By Jesse McDowell
Thornbury, Elizabeth V. Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. $92.
Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England explores models of electronic research to establish who a poet was and what a poet did in Anglo-Saxon England. Large in scope and pluralistic in its approach, this nuanced study uses a methodology fraught with interdisciplinary advances. Even in her introduction, Thornbury sets out to remove fortuitous and parochial conclusions medievalists of the nineteenth century reached when examining manuscript evidence. Not setting out to right the wrongs, but more to engage new questions by means of technological advances and sociological vantage points does she explore poets’ works. She does this by revealing the interconnection to or isolation from an established literary community. Throughout the book, the comparison between poets working within a community or working in isolation establishes a binary which she complicates later in the study. Grey areas abound: towards the end we observe different poets working within tightly knit educational communities bound by socially accepted norms for metrical practice. At the same time, poets struggled with formulas in which they could not gain access to accepted communal practices. Even if those struggling poets received the same instruction at one point or another, later in life, they were foregone from more updated poetic formulae. The book sets out to chart the behaviors of poets into three distinct camps: poets with one another, poets alone, and linguistic agents working as hybrids. For instance, Bede received training from Ceolfrith, who also trained a number of other poets, but Bede’s histories, meters, and textbooks, seen through her methodology, reveal his isolation from the nuanced linguistic practices shown by his contemporaries (during his isolation at Jarrow). She is able to come to these types of conclusions by re-examining known works. When analyzing the community, there is an apparent recognition of audience. In her analysis of The Battle of Maldon, she evaluates the poet’s ability to turn fault of the battle’s outcomes to its audience, as she argues this twist is a sign of social expectation. Poets essentially produced work to be scrutinized by their monastic superiors, and this fundamental relationship formed an integral part of lettered labor in Anglo-Saxon England. Thornbury further observes manuscript evidence in order to depict behavioral characteristics and to expose what we can find from big data. We can see the benefits of big data in her observations of hybrid texts, or, the grey area between a poet being in isolation or in community. For example, the poet for Christ and Satan exemplifies isolation, whereas most Alfredian literature (“The Southern Mode”) contains characteristics that reveal its tenuous role in any one distinct category of textual production. She could not reach these conclusions without interdisciplinarity, looking at both big and small data. Weaving between the two to provide a whole picture from a nexus of evidence effectively aids Thornbury in showing us that early Anglo-Saxon England was a nexus itself when it came to those engaging in literate practice, yet she defines who poets were and depicts what they did through this irony.
Chapters 1-2 layout hard data and then explore the societal roles of poets. In defining who a poet actually was, we see that many times they were educators, writers and musicians who happened also to write verse. There are four distinct categories that ‘poets’ emerged from: teachers, scribes, musicians, and courtiers. Chapter 2 analyzes colophons and specific metrical patterns to establish the times of composition and connect literate figures and educators through their correspondence. The manuscript evidence provides connections between roles poets held: hagiographers wrote tributes, educators wrote lessons, and students wrote ‘gifts,’ all in metered syntax that we can identify as verse. With this in view, Chapter 3 explores what it meant for a poet to compose in a close-knit community where their poetry was exposed for criticism by that community. What emerged was a codified metrical pattern, generally accepted as good verse, void of the expectation for judgment that appears in pre-judged verse. This stems from the Carolingian educational efforts of Alcuin of York and others. Throughout this project Thornbury reminds us of the vast interconnectedness of poets and teachers in and out of communities. Here she delves into big data methods and sociolinguistics to reveal certain correlations between fossilized signatures of language on the works themselves. She provides an alternative to the world Bede and Cynewulf create with verse by analyzing The Battle of Maldon’s own expectation of judgment. Chapter 4 treats two cases of poets who wrote in isolation, that of the author for Christ and Satan, and of the Venerable Bede. The current state of Christ and Satan contains corrections, and this corrector’s work ascribes to an isolated meter. And though Bede was well-connected as an educator, metrist, and historian, the time he spent in isolation in Northumbria permeates his Retractatio and some of his biblical commentaries. Chapter 5 categorizes the grey areas of literate practice, a coloring of peculiar historical situations that can only be characterized by differing modes of hybridity: “isolated communities, individuals isolated within communities, and communities in the process of formation” (p.199). The early Anglo-Saxon missionaries to Germany under St. Bonifice serve as her model of an isolated community, where his verse, along with his followers, reveals an overused and narrow style. Wulfstan Cantor gives us a prime example of someone who composed verse in a tight-nit community with metrical expectations, but isolated because of his exceptional talents among the learned. Finally we receive the example of Alfredian Literature as a rather iconic example of a community in formation. Harking back to different metered styles, reproducing and appropriating texts from the past, these practicers found their cultural identity through the communal act of resurgence.
Communities of Practice: The Philosophical Rundown
Thornbury’s way of disassembling verse should garner our attention. The works themselves, picked apart and pieced back together, reveal shocking patterns of connectivity. What makes this monograph a strong candidate for pushing barriers is not so much its ascription to significance as its adeptness to imagine. Book historians and educators have a clear take-away in the historical value of communities of practice. The categorizing of isolation, community, and hybridity can seem at first to be a general capturing of what it fully meant to be a poet in Anglo-Saxon England. This would be a sweeping claim indeed, though not the first time a scholar has applied massive claims to an entire period of history without much forethought of the implications of such claims. But this isn’t what the work claims. The work’s methodology systematically underlies any single way of seeing manuscript evidence or historical figures, commonly a method known all too well with scholars who pay little attention to minute historical detail. However systematic and general one might assume the work to be, it remains coherently focused on clusters of manuscripts that make up a significant amount of the Old English canon, rife with historical mystery, especially now that sociolinguistics and digital scholarship allow for scholars to disassemble, measure, reassemble, and assess in entirely new ways. And this is what the work does: picks apart, deconstructs, and reconstructs. It pulls these historical figures out of their arcane roles in our imaginations and re-imagines them based on real evidence. It responsibly coats them with flesh and blood. Not only were poets those who practiced meter in a certain social role and within or outside a community, but those persons also educated the young, and sought out the community. In Chapter 2, the author provides a commentary on how the technologizing power of composition urged parents to send their children to masters of education, forming cohorts of learning for years and years. This study undoubtedly centers on ‘the’ community, as in its own compelling existence as an idea, but also actual communities. Community educated and imagined, but also transformed. Whether a poet was or was not part of a community remained of central concern to the author, but the charting of a community’s identity became apparently significant. We couldn’t reach this conclusion if the work had not re-appropriated these historical figures to a new plane of imagination. Not only was Bede an important historical figure, but he was, at most, alone. That one can prove this through the marks on a page, through digital means, is astonishing.
For the Anglo-Saxons, the community’s ability to educate bolsters its value. In The Battle of Maldon, the community receives the poet’s apprehension, perhaps for political reasons, as also Wulfstan Cantor becomes isolated in the process of his community’s approval. Bede, Aldhelm, and even Alcuin of York attest to the breadth of mastery Anglo-Saxons had with education. Though educative practices would be to us highly utilitarian, there is no doubt the act of learning was generally perceived as communal, forthcoming and imaginative. We may definitely see this in the author’s case for the makeup of Alfredian literature, primarily the Old English Boethius. I believe the amount of Latin texts translated during Alfred’s reign certainly credits Alfred’s program as a community in formation, and can even be some of the first linguistically groundbreaking texts translated into the vernacular, ushering one of the most prolific literary traditions in the world.