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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 284-286

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Paradise, Death and Doomsday in Anglo-Saxon Literature. By Ananya Jahanara Kabir. [Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England, 32.] (New York: Cambridge University Press. 2001. Pp. xi, 210. $70.00.)

Ananya Jahanara Kabir's study addresses the Anglo-Saxons' evolving understanding of a deceptively simple question: what exactly was the destination of the souls of the righteous after death? In seven chapters, which examine the evidence [End Page 284] provided by the Bible, Ælfric, Augustine, Bede, Boniface, and Anglo-Saxon prose and poetry, among other sources, Kabir identifies and analyzes the Anglo-Saxons' belief in the existence of an "interim paradise" as part of a fourfold eschatological model. This would, of course, gradually be reduced to the more familiar threefold model of Paradise-Purgatory-Hell in the later Middle Ages, but Kabir's book deals with the "rarely noted conjunction" (p. 1) of paradise and the soul's condition in the interim period between death and final judgment, as reflected in the literature written by and known to the Anglo-Saxons. Her methodology (literary analysis and source study) compels her to come to terms with the tensions between popular and learned culture, orthodox and heterodox belief, as well as oral and literary expression. It is an important book, and provides a richly developed answer to an ostensibly simple question.

Kabir illuminates Ælfric's struggle with the question, how his writings reflect his anxieties about contrasting interpretations of paradise and the interim condition. He took great pains to emulate Augustinian exegesis concerning paradise (particularly in the latter's De Genesi ad litteram), whom he followed in equating heaven, paradise, and Abraham's bosom. But Ælfric could not resist the pull of later exegetical trends, adding in one homily a fourth locus to the tripartite scheme, a place where the "not completely good" find rest. They are not in heaven, but neither do they suffer torment. Kabir reveals how, rather than abandon the idea entirely, Ælfric camouflages the apocryphal roots of an interim abode for the good in order to stress the influence of alms, Masses, and intercession on the interim state (p. 47). Herein lies the main reason for the presence of this interim state in both popular and learned schemes that include it.

Kabir next examines the concept of an interim paradise in a quite different body of anonymous Old English prose texts—"ecclesiastical fiction"—of the kind that Ælfric himself condemned (chap. 3; p. 49). These texts—the "Three Utterances," the "Theban Legend" homilies, the homilies on Mary's Assumption, and the "Life of Margaret"—reveal similar fourfold hierarchies, as do several Anglo-Latin visions (chap. 4) found in the works of Bede and Boniface. Monastic ambivalence toward the concept of the interim paradise is further reflected in the opposing views presented by private prayers on the one hand, and funeral liturgy of the period on the other (chap. 5). The former allow for an interim paradise, a place of rest before the Final Judgment, whereas the latter clearly follows the Augustinian model. In chapter 6 Kabir looks closely at conflicting images in Old English poetry "as a response to two, contradictory pressures: the typological equation of paradise and heaven and the belief in an interim paradise, separate from heaven" (p. 141). In the poetry (particularly Andreas, Christ I, Christ and Satan, Genesis A, Guthlac, and the Phoenix), the compromises evident in descriptions of the Garden of Eden, heaven, and the interim paradise highlight oppositions between "orthodoxy and poetic craft" (p. 141). The picture of the interim paradise outlined by Kabir in the previous chapters is reinforced by later Old English prose texts, including the Prose Phoenix, Adrian and Ritheus, and a number of pieces found in Vespasian D. xiv (chap. 7). [End Page 285]

Again, this is an important book, particularly for anyone interested in early (and late) medieval eschatology, but no less for those interested in the cultural intersections of the popular and the learned. Kabir is wide-ranging in her treatment of sources...


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