Anglo-Saxon ‘things’ could talk. Nonhuman voices leap out from the Exeter Book Riddles, telling us how they were made or how they behave. In The Husband’s Message, runic letters are borne and a first-person speech is delivered by some kind of wooden artefact. Readers of The Dream of the Rood will come across a tree possessing the voice of a dreaming human in order to talk about its own history as a gallows and a rood. The Franks Casket is a box of bone that alludes to its former fate as a whale that swam aground onto the shingle, and the Ruthwell monument is a stone column that speaks as if it were living wood, or a wounded body. This book uncovers the voice and agency that these nonhuman things have across Anglo-Saxon literature and material culture. It makes a new contribution to ‘thing theory’ and rethinks conventional divisions between animate human subjects and inanimate nonhuman objects in the early Middle Ages. Anglo-Saxon writers and craftsmen describe artefacts and animals through riddling forms or enigmatic language, balancing an attempt to speak and listen to things with an understanding that these nonhumans often elude, defy and withdraw from us. The active role that things have in the early medieval world is also linked to the Germanic origins of the word, where a þing is a kind of assembly, with the ability to draw together other elements, creating assemblages in which human and nonhuman forces combine. Anglo-Saxon things teach us to rethink the concept of voice as a quality that is not simply imposed upon nonhumans but which inheres in their ways of existing and being in the world; they teach us to rethink the concept of agency as arising from within groupings of diverse elements, rather than always emerging from human actors alone.
The book begins with a substantial introduction, which outlines the theoretical context of thing theory, considers some of the ways in which it has been brought into contact with medieval studies to date, and addresses its implications for early medieval literary culture more specifically. The word ‘thing’ now carries a great deal of weight in critical theory. Therefore, the introduction engages with the Old English þing as an assembly in the etymological, as well as material, sense and offers a detailed study of the origins of the word ‘thing’ in Old English and related Germanic languages. This is followed by an examination of how Anglo-Saxon riddles give voice to things in ways that overlap with modern ideas about the ‘agency’ and ‘vibrancy’ of nonhuman entities. Finally, an accessible overview of the speaking subjects and speaking objects in Anglo-Saxon literature (e.g. the Exeter Riddles) and material culture (e.g. the Alfred Jewel) demonstrates that the boundaries between subject and object, animate and animate, human and nonhuman, are not immutable but shaped by literary and cultural conventions
Chapter one starts with a discussion of the different ways in which human bodies and nonhuman things carry and communicate – or fail to communicate – knowledge. It engages with thing theory (especially Brown, Bennett and Harman) to demonstrate that both Grendel’s mother and the giants’ sword found in her underwater hall are riddle-like things that resist the kinds of reading that Æschere, a rune-knower and advice-bearer, was meant to provide for King Hrothgar. By killing and decapitating Hrothgar’s reader, Grendel’s mother highlights an anxiety within Beowulf about ‘things’ that defy human interpretation and convey monstrous, marginal, or unknowable messages instead. Although Beowulf acknowledges that a wide range of artefacts can be read, the text also reveals that certain enigmatic things exceed their role as readable objects. Liminal things like the giants’ sword carry alien stories and histories into the safety of the mead hall, disrupting a longstanding human reliance upon legibility and altering the way that literate communities interpret that which has come before them.
For Jane Bennett, those who wish to take the claims of thing theory seriously should slow down and try to linger in those moments during which they find themselves fascinated by objects. Anglo-Saxon culture invites us to cultivate a lingering fascination with the blade that melts like ice at the turning of the seasons, the candle-clock that burns too swiftly, the stone monument that crumbles and fades, the bone that endures as a relic, human and animal skin that does or does not display the corruption of death. The second chapter of this book is therefore concerned with the ‘thingness’ of time. By refusing to remain fixed within one form, the speaking creatures in Old English and Anglo-Latin riddles invite human readers to rethink how our own bodies, as things among other things, may cross categories of age, role and gender over different stretches of time.
Chapter three considers how the interpretation of the Franks Casket is bound up with movement. It opens with a brief overview of previous criticism on the casket in order to look at how different scholars have read it, but especially how they have moved around the box as they endeavour to solve its riddles. Is there a correct order in which we might read the casket? Can the reader finally solve it? The casket could instead be seen as a ‘thing’ that itself has the ability to move those who encounter it. In doing so, it actively forms human identities. The second part of this chapter explores the Franks Casket as an assembly. Lorraine Daston defines things that talk as embodying a tension between their chimerical composition and their unified gestalt. In this way, the Franks Casket is a thing that can be seen to circumscribe and concretise previously unthinkable combinations, becoming a paradox incarnate.
Chapter four continues to pursue the theme of assemblage. This chapter looks at how the books, relics and other material things associated with the cult of St Cuthbert reshaped ‘universal’ Christianity within a distinctly Northumbrian environment in the seventh and early eighth centuries. It begins by moving the focus from an animal body (whalebone) to a human (saintly) body, thinking about how the saint – both as text, in the hagiographical evidence, and as relic, in the case of the incorrupt corpse – assembles and performs differing elements of Christianity through his body. But as well as acting as an assembly, the saintly body is also a thing that crosses the boundaries between life and death, animate and inanimate, organic and artefactual. The second part of the chapter homes in on the Lindisfarne Gospels, dedicated to God and St Cuthbert. Like the Lives of St Cuthbert, the gospels reshape a universal sign (the body of Christ as Cross) into a perceptible thing.
The fifth and final chapter turns its attention to the other side of assemblage – that is, the way that things break up and break away. The poem usually referred to as The Dream of the Rood is a fragile thing that has been broken apart and pieced back together time and again. It is not a sound or coherent whole, in any of its forms (manuscript poem, runic inscriptions, silver cross reliquary) but an elusive assortment – at once breakage and assemblage – that invites us to participate in its ongoing process of becoming. The chapter begins by closely analysing the poem as it exists in the Vercelli Book manuscript, carrying out a reading of the text in light of thing theory, looking at how the various things represented in the poem (tree, beam, beacon, gallows, rood, body) transform one another, but how they also shift and shape the human ‘dreamer’ as he speaks his vision. The second part of the chapter explores the connections, and tensions, between a late tenth-century manuscript poem and a rune-inscribed stone sculpture from the eighth century: The Dream of the Rood and the Ruthwell monument. It has been difficult to keep these two things together in a sustained and meaningful way and yet it has been almost impossible to break them apart.