Loneliness, fading beauty, physical ineptitude, and bad odours. The Anglo-Saxon period has been described as ‘a golden age for the elderly’ by Burrow and Crawford, but rightly so? Old English texts often feature evocative descriptions of the social and physical drawbacks of old age and characterise the elderly as deprived of earthly pleasures. Moreover, homilists, such as Ælfric and Wulfstan, used this negative image of old age to inspire their audience to turn to more spiritual pleasures and to be mindful of Heaven, where the absence of old age, notably, was assumed to be one of its joys.
Jack Ravensdale and Richard Muir argue that ‘there is a schizophrenic quality to East Anglian culture’ caused by ‘deep conservatism’ and Continental innovations (East Anglian Landscapes: Past and Present (1984), pp. 13-14). I suggest that this quality appears vividly in the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. Bede condemns the East Anglian King Rædwald for adapting insular Christianity to Germanic paganism, and praises Rædwald’s descendent Æthelthryth, abbess of Ely, for cultivating devotional purity in the Fenlands. In texts at least, the region’s identity originates when Bede deploys Æthelthryth’s joyful, liminal holiness as an implicit corrective to Rædwald’s anxious straddling of ideological borders.
Creation, Gesceaft, throughout the various iterations of the legend of St Guthlac, is a realm of peril and temptation, but also of pleasure. That pleasure, however, can only be found in Creation when a certain level of sanctity has been achieved. As a child Guthlac rightly disdains the love of birdsong common to children, and yet through his path of eremitic holiness Creation is drawn back into prelapsarian relationship with him; and in that pocket of Eden, pleasure in the song of bird and the proximity of beast is divinely created, and is therefore meant to be enjoyed.