I hopped the barbed hedge of graduate school more than 20 years ago, but the burrs and brambles of medieval thinking still cling to my life. I never know if they’re brittle twigs, best brushed off and swept away, or green sprigs that can be woven into some new, small, useful thing. Take “Deor,” an Old English poem that puts on thorns at the strangest of times—even when I’m reading about a different culture thousands of miles away and a millennium later.
I can’t post a decent translation of “Deor” without violating somebody’s copyright, so go peruse Maryann Corbett’s recent version, which skillfully gets the sense and some of the sound of the original. Deor, the speaker, alludes to a series of terrible, violent incidents from Germanic history and legend, all stories that would have been known to his listeners at the time. His cryptic refrain, Þaes ofereode, Þisses swa maeg—”that has passed, this shall too”—ends with a personal revelation: Deor is a scop, a poet, a singer of tales who has been ousted from his position by a newcomer who has won the favor of the king. He casts his own reversal of fortune in terms of the tyrants, heroes, and legendary figures whose tales, which now offer consolation, were the raw material for his poems and songs.
“Deor” can teach the newcomer to Old English poetry a good deal about its characteristics: that air of grimness; a worldview that floats somewhere between stoicism and fatalism; an elegiac tone; and above all, a lament for the misery of exile, of being sundered from a leader and a meaningful role in a community. So was it taught to me; so did I teach it to others.
Or so I imagined. A funny thing happened the first time I discussed “Deor” in the classroom. A quiet student in the back raised her hand and dared to asked, in defiance of all my just-out-of-grad-school certainty: “What if this poem was meant to be…funny?”
Thrown off, I asked her to elaborate. She argued that being alone, homeless, and unemployed, while all bad, were not as bad as being murdered, or hamstrung, or having your hands and feet cut off, or having your family murdered and being raped yourself—the fates of the men and women in “Deor.” I argued the scholarly case: that the lament of an exile was serious business in Old English poetry, that the humor in the Old English poetic corpus was wry and understated, and that the original audiences for this poetry would not have been looking for levity.
But then I read “Deor” aloud, going for snide, whiny, and melodramatic—and the class laughed—and I conceded that someone could easily perform the poem in ways that could make the speaker look preposterously self-pitying and wholly bereft of perspective.
I later made a habit of running the student’s theory past every medieval-lit scholar I ran into. All of them said the notion was flat-out wrong. At least one was offended. I still didn’t believe that the student’s interpretation would have been a common and even likely one in gear-dagum, but I was also troubled by the way a poem, a work of art, had been pressed and embedded into one lost time, one dead place, and buried under a century of scholarship that protected it from any new creative whim.
My student’s speculations about “Deor” sprang to mind, unexpectedly, as I read Hearth and Home: Preserving a People’s Culture, George McDaniel’s 1982 study of the houses of African-American tenant farmers in southern Maryland. McDaniel’s book is packed with thoughtful observations about the ways cultural knowledge endures in house design, building techniques, and the little details of craftsmanship, even when subsequent generations don’t know they’re remembering it.
McDaniel opens his book with the history of a tenant house in Mitchellville, Maryland, that was dismantled by the Smithsonian in 1969 and rebuilt 30 miles west at the National Museum of American History, where visitors to the (now also dismantled) “Hall of Everyday Life in the American Past” could go partway inside. “From the beginning, some members of the Smithsonian staff felt that something was missing,” McDaniel writes, explaining why they called him nearly a decade later to research the history of the house and its likely furnishings. Still respected in my area of Maryland for collecting irreplaceable African-American oral histories and documenting the homes of freed slaves in the late 1970s, McDaniel soon discovered that this plain four-room house, for which the Smithsonian had no documentation, did indeed have people to speak for it, men and women from twelve families who had lived there at various times from 1912 to 1967. He invited them to visit the Smithsonian, and their reactions were illuminating:
If one were to choose a side of the tenant house to be the front, the length with the door centrally located, flanked by two windows, is the more symmetrical, stylish, and formal. It “should” be the front…The other length has a door near one corner, a window near the other, and no opening in the center. It is off balance, unwieldy in appearance, and “should” be the back…Indeed, there are examples of houses in Prince George’s County and elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic region of this very design, with the symmetrical length as the front. That’s the way the house was reassembled in 1968. But when Elizabeth “Mamie” Johnson saw the house ten years later, she politely declared in a rather puzzled tone: “You’ve got it backwards.”
Every living former resident and neighbor and the son of the original landowner agreed: The house was, to use McDaniel’s words, “representative of this house type, but not true to the actual, historical orientation of this particular house.” There were other problems: Smithsonian curators assumed that a very small downstairs room was the kitchen and a bigger space was the sitting room and dining room, when it was really the other way round. Daily life centered around a larger kitchen, not a rarely used parlor.
McDaniel also learned that the wooden walls on display for Smithsonian visitors had been covered with newspapers and whitewashed to be more attractive. Many children had lived in the house, including one who recalled as an adult that he had greatly prized his .22 rifle. The Smithsonian setup showed no signs of gun ownership—or traces of a young boy.
Even though the house stood on the outskirts of a major metropolitan area, represented the experiences of a large and accessible class of people, had been occupied as recently as 1967, and was curated by professionals with the best of intentions, the Smithsonian got it wrong. Imagine how much more we’re doomed to misperceive across more than a thousand years. Those of us who study the literature and history of the distant past like to think we account for our assumptions, but what if our assumptions about our assumptions are off?
None of this hasn’t been pondered for ages by much smarter people, but in the years since my student asked her question blessedly unimpeded by assumptions, few new opinions have formed about “Deor.” The author of a book about humor in Anglo-Saxon poetry appreciates the irony and dark humor of certain turns of phrase, and another scholar has found it useful to look at “Deor” and other Old English laments through the lens of blues lyrics. Yet no one to my knowledge has seconded my student’s notion, that at the very least, someone might have performed the poem—or at least can perform the poem—in a way that uses allusions to legendary violence to make his own rootlessness seem funny and small. I don’t know that my student was right; she wasn’t wrong to wonder.
George McDaniel was adamant about what his own field work revealed: “The black families studied here did not live in ‘shacks.’ They are not stereotypes, mere ciphers.” Likewise, the standard interpretations of “Deor” are correct about the culture and times, but may be wrong about how the anonymous poet hoped he’d make people feel; how a specific someone once recited or performed the poem; how real readers or listeners have received it; or which features of the poem appealed to the individual monk who wrote it down.
If the lives of African-American tenant farmers in southern Maryland can so confound the assumptions of historians from a distance of only 30 miles and a single generation, then any given soul in medieval Wessex regarded the world with a distinctiveness that’s not ours to know. We can only allow that somebody like him existed, because somebody who had a similar notion does now, a suggestion that complements analysis with creativity. In the free, weedy fields outside the garden, we can hope for a laugh ringing over the hedge, unlikely and strange, but at least now imaginable across a thousand years.