Old English and Continental Germanic Literature in Comparative Perspectives

by Larry J. Swain (Volume editor)
©2019 Monographs VIII, 140 Pages


A Saxon of St. Boniface’s acquaintance in England observed that the two peoples, the English and Saxons, were of the same bone and blood. Certainly Boniface himself noted the similarities in language and story between the two peoples. In modern scholarship, however, rarely are early continental Germanic literary remains discussed in the same breath with the Anglo-Saxon materials in spite of the apparent relationships, in distinct contrast to the well-explored relationships between Old English literature and Old Norse.
The purpose of this collection of essays is to redress that absence. The essays collected here aim to compare key texts and practices of the Anglo-Saxons with their continental counterparts. Motifs, scribal habits, tropes, and themes are here explored connecting Beowulf, Heliand, and Exodus specifically, as well as exploring some elements on a larger cultural canvas.
It is infrequent to have articles dealing with such subjects; continental Germanic literature, particularly that of the pre-twelfth century, is one of the most ignored areas in medieval studies. This volume of essays will open up discussion further.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface (Larry J. Swain)
  • Introduction (G. Ronald Murphy)
  • Chapter 1. Old Saxon-Old English Intertextuality and the “Traveler Recognizes His Goal” Theme in the Heliand (Paul Battles)
  • Models of Old Saxon-Old English Intertextuality
  • The Translation Paradigm
  • The Source-Influence Theory
  • The Oral-Traditional Paradigm
  • “The Traveler Recognizes His Goal”: An Old English and Old Saxon Traditional Theme
  • Old English Instances of the Theme
  • “The Traveler Recognizes His Goal” in Old Saxon
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter 2. The Old English Beowulf and the Middle High German Nibelungenlied Similarities and Dissimilarities (Albrecht Classen)
  • Notes
  • Chapter 3. Mæg wið Mæge: Drinking with Beowulf (Erik A. Carlson)
  • Being Drunk or Having Drunk?
  • Feasting as rite de passage
  • Treasure and Drink in Liminal Transition
  • Beowulf’s Weorð: The Feast with Hygelac
  • Drinking and Communitas
  • Druncen in Other Contexts
  • Beowulf is druncen, too
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Chapter 4. The Wisdom of Elizabeth and Mary in the Heliand and Diatessaron (David Eugene Clark)
  • Notes
  • Chapter 5. Decoding gerûni: Runic sacramenta in the Old Saxon Heliand (Richard Fahey)
  • Rune-words in Old Saxon
  • Rune-words in Old English
  • Glosses of geryne
  • Rune-words in the Heliand
  • Interpreting geruni
  • Notes
  • Chapter 6. Semantic Hybridity in the Old English Exodus and Old Saxon Heliand (David Carlton)
  • Introduction
  • Explicit Similarities
  • Implicit Similarities
  • Trade vs. Shared Experience
  • Theorizing a Broader Context of Germanic Conversion
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Index of Primary References

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Larry J. Swain, Volume Editor

The inspiration for this collection of essays came from my course construction. I wanted to do a course that set Old and Middle English literature in a comparative relationship with other Germanic literature. I already had a course that approached in particular epic literature that included classical, medieval, and non-European epic in comparative perspectives and wanted to narrow my focus for an upper division course. The problem I noticed is that at the time that I initially began to construct the course, there were no current textbooks or readers. The closest that existed and had just appeared in print was Richard North et al, Beowulf and Other Stories: A New Introduction to Old English, Old Norse, and Anglo-Norman Literatures. The accompanying reader had not been produced, and the essays in that collection covered some of what I wanted to do in the course, but not all. I also noticed that there was comparatively little scholarship examining commonalities between Old English literature and continental Germanic literature, whereas comparative studies between Old English and Old Norse were a minor industry.

In part then to further my own knowledge, to improve my teaching materials for this course, and to focus scholarly attention on the field, I sponsored sessions at the International Congress on Medieval Studies over three consecutive years. The first year was a general comparison between Old English and ← vii | viii → early Middle English and continental Germanic literature. The second year took a more focused look at Beowulf in particular and continental Germanic literature; the third year invited papers looking at Beowulf and the Heliand.

The essays collected in this book cover those same three areas. Some of the contributors participated in those sessions; other contributors responded to a call for submissions. The contributors range from seasoned, well-known academics to advanced graduate students. It is our hope that these studies will encourage other scholars to take a more detailed look at continental Germanic literature of the early period in relation to its more well-known cousins.

The question to ask is certainly what continental Germanic literature is. That is both an easy and a difficult question to address. Easy in the sense that what we mean by “continental” is that literature stemming from the mainland rather than Scandinavia. “Germanic” is a bit more difficult to define. It would be easy to limit this to literature specifically written in a Germanic language or dialect such as Old and Middle High German, Old and Middle Saxon, and so on. This would, however, leave out works written in Latin by Germanic peoples using Germanic narrative and poetic techniques, themes, and motifs. While this volume does not include an examination of a Latin text, the point is well taken: in a multilingual environment language of composition should be no barrier. But nonetheless, in this volume only studies of literature composed in a Germanic language are considered. It is hoped that the work of the scholars in this volume will inspire further work in the area.

Before leaving the Preface altogether, I must make mention of one person in addition to the authors without whom this project would never have come to be. Bayle Roberts, now a former undergraduate student of mine, was absolutely indispensable in the editing and formatting of the pages herein. She has my unqualified praise and undying thanks. I would also like to thank G. Ronald Murphy. Dr. Murphy, as many readers are no doubt aware has done pioneering work in this field. All the authors, and especially the editor, are deeply indebted to him for his work, his comments on papers, his comments in sessions, his support of this project, and his gracious introduction to this volume.

Larry J. Swain, editor
15 February 2018

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G. Ronald Murphy

What a wonderful time to present these new and continuing studies of the world of the Saxons and the Anglo-Saxons. In November of 2016, the British press, as well as Historical England on line, announced the amazing discovery at Great Ryburgh in East Anglia of a field of Anglo-Saxon graves, dating from the 7th to the 9th century, in other words, from the time of the Dream of the Rood poem and the Ruthwell cross, to the time of the epic Heliand poem in Saxony. Laid out In parallel, fairly straight rows, and well-preserved thanks to acid soil and alkaline water, there is the remarkable total of eighty-one tree trunk burials and six plank lined graves. The tree trunks are oaks that had been split longitudinally and hollowed out on both sides to form a bed and a lid for the corpse. This form of burial has been known in the Germanic north since the bronze age, with preserved examples in Germany, England and elsewhere. These tree trunk graves in Norfolk, however, are not oriented to the north star, the pivot point for the turning of Woden’s Wain around the peak of Yggdrasil, surprisingly they are all oriented toward the east. The bodies rest in simplicity without a trace of weapons or grave goods. The tree graves are those of Germanic people that are Christians.

Thus the fascinating challenge is before us again, how did the people who buried their friends and relatives in tree trunks think and imagine what they ← 1 | 2 → were doing? What riches did they carry with them that are not a part of their longboats’ cargo? Just how did Germanic myth and Christian story coalesce in their mental world and in the remarkable poetry of their burial practice?

We are reminded of the 7th century Dream of the Rood where the cross/rood speaks in runes to remind us emphatically that it is a tree and that it can save. Remembering Germanic mythology, were they thinking of Yggdrasil the cosmic tree of life that would open at Ragnarok to save the last man and woman from death ? It will be worth studying to see how our contemporary scholars will interpret the caskets of Great Ryburgh.

In the 9th century Saxon Heliand the whole of the gospel story was reimagined in Germanic terms. The Saxons brought it with them to England, perhaps in many senses. The copy that is now in the British library was written in England in what appears to be East Anglian script. In the Heliand, one of the principal functions of a tribal chieftain is transferred to Jesus: as Chieftain of mankind he is expected to help and protect against the enemy. In Jesus’ case this enemy includes death with the workings of the three Norns who embody fate, time and the coming of death. Their Nordic names are known, especially the first, which has remained in our language: wurd [weird], verdanti, and skuld, “what happened, what is happening, what shall happen.” Is this the reason for the emphasis on the passage of time in Anglo-Saxon literature? In Deor can we hear echoes of that thought in the repeated line of the disappointed poet: “that went by; this may too.” In Beowulf and the Heliand the uncertainty of life and the sure coming of death remains a seriously persistent concern. As the hour of crucifixion approaches in the Heliand (5394–6), words are found that are not in the gospel: “Fate was coming closer then thiu uurd nahida thuo, the great power of God and midday, when they were to bring his life-spirit to its death agony.” Fate blended with divine power. Everyone knows the famous lines (50–2) in Beowulf when a beloved lord’s corpse is sent out to sea and the ship set afire: “Men cannot say / for certain, neither advisor in the hall, / nor warrior under the sky, who received that cargo. Men ne cunnon / secgan to sođe, sele-rædende, / hæleđ under heofenum, hwa þǣm hlæste onfeng.”

Waiting for attention too are not just the common thoughts and fears but the many phrases that that the Heliand and Beowulf have in common. So much wealth was exchanged between Old Saxony and the new Anglo-Saxon world that it is wonderful that not only archaeologists under the sky are enthusiastic in their searches but also literary and linguistic scholars, advisors in the halls, are inspired to dig into the literary and cultural riches of our past. In this sense I rejoice to see this new work, under the leadership of Dr. Swain ← 2 | 3 → and his cohort of scholars, demonstrating such appreciative awareness that what came to pass in those days with, as Bede says, “the Angles or Saxons,” is present with us now, and shall always be a part of us as long for as we read and speak Ǣnglish.

G. Ronald Murphy, SJ


VIII, 140
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. VIII, 140 pp., 2 tables

Biographical notes

Larry J. Swain (Volume editor)

Larry J. Swain is Co-Editor in Chief of The Heroic Age: A Journal of Medieval Northwestern Europe. He has edited, translated, and commented on the Ælfric of Eynsham’s Letter to Sigeweard and teaches at Bemidji State University.


Title: Old English and Continental Germanic Literature in Comparative Perspectives
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