Borrowed objects and the art of poetry examines seven Exeter riddles, three Anglo-Saxon biblical poems (Exodus, Andreas, Judith), and Beowulf to uncover the poetics of spolia, an imaginative use of fictional recycled artefacts to create sites of metatextual reflection. Old English poetry famously – and for a corpus rather interested in the enigmatic and the oblique, appropriately – lacks an explicit ars poetica. This book argues that attention to particularly charged moments within texts – especially within texts concerned with translation, transformation, and the layering of various pasts – gives us a previously unrecognised means for theorising Anglo-Saxon poetic creativity. Borrowed objects and the art of poetry works at the intersections of recent interest in materiality and poetics, balancing insights of thing theory, and related approaches with close readings of specific passages from Old English texts.
The liminal Christ in Anglo-Saxon art
Folio 15r of London, British Library, Cotton, MS Tiberius C. VI,
the so-called Tiberius Psalter, depicts Christ’s Ascension. Instead
of showing Christ in full length, the ascending Christ is only partially represented: his upper body has ‘disappeared’ beyond the
frame, and only his lower limbs are visible (Figure 1). Christ’s
hovering legs dominate the upper half of the picture as he vanishes
into a cloud while two groups of apostles standing below follow
him with their gaze. The ‘disappearing Christ’, as Meyer Schapiro
of Fountains Abbey (Yorkshire), for example,
are still viewed in their eighteenth-century state, ‘landscaped … as a
picturesque folly’, according to the Abbey’s website; and a plaque at
the remains of Bury St Edmunds Abbey (Suffolk) forbids ‘damaging the
ruins’. 17 Reformation iconoclasm also ensured that
insular medieval religious art typically survives in mutilated or
fragmentary forms, as
-arts colleagues. On an even larger level, it will become clear that art for the Anglo-Saxons, whether textual or plastic, represents an encounter of a person, or a group of people, not with an abstraction but with a thing.
I begin this book with a consideration of several Exeter Riddles that take on spolia and accumulation in different ways. My goal there is to prepare the reader for later invocations of the enigmatic, in the longer poems. The riddles could provide a guide for reading other verse while remaining quite distinct from the epics, in
Bringing stone, flesh, and text to life in Andreas
its dwellers as citizens, underlining the civilised aspect of the afterlife. The arts feature prominently in that place, and the images that we see immobile (for the moment) on earth, live in the celestial abode, where they take part in another art, music. The figures on the wall remind Jesus of the heavenly scene in which the angels worship him through sound and he connects the images with their heavenly prototypes.
Divine meta-awareness continues. Uniquely among the versions of this episode, the Saviour in Andreas issues a command by describing himself issuing
description of the barrow might suggest not only a prehistoric structure, ‘a monolithic chambered tomb’, but also ‘a crypt’. 45 At the same time, its interior with stone arches could have been inspired by ‘a Christian mausoleum such as the eighth-century vaulted crypt at Repton, Derbyshire’. 46 Reused columns are iconic representations of ancient Rome in many medieval European settings, 47 so stapolas [pillars] can point in that direction. Lori Ann Garner explicitly brings up appropriation of sites sacred to prior cultures and art-historical spoliation in Anglo
not surprising that the weapon invokes ‘hondweorc smiþa, / gold ofer geardas’ [the handiwork of smiths, gold over lands/dwelling-places] (7–8), which metonymically stand for two poles of civilisation, craftspeople and aristocrats. Geard suggests a cultivated place, where art takes over nature, 28 appropriately enough since a metalworker in forging a sword bends ore to his will. The back and forth between the battlefield and feast-hall is not the only dynamic in Riddle 20, as another area of constant, cyclical exchange comes through, that between the workshop and
on the cultural, especially aesthetic, values they share with those in their midst and on the other side of the North Sea. As the African woman indicates that the Israelites did not only pass by strange settlements but also interacted with the people from them, this particular objet d’art shows how far Scandinavians could reach into the Anglo-Saxon imagination. In one of her attempts to diagnose the ‘skaldic tooth’ of the audience of Exodus , Roberta Frank has written of the shape-shifting pillar, demonstrating that many of the most puzzling words used to
53 Fry, ‘The Cliff of Death in Old English Poetry’, in John Miles Foley (ed.), Comparative Research on Oral Traditions: A Memorial for Milman Parry (Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1987), pp. 213–33, at 215–16.
54 Lori Ann Garner, ‘The Art of Translation in the Old English Judith ’, Studia Neophilologica , 73 (2001), 171–83, at 178.
55 The maidservant had brought the bag with provisions for both of them (lines 127–9), so that they would have something kosher to eat even among the Assyrians.
The first book-length study of the Scottish Legendary (late 14th c.), the only extant collection of saints’ lives in the vernacular from medieval Scotland, scrutinises the dynamics of hagiographic narration, its implicit assumptions about literariness, and the functions of telling the lives of the saints. The fifty saints’ legends are remarkable for their narrative art: the enjoyment of reading the legends is heightened, while didactic and edifying content is toned down. Focusing on the role of the narrator, the depiction of the saintly characters, their interiority, as well as temporal and spatial parameters, it is demonstrated that the Scottish poet has adapted the traditional material to the needs of an audience versed in reading romance and other secular genres. The implications of the Scottish poet’s narrative strategies are analysed also with respect to the Scottishness of the legendary and its overall place in the hagiographic landscape of late medieval Britain.