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  • The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature by Irina Dumitrescu
  • Greg Waite
Dumitrescu, Irina, The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, 102), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2018; cloth; pp. xiii, 235; R.R.P. £75.00; ISBN 9781108416863.

In this book Irina Dumitrescu selects five texts and investigates how they represent encounters between teachers and students. The aim is not so much to study the nature and history of education in Anglo-Saxon England as to explicate texts through exploration of how they problematize the transactions of teacher and pupil (or pupils), and how the educational experience involves 'a host of energies both dark and productive: desire, pain, fear, and failure' (p. 2). The critical lenses and theoretical framings applied differ from text to text and, as Dumitrescu notes, the particular kind of readings derived from her approach need not occlude other readings. The apostle at the heart of Andreas, for example, can be read both as a model saint, and as a failed pupil. The book succeeds admirably because of this variety and the author brings to her analyses a strong interdisciplinary grounding in philology, history, literary theory, educational theory, and other fields.

Chapter 1 introduces the earliest text, Bede's Historia ecclesiastica, and focuses on Bede's account detailing John of Beverley's healing of a pauper who was speechless from birth and disfigured by his scabrous head. The enactment of processes of instruction derived from Latin grammatical learning to restore [End Page 197] vernacular speech to the youth resonates with other episodes in the Historia such as the stories of the Anglian slaves in the Roman market, Caedmon's transformation, and the freeing of Imma; and beyond these, with biblical analogues involving linguistic rupture and unification.

Chapter 2 explores Solomon and Saturn I and the desire of Saturn to learn the Pater Noster. It highlights the fear that accompanies this desire to know a prayer so powerful against the Devil, and perhaps against the recipient, who was schooled in the sciences of Libya, Greece, and India before his instruction by Solomon. Chapter 3, 'Violence: Ælfric Bata's Colloquies', provides a provocative reading of this strange Latin textbook, simultaneously 'threatening, funny, serous and ludic' (p. 89). The interplay of dramatization, punishment, trauma, and memory forms a central focus of this chapter, which casts much new light on Ælfric Bata's educational strategy.

Chapter 4 sets out an innovative interpretation of the problematic poem Andreas, whose author, it is claimed, has drawn on a theory of learning as recollection, or anamnesis, going back to Plato, adapted by Augustine, and to be found in Cynewulf's Elene and Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, whence they influenced the Andreas-poet. Just as Philosophy teaches Boethius, so too Andreas teaches its audience, through dynamic recollection, 'to reflect, question, and ruminate' (p. 119). Finally, in Chapter 5, 'Desire: The Life of St Mary of Egypt', a new relationship of pain, desire, and learning is presented as Mary, whose martyrdom is psychological rather than physical, teaches the pride-filled Zosimus and critiques the varied forms of monastic education that shaped him.

There are occasionally places where the evidence might be probed more deeply. It seems odd to observe that Solomon and Saturn I is 'scribbled' in the margins of the copy of Bede's Ecclesiastical History in CCCC MS 41 (the Old English translation of the History, to be precise), when the hand that entered it also copied the other marginal texts, and all of them in a workman-like book hand. It might be observed that the hapax legomenon 'gebrydded', which is interpreted as 'terrified', to support the argument, is perhaps paralleled by the forms innbryded, inbrydnesse, and onbrydnesse written earlier by the copyists of the Bede text in CCCC MS 41, where they are scribal variants of forms with -bryrd- in other manuscripts of the text. The form in Solomon and Saturn I might too be considered a 'corruption' by a West Saxon scribe copying an unfamiliar Anglian word, and that the author's word gebryrded (or inbryrded?) was intended to mean 'pricked, inspired'. This is a minor quibble, nonetheless.

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