Sweet Odors and Interpretative Authority in the Exeter Book Physiologus and Phoenix

By McFadden, Brian | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Sweet Odors and Interpretative Authority in the Exeter Book Physiologus and Phoenix


McFadden, Brian, Papers on Language & Literature


A recurring question in Anglo-Saxon studies is why certain texts were selected for inclusion in specific manuscripts, and the Exeter Book (Exeter, Cathedral Library, MS 3501, s. [x.sup.2]), a tenth-century miscellany that corresponds with the first part of the Benedictine Reform era in England (roughly 950-1000), is no exception. The manuscript was probably compiled between 950 and 970, although there is scholarly debate about when and where it was written. (1) The manuscript's most numerous texts are a series of riddles, but it is also notable for lyrics, maxims, religious narrative verse, and elegies. The variety of genres in the manuscript suggests that it was a repository for material used in preaching to the laity and religious instruction for the clergy, and perhaps one of the major goals in the manuscript's compilation was to focus attention on issues of textual interpretation, as the inclusion of the riddles suggests. Along with interpretation, however, comes the possibility of misinterpretation; while the riddles allow, and in some cases encourage, uncertainty with respect to their solutions (some remain unsolved to this day), (2) three allegorical poems, The Phoenix (a loose adaptation of Lactantius's Carmen de Ave Phoenice), The Panther, and The Whale (Old English adaptations of the Latin Physiologus), highlight the importance of correct interpretation by giving a detailed exegetical reading of the recurring image of a sweet odor. Although wonders may produce a moment of astonished uncertainty in the viewer, these poems control their wonders by giving a specific framework for their interpretation and leaving little to the reader's judgment.

The Exeter Book was compiled in an uneasy social context, and these self-interpreted poems maybe considered in light of two major currents of late tenth- and early eleventh-century English history: 1) the reign of Edgar and the fallout from the succession dispute on his death, and 2) the Benedictine attempts to reform the monastic system with respect to both property and clergy. Kings Eadwig and Edgar had kept England fairly safe from the assaults of the Vikings between 955 and 975, but, despite the relative peace, there was always a fear that the Danes in northern England, the Viking-controlled region known as the Danelaw, could either invade or ally with incoming new raiders. The reform program under bishops AEthelwold, Dunstan, and Oswald brought the monastic system in England into greater conformity with the Benedictine Rule; one of its aims was to improve education and preaching, which required the replacement of clerics in the monasteries with more skilled monastic interpreters of scripture. (3) The ability to interpret suggests the ability to control, implying that the image of sweet smells, along with the accompanying interpretations that appear in The Panther The Phoenix, and The Whale, functions for the manuscript's compiler and/or scribe (4) as a symbol not just of correct textual interpretation but also of the containment of disruptive social elements. In the tumultuous English social context of the late tenth century, these texts subtly encourage the reader to trust royal power and ecclesiastical authority; the manuscript becomes a site for expressing a desire for certainty in an uncertain time.

When Edgar died in 975, the succession was contested between Edward, his son by a previous marriage, and AEthelred, Edgar's son by his current wife AElfthryth. Edward was crowned but was murdered in 978, probably by AEthelred's supporters, (5) which did not instill a general trust of AEthelred in either nobility or clergy. Edgar had supported the reforms, which, besides their ecclesiastical aims, had also brought the monastic system more closely into line with royal power. (6) In the process of reform, many monastery lands, in name the church's but in practice often under the control of local landed families, were reclaimed, stripping the landowners of wealth and prestige, undercutting their wealth and social status and building a mistrust of both church and crown. …

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