Old English Riddles and The Dream of the Rood (Public lecture, 16th September)


A close-up detail of an Anglo-Saxon hilt fitting

Anglo-Saxon Hilt Fitting, by portableantiquities, CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Christian and heathen; the peaceful Christ and axe-wielding warriors. The worlds of Christianity and Anglo-Saxon society might appear to be poles apart. However, as Michael Baker will explore in this next Late Summer Lecture, when Christianity came to Britain it did not instantly sweep away the vestiges of an earlier, ‘heathen’ culture. Instead, Old English literature of the time is revealingly hybrid, drawing on both traditions. The lecture starts at 17.30 in Alington House, with free refreshments from 17.00; there is no need to book and all are welcome.

The fifth Late Summer Lecture examines the intriguing Old English poem, The Dream of the Rood’, which combines a representation of the biblical Christ with the ethos of the Anglo-Saxon warrior.

One of the most intriguing intersections of literary cultures is signalled by the meeting of Anglo-Saxon ludic discourse, in the form of riddling, with classical homiletic discourse. Found in various Old English texts from 700 to 1000 AD, this fusion of genres derives from the interaction, on a more basic level, of the concepts structuring Anglo-Saxon culture with those organising patristic Christian thought.

Although monastic chroniclers of the era portrayed ‘heathen’ culture as being swept away by a tide of Christian conversion, what occurred was in fact a complex cultural hybridisation. Recent research in the relationship between cognition and narrative structure may help us to reconstitute some of the dissonance and ambivalence that texts contained—particularly in recognising Anglo-Saxon and Christian mental spaces (interpretative conceptual assemblies) that texts triggered in order to create a new, blended space.

This paper explores one of these blended mental spaces in a poem regarded as one of the most striking and successful in the Old English corpus, the Vercelli Book’s ‘The Dream of the Rood’—in which the biblical Christ and Anglo-Saxon warrior ethos merge, along with the Cross and Anglo-Saxon social structure. Riddling interacts with the poem’s more frequently discussed homiletic discourse as part of a discovery process, activating links between these potent but disparate cultural concepts.

The poem’s narrative structure is evidence, Michael argues, of a pragmatic modus vivendi with non-Christian aspects of Anglo-Saxon culture, one that sought to enlist entrenched mental spaces (or frames) in the communicative tasks of conversion and religious instruction.

Late Summer Lectures runs every Wednesday at 17.30 at Alington House, Durham, from 19th August to 7th October. All are warmly welcome to attend; see the full programme here. You can also download podcasts of lectures from previous series.

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