The Meaning of the Cotton Wulf Maxim in the Context of Anglo-Saxon Popular Thought and Culture
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Volume 16 No. 2 (2008)
The sixty-six lines of the Cotton Maxims (Maxims II) consist of a series of so-called gnomic verses which are supposed to be “pieces of universally accepted knowledge in the form of versified sentences.” In reading of Maxims II, however, readers are puzzled over how the whole poem could be understood as a unit, for some of the maxims, including the “wulf” maxim, are not look like “pieces of universally accepted knowledge” to modern ears. The crux of the poem is its ambiguous use of “the reiterated sceal or scyle,” for the whole work of Maxims II, “the various items of the sceal series,” “are exceedingly difficult to connect in any logical or even emotional sequence, although sometimes two or three items do have a demonstrable relationship.” The paper focuses on the interpretation of the “wulf” maxim, expounding the Anglo-Saxon concept of “wulf” and identifying the specific meaning of sceal in the context of Anglo-Saxon popular thought and culture. The literal translation of the wolf gnome of Maxims II is quite simple either in two ways: “the wolf, wretched solitary being, is typically in the forest” or “the wolf, wretched solitary being, ought to be in the forest.” However, in content, the gnome is not so simple. In order to interpret the gnome in a precise and proper way, modern readers should recognize the Anglo-Saxon’s way of thinking, their culture, and both their pagan and Christian belief in nature and God. “The wolf, wretched solitary being, is typically in the forest” is our interpretation; “The wolf, wretched solitary being, ought to be in the forest” is their interpretation.