Idiosophy

A physicist loose among the liberal arts

Anglo-Saxons Weren’t Cynics

Elaine Treharne of Stanford University did a podcast interview recently. She gives a beautiful reading of the poem that she does not want to call “Wulf and Eadwacer” because it’s not really about those two guys. It’s about the woman who narrates it.

Titles are a problem in other ways, too.  The podcast is unfortunately entitled “Reading After Trump”, as if the current president of the USA were in some way responsible for the thirty-year assault on the humanities, rather than just collecting its foul harvest. But let’s pass that by.

The interviewer asked an interesting question: What have we lost, that the Anglo-Saxons of a thousand years ago knew? Prof. Treharne’s response was “hope”, which I think any scholar of Tolkien would applaud. She contrasts that with the cynicism of our modern age. She finds no trace of anything like it in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. That got me wondering about cynicism. Whence does it come? The Bosworth-Toller dictionary contains nothing about cynics. 

Looking at the reasons for cynicism, it’s easy to see why it’s a relatively recent development. I studied with expert cynics in my youth, who taught me what to look for:

A government official who takes an oath of office, which he immediately abandons in favor of handing out money to his supporters. This doesn’t apply at all.  An Anglo-Saxon expected this of his king. Any king who didn’t do that would get ditched for one who would. They would even flatter a king by calling him goldwine, “gold-friend”. There’s no ground for cynicism here.

A boss who’s several levels of management above me is clueless about what’s really happening, and will make foolish decisions because of his exalted distance. Not generally a factor, because the medieval orders were clearly distinct. The baron to whom I and my ox reported was the highest official who concerned himself with my job. The king was forbidden by custom to care how I did my job, just as I didn’t care how he did his. (Notwithstanding the continental practice of giving Charlemagne credit for figuring out how to grow wine grapes in Germany.) Cynical gossip around the village well wouldn’t happen as a result.

Advertisers who lie to me to get money from me. Not a factor, either. The Anglo-Saxon economy was largely based on gift-exchange. That’s an economics term; it doesn’t mean festive wrapping paper and bows. It means you’re dealing with people you know so they’ll give you seeds in the spring because you will still be around at harvest time to pay them back in the fall. Anglo-Saxon peasants worked that way because they didn’t have much money. (OK, this is disputed, but generally all the cash money got siphoned off as Danegeld.) In fact, one purpose of money is to make it possible to have economic interactions with people whom you do not trust. Kings have to do that all the time, but the general public did not. Money and cynicism go hand in hand. Without the former, it’s not surprising that we don’t see the latter.

People who pretend to love me to get their hands on something of mine. This seems like it should have been possible in a medieval society, even before they had French people running things. In fact, it’s possible that the narrator of “Wulf and Eadwacer” is running a scam like that.  This is the one solid case where I’d expect to see hope failing and cynicism prevailing.

So of the top four reasons to be cynical, I find three that don’t apply to Anglo-Saxon England, but one that definitely does.  The fact that we don’t see a cynical reaction to that last is some pretty solid evidence for Prof. Treharne’s idea.

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1 Comment

  1. Well, she was interesting, as she always is. The two guys were as tiresome as the name of their podcast. They were only slightly less nasal than the people on This American Life, which I find it impossible to listen to because of the appalling quality of their voices.

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