Senses of the Past: The Old English Vocabulary of History

Senses of the Past: The Old English Vocabulary of History

By Catalin Taranu

Florilegium, Vol. 29 (2012)

Page from Beowulf, now at the British Library

Abstract: How did the Anglo-Saxons think about history? Following a new path in an attempt to answer this question, this study examines individual Old English words translatable as ‘history’ and used in verse and prose texts and in glosses, and explores the mental conceptualizations they reveal. The approach offers a novel perspective on the complex and sophisticated attitudes of Anglo-Saxon cultural communities towards history and towards the dialectic between the preservation and re-enactment of the past. Inspired by cognitive linguistics, this lexicographical and semantic analysis argues that, in spite of this variety of ideas, the basic conceptualizations of history are essentially the same across the boundaries of genre, culture, and literacy/orality.

Introduction: The Anglo-Saxons had a sophisticated and complex sense of history. That much is agreed upon by most Anglo-Saxonists today. The exact nature of this sense of the past, however, remains elusive and contradictory. The issue has been addressed repeatedly, not without significant results. Scholarship on this matter usually takes one of two paths which could be labelled ‘Bede’ and ‘Beowulf.’

The first approach sees Bede, in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, as the Anglo-Saxon representative of ‘standard’ early medieval historiography (together with Isidore of Seville, Gregory of Tours, and others), whose sense of the past was heavily informed by Latinate and Christian sensibilities, but who works with native material. The second sees Beowulf as the source of an original Anglo-Saxon understanding of history rooted in the legendary historical consciousness of Germanic heroic verse. For Bede (but also Ælfric or Alfred), history is a teleological (because divine) process of salvation of an entire gens — thus, historiography becomes a kind of “historical theology.” For the anonymous poets of Beowulf, The Fight at Finnsburg, and Waldere, history entails both re-creating the ancient world of the heroic age and, at the same time, mourning its passing, though it also involves negotiating present realities with its help.

Most scholars agree that there is a disjunction between these two cultural horizons and choose one or the other for framing their subject of enquiry. Under these conditions, modern understanding of the greater spectrum of Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards history is bound to be fragmented. There have been attempts to bridge this gap and to counter the assumption that ‘Bede’ and ‘Beowulf’ are antagonistic approaches to history (or, indeed, that they are the only possible ones), yet even the most extensive study to date still works with this dichotomy.

Click here to read this article from the University of New Brunswick

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