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  • The Old English Andreas and the Mermedonian Cityscape
  • Lori Ann Garner

The city of Mermedonia provides much more than a mere setting in the Vercelli manuscript's Old English Andreas. In this heroic hagiography Andreas is sent by God to Mermedonia to help release Matthew from cruel imprisonment. While there, Andreas frees not only Matthew but also hundreds of other prisoners who were likely to be tortured and perhaps even eaten by their captors. Later, Andreas himself is imprisoned, tortured, and dragged through the city's streets before he debates a demon in the city's underground prison and eventually, through divine intervention, brings about a flood that ends the threat of the Mermedonians and ultimately leads to the conversion of the city's inhabitants. But despite the fact that the city of Mermedonia is shown to be inhabited by cannibals and serves largely as a prison for the poem's two key protagonists, depictions of this city and its architectural structures employ not only predictable negative imagery but also certain phraseology and descriptive language applied in unambiguously positive contexts elsewhere in Old English verse. What follows is an exploration of this phenomenon in the most fully developed images of built spaces constituting Mermedonia as experienced by Andreas: the city skyline as it is described when Andreas first sees its walls from his ship, the city streets where Andreas waits before encountering his enemies, the underground prison where Andreas is held in captivity, the column within this prison that miraculously aids Andreas in overcoming the Mermedonians, and, finally, the temple that Andreas orders to be added to the architectural landscape following the Mermedonians' conversion.

Translation and Oral Poetics

One of the issues complicating the depiction of Mermedonia in the Old English verse adaptation of Andreas is the city's enigmatic location. Though some early versions of the story associate this city of cannibals with actual locations [End Page 53] such as Scythia or Myrmecium, the story's geographical setting ultimately remains elusive.1 To complicate the matter even further, the Old English verse Andreas departs from prose versions of the story in portraying Mermedonia as an island (l. 15, 25). Kenneth Brooks argues that igland (l. 15) is not meant in a literal sense here: "The meaning is not 'island', but 'land beyond the water."2 But the usage of igland can also be explained in terms of Anglo-Saxon experience, as Krapp has done: "to the insular Anglo-Saxons all foreign lands must have been 'waterlands.'" More significantly, "in this poetical sense the word also carried with it the connotation of remoteness," in effect heightening the isolation of Mermedonia and its inhabitants from the world of Matthew and Andreas.3 The Old English poet is thus translating not simply a narrative but a legendary landscape whose actual geographical location is less important than its psychological distance from the audience's sphere of experience.

Situating Andreas within a literary historical context is in many ways even more challenging than placing it geographically. As John Miles Foley has noted, Andreas occupies a "curious slot" in the canon of Old English poetry.4 While it is generally regarded as a translation, the exact source is much less clear than generically related texts such as Judith, which is generally recognized as an adaptation of the Latin Biblia Vulgata. Though there is general agreement that the Greek Praxeis Andreou kai Mattheia is "by far the closest in structure and language of any surviving version of the Andreas legend,"5 many favor the idea of a lost Latin intermediary to explain discrepancies between the Greek Praxeis Andreou kai Mattheia and the Old English Andreas.6 Foley argues, however, that we need not posit a "lost" source to account for discrepancies because the oral tradition surrounding the text provides ample reason for points of departure as the story is adapted for an Anglo-Saxon audience.

Since Andreas was clearly produced in a literate culture and is closely connected with Greek and Latin learning, "oral" here necessarily refers to the "oral influenced," "oral-derived," or "oral-connected" natures of texts produced in an era of newly emerging literacy, that is works of verbal art that "employ the...


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