Sunday, August 20, 2017

From the Vercelli Book to Beowulf, Our Understanding of Belief in the Middle Ages.

"Oft sceall eorl monig änes willan,
wräec ändreogan, swä üs geworden es"
("Often when one follows his own will,
many are hurt. This happened to us.")
Beowulf, verses 3077-3078,
translated by Seamus Heaney
W.W.Norton & Company, Inc., 2000,

Books, particularly ancient books, sometimes seem to leave us spellbound. Five months ago , as I have reported to you in previous posts, while doing a pilgrimage down the Old Via Francigena Path, having left Val d'Aosta, Estela, my wife, and I visited the town of Vercelli, lured by the possibility of getting to learn something about the famous Vercelli Book.

The Vercelli Book, a manuscript from the 10th
Century, contains a Liber Homiliarum or Book
of Homilies. It is one of the four surviving
codices written in "Old English".
As I have already written, the Vercelli Book is one of the four original extant manuscripts in what we call in the English-speaking world for some reason I cannot fathom, "Old English", when a more truthful term might be "Old Teutonic language spoken in England during the 7th to 10th Centuries". Whatever term you choose, the most famous of the surviving codices of that period in that language is in the British Library, and contains, no less than the only surviving copy of Beowulf. The visit to the Vercelli Museum, and having experienced personally, having the Vercelli Book in my hands, stimulated my interest in the period, in the language, and reignited my long-lost curiosity for Beowulf, since I was exposed first to it in High School English Literature. So yesterday, when I went to a book store, and saw "Beowulf" on shelf, I fell into a spell, bought it, brought it home, read most of it yesterday, and finished it off this morning during Sunday breakfast.

The bilingual "Beowulf" with a new
verse translation by Nobel Prize
winning author Seamus Heaney"
was for me a worthwhile investment
for my personal library.
I bear no particular credentials to analyze this great work of literature, but having studied the Dream of the Rood, a contemporary Epic Poem written likewise in "Old English", and similarly surviving to our times in another Codex , today I saw Beowulf in a different light:  Beowulf is the Messiah of the Danes, and of the Scandinavian peoples in general, slaying first Grendel, then his mother.
When Beowulf takes on his final and fatal battle against evil, his 11 ring-bearing troops leave him alone to be tortured by the Dragon, something like a Passion and Death, with only Wiglaf coming to his rescue, a sort of John the Apostle, while the rest of his entourage, runs in fear of the beast.

Grendel is an another Biblical symbol:

"And from Cain there sprang
misbegotten spirits, among them Grendel:"
Beowulf, verses 1265-1266

I believe that Beowulf might have been the result of the syncretism in Northern Europe between Christian and Pre-Christian beliefs. Reading the original Anglo-Saxon text on the left, and Heaney's translation into modern English on the right, we realize how beautiful this epic poem is: the cadence, the rhyme and the rhythm, the imagery, the purity of the characters, the suspense in the action-packed adventures. The values of the period are clearly defined: loyalty, camaraderie, bravery, nobility and fairness.

Beowulf is the true Iliad of Northern Europe.

I heed thee all to read it. If possible and time permitting, in one swallow!


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