Book Review

Anglo-Saxon Emotions: Reading the Heart in Old English Language, Literature and Culture ed. by Alice Jorgensen, Frances McCormack, and Jonathan Wilcox

Matt Firth (reviewer) – Parergon 32 (No. 2, 2015)

This edited collection of fourteen essays ambitiously seeks not only to apply the study of the history of emotions to Old English and Anglo-Latin literature, but also to set the terms of reference for its future study. The collection admirably fulfils its stated aim to bring emotion to the forefront of Anglo-Saxon studies and harness the current interdisciplinary interest in emotions.

Anglo-Saxon England is not necessarily the first culture that comes to mind when considering the history of emotions and the editors clearly recognise that, in turning the lens of the history of emotions on the world of Anglo-Saxon literature, they are covering rarely trodden ground. While the contributions show great variety, the volume is tightly structured, and a theoretical basis for the study of emotions in Anglo-Saxon literature is set before proceeding to more focused discussions of specific Old English poetics, linguistics, and emotions. As Alice Jorgensen notes in her Introduction, the diversity of topics means that the essays ‘do not advance a single theory of Anglo-Saxon emotions’ (p. 15). Rather, with Beowulf and the elegies receiving some attention in almost every chapter, the contributors demonstrate the wide range of emotions and methodologies that can be applied to the limited Old English corpus.

Jorgensen contextualises the collection by setting a broad frame of reference for the term ‘emotion’, and more specifically through her interdisciplinary discussion of the ways emotion (via the lens of personal values) is involved in individuals evaluating their place within their culture. Jorgensen also conveys previous studies of Anglo-Saxon emotions, concluding that emotions have either been peripheral to textual examination, or subjected to myopically focused individual scrutiny. Taken together, this collection redresses the limitations of previous scholarship by avoiding rigid intertextual analysis and applying modern developments in the research of emotions to Old English literature.

Each chapter is unique in its approach to emotion in Old English texts, but several were especially noteworthy. Antonina Harbus appropriately opens the collection with a consideration of emotions as specifically applied to Old English texts. Utilising current research falling under the broad heading of ‘Cognitive Science’, Harbus focuses on the relationship between audience and literature. Specifically, she seeks to explain how Anglo-Saxon literature continues to evoke emotional responses in modern audiences despite the distance in time and culture from its original creation. In so doing, Harbus demonstrates the richness of Anglo-Saxon texts as a vehicle for the examination of emotion and their value in interdisciplinary research. Leslie Lockett’s chapter provides information critical to reading emotion in Anglo-Saxon literature by discussing the concept of the mod. Now an alien concept, but an intrinsic concept of emotion in the Anglo-Saxon world, mod can be considered as a conceptual amalgam of the allegorical head and heart: the seat of both emotion and rationality. This discussion provides the background to Lockett’s core theme: the exegesis of medical texts that ascribed an intrinsically limited role to the brain, aloof from both the emotion and the rational thought inherent in the highly personal mod. (The term mod reappears in subsequent essays and Lockett’s analysis is a useful reference for them.)

The following chapters begin to provide a narrower focus and they are certainly best understood within the framework set out by the Introduction and opening chapters. Individual chapters consider the imposition of modern English cultural and linguistic concepts on Old English texts; the textual difficulties of emotional transmission through translation; what the complex structures of Anglo-Saxon poetry reveal about contemporary attitudes to emotion; and emotions as revealed through gesture and their inherently contextual nature. Specific emotions are given close attention by Tahlia Birnbaum and Frances McCormack, who provide nuanced examinations of shame as a complex and often positive emotion, characterised in, respectively, Old English psalter glosses and the poem Christ. Erin Sebo looks to Beowulf, and provides a comprehensive analysis of individual scenes of grief from the poem, using these to facilitate an examination of the interrelation between grief and vengeance. Encapsulating many of the collection’s broad themes, Mary Garrison’s contribution makes an appropriate final chapter. Through her consideration of the motifs of grief and loss in Alcuin’s letters, she is able to categorise Alcuin’s experiences within ‘modern psychoanalytical schemes’ (p. 260), though she acknowledges the risk of doing so at the cost of contextual understanding. Still, in relating Alcuin’s struggles to the modern experience, Garrison is able to make clear the ubiquitous nature of emotion.

As a collection, Anglo-Saxon Emotions is well structured and a pleasure to read. It is an important addition to Ashgate’s ‘Studies in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland’ series.

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European Medieval History from the Viking Age to the Hundred Years' War

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