Corporeal Anxiety in Soul and Body II

By Davis, Glenn | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Corporeal Anxiety in Soul and Body II


Davis, Glenn, Philological Quarterly


Scholars have long recognized that Soul and Body, an Old English poem that depicts a damned soul berating the body it once inhabited, was intended to serve as a spiritually prophylactic work. The soul is brutal as it enumerates the sins the body has committed, describes the body's sorry physical state, and anticipates the even greater punishment the body will experience until and beyond Judgment Day. The eschatological message of the poem is clear: don't be like the owner of this body. Instead, live a devout, religiously productive life, and, most importantly, always consider the future consequences of your actions. (1) This message is perhaps more complete in the version of the poem that survives in the Vercelli Book, Soul and Body I, which concludes with a complementary address made by a blessed soul who praises its former body for the good works it committed and essentially spells out a prescription for eschatological success. The Exeter Book's Soul and Body II, however, offers only the damned soul's diatribe, and thus leaves its audience feeling much less optimistic. (2)

One of the most striking features of Soul and Body His its extensive use of bodily imagery: the gruesome state of the decaying body is described in chilling detail. (3) Little is left to the imagination as the poem recounts the systematic destruction of numerous body parts, including the hands, fingers, head, tongue, teeth, and eyes. While later medieval treatments of the body and soul theme are often this specific, if not more so, in their depiction of the horrible things that happen to the body after death, in an Anglo-Saxon context, this invocation of the fragmented, mortified body is all but unique among treatments of the body and soul theme, and within the corpus of Old English literature more generally. (4) The singularity of this description has attracted the attention of many of the poem's critics, most of whom have interpreted it in the larger eschatological context of the poem: the gruesome images are intended to serve essentially as a scare tactic designed to inspire readers to consider the implications of their earthly actions. (5)

What critics have generally not attempted, however, is to understand other possible functions the decaying body might have performed in Anglo-Saxon England beyond prompting fear and disgust. Allen Frantzen, who has identified penance as a cultural context necessary for interpreting the poem's imagery, is an exception. (6) Penance, Frantzen explains, demands that the living body must serve as the site of intense physical suffering for the soul to gain access to heaven, and this requirement licenses the body's extreme mortification. Understood as such, the poem's description of decay serves as an example of the medical metaphor frequently employed in penitential texts, which, as Frantzen notes, "compares sins to wounds or disease and confession and penance to their cure." (7) Soul and Body thus employs corporeal imagery as a means of appealing to a widely recognized and religiously vital practice.

In this essay, I argue that the poem's depiction of the decaying body should also be viewed in another context: Anglo-Saxon medicine, which is concerned with the restoring and maintaining the health and well-being of the physical body. While the description of the body in Soul and Body II might be largely unprecedented in the literary corpus, Anglo-Saxon medical treatises traffic almost exclusively in depictions of sick or injured bodies, often, as in the poem, in pieces. Importantly, the medical literature also acknowledges that the Anglo-Saxons were concerned about the maintenance of their physical bodies in a way that was, at least in some part, separate from the Christian focus on corporeal abnegation that is central to Frantzen's argument. For example, many medical provisions prescribe the application of salves or the consumption of animal or vegetable matter to cure not spiritual but mundane physical ailments such as headaches, stomachaches, watery eyes, or scabs. …

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