Academic journal article Arthuriana

Biblical Paradigms in Medieval English Literature: From Codmon to Malory

Academic journal article Arthuriana

Biblical Paradigms in Medieval English Literature: From Codmon to Malory

Article excerpt

Lawrence besserman, Biblical Paradigms in Medieval English Literature: From Cæ dmon to Malory. Routledge Studies in Medieval Literature and Culture. New York: Routledge, 2011. pp. ix, 219. isbn: 978-0-415-89794-5. $141

In his erudite and thought-provoking book, Biblical Paradigms in Medieval English Literature, Lawrence Besserman reveals the myriad ways in which writers from both the Old and Middle English periods 'drew on biblical diction, imagery, narrative motifs, and themes in order to explore the paradoxical relationship of sacred and secular experience' (p. 135). He further contends that the culture of the Middle Ages, in which religion remained inextricably entangled with daily life, spurred writers to create works marked by 'duality' (p. 65). In addition to his careful and extensive study of the Bible, Besserman analyzes an eclectic mix of documents to bolster his close readings of the texts studied. These materials include manuscripts, artwork, letters, and even a discussion of the 'double image' found in the 'famous cartoon of a duck/rabbit' (p. 65), which he uses to explain the baffling nature of the Green Knight. Throughout his book, Besserman supplements his analysis by providing images from several of the documents to which he refers. He also synthesizes and elaborates on work done both by him and by other medieval scholars interested in unveiling medieval biblical resonances. By skillfully marshaling this wide array of knowledge, Besserman does much to convince readers that the medieval writers under consideration integrated biblical materials into their works and that their audiences, or at least those who were 'clerically minded' (p. 80), appreciated their efforts.

Only two chapters focus on Arthurian material, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' (chapter three) and 'Malory's Le Morte Darthur' (chapter five), respectively. In chapter one, Besserman analyzes biblical motifs in several Old English texts, illustrating the ways in which these works stitch together Germanic and Christian worldviews. He underscores the potentially 'paratliturgical function' (p. 9) of works like Cæ dmon's Hymn, which could prompt audience members to contemplate autonomously otherworldly matters. In chapter two, he makes a similar claim regarding 'Maiden in the Moor Lay' and 'I Sing of a Maiden,' contending that these medieval lyrics attempt to wrest control of 'fundamental Christian truths' from 'formal ecclesiastical authority' (p. 29). This attempt, Besserman argues, led poets to develop startling images, ones that suffuse the holy with an 'erotic undertone' (p. 45).

In 'Troilus and Criseyde,' chapter four's focus, Besserman acknowledges that Chaucer's mingling of the erotic and the holy veers toward blasphemy (p. …

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