Anglo-Saxonists need to get out more!

I’ve just started a new (temporary) job and trying to research a paper, which is not a good combination as far as time for blogging goes. The planned paper is comparing Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian ideas of lordship, particularly as reflected in secular poetry. It has brought me face to face again with one of the great unanswerable questions of early medieval scholarship. Why do scholars of Anglo-Saxon England write so much about so few sources?

There are dozens of articles about the poem The Battle of Maldon, for example, which is an interesting, but relatively short late-tenth century poem. There is even one article (which I have copied, but not yet read) which spends twenty pages discussing one key word in the poem (This is H. Gneuss, ‘The Battle of Maldon 89: Byrthnoth’s ofermod once again’, Studies in philology, 73 (1976), pp. 117-37). Nothing short of holy writ deserves that much scrutiny. The same inflationary scholarship is seen on other Anglo-Saxon topics. I’ve seen estimates that there are around 50 new articles on Beowulf a year. What can all these possibly have to say? The disproportion is clear if you search library catalogues. COPAC (the combined library catalogue for the main UK research libraries) has around 2800 entries under ‘Aeneid’, and 2100 for ‘Beowulf’. (These aren’t absolute numbers of items, because there will be duplicate entries for books and it doesn’t cover journal articles, but the relative proportions should be similar). Beowulf is a great poem, but it has nothing like the 2000 continuous years of cultural significance that the Aeneid has.

I found something similar when I attended a few ASNAC (Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic) lectures at Cambridge. One course included two lectures solely on the Synod of Whitby. A comparable course on Carolingian history would have to be generously off for time to allow a whole lecture for 150 years worth of synods, whose acts fill 4 or 5 large volumes.

All this obsessive study might be justified if it meant that every area of scholarship was well covered, but it isn’t. When I look for articles relevant to my interest in comparing Carolingian Latin and Old English poetry, there’s almost nothing. Two neighboring cultures, close together in time and yet it’s as if most Anglo-Saxonists are barely aware of the existence of the Franks (though there are a few glowing exceptions). Why are they so insular (in all senses) and what can be done about it? In some ways I feel I’m being rash in steeping into literary territory and outside my main area of interest, but if I don’t point out some of the interesting parallels I don’t know who else is going to. I just hope a few people listen (and even better, agree).


One thought on “Anglo-Saxonists need to get out more!

  1. I have the feeling that the amount of interest and attention paid to any person, event, era, scientific theory or work of art has less to do with their real importance and more to do with fashion and familiarity. But perhaps there’s no such thing as ‘real importance’ beyond the attention we accord things.

    The Anglo Saxons have an established place in popular culture – Alfred the Great, St Augustine, the Synod of Whitby (an interesting place with a ruined abbey and an unusual saint). Who has heard of Charlemagne? I think I once saw a statue of him in York.

    Maybe the only way to get Carolingian ideas into popular (and maybe specialist) consciousness would be a blockbuster TV series with a few royal family tie-ins or scandals. On the other hand it could be a pleasant experience to research in an uncrowded area.


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