Book Review: Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions (Leslie Lockett) — by Michael Cheong

Lockett, Leslie. Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions. Toronto; Buffalo; London: University of Toronto Press, 2011. 472 pp (cloth) $85.00. ISBN: 978-1442642171

Leslie Lockett’s Anglo-Saxon Psychologies in the Vernacular and Latin Traditions represents an ambitious attempt to revolutionise the existing understanding of Anglo-Saxon mind-body constructions by employing an array of material from various disciplines. Lockett’s thesis is that Augustinian beliefs about the incorporeal soul and the relationship between mind, body, and soul were not prevalent amongst Anglo-Saxons until the eleventh century. Malcolm Godden observed the influence of Augustinian psychology in the written works of Alcuin, Alfred, and Ælfric of Eynsham,[1] and postulated that their views were representative of Anglo-Saxon psychology at large. Lockett challenges Godden’s thesis, arguing that Augustinian cephalocentrism[2] was the preserve of the rarefied elite. Instead, most Anglo-Saxons espoused a cardiocentric psychology that located the mind within the chest cavity, usually close to the heart. To justify her claim, Lockett engages with a wide variety of material that includes Old English verse, Latin grammar textbooks and ecclesiastical writings to demonstrate the prevalence of this cardiocentrism. At first glance, this may appear to be an esoteric, perhaps even irrelevant, splitting of intellectual hairs, but Lockett shows how such differences can transform our understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture and their conceptions of mind, body, and soul.

Anglo-Saxon Psychologies is divided into ten chapters. The first five chapters establish the thematic foundations for Lockett’s argument, while the subsequent chapters present individual case studies that provide a historical basis for the intellectual development of Anglo-Saxon psychology from the late eighth century to the eleventh century. Lockett begins by laying out her evidence for cardiocentrism in Anglo-Saxon psychology. She rejects the general consensus that the term breostsefa, or ‘mind-in-the-breast’, was a metaphorical construction when it was used in Old English literature, arguing instead that it was intended as a literal expression of Anglo-Saxon psychology. Lockett validates her argument through a detailed analysis of Old English verse and prose that describe the breostsefa. Her findings lead her to suggest that Anglo-Saxon psychology was grounded in ‘the hydraulic model of the mind’ (p.5), the belief that certain intense mental states such as anger, grief, and love could cause the physical swelling, seething, boiling and constriction of the chest. In Anglo-Saxon psychology, these physiological symptoms were not merely the physical manifestation of an emotional state. Rather, they were the direct result of the physical activity of the corporeal mind within the chest cavity.

Lockett contrasts this close, physical relationship between mind and body in the hydraulic model of the mind with the apparent powerlessness of the soul in Old English literature. She argues that the soul is ‘an entity that is incapable of autonomous action or of efficacious thought while residing in the body’ (p.33). The intimacy of mind and body in the hydraulic model of the mind leads Lockett to believe that the soul-body relationship was not as influential in Anglo-Saxon thought as Godden and Allen Frantzen have assumed.[3] She highlights numerous examples in vernacular verse and narrative where the soul was almost entirely excluded from the psychological activity of the mind, especially in the poem Soul and Body. Although the eventual destination of the soul in the afterlife is ultimately decided by the conduct of the mind-body partnership, the soul itself is portrayed as having little agency or influence on the actual behaviour of an individual.

The relationship between mind, body, and soul that Lockett outlines differs greatly from the orthodox Augustinian position found in his writings. Augustine was influenced by Platonic philosophy, and posited that the mind was incorporeal and intimately connected to the eternal soul. To explain this divergence through works known to Anglo-Saxon readers, Lockett compiles quantitative lists of direct references to major patristic and theological texts in Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical literature, such as Augustine’s Soliloquia and Gregory’s Dialogi. Her lists draw on the existing research of J.D.A. Ogilvy and Michael Lapidge, but also include her own analysis of the original manuscripts.[4] The methodological precision of this quantitative segment of her argument ensures that important details such as the number of extant manuscripts for each Anglo-Saxon work as well as their distribution and dating are clearly stated. Her formidable bibliographical research reveals that the main point of reference for Anglo-Saxon psychology was neither Augustine or Plato, but the ‘eclecticism’ of Gregory I and Isidore of Seville. The psychological framework contained within Gregory’s Dialogi and Isidore’s encyclopaedic works allowed Augustinian ideas of the incorporeal soul to loosely coexist with the cardiocentric beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons, particularly the breostsefa and separation of soul and mind.

After laying the intellectual framework of Anglo-Saxon psychology, Lockett demonstrates the tenacity of the hydraulic model of the mind as a belief system in the face of competing psychologies. She does this through a series of case studies that include the Anglo-Latin grammatical texts and riddles, as well as a selection of written works by Alcuin, Alfred and Ælfric. Although this is not explicitly stated, Lockett’s use of the same three Anglo-Saxon luminaries whose writings formed the basis of Godden’s research subtly subverts his argument by demonstrating how the Augustinian elements in each of their writings could nonetheless coexist with cardiocentric psychology.

In her study of Alcuin and his pupil, Candidus Wizo, in the Carolingian court, Lockett demonstrates how Alcuin’s Platonic beliefs in De ratione animae were atypical for his time. The traces of non-Platonic thought in Candidus’ Epistola ‘Num Christus’ and the continuing debates among Carolingian scholars over the corporeality of the soul long after Alcuin’s death indicate an imperfect assimilation of Augustinian theology on the Continent. Her next case study applies this same argument within a specifically Anglo-Saxon context by analysing the ninth-century Alfredian translation of Augustine’s Soliloquia. Malcolm Godden and Milton Gatch have previously expressed their bewilderment at Alfred’s decision to translate Soliloquia.[5] Lockett’s convincing explanation is that the king’s otherwise ‘inexplicable’ decision was born out of his desire to better understand Platonic ideas of incorporeality, which he would have encountered for the first time while translating Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae (p.326). She cites the differences between the original and the Old English translation as evidence of a deliberate attempt by the translator to accommodate Anglo-Saxon cardiocentric psychology within a neo-Augustinian model. Her final case study contrasts Ælfric’s homilies with other contemporary homilies and literature to argue that the forceful Augustinian exegesis in his homilies was actually a reaction to the cardiocentric psychology that persisted among his listeners. She suggests that Ælfric’s homilies mark the earliest efforts to transmit Augustinian ideas beyond the ecclesiastical elite to a wider audience. Through her case studies, Lockett is able to ground the abstract theories of Anglo-Saxon psychology that are found in the first half of the book within a historical context, while justifying her opposition to Godden’s thesis that Augustinian psychology was widely disseminated in Anglo-Saxon society.

Anglo-Saxon Psychologies concludes with a brief epilogue that Lockett uses to explore possible reasons for the eventual decline of cardiocentric psychology and the corresponding rise of Augustinian ideas in the eleventh century. While these theories are speculative, her intention here is to signpost possible avenues for further research beyond her stated time period. Thus, the epilogue is best understood as a postscript to the primary objective of Lockett’s lengthy exposition, which is to repudiate two preconceptions that inhibit our understanding of the Anglo-Saxon mind: the cephalocentric ‘modernist bias’ that prevents scholars from appreciating the breostsefa as a literal expression, and the ‘medievalist bias’ that assumes the pre-eminence of Augustinian theories in Anglo-Saxon England based upon the writings of elite ecclesiastical writers. Lockett calls upon scholars to consciously abandon the imposition of these assumptions onto the past, and then puts her words into practice through the execution of a detailed and well-structured analysis of Anglo-Saxon psychology. The intertwining of theory and practice throughout her inquiry bears many similarities to David D’Avray’s twin volumes on Rationalities in History and Medieval Religious Rationalities.[6]

Lockett makes a convincing case in Anglo-Saxon Psychologies for researchers to be on their guard against both biases by combining her mastery of textual material in Latin and vernacular with an elegantly written exposition. There are sections in her monograph where Lockett deviates from her main argument about Anglo-Saxon psychology to further her case against these methodological prejudices. She devotes the entire third chapter to a comparative study of other societies that espoused a cardiocentric psychology similar to that of the Anglo-Saxons. Her recourse to the anthropological theories of ‘embodied realism’ and ‘eminent metaphoricity’ devised by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson[7] is reasonably persuasive, as is her impressive sweep of evidence from diverse cultures. However, the chapter adds little to her overall argument and is a somewhat unnecessary diversion midway through her book.

On the whole, however, Anglo-Saxon Psychologies is a tremendous work of erudition that deserves greater attention than it has attracted so far. Lockett’s study will no doubt appeal to students of Old English literature and historians of the mind and imagination, but her research into the Anglo-Saxon conceptions of mind and body could provide a fresh perspective on our understanding of Anglo-Saxon charms, magic and medicine. Since her thesis rests almost entirely upon the basis of textual sources, there is also potential for art historians to explore the applicability of her theories in Anglo-Saxon images of the body. Because of her helpful provision of English translations for every Old English and Latin quotation, even the most monolingual reader will be able to access and make use of Lockett’s exposition for further research. Lockett has employed an incredible breadth of primary sources across different languages, genres, and periods to craft a pithy, cogent argument that promises to stir scholarly debate for years to come.

Michael Cheong

Michael Cheong received his undergraduate degree from the University of York and is undertaking a Masters in History at University College London (UCL). He specialises in the Anglo-Saxon period and is currently researching on the boundaries of demonic influence in Anglo-Saxon England. Michael Cheong also runs a history blog, The Eastern Anglo-Saxonist, focusing on the Anglo-Saxon period. 

[1] Malcolm Godden, “Anglo-Saxons on the Mind,” in Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England: Studies Presented to Peter Clemoes on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, eds. Michael Lapidge and Helmut Gneuss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 271-85.

[2] That is, the belief that the mind is physically located in the head.

[3] Godden, “Anglo-Saxons on the Mind,” pp.287-9; Allen Frantzen, “The Body in Soul and Body I,” The Chaucer Review 17 (1982): pp. 81, 85.

[4] Michael Lapidge, The Anglo-Saxon Library (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006); J.D.A. Ogilvy, Books Known to the English, 597-1066 (Cambridge, MA: The Mediaeval Academy of America).

[5] Milton Gatch, “King Alfred’s Version of Augustine’s Soliloquia: Some Suggestions on Its Rationale and Unity,” in Studies in Earlier Old English Prose, ed. Paul E. Szarmach (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986), p. 20; Malcolm Godden, “Text and Eschatology in Book III of the Old English Soliloquies,” Anglia 121 (2003): pp. 189.

[6] D.L. D’Avray, Rationalities in History: A Weberian Essay in Comparison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); D.L. D’Avray, Medieval Religious Rationalities: A Weberian Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[7] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

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