Poesis and Authority: Traces of an Anglo-Saxon Agon in Cynewulf's Elene

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Abstract

Despite its recapitulation of medieval anti-semitic formulae, Cynewulf's Elene treats the Jews who confront its eponymous heroine with remarkable sympathy, particularly their spokesman (and Elene's antagonist) Judas. A comparison of Cynewulf's version of the story with that found in the Acta Quiriaci from the Acta Sanctorum (which best represents whatever Latin source Cynewulf adapted), reveals a pattern of amplifications and shifts of emphasis introduced by Cynewulf that underscore the innocence of the Jewish community, who lack all knowledge of their ancestors' role in Christ's crucifixion.

When Judas relates to his compatriots the truth about the crucifixion, which his family had preserved as an esoteric knowledge, Cynewulf establishes a clear link between the practice of poetry and access to hidden truths. This is a link made even more forcefully in another Old English poem, The Order of the World, which preserves faintly the lineaments of an esoteric and visionary pre-Christian poetics. In Judas's debate with Elene, he represents an ancient, esoteric, and poetic tradition which is already being overtaken by the new tradition, exoteric and expository, which Elene speaks for.

The way in which Cynewulf has subtly altered his source's characterisation of Judas to render him something of a poet suggests at least the possibility that the clash between Judas and Elene may represent, in addition to the early conflict between Christianity and Judaism, whatever tensions may have accompanied the Christianising of the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition. Bede's account of Cædmon's encounter with the abbess Hild may provide milder evidence of the same tensions, as does Cynewulf's own autobiographical coda to Elene.

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