The Myth of the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet

Article excerpt

Ten years ago Roberta Frank published an article, based on her Toller Lecture for 1992, titled "The Search for the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet" (Frank 1993). With caustic wit as well as impeccable scholarship, she there points out the extent to which modern-day conceptions of Old English poets and poetry have been shaped by the passion for bardic verse that swept through Europe during the later decades of the eighteenth century. For a while, it seems, thanks to the influence of Thomas Percy and the vogue of James MacPherson's spurious Ossian, no ancient poetry was judged worthy of acclaim unless it could be ascribed to the wild, natural art of minstrels.

Frank also points out that the search for the oral poet began well before the era of Percy and MacPherson. During the twelfth century, the writers of Latin chronicles seemed fascinated by the idea that there had been bards in Anglo-Saxon England. It is the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury (ca. 1095-ca. 1143), for example, whom we can thank for the story that Aldhelm, the late seventh-century co-founder of the monastery at Malmesbury and the first major figure of Anglo-Latin letters, used to accost church-goers at a bridge so as to entice them to listen to moral sermons (Hamilton 1870:336). After first attracting their attention through English songs, he would then intersperse the words of Scripture, thus leading the people back to good sense and right reason (ad sanitatem). This tale is such a pleasing fancy that it has often been taken as historical despite the passage of over four centuries between the period when the supposed incident took place and the date when William wrote down the story in his Gesta pontificum Anglorum (1125), where it is first told.1 To put this temporal distance into perspective, it would be as if someone today were to write down for the first time, in a manner as if to be believed, a story of how Shakespeare used to entice Londoners into the theater by playing the lute on the banks of the Thames.

William of Malmesbury is also the historian who is responsible for the information that King Alfred the Great (r. 871-899) once disguised himself as a professional entertainer (sub spetie [= specie] mimi . . . ut ioculatoriae professor) so as to slip into the camp of his Danish enemies and spy on them unobserved.2 This Alfred who is a master of disguise and is so skilled in the arts of minstrelsy is the same man, William tells us, whose spirits were lifted shortly before this adventure when he and his mother, both of whom had taken refuge from marauding Danes in the island retreat of Athelney, had identical dreams. Each of them in turn, it seems, was visited by the spirit of St. Cuthbert (d. 687), the hermit bishop of Lindisfarne, who promised them that the Saxons would soon achieve a great victory, "and of this I will give you a striking token," he tells both Alfred and his mother. The local fishermen will return later in the day with a great catch of fish, he predicts, "and this will be all the more remarkable, inasmuch as the wintry river, covered these days with ice, offers no hope of anything of the kind" (Mynors 1998:182-83). Like all literary dreams and prophecies, this promise was soon found to be veridical. The fishermen brought in a huge catch, and it was not long before Alfred's army crushed the Danes.3 History was improving itself from the time when the more sober entries in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for those same years were composed, for those entries make no mention of these events. Alfred as disguised minstrel and Alfred and his mother as inspired synchronized dreamers are likely to strike modern readers as figures of approximately equal plausibility. When William of Malmesbury set out to retell la matiere d'Angleterre in his accomplished Latin prose, he must have been aiming for a crowd-pleaser.

Bishop Aldhelm and King Alfred the Great are therefore two bards who can safely be deleted from the historical record. …