Melancholy in the Wilderness: From the Desert of the Church Fathers to the Early English Imaginaire

Kultur & språk

Med Adam P. Kelly, doktorand i engelska vid University of Oxford.

26 apr 2023
15:15 - 17:00

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The literatures of pre-conquest England present a unique treatment of inclement weather. Exiles are wintercearig ‘winter-sorrowful’, minds and seas alike are hreo ‘rough’, an abandoned woman sits in rēnig weder, her eyes raining also. Critics have long reached instinctively for the word ‘melancholy’ to describe the tone of this literature, often to associate it with some lost pagan past, but scant evidence supports this. Such ‘melancholy’ instead appears to be an admixture of two intellectual traditions, both Christian. The first has been called the Old English imaginaire; a collocation of the brute facts of the natural world and their spiritual significance within what Courtney Barajas calls ‘Old English Ecotheology’. The harsh climate of this period was often interpreted through Augustine’s chronology of Ages, with the frequency of inclement weather before the turn of the first millennium fuelling fears of the end of the world. Yet while this ecotheological reading successfully explains the function of the weather in the early English worldview, its theological aspect can be deepened with reference to another, seemingly distant tradition. One that sees the contemplative monk, embattled by such vices as worldly sadness (tristitia), spiritual inattention (acedia), and vainglory (iactantia).

This paper will present evidence for the profound effect of the Church Fathers upon the vernacular poetry of early England, paying special attention to the incorporation of their teachings within the imaginaire. I offer a re-examining of the Exeter Book manuscript as an exposition of the stages of the monastic life. The graphic detail that suffuses accounts of death in The Fortunes of Men at once speaks to the threat of nature and the prospect of God’s salvation, while the frigid voices that speak through The Wanderer become those of monks at various stages of the practical life. The formulaic Vainglory grows remarkable as a vessel for desert wisdom, and The Phoenix reveals an allegoric vision of the earthly paradise that approximates the purpose of a monk’s journey: theoria or knowledge of God’s kingdom. With the steps to transcendence plotted through the manuscript, we can account for the imaginative power that justifies acedia’s endurance as the sin of ‘sloth’ far beyond the Middle Ages.