might be read as literature by later ages, even when they themselves may have known that some of their writings were well written."⁴ It is modern scholarship that has given birth to the corpus of Old English literature. An examination of the scholarship, however, shows that a rather deformed and stunted body has been created.⁵ What Angus Cameron essentially argues in his article is that we need to transform our aesthetic. Too long have we limited our studies to a few, mainly poetic, works, which we have then proceeded to assess in terms of contemporary canons of taste. Professor Cameron suggests that we need to give serious attention to such works as the laws and charters, which customarily have been considered to be outside the purview of the literary critic. When one reflects on his arguments, one recognizes that the willingness to view as literature what has hitherto been regarded as devoid of literary merit carries with it several concomitants. These include being prepared to discard, if necessary, certain aesthetic demands (e.g., the requirement for organic unity),⁶ and more particularly, being willing to steep oneself in the writings deemed important to that age, such as patristic and apocryphal literature, saints' lives, and poetry written in the Hiberno-Latin tradition. The process implies re-education, for even classicists tend to be poorly read in these fields. Anglo-Saxon scholars have started to undertake this sometimes arduous task, and in the process have discovered that Anglo-Saxon writings can be richly allusive.⁷

Colin Chase's article exemplifies the advantages that are to be gained from enlarging our literary horizons. He has examined the Vita Oswini, a work that has been overlooked by literary critics and has been generally shunned by historians, dubious of the reliability of such a late compilation, and shown that it is a revealing primary document that discloses a major conflict in the values of the age in which it was written. His paper is illuminating as much in its implications as in its main thesis.⁸ It impresses on one that saints' Lives form one of the most important genres of medieval literature, providing potential source material for scholars working in a number of disciplines.⁹ Because a Life is late and betrays the fact that the author drew on little or no source material contemporary with his subject does not mean that it is devoid of interest—indeed it can take us to the centre of the intellectual and emotional conflicts of a period.

In order to develop the parallels that exist between the Vita Oswini and Beowulf, Professor Chase employs the insights gained by the French scholar, Georges Dumézil, from his extensive studies on the mythology and social structure of the peoples speaking the Indo-European languages. Though his work has been known for some time to Icelandic scholars working in the British academic tradition,his findings can nonetheless be provocative of ideas if applied to Anglo-Saxon society as Professor Chase has done.

Since the publication of Felix Liebermann's monumental Gesetze der Angelsachsen, completed over sixty-five years ago,¹³ much of the work on Anglo-Saxon law has been devoted to the attribution of codes to an author, examining the relationships between secular and ecclesiastical legislation, and providing accurate translations and new editions.¹⁴ Apart from Goebel's Felony and Misdemeanor,¹⁵ it is only in the last two decades that a few scholars have returned to the legal sources with the intention of understanding Anglo-Saxon law as a dynamic force within the society.¹⁶ Rebecca Colman ably illustrates the social impact of law in her study of hamsocn. In addition to using the well-tried nineteenth-century comparative method, whereby laws from other Germanic tribes are used as a means of mutual illumination, she also enlarges our understanding of hamsocn by employing an anthropological perspective. Through examining the physical realities of early English settlement, Professor Colman helps us to understand how one form of anti-social behaviour, that of felonious entry into a homestead causing terror to its occupants, could flourish in that early period. We thus are able to understand how, through coping with that form of anti-social behaviour, rudimentary law takes shape. Anglo-Saxon law is thereby seen to have a vitality that we might not initially perceive when our eyes first run down the succession of numbered clauses in the printed editions of the codes.

The impact that such rudimentary law had on Anglo-Saxon society remains controversial. In contrast, there can be no doubt about the significance of the Christian Church in shaping the society. The Christian Church is, however, an umbrella term that demands further definition. As it stands the phrase implies an impersonal and monolithic institution. John Corbett shows that the Church certainly was not an impersonal institution and Claude Evans that it was not monolithic.

John Corbett stresses that Christianity was not a religion that arrived after the Anglo-Saxons did, but that it preceded these invaders and was firmly rooted in England in a form that was shaped by the social practices and values of the late Antique world. In the Christianity of this time, when the Western Roman Empire was at its nadir, the Holy Man was a central figure. By drawing on the insights of Peter Brown, Professor Corbett has moved, like Colin Chase, outside the field of Anglo-Saxon scholarship. Professor Peter Brown's sensitive analyses of the societies of late Antiquity have highlighted and defined the role of the Holy Man.¹⁷ Professor Corbett suggests that there was a degree of continuity of Romano-British Christianity into the Anglo-Saxon period in the importance accorded certain Holy Men. Early Anglo-Saxon saints should thus not be seen as sui generis but as individuals who performed a social role and provoked a social response similar to the great Holy Men of Roman Gaul.

Claude Evans examines Christianity from an institutional perspective. She concentrates on Christianity as it was practised by the peoples who geographically surrounded the Anglo-Saxons: the Celts.¹⁸ Their Christianity took a somewhat different institutional form from that which took root after the Roman mission to England under Augustine in A.D. 597. Because our primary source on the early history of these two forms of Christianity in England is Bede, a historian with compelling powers of synthesis who had a particular axe to grind, there is a natural tendency to disregard the importance to Anglo-Saxon culture of the Celtic Church. This Church tends to be generally regarded as distinguished by an unusual tonsure and an antiquated way of cal- culating Easter. As an institution, it is felt to have largely disintegrated with the Synod of Whitby, thereafter leaving little impact on England. Claude Evans's paper reminds us that this view is both simplistic and inaccurate. The Celtic Church was in some respects better suited to the non-urban country that England had become after the departure of the Romans. Moreover, it continued to flourish on the periphery of England for some centuries after Whitby. There is thus no reason to believe that its traditions and practices ceased to influence the Anglo-Saxon Church after the seventh century. Cornwall and Brittany were, after all, closer geographically than Rome, and the Celtic Church possessed a powerful ascetic and artistic tradition that for some reason seemed to strike a particular resonance with the Anglo-Saxons. Why these traditions should have appealed to the Anglo-Saxons is not altogether clear and deserves further consideration. In keeping with the subtitle of this book, Dr. Evans emphasizes in her paper that Anglo-Saxon culture was the synthesis of several traditions, not just Germanic and Mediterranean, but also Celtic.

Two other traditions are investigated (in quite different ways) by Antonette Healey and Andrew Patenall. Dr. Healey examines the place of apocryphal writings, drawn largely from Mediterranean and Near Eastern sources, in early English literature. Hers is a valuable contribution towards the monumental task of encompassing the literary horizons of the Anglo-Saxon world. Though most of these writings are unlikely to have been read by the average medievalist, they provided the impulse for much literature, art,¹⁹ and scholarship in the Middle Ages. Until we become familiar with these works, we shall miss many of the allusions, and hence the complexity of thought, contained in the literature of the Anglo-Saxon period.²⁰ Dr. Healey's paper enlarges our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon Church and its doctrines by showing that some of these apocryphal writings had apparent canonical, or near-canonical, status. Her approach has interesting implications for our knowledge of how Christianity was perceived in Anglo-Saxon England, particularly when we remember that there are also canonical writings that were then unknown. Her paper shows, furthermore, that certain themes which were to undergo dramatic, literary, and iconographical development in the High Middle Ages, such as the Harrowing of Hell, were already well known in the Anglo-Saxon period.²¹

The Germanic traditions of the Anglo-Saxons are drawn upon by Andrew Patenall in his analysis of the literary implications of serpentine decoration. His paper illustrates a truth that medievalists are slowly rediscovering, after a long period when the study of human experience has been fractured into a number of disciplines with their own methodologies and intellectual traditions. He implicitly argues that in the realm of aesthetics, mankind has not compartmentalized perceptions into completely separate modes such as Art and Literature.²² These modes have always been in some measure interrelated. We intuitively concede a unity of aesthetic perception, for instance, when we apply the word Baroque to both architecture and music, or Romantic to both music and literature. In the Middle Ages, in particular, there was no clear division between the verbal and the visual. When a text was copied, art could be embodied in the very written form of the words, especially the illuminated initials, or be placed adjacent to them in margins or facing pages.²³ The compositional structure of a manuscript page could be reproduced in tapestry or fresco. This reproduction is best illustrated in works dating several centuries after the Anglo-Saxon period,²⁴ but the Bayeux Tapestry,²⁵ among other examples,²⁶ shows that this approach was not alien to the earlier Middle Ages. Professor Patenall adopts the aesthetic principles that have arisen from the study of Anglo-Saxon illumination and metalwork, and applies them to a poem hitherto deemed diffuse, i.e., rambling and poorly controlled. His examination of The Phoenix from this perspective shows that the poem has, on the contrary, a complex syntactic and imagistic structure. His critique indicates by implication that the inadequacies seen in the poem exist in the minds of critics who have given insufficient credit to the complexity of the Anglo-Saxon literary imagination.

That the social structure of the Anglo-Saxons was no less complex than their intellectual world can be seen in their wide range of social terminology.²⁷ The shifting use of some of this terminology proves that the structure of the society was far from static.²⁸ Unfortunately, we lack information in such highly relevant areas as demography, and as a consequence, our social analysis is impeded.²⁹ Furthermore, we often wish to ask questions of the society that the Anglo-Saxons did not ask of themselves. One such set of questions revolves around the existence of slavery in England. No free Anglo-Saxon thought the matter worthy of discussion, and no slave gave written expression to his views on his status. Nevertheless, there is a fairly substantial body of documentation on slaves and slavery. That the Anglo-Saxons did not find the matter interesting points to a major difference between them and us, who have frequently brought passion and ideology to bear in the examination of this institution.³⁰ David Pelteret's paper attempts to eschew ideology and instead seeks to use the extant evidence to answer several obvious and straightforward questions about Anglo-Saxon slavery. This study aims at contributing towards the still-incomplete descriptive analysis of all the social groups within Anglo-Saxon England.³¹

The final paper in this collection employs techniques that until the last few years would not have been practical to employ. The whole corpus of Old English has been placed in the computer and a concordance of the language has been generated and printed on microfiche.³² For the first time, it is possible to make linguistic statements based on hard numerical data rather than on impressionistic observations. This is the approach that Douglas Woods employs to analyze the use of Germanic warrior terms in Old Saxon. Since there is a lack of sufficient data from Old Saxon, he employs its British sister, Old English, for comparative purposes. Though his interests are primarily linguistic, his conclusions are of value to both the literary critic and the historian. If used with appropriate controls, as Professor Woods does, the lexico-statistical method could prove to be a technique of service to these three fields of academic study.

The papers in this volume thus explore the richness of the society and culture of Anglo-Saxon England. Possessed themselves of a fairly sophisticated native culture, the Anglo-Saxons could not ignore two radically different cultures with which they came in contact. Yet they did not succumb to them. Instead, over a period of some six centuries, they blended the traditions and practices of the Celtic and Mediterranean worlds with those drawn from their own Germanic roots. From this synthesis, a distinctive society was born whose achievements have helped shape the culture of the West.

1 See Max L. W. Laistner, Thought and Letters in Western Europe A.D. 500 to 900, rev. ed. (London, 1957); Wilhelm Levison, England and the Continent in the Eighth Century (Oxford, 1946).

2 See, for example, John Berger, et al., Ways of Seeing (Harmondsworth, 1972).

3 Hélène Chefneux, Les Fables dans la Tapisserie de Bayeux, Romania 60 (1934), 1-35, 153-94; Léon Herrmann, Les Fables de la Broderie de Bayeux, Collection Latomus 69 (Brussels, 1964).

4 Eric G. Stanley, The Scholarly Recovery of the Significance of Anglo-Saxon Records in Prose and Verse: A New Bibliography, ASE 9 (1981), 235.

5 Stanley B. Greenfield and Fred C. Robinson, A Bibliography of Publications on Old English Literature to the End of 1972, using the collections of E. E. Ericson (Toronto and Buffalo, 1980) lists about 3675 books and articles that have been published on poetry as opposed to about 1412 on prose, as Stanley (loc. cit.) points out, even though poetry forms less than ten per cent of the extant body of written material.

6 The views of Arthur K. Moore, Medieval English Literature and the Question of Unity, Modern Philology 65 (1967-68), 285-300, are interesting in this regard.

7 As illustrated in the writings of James E. Cross and Milton McC. Gatch on homiletic literature. See, for example, James E. Cross, The Literate Anglo-Saxon—on Sources and Disseminations, PBA 58 (1972), 67-100 and separately, and Milton. McC. Gatch, Preaching and Theology in Anglo-Saxon England: and Wulfstan (Toronto and Buffalo, 1977). The latter work has an extensive bibliography.

8 The

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