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The Husband’s Message and Early English Epistolarity
October 21, 2013 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
Resident Fellow (2013-2014)
What makes early medieval English epistolarity unique is that it is not merely about letters but about what I am calling epistolary acts, the moments when authors represent or embed letters within vernacular texts, attempting to adapt a Latin epistolary tradition to Germanic or Anglo-Saxon contexts and audiences. After an overview of my book on Anglo-Saxon epistolarity, the talk takes as its focus an Old English poem known as The Husband’s Message in which a man writes a letter to a woman from whom he has been separated, asking her to return to him. His letter, a rare example of interpersonal secular communication from the period, is written in runic characters on some kind of wooden object. Despite the lack of archaeological evidence for such letters in Anglo-Saxon England, the poem presents this communication as relatively unremarkable, and therefore potentially familiar to its audience, suggesting that epistolarity was more widespread among vernacular audiences than previously thought. Moreover, the poem is emblematic of the ways in which Anglo-Saxon epistolarity defamiliarizes our understanding of medieval letters by relying less on form and function than on imagining the storage, transmission, and materiality of communicative acts.
Jordan Zweck is a resident fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities and an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She specializes in early medieval vernacular literature and culture, especially Old English, and is also interested in the history of the book, the history of the English language, and medieval lay piety and pastoral care. Zweck is a recipient of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for the Humanities’ First Book Award and is affiliated with the Department of Scandinavian Studies. She is currently working on a book on Anglo-Saxon epistolarity and early English media, examining the representation of letters in vernacular texts such as letters from heaven, Anglo-Saxon hagiography, and epistolary prefaces.