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Dragons in the SkyCurve

"In this year terrible portents appeared in Northumbria, and miserably afflicted the inhabitants: these were exceptional flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air."

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Year 793)


Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors



'Whither Old English'?
Dr Stuart D Lee
University of Oxford
May, 200

I. Old English Under Attack!

In 1993 in an article for the Spanish medieval journal SELIM (the Sociedad Española de Lengua y Literatura Inglesas Mediavales), Peter Jackson outlined the then recent controversies surrounding the attempt by certain members of the English Faculty at the University of Oxford, most notably Valentine Cunningham amongst them, to remove Old English as a compulsory part of the teaching syllabus for first year undergraduates at Oxford. The article noted that Cunningham argued that Old English was a:

'linguistic and literary blind alley, 'educationally, linguistically, historically...a cul-de-sac', a wearisome philological diversion from the broad current of English literature rather than a central part of it. In Cunnigham's argument, the language has no 'essential kinship with our own', the themes and concerns of the literature have left no trace on ours, and the very term 'Old English' implying that such a connection exists, is spurious' (Jackson, P., 'The Future of Old English', SELIM 3 (1993), p. 158)

The outcome of the debate favoured Old English. After a successfully orchestrated academic and media campaign, Old English was retained as a compulsory part of first year undergraduate teaching and most thought that the argument would die there. However, early in the summer of 1998, the old feud appeared to be rekindled. The Sunday Times ran the headline 'Oxford Dons Try To Slay Beowulf' (21 June 1998), and in a similar vein, 'Oxford Dons Call For Slaying of Beowulf', appeared on the next day, in The Daily Telegraph:

OXFORD University is set to abandon Anglo-Saxon as a compulsory part of its English literature degrees in an attempt to attract more students.

The study of Anglo-Saxon prose and poetry, including the epic Beowulf, have been compulsory components for first-year students at Oxford for more than a century. While many of them have struggled with the language and regard tales of feasting, feuding and dragon-slaying as irrelevant, academics argue that it provides an important grounding in the development of English literature.

But last week the university syllabus committee recommended that the number of first-year exams be reduced by two to four and the "modernist" dons called for Anglo-Saxon to be made one of 12 optional courses. They believe that disenchantment with Anglo-Saxon explains why the number of applicants for the English course is declining while rising at other universities, including Cambridge. (The Daily Telegraph, Monday 22 June, 1999)

Once again the position of Old English in the Oxford syllabus was under threat, and even more worrying the media were often reluctant to present any opposing arguments until The Guardian ran a lukewarm defence entitled 'Valentine's Day of Reckoning' (20 March, 2001). The impression that these articles gave, however, was that this problem (and indeed the fight to retain Old English) was solely limited to Oxford - a scenario which was clearly untrue. If we look at the education of 16-18 year olds in the UK we had the problem wherein examination boards when defining the history syllabi attempted to drop the entire Anglo-Saxon period claiming that it was 'unpopular' (a decision that was only reversed after direct intervention by the UK's Secretary of State for Education). Returning to Higher Education, since 1990 all of the annual meetings of the Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland association (or TOEBI) which was formed on the back of the closure of Old English at Liverpool University in 1990 have adopted the tone of a desperate rearguard action. Successive speakers have outlined the latest threat to the subject in other departments (or very occasionally the reintroduction and clear popularity of the subject, as seen recently at the University of Leicester). In general though, the conference usually reverts to discussions on the ways the subject can be safeguarded, and more importantly made more attractive to undergraduates.

The single most important implication of all of this is plain for everyone to see: the study and teaching of Old English is under a severe threat in the United Kingdom, so much so that it is possible to envisage a future where the subject is no longer taught in its country of origin.

Although there is much exaggeration in Cunningham's continued outbursts, even the most ardent of Saxonists may find themselves performing a bit of soul-searching and, though they would never admit it openly, may realise that there are perhaps grains of truth in some of the arguments put forward by the subject's critics. Old English, or more accurately the teaching of Old English, has two major problems associated with it. The first is the concentration on the language. For many decades Old English was perceived as being of particular interest because it gave us so much information about the formation of the English language. This is undeniably true, but at the same time its literary merits often took second place in the class. Students were asked to get to grips with primers, grammar books, and to translate texts day in, day out. The result was (and still is) that many students feel cheated that part of their 'English' degree is being taken up with learning a foreign language (they came to read English literature after all, so why should they need a glossary? ). For teachers this problem is increased by the fact that many students coming to Universities now have little grasp of the basics of grammar unless the were lucky enough to have studied German (which is rare) or Latin (which is extremely rare).

Second, the Old English period is relatively unknown to many students. English students will probably have had some basic tuition in the history of the Anglo-Saxons when they were just starting secondary school (c. 11-12), though this is by no means certain anymore. Therefore unless they were particularly interested in the area, they would have had no more formal exposure to it prior to coming to University. It is little wonder that Cunningham stated as one of his main arguments that 'the themes and concerns of the literature have left no trace on ours', to use his words, the period was an ‘historical cul-de-sac’.

This all sounds extremely depressing, and reminiscent of the apocalyptic vision (of learning) painted by King Alfred in his Preface to the Pastoral Care; and, perhaps, just as Alfred exaggerated his claims, some of the arguments above have been similarly stretched. Nevertheless, in defence of the King there was a crisis affecting the study of English at the end of the ninth-century, and as the twenty first-century commences we once again are facing major problems in the study and teaching of the literature and language of the Anglo-Saxons.

II. Popular Culture and Old English

This web site presents an area of study which might address the problems listed in the previous section. Pat and I noted that many of the students we met during our teaching were having the same difficulties in terms of relating the historical and cultural aspects of the Anglo-Saxon period to their existing knowledge. Or alternatively, we found that our teaching could be enriched when we related concepts that were being explored in the literature to events of today. Therefore, it occurred to us that we could use methods employed in popular culture to teach Old English, namely comparing cultural icons from the different generations. We felt that we could use modern history and culture, which is approachable by the students, as a key to opening the gateway to medieval studies.

The Sunday Times, 21 June 1998 (by coincidence the same issue that ran the headline on Oxford dons slaying Beowulf) printed an article entitled 'History Goes Pop In US Colleges'. This outlined the enormous growth in cultural studies in the US (and belatedly in the UK). Many of the points raised by the supporters of popular culture courses deserve consideration. For example, they noted that 'part of education is the discipline of studying, and if it's popular culture that gets students going, that's very important'. The supporters argued that 'the explosive growth of mass media during the past three decades has left Universities with no choice but to embrace the omnipresent images that become part of every student's life' and that 'this is not dumbing down, it is a cultural leveling up'. In short, if you wish to teach difficult, or culturally distant courses, you can increase your students' understanding and enjoyment by including a dose of contemporary content. Bearing in mind the problem of our students' inability to see any cultural relevance in Old English, then this is an area clearly worth exploring.

The move to new areas of study, or the attempt to categorize our present ways of teaching and learning is already under way. In her introduction to Reading Old English Texts Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe discusses 'a set of practices, with the understanding that reading within that approach produces a particular kind of outcome' (p. 1). She goes on to ask 'How do we read the texts of the past, how do we gain access to them, and to what uses are they put?' (p. 2). Michael Lapidge in his opening remarks on 'Comparative Study' in Old English remarks that 'The comparative approach is instinctive to human intelligence. From our very infancy we learn by comparing like with like, and by distinguishing the like from the nearly like and the other' (p.20). However, Lapidge limits himself to comparing Old English only with the ancient classics or contemporary medieval literature. In the same volume Nick Howe in his 'Historicist Approaches' states 'all works on Old English language and literature are historical in method and intent' arguing that one cannot divorce the study of history from the study of Old English (though again Howe limits his history to the Anglo-Saxon period and earlier).

In a sense the perspective of the 'Dragons in the Sky' site is to merge Lapidge and Howe's approaches into 'comparing history', or more accurately 'comparing culture'. By doing this we hope to make the cultural aspects of the Anglo-Saxon period appear more relevant to students, and to promote a new form of popular medievalism.

Stuart Lee

Introduction | Editorial | Contents | Contributors