So Many Tales Untold : Eloquent Silences in the Old English Canon

An Sonjae 

Where is that horse now? Where are those men? Where is the hoard-sharer? 

Where is the house of the feast? Where is the hall's uproar? 

Alas, bright cup ! Alas, burnished fighter ! 

Alas, proud prince ! How that time has passed, 

dark under night's helm, as though it had never been ! 

There stands in the stead of staunch thanes 

a towering wall... 

Those lines from the Wanderer in Professor Alexander's translation serve to remind us of the value of memory and the 'towering wall' of oblivion that threatens all human realities. The poet is saying that the unrecorded dead of the past are 'as if they had never been'. Instead of pages eloquent with records of their joys and sorrows, there is nothing but a towering wall of silence 'wrought with worm-shapes.' By contrast, many still remember the names and words of Caedmon and perhaps even Coifi, although they are long dead. The Battle of Maldon may not be a very great work of literature, but Byrhtnoth still lives because of it. 

The telling of tales, and the subsequent writing and preservation of them by Church institutions, was an activity that effectively gave relative immortality to a few individuals who lived in Britain (and elsewhere, in the case of Beowulf) over a thousand years ago. No such memorial exists for the host of other folk who were not recorded, who are as though they had never been. Yet they once were and their lives were equally precious. Why were their tales never written? That eloquent silence surrounds and challenges the rare, recorded memories. 

The history of Britain during the First Millennium was a series of invasions and conquests, repeated patterns of penetration and domination of one culture by another, of one region by another, of one religious tradition by another, in the course of which large numbers of people must have suffered and died. Entire cultures and populations disappeared completely. Regional conflict, tensions between cultures, struggles for domination, were characteristic of the thousand years before 1066, yet the bulk of Old English writing seems entirely unaware of such things, with the works we possess usually refusing quite firmly to be linked to any specific person, place, or moment in time prior to their inscription in the surviving manuscripts. They are not simply not autobiographical; with the exception of Maldon, they apparently refuse to engage explicitly with any of the painful social transformations of their age. Bede's History is hardly an exception. 

Historians provide outlines of social evolutions and processes. The poetry of life happens somewhere within those outlines, where individuals suffer and rejoice. We have to follow the historians, in this paper mainly Hugh Kearney for the social history and Richard Fletcher for the Church history, as we try to evoke the untold tales of distant times. The social story seems dominated by the gradual emergence in Germanic England of increasingly militaristic, feudal forms of hierarchical lordship, contrasting with the family-based societies of the older Celtic past; the Church's story runs in parallel, as the bishops and monasteries increasingly became servants of the rising Germanic and Scandinavian monarchy. 

2000 years ago, before the Roman conquest began, Britain and Ireland and the islands around them were home to a considerable number of tribal groups with various forms of Celtic language and culture. The first recorded attempt to establish a 'kingdom' controlling a wider area was that of Cunobelinus (Cymbeline) who died in A.D. 41 and the Romans then invaded, exploiting the regional conflicts he had created to establish their power. Roman Britain evolved in a way that perpetuated an already existing distinction between the South and the rest of Britain. The relatively 'advanced' southern region formed the heart of the Roman occupation, London was founded at its centre and its culture was heavily Romanized. By contrast it seems that the northern areas were mainly kept quiet by a strong military presence. 

English people today tend to wax lyrical over the straight Roman roads that still mark the landscape in places, the remains of Hadrian's Wall, the many place-names ending in 'caster' that mark Roman military camps, without ever reflecting that these are monuments to a harsh colonial domination, not relics of a noble civilizing enterprise. The people who built all those were not benefitting much from Roman civilization; they were prisoners and slaves, as were probably the workers in the estates of the great villas. What songs did the British sing as they laboured to lay the paving stones of Watling Street under the pouring rain? 

When the Roman occupation was brought to an end, just after 400, the departing army left the south of Britain, including what is now south Wales, strongly marked by Roman patterns of culture. Many Celtic (British) families had adopted Roman patterns of living. Yet the Latin language seems to have vanished almost at once from daily life, a clear sign that the British population had preserved its own language and a degree of cultural identity through centuries of Roman domination. 

Latin did not disappear completely, however. The Roman empire had recently undergone an almost unimaginable change, with official declarations around 390 that Christianity was to be the religion of all Roman citizens and that all non Christian places of worship were to be closed. It would be very good to know about the extent to which the British living under Roman rule were informed of this change. How Christian was Roman Britain in 400? It is impossible to know, but clearly there were substantial Christian communities and at least a number of church buildings. 

Bede (the great recording angel) reports in considerable detail in Chapter 7 of Book One of his History the tale, presumably preserved in Britain from Roman times, of how a Briton called Alban was killed in the great persecution under Diocletian (301-4) at what is now St. Albans (Verulamium). He even adds the names of Aaron and Julius, martyrs in the same persecution at the 'City of Legions' which historians tend to see as Caerleon-on-Usk in what is now southern Wales. By contrast, Bede seems not to think that the Christian British killed by the invading Angles and Saxons deserve to be remembered in the same way. He records facts but no names, tells no individual tales : 'Priests were slain at the altar; bishops and people alike, regardless of rank, were destroyed with fire and sword' (History, Book l.1. Ch. 15). But he suggests that they somehow deserved it: 'In short, the fire kindled by the hands of the pagans, proved God's just vengeance for the crimes of the people; not unlike that which, being of old lighted by the Chaldeans, consumed the walls and all the buildings of Jerusalem. For here, too, through the agency of the pitiless conqueror, yet by the disposal of the just Judge, it ravaged all the neighbouring cities and country, spread the conflagration from the eastern to the western sea, without any opposition, and overran the whole face of the doomed island.' There is a huge erasure, a virtual silence. Why was their story never told, their martyrdom never celebrated? Their names are lost for ever. 

In the northern areas of Britain it seems clear that soon after the Romans had left, Christianity spread beyond Hadrian's Wall. A stone set up in about 450 records the establishment of a church in Whithorn, in what is now Galloway, the south-western region of Scotland nearest to Ireland. Bede mentions the sending of a certain Ninian as a bishop to that community, but again no texts permit us to know who these Christians were, how they began or ended. 

Ireland was never Roman, but it soon became Christian. Before the Romans had left Britain, Irish settlers were living in south-western Wales (Demetia) and it is suggested (Fletcher 81) that they were evangelized there and transmitted the faith to their kin in Ireland. We know for sure that there were numbers of Christians in Ireland soon after that because the chronicler Prosper of Aquitaine reports that in 431 'Palladius, consecrated by Pope Celestine, is sent as their first bishop to the Irish believers in Christ' (Fletcher 80). 

Historians stress the difference between the system of government practiced in the Roman Empire and the Church, essentially monarchical and legal, exercising power and if need be applying punishments, and the way in which British (Celtic) society was comprised of small tribal units based on kinship and ruled by consensual custom. It is perhaps for that reason that the form of Church life that developed outside the limits of the Roman sphere, in the North and West of Britain and in Ireland, at least, was less marked by the power of bishops in dioceses than by monastic settlements. Bishops existed because the Church's sacramental life demanded their presence, but what marked Irish Church life was the establishment of monastic houses; these looked very like the compounds in which dominant families lived. Indeed, the Celtic monastery was usually founded by members of a powerful family and remained in the control of that kinship group. In Celtic Christian society, the bishop was far less significant than the Abbot of a monastery. 

But of all that, almost no memory survives, for the Irish Church produced no Bede. This resounding silence is only made more apparent by the unique position held by St. Patrick. He is the great hero of textuality, the very first British writer whose writings have survived and so the first British person to have a historical, textual identity. The opening words of his 'Confessio' are full of information: "I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a presbyter, of the settlement of Bannaven Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age." (In those days the clergy could marry.) For six years he worked as a herdsman in Ireland, then he escaped to Gaul, returned to his family in Britain, and there had a dream in which God seemed to be sending him back to Ireland as a missionary. His mission was approved, he was duly consecrated as a bishop, and went back to Ireland for the rest of his life. 

The 'Confessio' is in the form of an 'Apology,' a reply to some who have criticized him, and in it Patrick sets out the basic vision inspiring his mission, using a style deeply influenced by the Bible: "I see that even here and now, I have been exalted beyond measure by the Lord, and I was not worthy that he should grant me this, while I know most certainly that poverty and failure suit me better than wealth and delight but Christ the Lord was poor for our sakes; I certainly am wretched and unfortunate; even if I wanted wealth I have no resources, nor is it my own estimation of myself, for daily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises. But I fear nothing, because of the promises of Heaven; for I have cast myself into the hands of Almighty God, who reigns everywhere." As Fletcher says, "Patrick's originality was that no one within western Christianity had thought such thoughts as these before, had ever previously been possessed by such convictions. As far as our evidence goes, he was the first person in Christian history to take the scriptural injunctions literally; to grasp that teaching all nations meant teaching even barbarians who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire." (Fletcher 86) 

Still, for Patrick, British-born and Celtic-speaking though he surely was, Latin was the language of the Church's life and he was deeply sorry that he could not write it better (Fletcher suggests that Patrick's Latin was quite dreadful). The arrival of the Church and its Latin texts meant the arrival of Roman forms of power, law, and textual authority. The mission of Patrick can be compared to that of Ulfila to the Goths in the 340s but it is striking that the early Irish Church, unlike Ulfila and unlike what happened later in England, refused to use the vernacular or to translate important works into Irish. It is hard to know why. The Irish Christians were obliged to learn Latin. It is hard to understand why Bede never even mentions the name of this outstanding British missionary bishop. 

At the same time as Patrick was serving God in Ireland (a traditional date for his death is about 460), groups of settlers were moving from Ulster to the islands and coastal regions lying across the sea to the west, in what is now known as Scotland (from a nickname given to the Irish by the Romans). Their kingdom of Dalriada (part of Ulster bore the same name) continued to use the form of Celtic (m-Celtic) spoken in Ireland. Gaelic developed from it. If continued, this Irish narrative would go on to note the conversion of the future Anglo-Saxon kings of Northumbria Oswald and Oswy during their exile in Dalriada (they were also related to the rulers there) after their father king Ethelfrith was killed by Edwin in 616; they became kings after Edwin's death and ruled 634-642, 642-670. Aidan was sent to Northumbria in 635 to follow up the conversion begun there by Paulinus; Aidan was probably related to Oswald, who gave him Lindisfarne for his monastery and cathedral. 

Patrick described himself in his Epistola as an exile (profuga) for the love of God (Fletcher 93). His example was followed in the next century by Columba (Columcille, 'Dove of the Church') (520-597) who in about 563 left Ireland to found a new monastery in Iona, which was part of Dalriada, after founding other monasteries in Ireland. The monk Adomnan who wrote his life some 90 years after his death said he saw himself as a 'pilgrim for Christ'. Yet Columba also took part of his family with him. At least ten of the first 13 abbots of Iona were of the kin of Columba, as was his biographer.

In 545, a second Irish founder of monasteries with a similar name was born. Columbanus left his native Leinster in about 565 and entered the monastery of Bangor but that was not exile enough. Before 590 he had left Ireland for eastern Gaul, where he founded 3 monasteries of great historic importance before going on to Italy where he died in 615 after founding a monastery at Bobbio in the Apennines near Genoa. We need sometimes to realize that the curve of the journey that took Augustine to England in 597 was almost exactly parallelled by that of Columbanus's pilgrimage through the lands of the Franks and down into northern Italy. But Columbanus had no Bede to tell his tale. 

In the north and east regions of today's Scotland were the Picts, of whom almost nothing is known. Later they vanished and theirs is the most widely recognized silence of all. Their language is still now un-deciphered. The Danes and the Gaelic Scots later took their place. It would be good to know what became of the Picts, how they disappeared, if only because we have inherited such an unkind image of them, painted in blue woad, almost naked in the freezing cold, attacking the brave Roman soldiers. We long to hear their side of the story; they were perhaps not as barbaric as they are painted; they might even have been human, and heroic, and had tales to tell. 

After the Romans withdrew their armies, through the later 5th and the 6th centuries a variety of small Germanic groups known commonly (thanks to Bede) but much too neatly as Angles, Saxons, or Jutes, took over the land Celtic Britons had been living on for centuries. Part of the process was military conquest, especially in the west midlands where they had taken control of Gloucester, Bath and Cirencester by the late 6th century. No echo reaches us from either side of the battles fought there. Over a wide area the colonization was done by settlement. The new social strategy that assured Germanic domination over Somerset and Devon as well as in the Midlands seems to have been the establishment of farming villages surrounded by open fields. 

Thus the new stock took control, by demographic expansion and, as the historian laconically adds, "no doubt the extermination of the (British) population." (Kearney 40) No echo of the tears shed in this process remains, no tales are told of those years, no image was preserved of dispossessed Celtic populations trudging away, or lying dead, no epic of heroic resistance. Only the name of Arthur hovers in the silences, deprived of any historical tale, waiting to emerge centuries later in a quite other world after other invasions, expressing the desperate British hope that a supernatural leader might emerge from beyond the grave to drive the Germanic invaders back into the sea: the once and future British king. 

Farther to the North, exceptionally, some traces of a tale do remain, to support the claim that such tales could and did exist. What is now the north of England was taken over violently and the old Celtic society vanished, leaving only a few scraps of memory preserved in Wales. The heroic poem The Gododdin is a Welsh version of a poem celebrating the defeat of North-British warriors at Catterick. 

The untold tales remained, condensed beyond words, into the enduring hatred of the British for their Germanic conquerors, a hatred best seen in the image of Offa's Dyke, an earthwork 150 miles long built by the English in response to attacks from the Britons in Wales. But no poems relate the defeats and the slaughters, no text expresses directly the spirit of resistance. The only thing is a note in the Domesday Book indicating that well to the east of Offa's Dyke in the 11th century there were still numbers of English 'vills laid waste' (Kearney 72) from British raids. Not a very poetic text, but suggestive of enduring enmity. 

The most important new perspective in British history-writing in recent decades concerns the vikings. Traditionally, 'Anglo-Saxon' England used to be seen as lasting from 450 until 1066 with only slight viking and Danish difficulties quickly shaken off, thanks to Alfred and the burning cakes. It is now clear that the invasion from Denmark and Norway, that began with the sacking of Lindisfarne and Iona in 793, made an enormous difference, everywhere. "Along the east coast of Britain, 'Anglo-Saxon England' ceased to exist in any meaningful sense. The Christian literate culture of Alcuin of York linked to Rome and the Carolingian empire was replaced by a pagan, oral culture, which looked to Denmark and Norway" (Kearney 51). Likewise, much of the far north, Scotland and the Isles as well as northern and eastern Ireland were heavily settled and deeply re-cultured by Norwegian and Danish populations. 

In Scotland this process is partly obscured by the fact that groups of vikings in the Highlands and the Hebrides adopted the Gaelic language and Celtic social forms; it might be dangerous to remind a McDonald that his or her ancestors were vikings, not Celts; their enduring feud with the Cambells may well incarnate a perpetual memory of that fact. Again, no text relates these changes, no song celebrates the defeated rulers who were so brutally replaced by ruthless newcomers in so many areas. 

The vikings are conventionally represented as pirates, which they were, but piracy was only one of their profit-making techniques; they were the first great businessmen. Under them, Dublin and York became the double capitals of an empire and grew into major international trading centres, as did ports on the east coast, London, and Bristol. At the same time, the crowds of Danes who came in and settled along the eastern coast of Britain were energetic farmers who did not eradicate the Anglo-Saxon population so much as they simply marginalized them, moving in alongside. No tales relate these new arrivals. How did the Anglo-Saxon, British, or Irish inhabitants of these regions respond to their new neighbours? Why are there no victory songs from the Danes? Or laments for the places they left behind? 

In some ways, the ensuing 'liberation' of Danegeld (Northern) England by Wessex under Alfred and his successors was another conquest, as the kings took control of lands that had belonged to other tribes and bestowed them on individuals or church institutions by charter (another kind of textuality). All the old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms became part of the new united kingdom. Inevitably, the situation led to an increased militarization and feudalization of society. Wessex created new shires, hundreds, and royal boroughs over much of northern England as a means of raising troops and keeping control, as it had earlier done in subjugating Devon, Somerset and Dorset under Ine in the early 8th century (Kearney 55). 

In this light, the 'Tenth-Century Reformation' of the Church, to which we more or less directly owe the manuscripts containing most of what we call Old English literature, should be seen as part of a spiritual and ideological drive to reinforce the power of the Wessex regime. If Dunstan, Aethelwold and Oswald were so hostile to married clergy, it was surely because they were opposed to the old patterns of local kinship which linked churches and monasteries to powerful families. Monks from the new royal monastic foundations (over 30 new monasteries were founded) became bishops of a new kind, sometimes in new cathedrals, closely linked to the crown, and not bound by local family interests. 

After Edgar died, the clock was quickly put back; regional independence reasserted itself, Danes came raiding again, and when Aethelred died in 1016 Cnut the Dane became king of England, divided the territory into 4 provinces, and made it a Danish colony. Wessex continued to be culturally Carolingian, but the east coast and all the North were deeply Scandinavian, as were the towns along the east coast of Ireland. When William arrived in 1066, he did not find a unified nation proud of its Anglo-Saxon cultural heritage, busily composing new poetry in Old English, singing the praises of Alfred and Edgar. Instead, he came into a land where most people were expecting a future in which Britain would mainly be oriented toward Scandinavia. They were wrong. They wrote no poems, either, as they vacated the manors that the Conqueror had bestowed on his Norman companions.                              (Sogang University) 

◈ Works Cited 

The Earliest English Poems, Translated and Introduced by Michael Alexander. Second Edition. Penguin Classics. 1977. 

Bede : A History of the English Church and People, Translated and with an Introduction by Leo Shirley-Price. Penguin Classics, Revised edition. 1968. 

Kearney, Hugh. The British Isles: A History of Four Nations. Cambridge University Press. 1989. 

Fletcher, Richard. The Conversion of Europe : From Paganism to Christianity 371 - 1386 AD. HarperCollins. 1997. 

◈ 국문초록 

사라진 수많은 이야기들: 

고대 영문학 정전에서의 역동적 침묵 


영국 초기 역사에 관한 최근 발간된 연구서들은 400년 이후의 로마 정복 말기와 1066년 노르만 정복 사이에 일어난 복잡한 사건을 강조하는 경향이 있다. 거대한 문화의 변화는 거대한 폭력 행위와 함께 이루어졌다. 많은 사람들이 억압되었지만 단지 침묵 속에 남겨지게 되었다. 때때로 고대 영문학은 대체로 비드(Bede)에 근거한 너무 단순한 역사적 틀을 배경으로 읽혀진다. 문서든 문학이든 현존하는 기록이 얼마나 예외적인 것인지를 기억하는 것과 얼마나 많은 이야기와 사람들이 영원히 잊혀지고 있는가를 상기하는 것은 중요하다. 영국의 역사와 문화에서 켈트적(Celtic)인 면의 배타성은 단지 하나의 예이다. 바이킹과 데인족(Danish)의 침략이 얼마나 강렬한 충돌이었는지에 대해 최근에 강조하는 것은 마찬가지로 현존하는 고대 영시의 텍스트에 깔려있는 10세기의 수도생활의 재생에 문화적 정치적 차원이 있다는 것을 나타낸다. 많은 침묵들은 우리가 읽는 현존하는 텍스트를 풍부하게 해준다.

◈ Abstract 

So Many Tales Untold : 

Eloquent Silences in the Old English Canon

An Sonjae 

Recently published studies in the early history of Britain tend to stress the complexity of what happened between the end of the Roman domination just after 400 and the Norman Conquest in 1066. Great transformations of culture were accompanied by great acts of violence. Whole peoples were annihilated, leaving only silence. Sometimes the literature of the Old English period is read against a rather too simple historical frame, largely based on Bede. It is important to recall how exceptional the surviving record is, whether documentary or literary, and how many stories and names have been lost forever. The exclusion of the Celtic side of British history and culture is only one example. The recent stress on how strong an impact the viking and Danish invasions had likewise suggests that there is a cultural and political dimension to the 10th-century monastic revival that underlies the surviving texts of Old English poetry. The many silences enrich our readings of the surviving texts.