Introduction to Genesis in Old English
by Bert Fuller
Malcom Godden, the emeritus Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon, recently stated that “the book which the Anglo-Saxons in general knew best was probably Genesis” (217). This comment bears weight since we know, thanks largely to Michael Lapidge’s extensive work on Anglo-Saxon libraries, that Anglo-Saxons could be especially bookish. Of all the texts available to Anglo-Saxons, they were irresistibly drawn to the narrative beginning with the Creation and ending with Joseph’s death in Egypt. They turned to it again and again for inspiration, both literary and ecclesiastical. Below is a general introduction to the OE materials that draw on Genesis. The materials have been divided generically, since it is often difficult to date OE texts. The first section deals with prose, the next with poetry, and the last with two prominent narratives that sprawl throughout the corpus.
Genesis manifests itself in five ways throughout OE prose: (1) the writings of Aelfric (his homilies and other treatises), (2) translations of the biblical text from Latin, (3) computus, (4) history, and (5) philosophy. There is an uneven distribution of material across these five categories, though each shall be considered in its own right.
Aelfric of Eynsham (c.950–c.1010) was wonderfully prolific. He wrote more than a hundred homilies and many other pieces besides. These works constantly incorporate biblical language and ideas, especially material from Genesis. The first book of the Bible plays a key role in Aelfric’s narrative of salvation history, which he briefly presents in the Letter to Sigeward. Genesis also inspires him to write a bit of exegesis in a letter now called the Preface to Genesis. In Hexameron and Interrogationes et Responsiones in Genesin, Aelfric presents English translations of earlier exegetes—Basil of Caesarea and Alcuin. He also authored De Sex Etatibus Huius Seculi and De Temporibus Anni. The first describes the eras of the world that began with the Creation, the days of which typify the progression of history. The second is a semi-computus, but much of it investigates aspects of nature unrelated to calendrical science.
The homilies appear mainly in Aelfric’s two series of Catholic Homilies. Each series of Catholic Homilies contains forty compositions. The first series has seven homilies that comment on Genesis. The first homily, De Initio Creaturae, presents a brief religious history. Homily number five, Natale Innocentium Infantum, relates Herod’s slaughter of the newborns, and Aelfric explores the New Testament connection with Rachel’s lament. In the sixth homily, Octabas et Circumcisio Domini, Aelfric does two things: he explains the history of circumcision and the differences between the Old Law and the New, and he comments on the meaning of the New Year in light of the Creation. Numbers eleven and twenty, Dominica I in Quadragessima and Feria IIII de Fide Catholica respectively, both discuss Adam. The twenty-second, In Die Sancto Pentecosten, links the Day of Pentecost with the Tower of Babel. And lastly, Dominica XXI post Pentecosten (number thirty-five) contains a typological reading of Noah’s ark. Four of the second series of Catholic Homilies adopt Genesis. In the first one, De Natale Domini, Aelfric expounds on four ways of human creation. Number seven, Dominica I in Quadragesima, unusually alludes to Enoch. Number thirteen, Dominica V in Quadragesima, describes when the Trinity visited Abraham, and Aelfric also comments on the significance of that same patriarch’s thigh. Number fourteen, Dominica Palmarum: De Passione Domini, connects the crown of thorns with the briers of the Fall. There are two homilies relevant to Genesis that are not included among the Catholic Homilies. They are De Creatore et Creatura, a treatise on the Creator and his creation, and De Falsis Diis, a short salvation history that explains the origins of idolatry. Though no single piece by Aelfric is especially long, and though few treat Genesis with undivided attention, the collection as a whole presents a complex and extended consideration from the mind of the most accomplished Old English author.
The next category pertains to translations of the biblical text from Latin. Several manuscript witnesses survive that contain translations of Genesis into Old English. The textual history of these manuscripts is complicated. In general, when scholars discuss the Old English Genesis, they usually refer to the Hexateuch, despite some witnesses including more than the first six books of the Bible. Though discussions about the Hexateuch and its parallels are necessarily technical, one scholar in particular, Richard Marsden, has done much to make this topic approachable for specialists and nonspecialists alike. The Hexateuch offers unique insight into the dynamic between Latin and the vernacular. For some time scholars have generally assumed that early Englanders considered their vernacular a base alternative to Latin, an attitude which was typical throughout the Middle Ages. That may well have been the case, but some recent studies have fruitfully revisited these assumptions. Though the issue requires further inquiry, the Old English record can be read (it may be added, without straining much) as a legacy of preaching the godspel. The Hexateuch stands as a significant contribution to that legacy.
Computus, history, and philosophy
The remaining three categories contribute to Genesis Rewritten by offering some glimpses of the influence of this text. First, computus. This genre is fascinating because it testifies to the underlying assumption that Genesis was history. Computus refers to complex, usually long, explications of the movement of celestial bodies and the knowledge one gains therefrom for the purpose of drawing calendars. The calendar must be accurate since it would be disastrous to misidentify the date of Easter. This task was difficult because Easter was set according to the lunar calendar of the Hebrews, though the solar calendar of Rome was the standard. These calculations thoughtfully consider the descriptions in Genesis concerning the lights of the firmament. One full-blown computus exists in Old English. It is the Enchiridion by Byrhtferth of Ramsey (c.970–c.1020).
Second, history. Anglo-Saxons certainly respected the value of history. The length, diversity, and relative consistency of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle witness that for centuries Anglo-Saxons wanted their histories committed to writing. Besides the Chronicle, we have monumental labors such as Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica and the Old English translation of Orosius’s Historiae Adversus Paganos. We also know that oral records existed before the coming of Christianity. Many English kings tracked their lineage to the gods of German mythology, a practice that some continued even after their conversion. What’s more, this practice may be connected with the idea that certain West Saxon kings claimed themselves descendants of Sceaf, Noah’s ark-born son. Though references to Genesis are slim, we do find a delightful exchange about the effects of the Fall in the Old English version of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica.
Finally we turn to philosophy. Relatively little survives in Old English of what might be called philosophy. The key text here is an Old English translation of Boethius’s Consolatio Philosophiae. Thoughout its history, this text has attracted illustrious English translators, including Elizabeth I, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Alfred the Great (r.871–99). For the study of Genesis Rewritten there are references to the Creation and the Tower of Babel.
OE poetry survives in a number of genres. There are charms, hymns, saints’ lives, heroic epics, riddles, elegies, and more. Frequently a poem belongs to more than one genre, and it can therefore be difficult to organize these verses strictly according to generic categories. It is more straightforward, if a little unusual, to separate them according to their manuscript traditions. Most poems, with the notable exception of Cædmon’s Hymn, have only one medieval witness, and most of these appear in the four main collections of Anglo-Saxon poetry: the Exeter Book, the Junius Manuscript, the Nowell Codex, and the Vercelli Book. These manuscripts contain the materials pertinent to Genesis Rewritten. (There are two other poems not included in these volumes, and they shall be discussed in turn.) Though scholars can date the manuscripts with reliable accuracy, there is no consensus on dates for the original compositions of the poems included in these books. Unfortunately, that means few poems can be read in a specific historical context. It should also be mentioned that most poems are anonymous. Even with Cædmon and Cynewulf, whom we know by name, we know little else. The poems described below deal with Genesis in relatively brief terms. The exception is the 3,000-line poem in the Junius Manuscript. But though most of the allusions we find are modest, we can see Genesis used in ways both charming and provocative.
The Exeter Book was put together circa 965–75, and it has some half dozen references to Genesis. Cynewulf (ninth century?) wrote the saints’ life Juliana, which recounts the martyrdom of St. Juliana of Nicomedia. It contains a memorable scene in which the saint forces a devil to confess his sins. He admits to tempting Adam and Eve. The Exeter Book has another saints’ life that touches Genesis: Guthlac B. This one also references the first parents, again the Fall specifically. We also find in the Exeter Book a number of riddles, four of which concern us here. Riddles 40, 66, and 94 question their readers about the Creation, and Riddle 46 presents a complex of family relations that suggests Lot and his daughters. In general, the Exeter Book works like a miscellany, though its most recent editor prefers to call it an anthology. Whatever the terminology, the small sampling here gives some sense of the diversity of the texts included therein.
The Junius Manuscript has the texts that are most significant to Genesis Rewritten. Genesis A and B retell Genesis 1–22 in a poem almost as long as Beowulf. These two texts are considered separately by scholars today, because they were proved to be distinct compositions despite the manuscript’s compiler grouping them together. Genesis A (lines 1–234 and 852–2935) works like a verse translation of the Vulgate text. Genesis B (lines 235–851) comes from an Old Saxon text that offers much more than translation. One finds in it details of narrative and character foreign to the Bible. The Junius Manuscript begins with the poems Genesis A and B, and after them comes Exodus. This shorter poem recounts the parting of the Red Sea. It follows Exodus 12–15 fairly closely, but near the end there is an unexpected section about Noah and Abraham. It has been suggested that the Junius Manuscript presents a history of salvation. The book does contain the greatest amount of extant biblical poetry, and it certainly uses Genesis to explore the dealings of God with his creations.
Nowell Codex and Vercelli Book
The remaining manuscripts, the Nowell Codex and the Vercelli Book, both draw on Genesis with their longest poems. The first does so with Beowulf, the most celebrated poem from early England. Among other things, Beowulf—at least the version that has come down to us—wrestles with tensions between Germanic myths and Christian ones. This bubbles up in interesting ways with respect to Genesis: a pagan sings the Creation (like Cædmon?), a monster descends from Cain, and an ancient sword hilt depicts the Flood and the subsequent ruination of the giants. The Vercelli Book contains Andreas, which tells the story of St. Andrew the Apostle. Andreas builds from Greek, Latin, and Old English models, but the poems itself remains distinct. There is one scene in which Jesus summons an angelic image to raise Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob from the dead, who then testify of Christ’s mission. Both these manuscripts, the Nowell Codex and the Vercelli Book, do not engage much with Genesis, but the little they do is certainly worth noting.
There are two other poems that are not included in the chief poetic records. They are Cædmon’s Hymn, already alluded to, and A Journey Charm. The hymn ultimately goes back to Bede, but the textual history is complicated. Cædmon was a poet that retold biblical stories in alliterative English verse. The hymn itself glorifies the Creator. A Journey Charm appears in the margin of MS, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 41. It calls on key persons from Genesis to protect travelers. These two poems plus the ones considered above constitute a near comprehensive survey of Genesis in what survives of Old English poetry.
The above information investigates Genesis in specific OE texts. Beyond these, a pair of pervasive figures must be considered outside any singular point of origin.
The OE corpus stands apart in that it does not devote texts either exclusively or primarily to persons who appear in Genesis. There is no apocalypse of Abraham as in the Old Slavonic tradition, no epic poem on Joseph as in Syriac, and no testaments of Jacob’s sons as in Greek. It is true that Abraham, Isaac, Adam, and Eve feature prominently in the literature, but it is also true that they do not stand out as human personalities depicted in realist modes, though Anglo-Saxons certainly considered them to be historical. The emphasis instead rests on the events in which these characters participate (for Abraham and Isaac, the Offering; for Adam and Eve, the Fall). They are defined by the role they play in their respective dramas, and the narratives themselves are the most important for Anglo-Saxons. Though the personalities from Genesis receive relatively light treatment, certain significant events do command specific attention. The two most notable are the Creation and the Harrowing of Hell.
In some respects, much of what has been reviewed extends beyond the scope of Genesis Rewritten, since the project concerns itself foremost with texts that primarily or exclusively retell Genesis in homilies, paraphrases, hymns, commentaries, and so forth. We have taken a deeper look at the OE corpus, but it has proved fruitful. Necessarily, any examination of OE material must be patchwork, since relatively speaking, little has survived. But the above patchwork works so that subtle hints and glimpses can be woven together into a fabric however modest. Like Adam and Eve, we need not be naked in our knowledge. There is a sense that Anglo-Saxons were especially preoccupied with the Creation, Christ’s redemption of the patriarchs in hell, the Fall, the Flood, and the Offering of Isaac. There is also frequent emphasis placed on the fall of the rebellious angels. Doubtless other Genesis figures crop up throughout the corpus, but these episodes receive pointed attention.
Godden, Malcolm. “Biblical Literature: the Old Testament.” In The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, ed. Malcolm Godden and Michael Lapidge. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 214–33.
Lapidge, Michael. The Anglo-Saxon Library. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
General Studies on Genesis in Old English:
Marsden, Richard, ed. The Old English Heptateuch and Ælfric’s Libellus de veteri testamento et novo: Volume I, Introduction and Text. Early English Text Society, original series 330. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Forthcoming is a second volume, which will contain notes, a commentary, and a glossary.
———. “The Old Testament in Late Anglo-Saxon England: Preliminary Observations on the Textual Evidence.” The Early Medieval Bible: Its Production, Decoration and Use, ed. Richard Gameson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 101-24.
———. The Text of the Old Testament in Anglo-Saxon England. Vol. 15 of Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “The Book of Genesis in Anglo-Saxon England.” PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1975.
Studies on Genesis Figures in Old English
The following figures hold prominent positions in Anglo-Saxon writings. The scholarship listed treats these figures as self-sufficient objects of study.
Abraham (and Sarah):
Anlezark, Daniel. “An Ideal Marriage: Abraham and Sarah in Old English Literature.” Medium Ævum 69, no. 2 (2000): 187–210.
Cain (and Abel):
Barb, A. A. “Cain’s Murder-Weapon and Samson’s Jawbone of an Ass.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 35 (1972): 386–89.
Breeze, Andrew. “Cain’s Jawbone, Ireland, and the Prose Solomon and Saturn.” Notes and Queries 39 (1992): 433–36.
Brockman, Bennet A. “‘Heroic’ and ‘Christian’ in Genesis A: The Evidence of the Cain and Abel Episode.” Modern Language Quarterly 35, no. 2 (January 1974): 115–28.
Emerson, Oliver F. “Legends of Cain, Especially in Old and Middle English.” PMLA 21, no. 4 (1906): 831–929.
Estes, Heide. “Raising Cain in Genesis and Beowulf: Challenges to Generic Boundaries in Anglo-Saxon Biblical Literature.” The Heroic Age 13 (2010): [online].
Henderson, George. “Cain’s Jaw-Bone.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 24, no. 1/2 (1961): 108–114.
Marsden, Richard. “Cain’s Face and Other Problems: The Legacy of the Earliest Bible Translations.” Reformation 1 (1996): 2–51.
Mellinkoff, Ruth. “Cain’s monstrous progeny in Beowulf: part I, Noachic tradition.” Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1979): 143–62.
———. “Cain’s monstrous progeny in Beowulf: part II, post-diluvian survival.” Anglo-Saxon England 9 (1981): 183–97.
———. The Mark of Cain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
Peltola, Niilo. “Grendel’s Descent from Cain Reconsidered.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 73 (1972): 284–91.
Schapiro, Meyer. “‘Cain’s Jaw-Bone that Did the First Murder.’” The Art Bulletin 24, no. 3 (1942): 205–12.
Green, Eugene A. “Enoch, Lent, and the Ascension of Christ.” In De Ore Domini: Preacher and Word in the Middle Ages, ed. Thomas L. Amos, Eugene A. Green, and Beverly Mayne Kienzle. Kalamazoo, Michigan: Medieval Institute Publications, 1989. 13–25.
Anlezark, Daniel. Water and fire: The myth of the Flood in Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006.
Anlezark, Daniel. “Reading ‘The Story of Joseph’ in MS Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 201.” In The Power of Words: Anglo-Saxon Studies Presented to Donald G. Scragg on his Seventieth Birthday, ed. Hugh Magennis and Jonathan Wilcox. Morgantown, West Virginia: West Virginia University Press, 2006. 61–94.
Emerson, Oliver F. “The Legend of Joseph’s Bones in Old and Middle English.” Modern Language Notes 14, no. 6 (1899): 166–67.
Wilcox, Jonathan. “A Place to Weep: Joseph in the Beer-Room and Anglo-Saxon Gestures of Emotion.” In Saints and Scholars: New Perspectives on Anglo-Saxon Literature and Culture In Honour of Hugh Magennis, ed. Stuart McWilliams. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2012. 14–32.
Anlezark, Daniel. “Sceaf, Japheth and the origins of Anglo-Saxons.” Anglo-Saxon England 31 (2002): 13–46.
Hill, Thomas D. “The Myth of the Ark-Born Son of Noe and the West-Saxon Royal Genealogical Tables.” The Harvard Theological Review 80, no. 3 (1987): 379–83.
Tower of Babel:
Major, Tristan. “Literary Developments of the Table of Nations and the Tower of Babel in Anglo-Saxon England.” PhD diss., University of Toronto, 2010.
———. “Rebuilding the Tower of Babel: Aelfric and Bible Translation.” Florilegium 23, no. 2 (2006): 47–60.
Liuzza, R. M. “The Tower of Babel: The Wanderer and the Ruins of History.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 36, no. 1 (2003): 1–35.
Scheil, Andrew P. “Babylon and Anglo-Saxon England.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 36, no. 1 (2003): 37–58.
How to Cite This Entry
Bert Fuller, “Introduction to Genesis in Old English” in Genesis Rewritten, ed. Kristian S. Heal, entry published February 12, 2014, cpart.byu.edu: The Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts, Brigham Young University.