Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Damian Fleming on Rethinking One's Own Early Work ... and Scholarly Change

by J J Cohen

Damian Fleming has a not-to-be-missed post on "ethel sweet ethel-weard: the first scribe of the Beowulf manuscript" in which he revisits his first publication ... and prevents its emphasis on love of German culture being facilely deployed by medieval-loving white supremacists. He also suggests, quietly, that we think more seriously about the possibility that the Beowulf manuscript was composed by two women. I love especially this section, about change over time:
Since writing that paper over a decade ago I have read and reread and taught Beowulf many times. I love the poem more every time I read any portion of it, but my understanding of it has changed significantly. I no longer imagine reading Beowulf as a celebration of germanic pre-Christian culture. I read Beowulf as similar to the majority of extant Old English poetry: deeply melancholic, explicitly Christian, and critical of the pre-Christian culture it presents. In teaching Beowulf I try to guide students to see the tragic triad of women—Wealhtheow, Hildeburh, and Grendel’s mother—whose suffering epitomizes the destructive nature of the violent culture they are caught in. At the most recent Medieval Academy of America meeting, a series of panels on Feminist Approaches to Old English literature, organized by Robin Norris, Rebecca Stephenson, and RenĂ©e R. Trilling, included a paper by Stephen Yeager who presented a thoughtful reading of Beowulf as a poem written potentially for women and potentially by a woman. His reading, which drew upon the work of generations of feminist scholars before him opened my eyes to possibilities I am shocked I had never considered before, since they are so consistent with how I had already be reading the poem.
It's a beautiful piece, and well conveys how our attitudes towards our own scholarly work ought to be open to revision and reflection. Thanks for offering it, Damian.

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