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Asceticism in Old English and Syriac Soul and Body Narratives





A great deal of scholarship on Old English soul-body poetry centers on whether or not the presence of dualist elements in the poems are unorthodox in their implication that the body, as a material object, is not only wicked but seems to possess more agency in the world than the soul. I argue that the Old English soul-body poetry is not heterodox or dualist, but is best understood, as Allen J. Frantzen suggests, within the “context of penitential practice.” The seemingly unorthodox elements are resolved when read against the backdrop of pre-Conquest English monastic reform culture, which was very much concerned with penance, asceticism, death, and judgment. Focusing especially on two anonymous 10th-century Old English poems, Soul and Body I in the Vercelli Book and Soul and Body II in the Exeter Book, I argue that that both body and soul bear equal responsibility in achieving salvation and that the work of salvation must be performed before death, a position that was reinforced in early English monastic literature that was inspired, at least in part, by Eastern ascetics such as fourth-century Syrian hymnologist and theologian, St. Ephraim.

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