Northern Antiquity: The Post-Medieval Reception of Edda and Saga

By Andrew Wawn | Go to book overview

9
The Image of Norse Poetry and Myth in
Seventeenth-Century England

JUDY QUINN and MARGARET CLUNIES ROSS

The conceptual world of Norse mythology was introduced into England in the seventeenth century through the works of English antiquarians in contact with Scandinavian scholars, but its impact beyond a small circle of septentrionalists, as they were known, appears to have been slight during that century. The line of continuity between the early medieval culture of the Germanic peoples in England and their seventeenth-century descendants had been reduced to the barest thread of genealogical convention: Woden’s name continued to feature in royal genealogies (Farley 1903, 15–17), probably as a result of chroniclers’ reliance on learned speculation rather than a continuing familiarity with the tradition which included him in the first place. The presence of the Germanic pantheon inscribed in the names of the days of the week in English was also the subject of occasional comment from Bede onwards (Jones 1943, 212–213), and provided the basic structure for the first accounts of Saxon gods in the seventeenth century (Verstegan 1628, 68). Right up until the late sixteenth century, however, the sources on Germanic religion available to the English were limited to Latin authors: Tacitus, Jordanes, Procopius, Adam of Bremen and Saxo Grammaticus (Farley 1903, 2; Seaton 1935, 244). The extant early English sources on the pre-Christian past of the Anglo-Saxon people could not have been read, as knowledge of Old English was rare until the latter half of the seventeenth century.1

William Camden (1586)2 was apparently the first to connect material from Anglo-Saxon authors writing in Latin, such as Bede and Æþel-

1 For a masterly discussion of the beginnings of Anglo-Saxon and Norse studies in England, see the (alas) unpublished D. Phil, thesis of Bennett 1938. Chapter 1 surveys the use made of Anglo-Saxon sources by sixteenth century ecclesiastical and legal historians. Bennett 1946–1953 contains a summary of his thesis research as it relates to so-called runic studies.

2 Camden’s Britannia was first published in Latin in 1586; it was translated into English by Philemon Holland and enlarged by the author in a 1610 edition.

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