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3 - Wounds and Compensation in the Old English Soul and Body Poems

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 September 2020

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Summary

Though now usually edited as two separate poems, the Old English Soul and Body I (SB I), preserved in the Vercelli Book, and Soul and Body II (SB II), in the Exeter Book, are variant versions of a single, earlier work. For nearly 120 lines both versions relate a damned soul's invective against the body whose life of sin incurred damnation. SB I alone then contains an additional section in which a blessed soul praises its body for having lived virtuously enough to merit salvation. Arguments over the precise relationship between the longer and shorter versions have tended to dominate the secondary literature. Yet some recent scholarship has also usefully examined the poems for the insights they afford into Anglo- Saxon models of psychology and eschatology. The present essay joins the latter efforts by revisiting some eschatological motifs in Soul and Body, particularly in one passage that has puzzled a majority of modern editors and translators.

The passage at issue forms a transition from the damned soul's reproaches of the body to its prediction of terrors at the Last Judgment. At SB I 76a / II 71a, the soul begins a long, syntactically strained warning: even if the body enjoys all earthly riches, it would be better off having never been born, or having been born a lower animal, than facing the penalties of sin at Doomsday. The next several lines then imagine that awful event (I quote the slightly shorter version of SB II):

Þonne þu for unc bu ondwyrdan scealt

on þam miclan dæge, þonne eallum monnum beoð

wunde onwrigene, þa þe in worulde ær

firenfulle menn fyrn geworhton,

ðonne wile dryhten sylf dæda gehyran,

æt ealra monna gehwam muþes reorde

wunde wiþerlean. (SB II 82–88a)

As printed here from Muir's edition, the language is not especially difficult to construe except in verse 88a (SB I 95a), which for now I leave untranslated:

Then you [scil. the body] will have to answer for the two of us on that great day, when those wounds that sinners wrought previously in the world, long ago, will be revealed to all human beings, when the Lord himself will want to hear the deeds, wunde wiþerlean [from / to / for] each and every person by speech from the mouth.

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Old English Lexicology and Lexicography
Essays in Honor of Antonette diPaolo Healey
, pp. 51 - 64
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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