Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index


  • Record Number: 5210
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  • Title: Into a Blind Alley: Reading Rosemary Woolf's "Juliana"
  • Source: Old English Newsletter 33, 3 (Spring 2000): Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Modern Language Association of America, Chicago, December 27-30, 1999, Session 562: "Influential Editions in Old English: Shaping the Field."
  • Description:
  • Article Type: Conference Paper Abstract
  • Subject (See Also): Cynewulf, Poet- Juliana Hagiography Literary Historians Literature- Verse Woolf, Rosemary, Literary Historian (1925-1978)
  • Geographic Area: British Isles
  • Century: 9- 10 , 20
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  • Abstract: Readers of Judith, Elene, and Juliana usually group the three poems together, often noting a "difference" about Juliana: more strictly hagiographic, its protagonist is less militaristic and more spiritual than the other two. And, curiously, many scholars make an effort to justify Juliana as worthy of study, to validate its artistry and intrinsic interest. While Anglo-Saxonists are accustomed to having to justify our objects of study to non-Anglo-Saxonists, it is somewhat unusual to find such protests within the discipline. In this case, however, scholars are responding to one particularly authoritative voice: that of Rosemary Woolf in her introduction to her Methuen Old English Library edition of Juliana. This paper examines ways that Woolf’s introduction—particularly her discussion of “style”—has shaped subsequent critical discussions of the poem. In attempting to situate the poem within Old English heroic traditions, Woolf has (however unwittingly) helped to ensure that the poem will never measure up to Old English heroic poetry. While Woolf hints frequently at other traditions that Juliana might have belonged to, she consistently elides the possibility of alternative readings of the poem, highlighting instead what she sees as the poem's aesthetic weaknesses. For Woolf, Juliana reflects the worst characteristics of hagiography: overly stylized, monotonous, lacking in imagination and "true native vigour." She speculates that the poem came at the end of Cynewulf's career, and that he was simply going through the paces; the poem is "competent" but lacks "poetic mastery." Moreover, she suggests, it marks the end of an era for Old English poetry in general, because it shows only the barest traces of the "old heroic style" (it lacks imaginative use of kenning, poetic compounds, litotes, and the like). She concludes: "there could be no poetic progress from it: beyond lie monotony or prose....Juliana brings Old English poetry into a blind alley." Little wonder, then, that subsequent readers have felt the need to justify the poem's worth. My paper examines Woolf's critical desire to make the poem conform to a Germanic-heroic model of Old English poetry and argues that situating the poem instead within feminine Anglo-Saxon tradition resolves many of the "defects" Woolf perceives in the poem. Woolf herself notes, in her 1966 article "Saints' Lives," the intrinsic interest this poem might have held for Anglo-Saxon female (monastic) readers - and indeed, the persistent threats to Juliana's body and to her chastity may well have been intensely interesting to such an audience. Yet in her edition, when Woolf describes the poem as "unrelieved by any emotional or rhetorical emphasis," she erases the possibility that within Anglo-Saxon England certain readers might have had a profoundly different response. My paper concludes by considering briefly the relationship of the Old English Juliana to the Middle English version, a text known to have been composed for a female readership, and considers the impact of situating the poem within a tradition far different from the one Woolf imagines in her Methuen edition. [Reproduced by permission of the editor Robert L. Schichler and the editors of the Old English Newsletter.]
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  • Year of Publication: 2000.
  • Language: English
  • ISSN/ISBN: 00301973
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