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Title:Death, writing, and remembrance in Anglo-Saxon England
Author(s):Clements, Jill
Director of Research:Wright, Charles D.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Wright, Charles D.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Trilling, Renee; Camargo, Martin; Schulman, Jana K.
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Old English literature
medieval literature
death in literature
funeral customs and rites
gravestone inscriptions
death and dying
Abstract:The Anglo-Saxon conversion to Christianity was as much a revolution in literacy as it was in religion. I argue that within this new textual culture, the Anglo-Saxons exploited writing’s aura of permanence to counter the social, spiritual, and physical oblivion of death. By using writing both to preserve the dead metonymically through the textualization of their absent bodies and to project their metaphorical inscription in heaven, Anglo-Saxon authors defined selfhood and community in relation to death and the afterlife. Whether inscribed on stone, inked on parchment, or carved into the very landscape, the written text was therefore a mechanism and a metaphor for remembrance of the dead. I trace the Anglo-Saxon ways of “writing the dead” and the metaphoric and metonymic uses of inscription in several genres, including Old English heroic and religious poetry, Anglo-Latin prose, and commemorative texts and inscriptions. Each chapter explores a manifestation of the power of writing to embody the dead in the community of the living. Chapter 1 examines Anglo-Saxon funerary inscriptions and libri vitae, which figure salvation as the writing of the dead in the “book of life”; Chapter 2 reads Cynewulf’s runic signature as a figure of his decomposing and sinful body, which is made whole by the reader through reconstituting his name and praying for his salvation; Chapter 3 expands on the notion of the textualized body and argues that the liturgical and biblical texts recited and written by the dying Bede (as recorded in Cuthbert’s account of his death) function as “textual relics” and mnemonics for Bede that enable postmortem prayer for his soul; and Chapter 4 demonstrates that the Beowulf-poet imagines heroic death in the familiar terms of text and inscription, mapping onto the legendary past the mechanisms of remembrance that were at work in the Anglo-Saxon present. These material and metaphorical modes of writing created fixed points in a decaying and transient world, inscribing the dead in the memories and prayers of the living.
Issue Date:2014-09-16
Rights Information:Copyright 2014 Jill Hamilton Clements
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-09-16
Date Deposited:2014-08

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