How Christian Monks Saved Beowulf

A PhD student in early medieval Old English sounds off:

“[E]ven a lazy reading of Beowulf will show it’s a thoroughly Christian text; it’s also a text firmly in touch with its “pagan” past, since much of Old English poetic convention relied on a tradition that was far older than Christianization… This wasn’t just metrical or linguistic convention; the poetic tropes of Old English poetry generally derive from the hero/warrior/hall-culture ethos, one which there is every reason to suspect was dead as a doornail, certainly by the time the manuscript copy of Beowulf that we have was written; probably also by the time Beowulf was composed…

This convention was so embedded in the culture it distorted how Christianity was portrayed: Christ.. or the Israelites in Exodus, are not portrayed as possessing Christian humility or passively enduring what befalls them; they are invariably recast in warrior-language, as heroes, as going forth with courage and determination to do the things that they have to do. In fact, it can be downright dissonant … Jesus getting nailed to the cross–possibly a supremely submissive act, depending on your perspective–but in terms which unquestionably render him the active agent in that scene. It’s a fascinating look at how the two different perspectives combine in a form of cultural expression amenable to both–but not, you would think, at the same time.

Beowulf is interesting because it’s only about that pagan Germanic past, and the person who wrote it was obviously aware that the characters in this poem have a problem–they are not Christian, and therefore, they are not saved; that problem, and how the poet resolves it (or tries to deal with it, at least) can and has inspired more than one book on the subject; moreover, there is good indication (some of it archeological) that Beowulf is based on a much, much older story. Upon finding this ancient story, the monks (and they were almost certainly monks, because monks were the vast majority of scribes in early medieval England) did not, as you might have them do, throw away this “pagan” nonsense; they recopied it carefully, and it is thanks to their hard work that we can enjoy that poem today.

And all other secular Anglo-Saxon literature–monk scribes are responsible for nearly all the attested Old English we have today; they are almost certainly responsible for all the extant copies of Old English literature that were not made in the modern era. This includes very non-Christian works: riddles (some very rude), Wulf and Eadwacer (a short, chilling poem, and possibly the best in the whole corpus), The Wife’s Lament, etc., etc. And it was Christians in Iceland, like Snorri Sturluson, who copied down Old Norse mythology so that later generations could have it–almost all of what we have of Old Norse people writing on the Old Norse religion comes from Sturluson–and explicitly so that Christian poets, who weren’t raised up with the old myths, could continue to compose the complex, difficult skaldic verses that required knowing who Loki and Odin and Thor were, or who Andvari was, or the name of the serpent gnawing at the root of the World Tree. It was probably a Christian who gave us the even older Poetic Edda–because it was Christians who preserved the culture, who wrote things down.

Though the Runic alphabet was known to them, it was used, it seems, mostly for inscriptions on artifacts or charms; it was not part of a literary tradition. That was oral; it was only Christianity, with its emphasis on literature (and one book in particular) that imported a true literary tradition to the Germanic North; without Christianity, no Germanic literature would survive to the present day–and maybe precious little ancient literature (since most of what we have today was continuously recopied in monastic scriptoria throughout the Middle Ages–yes, even “pagan” texts which had nothing to do with God or Jesus).

… The real tragedy is the Dissolution of the Monasteries; if you want to be pissed at anyone, blame old Harry, because it was in the dissolution that ancient monastic libraries were sold off or outright destroyed (vellum, used to make manuscripts, was labor-intensive and valuable, so there was incentive to recycle these old books; but there are also accounts of manuscripts taken from libraries simply being burned, used as leather scraps, or as toilet paper). Thus, out of hundreds of years of ancient Old English poetic traditions, we have only four books–just four–which preserve any kind of substantial material (but we’re doing better than Old High German, which only has two poems in the ancient heroic style, one of which are scraps of a longer poem which exists in Old English translation). What literary prose we have is mostly translation. To be sure, manuscripts were often recycled, and very old ones that could not be salvaged torn up to use as binding material; after a certain point, doubtlessly, nobody could read these strange old books that used weird letters anymore. I do not think that without something like the Dissolution, the full treasure trove of Old English would have survived–but the reasons it didn’t have nothing to do with the Conversion, and more to do with time; and except for the Ashburnham House fire, the biggest single catastrophic loss of Old English literature was in the sixteenth century, not the sixth or seventh.”

Full thread in context

Image from the Wikipedia entry for Beowulf