German thoughts, Latin words

I’ve been trying to write a paper about representations of lordship in Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon literature (one of the reasons I’ve not been blogging much recently), and I keep on coming back to a central problem: why are there differences between Old English and Carolingian Latin poetry and literature in terms of themes? It’s a more difficult question than it seems at first.

The normal take on this is that Old English and Latin literatures are completely different – in fact, so different, that they’re not normally even discussed together (or there will be a focus on one language alone, with a few side glances at the other language). What those ignoring one of the languages don’t explain is why this exclusion is appropriate (other than that a different academic department deals with the topic, which is not really a good excuse).

One argument about why you might keep the literature separate is that language is so crucial to meaning. Latin and Old English literature are different because the language used made the authors think in different ways. There is some evidence for the incompatibility of languages for some specific areas. For example, studies of Anglo-Saxon words for colours suggest a different classification system than the modern one. However, this explanation doesn’t really work for what I’m interested in, which is why some prominent themes in OE heroic poetry are less common in near contemporary Latin poems. I can’t imagine that there are concepts in OE which can’t be expressed in Latin (though there might be the other way round, because OE has fewer abstract nouns). And while there are differences in specific poetic form and style (e.g. Latin doesn’t have the kennings and alliterative half lines of OE), that shouldn’t make a difference to more general motifs. If Carolingian poets could describe the baptism of a Danish prince in Virgilian terms (as Ermoldus does), they are not being unduly restricted by their poetic form.

Another possibility is that OE and Carolingian Latin poetry were being written by different kinds of authors for a different sort of audience. But given that we have almost no knowledge of who the authors or the audience were for OE poetry (it’s largely deduced from the poems themselves), that doesn’t get me much further as an explanation.

One reason that’s often been used to explain the difference of OE poetry is the existence of a pre-Christian oral poetry tradition in Anglo-Saxon England. Carolingian Francia, by contrast, is a long time after the initial conversions of at least the Frankish elite. There are some problems with this argument, however. Oral composition is unlikely to be making any difference to whether or not some particular motifs are used (as opposed to influencing structure/diction of poem). And all the OE poetry we have has had Christian influence on it in its current form. Pre-Christian elements have to be deduced, with more or less plausibility from a later version.

The stage of Christianisation probably does make some difference about some types of poetry being produced. For example, versified books of the Bible seem to be to be something that is likely to come in at an earlier religious stage than the Carolingians were at. So they don’t have an equivalent to the OE Genesis, the OS Heliand or the Christian Latin epics of the patristic period (Arator and the like). Also, there is a fair bit of OE poetry about Germanic heroes, more than in Francia (where it’s really just Waltharius). Again, maybe this indicates a stronger pre-Christian tradition that is then adapted into OE Christian poetry.

My interest, however, is in secular heroic poetry, where religious developments shouldn’t have so much impact. Specifically, Michael Cherniss, Ingeld and Christ: heroic concepts and values in Old English Christian poetry. (The Hague: Mouton, 1972), sees four motifs as core in OE poetry: loyalty, vengeance, wealth and exile. His argument for the importance of these themes largely holds up. It seems to me that Carolingian poetry certainly shares an interest in treasure, and to a lesser extent, vengeance. It doesn’t, however, have much to say about loyalty and exile. Why not?

One possible answer is to say that social conditions were different – but the problem is we don’t know what the social conditions were in Anglo-Saxon England at the key moments. There are only a couple of OE secular poems securely dated (as in within about 20 years). Beowulf (by far the longest and most important OE poetical text) gets placed anywhere between the seventh and the tenth century, putting it in completely different relations to the religious development at the time, structures of kingship and the Vikings depending on where you place it. If you look specifically at the ninth century, Francia and Anglo-Saxon England do look very similar, socially and militarily (a key point for battle poems). For some of the OE texts that you can date to the ninth and tenth century, I’m then arguing that different political situations cause the different uses of themes. But I’m aware that this doesn’t touch the wider problem of the difference between the two literatures. Evoking a ‘different poetic tradition’ is just a black box, it doesn’t tell you why different paths have been taken in fairly similar circumstances. I don’t know whether you can pin down the reasons for OE poetry: the evidence just doesn’t seem to exist to come up with definitive answers. But I do wish that someone other than me (not an expert on Anglo-Saxon history, let alone literature) could at least consider this question.


2 thoughts on “German thoughts, Latin words

  1. Thanks so much for the great post. I’m doing my Masters thesis on the Heliand at the moment. I’m more interested in the transmission and translation of religious concepts from the Carolingians to the Saxons, but models of lordship will also figure heavily in my work. Unfortunately, that’s where my research at present is weakest.

    I’m personally inclined to think that there’s a greater connection between Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian literature than has heretofore been acknowledged. I don’t have any “smoking gun” evidence for this, it’s more a “hunch” or “pet theory.” But I’ve done enough work on the “Northumbrian Renaissance” to see an unbroken line from those 7th-century innovations to 8th-century missionary work. Alcuin’s the obvious example, but Boniface was probably more influential, although he wrote less.

    Anyway, I’m still cobbling all this together in my head. It’s just great to know there are other people out there working on similar stuff. 🙂 The work of a mediaevalist gets lonely sometimes…


    • There are a couple of leads it might be worth following up if you’re interested in the Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian connections. One is Jo Story’s recent book ‘Carolingian Connections'(Ashgate, 2003). Also at Leicester, alongside Jo Story, a guy called James Palmer ( working on the Anglo-Saxon missions to Germany and has published a few articles.

      There hasn’t been much recent work on the ideology of lordship in the Carolingian period (although I cover it a bit in my thesis. E-mail me at if you want details). The main stuff that is available is older: there are several articles by Schlesinger, Kuhn and Graus from the 1950s and 1960s debating the Gefolgschaft, German ‘Treue’ etc.

      Best wishes for the thesis.


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