Hasped and Hooped and Hirpling
- Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
Faber, 104 pp, £14.99, October 1999, ISBN 0 05 712011 0
Writing in 1887 of the proposal to establish an Anglo-Saxon-based school of English at Oxford, the moral philosopher Thomas Case protested that ‘an English School will grow up, nourishing our language not from the humanity of the Greeks and Romans, but from the savagery of the Goths and Anglo-Saxons. We are about to reverse the Renaissance.’ Not for the first time, an Oxford don had mistaken his university for the spiritual heart of humanity. A century later, a move against Old English in Oxford provoked one apocalyptically minded medievalist to warn of the ‘worldwide demoralisation’ that would inevitably ensue.
Vol. 21 No. 24 · 9 December 1999
In his review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf translation (LRB, 11 November), Terry Eagleton draws attention to the name given at Oxford and at Cambridge to the language of the poem: ‘Anglo-Saxon, as Cambridge calls the stuff, or Old English, as Oxford prefers to label it (the choice of name is itself politically significant), has long been a cockpit of ideological contentions.’ The reverse would be nearer the truth. Cambridge has used the term ‘Old English’ for many years to describe the language of the Anglo-Saxons. Oxford has in fact been more keen on ‘Anglo-Saxon’ until recently, and while the official regulations now call the relevant courses ‘Old English’, this term’s Oxford lecture list resolutely sticks to ‘Anglo-Saxon’. The choice of name may indeed be politically significant, but if so, it’s a different and messier politics than Eagleton’s neat division allows.
St Hugh’s College, Oxford