Monday, March 12, 2007

R. W. Chambers and the Laws of Edgar

Recently I've been re-reading R. W. Chambers' Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn. This is a great, great book, but one that I read straight through only once, way back in graduate school, and have since used as a quarry for information. This time I've just been thoroughly enjoying reading it, but I came across a very interesting tidbit that I didn't remember from before and which, to my knowledge, isn't addressed very much in contemporary Anglo-Saxon studies. I'd be interested in comments if you happen to know or just have a guess (I may post this query to ANSAX, also, when I get a chance):
Everything seems to show that about 700 an atmosphere existed in England which might easily have led to a scholarly Englishman, acquainted with the old lays, to have set to work to compose an epic. Even so venerable a person as Bede, during his last illness, uttered his last teaching not, as we should expect on a priori grounds, in Latin hexameters, but in English metre. The evidence for this is conclusive [cite to Letter of Cuthbert to Cuthwine]. But, at a later date, Alcuin would surely have condemned the minstrelsy of Aldhelm [cite: "quid Hinieldus cum Christo"]. Even King Alfred seems to have felt that it needed some apology. It would have rendered Aldhelm liable to severe censure under the Laws of King Edgar; [cite discussed below]; and Dunstan's biographer indignantly denies the charge brought against his hero of having learnt the heathen songs of his forefathers. [cite to Vita Dunstani by B in Stubbs, ed]

Here is the cite from the Laws of Edgar, converting thorns and eths to th: "thaet aenig preost ne beo ealuscop, ne on aenige wisan gliwige, mid him sylfum oththe mid othrum mannum" --Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutes of England, 1840, p. 400 (Laws of Edgar, cap. 58).

[I'd translate this as "that no priest be an ale-poet, nor in any way perform minstrelsy with himself or with other men." ]

Here's my question: what has Chambers gotten wrong here that causes him basically to be ignored when it comes to discussing religious contexts for 10th-century poems? Because this argument, which to be fair, isn't made in any detail, is as far as I know completely ignored in a vast quantity of criticism about 10th-century (i.e., manuscript-era dates) for poems. At the bottom of the note on the Vita Dunstani, Chambers asks "were these songs heroic or magic?" (i.e., the ones Dunstan wasn't singing). But how has this chapter of the Edgar code been interpreted? Are we assuming that an "ale-poet" was not performing/composing texts like Beowulf? What about Widsith, in the Exeter Book and having thus some kind of monastic context?

Does anyone know why (outside the usual Beowulf dating squabbles) Chambers has been ignored here?

1 comment:

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