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17 - Performing Christianity: liturgical and devotional writing

from II - EARLY ENGLISH LITERATURE

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2013

Clare A. Lees
Affiliation:
King's College London
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Summary

Modern views of Anglo-Saxon religious writing are drawn to its perceived summits: biblical and hagiographic verse, prose translations of Scripture and the abundant sermons and homilies. Such views can distort, however, by isolating landmarks from their surrounding terrain. This chapter concerns two parts of that terrain, still only vaguely mapped: liturgical writings that directed, or aspired to direct, Christian public worship, and devotional prayers. Existing literary histories offer useful, if partial, coverage of primary texts attributed to either category. No definitive handlist has yet been compiled, partly because the phenomena of ‘liturgy’ and ‘devotion’ resist our taxonomies, and a historical perspective on the meaning of that resistance ought to precede the analysis of relevant texts.

The goal of this essay is therefore not a new inventory so much as a new focus on the enmeshment of liturgy, devotion and literary invention seen, in various forms, across a selection of writings from England between c. 800 and c. 1100. In its first two parts, the chapter considers examples of liturgical and devotional composition, in Latin and Old English, which bear witness to the sheer productivity of those forms and to the complexity of their interactions. The latter half of the essay seeks to apply the lessons of the former to some more ambiguous cases, first to so-called liturgical poetry in Old English, then, briefly, to a few better-known Old English poems in which modern critics find ‘liturgical’ or ‘devotional’ symptoms. The chapter concludes with questions for future research, encouraging a more nuanced integration of literary history with these two fundamental expressions of medieval Christianity.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2012

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