Welcome to the fourth preview for the 2017 Medieval Book Club. For April we’re going to read a pair of Medieval poems which, as you might guess, are retelling the stories found in the Books of Exodus and Daniel from the Bible. I’m curious to see how true they stay to the source material, and to see where they allow their own culture to seep in and influence the poetic works. Back in February we read Genesis A&B which, while having some diversions from the source material, as a whole stayed pretty true to the content while adding some cultural flavor. You can check out my review on Genesis A&B here, and read on for a short preview of April’s selections:
Titles: Exodus & Daniel
Authors: Unknown, rumored to be Cædmon
Dates of Composition: Unknown, part of the Junius Manuscript which is typically dated around the 10th Century
Links to read for FREE: Exodus & Daniel (https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/exodus/ & https://anglosaxonpoetry.camden.rutgers.edu/daniel/)
Length: Exodus: 590 lines; Daniel: 764 lines
Exodus is not a paraphrase of the biblical book, but rather a retelling of the story of the Israelites’ Flight from Egypt and the Crossing of the Red Sea in the manner of a “heroic epic”, much like Old English poems Andreas, Judith, or even the non-religious Beowulf. It is one of the densest, most allusive and complex poems in Old English.
Exodus brings a traditional “heroic style” to its biblical subject-matter. Moses is treated as a general, and military imagery pervades the battle scenes. The destruction of the Egyptians in the Red Sea is narrated in much the same way as a formulaic battle scene from other Old English poems, including a ‘Beast of Battle’ motif very common in the poetry.
The main story is suspended at one point to tell the stories of Noah and Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Some scholars consider this change of subject a feature of the “epic style” comparable with the similar digressions in Beowulf.
The Old English Daniel is based only loosely on the Biblical Book of Daniel from which it draws its inspiration. Daniel ignores the majority of the apocalyptic and prophetic writing found towards the end of the Biblical source, and focuses instead on the first five chapters of the narrative. The poem also leaves out Daniel being thrown into the lions’ den.
The primary focus of the Old English author was that of The Three Youths, Daniel and their encounters with the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (OE Nabuchodnossor). The three men and Daniel were about 14 when they were taken away. The three youths are named Ananias, Misael, and Azarias. Daniel is called aethele cnithas, meaning that he was to be trained a servant for the king. Daniel was put into servitude and him and the youths were also probably made eunuchs, the speculation comes because the master of the eunuchs trained the youths in divination, magic, and astrology.
The poet even changed the meaning of the story from remaining faithful while you are being persecuted to a story dealing with pride, which is a very common theme in Old English Literature. The Old English, Daniel is a warning against pride and there are three warnings in the story. The Israelites were conquered because they lost faith in God, who delivered them from Egypt, and started worshiping idols and this is the first prideful act. The second and third warnings are about internal pride, shown to Nebuchadnezzar through Daniel’s dream interpretations.