Raising Cain in Genesis and Beowulf: Challenges to Generic Boundaries in Anglo-Saxon Biblical Literature
Estes, Heide (Monmouth University)
The Heroic Age: A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe, Vol.13 (2010)
Beowulf and other secular heroic poems in Old English are considered by most contemporary scholars to belong to a different genre than the poems based on Old Testament narratives. For the Anglo-Saxons, however, such a division of secular and biblical is artificial. As the eighth century turned to the ninth, Alcuin protested famously against the recitation of heroic literature, asking “Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?” [“What does Ingeld have to do with Christ?”] But it appears that the two scribes of the Nowell Codex, working two centuries later, shared no such compunction about a division between secular and sacred literatures. Poems such as Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon incorporate Biblical allusions, while saints’ lives and poetic renditions of Old Testament narratives borrow syntactic and discursive units from poems in the secular and heroic traditions. In the adaptation from Biblical Genesis to Anglo-Saxon poem, Abraham is re-imagined as a formidable warrior in the mold of Beowulf and Byrhtnoth. Rather than reading them as works opposed in purpose and audience, religious and secular, serious and popular, we must see the Old English Genesis and Beowulf as parts of the same inheritance in which Germanic and Biblical legacies are fused into a single cultural matrix.