Medieval Studies Old English Literature and Critical Theory
Renée R. Trilling
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0202


From the outset of the theoretical turn in the 1980s and 1990s, Old English studies appeared to be inimical to the adoption of the newer critical practices introduced to the rest of the humanities. Rooted firmly in the traditional methodologies of philology and historicism, scholars of Old English literature resisted the indeterminacy and uncertainty championed by critical theory in the wake of the post-structuralist revolution. They were prudently skeptical of applying models of subjectivity, sexuality, and identity developed in modern contexts to the cultural products of an era whose belief systems and modes of thought differ dramatically from those of the present day. As a result, it took some time for Anglo-Saxonists to fully embrace the new critical tools that have by now become part of established practice in literary studies. Today, however, it is rare to find work on Old English literature that does not draw in some way on the theoretically informed questions and conversations that animate contemporary humanistic inquiry. Post-structuralism and feminism have been especially productive theoretical models for the study of Old English, but every form of critical theory that has had an impact on the humanities in the last thirty years has likewise impacted Old English studies. In many cases, it is difficult to differentiate among varying theoretical categories; scholarly work frequently combines models, such as feminism and psychoanalysis, or deconstruction and historicism, to tease out the nuanced implications of a text. The interdisciplinary nature of Old English studies introduces further complications, as scholars frequently reference history, theology, art history, archaeology, and other disciplines in the course of a literary study. As a result, the selections and categories in this article may appear somewhat arbitrary, but its focus is on the most influential scholarship on Old English literature that takes a self-consciously theoretical approach. While many of these approaches announce themselves clearly as belonging to a particular school or movement, others employ hybrid or multifaceted methodologies that bridge multiple categories.

General Overviews

Over the years, various conference panels, review essays, and edited collections have undertaken to evaluate the role of critical theory in Old English studies. The Old English Division of the Modern Language Association has sponsored several, and the progression charts the gradual acceptance of critical theory within the larger field. O’Brien O’Keeffe 1989, for example, showcases a whole panel dedicated to justifying critical theory; a decade later, O’Brien O’Keeffe 1999 revealed the necessity for only one paper (out of three) explicitly focused on theory’s contributions. This is due partly to the influence of Frantzen 1990, whose challenge to Anglo-Saxonists to use theory as a tool for remaining timely and engaged in a rapidly changing academy prompted a flood of theoretically oriented work. Liuzza 1994 and Lerer 1997 helped to bring much of this early work to light, inspiring even more in their wake. As Lees 2005 and Joy 2010 demonstrate, however, theory’s role in Old English studies remained an embattled question well into the 21st century, although Howe 2001 argues that theory is the best way forward for the field. While the initial debate centered on theory’s usefulness to Old English studies, more recent contributions focus on how scholars of Old English can intervene productively in theoretical discussions that often lack historicized insight.

  • Frantzen, Allen J. Desire for Origins: New Language, Old English, and Teaching the Tradition. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

    Metacritical engagement with the history of Anglo-Saxon studies as a discipline and its role in the university curriculum, past and present. Argues that the study of language origins is always politically motivated, acknowledging that this is crucial to maintaining the discipline’s relevance in the contemporary academy.

  • Howe, Nicholas. “The New Millennium.” In A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature. Edited by Phillip Pulsiano and Elaine Treharne, 496–505. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631209041.2001.00028.x

    Evaluates the position of Anglo-Saxon studies in the academy at the turn of the millennium. Argues that embracing theoretical methodologies will invigorate the discipline and strengthen its traditional scholarly tools.

  • Joy, Eileen A., ed. Special Issue: The State(s) of Early English Studies. The Heroic Age 14 (November 2010).

    Proceedings of a roundtable at the 2008 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, presented as a “shared essay cluster” of The Heroic Age and postmedieval 1.3 (Fall/Winter 2010). Panelists elaborate on the current role of theory in Old English studies as well as the field’s role in their own institutions and in the discipline at large.

  • Lees, Clare A. “Analytical Survey 7: Actually Existing Anglo-Saxon Studies.” New Medieval Literatures 7 (2005): 223–252.

    Identifies many strengths of the field in its flourishing publications, research, and teaching tools, but warns that this vitality appears to be independent of other fields. Urges consideration of recent critical trends such as world, body, and belief to reconnect with a wider audience.

  • Lerer, Seth. “Beowulf and Contemporary Critical Theory.” In A Beowulf Handbook. Edited by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, 325–339. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

    Bibliography and critical overview of trends in theoretical criticism of Beowulf to 1994.

  • Liuzza, Roy Michael. “The Return of the Repressed: Old and New Theories in Old English Literary Criticism.” In Old English Shorter Poems: Basic Readings. Edited by Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe, 103–147. New York: Garland, 1994.

    Detailed historical overview of critical approaches to Old English literature as groundwork for possible new directions in criticism. Engagement with critical theory realigns Old English studies with the English department, though not at the expense of historicism, codicology, source studies, and the like.

  • O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine, ed. Twenty Years of the Year’s Work in Old English Studies: A Session from the Program of the Old English Division at the 1988 Modern Language Association Convention. Old English Newsletter Subsidia 15. Binghamton: State University of New York Press, 1989.

    MLA conference panel featuring Joseph B. Trahern, Jr., Daniel G. Calder, Helen T. Bennett, and Allen J. Frantzen. Each speaker suggests reasons for the field’s resistance to theoretical tools, from its historical legacy (Calder) to its patriarchal disciplinary structures (Bennett) to its self-replicating institutional structures (Frantzen).

  • O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. “Keeping the Conversation Going: Critical Strategies and Old English Texts.” In Thirty Years More of the Year’s Work in Old English Studies: A Session from the Program of the Old English Division at the 1998 Modern Language Association Convention in San Francisco. Edited by Joseph B. Trahern Jr., 15–27. Old English Newsletter Subsidia 27. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University, 1999.

    General overview of the range and diversity of recent (as of 1998) engagements between critical theory and Old English literature. Emphasizes self-consciously critical work as identifying itself in contrast to previous models of scholarship in the field.

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