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Reading the Anglo-Saxon Self Through the Vercelli Book

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Amity Reading

Reading the Anglo-Saxon Self Through the Vercelli Book explores conceptions of subjectivity in Anglo-Saxon England by analyzing the contents and sources of the Vercelli Book, a tenth-century compilation of Old English religious poetry and prose. The Vercelli Book’s selection and arrangement of texts has long perplexed scholars, but this book argues that its organizational logic lies in the relationship of its texts to the performance of selfhood. Many of the poems and homilies represent subjectivity through "soul-and-body," a popular medieval literary motif that describes the soul’s physical departure from the body at death and its subsequent addresses to the body. Vercelli’s soul-and-body texts, together with its exemplary narratives of apostles and saints, construct a model of selfhood that is embodied and performative, predicated upon an interdependent relationship between the soul and the body in which the body has the potential for salvific action. The book thus theorizes an Anglo-Saxon conception of the self that challenges modern assumptions of a rigid soul/body dualism in medieval religious and literary tradition. Its arguments will therefore be of interest to students and scholars of literature, history, philosophy, and religious studies and would be appropriate for upper-level courses on Old English literature, Anglo-Saxon history, sermons and preaching in medieval England, and medieval religious practice.

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Introduction: Bodies, Souls, and Selves in Anglo-Saxon England

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INTRODUCTION

Bodies, Souls, and Selves in Anglo-Saxon England

The rationale behind the compilation of the manuscript known as the Vercelli Book (Vercelli, Biblioteca Capitolare, MS CXVII, s.x2)1 has long puzzled scholars. The individual pieces within the tenth-century codex do not seem to be ordered by liturgical year, source text, or genre,2 and past scholarship has posited many conflicting explanations for both the manuscript’s purpose and its mysterious journey to Italy. Most scholars will agree, however, that the codex has an eschatological focus. Eamonn Ó Carragáin’s extensive work on the manuscript leads him to say with some confidence that “[i]t was a central preoccupation of the Vercelli compiler to ensure regular recurrence throughout the manuscript of material describing Last Things (death, Judgment, hell or heaven: eschatological material),” and indeed many of the homilies and poems pertain to the interim after death as well as the need to prepare for death through penance.3 Based in part on this arguably personal overarching theme, the codex’s idiosyncratic organization and contents, and the connections between Italy and the manuscript’s marginalia, Ó Carragáin further postulates that the compilation could have been the private devotional reading text of a canon traveling to the shrine of St. Eusebius in Vercelli.4 Other scholars have reached similar conclusions, and the consensus would appear to be that the manuscript was likely the property of a secular pilgrim, either traveling directly to Vercelli or stopping there on the road to Rome.5 ← 1...

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