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  • Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England by Brandon W. Hawk
Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England. By Brandon W. Hawk. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2018.

In Preaching the Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England, Brandon W. Hawk disrupts traditional scholarship on Anglo-Saxon sermons, preaching, and religion by examining the use of apocryphal material in Anglo-Saxon media through a confluence of methodology that includes media studies and network theory. Early medieval scholars acknowledge the value of cross-linguistic transmissions between Latin and vernacular texts, but Hawk takes this a step further by building a methodological frame that can allow for developing a deeper understanding of not only these early medieval texts but also modern culture and media, “demonstrating how media across centuries are ineluctably connected and mutually help us to make sense of past and present” (21). Considering the current state of the early northern medieval field, and its problematic past, this scholarly intervention is valuable both as a change from traditional scholarship and as a way to become more politically aware of the effects of our studies. In this latter sense, its methodology can benefit not only those in early medieval studies but also scholars of other fields who study premodern texts, digital humanities, and media.

In the introduction, Hawk asserts that this project “rests at the intersection of scholarship on Old English sermons, apocryphal sources, and transmission studies” (5) and importantly uses the term afterlife when referring to the texts, emphasizing the merit of this methodology not only for studying these particular texts within the limited field of early medieval English scholarship but also for transmission, translation, media, and network studies. He acknowledges from the beginning that there have been invaluable studies on Anglo-Saxon apocrypha and preaching, yet those look at the individual trees rather than the forest. This study takes a more outward look at the broader cultural intersections of these texts—how their use and adaptation reveal cultural contexts and implications. Hawk’s research follows the precedent laid by Samantha Zacher in Rewriting the Old Testament in Anglo-Saxon Verse by focusing on the process of authorial reshaping of apocryphal texts and how this process of adaptation reveals important information about the culture beyond the text. Hawk lays out the first aspect of his disruption: that he is challenging the normative scholarly assumptions about apocrypha in Old English sermons. Previous scholarship has [End Page 158] taken an anachronistic perspective when it comes to apocrypha or has overgeneralized and inferred from Aelfric’s negative comments about them, assuming that Anglo-Saxons would all view apocrypha negatively. Hawk does not discount previous scholarship but synthesizes it within his study and with historical context. His approach makes this monograph not only valuable as an introductory text for those new to Anglo-Saxon religious and medieval apocrypha studies but also useful to those more versed in the field who are interested in reexamining these texts from a different perspective and innovative methodology.

Following the introduction are five chapters that model Hawk’s methodology in varying ways, telescoping in and out from big data to the microcosm of specific texts while staying true to the organizational thread that the author has framed around the conceptualization of media networks and the transmission of apocrypha in sermons. In chapter 1, Hawk sets up his forest view of the study and examines the broader picture of networks and media in early medieval Europe. Rather than following previous scholarship focused on Irish influences, he takes the less traveled road of continental sources and transmissions of sermons. He explains further his methodology in the context of media and network theory, describing the multiple layers of media—in this case, sermons, preaching collections (homilaries), and manuscripts. These media are all interrelated yet hold different information that must be examined: a manuscript holds more information (its material information, marginalia, and so on) than does a collection of sermons or an individual sermon itself. With this perspective, the communication structure becomes just as rewarding to analyze as the content of the sermons is. The chapter also integrates work in digital humanities, drawing on the conceptualization of media networks for examining both Latin and Old English texts cross-temporally. Overall it uses the investigation of these networks, sources, and contents to argue that apocrypha should not just be studied individually; they should also be seen as part of a greater network of transmission and adaptation, as they were actively used by Anglo-Saxon preachers in their sermons as a part of the Christian tradition.

In chapter 2, Hawk turns from to applying his methodology to the case of Blickling 15, asserting that previous readings have too readily considered it a close translation without additional cultural merit. Following network theory, he shows that the process of translation equals the most basic element between two nodes: the source to its target texts. Through close reading analysis Hawk argues that there are significant differences in the rhetoric of the adaptation that provide insight [End Page 159] about the ideologies and values of the author and the culture in which the work was transmitted and that these differences reflect historically important reforms occurring in the culture at that time.

In chapter 3, Hawk discusses the problematic issues with previous scholarship’s assumptions about Aelfric’s negative comments on apocrypha, using the framework of media theory and networks to examine Aelfric’s Catholic Homilies. Rather than stopping at those comments and that use of apocrypha, Hawk pushes forward to look at the afterlives of the texts. He finds that later manuscripts show intertextual examinations between Aelfric’s works and other uses of apocrypha in preaching texts. By beginning with the smaller set of interrelated data in Aelfric’s work and then expanding to show how these data were used in a broader network of scribes and sermons, the chapter is able to telescope into the wider view of how apocrypha fit into the larger media network.

In chapter 4, Hawk broadens his use of media theory to include other forms of contemporary media, such as images, that act as “intermedial translations” (135). He examines various media surrounding the narratives of Jesus Christ in order to argue that, by going beyond the medium of text, scholars can see the larger picture of how the Anglo-Saxons engaged culturally with apocrypha narratives. The central question of this chapter is “How can we theorize intermedial translations between texts and images, as part of a wider multimedia network related to preaching?” (135). By asking this question, Hawk opens his study to an examination of parallels among media, social classes, and discourse, with the goal of more deeply understanding the networks surrounding the use of apocrypha.

In chapter 5, Hawk again concentrates on a single manuscript, this time Bodley 343, arguing that it is a “microcosm of the preaching network” discussed in chapter 1. In this way, he beautifully controls the flow of his study, bringing the reader back to the beginning and modeling his earlier argument of how these media and networks layer one over the other. Here, he concentrates on the minutiae within the text. By looking at Bodley 343 as a contained network, he is able to treat the feast days within it as nodes of data, thus modeling connections across the network and highlighting their public value when considered with the vernacular sermons and adaptations of apocrypha that were used for these feast days.

Hawk concludes the book by reasserting his goal to demonstrate the importance of apocrypha to the sermons, media, and culture of Anglo-Saxon England. Apocrypha should not be marginalized in considerations [End Page 160] of Anglo-Saxon culture; rather, they are pervasive and can be traced through both media and networks as part of an examination of the people and their religion. By applying network and media theory to the use of apocrypha in early medieval sermons, Hawk breaks down traditional binaries in scholarship, such as high versus popular culture, in order to obtain a less stratified and more cohesive view of Anglo-Saxon culture.

Overall, Preaching the Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England is a rare enjoyable scholarly read that is thought-provoking and methodologically innovative in its theoretical frame. This monograph lays a strong groundwork for pursuing apocrypha and religion-related studies in early northern medieval scholarship, but it also develops and models an interdisciplinary and complex methodology useful for anyone studying premodern texts, digital humanities, and media. [End Page 161]

Natalie Whitaker
Saint Louis University

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