Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England
Mildred Budny reviews a book on Anglo-Saxon England.
Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England: Studies presented to Peter Clemoes on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday
Edited by Michael Lapidge and Helmut Gneuss. xiv + 459 pp. (Cambridge University Press, 1985)
Written by fourteen 'leading specialists' (English, Continental and North American) in honour of the former Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Cambridge, this substantial collection of essays spans a range of subjects under the dual and complementary categories of 'Books, Libraries and Learning in Anglo-Saxon England' and 'Texts, Sources and Interpretations'. Within these two parts there appear such subjects as 'Whitby as a centre of learning in the seventh century' (by the late Peter Hunter Blair), 'Surviving booklists from Anglo- Saxon England' (by Michael Lapidge), 'Liturgical books in Anglo-Saxon England and their Old English terminology' (by Helmut Gneuss), 'King Athelstan's books' (by Simon Keynes), 'On the library of the Old English Martyrologist' (by J.E. Cross), 'Anglo-Saxons on the mind' (by M.R. Godden), 'The homilies of the Blickling manuscript' (by D.G. Scragg), 'The Office in Anglo-Saxon monasticism', (by M. McC. Gatch) and 'Beowulf and the judgement of the righteous' (by Stanley B. Greenfield). The hefty articles by Gneuss, Lapidge and Keynes occupy by far the lion's share (more than one-third) of the book, leaving the eleven others to divide up the rest amongst themselves.
The book is equipped with a bibliography of the writings of the dedicatee, three indices which deal respectively with manuscripts, Old English words and 'general' matters, and sixteen welcome plates which illustrate Keynes' fresh examination of the inscriptions (sometimes enigmatic or difficult to interpret) in manuscripts associated with King Athelstan, who assiduously collected and donated relics and books, for political as well as pious purposes. The surviving group of manuscripts which came into his possession help to 'throw valuable light on the king's political and ecclesiastical contacts', and 'demonstrate the importance of Athelstan's reign in the continuing process of the revival of religion and learning initiated by King Alfred and brought to fruition by King Edgar', Athelstan's grandfather and nephew respectively. Concerning his donated books we learn, for example, that one of them (a Continental gospel book given to Christ Church, Canterbury) was intended – but not, in the event, employed – for use at the coronation of Charles I in 1626 (supposedly the royal barge 'bawked those steps' where the notable book-collector Sir Robert Cotton was waiting with it, and landed at 'the Parliament staires' instead), although it may have been used at the coronation of James II. Compared with what we know of Carolingian royal libraries on the one hand, and of Athelstan's on the other hand, it is most curious to read that 'perhaps [!] the range of his books did not match up to the contents of the palace libraries of Charlemagne, Louis the Pious and Charles the Bald'.
As might be expected, there is considerable overlap between the two parts of the book, as, for example, the contents of texts written by Anglo-Saxons reveal the contents of the libraries used by them either individually or in given centres, and as lexicographic analysis elucidates matters as diverse as liturgical books and 'The orientation system in the Old English Orosius: shifted or not?' To this particular question Michael Korhammer's answer is emphatically 'not', thus putting to rest a prevalent theory of an Old Scandinavian shifted-orientation system which moved all the cardinal points 45' (or even 60') clockwise, placing the north where we have our north-east.
The whole reflects an admirable – and indeed by now essential–interdisciplinary approach to Anglo-Saxon studies, with contributions by historians, literary, linguistic and liturgical scholars and a musicologist. The book offers a cluster of essays which should appeal to both specialist and general interest in this early period of English history. But one senses the absence of other disciplines alive and well in the field (such as art history and palaeography) which also contribute much to our knowledge of the literature, learning and cultural life of Anglo-Saxon England.
Mildred Budny is a research fellow at Downing College, Cambridge.
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