The story of the Flood, inherited by the Anglo-Saxons during their conversion to Christianity, was transformed by them into a vital myth through which they interpreted the whole of history and their place in it. The dual character of the myth, with the opposition between threatened destruction and hope of renewal, presented commentators with a potent historical metaphor, which they exploited in their own changing historical circumstance. This book explores the use of this metaphor in the writings of the Anglo-Saxons. It is the integration of a well-known biblical story into the historical and cultural self-definition of a group of people converted to Christianity and its worldview. The Flood in the Bible is clearly a punishment, though the sin is not so well defined. This forms part of a historical pattern of sin and punishment extending back to Eden, and progressed to the sin and exile of Cain. For Bede the historian, the Flood was a key event in the earlier history of the world; for Bede the theologian, the Flood was an event replete with mystical significance. In Exodus and Andreas all the poems share an interest in two themes, which emerge from the biblical story of the Flood and its theological interpretation: covenant and apocalypse. Noah is the 'one father' not only of Israel, but of the whole human race, and his introduction widens the concept of 'inheritance' in the Exodus. The book concludes with a detailed discussion of the significance of the Flood myth in Beowulf.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book presents a discussion of the biblical myth of the universal deluge in and its integration into the culture of the Anglo-Saxons. It focuses biblical texts, the documents that provided Boniface with the best information concerning the Flood. The book discusses the developing application of the Flood myth as a moral lesson and warning to the human race, across two centuries of Anglo-Saxon writing, mostly in Old English prose. It presents a detailed study of a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon response to the myth of the Flood in the creation of a fourth son for Noah: the ark-born Sceaf. The book examines Bede's thought on the Flood under a series of headings, which allows the exploration of his use of the Flood theme across a range of works.
A range of cultures from across the globe tell stories of floods survived by ancestral figures. Despite some efforts to harmonize these accounts to prove the historical truth of the biblical account of Noah's flood, the myths and legends from the Americas, the Pacific, Asia, Africa and Europe present a range of incompatible details. As a key figure in the history of the world, Noah is mentioned in a number of biblical books. Some of the references to him, both in the Old and New Testaments are simply genealogical. A variety of interpretations of the character of Noah and the details of the Flood story were developed and expanded in the early Christian era. The importance of the mystery of the Flood in the development of sacramental and eschatological thought in the patristic era is undeniable.
The Venerable Bede was the most prolific scriptural commentator of his time. A. G. Holder has suggested that 'the primary audience for Bede's biblical commentaries was that select group of preachers and teachers which included the members of the ordained clergy as well as all others holding some form of spiritual authority.' For Bede, the Flood was a historical event of the most profound mystical significance, made even richer in meaning by the character of Noah, described as perfect, and by the miraculous vessel of the ark. For Bede, as for his predecessors, the Church is found in the mystery of the ark, and baptism in the waters of the Flood. Bede's comments on the apocalyptic fire certainly reveal a scientific interest in cosmology, but the emphasis is on eschatology.
The inherent tension between destruction and rebuilding, which the myth of the Flood presents, is reflected in a range of works written against the background of the varying fortunes of the English nation. The complexity of Bede's position, on preaching before the Flood, and the subtle differentiation he introduces to Noah's role, seems not to have caught the popular imagination. The question of the date of the coming of the fire, and its inclusion in the section comparing Niall and Noah, may also throw some light on Ecgred's comments about the interest in the Day of Judgment in Pehtred's book. It is difficult to know how faithful the St-Bertin annal is to its source, and there is little detail from the book of Pehtred, an English priest, preserved in either Ecgred's letter or the later homilies.
The Flood theme is exploited and developed across a range of Old English Christian verse, but it is given special prominence in three longer narrative poems. These include Genesis A, Exodus and Andreas. Scholars of Old English poetry generally agree that Genesis A is an early poem, perhaps written as early as the seventh century in the first flourish of a 'Cædmonian' school of vernacular verse. Exodus describes the flight of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery, from the tenth plague until the crossing of the Red Sea. Andreas, unlike Genesis A and Exodus, does not recount the biblical history of the Flood. It does, however, culminate in a great symbolic flood which overwhelms the pagan city of Mermedonia, in an account which draws heavily on biblical typology.
The mythological element in Beowulf has presented problems of interpretation for well over a century. There can be little doubt that the myth of the Flood has an important place in the imagination of the Beowulf poet who refers directly to the destruction of the giants in the primeval deluge. Malcolm Godden has noted that 'as Grendel is introduced by a reference to the Old Testament legend which described the origin of monsters, so his end is announced by an allusion to the biblical myth of their destruction.' There is no doubt that the poet associates the giant Grendel with hell, his obvious spiritual home. The unnatural fusion of fire and water in the abyss is not the only ingredient that the hell in Solomon and Saturn II shares with Beowulf, and which both share with the tradition of the Vision of St Paul.
Alfred is familiar with classical pagan accounts of the world's early history, but it is the biblical version of events which is understood as providing a true account of the conflict between the giants and God. Alfred demonstrates a particular concern to contextualize Nimrod's folly in relation to his genealogy, tracing his descent back to Noah through Ham. The evidence of genealogies suggests that the incorporation of Sceaf is a West Saxon innovation and draws on West Saxon tradition, and that his transformation into the ark-born son is the product of Alfred's reign. In the decades after the invention of Sceaf as Noah's fourth son, born in the ark, the idea that the Anglo-Saxons could trace their descent to the apocryphal figure undoubtedly received broad circulation in England.
The claim that the Beowulf poet was interested in the relationship between the deeds of his hero and the myth of the Flood is difficult to dispute, the references to the Flood cannot be gratuitous. An enduring problem in Beowulf criticism is one of how to locate the poem within Anglo-Saxon literary culture. Beowulf's presentation of the Flood as a battle, and its waters simultaneously as God's weapon, his army and a pure expression of his will, is strikingly paralleled in Genesis A, Andreas and Exodus. The poet's presentation of the myth of the Flood does not articulate any law code, though the simple terms of the Noachic covenant inform the poet's horror at Grendel's violation of both its precepts in his meaningless killing and his consumption of blood.