Skip to main content Accessibility help
×
Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-nr4z6 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-05-27T17:28:32.868Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

1 - The Lives of Nytenu: Imagining the Animal in the Old English Boethius and Soliloquies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 May 2017

Get access

Summary

Ælfric of Eynsham had a fondness for elephants. He was unlikely to have seen one first-hand – there are no records of elephants having been imported into Anglo-Saxon England; instead, he gathered his knowledge of the creature from a variety of textual sources. An excursus in his homily based on the Books of the Maccabees conveys facts about their size (larger than a house), diet (a taste for mulberries), gestation period (twenty-four months), and lifespan (300 years on average). These details have been read as evidence of a zoological interest in animals that does not reduce them to mere figurative significance. For all of his zoological leanings, however, Ælfric viewed the elephant – and nonhuman animals generally – through a thick lens of human exceptionalism. Ælfric reiterates that elephants, the greatest of beasts (‘eallra nytena mæst’), can readily be trained by human skill. He is invoking the widely held belief that the ability to tame larger and physically stronger animals is one of the most obvious proofs of human superiority. Elsewhere, Ælfric drew the metaphysical boundaries between human and animal more explicitly. In his Colloquy, for instance, the students declare their distance from ‘stupid beasts’ (‘stunte nytenu’) by championing their desire for book learning. And it has been noted how Ælfric returns in his work ‘almost obsessively’ to the question of whether animals possess souls (according to him, they do not). Due in part to the prominence of animals in his writings, Ælfric's statements are often treated as representative of the Anglo-Saxon attitude towards animals. But his voice, strident as it could be, was only one of many in an ongoing conversation about the relationship between human and nonhuman animals. This essay focuses on two other participants in that conversation: the Old English Boethius and Soliloquies.

Far from being literal, word-for-word translations of their sources – Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae and Augustine's Soliloquia – the Old English versions condense, expand, omit, modify, and interpolate material. Often these alterations are congruent with the expressed positions of the original authors; at other times they depart in striking ways. Traditionally, the two works have been attributed to King Alfred (849–99). The Old English Boethius survives in two versions – one in prose, the other a prosimetrum – and the single medieval manuscript witness of each version contains a preface claiming Alfred as the translator.

Type
Chapter
Information
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)

Save book to Kindle

To save this book to your Kindle, first ensure coreplatform@cambridge.org is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations. ‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Available formats
×

Save book to Dropbox

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Available formats
×

Save book to Google Drive

To save content items to your account, please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Available formats
×