Where the wild things are in Old English poetry

Bintley, M. (2015) Where the wild things are in Old English poetry. In: UNSPECIFIED, ed. Representing Beasts in Early Medieval England and Scandinavia. Boydell Press. ISBN 9781783270088

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Abstract

This chapter focuses on the apparent opposition in Old English poetry between those places which are occupied by humans, and those which are the domain of wild beasts. The aim is to demonstrate that there is in fact no simple binary opposition between the two that can be simply defined, for example, by the rural and the urban, or civilisation and the ‘natural’ world. The approach to landscape in these terms is ultimately Augustinian, in so far as no place is presented as being irredeemably evil; certain places are made so through the transgressions of those with rational capacity, but the potential of these landscapes (and their inhabitants) for redemption is often eminently achievable. Bede, drawing on Isaiah in his Historia Ecclesiastica, exhorted missionaries to seek out isolated, inhospitable, and rural places in which to establish hermitages and other ecclesiastical outposts. In these places, where the ‘dragons’ of pagan ignorance once lay, the green shoots of Christian recovery might then spring forth. These efforts are most obviously reflected in the Guthlac poems, in which the warrior-saint expels a horde of demons from his fenland hermitage, but are equally visible in such less obviously didactic Old English poetry as Beowulf. It was not only rural places that required redemption. Places that had been built to house human communities could be inhabited by people who were as wild and bestial as Guthlac’s demons and Grendel – those who had rejected God. The city of Mermedonia in Andreas, whose description evokes a ruinous Roman city, is presented as a realm of satanic cannibalism until its conversion to Christianity, when a church is constructed at its heart. Likewise, the glory of Babylon leads Nebuchadnezzar into seven years of bestial madness when he vainly interprets it as proof of God’s blessing. Elsewhere, this moral interplay between ‘natural’ and consciously manipulated landscapes finds a comfortable point of balance. In the Exeter Book Phoenix, the eponymous avian builds a nest in the forest from twigs that represent the souls of the virtuous. Similarly, in King Alfred’s preface to the Old English Soliloquies, timbers are chosen from the forest to build a homestead in ways that have generally been thought to reflect the gathering of Latin wisdom, yet which may equally be reflective of urban regeneration at the end of the ninth century. In this preface, the reassembly of the forest’s best trees parallels the process through which any landscape can be reclaimed as a good Christian place. Finally, the early twelfth century Durham presents a town whose natural and human-made features work in harmony to ensure its steadfastness and fame throughout Britain. Brought together, these examples indicate that it was rational action within landscapes, rather than the inherent characteristics of these, which was thought to determine whether or not they were places of human and divine order, or of bestial chaos.

Item Type: Book Section
Subjects: D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain > DA0020 England > DA0028 History > DA0129 By period > DA0130 Early and medieval to 1485
P Language and Literature > PE English > PE0101 Anglo-Saxon. Old English
Divisions: Faculty of Arts and Humanities > School of Humanities
Related URLs:
Depositing User: Dr Michael Bintley
Date Deposited: 17 Jul 2015 13:22
Last Modified: 17 Jul 2015 13:22
URI: https://create.canterbury.ac.uk/id/eprint/13574

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Last edited: 29/06/2016 12:23:00