Literature and Theatre
This edited collection explores how knowledge was preserved and reinvented in the Middle Ages. Unlike previous publications, which are predominantly focused either on a specific historical period or on precise cultural and historical events, this volume, which includes essays spanning from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries, is intended to eschew traditional categorisations of periodisation and disciplines and to enable the establishment of connections and cross-sections between different departments of knowledge, including the history of science (computus, prognostication), the history of art, literature, theology (homilies, prayers, hagiography, contemplative texts), music, historiography and geography. As suggested by its title, the collection does not pretend to aim at inclusiveness or comprehensiveness but is intended to highlight suggestive strands of what is a very wide topic. The chapters in this volume are grouped into four sections: I, Anthologies of Knowledge; II Transmission of Christian Traditions; III, Past and Present; and IV, Knowledge and Materiality, which are intended to provide the reader with a further thematic framework for approaching aspects of knowledge. Aspects of knowledge is mainly aimed to an academic readership, including advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students, and specialists of medieval literature, history of science, history of knowledge, history, geography, theology, music, philosophy, intellectual history, history of the language and material culture.
Here Ann Buckley presents an appraisal of the collection known as ‘The Cambridge Songs’, found in a mid-eleventh-century English manuscript but derived from a German source which also included material from the international clerical court culture of the period. Buckley suggests that the collection can be viewed as an example of an ‘anthology of musical knowledge’, which informs on genres, techniques, performance practice and the types of repertory that would have been usual in the eleventh century among learned audiences. The chapter focuses firstly on the collection’s song texts as a source of information on musical knowledge and musical practice in German court culture of the eleventh century but takes account too of the wider European clerical and intellectual framework, interrogating the raison d’être of such a collection in the context of anthologies of knowledge of the time.
This chapter, by Hugh Magennis, considers the theme of the interpretation and application of Christian knowledge as reflected in treatments of the apostles in vernacular writings in Anglo-Saxon England. The acta of the apostles originated in the East but were transmitted and reworked by western writers, not least in pre-Conquest England. Surveying depictions of the apostles in Old English, Magennis’s chapter emphasises the definitive place that the apostles occupy within Christian systems of knowledge and understanding but also examines how traditions of the apostles are appropriated and reconceived by Anglo-Saxon writers (including the poet of Andreas, whose reworking of his source is considered in greater detail in the chapter in this volume by Richard North).
In the opening chapter Sándor Chardonnens focuses on medieval collections on dream divination. Taking account of a vast corpus of such writings, widely dispersed chronologically and geographically, he argues that alphabetical and thematic dream books, dream lunaries and mantic alphabets belong to the same branch of divination, that of oneiromancy, but that they were rarely anthologised in clusters within the same collection. He investigates patterns of transmission of dream divination in manuscripts and early printed texts in order to understand whether the ways in which those three types of dream divination were clustered together may give us an indication of genre awareness.
In this chapter Denis Renevey examines the ways in which writers in the Greek world and, later, western religious teachers used the name of ‘Jesus’ in contemplative practices, and offers ‘answers as to the way in which knowledge of the power of the name “Jesus” was appropriated for different purposes in the two differing Christian traditions, and according to distinct spiritual ideologies’. Renevey discusses the influence of Origen in the development of knowledge about the powerful potential of the name of Jesus and goes on to highlight the attachment to the name in Orthodox liturgical practice from about the ninth century, an attachment that in the fervency of its language anticipates western traditions of affectivity. Among western writers, Renevey focuses on Anselm of Canterbury and Bernard of Clairvaux, the former promoting affective use of the name in personal devotion, the latter in a communal monastic context, as part of a well-conceived devotional scheme.
The Introduction begins by placing the present volume in the context of previous and current work on the subject of medieval knowledge. It goes on to give an outline of medieval perspectives on the meaning, value and transmission of knowledge, noting the influence of classical authors and tracing the development of ideas about knowledge through the writings of key Christian thinkers. Isidore of Seville is identified as the key influence of the medieval encyclopaedic tradition and particular attention is paid to the authoritative work of Augustine, Bede and Aquinas. The introduction relates aspects of these medieval perspectives to specific chapters of the book and also highlights the relationship between religious and secular traditions. It ends with a succinct outline of each chapter.
Like the previous chapter, Michelle Brown’s contribution represents an instance of the integration of Christian and pre-Christian Germanic knowledge in the early Middle Ages. Brown explores the context and meaning of the distinctive late-tenth-century rune-stone carved at the royal burial ground of Jellinge in Denmark, viewing the monument as a book in stone and a symbol of conversion and of changing political agendas in Scandinavia in the tenth century. Ranging widely across early medieval art, Brown explains that the stone (like the Auzon/Franks Casket, to which she also alludes) draws upon both Christian and pagan Norse traditions ‘to form a new, integrated iconography that formed a distinctive expression of the Scandinavian experience of cultural synthesis and conversion’.
In this chapter Marilina Cesario addresses the subject of weather forecasting in the Middle Ages as revealed in the meteorological prognostics that survive abundantly from throughout the period but particularly from the eleventh century onwards. The chapter focuses in particular on one fifteenth-century medical manuscript from Germany containing an anthology of seven Latin weather texts. Cesario edits and translates the texts for the first time and offers detailed discussion of them. She finds that these treatises contribute to their manuscript’s overarching interest in natural philosophy and that they were mostly given theoretical rather than practical usage, having their place in a context of academic learning (eruditio). One item stands out from the others, however, a puzzling salt prognostication found uniquely here. This text relies not, it is argued, on erudite knowledge but on knowledge acquired empirically and appears to have been designed for practical use.
Richard North’s chapter argues that the Old English verse saint’s life Andreas (on the apostle St Andrew) appropriates the secular epic poem Beowulf for mock-epic purposes, turning knowledge of Beowulf, a poem which by implication must have been famous in Anglo-Saxon England, to a new Christian purpose. Andreas is seen to offer through its mock-epic style a satirical commentary on the heathen nostalgia of Beowulf. In Andreas knowledge of secular literature and its version of the past is astutely re-appropriated for religious purposes, being absorbed into and transcended by a Christian celebration of the true heroism of the saint. This chapter adds a new dimension to the understanding of Anglo-Saxon literary history and the place of secular tradition within it.
In the final chapter in the book Donald Scragg focuses on the very practical issue of the size and the layout of Old English manuscripts from the eighth century to the first half of the twelfth, in order to explore the role of books in the transmission of thought, knowledge and practical experiences of the age. The chapter considers how the dimensions of surviving books can give clues ‘about their intended use, about how they were created and about what that may tell us about the role of the written vernacular in the society of early England’.