Sagacious Liminality: The Boundaries of Wisdom in Old English and Old Norse-Icelandic Literature

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Roscoe, Brett
Monsters , Old English , Króka-Refs Saga , Volsunga Saga , Old Norse-Icelandic , Beowulf , The Wanderer , Liminality , Order of the World , Vainglory , Proverbs , Old English Daniel , Sólarljóð , Folklore , Gesta Danorum , Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks , Wisdom , Maxims I and II , Málsháttakvæði , Riddles
This dissertation examines the relationship between wisdom and identity in Old English and Old Norse-Icelandic literature. At present, the study of medieval wisdom is largely tangential to the study of proverbs and maxims. This dissertation makes wisdom its primary object of study; it sees wisdom not just as a literary category, but also as a cultural discourse found in texts not usually included in the wisdom canon. I therefore examine both wisdom literature and wisdom in literature. The central characteristic of wisdom, I argue, is its liminality. The biblical question “Where is wisdom to be found?” is difficult to answer because of wisdom’s in-between-ness: it is ever between individuals, communities, and times (Job 28:12 Douay-Rheims). As a liminal discourse, wisdom both grounds and problematizes identity in Old English and Old Norse-Icelandic literature. After a preliminary chapter that defines key terms such as “wisdom” and “wisdom literature,” I examine heroic wisdom in three characters who are defined by their wise traits and skills and yet who are ultimately betrayed by wisdom to death or exile. The implications of this problematic relation to wisdom are then examined in the next chapter, which analyzes the composition of wisdom in proverb poems. Like the wise hero, the poets represented in these poems blend their own voices with the voice of community, demonstrating that identity is open and therefore in need of constant revision. Next I examine how the liminality of wisdom is embodied in the figure of the wise monster, who negatively marks the boundaries of society and its desires. This then leads to a study of the reception of wisdom in chapter six, which focuses on instruction poems. Like narratives of wise monsters, these texts present lore as the nostalgic remnant of a tradition that defines identity, in this case the identity of a community. However, nostalgia assumes loss, and these texts also reveal an underlying fear that wisdom, the basis of the community’s identity, will be forgotten. Whether communal or individual, identity in this literature is both formed and threatened by liminal wisdom.
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