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Looking for an Echo: The Oral Tradition in Anglo-Saxon Literature

Andy Orchard

Oral Tradition, Volume 18, Number 2

William of Malmesbury, writing more than four centuries later, tells a tale of the Anglo-Saxon Aldhelm standing on a bridge in seventh-century Malmesbury, charming passers-by with his Old English verse. William also tells us that no less an afficianado of vernacular poetry than King Alfred the Great himself valued Aldhelm’s Old English verse more highly than that of anyone else, even though two hundred years and more had passed since it was first performed. But not a scrap of Aldhelm’s Old English verse can be identified of the roughly 30,000 lines that survive. Instead, we have more than 4,000 lines of Aldhelm’s Latin poetry, composed in an idiosyncratically formulaic and alliterative style that appears to derive at least in part from the same native and ultimately oral tradition that produced Beowulf. The tale of Aldhelm’s near-contemporary Cædmon is often cited as an example of oral poetry, but for all the scholarly wrangling over its significance, it is as well to remember that if vernacular verse was remembered and recited in monasteries (something Alcuin also complained about) then it largely survives through that connection: without Bede, we would know nothing of Cædmon, just as Beowulf only survives through its manuscript-association with four texts translated from Latin sources. With Bede, Aldhelm, Alfred, and Cædmon, we have all but exhausted the list of all the Old English poets whose names we know. And Cynewulf too, the most prolific named poet of all, actively sought to combine aspects of the vernacular oral and literate Latin traditions he inherited.

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