Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dissertation Fragments III: The Prospectus

For those who remember the first and second posts in this little series, I present the "final" installment of my dissertation fragments (just in time for the new year). The first post, "Two False Starts and an Abstract" saw me attempting to think through the idea of horizons as a way for me to make connections between texts and humans. The second post, "Horizons of History" was the opening to the lecture I gave at Wake Forest in late November. Now, I present you all with the fruits of my long labor: The Dissertation Prospectus.

I've felt reluctant to post it over the past few days -- it was provisionally approved (with necessary modifications) the day before Christmas, so I'm only just now re-reading it. Part of my reluctance to post it was, I think, my own discomfort with the prospectus genre. First of all, it is a genre that is made to be changed, so to speak -- everyone I've spoken to has said that their prospectus differed wildly from their final product. I would imagine the same will hold for me (particularly given how little I know Saints Lives at present), and there's a small part of me that would rather this early ambition-filled version of what I want to do gather dust silently, rather than continue to speak when its successor is a work in its own right. Further, it's hardly a perfected document. I think the major flaw in it is the terribly detached tone: then again, the prospectus seems a quite artificial writing project, if a necessary one. What I feel I've accomplished in this version is a coherent narration of my project -- in the end, I suppose, what one ought to have accomplished by writing it. I also think I've been forced to clarify my thinking, fit it into specific work that's going on in the field right now, and make it my own enough to hold weight. That said, there are a few flaws going in.

First of all -- there is no extended bibliography. I am working on that -- though I have one, it's not exactly typed up at present. Hopefully I'll get there, and when I do, I'll post it here. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly: I feel like I've lost a lot of the dialogue I was trying to establish with Latour, Deleuze and Guattari, etc. I think that's necessary -- I need to explore the texts in a way that allows them to speak first and fully, even if I have a critical or theoretical "hunch" that involves Latour, etc. In short: I have to let the Anglo-Saxon texts dictate the way in which I use theory, and not vice-versa. That seems obvious, and indeed it IS obvious. However, I wanted to articulate it here: most importantly, because it's something I struggle with in my work, in no small part due to my penchant for the philosophical and the conceptual. Thirdly -- and this one is the really important bit -- I'm missing an entire chapter or so. It's the one I'm going to write on Beowulf, which will engage the questions I began raising in the second of the Fragments posts. The reason I did not write it up as a chapter yet -- and the reason I'm still not sure it will be a proper "chapter" -- is that I think I want Beowulf to perform a kind of a linking function. That is to say, I want Beowulf to be present in my dissertation in each of the chapters. I don't know that that will work -- which is, of course, why I need to write up the summary as a nominal "Chapter V" to the dissertation and let it go at that.

At any rate, here it is: The Horizons of History: Writing (and Rewriting) Anglo-Saxon Collectivities in the Middle Ages. Thoughts, questions, comments, bibliographical additions are all welcome and indeed sorely needed.

The Horizons of History: Writing (and Rewriting) Anglo-Saxon Collectivities in the Middle Ages

In the wake of the theories of narrative expounded upon in the 1980s by Hayden White and Paul Ricoeur, the approach taken by medieval studies vis a vis the study of early “historical texts” has benefited greatly from the new ways of thinking through the relationship between narrative convention and the functions of history in society.[1] Monika Otter, for example, has used the relationship between fiction and history in the twelfth century to explore what she (following Ricoeur) has termed the referentiality of medieval Latin historical texts, or to put it plainly, the degree to which “fictionality, while not embraced as it is in vernacular romance, becomes a playful and (and sometimes alarming) possibility in Latin historical writing.”[2] In the introduction to their 2006 edited volume entitled Narrative and History in the Early Medieval West, Elizabeth Tyler and Ross Balzaretti draw on the narrative theory of White to argue for literary practice not as a way “to look through form to facts” but rather as a way “in which the form of the text itself becomes a way into our understanding the past,” and thus enable “literary and historical methodologies [to] meet as equal partners.”[3] The result of an interest in the ways in which form and content merge in the historical texts of the medieval past raises a number of questions, not least of which is “if early medieval historical writings were representations of the past made for present purposes,” how were these representations made, who made them, and what effect or influence did they have in the formation of early medieval identity?[4] Further: By whom were they used, and to what purpose?

Simultaneously, postcolonial thinking about the status of the nation in the formation of “modernity” has begun to question the conventions with which we approach the medieval past. Although some early theorists of the “nation” place its inception in the eighteenth or nineteenth century,[5] more recent critics have argued for an earlier date for the beginnings of nation-building, with the most far-reaching of these looking to Anglo-Saxon England for the beginnings, in protonationalism, of what would become the modern English nation-state. Adrian Hastings’ assertion of vernacularity as a key component in the beginnings of nationalist sentiment has found eager adherents in Anglo-Saxon studies, which, we are often reminded, boasts the first vernacular translation of the Bible.[6] Kathleen Davis’ influential work on the preface to the Pastoral Care emphasizes the rhetorical strategies of the text, which far from describing the world “as it truly was” was engaging in its own “nation-building” technique, attempting to set up a relationship between past and present which would allow for the continued growth of the political influence of the Angelcynn.[7]

My dissertation will explore the ways in which historical literature, broadly defined to include chronicles, world-histories and saints’ lives, functions in the construction of collective identities in the Anglo-Saxon period. My specific interest is in texts that were inherited from – or passed on to – cultures outside Anglo-Saxon England. By examining texts that were initially written by cultures predating the Anglo-Saxons, as well as texts which originated in Anglo-Saxon England but were passed on to later cultures, I will explore the ways in which these texts not only provided materials and models on which the Anglo-Saxons could base their own literary culture, but were themselves altered in the process of translation and transmittal. The texts I will examine are intricately linked to the process of nation building outlined by Davis, and though I am not as invested in the identification of protonationalistic tendencies in the texts, I will be focusing on the ways in which the nation-building process left its mark on the texts which were used as instruments for the imagining of ethnic and national identity.

Further, I will use both texts that were translated into Old English as well as texts which were generated in the period in order to explore the ways in which Anglo-Saxon culture interacted with texts more generally, not only altering them for their contemporaries (i.e., to be legible at the time of their reworking or composition) but also to present a certain textually based vision of the place of Anglo-Saxon England in the wider world. By examining these texts, which span a time period from the probable composition of the Old English Orosius, translated in the 900s slightly after the reign of King Alfred to the Matthew Paris translation of the Life of Edward the Confessor in the thirteenth century, I will examine the ways in which “Anglo-Saxon” culture was made both in and after the period traditionally assigned to Anglo-Saxon England, emphasizing the role played by the texts in question in thinking through what it means to be “Anglo-Saxon.”

I. Alfredian Temporalities: Time and Translation in the Old English Orosius

[The first chapter will examine the Old English Orosius, and the temporalities which intersect both in textual translation as well as the re-appropriation of generic convention across historical time, positing “the nation” as a network in which texts, peoples and generic forms play a role in the creation of identity.]

The “Alfredian Translation Program” in Anglo-Saxon England offers a particularly complicated view of translation as it relates to the issues of narrative history, national history, and time. Instituted during the reign of Alfred the Great in the late ninth century, the series of translations includes Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care and Dialogues, Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, Saint Augustine’s Soliloquies, the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, a prose version of the Psalms, and – my interest in this paper – a translation of Paulus Orosius’ Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII. Despite the sustained critical consideration of the prefaces to the Alfredian translations, however, the texts themselves – books described in the preface to the Pastoral Care as ‏‏ða ðe niebeðearfosta sien eallum monnum to wiotonne (“those which are most needful for all men to know”) are rarely the subject of much critical scrutiny, except where they diverge from their source texts in culturally significant ways.[8] That the prefaces – the locus of “originality” in the works in the sense of forming a clear boundary between the Latin and the Old English – have undergone such sustained critical inquiry to the neglect of the works they come before is significant to the study of the Alfredian program.

In this chapter of my dissertation, I examine the Old English version of Orosius’ Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII. I argue that a more sustained reading of the text, incorporating not only the “original” additions of the Old English translator but also the interests and execution of the text as a whole allow a more nuanced understanding of the multiplicity of temporalities that exist in the space of the text. This is not to say that the “original” parts of the Old English Orosius are not important. The additions to the geographical preface are instructive as to the scope and imagination of Anglo-Saxon England concerning both the northern geography and the peoples who inhabited it. The alterations to other portions of the text are instructive as the extent to which classical mythologies were known, and important to the cultural imagination, in Anglo-Saxon England. However, as a text in translation, the Old English Orosius is itself home to competing temporalities that are, I argue, instructive as to the ways in which that translation functions in terms of time. The Old English Orosius, in its translation and transformation of the Latin text of the Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII becomes a kind of hybrid space in which different temporalities interact and compete. These temporalities inhere in the problem of voice within the text. The hybrid space of the text – part Latin source material, part Old English invention, but with no specific delineations between the two (geographical preface excepted)--plays host to a variety of tensions and difficulties resulting from the anachronistic aspect of the text as what Malcolm Godden has described as a “monument to a fallen world.”[9] By reading the contexts of the two works, I will provide a sense of the tensions between the two texts in terms of the situation in history into which each falls. In the examination of a specific phrase—the cwæð Orosius (“Orosius said”)—I will position the time of Latinity and the representation of Orosius as indicators of a connection being made across times, as it were. In my reading, the Latin Historiarum Adversum Paganos and the culture which generated it become active participants in the shaping of an Old English identity through the text of the Old English Orosius. Drawing on Latour to argue for the Orosius as part of a collectivity formed in and by the different cultures and times represented in the various texts of the Alfredian corpus of translations, in this chapter I will raise questions about the status of this text “most needful for all men to know” vis a vis Jakobson’s formulation of translation in “Some Linguistic Aspects of Translation: as “translator of what messages? betrayer of what values?”[10]

II. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”: Narratives in the Winchester, Canterbury, and Peterborough MSs

[Chapter two will examine the Winchester, Canterbury and Peterborough manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in order to explore the ways in which group identity changes across time and textual traditions, and will more specifically address the alliance of different genres in the creation of collectivities in the singular “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.”]

In her recent work on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alice Sheppard notes the specifically pedagogical aims of the texts, making the assertion that “they teach their readers what ‘makes’ and Anglo-Saxon and what defines Anglo-Saxon kings and kingdoms.”[11] In thinking through the ramifications of this kind of a “writing of an Anglo-Saxon identity and the creation of a people who are known as the Angelcynn,” Sheppard’s main interest is in the narratives of kingship which are found throughout the various MSs, and for the most part, she limits her considerations to specific narratives in each MS. My interest, in choosing the Winchester, Canterbury and Peterborough MSs is to examine the ways in which narrative as a whole changes across the period during which the greater “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” was being composed. The motion forward in time from the early Winchester MS to the post-Conquest Peterborough MS suggests what Hayden White has identified as a major difference between annalists and chroniclers, in which “annals represent historical reality as if real events did not display the form of a story, [while] the chronicler represents it as if real events appeared to human consciousness in the form of unfinished stories.”[12] Working with ideas of narrativity, I wish to demonstrate that the alliances (over time) of different generic materials (including Saints Lives and later chronicle literature) had a profound effect on the composition of the later MSs of the Chronicle, suggesting that in the presentation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as we see it in the most recent edition (by Swanton) is perhaps more telling than we think. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle itself forms a collectivity of materials that differ in not merely their genre but also their composition, in that the representation of the Angelcynn that the work as a whole gives is very much influenced by the composite structure in which it is articulated.

III. Saints and Soil: Inscribing English Sanctity in Ælfric’s Lives

In writing his Lives of the Saints, Ælfric translates a number of hagiographic texts out of Latin, emphasizing in his preface not only his fidelity to the original but also issuing a warning that any copyists are not to alter the texts in question when they are further copied down. Among his chosen saints are not only traditional saints of Late Antique origin, but saints of England: both the saints and the cults of their veneration originated in the British isles. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the cult of certain saints, the ground on which the saints died (usually through their martyrdom) maintains a certain connection with their holiness: it often is capable of curing illness or disability. Examples of this from the Latin tradition include that of Saint Maur, and Saint Martin, among others. Most often this is through the presence of their relics, and churches or shrines are built in the place at which the saint perished. In the case of Saint Æðeldryð, the body of saint itself becomes the conduit and locus of miracles—further, the fact of its incorruptibility becomes a point of connection for religious belief through time, a proof preserved from before the time Bede wrote of it, git oð ‏þisne dæg (yet until this day). Saint Alban, too, becomes a point of gathering for pre- and post-persecution Christianity in the area of England: the place of his interment connects Christians across time, both before and after the reign of Diocletian (the emperor whom Ælfric cites as the perpetrator of the persecutions) as well as after the re-institution of Christianity by Augustine after it had once again fallen away.

Æðeldryð and Alban suggest a connection of faith across time which inheres in the body of the saint. Saint Swiðun, the last of the trio of Anglo-Saxon saints I will examine, represents a kind of special case. Although his body is interred in the cathedral at Winchester, his vita proper is forgotten by the time of its inscription into Ælfric’s work and there is no body featured in the text. The fact of Swiðun’s existence is known only in miracles, and it appears throughout the text that there is a certain degree to which Swiðun’s sanctity is constituted not by the preservation of his earthly body, but by the works done through him in the world. Swiðun, termed in the text se‏þe nu niwan com (he who newly came), breaks down traditional ways of understanding the sanctity of saints in England, and in so doing, suggests a different model for connection with them. By looking at these three saints of England, I will argue that the community formed through them extends in time not only in their stories and in Anglo-Saxon England, but moreover with the stories of other saints in Ælfric’s Lives.

IV. A King’s Life: Pre and Post Conquest Narratives of Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor, the last king of the line of Cerdic and so of the “Anglo-Saxons” proper (succeeded only by the Harald Godwinson before the “Norman” conquest), occupies a distinctive role in the history of Anglo-Saxon England. A “holy” king (not unlike the earlier King Alfred, whose vita was written by Asser in the tenth century), Edward’s function as regards “England” – both pre and post conquest – changed considerably through time. In her 1988 dissertation (unpublished), Martha Blalock focuses on what she calls the “legend” of Edward – literally, a reading of his life. She separates the historical materials from the hagiographic materials in so doing – classifying such works as the “Anglo-Saxon” Chronicles and the chronicles of Florence of Worcester in the former category and the various Latin and vernacular lives of Edward in the latter. In her analysis of the lives she suggests that “his legend can best be understood as a body of “accurate” or “inaccurate” historical facts which has been made to conform to saintly models” 13; thus, in assessing the hagiographical material, Blalock finds that the later, vernacular works show the influence of the “new historicity” she argues characterize the twelfth century renaissance, as opposed to the Latin lives, which are more traditional in form.

In re-examining the lives of Edward the Confessor, I will argue that in order to understand the interaction between genres in the lives which are composed about him, scholars must turn to earlier models of “saintly” kings, and open the scholarship to the possibility that hagiography also – and at an earlier date – influenced the recording of history in Anglo-Saxon England, most particularly in the portrayals of Kings Alfred, Oswald, Edmund and Edgar. The saintly life of Edward the Confessor might then be best understood as a reading of the historical text already molded into the traditions of hagiography at the time of its inscription; the result is a composite image of a king whose power waxes and wanes with his holiness.


[1] Hayden White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990). Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative (vols. 1 & 3) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

[2] Monika Otter, Inventiones (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) 19.

[3] Elizabeth Tyler and Ross Balzaretti, eds. Narrative and History in the Early Medieval West, (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006) 7.

[4] Yitzhak Hen and Matthew Innes, eds. The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 1.

[5] Cf. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991); Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[6] Cf. Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Hastings’ (extremely western) examination of nationalism places a great deal of emphasis on the translation of the Bible as a step on the (all too teleological notion of) the road to nationhood.

[7] Kathleen Davis, “National Writing in the Ninth Century: A Reminder for Postcolonial Thinking about the Nation,” JMEMS 28.3 (Fall 1998)

[8] e.g., Davis. See also Nicole Discenza, The King’s English: Strategies of Translation in the Old English Boethius (New York: SUNY Press, 2005). Culturally significant divergences in the Old English Orosius include not only the geographical preface, which adds entire sections on the Northern geography related (purportedly) to King Alfred himself, but also certain extensions of mythological stories that would not have been familiar to Anglo-Saxon England.

[9] Godden, "The Anglo-Saxons and the Goths: Rewriting the Sack of Rome," Anglo-Saxon England 31 (2002) 61.

[10] Roman Jakobson, “Some Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, ed. Schulte and Biguenet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) 151.

[11] Alice Sheppard, Families of the King, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004) 11-12

[12] Hayden White, The Content of Form, 5.

[13] Martha Graham Blalock, The Vita Sancti Edwardi Regis et Confessoris and the Vernacular Lives of Edward the Confessor (unpublished dissertation), 108.

cross posted at In the Middle


Michelle of Heavenfield said...

Sounds like a very interesting project. I hope you will blog your way through it as a preview for those of us who are unlikely to see the final version.

Two questions/comments:
1. If I understand your purpose correctly (and I may not as I'm rather theory-lite), would stories of Constantine be another thread to follow? He is mentioned in at least three works: Aldhelm's On Virginity, Aelfric's Catholic Homilies (homily on the cross) and Elene. He is also used somewhat by Bede. I don't know what the OE Bede does to references to Constantine.

2. Why not use the Aelfric's Life of Oswald, particularly if you are interested in bodies? His rather got shattered and produced lots of miracle working dirt, and you can compare it to the Latin and OE Bede, and 12th-13th century histories (including Geoffrey of Monmouth who rather does a real job on Oswald and then Laymon's version of Oswald as well).

Brandon H. said...

Wonderful! I like the breadth, and especially looking at the vernacular as a way into viewing nation-building through and in conunction with textuality. This project looks fascinating, and I look forward to following your journey.