enigmatic literary history

Most Old English poetry survives in four manuscript books copied in the tenth or eleventh centuries. A handful of poems, beginning with Cædmon’s Hymn, are certainly earlier than that. But the great mass of Old English poetry can’t be placed before c. 900 without hedging and qualifications. It’s a sore point in the field. Imagine not knowing whether Shakespeare wrote before or after Austen. That’s the situation.

There was for a long time a standard model of Old English literary history; the standard model was comprehensively challenged in the 1980s; and the same model is now being reasserted, with updated evidence, by a vocal cadre of philologists. According to the standard model, Beowulf, Widsith, and other secular poems, plus Genesis A, predate other poems and testify to the lost splendor of eighth-century Northumbrian culture.

The most prominent category of evidence supporting the standard model is metrical form, which is how I came to enter the fray. I find metrical methods of dating Old English poetry to be self-defeatingly circular, because meter is a more historically responsive medium than these dating methods must assume. I said more or less all I want to say on the topic in chapter 1 of my first book. There’s a backstory to my position in the debate that involves various overlapping academic feuds dating back to the 1960s, but, like the Beowulf poet, I won’t say much about that.

Beyond the academic culture-war angle (“a struggle between historicists and humanists, Wissenschaft and Bildung, scholarship and life”*), there is a philosophical significance to the disagreement about poetic chronology. It’s a disagreement about whether it is legitimate to say, “We don’t know.” One side of the debate is much more comfortable saying that than the other side. I sense a discomfort with not knowing in certain scholars’ frustrated responses to the agnosticism that is now the default position in the field. It’s understandable. The protocols of positivism make it difficult to allow for inconclusions, phenomena scientists would describe as “not well understood.” But that understandable discomfort sometimes spills over into misrepresentation of opposing views. It’s easier to make out interlocutors to be misinformed “late daters” than to face the implications of the agnostic position. For a certain temperament, agnosticism just does not compute.

The reward for accepting the standard model is attractive: a literary and cultural history for pre-Conquest poetry in English, bringing Old English up to date with later periods of study, in which historical context is fundamental to interpretation. The historicists/philologists, again understandably, would like to reap this reward by bringing the newly defended historical contexts back to the interpretation of the poems that generated them. But many Old English scholars now do not believe there is sufficient evidence to accept a speculative reconstruction of the past. There are too many variables, and there is too much destructive history behind the desire to see poems about pagan warriors as predating poems about Christ. On the other hand, no alternative model of Old English literary history has emerged, either. The subject remains, for most of us, enigmatic.

I think there is value in exploring the discomfort of not knowing. Agnosticism is a legitimate response to the state of study, and it can’t be undermined by forcing a decision within preset parameters (“either it’s early or it’s late”). Our reading of Old English poetry can’t help but be guided by, either, the hard-won knowledge of when and where it was composed, or an overarching determination that this cannot be known at the present time. The dialectical play between speculation and deconstruction, assertion and negation, has led to some truly nasty moments in the recent history of the field, but that play is in principle a good way to refine and retest what we thought we knew. For now, agnostics must accept that new evidence, or newly compelling arguments, should impel them into the old consensus, or help forge a new one; “early daters” must accept that they have not convinced their colleagues.


*Sheldon Pollock, “Future Philology? The Fate of a Soft Science in a Hard World,” Critical Inquiry 35 (2009): 931-61, at p. 932.

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