The Wisdom to choose: Emotion and Authority in Old English Literature

Date of Completion

January 2011


Literature, Medieval|Literature, English




This dissertation explores the intersection of Anglo-Saxon ethics and emotion in Old English literature. The focal points for this discussion are the late ninth-century educational reform program of King Alfred the Great (871-99) and Beowulf. The first half of the dissertation attempts to define the Alfredian theory of the mind and to describe the literary effort undertaken to persuade the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy that the greatest threat to Alfred's vision of a more perfect Christian society was their ignorance of human psychology. Among the Old English translations under consideration are the Pastoral Care, the Boethius, and the Soliloquies. These texts and the adaptations made to them reveal a pressing concern for the inherent, often irreconcilable conflicts that arise between the ideals of a moral society and the more self-interested perspective of the individual, in this case a perspective deeply rooted in the established social and political mores of a traditional warrior culture. ^ In the second half of the dissertation, I attempt to show how the Alfredian theory of the mind may be used to enhance our understanding of Old English poetry. While I touch on a variety of other texts, including the Exeter Book elegies and Genesis B, the primary focus of these two chapters is Beowulf. With its emphasis on the interior, specifically emotional world of its king and warriors, I conclude that the poem serves an instructive purpose. The audience must, I argue, recognize that a king's private emotions are not just his, but that they have significant public implications for the state and its future stability. Implied in the emotional states of the poem's characters are clues to the morality and justness of their actions. Recognizing and understanding Anglo-Saxon authors' investment in interiority, self-awareness, and the emotional states of their characters is essential to understanding the moral landscape of their works. This dissertation reveals some valuable insight into the Anglo-Saxons' sense of their own inner selves and the importance of developing and disseminating a theory of the mind as an essential part of their personal and political philosophies that give shape to their emerging culture. ^