I spent an absolutely lovely hour in the library today. I sat on the floor between two banks of shelves, examining shelf upon shelf of books about Anglo-Saxon poetry, reveling in the comforting sense of returning to an environment I enjoy: history. I opened the books and let the ghosts of a thousand years ago whisper to me of their lives.
Perhaps I should explain. I have a BA and a MA in history, and I’m currently pursuing a degree in library science. I plan to pursue a career in a research library, probably associated with a university, but I’m not averse to other possibilities unaffiliated with a specific university, like the Smithsonian or British Library.
I have six months left to go in the MLIS program. It’s a very sensible program, and I need the degree to properly pursue this line of work. The problem is, I’m finding it boring. There’s plenty to do, and the work is challenging – I just don’t find it interesting. In my history MA program, there were plenty of readings I found uninteresting, but I was usually able to tease out one or two points that I could toss into the class discussion. Now, however, I’m having trouble even paying attention while I read.
So, as you might imagine, I’m feeling hopeful about an assignment I’ve got for a course on book history. The class hasn’t yet left me overwhelmed by enthusiasm, but I’m feeling hopeful about the assignment. I’m to write a short “biography” of a book.
And that’s why I spent part of the afternoon looking for resources to help me understand Beowulf‘s history as a text. Turns out it’s surprisingly difficult to find resources for its history, as opposed to examining the way it reflects Anglo-Saxon culture or analyzing the literary elements, but with hunting I left with six books, one I recalled, a few available online, and still the whole database of online journals yet to search.
As I walked back from the library, I imagined what I might say if I had to justify my choice of book to study. I’m coming to realize that I will have to find some way to reconcile my professional side with my academic side more thoroughly. I like library work, don’t get me wrong, but of late I’ve found myself craving history more and more. For my birthday this year, I asked for (and received) Malory: The Complete Works, The History of the Kings of Britain (Geoffrey of Monmouth), Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Bede), and The Mabinogion. I haven’t yet read any of them, since I’m slowly working through the first twelve cantos of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene. I have to find a way to bring history – the stories, the sense of touching the past and being surrounded by friendly ghosts who are thrilled to be remembered, however temporarily – back into my regular life.
And so what would I say, as a historian and librarian, to justify the choice of Beowulf? From a history of texts perspective, it is an iconic work. More than 1000 years after the earliest extant manuscript containing the 3000+ lines of text, the poem is still part of our cultural vocabulary. This is true even of those who haven’t read it. You say the name “Beowulf” and people think of great heroes of a Wagnerian/Tolkenian style. It’s named swords, heroes of stupendous strength and virtue, monsters, dragons, and great hoards of treasure. The poem is also possibly the earliest in a European vernacular that has yet been found. The fact that the 10th-century manuscript survived to this day is amazing. It can tell us a great deal about manuscript preservation history, as we try to undo the actions of past conservators that we now know to be damaging, and it can tell us about the materials available in Britain in the 10th century.
As a historian, many of these aspects are also of interest. But there is more to it. I’m not going to get into literary analysis or examining tropes right now, but Beowulf is a rich source for understanding the culture of Anglo-Saxon Britain, both at the time of the writing and the semi-mythical time in which Beowulf is set. Since the story takes place in Scandinavia somewhere, it reveals something of how the writers thought of their ancestors’ world. The 10th-century version survives in a manuscript known as the Nowell Codex, but because of the prevalence of Christian references in the poem, many historians date it to the 8th century. This shows us that there was someone in Anglo-Saxon England who had an appetite for written secular literature, but that Christianity was also spreading in popularity. The fact that it survives to this day, and seemingly rarely in obscurity, shows that it is an important part of the cultural identity of the people now known as English. Beowulf, Grendel, and Hrothgar exist in the national mythology in the same way as Arthur, Merlin, and Guinevere. They are probably fictional, but there is just enough historical possibility that they burn brightly in the cultural consciousness.
In my history MA program, we talked a lot about “subaltern” people, those whose history got ignored during the great white men phase of history. But as I look further into the history of Britain between the departure of the Roman governors and the Norman Conquest, I think an argument might be made for Anglo-Saxon England as a subaltern history. Crunched between the fame of Rome and the “civilizing” influence of the Norman kings, Anglo-Saxon culture gets dismissed under the heading “dark ages.” However, it’s a remarkably rich period in English history. It’s misty. Very little writing has survived (it’s unclear as to how many people could actually write in England during that time), later Christian historians dismissed the pagan kings as heathens unworthy of much attention, and archaeological artifacts are often fragmentary at best.
On the other hand, the Anglo-Saxons brought traditions from Germany that helped lead to representative government, great legends and stories, skills in metalwork, woodwork, and shipbuilding, and all sorts of others. Anyone who even glances into the subject with an open mind will quickly see that Anglo-Saxon England may have been predominantly illiterate, but it was by no means a dark or uncivilized age.
I hope the professor doesn’t mind a paper that is more history than pure LIS. History is what he’s going to get.