Beowulf‘s readers today, like its readers at the turn of the second millennium, are intimately familiar with apocalyptic anxieties. Learned Anglo-Saxons feared the year 1000 would usher in the apocalypse; in the Anthropocene, meanwhile, we realize the irreversible damage wrought on the planet by capitalism. Using J.J. Cohen’s ‘gyred reading’, I treat history as non-linear, and the medieval past as a source for unexpected affective connection. I compare debilitating ligegesa, fire-terror, to today’s ‘eco-anxiety’. In rehearsing our fears of catastrophe brought about by a failed social relation to the material, Beowulf allows its readers to confront and manage incapacitating dread.
Anglo-Saxon literary engagement with the non-human world, in both Anglo-Latin and Old English, has become a thriving area of scholarship. One element that has, however, received remarkably little critical attention is ‘sound’, especially, the production of aural events by what we would consider inanimate forces. This paper will explore the ways Anglo-Saxons perceived and encoded aural information related to one of the most fundamental elements of the natural world: water. It will argue that the variety of depictions of water’s sonic qualities in Anglo-Saxon literature implies a shared aural knowledge of specific, and culturally defined, soundscapes, which were employed for a variety of literary reasons. This variety is directly connected to water’s polyvalency as an experienced material: it was the connective pathway between towns, the islands, and the continent; it was the rain that watered fields or drowned villages; it was the wild and untamable garsecg which encircles the world, a plain for interpretative projection; it was the holy well of saints like Cuthbert; it was there at the beginning of creation. The texts I will explore include Bede’s Latin metrical Vita S. Cuthberti, the Old English Psalms, The Seafarer, several Old English Riddles, and Andreas. This paper aims to aid in the development of a framework for understanding Anglo-Saxon engagement with soundscapes more broadly.
Defining early medieval literature as ‘science fiction’ may be an anachronistic and provocative move, but a shift in emphasis from stereotypical ‘medieval fantasy’ to ‘medieval science fiction’ provides a framework for investigating the Old English Letter of Alexander to Aristotle, from the Beowulf Manuscript, as an epistolary text that seeks to chart the layout of the heavens and the earth. This paper, moving from new readings of Alexander’s scientific explorations to the post-medieval reception of his legend, re-visits this understudied Letter as one enquiring into the tension between that which can be defined and that which escapes the bounds of human reason.