Review by Rosalind Love
The engagingly lyrical writing of Eleanor Parker has gained many admirers through her website ‘A Clerk of Oxford’, which gently introduced readers to the rich literature, folklore, and religion of early medieval England. Her latest book wonderfully distils all that was best and most moving about those blog posts, taking us with deft clarity through the four seasons, accorded three chapters apiece, which explain how each part of the year was viewed or celebrated, highlighting continuities and discontinuities with today. Within this calendrical framework, Parker sets an extraordinary array of excerpts from Old English and Latin poems, homilies, saints’ lives, and other texts, discussed often in illuminating detail but always sympathetically and accessibly, never patronisingly. That accessibility extends to Parker’s prose, a remarkable blend of conversational and quietly authoritative. All the texts are presented in translation, but that doesn’t mean the reader is cut off from the sinewy glories of Old English, which is quoted frequently so that we catch a little of that distant era’s soundscape.
A deeply intelligent literary scholar and linguist, Parker is also a first-rate historian, carefully setting her material, where relevant, in context: here too she judges superbly the balance between over-explaining and leaving the reader behind. This means that Winters in the World will have a very wide appeal: to anyone who wishes to tune into the thought-world of the Anglo-Saxon period, whether as background reading or sermon- or lesson-material, or simply for the slow-burning joy of turning over the treasure Parker uncovers, much of it otherwise hidden from all but expert eyes. It’s worth noting that, as a conscientious public historian, Parker doesn’t shrink from firmly dispelling some misconceptions: her polite but trenchant paragraphs on the origins of the word ‘Easter’, and the likelihood of its connection with a pan-Germanic goddess and ancient rituals to do with bunnies or eggs, are a good example. Although the book is only lightly referenced, Parker’s scholarly approach means that she has provided an excellent bibliography for anyone wanting to burrow more deeply.
Winters in the World alludes to an Old English way of referring to someone’s lifespan, and winter is where Parker begins, perhaps because the ecclesiastical calendar starts with Advent, and also maybe because, as Parker says, ‘Anglo-Saxon poetry is full of winters’. But first comes a lucid introduction establishing some basics like the names of the months and seasons in Old English, and how the early medieval calendar worked. Our path into winter is characteristically well-chosen, namely the much-loved tale told by the Venerable Bede: that a counsellor of Edwin, King of the Northumbrians, amid discussion about whether the realm should adopt Christianity, likened the span of human life on earth to a sparrow’s flight into a bright hearth-warmed hall and out again, ‘from winter into winter’. Here Parker shows her skill as a storyteller, but much more too, as she matter-of-factly considers what this touching metaphor says about attitudes towards the seasons and also towards faith and the meaning of life. After that we listen to Old English poets on the terrors of wintry weather, but then the glimmers of hope as God unbinds ‘frost’s fetters’, leading on to an exploration of midwinter traditions familiar and unfamiliar, ending with the beautifully narrated story of the foreshadowing of St Dunstan’s birth when his pregnant mother’s candle miraculously relights at a Candlemas service.
And so we roll on through each season, enlightened by tiny details, alternately grieving, rejoicing, marvelling. In that sense, this book goes well beyond an introduction to literature or the mind-set of the people of the past: subtly, kindly, Parker also encourages the reader to consider their own feelings about the seasons’ cycle, about nature and ‘the passing of our own brief days’. As we turn from being wintercearig (‘winter sorrowful’) to basking in the ‘months of gentleness’, June and July (referred to in Old English as Liða, interpreted as ‘gentle’ or ‘navigable’), there is something extraordinarily therapeutic about travelling through the year in the company of Parker’s courteous wisdom, perfect for anyone who needs some reading to get through uhtcearu (that most unforgettable Old English word for ‘sorrow before dawn’).
Winters in the world: a journey through
Reaktion Books, £14.99