Not long ago it was a thousand years to the day that the Battle of Maldon was fought against the Danes. On 10 August 991, an English levy, somewhat hastily assembled and placed behind a smaller unit of professional soldiers, faced an army of Viking thugs across a causeway in Essex. That afternoon the English general, Earl Byrhtnoth, made a miscalculation that led to his death and the defeat of his force. Part of his army fled, while the others, so the poet of ‘The Battle of Maldon’ tells us, clustered round their general’s body to avenge his death with their own. An ‘old companion’ urged them to their fate with words which many former students of English might remember as something like ‘ever must he regret it who thinks he can go from this battlegame now.’
If many teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland are equally grim today, their mood comes from a perception that the study of the subject in this country is being allowed to die. There can be no doubt that if Old English does not remain a mandatory element of English somewhere in the higher institutions, it will die. In this respect, the Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature has not come a moment too soon. This volume is a beautifully produced, accomplished and engaging survey of the literary side of Anglo-Saxon England. It should be read by anyone interested in the place of Old English in the larger corpus of English literature.
The editors have included essays from 12 contributors besides themselves on most aspects of a literature extending from the seventh century to the 12th. The first chapter is an account of the historical background, written with panache by Patrick Wormald; the second an equally readable summary by Helmut Gneuss of the Old English language. ‘Beowulf’, the earliest epic poem in the English language, has a chapter to itself. Old English poetic metre and technique, the tenth-century refinement of post-Alfredian prose style, literary remnants of English paganism, are among other themes eloquently handled. There is a fine essay by Christine Fell on Anglo-Saxon perceptions of transience, showing what is unique in the Old English elegies. In his discussion of the Old English ‘Genesis’ and ‘Exodus’ poems, Malcolm Godden gives fresh insights into the way a people recently converted from paganism looked at the Old Testament. For many years to come, this Companion will remain a valuable introduction to the earliest – that is to say, the least modern – form of English literature.
The lack of clear influence from the early to the modern period is not surprising in view of the thousand-odd years between them. This was brought home to me 11 years ago when I studied for the Mods exam in the first year of the English degree in Oxford, and found I had to read ‘The Seafarer’ and Ulysses in the same week. The Oxford syllabus must be unique in this combination, 1 thought. What other course could offer the same variety? Yet it is just this statutory match of Old and Modern in one term that is now under scrutiny in the English Faculty in Oxford. In a recent piece in the Oxford Magazine called ‘Reading English’ Valentine Cunningham proposes the abolition of compulsory Old English as part of a reform of the post-Medieval syllabus. Those who think as he does appear to see Old and Modern as implacable rivals, or at least as de rigueur alternatives. It is a spurious logic that makes them so. Worse still is the rhetoric that comes out on occasions like this when a case is made against a compulsory core of Old English in the larger English syllabus.
This rhetoric is skilful in Cunningham’s hands, less so in a Guardian report, ‘The Beowulf at Oxford’s door’, in which Nicholas de Jongh presented the Oxford Medievalists as a force of reaction, Cunningham’s proposal as ‘the spirit of revolt’: ‘his attack is nothing less than the raising of a revolutionary call,’ ‘Professor Norman [sic] Godden, the new Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, is totally opposed to the idea.’ Cunningham’s ‘Maldon’-joke about the teachers of Old English moving ‘across Faculty business in the tight Germanic wedge formation they’ve learned about in their favourite texts’ is atavised in the Guardian’s ‘tooth and nail, like their Anglo-Saxon heroes, they fought to preserve their subject.’ A window appears in the article with a text reproduced from a Mods exam paper: part of Aelfric’s ‘Preface to Genesis’. So now you know. When the tenth-century English are not fighting like a tribe of throwbacks in one text, you can see them writing clerical pedantry in another. And this, the concerned liberal might ask, is this what the trendiest students in Oxford still have to read?
By and large, Old English literature still has an image problem, something to which the testimony of famous alumni has contributed. Guardian readers have now been told that Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis called their Old English texts ‘ape’s bum-fodder’. But if these readers get no further than the preface to the Companion, they will see what another Oxford wit, W.H. Auden, said of the same material: ‘I was spellbound. This poetry, I learned knew, was going to be my dish... I learned enough to read it, and Anglo-Saxon and Middle English poetry have been one of my strongest, most lasting influences.’ Readers might wonder where the poetry of Hughes, Heaney or Hill would be without some filtering of the tradition of Old English accentual poetry through Auden or Hopkins. Hopkins’s use of Old English is well-known (‘a vastly superior thing to what we have now’), but perhaps not the fact that Engels read Old English literature, together with Jacob Grimm’s Deutsche Mythologie and Deutsche Grammatik, for insights into social and economic development. Writing from Manchester to Marx in London in 1859, Engels says that he hopes to finish the Gothic Bible before long: ‘Then on to Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon – I’ve always had only half a foot in that.’
Naturally, the quality of this literature can be overlooked by disgruntled students too tired to distinguish between textual value and perceived deficiencies in teaching method. No one can deny that some teachers in the past were drier than others, and that the philology of the Old English language was rigorous. It was, and still is, though Mitchell and Robinson in the Oxford Mods Guide, and now Gneuss in the Cambridge Companion, have shown that it can be made more attractive. Well-known, too, is the philological background of two writers from Oxford, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (the title of whose Oxford edition in the green cover Cunningham archaises as Sir Gawayne). It might amuse the public who know these men as modern authors in their own right to infer that in their Oxford guise they doubled as curators of a ‘dinosauric museum piece’ – that is to say, the English syllabus.
The joke wears off when Cunningham presents the endangered constituency as the endangering one, describing teachers of Old and Middle English in Oxford even up to the present as a ‘cabal’. Was it not Lewis and Tolkien whom F.W. Bateson saw ‘plotting together in the bars of the Eastgate Tavern to preserve compulsory Anglo-Saxon’? Smoke-filled rooms, alcohol and informal secrecy, the cunning of the old barons. ‘But he was right,’ Cunningham continues, ‘they were plotting.’ And so Old English was preserved as a compulsory part of the English syllabus; and as if the retention of a core amounted to an expansion of its borders, or as if other parts of the canon somehow suffered as a result, the paranoia has grown. Cunningham seems to have polarised a number of varied constituencies into a ‘them and us’, rival factions of Medieval and post-Medieval English literature.
No confrontation is necessary. Some students after a while openly resent their compulsory diet of Old English, as friends of mine did when I studied for Mods. Now they know better, some of them, admitting in later years to a certain pleasure in knowing Old English texts that they would never otherwise have read. This study asks rigour from the students in the short term, patience to see things out. Maybe that is something the sound-bite culture will not take. But in the longer term the work pays off. In their exams many students use cribs to get through the set-text translations, yet a proposal for a more efficient mechanism, an unseen, was defeated at an Oxford Faculty meeting not long ago. There is no denying the difficulties involved in developing the curriculum, but these would be better sorted out by adjustment within compromise than by stand-off and wholesale substitution.
Cunningham’s other arguments are less secure than he makes out. How, if he wants a decent canon for post-Medieval texts, can he disapprove of safeguards for a selection of Medieval ones? Then there is the question of textual value. The present arrangement in Oxford of one-third Old English in Mods, two Medieval Schools papers out of nine, must go because it comes ‘at the expense of other texts, other periods of literature, which are at least as important and in many cases obviously much more important’. The restricted choice the undergraduate has among interesting topics beyond the Middle Ages is balanced with his or her compulsion to work on ‘that quaint Medieval religious text “The Pearl”’. Some might not like the use of a word like ‘quaint’ to describe a poem in which a man shows us how he comes to term with the death of his child. But that is by the way. More than being asked to judge the merits of individual texts here, we are invited to sympathise with a syllabus proposal partly expressed by light-hearted quips directed against whole periods of literature.
The Cambridge Companion will show anyone who reads it that Old English civilisation can hold its own against most charges of inadequacy. Five centuries of political development. Women with literacy levels and property rights that were not regained until the modern era. A copious quantity of vernacular writing, unique for its place and time. Thirty thousand lexical units with a total of three million occurrences, and thirty thousand lines surviving of a once greater corpus of Old English poetry. A version of Genesis in which Eve is exonerated and even made to seem more responsible than her husband. From an Italian expert, Patrizia Lentinara, we learn that the English schools in this period were among the finest in Europe, and that English students were made to leam Latin passages by heart daily: two facts which – unlike Cunningham’s coupling of a general syllabus malaise with the rigour of its Medieval component – may be related. As Wormald says at the head of the first chapter: ‘The country in which this book was conceived, and the literary language in which it was written, are both more than a thousand years old.’
None of this has halted the British tendency to sell the nation’s treasures abroad. On the one hand, we read Cunningham pondering if Oxford students would be ‘better employed in respect of English literature by getting up some elementary Latin or Italian or German’. Another Oxford don was said in the Guardian to believe that Latin is more integral to the English language than Old English – though he should know that the Germanic half of English vocabulary is used with much higher frequency. On the other hand, we see some disarray among Anglo-Saxonists themselves. As more English departments make Old English optional (lately Leeds and Queens, Belfast) or extinct (Liverpool two years ago), an organisation ‘Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland’, set up in Manchester by Don Scragg, one of the Companion’s contributors has yet to win the interest of one of the most powerful centres of the subject, the Cambridge department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic. Little sign of a cabal here. Though much talented work is carried out in this country still, the main engines of research are powered abroad. The Old English Newsletter is edited chiefly from SUNY Binghampton; the new Dictionary of Old English will be produced in Toronto; the Middle English Dictionary project is based in Ann Arbor; the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists likewise relies heavily on North American support. Eight out of the 14 scholars writing for the Cambridge Companion come from institutions abroad.
Cunningham claims that ‘it’s surely time that Anglo-Saxon and much currently compulsory Middle English literature felt the wind of competition and took their chance in a syllabus where a wide choice of periods for study was on offer.’ Even Old English would benefit. ‘Better a small number of keen volunteers than the present multitudes of bored and scrim-shanking pressed women and men.’ It should be said, however, that not one of them can study Old English at school, in contrast to the other languages just mentioned. This is why a concept of fair access to all subjects, the student’s right to make an informed choice between them, should not be thrown out with the bathwater.
Any talk of ‘competition’ here is unrealistic, out of touch, indeed sounds oddly like a certain charter recently promised by Mr Major in which railways are somehow meant to thrive by deregulation. Free-market philosophies so far espoused in English departments have gone a predictable way. No one with half an eye for decaying infrastructure could fail to see the outcome for Old and Middle English if they were made to take their chance in a syllabus increasingly crowded by the Moderns: a lopsided English degree, fewer volunteers for higher degrees in Medieval studies, still fewer teachers at the end of them, next to no posts for these teachers to fill end-game.
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