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Title:Theorizing prayer in Anglo-Saxon England: Bede and Ælfric
Author(s):Clark, Stephanie E.
Director of Research:Wright, Charles D.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Wright, Charles D.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Trilling, Renee; Camargo, Martin; Hill, Thomas D.
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Old English
Catholic Homilies
gift giving
Abstract:I argue that Anglo-Saxon prayer was inflected by Germanic assumptions about gift-giving and lordship and that prayer, in turn, shaped the Anglo-Saxons’ perception of the self and its relation with the community. Modern studies of early prayer tend to focus on forms of devotion that replicate modern ideals of the self. In Varieties of Religious Experience, William James defined prayer as “no mere repetition of certain sacred formulae, but the very movement itself of the soul, putting itself in a personal relation of contact with the mysterious power of which it feels the presence.” James’ understanding of prayer reflects a post-Romantic preference for selfhood rooted in individualism, genuine emotional experience, and sincerity. Yet for the monks Bede (d. 735) and Ælfric (d. 1010) – the Anglo-Saxon authors who address prayer most explicitly and extensively – prayer was fundamentally the “repetition of sacred formulae” in the set prayers found in the liturgy. It was precisely this repetition that articulated a selfhood formed in relation to God and the larger Christian community. Both Bede and Ælfric, I demonstrate, theorize prayer as a special form of gift-giving relationship between God and humans that is both personal and profoundly social. For Bede, those praying conform themselves to the words of the prayers by interiorizing them in their thoughts and exteriorizing them in their actions, presenting the purified self as a return-gift to God. For Ælfric, prayer functions like a vow: it is a performative statement of allegiance that both expresses the intention of those praying to serve God and also brings them under God’s protection. Because prayer was both an individual and communal regimen practiced in some form by all levels of Anglo-Saxon society, it is a tremendously productive site of study for understanding Anglo-Saxon subjectivity. This project thus counters a trend in recent scholarship that represents Anglo-Saxon prayer as if it were an overlooked forerunner of the highly individualized, affective form of prayer that develops in the twelfth-century with the much-heralded “discovery of the individual.”
Issue Date:2011-05-25
Rights Information:Copyright 2011 Stephanie Clark.
Date Available in IDEALS:2013-05-26
Date Deposited:2011-05

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