January 3, 2024

The Dating of Beowulf And Why It Matters

"The Dating of Beowulf" Edited by Colin Chase, University of Toronto Press, originally published 1981.

Wikipedia - Colin Chase:

Colin Robert Chase (February 5, 1935 – October 13, 1984) was an American academic. An associate professor of English at the University of Toronto, he was known for his contributions to the studies of Old English and Anglo-Latin literature. His best-known work, The Dating of Beowulf, challenged the accepted orthodoxy of the dating of the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf—then thought to be from the latter half of the eighth century—and left behind what was described in A Beowulf Handbook as "a cautious and necessary incertitude".

Wikipedia - Roberta Frank:

Roberta Frank (born 1941) is an American philologist specializing in Old English and Old Norse language and literature. She is the Marie Borroff Professor Emeritus of English at Yale University.

Frank's research draws upon archaeological as well as literary and linguistic evidence to analyze aspects of early English and Scandinavian texts. Her work has focused on the poetry of England and Scandinavia, including numerous publications on skaldic verse, the early North, and Beowulf.

Wikipedia - John Miles Foley:

John Miles Foley (January 22, 1947 – May 3, 2012) was a scholar of comparative oral tradition, particularly medieval and Old English literature, Homer and Serbian epic. He was the founder of the academic journal Oral Tradition and the Center for Studies in Oral Tradition at the University of Missouri, where he was Curators' Professor of Classical Studies and English and W. H. Byler Endowed Chair in the Humanities.

He gave more than 250 invited lectures throughout the United States as well as in China, India, Russia, Mongolia, Japan, throughout Africa and Europe, and the United States.

Foley was awarded grants and fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Fulbright Program, the Mellon Foundation, and other institutions, and was a fellow of the Finnish Folklore Society and the American Folklore Society.

In addition to providing the infrastructure for the comparatively new academic discipline of oral tradition by means of organizing conferences, producing the first bibliography, history and methodological guide and classroom textbook on the subject, his principal contributions involved the study of oral traditional performance in the field, and the application of those observations both to ancient texts and to the emerging secondary orality of the Internet.

An excerpt from, ""Beowulf" and the Psychohistory of Anglo-Saxon Culture" By John Miles Foley, American Imago, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Summer, 1977):

Only relatively recently, in the last ten or twelve years, have scholars come to recognize the encoding, preservation, and transmission of culturally useful information as the basic function of the traditional oral epic. Eric Havelock has described the operation of the Homeric data retrieval system in the following terms:

poetry is central in the educational theory. It occupied this position so it seems in contemporary society, and it was a position held apparently not on the grounds that we would offer, namely poetry's inspirational and imaginative effects, but on the ground that it provided a massive repository of useful knowledge, a sort of encyclopedia of ethics, politics, history, and technology which the effective citizen was required to learn as the core of his educational equipment. Poetry represented not some thing we call by that name, but an indoctrination which today would be comprised in a shelf of text books and works of reference. (Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato, 1963, p. 27).

At the factual level, we may pore over extant "volumes" of the Homeric encyclopedia in, for example, the Iliadic "Catalogs" or the Odyssean raft-building manual; we can carry on similar research in the Old English reference library by consulting such Beowulfian sub-genres as the catalog, the sermon, the genealogy, and so forth. In addition, however, the epic genre encodes cultural attitudes, beliefs, laws, and customs in the actions of its heroes: the divine épya of an Achilles or the superhuman ellendœdas of a Beowulf become traditional models or exempla to assist Everyman in the process of acculturation. The traditional oral society educates its members—that is, it provides them with necessary information through the repeated and collective experience of performed epic poetry, by presenting them time and again with a verbal montage of the group's poetic models and thereby with the data which these models encode: 

In oral cultures virtually all conceptualization, including what will later be reshaped into abstract sciences, is thus kept close to the human life-world. Moreover, since public law and custom are of major importance for social survival but cannot be put on record, they must continually be talked about or sung about, else they vanish from consciousness. Hence the figures around whom knowledge is made to cluster, those about whom stories are told or sung, must be made into specific personages, foci of common attention, individuals embodying open public concerns, as written laws would later be matters of open public concern . . .Thus the epic hero, from one point of view, appears as an answer to the problem of knowledge storage and communication in oral-aural cultures (where indeed storage and communication are virtually the same thing) (Walter J. Ong, The Presence of the Word, 1967, p. 204).

The purpose of this paper is to examine a different kind of information, which is also traditionally inscribed in the epic hero and his actions. I will attempt to show how Beowulf is educative in a much more basic way than has heretofore been realized, that it served for the people who composed and re-composed it as a history of human psychological development—in other words, as a psychohistory. By making and keeping available, through oral performance and aural apprehension, consciously formed symbols of unconscious processes in a rational, organic, ontogenic sequence, the Anglo-Saxon epic records and transmits the story of the psychological development of individual and of culture. At the mythic, story level we deal with the hero Beowulf and a narrative of the events which occasioned his apotheosis in song; at the psychohistorical level, we come to grips with an account of those events of the mind which generated the mythic apotheosis. As a " handbook " on the continuing struggle toward ego consciousness, Beowulf is, I will maintain, finally therapeutic, in that it actively counseled all members at all levels of social and psychological growth and, by symbolically reenforcing the human maturation process, contributed quite systematically to the collective well-being of the society.

An excerpt from, "A Scandal in Toronto: "The Dating of "Beowulf" " a Quarter Century On" By Roberta Frank, Speculum, Vol. 82, No. 4 (Oct., 2007):

"Fiction," Terry Eagleton recently observed, "is a kind of writing in which you can neither lie, tell the truth nor make a mistake." Invention is needed, because most problems, from the existence of God to the dating of Beowulf, are just too hard for us, involving propositions that we can neither prove nor refute. We entangle ourselves in vertigo-inducing iteration loops, feeding the solution into the equation and then solving it, over and over again. But inertia is no answer either. 

What we don't know does hurt us. Beowulf is a text from the past in the past's own voice. It matters whether the poem, when new, was close to its oral roots, or whether it was a nostalgic reconstruction of a northern heroic age; it matters whether Beowulf was a prop by which an aristocratic ideology established itself in a society not so different from that portrayed in the poem, or whether it was a late, culturally charged act of repetition, imaginatively reconciling its readers to new realities. It matters "who-dunit" and when and how and why. And that we don't know and perhaps never shall. The elusiveness of Beowulf is not much different from that of all other long Old English poems, none of which can be securely situated before the tenth century. Anglo-Saxonists must accept a burden of ignorance about matters of authorship and chronology, composition, patronage, and transmission that would be intolerable to those who work in most other periods of literary history. Old English poems---not entirely oral in style, not entirely fixed in text---give no intelligible or adequate answer to ordinary modern questions about authorial styles, literary indebtedness, schools, genres, performance, theme, and structure, even beginnings and endings. So why do we keep asking? Our individual myths as medievalists about why we pursue our reticent corpora, our fragmentary remains from an unknowable past, are as various as we are. At their core, perhaps, is a radical skepticism (the handwriting on the wall may be a forgery) as well as a complementary longing for something to stir and stretch the imagination. The sense of "wonder" that is so important in Old English poetry itself, the experience of being totally involved in and caught up by what one sees, is close to the etymological meaning of "theory" as both contemplation and rapture. (And not a few influential French theorists, we have recently been reminded, were trained as medievalists.) There is wonder in learning from solemn philologists that the singular noun eolet in Beowulf 224a means "river-junction," or "water-course," or "foreign-journey," "pasture of an elk," "horse-abandoning," "boar-carrying," "boundary," "desert," "divorced woman," "remote landing-place" ---or was it an interjection signaling intense disgust? The poem resists our intelligence quite successfully.

The dating of Beowulf involves bedrock assumptions about the nature of Anglo-Saxon society and manuscript culture, about concepts of morality, and style, held a millennium and more ago, about the language and feelings of people whose beliefs we find quaint and whose private habits we don't like to think about. That 1981 scandal in Toronto got us down and dirty at the exposed coal-face of our field, tapping at its precarious foundations, doing work that needed to be done  and that continues to be worth doing.