Ever since I first saw Old English poetry on the page (when I happened on J.R.R. Tolkien’s edition of Finn and Hengest in the library of a Dominican University in California) and heard it recited aloud (by my first Old English teacher at UW-Madison), I have loved it. (Old English is the English language as spoken and written ca. 450-1100.) The verse’s sonic qualities are second to none and the use of letters strange to us English-speakers a thousand years on appeal to my aesthetic sense for novelty too. After falling in love with Old English poetry, I decided to study it for real and I’ve been doing so for the last thirteen years of my life. (Which seems like a lot when I say it.)
One thing that has always seemed very strange to me is how little the social and cultural and, let’s say it, religious context of Old English poetry is tended to in the classroom, and in popular collections of translated Old English. I’ve been in lots of Old English and medieval literature classrooms–my teachers’, my own, and some of my colleagues–and specifically the monastic and Benedictine context of the production of Old English verse is mostly left out of the discussion. Scholars research the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform, and professors sketch in the nature of the church and the royal court in general terms in the classroom, but almost all that we have of Old English poetry was recorded either by the monks of the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform or other clerics in their cultural orbit. Old English poetry can certainly be understood without a keener sense of the specific subculture that produced its material record, but the fact that we do have a good sense of this subculture still leaves me fairly baffled as to why we (teachers and translators of Old English) mostly don’t share this with our students and audiences.
Cistercian Publications recently published my translation of St. Æthelwold of Winchester’s Old English rendering of the Rule of St. Benedict, and I largely took on this project in order to provide students and more general readers of Old English poetry with easier access to information on and primary texts of this literary subculture. In his “translation” of the Rule, Æthelwold shows clearly that he understands the original Latin, but he also shapes the text as he likes. He inserts his own commentary, omits material, changes the meaning of certain sections that conflict with the goals of the Reform movement he co-headed, and inserts commentary from the Frankish abbot Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel–all without acknowledging that he is doing it. And so the “translation” becomes its own text, a “reception” of Benedict’s text by a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon abbot and bishop. I’ve also included a translation of another Old English text by Æthelwold that describes the progress and goals of the Reform and a “Life” of St. Benedict by Æthelwold’s pupil Ælfric of Eynsham. My hope is that these texts can give students, general readers, and burgeoning scholars alike a clearer window into the lives of many of the people responsible for handing Old English poetry on to us.
With all this in mind, I’m also going to be trying this approach out in a class this fall. I will be teaching Old English poetry as a genre class with an emphasis on the monastic culture in which it is historically anchored. I’m looking forward to seeing what students make of this more direct contextualization of the poetry and am excited to see how they teach me about the connections between these two discrete but intertwined sets of texts.
Looking forward to this, and simply wanting to share how enthralling I find all this material (I still also just think Old English sounds amazing), I have recorded a reading of the Prologue to The Old English Rule of St. Benedict in the original Old English followed by my Present Day English translation. I’m planning for this to be the first of many readings on this blog, so stay tuned for further recitations of the arcane…
(And that’s Mary Berry and the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge chanting Christmas in Royal Anglo-Saxon Winchester in the background–highly recommended!)