Light of the Everlasting Life: Disability, Xenophobia, and Anglo-Saxon Apocalypticism
Leah Pope Parker
MadLit 2018 Plenary
In the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, Anglo-Saxon England faced repeated attacks by Viking armies, resulting in the deaths of kings, the despoliation of religious houses, and widespread assaults upon the developing English nation and its people. Many Anglo-Saxon Christians interpreted their chaotic circumstances as signs of the imminent apocalypse in the decades surrounding the year 1000. This talk traces Anglo-Saxon anticipation of the apocalypse in Old English homilies, preaching texts composed for both oral and written dissemination, which made complex theological doctrines available to the larger Anglo-Saxon populace through parables of easily recognizable lived experiences of religious practice and the physical body. For example, Ælfric of Eynsham’s homily on the Healing at the Pool of Bethesda parses various forms of disability as anti-Semitic metaphors for the spiritual “impairments” of Jews, while Wulfstan of York’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos utilizes the physical vagaries of Viking attacks—plague, famine, sexual assault—to narrate the imminence of the apocalypse. The rhetorical use of disability in these homilies structures a xenophobic system of Otherness that is external to the cultural Self, in opposition to that which is tolerable or even acceptable within the cultural Self. Through the representation of outsiders—both those external to the Anglo-Saxon Christian community, such as Jews and Vikings, and those within the community, such as people with disabilities and survivors of sexual assault—these homilies construct promises of resurrection and salvation as part of the coming Christian apocalypse. These medieval means of using marginalized groups to imagine the “light of the everlasting life,” as one homilist described salvation, in turn shed new light on the imbrication of nationalism and apocalyptic anticipation, as well as the mythology of white Anglo-Saxon ethnic homogeneity in the present day.
Leah Pope Parker is a PhD candidate in English at UW-Madison, completing a dissertation titled “Body Eschatology: Disability, Death, and the Afterlife in Early Medieval England.” Her work is forthcoming in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology and a volume on Disability, Monstrosity, and the Posthuman in the Medieval and Early Modern World (Palgrave Macmillan). In addition to embodiment and eschatology, her research interests include neurodiversity, homiletics, and manuscript studies.