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Life, Literature and Prayer in Early Anglo-Saxon England

Life, Literature and Prayer in Early Anglo-Saxon England

By Imogen Volkofsky

PhD Dissertation, University of Sydney, 2017

Miniature of St. Peter Enthroned in ‘Aelfwine’s Prayerbook’

Abstract: This thesis deals with the representation of prayer in literary texts from early Anglo-Saxon England, investigating the role of reading in the life of prayer and the various ways in which literary texts from the eighth and ninth centuries attest to cultures of prayer in this period.

Chapter One looks at writings about saints, especially Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and a number of early saints’ lives, to identify the features most common to early Anglo-Saxon prayer. Prayer, in these texts, is most frequently ascetic and extra-liturgical, with an emphasis on the night vigil as the most important form of private devotion and a keen interest in the sanctification of time and space through prayer and communion with the saints. The representation of prayer in these texts represents both ideal and reality and, as this chapter argues, part of the purpose of these texts was to teach people how to pray.

Chapter Two looks to the prayers of the ninth-century Mercian tradition, preserved in four private prayer books: Cambridge, University Library Ll.I.10 (The Book of Cerne), B.L., Harley 2965 (The Book of Nunnaminster), B.L., Royal 2.A.XX (The Royal Prayer Book), B.L., Harley 7653 (The Harley Fragment). This chapter investigates the way in which these books encourage meditative engagement with the Gospels through reading. These books focus on penance, the person of Christ, the Incarnation, the Passion and Judgment, themes that also emerge in Old English literary volumes.

Chapter Three turns to the Old English poems of Junius 11, suggesting that prayer is central to the purpose of Junius 11’s construction. This chapter argues that the manuscript as a whole is centred on the theme of moral behaviour and the appropriate response to God, on the one hand, and the rejection of God and judgment, on the other. Thus, the manuscript frequently juxtaposes the prayers of the Old Testament figures and, in Christ and Satan, the prayers of the saints with the ‘anti-prayers’ of God’s enemies. In this way, the volume is preoccupied with the contemplation of judgment as well as with redemption. Furthermore, the volume bears witness to some aspects of the practice of prayer contemporary with the composition of each poem.


Finally, Chapter Four discusses the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood in light of the ascetic, penitential and Christological focus of eighth- and ninth-century Anglo-Saxon prayers discussed so far in this thesis. This chapter argues that The Dream of the Rood is a poem about prayer and that its setting draws on conventional descriptions of the night vigil, which are discussed at length in Chapter One, and that the visionary experience of the dreamer represents a sustained poetic reflection on the kinds of meditative contemplation to which the Mercian prayer books bear witness.

Click here to read this dissertation from the University of Sydney

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