Journey to the Borderland: Two Poetic Passages on Judgement Day in Old English Homilies Revisited

Journey to the Borderland: Two Poetic Passages on Judgement Day in Old English Homilies Revisited

By Winfried Rudolf

The Proceedings of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies Postgraduate Conference (2005)

Introduction: Ever since the days of St Augustine and his significant rhetorical instructions in book four of De doctrina christiana, the relationship between poetry and pastoral address has to be described as a very close one. Over the centuries until the high Middle Ages, the liturgical prose of Western Christendom had benefited greatly from the elocutionary force of verse. In the literature of the Anglo-Saxon church there are manifold examples of the affinity and even successful liaison of literary genres. Scholars admire the fascinating content of the Vercelli Book, where eschatological homilies appear alongside such splendid works as Andreas, The Dream of the Rood or Elene. The single hand that wrote both poems and homilies in this manuscript also left fortyseven lines of verse on folio 104rv which received the unspectacular as well as enigmatic title of ‘Homiletic Fragment I’ by modern scholarship. Similarly, lines 1700-84 in Beowulf are widely known as ‘Hroþgar’s “sermon”’ and the liturgical poems in the oldest quire of the Wulfstanian MS Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 201 may well represent a penitential homily. These examples reveal the problematic nature of defining a homiletic poem or a poetic homily. The matter is further complicated if we study homilies that contain seemingly poetic or rhythmical passages and thus appear to witness the gradual transition of Old English verse into homiletic prose. In fact, these texts also question such a one-directional development and give rise to speculations about vernacular liturgical forms and text compositional creativity in Anglo-Saxon England.

The textuality of Old English catechetical homilies is characterized by two important aspects: Firstly, these homilies are eclectic compositions, and the variety of textual units assembled is likely to result in a coexistence or even fusion of literary genres. This synthesis submits itself to the overall rhetorical aim and does not necessarily follow the genre boundaries of modern literary studies. Secondly, Old English catechetical homilies were texts for use and reuse and – unlike the main bulk of Old English verse – have come down to us in a ‘creative multiform’, preserved in several manuscript versions. For scholars of Old English this constellation offers the rare opportunity to study different stages of poetic and semi-poetic variation, and allows them to speculate about the relation between homiletic theme and poetic form.

It is hardly surprising that among the verse or verse-like passages identified in Old English homilies the topic of Judgement Day plays a dominant role, since religious motif and poetic style create an effective rhetorical combination. This paper analyses two eschatological passages in their variety of versions from Old English manuscripts: On the one hand, The Judgement of the Damned, preserved in homilies Vercelli 2 & 21 as well as Napier 40, and on the other, those lines of the poem Judgement Day II that have a parallel in homily Napier 29. I shall discuss and reassess the poetic quality of these passages and the nature of variation between their single manuscript versions, thereby asking the following questions: Firstly, how does the incorporation of Old English verse into homiletic rhythmical prose affect the style and metrical regulations of these passages? Secondly, apart from metrical convention, which universal principle(s) of variation may be said to apply across the different manuscript versions? And finally, what do these results tell us about the composition and performance of rhythmical passages in Old English homilies?

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