Archive for ‘Old English’


“Is this the age of the thunder and rage…”

Few medievalists grace the saints’ calendars of American churches, but it’s fitting that back-to-school week coincides with the feast day of Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, observed annually on September 2 by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and on September 8 by the Episcopal Church in the United States. The Danish bishop and polymath is little known outside his home country, but he was a monumental figure there—and if you’ve read any edition or translation of Beowulf, then N.F.S. Grundtvig was partly responsible for getting it into your hands.

After Icelander Grímur Jónsson Thorkelín published the first printed edition of Beowulf (with the support of the Danish government) in 1815, Gruntvig was the most vocal scholar to point out the many errors in Thorkelin’s transcription and Latin translation, from misreadings of Old English words to Thorkelin’s failure to recognize proper names. Thorkelin, a twitchy careerist, responded by accusing Grundtvig of “sweet dreams, absurd fantasies, and willful distortions of the original and of my work within the Chaos that surrounds him,” but Grundtvig, the superior scholar, was right. Grundtvig was also the first to notice that the Hygelac of Beowulf was the historical figure Chochilaichus named by Gregory of Tours in his History of the Franks, and Grundtvig’s 1820 version of Beowulf in Danish was the first translation of the poem into any modern language.

Although Grundtvig was peeved to see the Danes exeunt two-thirds into Beowulf, he never stopped grappling with the poem, seeking not only its universal lessons within the context of his own faith but also clues to the Scandinavian past. “[T]he language,” he wrote, “is ingenuous, without having the German long-windedness, and without remaining obscure in its brevity as so often in the Eddic poems.” Inspired by Beowulf, Gruntvig became an Anglo-Saxonist while rising through the Lutheran church, studying theology and languages, agitating for Norwegian independence, becoming the father of Danish folk schools, dealing with censorship and fines and exile, marrying three times, briefly serving in the Danish Parliament, and somehow finding time to translate hundreds of hymns and write countless poems and books. (For all I know, he even invented Lego and provided the theological foundation for his nation’s wonderful open-faced sandwiches.)

Something of an Anglophile, Grundtvig practically begged the English to appreciate this work by their native poet, and the tone of his 1831 proposal for an Anglo-Saxon book subscription program will amuse any medievalist who’s been accused of cultivating obscure interests:

I know there are tastes, called classical, which will turn away in disgust when they are told that this poem consists of two fabulous adventures, not very artificially connected, except by the person of the hero,—and that these episodes, which relate to historical traditions of the North, are rather unskillfully inserted. But I think such classical scholars as have a squeamish repugnance to all Gothic productions, should remember that, when they settle themselves down in the little circle of the ancient world, they have banished themselves from the modern, and consequently have made their opinions on such a subject of very little importance.

“For all his faults of expression,” writes Tom Shippey, “Grundtvig read the poem more acutely and open-mindedly than any scholar for decades.” Even those of us who will never be honored with hymns could do worse than aspire to earn such an epitaph. Thanks to scholars like Grundtvig, not only do we better understand how and why the Anglo-Saxons wondered, as others have, “Ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt?,” but we can also start to answer the question ourselves.

“…far away from dry land, and its bitter memories.”

Seamus Heaney is a fine poet, but his Beowulf and I have sailed past each other for ten hopeless years. When I skim his translation, I drift, and the audio version only lulls me to sleep, despite its potent brogue. Having failed to enjoy Heaney’s Beowulf as a poem all its own, I had hoped that the book might at least appeal to reluctant readers who’d otherwise flee from medieval lit. Instead, Heaney’s Beowulf is, I’d bet, one of the least-finished bestsellers of the last 25 years, while its omnipresence has overshadowed more recent attempts to draw readers into a lost heroic age.

One such Beowulf, the 2004 Longman Cultural Edition, comes packed with a timeline, a glossary, genealogies, and snippets of primary sources. At its core is a translation by Alan Sullivan and his partner, Timothy Murphy, whose respect for formal poetry dictated the guidelines Sullivan enumerates in his introduction:

(1) It would be written in four-beat lines, like the original, though differing somewhat in metrical detail. (2) It would follow a loosened variant of the Scop’s Rule, alliterating three times in most lines, but using other patterns of alliteration as well. (3) It would employ modern syntax, with some inversion for rhetorical effect. (4) Words of Germanic origin would be chosen preferentially.

Their boundaries set, Sullivan and Murphy spin a translation that evokes the craftsmanship of the original poem without the stringency of an antiquarian exercise. Here’s Beowulf and his men bidding farvel to Denmark:

They boarded their vessel,      breasted the deep,
left Denmark behind.     A halyard hoisted
the sea-wind’s shroud;     the sail was sheeted,
bound to the mast,     and the beams moaned
as a fair wind wafted     the wave-rider forward.
Foamy-throated,     the longboat bounded,
swept on the swells     of the swift sea-stream
until welcoming capes     were sighted ahead,
the cliffs of Geat-land.     The keel grounded
as wind-lift thrust it     straight onto sand.
The harbor-guard hastened     hence from his post.
He had looked long     on an empty ocean
and waited to meet     the much-missed men.

Heaney’s version of this same passage is a lovely bundle of lines—but Heaney, by his own admission, is “less than thorough” regarding meter and confesses that his alliteration “varies from the shadowy to the substantial, from the properly to improperly distributed.” By contrast, Sullivan and Murphy find power in form. Read their translation aloud, as I have since finding it in the library last month, and you hear—and feel—diction constrained by rules and traditions, restlessness evident in every line, the entire translation all the more vibrant and immediate for it.

Over the years, I’ve sometimes dropped by Fresh Bilge, Alan Sullivan’s blog about poetry, religion, politics, weather, and sailing. Since I share only the first of those five interests, I’ve never been one of Sulivan’s regular “rare readers,” but a few weeks ago I went to drop him a note telling him him how much I was enjoying his Beowulf—but I was too late. Alan Sullivan died on July 9, 2010, after a long battle with leukemia.

Blogger Brendan Loy has written a heartfelt appreciation of Alan Sullivan. Here’s Sullivan’s death announcement and obituary, plus a selection of his poetry. Here’s Timothy Murphy conducting a far-ranging interview of Alan Sullivan in Able Muse magazine, in which Sullivan discusses being critiqued by Richard Wilbur and implores would-be poets to pry themselves away from the campus:

I would add a more general comment that introversion and bookishness have harmed the estate of poetry. Teachers who encourage these traits do their students no favors. Better to foster the natural curiosity of the young, press them to acquire general knowledge, demand accuracy and precision in language, and promote monomanias as escape hatches from the self.

That advice, and the above translation of Beowulf’s leave-taking, aren’t a half-bad way for a poet to be remembered: as a man who knew the difference between worda ond worca, and made the best of both.

“Take off your hat, sir, there’s a tear-stained eagle passing…”

Yes, we have heard the glory of the Founding Fathers, how the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, but this coming Sunday also marks the 234th anniversary of our birthright as Americans: the plodding bureaucracy that almost gave the United States a cool, medieval-themed emblem.

On that first Fourth of July, Congress handled a fair amount of business, but before they adjourned for potato salad and horseshoes, their penultimate motion was this:

Resolved, that Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.

I’m no fan of group work, but that’s a committee I wish I’d seen. Franklin, for his part, offered a grand biblical vision:

Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity. Motto, Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.

Adams was gung-ho on an allegorical painting that depicted

a succession of appeals to the young Hercules, by female impersonations of Virtue and Vice or Sensuality . . . . Vice speaks first and points out the flowery path of self-indulgence; Virtue follows and adjures Hercules to ascend the rugged, uphill way of duty to others and honor to himself.

Jefferson, meanwhile, was chasing forest murmurs of his own. As Allen J. Frantzen explains in Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition, Jefferson proposed an embryonic vision of Manifest Destiny, complete with a rarity in American allegory: Germanic barbarians. “On one side,” says Frantzen,

he wanted to picture the mythical Anglo-Saxon warriors, Hengst and Horsa; on the other, he wanted to portray the Chosen People following a pillar of fire. Jefferson saw Hengst and Horsa as ideal leaders of a free and democratic people who were, at least in Jefferson’s imagination, “chosen” to live in a free world of individual rights and communal blessings. The English Constitution and Common Law were Saxon “legacies” for Jefferson, a time of wide-spread liberties for freedom-loving Anglo-Saxons, a pre-Christian Paradise destroyed by Norman-led feudalism and restored by the Magna Carta.

Jefferson’s take on the Anglo-Saxons wasn’t unusual for the time. In the 16th century, Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury, busily promoted the notion that England’s break from Rome marked the restoration of a pure and primitive church. In the late 16th and 17th centuries, parliamentarians were so awed by the venerability of English legal and political institutions that they hailed the Anglo-Saxons as a nation of freedom-loving democrats: elected kings! assemblies! jury trials! common law! For centuries, English churchmen and monarchs and politicians squinted, wallowed in wishful thinking, and selectively saw themselves in the Anglo-Saxons—thus giving Jefferson a myth on which to help found America.

After establishing the study of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Virginia, Jefferson further hoped to stabilize a young nation by rooting Old English in the national elementary school curriculum. Looking ahead, he proposed ways to make Old English spelling more comprehensible to the statesmen and humanists charged with propagating Anglo-Saxon institutions in America. “As the histories and laws left us in that type and dialect, must be the text books of the reading of the learners,” he wrote, “they will imbibe with the language their free principles of government.”

In the end, fourteen people on three committees spent six years working out a design for the Great Seal of the United States; only the Eye of Providence, “1776” in Roman numerals, and the motto E Pluribus Unum survived those initial Franklin-Jefferson-Adams brainstorming sessions. Horsa and Hengist failed to stake their claim, and Thomas Jefferson failed to found an America where surveyors measure farmland in “hundreds” and Old English leaps from the tongues of country lawyers.

Had Jefferson been a more persistent medievalist, Americans might still have spent this weekend grilling meat and blowing stuff up, but we might also have swelled with pride to celebrate the founding of niw rice, geacnod on freodome and gegiefen to þæm geþohte, þæt ealle menn beoð gelice gesceapen—without having to turn to graduate students to tell us what that means.

“Twisting like a flame in a slow dance, baby…”

Although no less a folklorist than Kermit the Frog wondered why there were so many songs about rainbows, someone once pointed out to me that there aren’t many songs about rainbows, really. Off the top of my head, I know only one or two others; few people can name many more. Such is also the case with volcanoes in medieval Icelandic literature: Given the relative size of the corpus, you expect to find far more of them than you actually do.

Norse myths smolder with the threat of fiery doom. According to historian Oren Falk, the great Sigurd Nordal perceived enough lava-flecked glimmers in the prophetic poem “Völuspá” to see in its portrayal of Ragnarok “a distinctively Icelandic apocalypse.” Falk also finds mountain-bound giants in the 12th-century poem “Hallmundarkviða” who watch as “glaciers blaze . . . coal-black crags burst; the curse of wood [that is, fire] unleashes storms; a marvellous mud begins to flow from the ground.” So where there’s lava there’s volcanoes, right?

Nope—these distant poetic wisps vanish when scholars get too close. Falk spots only four anecdotes in Landnámabók, the Icelandic Book of Settlements, that hint at medieval Icelanders’ perception of volcanic activity. He scours the late medieval Bishops’ Sagas and finds only two mentions of volcanic eruptions, while “[t]he entire corpus of Family Sagas, thirteen thick volumes’-worth in the standard modern editions, seems to know nothing of lava and ash plumes.”

Even if Icelanders didn’t work many volcanoes into their poems and sagas, the medieval world nonetheless responds with a low, subterranean rumble every time a flustered news anchor tries to say “Eyjafjallajökull.” Its name may look weird, and its proper pronunciation baffles the non-Icelandic ear, but as a simmering reminder of the relationships between Germanic languages, this billowing Aschenwolke of a word is very nearly English.

The first element of “Eyjafjallajökull” is familiar to English speakers as the suffix -ey. You see it in place-names like Orkney and Jersey, and it’s the related Old English ieg that gives us the first syllable of its modern descendant, “island.” (Eyja was the Old Icelandic genitive plural.)

The second element, fjalla, has mostly disappeared from English, but the OED points out that you can see it in northwestern England at Bowfell and Scawfell—the names of hills.

Jökull, the Icelandic word for “glacier,” is the diminutive of jaki, “broken piece of ice,” and had a cognate in Old English, gicel. When Anglo-Saxon scribes needed a homegrown equivalent for Latin stiria, they translated it as ises gicel. The original word became ikyl or ikel in Middle English, and you can still see it frozen in time at the end a modern noun that fuses all of these pieces: “icicle.”

Jóhann Sigurjónsson, one of the first Icelandic poets to write blank verse, foresaw an apocalypse both personal and cosmic in which jóreykur lífsins þyrlast til himna, “the steeds of life swirl their smoke to the skies.” The plume of the “island-mountains glacier” will eventually dissipate, but even if we can’t now see the volcanoes, we can at least watch the ash settle into craggy, unexpected places, and patiently look for the relevant words.

“There’s that ragged hill, and there’s the boat on the river.”

The best writers can trace their language to its roots; C.S. Lewis fought for the worth of Old English:

The taproot, Anglo-Saxon, can never be abandoned. The man who does not know it remains all his life a child among real English students. There we find the speech-rhythms that we use every day made the basis of metre; there we find the origins of that romanticism for which the ignorant invent such odd explanations. This is our own stuff and its life is in every branch of the tree to the remotest twigs. That we cannot abandon.

Margaret Gelling, the subject of this week’s back-page obit in The Economist, would have agreed. Before her death last month at 84, Gelling had worked for the English Place-Name Society since the 1940s and served for a while as its president. Her knowledge of Old English allowed her to survey the landscape and see more than most people do:

No subtlety escaped her. The suffix fyrhth was not simply wood, but “scrubland at the edge of the forest”. The word wæss was not just swamp, but—she was particularly proud of this—“land by a meandering river which floods and drains quickly”. She had observed this herself at Buildwas, on the winding Severn in Shropshire, where between Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon the flooding river drained from the land “as if a plug had been pulled out”. A feld was not necessarily ground broken for arable, but any open country in the almost all-covering fifth-century forest. And an ærn was not merely a house, but a place where something was stored in bulk and worked on: so that Brewerne, in Cambridgeshire, acquired a smell of beer, and Colerne, in Wiltshire, a dusting of charcoal.

Gelling’s obit is worth reading, especially since it offers ample reason to study Old English. It’s one thing to squint at words and discern that the names Chapman and Kaufman, the English word “cheap,” the German verb kaufen, and the Icelandic bank Kaupthing are all cousins. It’s quite another thing to read in hillsides and valleys the twilight thoughts of the long-gone people who named them. Margaret Gelling didn’t need C.S. Lewis to scold her about the “taproot” of English—but she might have added, with the certainty of expertise, that the foreign language you haven’t learned may, in fact, be your own.

“She made you tea, asked for your autograph…”

In the wake of economic Ragnarok, as Icelanders contemplate years of subsisting on fish, failed banks such as Glitnir and Kaupthing are suddenly all over the news. We already know that “Glitnir” is a name from Norse mythology, but “Kaupthing” is also a name that’s of interest to medievalists—or to anyone who dabbles in languages.

During the heyday of the Roman Empire, neighboring barbarians apparently absconded with the Latin verb cauponari, “to trade,” and made it a part of their proto-Germanic language. The Vikings who spoke West Norse, a North Germanic language and the parent of modern Icelandic, adopted it for terms like kaup, “bargain, wages,” kaupa, “to buy, to bargain,” kaup-maðr, “trader, merchant,” and kaup-staðr, “market town.” These kaup-words are preserved almost perfectly in modern Icelandic, the language that puts the kaup in Kaupthing.

In East Germanic, kaup settled into Gothic as káupōn, “to traffic,” before the entire language shuffled off to philological Valhalla.

In the West Germanic languages, modern German cultivated Kauf, “a purchase or acquisition,” kaufen, “to buy,” and Kaufmann, “merchant”—with the latter shedding light on a familiar German surname.

Meanwhile, in Old English, the “k” became a “ch” sound in words like ceapian, “to bargain or trade,” ceapman, “merchant,” and ceapstow, “trading place.” Thanks to the Anglo-Saxons, now you know the root of the word “cheap,” you know that “Kaufman” and “Chapman” are basically the same name, and the next time you see English road-signs for Chipstead, Cheapside, and Chepstow, you can easily guess what went on at those places more than a thousand years ago.

All that from a failed Icelandic bank? Absolutely: a wealth of cognates derived from Latin’s token investment in proto-Germanic. Ach—if only you’d put your money in Germanic languages, just think about how rich you’d be today…

“Red are the sunsets in mystical places…”

Over at Unlocked Wordhoard, Scott Nokes is getting ready to teach Old English this fall. I’ve seen the excellent rapport Scott has with his undergraduates; his current crop of students can look forward to a memorable semester.

But why dabble in a dead language, especially if you’re not a medievalist? Scott has spelled out several pragmatic reasons for studying Old English, all of which I heartily endorse. Here’s an addendum to his list; naturally, the actual pragmatism of each entry is in the eye of the beholder.

To get to know your native language better. You understand that “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” and “to attempt, to quest, to locate, and not to quit” convey the same basic meaning even as you sense that these phrases resonate with wildly different tones. There are historical reasons why that’s so—and dabbling in Old English will allow you to look at any snippet of modern English and behold those gnarled medieval roots. If you’re a writer, you’ll benefit immeasurably from this wisdom. It’s one thing to have vague feelings about the implications of diction; it’s quite another to know exactly why you choose the words you do.

Because you’re paying how much per credit hour? You can spend $1,500 to have some TA explain the obvious (“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is totally about society’s destruction of natural human impulses”), or you can learn to read the poetry and prose of a lost medieval world. The English curriculum is stereotyped as being easy, and often deservedly so, but when you study Old English you enter a less forgiving realm of history and hard grammar. It’s not always hospitable, but it does have its charms. For one thing, no one ever starts a sentence with, “What this poem made me feel was, like…”

Because Old English is a gateway drug. You do eight or nine lines—think “Caedmon’s Hymn”—and you figure that’ll be it: youthful experimentation. But you can’t quit, and soon you’re taking Middle English, or studying German, or dabbling in (Bože moj!) linguistics. Filthy, filthy linguistics. Your parents pray it’s a phase. How will they explain to your grandmother than you’re a…medievalist? When she was growing up, the world was a different place; people didn’t talk openly about such things…

To gather new data points about human nature. Old English poetry is like nothing else you’ll read in college: stoic, brooding, high-minded, unfrivolous, and formal. Sometimes, even my students who’ve served in the military are baffled by the foreignness of the Anglo-Saxon heroic code but haunted by the elegies, while irreligious students are often surprised to find themselves impressed by the inventiveness of “The Dream of the Rood.” That first encounter with Old English poetry can be unnerving, like the rustling of soil on a grave, but Anglo-Saxon poetry prepares you to think more deeply about the difference between the transient aspects of culture and traits that are timelessly human.

To learn something no one else knows. At some point after you graduate, someone—cousins, co-workers—will be musing about a quirk of modern English, and they’ll decide it’s time to ask the English major. Wouldn’t it be nice to wow them with a technical explanation about i-mutation or strong Germanic verbs?

Because it’s not as difficult as you think it is. Some English majors—and professors—are impressed when a medievalist can rattle off the opening lines of Beowulf from memory. They shouldn’t be. Study Old English and you’ll learn much about mnemonic devices and the amazing human capacity for memorization and oral composition—and you’ll stop being one of the easily impressed.

Because you can earn valuable prizes. Last year, I won a Major Award in the trivia contest at my office Christmas party because I knew the Old English cognate of “wassail.” Sure, the Major Award was a florescent green T-shirt with a cartoon monkey on it, but you don’t have one, do you?

“…gearowe oþþe na, her cumað cnihtas suðan.”

Beowulf is out, reviews are in, and blogs will soon be abuzz with the input of Anglo-Saxonists. Compared to other medievalists, Anglo-Saxonists are numerous on the Web, but then they’ve long been a forward-looking bunch. More than a decade ago, the now-vanished Old English Pages at Georgetown were some of the earliest online resources for studying any medieval language; the Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus was digitized even before most academics had personal e-mail addresses; and graduate students in the mid-1990s were already exploring the potential of hypertext editions.

Given access to the same technology as their fellow humanities scholars, why are Anglo-Saxonists such early adapters? A 1952 Time magazine article suggests one reason: they’re heirs to a decades-old “Anglo-Saxon boom”:

After, next week, Beowulf scholars will not have to worry too much about the fate of the original, nor will they have to travel thousands of miles to pursue their studies of Thorkelin, whose mistakes in copying (e.g., 599 “d’s” for “eth”) will still take years to untangle. But Beowulf is only the opening salvo of the new Anglo-Saxon boom. Within the next few years, scholars all over the world will have reproductions of everything from St. Gregory’s Pastoral Care to King Alfred’s translation of Orosins’ History of the World. Next volume on the list: an 8th century manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the original of which is now in the Leningrad Public Library, where Western scholars would have a hard time getting at it.

After reading the entire article, which summarizes postwar efforts to preserve and publish Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, I wanted to see if the magazine’s coverage of Old English literature had changed in the past half century. I poked around the Time archive and was struck by these excerpts from the magazine’s review of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf in the year 2000:

“Just don’t take any course where they make you read Beowulf,” Woody Allen advised Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977). The throwaway line elicited laughs from Allen’s core audience of college grads, especially the one-time English majors among them who had learned to dread—if not actually read—what they had heard was a grim Anglo-Saxon epic filled with odd names and a lot of gory hewing and hacking.

The joke, it turns out, was on the chucklers…

Heaney’s Beowulf…has now been published in the U.S., giving American readers the chance to take the measure of this Harry Potter slayer, the deadest white European male in the politically incorrect literary canon. Judging by the electronic-sales ratings updated constantly by Amazon.com Beowulf is becoming boffo on this side of the Atlantic as well.

Note the difference in tone. The reporter in 1952 may have been ignorant of the continuing value of the Beowulf manuscript even after its copying and reproduction, but he reports on the state of Anglo-Saxon manuscript preservation without any snark. Amazingly, he even refers to “the famed Thorkelin transcripts” with no trace of irony. Time magazine didn’t expect its readers to know who Grí­mur Jónsson Thorkelin was, but the mid-century reporter kindly explains the scholar’s importance in four concise sentences—without jokes, without dismissive anecdotes, without caveats about political incorrectness, and without calling anything “boffo.”

Maybe the contrast is unfair. After all, a straight news article serves a different purpose than a book review that takes its subject seriously after three paragraphs of irony. But those three paragraphs sure are telling. The reporter in 1952 takes for granted that Anglo-Saxon manuscripts are important, and he assumes that the average Time reader, when briefed on the basics, is likely to agree. By contrast, the reviewer in 2000 assumes that the reader is inclined to think an Anglo-Saxon poem irrelevant based on a quip in a Woody Allen movie; that the reader needs a Harry Potter reference to make this material palatable; and that the reader requires inoculation against—or permission to enjoy, I’m not sure which—the work of “the deadest white European male.” The 1952 article respects the discernment of its readers, who may be receptive to the obscure. The 2000 review condescends. Really: “boffo”?

What’s especially strange to me is that Time magazine is so out of sync with the literate public’s genuine interest in the past. Except for bored patients in doctors’ offices, most of the people who still read general-interest news magazines must be doing so because they’re at least somewhat curious about the world. I don’t want to overstate the number of readers who might be interested in medieval manuscripts, but the massive success of the Beowulf translation tagged as “boffo” by Time magazine suggests that we shouldn’t understate their numbers either. Why preface a review with cutesy language that camouflages an implicit apology to the larger, incurious public? They’re not going to see the article anyway. How strange to let non-readers set the tone of a book review.

Then again, this is the same magazine whose technology bloggers write movie reviews with skittish disclaimers like this: “The little I remember about Beowulf the poem, which is nothing, since I never read it, is that it was incredibly boring.” Perhaps the writers and editors at a magazine with plummeting subscription rates should think twice before suggesting that reading is somehow uncool.

At the end of Carolingian Culture: Emulation and Innovation, Rosamond McKitterick writes, in a line I love to cite, that the Carolingians “imparted to future generations…the conviction that the past not only mattered but was a priceless hoard of treasure to be guarded, conserved, augmented, enriched and passed on.” That isn’t only a ninth-century sentiment. In the past year, I’ve spoken about Charlemagne in church basements full of senior citizens and I’ve met enthusiastic high-school kids who plan to become medievalists. This passion for history is hardly confined to the Middle Ages: One of my colleagues, a photographer and IT professional from Hawaii, recently drove through the Northeast visiting lesser known Revolutionary War sites; another toured ancient cities in Turkey. All of these people honor the memory of McKitterick’s monks and universalize their motives: To seek wisdom in the past is simply the impulse of civilized, literate people.

The big-screen Beowulf looks pretty silly, but its existence was inevitable, a function of the rampant public fascination with the Middle Ages that many of us witness firsthand. If this movie turns out to be one of medievalism’s more lamentable mooncalves, that’s fine; other opportunities will present themselves—at libraries, in classrooms, in the stillness of a museum gallery or in the raucousness of a Renaissance festival. No wonder that after fifty years, Old English experts, so often derided as fusty and dull, now have a better sense of the popular culture than do the editors of Time. The “Anglo-Saxon boom” continues; scholars are happy, but hardly surprised.