Trees in Anglo-Saxon England: Literature, Lore and Landscape

By Zwikstra, Corey J. | Western Folklore, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Trees in Anglo-Saxon England: Literature, Lore and Landscape


Zwikstra, Corey J., Western Folklore


Trees in Anglo-Saxon England: Literature, Lore and Landscape. By Delia Hooke. (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2010. Pp. ? + 310, list of illustrations and tables, preface and acknowledgments, list of abbreviations, epilogue, bibliography, index. $90.00 cloth.)

Over the past thirty years Delia Hooke has published widely on various aspects of early English landscape. Her book Trees in Anglo-Saxon England complements the earlier collection From Earth to Art: The Many Aspects of the Plant-World in Anglo-Saxon England (2003), to which Hooke contributed. The book examines in detail the evidence for real trees in Anglo-Saxon England and speculates on their spiritual and symbolic dimensions. Its supporting evidence derives mainly from charters and place-names, and from literature and archaeology where possible. It is well documented and clearly written, with illustrative figures, wideranging examples, and illuminating quotations. But this is an odd mixture of a book. Descriptive rather than argumentative, it is sometimes disorganized, inefficiently presented, and without a clear intended audience. Hooke demonstrates command of the material but not control of it.

The book contains tiiree parts of three to five chapters each. "Part I: Tree Symbolism" explores the cultural and spiritual significance of trees in legend, folklore, literature, and history and will likely be die most interesting to readers of Western Folklore. Chapter 1 "Trees and Groves in Pre-Christian Bélier broadly contextualizes trees as ancient and universal symbols of life, death, rebirth, and wisdom. Tree groves were frequently places of worship and sacrifice. Christianity eradicated tree worship but not tree symbolism. Chapter 2 "Christianity and the Sacred Tree" explains how Christianity condemned and extinguished or re-appropriated tree worship: a tree becomes a wooden cross, saints' lives incorporate tree miracles, plants and vines serve Christian symbolic purposes in art. Pagan tree practices continued as a thorn in the side of the Church, however, and in different periods may have been resurgent. Chapter 3 "Trees in Literature" shows how pre-Christian forms of literature such as riddles, charms, and runic texts contain trees and, much like real trees or tree landscapes, were adapted into early medieval Christian culture. Much Old English literature contains tree and nature imagery, though some comes from Latin sources and most has been Christianized. Chapter 4 "Trees, Mythology and National Consciousness: into the Future" [sic] shows how after the adoption of Christianity pre-Christian habits of assembly and worship at great "mythological trees" disappeared from Western Europe, though symbolic trees lived on.

"Part II: Trees and Woodland in the Anglo-Saxon Landscape" looks at the practical use of trees as timber, habitat, and landscape, focusing on England more than Part I does. Chapter 5 "The Nature and Distribution of Anglo-Saxon Woodland" relates present-day English woodland to woodlands past. There was more woodland cover in die Anglo-Saxon period than today, though not as much more as some claim, and likely more in the late than the early period. Man caused woodland to recede, clearing trees for agriculture, firewood, umber, and pasture land. Not much regeneration seems to have happened in Anglo-Saxon England. Woodland terms, die focus of much of this chapter, often find a place in English place-names. Chapter 6 "The Use of Anglo-Saxon Woodland: PlaceName and Charter Evidence" describes how woodland was a valued resource and different kinds were put to different uses, especially as a source of timber, wood-pasture for domesticated animals, and hunting grounds. Some laws even granted legal protection to certain trees. …

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