titolo originale: Heroes and Monsters: cannibalism as mentifact in the old English Andreas, in “IV Ciclo di Studi Medievali”, Atti del Convegno, Firenze 4-5 Giugno 2018, Arcore (MB) 2018, pp. 254-259.
The 10th century Old English poem Andreas tells the adventurous story of saint Andrew and his mission to free the Apostle Matthew from Mermedonia, an island of cannibals. Sent to this deviant nation by God personally, Andreas must overcome his doubts and prove his faith in God to not only free Matthew and other prisoners, but also deliver the Mermedonians from their aberrant behavior by converting them to Christianity. In this context, Andreas is generally read as a conventional conversion narrative in which Andrew is considered the literary representation of the Christian self, whereas the cannibal Mermedonians represent the non-Christian other.
This paper, however, will consider Andreas from a fresh perspective and I will propose a new reading context for Andrew and his Mermedonian counterparts. The aim is to read the depiction of cannibalism as a late AS mentifact that addresses and expresses a subtext about changing social conditions and, very specifically, evolving conceptions of the Anglo-Saxon Christian self. As “cannibalism is never just about eating but is primarily a medium for non-gustatory messages – messages having to do with the maintenance, regeneration and, in some cases, the foundation of cultural order,” this paper will argue that Andreas took on renewed moral and political significance in a new cultural context in the early 11th century, the age of Wulfstan II.1 From this vantage point, I will not read the Mermedonians as a representation of the non-Christian other, but rather as the representation of the Anglo-Saxon Christian self which has degenerated and can only be saved through turning back to God and receiving proper pastoral instruction.
Accordingly, I will first explain the concept mentifact and secondly, I will situate cannibalism as mentifact within a late Anglo-Saxon cultural context by highlighting other narratives involving depictions of cannibals. Then, I will offer my new reading of Andreas by comparing the text to Wulfstan’s Sermo lupi ad Anglos. This comparison will situate the poem in the early 11th century and it will show, how read together, they capture a cultural moment which focuses on spiritual deterioration and prospective redemption. It will become evident how when read as mentifact, Andreas gains a new reading context and addresses topical issues of the time.
In cultural studies, culture is considered to be made up of artifacts, socifacts and mentifacts.2 While artifacts are the material objects which carry out material functions and socifacts provide the frameworks of social and political units, mentifacts are “mental constructions which provide the psychological framework of a culture and carry out intellectual, aesthetic, spiritual, ethical or other psychological functions.”3 They are signifiers which reveal the mentality of a culture, and are made up of ideas and values as well as the conventions that specify their uses and representations.4
Consequently, as “the monster is always a sign of something else,” cannibalism can be identified as mentifact because literary depictions of cannibalism are a means of expressing ideas and values of a culture.5 Looking at literary cannibals from the Anglo-Saxon period, there are some prominent examples: the Grendelkin, the Cynocephali, or the Donestre and even a saint, St. Christopher. Just like the Mermedonians, they represent specific literary depictions of some form of cannibalism. Consequently, as they are all preserved in manuscripts compiled within a span of ca. fifty years, I argue that the texts capture an Anglo-Saxon cultural moment in which “the cannibal metaphors … speak about different social, cultural, and religious realities.”6 This constitutes a late Anglo-Saxon cultural context that uses cannibalism as mentifact. The literary depictions of cannibalism are, therefore, nothing else than a system of sign conventions that the members of a society have in common. These sign conventions regulate their social behavior and denote the functions and meanings of their artifacts, artifacts such as the poem Andreas.7 Because “literature is conditioned by its social circumstances and embedded in a constant process of communication,” Andreas communicated different ideas at different times.8 Accordingly, the poem’s previous reading contexts have been the time of its composition (most likely during King Alfred’s reign in the 9th century) and the period when Andreas was copied as part of the Vercelli Book in the late 10th century.9 Changing social circumstances mean changing cultural values and, therefore, reading cannibalism as mentifact allows Andreas to take on renewed moral and political significance in the cultural context of the early 11th century, in which I interpret the depiction of the cannibal Mermedonians as a representation of the degenerating Anglo-Saxon Christian self. Reading Andreas together with Wulfstan’s Sermo lupi will situate the poem in the early 11th century and will show how they express a cultural moment which focuses on spiritual deterioration of the Anglo-Saxon Christian self.
1. P. R. Sanday, Divine Hunger-Cannibalism as a Cultural System, Cambridge 1986, p. 3.
2. J. S. Huxley, Guest Editorial: Evolution, Cultural and Biological, in «Yearbook of Anthropology», 1955, pp. 16-17.
3. Ivi, p. 17.
4. Cfr. A. Nünning, Einführung in Die Kulturwissenschaften, Stuttgart 2008, p. 53: “… Ideen und Werten, und den Konventionen, die deren Verwendung und Darstellung bestimmen.”
5. L. Verner, The Epistemology of the Monstrous in the Middle Ages, New York 2005, p. 156.
6. S. Lindenbaum, Thinking About Cannibalism, in «Annual Review of Anthropology», vol. 33, 2004, p. 483. Dating Vercelli Book and Andreas: around 970, see F. Leneghan, Teaching the Teachers: The Vercelli Book and the Mixed Life, in «English Studies», vol. 94, n. 6, 2013, p. 627; second half of 10th century, see S. Zacher, A. Orchard (eds.), New Readings in the Vercelli Book, Toronto 2009, p. 3. Dating Nowell Codex: from late 10th to early 11th century, see N. R. Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon, Oxford 1957, p. xvii and 281; reign of Cnut, see K. S. Kiernan, The Eleventh-Century Origin of Beowulf and the Beowulf Manuscript, in C. Chase (ed.), The Dating of Beowulf, Toronto 1997, p. 10.
7. Cfr. A. Nünning, Einführung in Die Kulturwissenschaften cit., p. 53: “… demnach nichts anderes als ein System von Zeichenkonventionen, das die Mitglieder einer Gesellschaft miteinander gemeinsam haben. Sie regeln deren soziales Verhalten und bestimmen die Funktionen und Bedeutungen ihrer Artefakte.”
8. W. Busse, R. Holtei, Beowulf and the Tenth Century, in «Bulletin of John Rylands Library», vol. 63, n. 2, 1981, p. 285.
9. Andreas composition see North and Bintley (eds.), Andreas: an Edition, Liverpool 2015. Vercelli Book compilation see Leneghan cit.; S. N. Godlove, Bodies as Borders: Cannibalism and Conversion in the Old English Andreas, in «Studies in Philology», vol. 106, n. 2, 2009.
In foto: Vercelli Book, Biblioteca Capitolare di Vercelli, CXVII, dettaglio.