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Body and Society in Pre-Norman England

Maria Eliferova

The question of relationship between the body and the society in pre-Norman England, if it has received any attention at all, has been tackled with a Tolkienesque assumption that any Old English culture had to do with Christianity and monasteries. Disturbing facts like obscene riddles have been dismissed as either allegories or mere slips of monastic daily life. The issue of pre-Christian component in Old English texts has been taboo for decades. But does it mean that such component is non-existent?

The seminar of ESSE-9 in Aarhus, 2008, where this work (nowenlarged) was first presented, bore a suggestive heading of A Full-Bodied Society? These three words, plain as they are, evoke a large and (at leastfor a contemporary European) immediately comprehensible subtext – thatis, of ‘Englishness’ as ‘suppression of bodily functions’ and ‘asexuality’.Not unintentionally, this rhetorical question is linked to a variety of matters, from attacks on Thomas Hardy’s novels for being ‘amoral’ to thefamous statement of George Mikes’ that the English, instead of sex life,‘have hot water bottles’. The clear irony of this interrogation presumes thateven the slightest hint at the possibility of being both ‘English’ and ‘full-bodied’ challenges one’s common sense.In fact, most of the contemporary cultural stereotypes concerning thestiff-necked and restricted English derive from Victorian or Edwardianstandards of behaviour. These patterns are not true for the 18th-centuryEnglish, the then literary characters being indeed full-bodied – Gullivereven to a degree embarrassing for many present-day readers (rememberthe obscene episodes of Books 1-2!). And Shakespeare had obviously littleproblem with creating Falstaff, the most corporeal character in Europeanfiction save for, perhaps, Gargantua.So even when we do not go back further than early modernity, thenotion of English culture as ‘bodiless’ comes into question becomesquestionable. This means we have no reasons to think that the 19th- orearly 20th-century attitudes existed in much earlier periods. And this iswhat we should take into consideration when thinking of Anglo-Saxons.As the point of my work is the possible reconstruction of how the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons would perceive their bodies, I have to make thecase clear: the contemporaries of, say, King Aethelbert I were English –and they were not. In terms of language, history and geography, they were. In terms of present-day ideas of what ‘Englishness’ means (see thebrilliant catalogue listed by Julian Barnes in his England, England ), they were not.

Click here to read this article on Academia.edu

 

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