Academic journal article Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies

The Beowulf Manuscript Reconsidered: Reading Beowulf in Late Anglo-Saxon England

Academic journal article Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, comparative linguistics and literary studies

The Beowulf Manuscript Reconsidered: Reading Beowulf in Late Anglo-Saxon England

Article excerpt


The Beowulf manuscript reconsidered: Reading Beowulf in late Anglo-Saxon England

This article defines a hypothetical late Anglo-Saxon audience: a multi-layered Christian community with competing ideologies, dialects and mythologies. It discusses how that audience might have received the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf.

The immediate textual context of the poem constitutes an intertextual microcosm for Beowulf. The five texts in the codex provide interesting clues to the common concerns, conflicts and interests of its audience. The organizing principle for the grouping of this disparate mixture Of Christian and secular texts with Beowulf was not a sense of canonicity or the collating of monuments with an aesthetic autonomy from cultural conditions or social production. They were part of the so-called "popular culture" and provide one key to the "meanings" that interested the late Anglo-Saxon audience, who would delight in the poet's alliteration, rhythms, word-play, irony and understatement, descriptions, aphorisms and evocation of loss and transience. The poem provided cultural, historical and spiritual data and evoked a debate about pertinent moral issues. The monsters, for instance, are symbolic of problems of identity construction and establish a polarity between "us" and the "Other"; but at the same time question such binary thinking. Finally, the poem works towards an audience identity whose values emerge from the struggle within the poem and therefore also encompass the monstrous, the potentially disruptive, the darkness within--that which the poem attempts to repress.


Die Beowulf-manuskrip in heroorweging geneem: die moontlike resepsie van Beowulf in die laat Anglo-Saksiese Engeland

Hierdie artikel defineer 'n hipotetiese laat Anglo-Saksiese gehoor, naamlik 'n veelvlakkige Christelike gemeenskap met wedywerende ideologiee, dialekte en mitologiee. Ook word gespekuleer oor hierdie Anglo-Saksiese gehoor se moontlike resepsie van die gedig Beowulf.

Die onmiddellike tekstuele konteks van die gedig bepaal 'n intertekstuele mikrokosmos vir Beowulf. Die vyf tekste van die kodeks lewer interessante leidrade vir die gemeenskaplike temas, konflikte en belange van die hipotetiese gehoor. Die grondbeginsel vir die groepering van hierdie uiteenlopende mengsel van Christelike en sekulere tekste rondom Beowulf was nie 'n bepaalde kanon of 'n versameling esteties onafhanklike monumente wat onaangeraak was deur kulturele omstandighede of sosiale produksie nie. Die tekste was deel van die sogenaamde populate kultuur en verskaf 'n sleutel tot die "betekenisse" waarin die laat Anglo-Saksiese gehoor sou belanggestel het. Hulle sou genot gevind het in die digter se alliterasies, ritmes, woordspel, ironiee, beskrywings, aforismes, en die atmosfeer van verlies en verganklikheid wat geskep word. Die gedig het kulturele, historiese en geestelike inligting verskaf en debat oor pertinente morele temas ontlok. Die monsters is byvoorbeeld simbolies van probleme met identiteitskonstruksie en bewerkstellig 'n polariteit tussen "ons" en die "Ander", maar terselfdertyd bevraagteken hulle sodanige binere denke. Uiteindelik beweeg die gedig nader aan 'n gehoor-identiteit waarvan die waardes voortvloei uit die stryd in die gedig en wat gevolglik ook die monsteragtige, die potensieel ontwrigtende, die duisternis in die binneste, omvat--dit wat die gedig probeer onderdruk.


There is no reading of a work that is not also a reinterpretation, a "rewriting"; an audience always interprets a literary work in the light of its own concerns (Eagleton, 1983:8). As medievalists in the twenty-first century, we read Beowulf from a post-modern perspective, each from our own place on the continuum of discourse about the meaning and value of literature. This article postulates that a late Anglo-Saxon audience would have done the same from theirs.

1. The hypothetical late Anglo-Saxon audience (ca 1000-1016)

This audience would represent a multi-layered community of readers and listeners: the aristocracy and clerics, educated in Mediterranean and Classical Latin, but surely also ordinary people of the lower classes; all of them steeped in their vernacular Germanic-Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon oral stories. …

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