By John D. Niles
Ten years ago Roberta Frank published an article, based on her Toller Lecture for 1992, titled ‘”The Search for the Anglo-Saxon Oral Poet” (Frank 1993). With caustic wit as well as impeccable scholarship, she there points out the extent to which modern-day conceptions of Old English poets and poetry have been shaped by the passion for bardic verse that swept through Europe during the later decades of the eighteenth century. For a while, it seems, thanks to the influence of Thomas Percy and the vogue of James MacPherson’s spurious Ossian, no ancient poetry was judged worthy of acclaim unless it could be ascribed to the wild, natural art of minstrels.
Frank also points out that the search for the oral poet began well before the era of Percy and MacPherson. During the twelfth century, the writers of Latin chronicles seemed fascinated by the idea that there had been bards in Anglo-Saxon England. It is the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury (ca. 1095-ca. 1143), for example, whom we can thank for the story that Aldhelm, the late seventh-century co-founder of the monastery at Malmesbury and the first major figure of Anglo-Latin letters, used to accost church-goers at a bridge so as to entice them to listen to moral sermons (Hamilton 1870:336). After first attracting their attention through English songs, he would then intersperse the words of Scripture, thus leading the people back to good sense and right reason (ad sanitatem). This tale is such a pleasing fancy that it has often been taken as historical despite the passage of over four centuries between the period when the supposed incident took place and the date when William wrote down the story in his Gesta pontificum Anglorum (1125), where it is
first told. To put this temporal distance into perspective, it would be as if someone today were to write down for the first time, in a manner as if to be believed, a story of how Shakespeare used to entice Londoners into the theater by playing the lute on the banks of the Thames.
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