01 November, 2013

Old English Ecologies

Today, I had the distinct pleasure to participate, skypeishly, with Jana Schulman, Eve Salisbury, and Sarah Hill (all at Western Michigan) in the successful public defense for Ilse Schweitzer-Van Donkelaar's dissertation, OLD ENGLISH ECOLOGIES: ENVIRONMENTAL READINGS OF ANGLO-SAXON TEXTS AND CULTURE:  Conventionally, scholars have viewed representations of the natural world in Anglo-Saxon (Old English) literature as peripheral, static, or largely symbolic: a “backdrop” before which the events of human and divine history unfold. In “Old English Ecologies,” this dissertation applies the relatively new critical perspectives of ecocriticism and place-based study to the Anglo-Saxon canon to reveal the depth and changeability in these literary landscapes. Overall, this interdisciplinary study of Anglo-Saxon texts brings together literary and environmental sources and modes of inquiry to explore the place of humans (and non-humans) within the natural environments of Anglo-Saxon England, as well as the ways in which natural cycles and processes are reflected in Anglo-Saxon literature and culture. Looking to Old English scriptural, hagiographical, epic, gnomic, and elegiac poetry, as well as homilies, prayers, and philosophical and didactic works, this research locates imagined or figurative landscapes in these texts. Employing ecocritical theory, find intersections appear between these figurative spaces—the mead-hall, the conventional “center” of human society in the Anglo-Saxon world, as well as the lonely worlds of exile (water, wood, and wilderness), and the grave, the earthly body’s final “home”—and their actual counterparts. Ultimately, the project confronts the conventional reading of the Anglo-Saxon worldview of earth’s impending and inevitable decay with evidence that (over) cyclical and seasonal views of time pervade the works of the period. By juxtaposing these ecological readings with archaeological reports and landscape histories, this work exposes the paradoxes of finding one’s literary, actual, and ecological place(s) in an Anglo-Saxon landscape that is always in flux, yet trapped in stasis.