Famous Last Words: Ælfric’s Saints Facing Death
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 10 (1993)
Old English prose is underrated. Many prose works in Old English possess literary as well as cultural interest, have narrative drive, and establish and play with conventions. These texts have sufficient interest and appeal to be included in undergraduate surveys of medieval English literature and to be made available to non-specialist audiences. Even works in a convention-bound genre, such as the saint’s life, can play with conventions, have narrative excitement, and even, at times, humor.
I begin with such a polemical assertion as a corrective. Old English poetry has a secure foothold in medieval survey courses but Old English prose is conspicuous in its absence. Two of the most influential teaching anthologies are symptomatic. The Norton anthology contains four famous short Old English poems (“Cædmon’s Hymn,” “The Dream of the Rood,” “The Wanderer,” and “The Battle of Maldon”) and Beowulf, but no prose; the Oxford Anthology of English Literature contains the same five Old English poems and adds “Deor” and an excerpt of “The Phoenix” but also excludes any prose.