Taking the verse-epistles of minor Frankish poet Ermoldus Nigellus as its case study, this paper considers the isolation of a classically-knowledgeable scholar living amongst ‘the barbarians’ – a side-effect of the Carolingian renovatio, the policy of unifying imperial administration through Latin literacy. Studying Classical texts gave court-scholars an exclusive comradery amongst their peers, set apart intellectually from the common man. When assigned to the outposts, away from their colleagues, they felt isolated and distinctively ‘other’ compared to the locals. Unlike his model Ovid’s, Ermoldus’s erudition may have seen him removed (relegatio) as a reward – even as he laments to the contrary.
In this paper, I argue that the torment of exile in Anglo-Saxon poetry is not only the change of identity to outsider or ‘other’, but also a psychological and spiritual torment of concurrent motion and stillness, time and timelessness. I read The Wanderer, The Wife’s Lament, and The Seafarer through an ecocritical perspective to reveal how the exile’s displacement to a landscape wherein time progresses and ecological processes continue in normal fashion compounds the feeling of falling out of place and time. These texts reveal the paradoxical experience of the exile in that he or she is constantly moving, forever circling around the communities they previously inhabited, yet psychologically and socially frozen, unable to progress in space or time.
In the Old English corpus, exile – the border-crossing phenomenon simultaneously within and without a socio-political community – is constructed in different ways, which can all be found in Beowulf: the emotional distress of the elegiac Last Survivor, the matter-of-fact tone of the accounts of the quasi-historical figures like Ecgtheow and Eadgils, and, most notably, the monstrosity of Grendel and his mother. With different degrees of empathetic and normative effect, these kinds of rhetoric about exile reveal how the Anglo-Saxons might have conceptualized exile as a social other to be treated not only with caution but with strategies of differentiation, assimilation, and (re-)integration.