An Outsider View on the State of Old English Studies

There’s been discussion recently among the Anglo-Saxonists about the state of the field. Dr. Nokes has some thoughts that link to Dr. Drout’s two posts and Tiruncula’s comments; TheSwain has also mentioned posting on this… I started comments at several of these but never posted them. I occupy a weird outsider position when it comes to “the field.” On one hand, I’ve had more OE coursework and have done a lot more research in the literature, secondary lit, and period than most English majors. On the other hand, I’ll probably never been seen as anything but an outsider or maybe a “dabbler” in the field because I’m not only in Religion but in Biblical Studies (which obviously can’t have anything to do with OE). So, a few thoughts from my perspective.


  1. It’s a well known “fact” among educated people and clergy that the Catholic Church (sic) suppressed all biblical texts but the Vulgate. Translations into the vernacular were all part of the Reformation and freedom from Catholic (sic) hegemony.
  2. Of the surviving material in Old English, the grand majority is religious literature. Specifically, it’s sermons and homilies. From Æ1fric alone we have over 150 homilies/sermons and there’s a lot more anonymous stuff. How many homileticians and professors of preaching have ever heard his name before? Take a look at the only major work on the history of preaching to be released in recent decades. Check the Table of Contents and the Index. Is there any hint of OE homiletics, vernacular preaching in the Anglo-Saxon period or anything outside of Bede? No.
  3. How about Church Historians? I’ll give you a hint—they read Latin, not OE.
  4. One strand of Anglican theology relies on the notion of the Ecclesia Anglicana, that is, that the Anglican Church is a continuation of the belief of the English Church apart from Roman hegemony. One of the early proofs for this was a tract from the 1560’s entitled A testimonie of antiquitie : shewing the auncient fayth in the Church of England touching the sacrament of the body and bloude of the Lord here publikely preached, and also receaved in the Saxons tyme, aboue 600 yeares agoe. Sure enough, it presents one of Æ1fric’s sermons and is the first printing of any OE text. How many church historians know about it or follow its tracks back to the voluminous writings and sources on the Benedictine Revival in late Anglo-Saxon England? Precious few. Even among Episcopal profs of Church History and seminaries. Maybe the case is different in England—but I haven’t heard anything about it if it is…


My point here is pretty clear, I think. Whatever the internal state of the field, Old English Studies is not having the impact that it could have on related disciplines. Yes, “interdisciplinary” is the word of the day—but where is it? Let’s get real for a second—I know OE. I know the OE homily corpus pretty well and have read through the standard heroic poetry as well including the requisite Beowulf semester. I know my medieval liturgy, paleography, the basics of codicology, an history and have a strong background in classical, medieval, and modern grammar and rhetoric . Would I stand a chance of getting hired for an Old English position? I really doubt it. My (perhaps cynical) guess is that most universities would hire a English PhD with a dissertation on Shakespeare who had an Intro to OE course in grad school over me with a PhD in NT… (Not that I plan to apply for such positions but in today’s academic job market you weigh *all* your options…)


For what it’s worth, here are my recommendations:

1.      Stop being so darn Insular! Er…insular. Yes, great strides are being made towards interdisciplinarity but only in circumscribed areas. Things need to be cracked open. Look—I’m not unique here. There are other non-English, non-History people who could take advantage of the riches of the field. The reality of postmodern academia is that nobody can read everything any more. I can’t read all the biblical studies journals let alone the homiletics ones and the church history ones and the monastic ones and the Old English ones—especially the English journals that occasionally publish OE related things. What’s needed is a sound internet resource that ids in an easily accessible fashion both current publications and the major trends, states of the various questions, and core primary and secondary resources for the major sub-areas of the field. Actually, it’s not just you—we need it as well. If we as an academic community are going to take the “interdisciplinary” thing seriously, then the main guilds need to provide these resources for their areas. In my part of the world The Society of Biblical literature isn’t doing it; but Mark Goodacre is… The NT Gateway is a step in the right direction with static resources and an accompanying blog.  

2.      Promote the field both inside and outside the field! Dare to cross the threshold into the Div school… talk to the preaching professor… Or whatever other field outside English or History that you read the most or that you think your work should have a bearing on. When people realize there’s value in it, they’ll start reading it too.


I could probably say more here but these are just the main thoughts that float to the top of my head on this issue.