- Old English Literature and the Old Testament ed. by Michael Fox and Manish Sharma
An important press for Anglo-Saxon studies for at least the past forty years, the University of Toronto Press has more recently published a steady stream of excellent books in the “Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series” edited by Andy Orchard: eleven volumes published since 2009, with more on the way. Known generally for high-quality monographs, the series also occasionally publishes essay collections on focused topics. Michael Fox and Manish Sharma’s Old English Literature and the Old Testament is a useful volume of excellent essays. The book’s high quality is also a testament to the health of Anglo-Saxon studies in Canada: of the eleven contributors, eight either work at Canadian institutions or took their degree from a Canadian university.
As the editors’ Introduction (pp. 3–22) explains, the book divides into three sections: “The Old Testament and Old English Prose” (three essays), “The Old Testament and the Poems of the Junius Manuscript” (three essays), and “The Old Testament and Other Old English Poems” (five essays). The editors briefly discuss each of these three areas before summarizing the various essays in turn. (However, something seems to have gone amiss with the editors’ summary of Stephen Harris’s essay: their description [pp. 21–22] states that Harris discusses battle images in the psalms and their relationship to The Battle of Maldon; but that is not his essay at all, which instead discusses the psalms’ representation of happiness and its relationship to Judith.)
In the first essay (pp. 25–63), Michael Fox compares the little-studied Interrogationes Sigewulfi of Ælfric to its source, Alcuin’s Quaestiones in Genesim, and beyond this to Augustine’s varied commentaries on Genesis. With careful qualification, Fox suggests that Ælfric in this text tends to omit difficult or complex Augustinian material, but that the work is not derivative or simplistic as Ælfric “manages to put his own stamp on the work” (p. 52). Paul E. Szarmach provides a well-written and sensitive explication of “Ælfric’s Judith” (pp. 64–88), comparing the Vulgate Book of Judith, Ælfric’s prose adaptation of the narrative, and the eponymous poem. Szarmach [End Page 385] encourages us to see the two Old English adaptations of the Judith narrative as a metaphorical opus geminatum in which “the two versions can create an intertextual or a comparative relationship, yielding a recursive analysis that will illuminate both texts and lead perhaps to a heightened understanding and appreciation of the less studied prose version” (p. 65). In “Circumscribing the Text: Views on Circumcision in Old English Literature” (pp. 89–118), Samantha Zacher provides a detailed, interesting, and comprehensive review of the Anglo-Saxon understanding of Jewish circumcision, moving across a wide variety of Old English and Latin texts and authors. How did the Anglo-Saxons understand this foreign practice and ritual of the Old Law? Zacher focuses as much on telling omissions and silences as on direct representations; she finds in these lacunae an anxiety and uncertainty about the ritual: on the one hand, circumcision was seen as evidence for the Jews’ lack of a spiritual (versus corporeal) dimension; on the other hand, Anglo-Saxons had a desire to “cling to the idea that circumcision still served as a powerful assurance of the covenant with God for all generations” (p. 95).
Charles D. Wright’s long contribution has a laconic title (“Genesis A ad litteram,” pp. 121–71) that might lead it to be overlooked in subsequent scholarship. This would be unfortunate, since this is an important and substantial study of the poem. Wright argues convincingly that the Genesis A poet did not employ a consistent figural or allegorical approach in composition; rather, the poet’s adaptation and expansion of Biblical source material was driven by an interest in literal (ad litteram) or historical meanings. Wright thus finds an alternative model of composition for the poem in the medieval genre...