For my paper I will be using Anglo-Saxon poetry—specifically “The Wanderer,” “The Seafarer,” and others from the Exeter Book if needed—and Anglo-Saxon art objects in order to discuss what I see as a beautifully rich and complex culture that is often misunderstood. The main issue I hope to address with this discussion is that of materialism; too often people assume that because Anglo-Saxon traditions involve gift-giving and material possessions, this means that their culture as a whole is materialistic. However, in my opinion this misunderstanding itself is indicative of a problem with our own culture, and not theirs. One example of many is our reporting on Anglo-Saxon issues; I plan to use a newspaper article by a medievalist that addresses the dismal reporting of the Staffordshire Hoard that demonstrates this disconnect perfectly. In reporting on the find, the media focused entirely on its material value—referring to it almost exclusively as its weight in gold or silver—and neglected to communicate anything at all about the significance of the find for Anglo-Saxon history. All of this is to say that our own obsession with material wealth contributes to a flawed understanding of the Anglo-Saxons. So, in my paper I will first illustrate the issues that cause this misunderstanding. From there I will use literature and art to discuss how Anglo-Saxon culture is far from materialistic, but meaningful. I think that the best way to do this is to demonstrate the symbolism of their art and poetry, and to further demonstrate how these symbols are most often intrinsically linked to nature—after all, what could be more elemental, more opposite of material, than the natural world?
Gerald mentions St. Brendan on page 61, in a section in which he describes an island where corpses never putrefy and where there are no mice.
Do you think there is allegorical potential in this island’s lack of mice? If so, what would the allegory be? What could mice stand for in medieval times, and what could the lack of mice mean to Gerald? Do you think it is significant that Gerald says this island is consecrated by Saint Brendan? How do the non-putrefying corpses fit into this, if at all?
The introduction mentions various faults of Gerald, even stating that “it is usual to use hard words of Giraldus” (17). But the introduction also recognizes that without him, we wouldn’t know nearly as much about Ireland.
Where in the text do Gerald’s faults come through, and what does this add or detract from the text? Do you think that his attitude reveals anything about medieval attitudes towards nature in general, or is he to be taken as just one bad guy?
To quote Stanbury directly, she argues that Chaucer displays “a disenchanted skepticism about nature’s benevolence as well as a canny or even postmodern understanding of how social institutions call on “the natural” to justify their own privileges.” Likewise, she asserts that “as readers of Chaucer’s poetry, we mark our relationships to nature through a skeptical appraisal of the powers we credit to nature and also of our own responses to her laws” (13).
Do you agree with her assertion, both in regard to Chaucer and to our role as readers? Use evidence from The Book of the Duchess and, if you would like to, from the modern world.
As detailed in the introduction, this early poem of Chaucer’s is ultimately about “the final blow that Nature has in store for all her creatures” —that is, Death (6).
In light of the conventions of Chaucer’s dream vision form (a form that usually places greater significance on spiritual truth rather than earthly love), would you say that Chaucer breaks this convention, or does he still uphold it in any way? What role does nature play in this?