The Old English Narrative Poetry Project is intended to be a resource for students, scholars, and nonspecialists alike—though primarily to provide open-access translations to augment the readings for classes in various medieval disciplines, especially literature and history. They are not intended to be traditional renderings of the texts in questions, though in every case I feel the reading, if it differs from other extant translations, can be justified on theoretical, poetical, and/or linguistic grounds. I have not made anything up, and they are true to the text, to be sure — the text often says many things that escape the understanding of stodgy traditional readings of Old English, especially as the poetry relates to religion and politics, even its own sense of traditional culture.
I get a fair number of comments from you all, and I am happy to hear from you, and sometimes even respond when I have time. Trolling and abusive comments will be deleted unless I feel I can make an example out of you. Corrections or questions should always be forwarded to me. There’s a lot of material here, and it will take a long time to fully revise and update the translations in an orderly fashion. If you see a mistake and tell me, I can make the changes right away. If your current research suggests a new way to read a passage I have translated, absolutely let me know, and we can discuss it. Perhaps a re-consideration is in order. These are the conversations I want to facilitate through this page, and it’s companion page, the Old English Homiliarium.
Two kinds of comments I see frequently and would like to caution you about. In most cases these comments will not be approved or posted here.
First is more frequent, and usually consists of a young person from a religious background who reads my work and feels inspired to share the spirit. I am happy you have found something to help you in your search. But I find it likely that these readers would hardly even recognize an early English Catholic as Christian. A thousand years have passed between then and now and a great deal of change has occurred in the interim. Early English Christians used a different version of the Bible, mostly encountered in pieces (almost never complete) or else in mediated forms such as in books of hours, psalters, or homilies. They participated in a different set of rituals and practices, and they largely recognized the Bible as a document that, although divinely inspired, was subject to human fallibilities of text and translation. Medieval people knew too well how books were made to put on airs of inerrancy. They did not believe the Bible was to be interpreted literally. Theology was a strong cultural influence, and had great power to reconcile human reason with precepts of faith. And early English religious practice was highly syncretic, mixing pagan beliefs with Christian ideas from numerous different faith traditions: Latin, Irish, Greek, North African, Frankish, etc, sometimes to the chagrin of religious authorities and writers.
Like I said, I am happy these enthusiastic readers see kinship in their faith across a millennium, and I do not disrespect the sincerity of anybody’s faith. But would ask any religious person in the United States especially to consider the existence of a richer, more historical inflected, and theologically sophisticated church as a basis of belief. American Protestant fundamentalism, especially in its pernicious “prosperity gospel” formations, are particularly egregious in ignoring historical change and preferring easy apologetics which allow them to disregard the complexities of the Gospels and the rich work of theology. The Middle Ages were never your theocracy, and my work is not designed to provide comfort to these fantastical forms of religious fervor.
The second type is less common, but more distressing. The recent resurgence of white nationalism and neo-Nazi ideologies worldwide have led to a new enthusiasm for medieval European history as some sort of “safe space” for racist fantasies. These readers often find my pages as they search for “Anglo-Saxon.” The term has been endowed with a disturbing racial context since its valorization in the 19th century (obviously the peoples I study almost never used used the term, preferring “Angelcynn” when discussing the Germanic peoples of England). Current research shows medieval European culture, even in its earliest times, to be far more complex and nuanced than ever before understood, and hardly a haven for any sort of ugly “white pride.” England itself was a patchwork of nationalities within the traditional seven realms of the old Heptarchy: Celtic, Scandinavian, and English, and insular monasteries were filled with people from as far away as Turkey and Africa. The powerful and wealthy nations of Africa and the Middle East sent traders, diplomats, and travelers in all directions, and many even visited the British Isles. The idea of “whiteness” was not even really created until the European slave trade and colonialism in the 18th century.* Medieval Europe was hardly perfect in its tolerance for difference, but it was far more diverse in fact than previously allowed, and much more cosmopolitan in ideas, literary influences, religious discussions, travelers, and imported goods than white nationalists would prefer. Don’t come here looking for comfort for your fantasies of genocide and oppression. My translations have nothing to give you, and I urge you to read some real, contemporary historical research on the medieval world if you want to hear actual facts.
Also — and it really should go without saying — that reading ancient and medieval texts for affirmations of contemporary abusive ideologies is pernicious and intellectually dishonest. Men’s Rights Activists especially seeking some sort of ancestry for their rape apologetics and misogyny are barking up the wrong tree, as these modern-day abuses of reason have no history, born solely as a disturbing reactionary cause against feminism, gender theory, and LGBTQIA+ rights. The Middle Ages of course thought about gender identity and sexuality and consent and many other things, they just did so in their own way, with their own enabling and limitations. The Middle Ages had its own misogynies as well as its own feminisms — and to seek just a plain reflection of whatever your ideology might be is dabbling in anachronism and faulty reading. The Middle Ages are not here for us to colonize but to think about in their own complexity as history: lessons to be learned, and thoughts and practices to be examined. This goes for looking back at the Middle Ages to reflexively avow some sort of modern superiority or progress. Misogyny is a good example: students often assume the medieval era was just misogyny and we’re better. Misogyny pervades modern society, even if we have ways to think through it — just as it pervaded older cultures. These older cultures had their own ways of thinking through it, and people still knew it was wrong. It was not “just how they did things back then.” We have to be better readers of history and historical texts than that.
Other than that, please visit back frequently and join the conversation about translating these amazing poems! Enjoy your stay and tell us if you’ve found what you’re looking for!
* This is not to say that the Middle Ages were race-blind, or that it is not valuable to study racial realities in the Middle Ages. There is in fact a great deal of important work that can be done in this area, as evidenced by the special Whiteness panel at the 2017 International Congress on Medieval Studies. For those of you outside the know, “whiteness studies” is not the same as celebrating white supremacy or white nationalism, but instead a critical, race-consciousness look at the construct of whiteness. It is not identity politics per se, rather a tool for deconstructing racial and racist ideologies.