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The gnomic woman in Old English poetry.

The term "gnomic" is an ambiguous one, connoting in folklore and popular culture "pertaining to earth-dwelling, dwarf-like creatures," but in its etymological sense having to do with understanding and spoken wisdom. This study is concerned neither with non-human beings, nor with any detailed characterization of human women as utterers of wisdom, although it will touch on aspects of women and wise or unwise counselling; what I do intend to examine is simply the portrayal of women as they appear in Old English gnomic poetry. The resulting composite figure is thus referred to as "the gnomic woman" in order to distinguish her from female characters appearing in other genres of Old English literature.

A substantial, developing body of scholarship attempts to relate Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards, and conceptions of women to their reflection in the literature; nevertheless, it is important to recognize some limitations of this approach. (1) First, we must acknowledge that the portrait of women in Old English literature reflects predominantly, or perhaps even exclusively, male attitudes. As there is, unfortunately, scant evidence to support female authorship of any extant Old English poetry, we must regret the lack of any sure poetic indication about how AngloSaxon women perceived themselves. (2)

Secondly, much of Old English poetry, especially those works in which female characters figure prominently, was influenced by a non-native--that is, Christian-Latin--tradition. In some cases, this juxtapositioning of traditions can work to the advantage of the modern scholar, if one can compare a figure as she appears in the Latin tradition to her counterpart in Old English: Eve, in Genesis B, is an obvious example. (3) However, not all poets felt as comfortable in the manipulation of their material as did the poet of Genesis B, so many of the apparent attitudes towards women in Old English poetry are, in fact, those of the Christian-Latin intellectual tradition. (4) The degree to which the average AngloSaxon accepted or rejected these attitudes becomes a matter for social historians.

Finally, there remains the problem of genre, which many studies of women in Old English literature leave unmentioned or only lightly touched. While Wealhtheow and the unnamed speaker of the Wife's Lament may in fact share characterizing features in common, both of their portrayals are nevertheless affected by the complexes of expectations surrounding the genres--heroic narrative versus elegy--in which they appear. The critical desire to synthesize whatever scant information may be available is praiseworthy, is indeed necessary to a certain degree, yet in some ways the cross-generic comparison of female characters simply because they are female characters can result in a false analogy.

Of these three methodological difficulties, two can be resolved, at least in part, by examining the portrayal of Anglo-Saxon women only in the gnomic poetry. The corpus of Christian Latin wisdom literature (including individually-occurring proverbs) is sufficiently large, and sufficiently monolithic in its presentation of women, that a comparison to the Old English gnomic corpus can be easily and reliably made. The problem of generic variation is likewise minimized by studying only the gnomic poems; this limited corpus reflects its own set of conventions, which may be analyzed and compared to those of analogous corpora. The resulting conclusions will not be valid for the entire body of Old English literature, but they will offer insight into a specific and informative portion of it. The initial interpretative limitation, that of the exclusively male viewpoint, remains inescapable, as Old English gnomic poetry treats of women only in the context of their relationships with men, and therefore seems to reflect predominantly masculine interests.

The corpus of Old English gnomic poetry, defined strictly as a subset of wisdom poetry consisting of works made up entirely, or almost entirely, of gnomes, maxims, or sententiae, contains three poems: Precepts, Maxims I, and Maxims II. (5) Of the eight gnomic passages pertaining specifically to women, only one--that in the poem Precepts--relies on the extensive Latin proverbial tradition of antifeminism:
   Druncen beorg pe ond dollic word,
   man on mode ond in mupe lyge,
   yrre ond aefeste ond idese lufen.
   Foroon sceal aewiscmod oft sipian,
   se pe gewiteo in wifes lufan,
   fremdre meowlan. Paer bio a firena wen,
   laolicre scome, long nio wio god,
   geotende gielp. Wes pu a giedda wis,
   waer wio willan, worda hyrde. (6)

[Preserve yourself from drunkenness and rash words, from evil in the mind and lies in the mouth, from anger and envy and the love of women. For he will often be ashamed, he who engages in love of a woman, of a foreign (or strange) maiden. In this there is always expectation of sin, of terrible shame, long enmity with God, overwhelming pride. Be always wise in speech, wary of desire, a watcher of words.]

Elaine Tuttle Hansen has linked this poem with the traditionally antifeminist genre of instructional literature, (7) and more recently, Sandra McEntire has presented a cogent case for interpreting Precepts as a specifically monastic instruction. (8) McEntire's argument for a monastic setting clarifies the single crux in this passage of the poem, as she presents evidence for understanding the "fremdre meowlan" of line 39a not necessarily as a foreign-born siren, but simply as a woman unrelated to the monk being addressed, whose chastity would be more secure among females of his kin.

Perhaps the most curious aspect of the passage from Precepts is its generalized warning against women; women are not blamed for any particular faults, but association with them is presented as leading inexorably into sin and shame. This feature in itself may argue for a monastic (or at least ecclesiastic) provenance. Such blanket condemnations of women appear profusely throughout the Latin proverbial tradition, in formulations such as these:
   Femina nulla bona, vel si bona contigit ulla,
   Nescio quo fato res mala facta bona.

   Femina corpus, opes, animam, vim, lumina, vocem:
   Polluit, annihilat, necat, eripit, orbat, acerbat. (9)

The first of these sententiae ("A woman is no good, or if she contains any goodness, I don't know how an evil thing is made good") is collected from an eleventh-century St. Gall manuscript, while the second CWoman pollutes the body, destroys wealth, kills the soul, wrecks vigor, eliminates light, embitters the voice") represents one variant of a very widespread proverbial construction.

The medieval Latin proverbial tradition is easy to characterize as it relates to women: it is (almost) entirely misogynistic. A survey of Hans Walther's vast collection of Latin proverbs reveals several trends. First, women face unmitigated condemnation (as above); secondly, women are castigated for specific faults like lust, deceit, or talkativeness. A frequent proverbial contrast is that between Eve and the Virgin Mary, neither of whom needs to be mentioned by name. For example, we find sententiae such as: "Femina causa fuit, cur homo ruit a paradiso! / Qua redit ad vitam femina causa fuit" [Woman was the reason man fell from paradise; woman was the reason he returned to life], or simply, "Femina, que clausit portam vite, reseravit" [Woman, who closed the door of life, opened it]. (10) Still, the attitude towards normal, secular women in the Latin tradition is so unfailingly vicious that even Hans Walther, who rarely commented on the content of the proverbs he collected, noted with surprise that one proverb he found, a proverb describing women as gentle, sweet, and worthy of veneration, was, for a change, not misogynistic. (11)

It is this very homogeneity of certain proverbial traditions, or of certain aspects of a single tradition, that allows us to generalize about gnomic poetry (and sententiae of all sorts) in Old English. Unlike the variety of proverbs available in the modern period, where the instructions of competing proverbs may cancel each other out, the corpus of proverbs and gnomes in Old English displays a marked concord. Having examined (in a separate study) some thirty-one proverbial or sentential passages of Beowulf, (12) I have found that nowhere do they contradict each other or any other preserved Old English sententia. The same lack of contradiction may obtain for the entire corpus of Old English gnomes. Thus, the antifeminism of Precepts may be explained as deriving from the Latin proverbial and instructional tradition, in contrast to the other Old English gnomic statements about women, which seem to reflect a different, perhaps native Anglo-Saxon tradition. The Christian-Latin influence affecting Precepts extends beyond its pronouncements about women, to its decalogue form and emphasis on morality; these features remove the poem still further from the rest of the Old English gnomic corpus, on which the remainder of this study will focus.

The most elemental, or least socially-conditioned, role for Anglo-Saxon women is motherhood, as presented in Maxims I:
      Tu beod gemaeccan;
   sceal wif ond wer in woruld cennan
   bearn mid gebyrdum. Beam sceal on eordan
   leafum lipan, leomu gnornian. (13)

The passage begins, "Two are a pair; a woman and man must bring children into the world through birth." The same pronouncement appears in another Exeter Book poem, The Fortunes of Men, without the modal verb:
   Ful oft paet gegonged, mid godes meahtum,
   paette wer ond wif in woruld cennad
   bearn mid gebyrdum. (14)

[It often happens, through the power of God, that a man and woman bring a child into the world through birth.]

The passage from Maxims I presents no interpretative difficulties when viewed as a self-contained utterance, but critics have differed in their opinions as to how (or whether) these lines relate to those immediately following: "A tree on the earth must lose its leaves, mourn for its limbs." Stanley Greenfield and Daniel Calder suggest that "The tree gnome is perhaps a vivid image for parents mourning the death of children"; (15) the same reading had been suggested and subsequently rejected by Blanche Colton Williams more than seventy years earlier. (16) As one would be hard pressed to choose between the interpretative acuity of Williams on the one hand, and Greenfield and Calder on the other, it seems necessary to consider such analogues as exist for this arboreal image and draw any conclusions from them.

In Old Norse-Icelandic poetry, men and women are frequently designated by kennings deriving from words for trees, a metaphorical linking that may or may not have been initiated by, but certainly bears some relationship to, the myth in which the first humans--Askr and Embla--are created from the trees that give them their names. (17) However, another, more specific metaphorical complex exists in which the "lonely tree" represents a man or woman bereft of friends or family. This image in Old Norse has been discussed in detail by other scholars, (18) but we might observe its general outlines here, beginning with a strophe from Sonatorrek:
   Pvit aett min
   a enda stendr,
   sem hlynir marka:
   esa karskr madr
   sas koggla berr
   fraenda hrors
   af fletjum nidr. (19)

In this passage, Egill Skalla-Grimsson laments his dead sons as if he were left with no remaining offspring, which he is not: "Because my line stands at an end, like the beaten down forest maple: That man is unhappy whose hands bear a kinsman's corpse down from his house." In Hamoismal, Guorun regrets her many familial losses as part of her incitement of her sons to avenge the death of their sister:
   Einstoed em ec ordin sem osp i holti,
   fallin at froendom sem fura at qvisti,
   vadin at vilia sem vidr at laufi,
   pa er in qvistscoeda komr um dag varman. (20)

[I am left alone like an aspen in the forest, deprived of kin like a fir-tree of limbs, robbed of joy like a tree of leaves when a branch-robber comes on a summer's day.]

In Gudrunarqvida onnur, Atli recounts a dream predicting the murder of his sons:
   Hugda ec her i tuni teina fallna,
   pa er ek vildigac vaxna lata,
   rifnir med rotom, rodnir i blodi,
   bornir a becci, bedit mic at tyggva. (21)

[I thought that young trees fell here in the yard, those that I had wished to ler grow; they were torn up by the roots, reddened with blood, borne to the bench; you bade me to eat them.]

Finally, the poet of Havamal provides a generalized description of a man who lacks support from friends or family:
   Hrornar poll,
   su er stendr porpi a,
   hlyra henni borcr ne barr;

   sva er madr,
   sa er mangi ann,
   hvat scal hann lengi lifa? (22)

[The tree withers, that which stands on the hill(?), neither bark nor needles protect it; so it is for the man whom no one loves, how shall he live for long?]

Most commonly, then, the "lonely tree" image involves the representation of a bereaved parent as the trunk of a tree, while the deceased children are symbolized by leaves or branches.

Returning to Old English wisdom poetry, I would suggest that this same tree image may underlie that section of Solomon and Saturn II where Solomon describes old age to Saturn:
   Beam heo abreoted and bebriced telgum,
   astyred standendne stefn on side,
   afilled hine on foldan; (23)

[Old age ("heo") destroys the tree and shatters the branches, moves the standing trunk in turn (or, in death), fells it on the earth.]

We may perhaps understand this passage as a description, in the riddling language typical of Solomon and Saturn II, of the ravages inflicted by time and age on a family--both parents and children, trunk and branches.

The poet of Genesis A, normally a straightforward paraphraser, evokes the tree-image in a single half-line, but significantly, in a place where such an image does not occur in his biblical text (Genesis 17.20). At Abraham's request, God promises to bless Ismael with a long life and numerous offspring:
      paet feorhdaga
   on woruldrice worn gebide,
   tanum tudre. (24)

[so that he may experience many days of life in the world, with branching offspring.]

The brevity of the poet's reference, and its contextual originality, seem to imply that the image existed as a native metaphor easily recognized by the audience. Finally, further support for the presence of this image in an insular context appears in the work of Gildas, in a harangue against Aurelius Caninus: "Relictus, quaeso, iam solus ac si arbor in medio campo arescens" ("You are left like a solitary tree, withering in the middle of the field"). (25) Gildas explicates the image by reminding Aurelius of the deaths of his father and brothers, and alluding to the deaths of his children.

If this widespread tree-as-family metaphor does in fact inform our passage of Maxims I, then the portrait of motherhood (and fatherhood) provided by these lines expands somewhat to include the image of a parent lamenting her lost children. This specific role of mourning mother can be found elsewhere in Anglo-Saxon wisdom poetry: in The Fortunes of Men (lines 13-14, 46-47), Solomon and Saturn II (lines 193-208), and The Descent into Hell (lines 4-9). (26)

A frequent feature of Anglo-Saxon gnomic poetry is the enumeration of the equipment and ornaments appropriate to persons of various occupations and stations. According to the poet of Maxims I, treasure ora jewel befits a queen, and a ring belongs with a bride:
   Gold gerisep on guman sweorde,
   sellic sigesceorp, sinc on cwene,
   god scop gumum, garnip werum,
   wig towipre wicfreopa healdan.
   Scyld sceal cempan, sceaft reafere,
   sceal bryde beag, bec leornere. (27) [emphasis mine]

[Gold belongs on a man's sword, the rare victory-ornament, a jewel on a queen, a good poet among men, conflict between men, to wage battle against a siege. A shield must belong to a champion, a spear for a plunderer, a ring must belong to a bride, books for the student.]

Like the warrior's sword or student's books, both jewel and ring function here as badges of station. The possession of rings by wives appears also in Soul and Body I, where the soul informs the rotting body that nothing will avail to remove it from its present state, not gold nor silver nor any of its goods, not the ring of its wife, nor its former wealth. (28)

This consistent portrait of married women as the owners of rings may perhaps soften the picture of royal marriage presented earlier in Maxims I:
   Cyning sceal mid ceape cwene gebicgan,
   bunum ond beagum; bu sceolon aerest
   geofum god wesan. (29)

[A king must pay for a queen with goods, with cups and rings; both should first be good with gifts.]

The image of a queen being "bought" initially jars a modern sensibility, but the more recent commentators on this passage have stressed that the "purchasing" of a queen implies no derogation of her status. (30) However, the details of the exchange--especially the several potential recipients of the goods--are generally left unexplicated. Comparison with the portions of Maxims I and Soul and Body I cited above indicates that the "goods" changing hands in this passage, goblets and rings, are appropriate to women in the Anglo-Saxon gnomic world, so it is likely that the king "pays for" the queen by presenting her with gifts, perhaps a morgengifu, or morning-gift. Likewise, the pronouncement that the royal couple should first be good with gifts may refer to the proper process for establishing their marriage, that is, an exchange of gifts by the couple themselves.

The extent to which the portrait of betrothal and marriage in Maxims I reflects, or is illuminated by, actual practice is difficult to determine. A complete survey of Anglo-Saxon marriage customs is far beyond the scope of this paper, but Andreas Fischer has examined the pertinent evidence, which seems to reflect changing customs as the period progresses. Fischer finds that the earliest laws reveal marriage as a contract between the prospective bridegroom and the woman's male guardian, but later in the period, it seems that the payments or gifts made in consideration of such a contract pass from the bridegroom to the woman herself. (31) Maxims I is an undated (and probably undateable) poem, but there is no a priori reason to reject a background for this passage in the later type of bride-price.

The remainder of the passage presents few difficulties:
      Gud sceal in eorle,
   wig geweaxan, ond wif gepeon
   leof mid hyre leodum, leohtmod wesan,
   rune healdan, rumheort beon
   mearum ond mapmum, meodoraedenne
   for gesidmaegen symle aeghwaer
   eodor aepelinga aerest gegretan,
   forman fulle to frean hond
   ricene geraecan, ond him raed witan
   boldagendum baem aetsomne. (32)

[War and battle should flourish in a nobleman, and a woman thrive beloved among her people; she should be cheerful, (33) keep secret knowledge, be generous with horses and treasure; (34) when dealing mead before the band of warriors at each feast she should first greet the leader of princes, first offer the cup quickly to the hand of the lord, and keep counsel with him, both homeowners together.]

This passage establishes norms for a noblewoman's relationship to her husband and his retainers: publicly, she should cheerfully deal gifts and reinforce the position of her husband through the cup-bearing ritual; (35) privately, she should keep her husband's secrets and share with him the process of decision-making. In the encouragement of female counsel, Maxims I differs significantly from the non-Anglo-Saxon sentential tradition. For example, medieval Latin proverbs declare repeatedly that women, and especially wives, are incapable of keeping secrets; men are warned "Uxori temere noli mandare secretum! / Vix in corde suo tenet illa luce quietum" (36) [Do not casually confide a secret to your wife! Hardly for a day will she keep it quiet in her heart]. In the Latin proverbial corpus, women are linked with fools in this regard: we learn that "Femina nil celat quod habet sub corde revelat" [A woman hides nothing, what she has in her heart she reveals], but elsewhere, the same proverb appears with "Stultus" replacing "Femina." (37) Women in the sagas are not shy about offering advice, but one of the most famous proverbs in Old Icelandic warns that "Kold eru kvenna rad" (38) [Cold are the counsels of women]. Celtic gnomes also advise men against sharing their secrets with women, characterizing the latter as "silly counsellors" (baetha comairle) and "not to be trusted with a secret" (etairise rune). (39) No other early-medieval, European, gnomic tradition presents feminine counsel in the positive light of the Old English gnomic poems.

Immediately following this regal portrait in Maxims I, and providing a corresponding norm for a wife of non-royal status, is the famous "Frisian wife" passage:
   Scip sceal genaegled, scyld gebunden,
   leoht linden bord, leof wilcuma
   Frysan wife, ponne flota stonded;
   bip his ceol cumen ond hyre ceorl to ham,
   agen aetgeofa, ond heo hine in ladap,
   waesced his warig hraegl ond him sylep waede niwe,
   lip him on londe paes his lufu baeded. (40)

[A ship must be nailed, a shield bound, the light linden board; the beloved should be welcome to the Frisian wife when the fleet lands; his ship has come in, and her husband is home, her own provider, and she leads him in, washes his dirty garment and gives him new clothes, gives him on land what his love asks.]

Thus far the passage is clear enough: the Frisian husband represents sailors in general, (41) with his ethnic origin being provided perhaps also to distinguish his status from that of the Anglo-Saxon nobleman of the preceding lines; the Frisian wife performs domestic duties in order to make her husband comfortable.

Having provided extended portraits of the behavior expected of both noble and non-noble wives, the poet of Maxims I goes on to generalize about the difference between appropriate and inappropriate female behavior:
   Wif sceal wip wer waere gehealdan, oft hi mon wommum belihd;
   fela bid faesthydigra, fela bid fyrwetgeornra,
   freod hy fremde monnan, ponne se oper feor gewitep. (42)

[A wife should keep faith with her husband, often she is accused of wrongdoing; many are steadfast, many are curious, they love strange men when the other travels afar.]

Again one finds the sense of balance typical of Maxims I--some women are faithful to their husbands, others are not--and just as the poet predicted the result of proper queenly behavior (she will gepeon leof mid hyre leodum), be warns of the trouble awaiting a seemingly unchaste wife (her reputation will be blackened). But unlike the descriptions of male/female relations in Havamal, where it is admitted that both men and women are prone to deceit, (43) the Frisian wife passage concludes with a portrait of the lonely sailor-husband. The lack of moral instruction for husbands indicates that the primary purpose of the passage as a whole is to describe and prescribe the behavior of women as wives.

Maxims I provides one other instance of the link between female travel and gossip:
      Faemne aet hyre bordan gerised;
   widgongel wif word gespringed, oft hy mon wommum belihd,
   haeled hy hospe maenad, oft hyre hleor abreoped. (44)

[A woman belongs at her table (or, embroidery), a wide-roving wife gives rise to words, often she is accused of wrongdoing, men reproach her, often her cheek (or, face) perishes (or, is destroyed or decays).]

The exact translation of these lines remains a much vexed question, but comparison with the Frisian wife passage provides a general sense: women should stay home, lest they acquire a reputation for faithlessness.

Thus armed with the descriptions of, and advice for women in Maxims I, we may approach our final, but perhaps most enigmatic gnomic woman, the ides of Maxims H:
      Ides sceal dyrne craefte,
   faemne hire freond gesecean, gif heo nelle on folce gepeon
   paet hi man beagum gebicge. (45)

Scholarly opinion varies as to the burden of these lines, but a literal translation runs as follows: "A lady, a young woman, must [or, should] seek out her lover by secret skill, if she does not wish to thrive among the people such that a man might pay for her with rings." A crucial issue for the interpretation of this passage is whether it endorses or condemns the behavior of the ides in avoiding marriage. (46) Opinions range from that of Christine Fell--that the maxim urges women to independent action (47)--to that of E. V. K. Dobbie--that the intent of the passage is ironic and negative. (48) If, as I suggested at the outset of this paper, gnomic poetry in Old English presents a unified worldview, Dobbie's interpretation seems the stronger. The phrase "on folce gepeon" is similar to the "gepeon leof mid hyre leodum" of Maxims I (lines 84b-85a), and should therefore describe a positive state of affairs. Likewise, Maxims I has twice indicated that being payed for with (and thereafter possessing) rings is a process to be encouraged. Finally, any sort of extra-marital social activity by women has been strongly discouraged in our previous passages. Maxims II is not so different from Maxims I that we should expect a complete reversal on all three of these points.

One could, however, justly ask whether irony is an established feature of Old English wisdom poetry. It does occur elsewhere in Maxims II, where the manuscript reads "Sod bid swicolost," (49) [Truth is most deceptive]. Maxims I includes a negative gnome as an analogue to our ides passage: "a man who intends to conceal a murder should bury it under the earth," (50) although the poet does add that this is not a proper death. An ironic reading would also strengthen Audrey Meaney's case for interpreting "dyrne craefte" as acts of sorcery, (51) as the passage would then mean something like "A woman who obtains a lover through witchcraft will not thrive in society by getting married." This interpretation of the lines from Maxims II aligns them with the portrait of female rectitude provided by the rest of Old English gnomic poetry; with the exception of Precepts, the portrait is a consistent one.

This very homogeneity of our material invites cautious speculation as to its significance for our understanding of the social position of Anglo-Saxon women. Several points may be noted. First, the gnomic description of female behavior does not derive from a borrowed literary or wisdom tradition; as I have shown, it differs in several respects from its Latin, Norse, and Celtic counterparts. Old Norse proverbs provide perhaps the most closely analogous corpus, but significant differences remain, especially in the valuation of female counsel. Gisela Spiess has argued that antifeminist proverbs in Old Norse are the result of Christian influence, and that they are often mitigated by their narrative or poetic contexts, (52) but the fact remains that whatever their origin, antifeminist proverbs circulated more widely in Old Norse literature than in Old English. Neither does Old English gnomic poetry partake (again with the exception of Precepts) of the more widespread tradition of instructional antifeminism. In the absence of recognizable analogues, our gnomic woman, this wife, mother, counselor, and ideally, homebody, must be accepted as authentically and specifically Anglo-Saxon.

Another point relates to the purpose and influence of gnomic poetry in general. This is far too large a topic to explore here in any detail, but a few observations may be relevant. Gnomic poetry clearly is intended to prescribe societal norms by describing and commenting on appropriate behavior. Conversely, gnomic poetry also reflects societal norms, it is essentially conservative in nature; this conservatism is reflected in the fact that no preserved Old English proverb or maxim clearly contradicts the behavior approved in other genres of Anglo-Saxon literature. Thus, while it would be naive to deny that gnomic poetry in Old English is conditioned by conventions of its own, we can analyze those conventions and thereby better understand the social background from which they arose. Although it is difficult to determine the extent to which the precepts of Old English gnomic poetry governed actual attitudes and behaviors, we may conclude that the portrait of women the poetry presents was shared by at least some element of Anglo-Saxon society, and that it sought to establish that norm even more generally.

Northern Illinois University


(1) Perhaps the most successful example of the genre is Christine Fell's Women in Anglo-Saxon England (London: Basil Blackwell, 1986); however, even Fell must rely heavily on Norse materials when examining, literary evidence. For other studies combining historical and literary views of Anglo-Saxon women, see, for example: Elaine Tuttle Hansen, "Women in Old English Poetry Reconsidered," The Michigan Academician 9 (1976): 109-17; B. Kliman, "Women in Early English Literature," Nottingham Medieval Studies 21 (1977): 32-50; and Alain Renoir, "Eve's I.Q. Rating: Two Sexist Views of Genesis B," in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, ed. by Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen (Indiana U. Press, 1990), pp. 262-72.

(2) Fred C. Robinson offers some provocative suggestions favoring female literary activity in the vernacular, but evidence is not forthcoming; see his "Old English Poetry: The Question of Authorship," American Notes & Queries n.s. 3 (1990): 59-64. See also an interesting, but necessarily speculative interpretation by Murray McGillivray, "The Exeter Book Maxims I B: An Anglo-Saxon Woman's View of Marriage," English Studies in Canada 15 (1989): 383-97.

(3) For such studies of Eve's character, see note 1 (above), and: John F. Vickrey, "The Vision of Eve in Genesis B," Speculum 44 (1969): 86-102; A. L. Klinck, "Female Characterisation in Old English Poetry and the Growth of Psychological Realism: Genesis B and Christ I," Neophilologus 63 (1979): 597-610; and Jane Chance, Woman as Hero in Old English Literature (Syracuse U. Press, 1986).

(4) Some of the riddles and elegies present interesting exceptions.

(5) The common division of Maxims I into three subsections is irrelevant to this essay. Besides eliminating non-gnomic wisdom poetry from this study (except for occasional comparisons), I have chosen not to examine gnomic statements in other poetic genres, so that the complications of definition and cross-generic influence might be minimized. Such poems as The Gifts of Men and The Fortunes of Men begin with a gnomic statement--"Each man has a skill / meets his fate"--but the ensuing lists of talents and fates contain items too specific to be defined as gnomes.

(6) Precepts, lines 34-42. All OE citations are from the ASPR edition, ed. by George Philip Krapp and Elliott van Kirk Dobbie (Columbia U. Press, 1931-42); here ASPR 3:141. All translations are my own, unless otherwise noted.

(7) Elaine Tuttle Hansen, "Precepts as Instruction," Speculum 56 (1981): 1-16.

(8) Sandra McEntire, "The Monastic Context of Old English 'Precepts,'" Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 91 (1990): 243-49.

(9) Proverbia sententiaeque latinitatis medii aevi, ed. by Hans Walther, Carmina Medii Aevi Posterioris Latina, part 2 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1963-69), nos. 9140 and 9007.

(10) Walther, nos. 8994b and 9175; see also nos. 9089 and 9172.

(11) Walther, no. 9195.

(12) "Proverbial Backgrounds to the Sententiae of Beowulf" (Harvard U. diss., 1991); currently under revision as a monograph.

(13) Maxims I, lines 23a-26 (ASPR 3:157).

(14) Fortunes of Men, lines 1-3a (ASPR 3:154).

(15) Stanley B. Greenfield and Daniel G. Calder, A New Critical History of Old English Literature (New York U. Press, 1986), p. 260.

(16) Blanche Colton Williams, Gnomic Poetry in Anglo-Saxon (Columbia U. Press, 1914; rpt. New York: AMS Press, 1966), p. 131.

(17) For a recent argument in support of the mythical origin of these kennings, see Carlo Alberto Mastrelli, "Reflections of Germanic Cosmogony in the kenningar for 'Man/Woman,'" in Poetry in the Scandinavian Middle Ages, ed. by Teresa Paroli, Proceedings of the Seventh International Saga Conference (Spoleto: Centro Italiano di Studi sull'Alto Medioevo, 1990), pp. 535-44. For a list of tree kennings, see R. Meissner, Die Kenningar der Skalden (Bonn: Schroeder, 1921), pp. 266-72.

(18) For commentary on this image, see: Anne Holtsmark, "To Eddasteder," Arv 13 (1957): 21-30 (esp. pp. 24-29); Elias Wessen, "Det faltiga hemet och det ensamma tradet: till tolkningen av ett par strofer i Havamal," Svio-Estonica 14 (1958): 19-24 (esp. pp. 22-24); and Stefan Karlsson, Dorp, Grzp a (1979): 115-23. For more general background, see Claire Russell, "The Tree as a Kinship Symbol," Folklore 90 (1979): 217-34. I am grateful to Joseph Harris for these references, and for his helpful comments on other aspects of this essay.

(19) Sonatorrek, st. 4, from Egils saga Skalla-Grimssonar, ed. by Guoni Jonsson (Reykjavik, 1945), p. 186.

(20) Hamdismal, st. 5, in Edda: Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmalern, ed. by Gustav Neckel, 4th edn rev. by Hans Kuhn (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1962), 1:269.

(21) Gudrunarkvida II, st. 40, in Neckel/Kuhn, p. 230.

(22) Havamal, st. 50, ed. by David A. H. Evans, Viking Society for Northern Research Text Series, 7 (London: Viking Society, 1986): 49.

(23) Solomon and Saturn II, lines 296-98a (ASPR 6:41).

(24) Genesis A: A New Edition, ed. by A. N. Doane (U. of Wisconsin Press, 1978), lines 2360b-62a, p. 193. The image of reproducing branches appears earlier in Genesis A (lines 987b ff.), but the reference there is to continuing sin rather than human offspring.

(25) Gildas, The Ruin of Britain and Other Works, ed. and tr. by Michael Winterbottom, History from the Sources series (London and Chichester: Phillimore, 1978), pp. 30-31 (trans.) and 100 (text). I am grateful to Thomas D. Hill for this reference.

(26) For a discussion of mourning mothers, in the rest of the Old English poetic corpus, see Dolores Warwick Frese, "Wulf and Eadwacer: The Adulterous Woman Reconsidered," in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, ed. by Damico and Olsen, pp. 273-91.

(27) Maxims I, lines 125-30 (ASPR 3:161).

(28) Soul and Body I, lines 57-60 (ASPR 2:56).

(29) Maxims I, lines 81-83a (ASPR 3:159).

(30) See especially Fell, pp. 36-37.

(31) Andreas Fischer, Engagement, Wedding and Marriage in Old English, Anglistische Forschungen 176 (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1986): 9, 20-22.

(32) Maxims I, lines 83b-92 (ASPR 3:159-60).

(33) "Cheerful" is the translation offered for leohtmod by Christine Fell (Women in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 36), although she acknowledges that the word means "frivolous" elsewhere in OE. For our purposes, other examples of leohtmodnes may be discounted, as they all appear in a religiously didactic context--the OE translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care.

(34) Note that here we see the sorts of gifts that the queen rightly dispenses to the retainers.

(35) For a recent discussion of this ritual, see Michael J. Enright, "Lady with a Mead-Cup: Ritual, Group Cohesion and Hierarchy in the Germanic Warband," Fruhmittelalterliche Studien 22 (1988): 170-203.

(36) Walther, no. 32784.

(37) Walther, nos. 9126 and 30479. The proverb reappears in Middle English texts; see, for example, the "Wife of Bath's Tale," III.950 and note in The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd edn, ed. by Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 118.

(38) Njals saga, ch. 116; here cited from Bjarni Vilhjalmsson and Oskar Halldorsson, Islenzkir Malshaettir (Reykjavik: Almenna Bokafelagid, 1979), p. 183. It is true that "cold counsels" are not necessarily bad ones, but that is the way they turn out. Gisla saga (ch. 9) provides a more sweeping indictment of female speech: "Oft stendur illt af kvenna hjali" ("Evil often comes from the talk of women"; Islenzkir Malshaettir, p. 183).

(39) The Instructions of King Cormac Mac Airt, ed. and tr. by Kuno Meyer, Royal Irish Academy Todd Lecture Series, 15 (Dublin: Hodges, Figgis, & Co.; London: Williams & Norgate, 1909), instructions 16.6 and 16.21, pp. 28, 29. For similar warnings in Welsh, see Early Welsh Gnomic Poems, ed. by Kenneth Jackson (Cardiff: U. of Wales Press Board, 1935), p. 21 (poem II, st. 5), and note, p. 47.

(40) Maxims I, lines 93-99 (ASPR 3:160).

(41) As noted by Leslie Whitbread, "The 'Frisian Sailor' Passage in the Old English Gnomic Verse," RES 22 (1946): 215-19 (p. 215).

(42) Maxims I, lines 100-2 (ASPR 3:160). Williams (p;, 138) would translate line 100b as "often she dishonors men with her vices.

(43) Havamal, sts. 87, 90-92, 102.

(44) Maxims I, lines 63b-65 (ASPR 3:159); for commentary on the translation of these lines, see Poems of Wisdom and Learning in Old English ed. and tr. by T. A. Shippey (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer; Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1976), p. 131, and Williams, p. 135.

(45) Maxims II, lines 43b-45a (ASPR 6:56-57).

(46) Williams (p. 150) suggests tentatively that one could skirt the issue by emending nelle to wille, but we would then be left with a maxim encouraging clandestine adultery or fornication.

(47) Fell, p. 69.

(48) ASPR 6:176.

(49) Maxims II, line 10a (ASPR 6:56); Dobbie emends to "switolost," but Shippey (pp. 76-77, 134) upholds the manuscript reading.

(50) Maxims I, lines 114b-15 (ASPR 3:160).

(51) Audrey L. Meaney, "The Ides of the Cotton Gnomic Poem," in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, ed. by Damico and Olsen, pp. 158-75.

(52) Gisela Spiess, "Die Stellung der Frau in den Sprichwortern islandischer Sprichwortersammlungen und in islandischen Sagas," Proverbium 8 (1991): 159-78.
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Author:Deskis, Susan E.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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