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  • Writer's pictureRebekah Day

Rising from the ashes of history: Old-English Poetry

‘I have heard that far away from here in the regions of the East exists the noblest of lands renowned among men. This expanse of earth is not accessible to many of the potentates across the world, for through the might of the ordaining Lord it is far removed from evil-doers.’[1]

- Extract from Old English poem, 'From the Pheonix'

‘From The Phoenix’ is an Old English poem originally found in the Exeter Book manuscript. This 10th century compilation of poems and riddles is internationally recognised as a prime example of Anglo-Saxon literature and is possibly the oldest surviving book written in English.[2] This analysis will situate the poem as a significant primary source for the insight it can provide to our understanding of Anglo-Saxon history. I will discuss diachronically how the poem is influenced by historic storytelling practices, positing that the work is evidence of a post-conversion Christian literary tradition

'The Phoenix,' in A Bestiary, British Library, Shelfmark: Harley MS 4751 Item number: f.45r

developing in the 10th century.

Finally, I will conclude that the poem is a prime example of a burgeoning genre of secular texts written in English.

To establish that the author is drawing on historic traditions and suggest a reason for this, I will examine the narrative style of this poem and outline the historic role of the storyteller. Then introducing other primary source material from the period, I will postulate that the references to God’s dominion acts to align the author with the audience, in the same way that contemporaneous kings would swear mutual devotion to God during peace-brokering to establish a mutual respect.

While the narrator foregrounds themselves as the source of the poem, the first-person perspective is minimised by the insistence that they ‘have heard’ the details of the exotic land discussed in the poem. The story is a reworked version of De Ave Phoenice (attributed to 4th century poet Lactantius) but most laypeople in 10th century England would not have had the benefit of a classical education to know this poem, which might explain the lack of reference to the ancient text. Instead, the author insists that other individuals have said this land exists - adding credibility to the story and evidencing the lingering importance of oral storytelling traditions from the past.

Here the role of the author is similar to that of the Celtic ‘bard’ - described by Roman writers as a professional story-teller whose role involved sharing myths and folklore as well as memorising the complex family histories and historic events told to them.[3] Stating that knowledge of the exotic land described in the poem was ‘renowned’, the author purposefully places themselves in the role of a messenger, not creator, of the story.

This distances them from being held responsible for the contents of the poem and dilutes their culpability if it is received negatively.

Reason for this caution is evidenced when contemporary ‘potentates’ of the period are equated to ‘evil doers’– a damning indictment on the nature of rulers at the time. The author turns to secondary evidence to justify this opinion, stating that all-powerful God has passed this judgement on the elite – something a ruler could not argue directly with, as all members of society including kings, were expected to defer their authority to God. We find evidence of this in the laws proclaimed by Aflred King of the English, and Guthrum, King of the invading Danes.[4] To broker peace between the two kingdoms, both kings pledged to ‘[…] love one God, and zealously renounce every kind of heathendom’, making it clear they both intended to adhere to the same religious customs.[5]

Similarly, declaring the facts of this poem as having been determined by ‘the might of the ordaining Lord’, the author again presents themselves as a neutral messenger continuing the bardic tradition of sharing stories, while also adhering to the accepted religious customs of the period. By borrowing these religious references from legal proceedings, the author justifies their contemporary commentary by aligning their values and morals with their audience.

To develop the argument that ‘From the Pheonix’ exemplifies a post-conversion literary tradition in England, I will interrogate the allegory employed in the poem; drawing comparisons to motifs that occur in other Anglo-Saxon sources.

In the first line, the author describes that a ‘far away’ land exists in a region to ‘the East;’ suggesting from the manuscript’s location in Britain that the story might have taken place in the modern-day middle East. Using the adjective ‘noble’ to describe this land indicates the location is associated with righteous events or people, giving the anonymous geography a close metaphorical proximity to Jerusalem and the Holy Land - where Jesus was believed to have died. Setting a story far away and making reference to the power of God over men are tropes commonly found in Anglo-Saxon literature.

For example, the protagonist in ‘The Wanderer’ (another poem from the Exeter Book) calls for his ‘makers’ mercy and describes traversing vast ‘tracts of sea’ in exile.[6] The declaration of trust in divine providence and imagery of distant locations are motifs also repeated in the older poem Widsith.[7]The protagonist of the same name is a poet who has travelled widely ‘through kindreds and countries’[8] and goes on to list the names and great deeds of renowned rulers, before declaring: ‘it is the way of God, who is wise, to deal to the most part of men much favour and a flourishing fame; to a few the sorrow-share.’

The reoccurring themes of divine providence and exotic locations make it evident that the author was drawing upon conventions of an established Christian literary tradition when crafting this poem.

To conclude this analysis of the extract from ‘The Pheonix’ I will situate the manuscript in its wider narrative and historical context, explore how the secular purpose of entertaining English-speaking readers makes this a unique manuscript, and provide a possible explanation for the presence of Christian allegory.

It’s no surprise that the Exeter Book, housed in Exeter Cathedral and thought to have been penned by a monk, should contain poetry wrought with Christian themes and motifs.[9] Especially when considering that much surviving written material from the 10th century, such as peace treaties and legal codes, also commonly included biblical references - clearly demonstrating the success of the conversion of Anglo-Saxons started centuries earlier.[10] It would also be remiss not to explain that the complete poem describes the features of a mythical bird called a Pheonix, which was believed to die in a burst of flames before emerging reborn from its own ashes. Though this fictional resurrection appears to be ‘[…] charged with Christian meaning,’ the text is not a work of ecclesiastical instruction. As part of an anthology of poems and riddles, we can categorize it as a secular book and unique one at that, as the Exeter Book is only one of four surviving Old English texts written in verse form.[11]

The fact that the book is written in Old English – not in French or Latin which were used in religious and legal writing – also tells us that the text was intended to be read by laypeople. The insertion of Christian motifs into the Exeter Book’s rendition of the poem shows the author was confident this audience would identify the meanings conveyed.[12],[13] We can conclude that ‘From the Pheonix’ is rich with potential insights; its content demonstrates that Christianity was deeply rooted across Anglo-Saxon society and facilitated the emergence of secular English literary tradition.

References [1] tr. S.A.J Bradley, ‘From the Pheonix,’ Anglo-Saxon poetry: an anthology of Old English poems in prose translation with introduction and headnotes, (London, 1991) [2] The Exeter Book was inscribed onto the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2016, Exeter Cathedral, Accessed 03/10/2021. [3] Mac Cana, 'Introduction,' Celtic Mythology, (London: Chancellor, 1996), pp.6-20 [4] Thought to have been written between 921-939AD. Dorothy Whitelock, ‘Wulfstan and the So-Called Laws of Edward and Guthrum,’ The English Historical Review 56, no. 221 (1941), pp.1–21 Accessed 10/12/21 [5] ‘The Laws of Alfred, Guthrum, and Edward the Elder’, Medieval Sourcebook: The Anglo-Saxon Dooms 560-975, (Fordham University), line 4 Accessed 9/12/2021. [6] Michael Alexander, ‘The Wanderer,’ tr. M. Alexander The Earliest English Poems, (Berkeley, 1970) p.70 [7] Scholar R.W. Chambers describes that although the transcript of this poem was probably produced around the year 1000, the story likely dates from the late 6th century. ‘Widsith and the German Heroic Age,’ Widsith, (Cambridge, 1912) pp.6-10 [8] Alexander, ‘Widsith,’ p.38 [9] “[…] written down by a single scribe – no doubt a monk – in about 970 […]’”Exeter Cathedral, Accessed 06/10/2021. [10] For example, included in the laws written by King Athelstan (who ruled Wessex from 924-939 A.D), is a biblical reference to Moses declaring God’s laws in the Old Testament. ‘The Laws of King Athelstan 924-939 A.D.’ Medieval Sourcebook: The Anglo-Saxon Dooms 560-975, (Fordham University), line 4-5 Accessed 9/12/2021. [11] Accessed 10/10/2021. [12] “[…] the poem has always centred on the apparent allegorizations drawn from the Lactantian De Ave Phoenice. Daniel G Calder, ‘The vision of paradise: a symbolic reading of the Old English Phoenix,’ Anglo Saxon England, 1, (Cambridge, 1972) p.167 doi:10.1017/S0263675100000132 Accessed 9/12/2021 [13] “There is a word for such things now: a “meme”, an idea that behaves like a gene in its ability to replicate faithfully and abundantly, but also on occasion to adapt, mutate, and therefore survive in different forms and cultures.” Helen Cooper, The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare, (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 3

Primary Sources

Alexander, Michael, The Earliest English Poems, tr. M. Alexander (Berkeley, 1970)

Bradley, S.A.J, Anglo-Saxon poetry: an anthology of Old English poems in prose translation with introduction and headnotes, (London, 1991)

Medieval Sourcebook: The Anglo-Saxon Dooms 560-975, (Fordham University) Accessed 9/12/2021

Secondary Sources

Appleton, H, ‘The Insular Landscape of the Old English Poem The Phoenix,’ Neophilologus 101, pp.585–602 (07 August 2017)

Cooper, Helen, The English Romance in Time: Transforming Motifs from Geoffrey of Monmouth to the Death of Shakespeare, (Oxford University Press, 2004)

Calder, Daniel G, ‘The vision of paradise: a symbolic reading of the Old English Phoenix,’ Anglo Saxon England, 1, (Cambridge, 1972) pp.167-81 https://doi:10.1017/S0263675100000132 Accessed 9/12/2021

Cana, Mac, Celtic Mythology, (London: Chancellor, 1996)

Contributors, ‘Exeter Book,’ British Library Online,

Contributors, ‘Exeter Book,’ Exeter Cathedral,

Kirby, D. P., ‘Bede’s Native Sources for the Historia Ecclesiastica’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library 48, pp.341-71 (1966)

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