Published online by Cambridge University Press: 05 February 2013
When confronted by the large extant corpus of Anglo-Saxon vernacular poetry on religious subjects, one is puzzled by a very basic question. Why poetry? Why should a culture bother to express religious discourse in poetic form? If religion constitutes a series of answers to a culture’s spoken and unspoken existential questions, how does a poetic ‘answer’ serve that need better or more powerfully than a non-poetic answer? In one way or another, all of the poems treated in this essay are expressions of religious belief, a complex problem for religious studies scholars. How does poetry relate to belief? What is it about poetry, qua poetry, that resonates with belief?
This essay sketches out some ideas about belief in Anglo-Saxon vernacular religious poetry to suggest new critical directions for the study of this poetry and to encourage a productive critical revisionism. My selective critical survey of this fascinating literature draws upon two disciplines: the perspective of religious studies – an interdisciplinary field that itself incorporates anthropology, sociology, history, theology and philosophy in a cross-cultural, comparative context; and the recent return to formalism in literary criticism.
Vernacular theology, poetry and belief
In order to examine belief in Old English religious poetry from a religious studies perspective, it would be useful to adapt the concept of ‘vernacular theology’ from the field of Middle English studies. In Middle English studies, vernacular theology – the florescence of late medieval English devotional writing in prose and verse during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries – is often explained as an act of implicit or explicit political resistance; the politics of the vernacular and its incipient theology are a manifestation of burgeoning lay readership and lay religiosity and its proto-Reformation conflict with ecclesiastical orthodoxy. If there is an analogous ‘vernacular theology’ in England before the eleventh century, it does not seem to encode an intentionally oppositional politics; rather, one could argue (based on examples such as Bede’s story of Cædmon or Aldhelm’s reputed ability to compose vernacular poetry), that vernacular theology held a more central place and a more supportive, normative role in Anglo-Saxon culture. Two characteristics of vernacular theology seem particularly