Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Wyrd De Warnung ... or God: The Question of Absolute Sovereignty in Solomon and Saturn II

Academic journal article Studies in Philology

Wyrd De Warnung ... or God: The Question of Absolute Sovereignty in Solomon and Saturn II

Article excerpt

The Old English word wyrd has a long and contentious history in Anglo-Saxon studies. Early scholars translated this word as "fate" arid considered it a rare preservation of pre-Christian belief in the extant corpus. More recently, the scholarly consensus has agreed that all extant Old English literature was written in a completely Christian context that would not have been willing to preserve pagan conceits. Thus, the word is now almost universally translated as "lot" or "event" with the caveat that all events are under the direction of divine providence according to a Christian view. This essay argues that the use of the word wyrd in The Second Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn problematizes the neat dichotomy between Christianity and paganism that has been used to characterize Anglo-Saxon religious identity. This text is entirely and unequivocally Christian; in fact it is acutely focused on establishing the validity of Christian belief. But the questions this text poses, particularly about the nature of wyrd, reveal a level of doubt about the authority of the Christian God that challenges the view that wyrd is entirely benign in a Christian context. I argue that this doubt regarding wyrd's relationship to the Christian God in The Second Dialogue of Solomon and Saturn represents a particular challenge to Christianity in the Anglo-Saxon religious imagination, a challenge to which Christianity had to respond if it was to remain relevant in early medieval England.

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THE correct translation of the Anglo-Saxon word wyrd was once a tantalizing and polarizing enigma for scholars of Old English literature and of the history of religions. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, when Anglo-Saxon studies was predominantly a German discipline, the so-called "romantic philologists" translated it as "fate" and contended that the presence of the word in the OE corpus represents one of the few preservations of England's Teutonic pre-Christian cosmology. (1) In Deutsche Mythologie, Jacob Grimm noted the philological link between wyrd and the Norse nom Urdr, one of the three entities responsible for weaving the fates of humankind, (2) and numerous proponents of the preservation of Germanic mythology in OE literature pointed to the various occasions throughout the corpus where wyrd is personified and is distinguished from God. (3) In the early twentieth century, however, a predominantly English school of scholarship began to attack the idea that the extant sources preserve some vestiges of Anglo-Saxon paganism, contending that the nearly three centuries of Christianity preceding many of the earliest literary occurrences of wyrd preclude any pagan connotations. (4) Pointing to wyrd's derivation from the verb weordan (to become), these scholars argued that the word in the extant literature has no implication of governance and that it refers simply to that which will come to be. (5) As the nationalistic rivalry between England and Germany became increasingly hostile, the debate over the preservation of Anglo-Saxon paganism, and over wyrd's role therein, steadily accumulated intensity through the early years of the twentieth century.

By the early 1940s, however, the popularity of this debate was in steady decline, thanks in no small part to the publication of B. J. Timmer's wide-reaching article "Wyrd in Anglo-Saxon Prose and Poetry." (6) In this article, Timmer claimed to examine the meaning of wyrd "in the texts as we have them," giving no thought to "the mythological side of the question." (7) The article begins with a discussion of the OE adaptation of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae (henceforth The OE Boethius), where the figure of Wisdom asserts in no uncertain terms that the Christian God, rather than wyrd, has authority to govern the actions and circumstances of terrestrial experience: "Ic ponne secge, swa swa ealle cristene men secgad, paet sio godcunde foretiohhung his walde, naes sio wyrd" (8) (I then say, as all Christians say, that divine predestination controls him, not wyrd [p. …

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