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Anglo-Saxon Appetites
Food and Drink and Their Consumption in Old English and Related Literature
Hugh Magennis


 
Notes and Queries
‘Hugh Magennis’s new book forms an obvious complement to his previous one, Images of Community in Old English Poetry (1996): indeed, so closely do their subject-areas coincide that the division of material between the two can at times seem a little arbitrary, and the two can at times seem a little arbitrary, and one wonders whether one big book would not have been a better idea than two smaller ones. But the merits of this book are also those exemplified by the other work: sustained close attention to primary texts, careful and judicious assessments, lucid presentation, and (as a result of all these) a pervasive air of sanity and dependability.

Magennis orders his material into four chapters: ‘Food, drink and feast in Anglo-Saxon and Germanic literary tradition’, ‘Eating and eaters’, ‘Poetry and prose of Christian teaching’, and ‘Metaphorical and spiritual applications’. In the first chapter Magennis takes as his point of departure the observation that depictions of feasting in Old English poetry are preoccupied with drinking rather than eating,. and that this drinking is presented as a social activity rather than as a physical act. In pondering why this should be so, Magennis invokes Tacitus’ observation that the Germanic peoples preferred simple food, and suggests therefore that Anglo-Saxon poets ignore the role of food at feasts ‘because they have inherited from the Germanic past a concept of the feast deriving from a traditional literary culture in which food is not of symbolic significance’ (41): any Anglo-Saxon enthusiasm for fancy foreign cuisine thus postdates the evolution of the language and imagery of poetic tradition.

Since the humans in Old English poetry therefore spend their time drinking rather than eating, Magennis’s second chapter, ‘Eating and Eaters’, is mostly about non-humans, and inevitably Grendel is the conspicuous consumer at the heart of it. But joining him at the fare are also wolves, bears, and boars, and Magennis suggests that Anglo-Saxon poets may have sensed undertones of savagery in the very act of eating; he also argues that, more generally, scenes of human eating belong properly in literature of a lower register than most Old English verse. These attractive ideas arise from a reading of the poetry, and are complemented by a discussion of the Old English verbs fretan and etan; but here as elsewhere one may perhaps regret the book’s rather cursory treatment of non-poetic subjects such as hunting, farming, and cooking – in other words, the whole chain of Anglo-Saxon food production.

For the last word of the subtitle is important: this is dominantly a book about literary depictions of eating and drinking, and most successfully in its opening chapter. However, Magennis’s third part turns to consider Christian teachings about food and drink, and here the narrowly literary approach seems less adequate: the discussion of the role of food and drink in Anglo-Saxon Christian living would be much more successful if it attended more to historical, archaeological, and lexical forms of evidence. Furthermore this third chapter reads at times more like a survey of relevant texts than an argument based upon those texts; and indeed, since there is frequent and lengthy quotation of primary sources, it even approaches the status of an anthology with linking commentary. A sense of purpose is, however, regained in the final chapter, with an exploration of how far the physical acts of eating and drinking are deployed in metaphorical and spiritual senses; and at the centre of the chapter is an extended analysis of the language of eating Andreas. Finally, and arising out of this, Magennis concludes his work with a helpful review of Anglo-Saxon writings on the doctrine of the eucharist.

This, therefore, is not a startling or revolutionary book; but in its steady, attentive way it brings a good deal of illumination to a subject of intriguingly varied character’ Matthew Townend, University of York, Notes and Queries.

 
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