Welcome to my sixth Medieval Book Club entry. For this month we read through some Anglo-Saxon poetry (in translation, of course), found free online here and here and here. If you haven’t had a chance to read them yet, follow those links and give them a read. Let me tell you, I really enjoyed reading through those poems this month, which seems to be a repeating trend with Anglo-Saxon poetry. After May’s disappointment, it was nice to retreat to what is becoming my safe space for Anglo-Saxon literature.
For July we will be reading Viking Age Iceland by Jesse L. Byock. The preview post for this one can be found here, and I am looking forward to reading that book. If you are at all interested, I would love to have you read along and come back to discuss that book on July 20th!
My Thoughts on Judith:
This poem was an interesting one. I enjoyed it, and how Judith beheaded Holofernes in the beginning and it turned out to be a fairly significant event by the end of the poem. I can’t be the only one, though, who found it fairly humorous that the warriors were standing around, afraid to interrupt their lord because they imagined he was still laying with Judith:
So the retainers in the morning-time chased down the strangers,
for the whole time until the lead-warriors of that militant people,
who were hostile, perceived that the Hebrew men had shown
a severe sword-swinging to them. Wordfully they went
to reveal that fact to the most senior of the lordly-warriors,
awakening the pennanted soldiers, and fearfully announcing
the frightful news—the morning-raid, the terrible play of blades—
to the mead-wearied. Then I heard at once
that the warriors doomed to die shook off their slumber
and the fallen-spirited went thronging in a crowd
to the sheltering tent of the baleful one, Holofernes.
They intended at once to announce the battle to their lord
before the terrible power of the Hebrews.
They all thought that the lord of warriors
and the bright maiden lay together inside that lovely tent,
the noble Judith and the lecherous one, terrifying and fierce.
There was not one of the nobles though who dared
to wake up that warfaring man or to discover how
the warrior had done with that holy woman,
the maiden of the Measurer. The armed might of the Hebrew people
drew nearer, fighting fiercely with hardened battle-weapons,
requiting with blades their ancient quarrel,
with splattered swords, their elder grudges.
Assyrian glory was diminished by that day-work,
their pride humbled. The warriors stood around
the tent of their lord, quite troubled, with downcast spirits.
Then they all together began to cough, making loud noises
and gnashing their teeth, deprived of the good, enduring grief.
Then was the end of their glory, of their blessings,
and their brave deeds. Then the earls considered how to awaken
their friendly lord—it prospered them not a jot.
That is probably the best scene there, with them coughing and gnashing their teeth outside the tent. Trying to subtly get his attention without raising his ire. And then the dramatic reveal: he is dead, and so they are all now doomed to lose to the Hebrews descending upon them.
All in all, this was a fun little poem, and it might be my favorite of the three this month. Dream of the Rood is close enough in standing that it might be a tossup between those two. But I really did enjoy this one, especially because of the humor woven in these scenes.
My Thoughts on Dream of the Rood:
This is a poem I have read several times now, and I always find myself enjoying this one. I actually was able to engage in a good discussion with some close friends about this poem, and it was fun to break it down a little and to consider how this poem almost appears to elevate the Cross to a saintly, idolic status to rival Mary.
On me, the Child of God
suffered awhile. Therefore I, triumphant
now tower under the heavens, able to heal
any one of them, those who stand in terror of me.
Long ago I was made into the hardest of torments,
most hateful to men, until I made roomy
the righteous way of life for them,
for those bearing speech. Listen—
the Lord of Glory honored me then
over all forested trees, the Warden of Heaven’s Realm!
Likewise Almighty God exalted his own mother,
Mary herself, before all humanity,
over all the kindred of women.
Sometimes it is hard to read poetry from a time when the Christian thought was predominantly Catholic in slant, as is the case with most Anglo-Saxon literature, because there will be things that stand out as being theologically inaccurate. And that is something I could talk about with all three of these poems, but I won’t go into those details here.
In spite of the attempts to make the Cross (known in the poem as the Rood) a significant symbol (which you could argue it has become that in our modern society), the approach on this poem is so unique that I always enjoy reading it. The dream of this man, retold in poetry, gives life and personality to the cross:
The young warrior stripped himself then—that was God Almighty—
strong and resolute—he climbed up onto the high gallows,
mindful in the sight of many, when he wished to redeem mankind.
I quaked when the warrior embraced me—
yet I dared not bow down to the ground, fall down to earthly regions,
but I must stand there firm. The rood was reared. I heaved the mighty king,
the Lord of Heaven—I did not dare to lean.
This is a poem I will return to time and again, and hope to someday soon revisit it in the Anglo-Saxon language. It is short, yet expressive and imaginative. Which is something I really enjoy in poetry.
My Thoughts on Juliana:
For those who thought the Medieval Literature would be silent about women, this month should have proven that thought wrong. Of the three poems read, this is the second one starring a woman. And wow, Juliana had quite the story about her life in here. You might dislike the emphasis on Juliana’s value being placed on her virginity, saving herself for Christ, it would have been a common perspective in this period. Without doing any research at all, I do know that a fair number of female saints had virginity as a trait among them. Likely because Christ was born of a virgin mother, so that would be viewed as the highest state in which a woman can achieve – equaling Mary’s accomplishment (although I’m not convinced she remained as such after the birth of Christ, so that really brings about a flaw in virginity equaling holiness for women. But that would be another discussion for another day…)
The scene where Juliana is talking to the demon (disguised as an angel) was an interesting one. Instead of taking the angel at his word, she prays to God for guidance and is instructed to grab hold of the angel. After that, she is able to get a very full confession out of the demon, and I feel like we’re missing something critical in that whole process because of the missing part of the manuscript. The deeds that the demon confesses to are curious to read, and I almost am left wondering if this could have partially been an inspiration to C.S. Lewis for his creation of The Screwtape Letters. It is likely not, but I did get a feeling that this could have inspired it and Lewis almost certainly would have read this poem in his time as a Medievalist.
And, of course, we have another piece missing after this discussion and then we jump straight into Juliana being tortured. Or, at least, they are attempting to torture and kill her but God protects her from all sorts of cruel and hideous methods. This echoes what is seen in many of the saintly stories – supernatural protection for them in body for a length of time but eventually they will suffer a death. Yet through it all, the saint is praising God and His glory. And, as is also common, the death appears to lead some to conversion.
Overall the poem spends a ton of time with Juliana interrogating the chained demon. We’re missing much of what Juliana suffered through prior to her death, which some might prefer to have it absent. While I enjoyed the poem and plan to read it again in the future, it didn’t stand out to me as much as the other two poems. This one was longer than the other two combined, yet I preferred them more.
Which of the three poems did you enjoy reading the most? What about that poem made it stand out from the others?