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Anthropological Approaches to Old English Literature: A Special Issue.

This gathering of interdisciplinary essays does more than assume the efficacy of anthropological approaches to the literary productions of the most distant period in the history of English Literature. In many ways these essays argue directly for and demonstrate that efficacy. Poems such as Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon, Dream of the Rood and Widsith, along with prose texts and the texts of wills, charters, and laws come from what we might call an island in time, the cultures of which were themselves changing across time, yet, however changed from some earlier condition or mentality, still differ in significant ways from our own. At the least, anthropological approaches can become a kind of social philology, a study of archaic kinship, lordship, warrior to warrior and person to person values residing in the social vocabulary and behaviors, as dramatized in the literature, of an ancient time and place.

But such a rationale is not yet adequate. After all, social and literary historians, while not always rightly understanding what they note, have nevertheless noticed many of the features of this ancient literature in ways that set those features apart from our own behaviors and expectations. The language and actions of gift giving, the salience of the feud, the importance placed on honor, loyalty and the lord-retainer relationship, splendid material displays, marriage alliances and patterns between aristocratic groups, the socially tender kinship tie between sister's brother and sister's son, indeed, the importance of kinship ties, solidarity, and non-modern inheritance patterns generally--these and other features of the Anglo-Saxon social world as either functioning in or as especially addressed by the literature have been familiar to the social historian, who also now knows the political importance of genealogies and law codes, charters and wills.

So what can the particularly anthropological contribute to the work of the social historian and, increasingly, the literary historian attuned to historical contexts, political power, and material culture? The lines between disciplines are indeed blurry these days, compared to how matters stood just ten or fifteen years ago in literary studies devoted to the Anglo-Saxon period. But still some general differences might be sketched between ordinary social history, even if anthropologically assisted, and social history permeated by the kinds of questions anthropologists ask. In general, social historians, because of the nature of most of their documentary evidence, focus on the formations over time of centralized institutions, power centers, administrative arms, and thus the development of kingdoms and states. Social histories tend to be linear and politically minded in terms of tracing conflicts between groups and their outcomes. In contrast, anthropological contributions to social history recognize that people in non-state and even in early state societies live non-linear lives (where ideas of progress, change and development are not salient) and create non-linear histories pregnant with implicit as well as explicit social values drawn from the worlds of kinship-related, face to face relationships. Typically, anthropologists today focus intensively and non-structurally on small scale groups, on individuals in those groups and on "the interdependencies of sociopolitical patterning, economic conditions, and cultural belief."(1) A corollary to this is holism: if the place studied is small enough, "then it seem[s] self-evident to many anthropologists that everything that was relevant should be included and that nothing should be omitted, even if its significance was not immediately obvious."(2) When this focus joins a sequencing over time, ethnography can become incredibly dense. For example, the cultural world dramatized in Beowulf seems to connect otherwise unrelated practices (to the modern eye): gift exchange and feuding and warfare. Other aspects of the poem's internal world--the joy expressed in material wealth, the patrilineal marriage alliances, the importance of the sister's brother-sister's son tie, the role of genealogies, the identification of lord and retainer, the place of fathers--all participate in one way or another in the poem's economies of identity and exchange. Just beginning to trace those participations requires book-length treatment.(3) Imagine what some recent Beowulf scholarship implies regarding a ghost history of possible original, successive revisions, and late redaction. Let's say in a scholarly fantasy that we stumble across material versions of that proposed history, that we are fortunate enough to find three more versions of Beowulf roughly datable from the early eighth, the late ninth and the late tenth centuries. Say that we could roughly correlate those versions with different kingdoms, East Anglian, Mercian, and West Saxon respectively. Our task of anthropologically informed analysis would now grow exponentially as we shifted through each version in its sociopolitical, cultural context. Our studies would become dense indeed and would certainly include a sense of past cultures in "present" ones--perhaps another difference between an anthropological orientation and the linear, developmental orientation of many historians.

Yet, just here anthropological orientations can help the social historian understand the complex processes of kinship and small group, identity politics, where the role of personal honor is often an important link between individual and group senses of identity. Anthropologists looking at groups and individuals in small-scale societies and in early, centralizing states tend to focus on what is egalitarian, on the networks of exchange, on the ambitions and maneuverings of individual agents who see their own actions, at different social levels, as having limited effects, with no intended structural changes and no looked for social change at all. Social historians, in contrast, frequently begin with the official histories of centralizing, expanding states, histories that present individuals, families, and groups as involved in interrelated chains of events, logical changes, and developments of authority and power.

The people anthropologists study operate within networks of kinship, family groupings, clients and dependent or otherwise interested neighbors, doing so furthermore, within social, political, and cultural circumstances their actions seek to reproduce advantageously and thus secure as stable. Of course cultural circumstances can change even as agents try to reproduce them, which brings into play for many non-structuralist anthropologists the demands and capacities of contexts as well as of individual agents. Anthropologists thus now more than ever find themselves probing the contextually dependent, always shifting or changing, as well as subtly idiosyncratic complexities of actual or literarily represented social worlds. In doing so the investigator focuses on the social values inherent in social relationships and in institutional structures; he or she explores the capacities of social agents; and he or she follows out as closely as possible the changing social textures within which social agents act, in terms of which those agents maneuver, and in relation to which those agents establish their own priorities and meanings or else address and perhaps resolve particular crises.(4) This further implies differences the scholar needs to keep straight: those between the scholar's models, terms, and concepts, and the "norms" articulated within the groups studied, as well as those between the actual behaviors of individuals and groups and their stated norms.(5) For example, no character in Beowulf is merely a norm in action, not even Wiglaf in his role as loyal retainer coming to Beowulf's aid against the dragon. To become anthropologically minded, the social historian of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their literary productions needs to shift perspective away from the explanations for and justifications of the developing state. The historian needs to enter in ethnographically, becoming focused on small groups and the dynamics of exchange, honor, and manipulation peculiar to them and to the families they involve. The historian, then, needs to see how much the past is imbedded in the present; he needs to entertain change as inadvertent, time as structural rather than linear, and institutions as permeated by social and kinship relations rather than as overriding and subsuming them. Also, all relations, face to face and group to group, and all consequent practices and activities need to be seen as laden with implicit as well as explicit cultural values--the conserving, enhancing, and losing of honor being one of the most crucial. Moreover, how that is done in face to face relationships, in kinship contexts, in agricultural, crafts, trade, feuding or war making contexts, in relation to ruling families, big men, lords or nascent governors and kings, even in relation to foreigners and competing ethnic groups--these affairs matter greatly. Indeed, how something happens interactively and situationally in these local, social contexts, not necessarily why--is what marks the third major difference--after facing the extent to which the past is imbedded in the present and the ways in which time is structural and change unlooked for--between the analytical interests of many anthropologists and those of many historians. The holistic focus on local groups and the question regarding how something happens rather than necessarily why in a chain of causes and effects--these especially suit literary study where the texts already are culturally selective in what they do and where established methods of literary explication would aspire either to interrelate structurally or else integrate expansively all social values and features found in the text.

Moreover, social historians entering into ethnological considerations of how something happens and of the ways in which the past penetrates the present need to acquire more sensitivity to how a new, official culture--the Roman Church, for example--can over-optimistically or even delusively pronounce the end of what preceded it, indeed, continuing to do so, repeatedly, across the Christian centuries. In this such an institution may even seem "haunted by repetitions, recurrences, fixity, and continuation in cultural behavior."(6) What can appear instead of triumphalism on behalf of new institutions and new religions is the way in which older systems and rituals can both acquire new masters in new social and political contexts and yet remain meaningful in some of their former ways. One can look at rituals and other systems of behavior as modes of changing expression, not books of determined content or fixed meaning.

Similarly, events have a significance only apparent within a cultural scheme, a scheme often placed at risk by social action, such that even efforts to reproduce inherited cultural values may entail transformation of those values.(7) As cultures change in this way they "encompass the existentially unique in the conceptually familiar."(8) To explore that situation one needs to attend to "the practical realization of the cultural categories in a specific historical context, as expressed in the interested action of the historic agents, including the microsociology of their interaction." Cultural concepts are actively used and interpreted to engage the world. Using "conventional concepts in empirical contexts subjects the cultural meanings to practical revaluations." In a potentially refractory world the traditional categories can thus be unintentionally transformed. We have no guarantee that "intelligent and intentional subjects, with their several social interests and biographies will use the existing categories in prescribed ways."(9) Finally, a fully anthropological social and literary history, and thus social approaches to past societies and their literary texts, must face this phenomenon: "that the precise synthesis of past and present is relative to the cultural order, as manifested in a specific structure"(10) formed of the specific interests of interacting agents or, for literary dramas, of interacting characters and themes. Those interactions occur in a particular, historically (or else literarily) realized cultural or textual moment.

The essays that follow address Old English literature from within the several perspectives sketched above: the past is seen as penetrating the present; various practices, such as feud and gift exchange are analyzed for how they interconnect and are understood in each other's terms (David Day); accounts of feud are seen as presenting the specific interests in honor and group reformation of interacting agents (John Hill); old stories become ways of modeling cultural choices for characters facing personal dilemmas (Marijane Osborn); new institutions and new literatures both appropriate older forms and are affected by them even as they would replace the world views those forms carried (Craig Davis); a new psychology of pacifism has to insert itself into an antithetical tradition of violent defense and ruthless punishment (James Earl); an astonishing Anglo-Saxon origin myth is constructed out of a selective purveying of Continental and Roman story (John Niles); and the formative period of centralized state organization becomes the context for seeing how kinship and warband ties are appropriated and redirected with deliberate social development in mind (Peter Richardson)--this in sharp contrast to a study of how ancient kinship and inheritance systems might still operate in the cultural world dramatized in Beowulf as well as being evident in Anglo-Saxon wills (Stephen Glosecki).

The essays by Stephen Glosecki and Peter Richardson frame this gathering because they look in obverse directions: Glosecki toward a Germanic past for ways to understand some surprising traces of totemism; Richardson toward a future of state formation that involves the redirection of kinship ties as well as the reformation of thaneship. As Glosecki looks to the literature for the living presence of archaic social and cultural features, Richardson looks to much of the literature both as urging new practices and as reflecting, even exploring the cultural conflicts and mixed effects of change. The other essayists fall somewhere on this continuum, with Osborn and Hill toward the tradition-evoking end and Davis, Earl and Niles toward the reformative end. David Day seems to come out in the middle, defining feud as an institution within a temporarily fixed context--as understood by the Beowulf-poet--yet seeing feud on the poet's behalf as part of an ironic, tragic vision rather than as a cultural given.

While the Anglo-Saxon kinship system seems generally to be bilateral (one can inherit from either father's or mother's side), agnatically biased (at least at the aristocratic level), and lacking any clear evidence of corporate kindreds and clan holdings, Glosecki explores the extent to which one can find residues of the matrilineal in Beowulf, as especially reflected in the sister's-son avunculate, in Hygd's offer of the throne to Beowulf (in preference to her unready son), and in inheritence patterns not strongly patrilineal. His topic suggests the deep hold of a Germanic past on the Anglo-Saxon present in which Beowulf came into being.

The question is this: does the poem reflect something of the lingering influence of a primeval, matrilineal clan solidarity from the Germanic past? A definitive answer is not possible but several otherwise odd features in the poem become more explicable if we suppose the likelihood of an affirmative answer. For example, Glosecki points to ways in which Anglo-Saxon kinship vocabulary inside and outside the poem tends to telescope an individual's patrilineal and patrilateral kin together--a prominent feature of the so-called Crow kinship system. In this system matrilineal relatives are deemed consanguineal, while patrilineal relatives are not viewed as members of the individual's clan. Father's kindred has a less distinctive nomenclature compared to mother's (as in Beowulf) and wealth tends to come down the mother's side rather more than, or at least as much as, down the father's. For Beowulf this certainly hold's true as he acquires major wealth and prominence from his mother's brother, his lord and uncle, Hygelac; moreover, while Glosecki does not mention this (speculative) point, Beowulf especially sees to it that Wiglaf receives the Waegmunding properties and folkrights previously held by Weohstan (and in this connection, as Glosecki knows, we need to ask what such folkright is and what is the extent and reality of the Anglo-Saxon maegp--seemingly a corporate kinship group--or is it something else?). Weohstan is Wiglaf's father and loyal retainer to Onela of the Swedes. Whereas Beowulf's mother is a Geat, perhaps Beowulf's grandmother (unmentioned) was a Waegmunding, his father, Ecgpeow, a Swede.

In some Anglo-Saxon wills nephews inherit as much and sometimes much more than sons do; Anglo-Saxon noblewomen enjoy much more power in matters of inheritance before the Conquest than after; daughters may receive considerable patrimony. These observations in Glosecki's essay, combined with Hygd's startling offer of the kingdom to Beowulf and the prominent place in the poem's affective mapping of the sister's-brother, sister's-son tie, support Glosecki in his speculations about the continuing and perhaps confusing influence from a deep past of a kinship and inheritance structure no longer overtly prominent in Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In Beowulf itself the father-son tie is obviously important, but as much for matters of immediate identity as for anything else. Glosecki's speculations are fertile because they have many possible extensions, providing a new way of understanding such matters as the superfluity of Beowulfs father in Beowulf's life. We might reassess Wealhtheow's willingness to propose Hrothulf (Hrothgar's brother's son) as a guardian or even successor should Hrothgar die (over her own sons). We should certainly reassess the apparently unexceptionable nature of Hygd's offer of the kingdom to Beowulf, along with the strange case of Hrethel, who cannot avenge one son's death by another son's hand and who consequently does not love the surviving son. When he dies, who finally does inherit his goods and lands? He leaves them to his "offspring" or perhaps his retainers. Finally we should consider again the seemingly gratuitous mention of a non-existent son by the dying Beowulf, who instead of giving to a son gives all of his war trappings to his now especially beloved kinsman, Wiglaf, a Waegmunding and one of AElfhere's kinsman (thus perhaps giving to a matriline one generation removed).

David Day works directly with Beowulf in an effort to define exactly what the state of affairs is that the poet calls a feud. Anthropologists and legal scholars have difficulty defining just what a feud is--as distinct, say, from raiding behavior or from generalized warfare between neighboring peoples. The Beowulf-poet focuses on feuds that seem to resist efforts at closure, such as the in-law incidents we know as the Finn digression and Beowulf's speculation regarding Freawaru's marriage to Ingeld of the Heathobeards. While these might attract his attention because they are possibly anomalous dramas, interesting for reasons other than their implications as feuds, they need to be considered prominently in any definition of feud and its workings in the poem.

In Beowulf a "feud" emerges from an otherwise only violent event when there is either repetition of the violence or else the thought and then the actuality of retaliation. For Day, feuds in the poem have three defining characteristics: they are reciprocal--involving an ongoing relationship of violent exchange between two groups; they define or else are touchstones for defining all other relationships between the feuding groups (exchange as a metaphor for gift giving as well as for retaliatory violence); and they serve the poet as a trope for irony and tragedy.

On this third point Day moves from a structural account of feud in the poem to an overall ,orientation regarding all of the instances of feud on the poet's behalf. In doing so he engages complex issues of theme, tone, and ironic perspective--all of which is open to speculation. In contrast, John M. Hill analyzes the stories of in-law feud in Beowulf in ways that both highlight the personal and social psychology of individual agents and situate them in contextually particularized circumstances. The two stories of in-law feud are not varying instances of a general type. Moreover, while noting the poet's ambivalence about some aspects of feud, he finds nothing ironic in the in-law stories taken as wholes. Instead he sees the poet exploring complex, in part similar, but also significantly different scenes of violence in the course of which individual and group honor is challenged and reformed. This reformation is what the scenes finally have in common--a reformation the poet does not treat either ironically or tragically. The in-law feuds, in consequence, conform to Day's structural definition of feud in Beowulf but not, Hill would argue, to Day's literary interpretation of the poet's ostensibly tragic point of view.

If the Beowulf-poet is conservative in his view of feud, he is even more traditional and centered in an oral culture when he has characters, Wealhlpeow and Hygd especially, use stories they hear as a way of mirroring possible behaviors for themselves. Marijane Osborn explores what seem to be the "special reflexive mechanisms for mirroring and monitoring behavior in a culture" (Victor Turner) that inhere in the stories Wealhpeow and Hygd deal with. Considering an Apache expression, one can be "stalked" by stories that pose behavioral cues and norms and are attached to familiar places or topographies--not to fantastical other worlds. Being personally stalked in this way, one can recall how to live right, having found, perhaps, an "adequate symbolization" of one's life story in an appropriated narrative. This is what the Beowulf-poet's characters seek--whether Beowulf himself in his encounter with Hunfer??, Wealhpeow listening to the story of Hildeburh's disaster, or Hygd weighing, as Osborn would have it, contrasting stories about pry??. The stories these characters either tell or listen to are ostensibly about real people, an authenticating fact that magnifies their affective as well as behavior shaping power.

In contrast to Osborn's focus on behavior within a culture in terms of that culture's storied values, Craig Davis looks to the prospect of historical and cultural change whereby a Germanic plot of fatal history seems to give way to an equally pressing Christian plot of eventuality. Applied to The Battle of Maldon this view leads Davis into an analysis of just how "different cultures" project different historicities (taking a cue from Marshall Sahlins' Islands of History). In Maldon, the poet, according to Davis's reading, conflates the Germanic plot of history with Christian expectations of eventuality. The Maldo-poet leaves Byrthnoth's death structurally overdetermined by the competing traditions of glorious death (Germanic) and a Christian tradition of the good death defining a good life. This overdetermination leads Davis to an interesting reopening of the long debate over Byrthnoth's ofermod (bad pride, excessive boldness? Sin?). Davis's analysis does not completely reconcile different systems of values, nor does the poet. Yet, according to Davis, the poet would have us assay an uneasy joining of old and new forms. The poet invokes the "brave last stand of traditional legend but allows its association with the downfall of the proud. Then he simply subsumes both potentialities in his hero's heavenward gaze." For Davis The Battle of Maldon is a "partial, limited, disturbed" reflection of Germanic tradition, which was itself a constrained and problematic component by the late tenth century of Anglo-Saxon culture.

A similar but even more dramatic strain appears for James w. Earl in AElfric's "Passion of St. Edmund." There Earl finds several cultural collisions: one between Anglo-Saxon Christian models and Viking (blood-eagle) violence, the blood-eagle not fitting well into the typological contours of hagiographic violence; and another between an AElfric committed to pacifism and the Anglo-Saxon idea of the warrior king. In Earl's analysis, AElfric mainly sees Viking attacks as occasions for virtuous suffering. Accordingly, AElfric would champion a "royal pacifsm" where the king, like Edward, would be a martyr not a battlefield commander, showing that faith is stronger than stone walls, that monks do not fight. This essay is a study in the mental character of belief in a particular Anglo-Saxon setting--a cultural setting at odds with traditional ideas of royal behavior. But AElfric's commitment to non-violence is not without psychological consequences. It requires a repression of aggression and sexual instinct that in turn generates considerable, expectant anxiety--an anxiety that would seize the future. The ethnopsychology Earl approaches in AElfric's late, Anglo-Saxon Christianity is "more death-driven than modern psychology [would have it be], more dependent on sublimation, more in thrall to a collective superego."

Some kind of collectivity informs much of what goes on in traditional, small group societies and in the myths and stories they form for themselves. Often this collectivity is both psychological and incorporating--that is, it would see the present in terms of a projected past, that past in terms of an idealized present. John D. Niles has something of this phenomenon in mind when he inquires into Widsith's relationship to the emerging social order that produced it. He develops a remarkable view of the poem as an Anglo-Saxon effort at what we might call "the anthropology of the past." He sees Widsith as an act of connection--connecting a tenth-century social order to an imagined period of racial or tribal origins, in the process lending to an emerging social order "both the patina of antiquity and an aura of rightness or inevitability." In part the prominent device in the poem, listing, abets this work by allowing the poet both to select which names survive from the legendary past and to "naturalize" fame as though it were "part of the eternal order of things rather than being a cultural construction." Widsith "filters" knowledge of the past so as to settle desirably the possible rivalries particular groups have with each other. In the course of the poem something like the contours of a "greater Anglia" emerges, Niles argues, doing so mainly through the device of the family of "Eadwine." Through that family, Widsith projects ancestors of the English into "The two crucial events of late Roman times: the rise and fall of Ermanric's Goths and the eventual fall of Rome itself."

Through this "playful fiction," late Anglo-Saxon politics and an emergent sense of English national identity can "find expression in an act of mythopoesis whereby a real or desired order of things is projected, thinly disguised, into a formative period of the past." Thus a society moves culturally toward an emerging sense of itself and back into an ancient (eagerly constructed) heritage simultaneously. In "Making Thanes: Literature, Rhetoric, and State Formation in Anglo-Saxon England," Peter Richardson charts a forward trajectory that anticipates the "modernism," if you will, of centralized lordship, kingship, and state formation. But in showing how Anglo-Saxon poems script rather than merely reflect values, Richardson shows how the best poems treat rather than merely propagandize for political and social change.

Those poems, perhaps Beowulf chief among them, imagine the change that has taken place in terms of the complexities and dramatic consequences that follow the changes that accompany the processes of state formation as what was once a kin-based society given to feud and self help becomes more like a centralized state. For Richardson, we can get at much of what is imagined and confronted by attending closely to implicit patterns of audience identification, as induced through the manipulation of narrative perspective. This is a rhetorical process that depends in part on prior, poetical intention in that perspective is manipulated. But audience identification is another matter entirely when considered in itself. The complex workings of these two processes yield open-ended meditations on change and move us about as far as we can go in the Anglo-Saxon period from Glosecki's backward looking reconstructions of an ancient matriliny.

I hope this brief overview whets the reader's appetite for the rich, complex essays to which my summarizing remarks do not do justice. Each essay is a significant contribution to and a demonstration of the insights that accrue to this newly invigorated intersection of disciplines: the anthropological approach to literary texts.



(1) Marilyn Silverman and P. H. Gulliver, eds. Approaching the Past: Historical Anthropology through Irish Case Studies (Columbia U. Press, 1992), 23. An older school of anthropology saw its ties to history unproblematically. Both disciplines told stories; both had some interest, functionalist, anthropology aside, in cultural change. However, according to Margaret T. Hodgen, many of the leading figures in English structuralist anthropology--such as E. E. Evans-Pritchard--simply did not appreciate the problem of tracking cultural sequences across time. See Hodgen, Anthropology, History, and Cultural Change (U. of Arizona Press, 1974), 23-27.

(2) Silverman and Gulliver, 32.

(3) See John M. Hill, The Cultural World in Beowulf (U. of Toronto Press, 1995).

(4) Sandra Wallman, "Appropriate Anthropology," After Writing Culture: Epistemology and Praxis in Contemporary Anthropology, ed. Allison James, Jenny Hockey, and Andrew Dawson (London: Routledge, 1997), 244-63.

(5) Silverman and Gulliver, 44-45.

(6) Joao de Pina-Cabral, "The Gods of the Gentiles are Demons: The Problems of Pagan Survivals in European Culture," Other Histories, ed. Kirsten Hastrup (London: Routledge, 1992), 52.

(7) Other Histories, 116.

(8) Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History (U. of Chicago Press, 1987), 146.

(9) Ibid., 145.

(10) Ibid., 153.
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Author:HILL, JOHN M.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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