The Elder Edda is not a continuous narrative, but a collection of thirty-nine poems of varying lengths and genres, including short narratives or lays, traditional wisdom including what amounts to a manual of good behavior, and several dialogues in which the question and answers provide a glossary of poetic terms and myth. They form a history of the world from creation to apocalypse, and like the Shakespearean canon, high tragedy exists side by side with bumptious comedy. Thirty-four are preserved in the Konungsbók, or Codex Regius (King's book), copied in Iceland about A.D. 1270, now in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. The language of the poems as preserved in that manuscript suggests that they were composed between 800 and 1100 A.D. but were first written down between 1150 and 1250 A.D. The poems are the work of many poets and some draw on historical traditions reaching back to the fourth century. Nevertheless, however northern and pagan they may appear to be, they contain much that suggests an interaction with both Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian culture.
It is not known where in Iceland the Codex Regius was copied. The elegance of the scribe's writing and its similarity to those of at least two other Icelandic scribes of the period suggest its copyist was connected with a fairly large scriptorium with high standards. Despite early attempts to connect the Elder Edda as a collection with a legendary Icelandic scholar,...
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The author of The Song of Igor's Campaign is unknown. Scholars believe the epic was the work of one man, not the accumulated effort of many, but anything else said about the author is speculation. From the text it appears that the author was very familiar with military life, and it is possible that he took part in Igor's campaign. The anonymous author also knew about hunting, and had detailed knowledge of the flora and fauna of the prairies. He was learned in books and oral tradition and was well acquainted with the genealogies and histories of the Russian noble families. It is possible, then, that he may have been a court poet, or a close companion of a prince.
When The Song of Igor's Campaign was discovered in 1795, some suspected it might be a forgery. However, few question its authenticity today. Scholars point out that the Old Russian language in which the Song is written is used with great skill, and no one in the eighteenth century had the knowledge or the poetic genius to forge a work of such high quality. This is the same verdict that Alexander Pushkin, the foremost Russian poet, reached at the time the manuscript was discovered. He said there was not enough poetic ability in the entire eighteenth century to forge even a small part of The Song of Igor's Campaign.
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The author of Arden of Faversham is unknown. The play was first published in London in 1592, although it may have been both written and performed several years earlier. Various theories have been advanced over the years regarding its author’s identity. Minor Elizabethan dramatists, such as Robert Greene and George Peele, have been mentioned, but because of the high quality of the play, scholars have often investigated the possibility that it was written by one of the three most accomplished dramatists of the era: Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, or William Shakespeare.
Thomas Kyd (1558–1594) is known in the early 2000s for his play, The Spanish Tragedy. But few other plays can be confidently ascribed to him. The case for his authorship of Arden of Faversham once rested on a belief that Kyd wrote the play Soliman and Perseda and a pamphlet, The Murder of John Brewen. There are, it is alleged, parallels between the two works and Arden of Faversham. However, modern scholarship in general regards Kyd’s authorship of Soliman and Perseda as doubtful and has discredited the notion that Kyd wrote The Murder of John Brewen. There is no other evidence, either internal (the themes and language of the play) or external (contemporary documents), that would link Kyd to Arden of Faversham.
Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) was the author of six plays, including Tamburlaine the Great (1587), The...
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The Epic of Gilgamesh is not the product of a single author in the modern sense. It has come to us as the progressive creation of several ancient near-eastern cultures, specifically the cultures of the Euphrates River valley. Originally an oral composition recited by communal storytellers, perhaps priests, to a listening audience, portions of the Gilgamesh epic were repeated, probably for many generations, before being "written" by scribes in an archaic form of writing called "cuneiform." Scribes "wrote" the ancient oral stories into clay tablets with a sharply pointed, triangular stick, and the tablets telling the Gilgamesh story were kept in royal libraries. The most famous of these was the library of Ashurbanipal, king of Babylon during the seventh century B.C., but other portions of the Epic of Gilgamesh from different time periods have also been found. The individual stories of the Gilgamesh cycle were probably first written in cuneiform by ancient Sumerian scribes about 3,500 to 4,000 years ago. The story passed from the Sumerians through succeeding civilizations to the Babylonians, who added or otherwise adapted the Gilgamesh stories to their own culture until a socalled Standard Version of the story coalesced about 1500 B.C.
The Epic of Gilgamesh was lost for thousands of years until archaeologists began to discover the ancient tablets during the nineteenth century. Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that the English...
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There is no indication of who wrote Beowulf; scholars have suggested at least two possible candidates, but neither of these identifications has been generally accepted.
Many dates and places have been suggested for the composition of Beowulf. Most of the theories suffer from wishful thinking: scholars connect it to a favorite time and place. It is no use, however, to show where and when it might have been written. It must be shown that it could not have been written anywhere else at any other time in order for a theory to be conclusive. Early critics often stressed the antiquity of the poet's material and attempted to break the poem down into a number of older "lays'' (see Style section below). Northumbria during the lifetime of the scholar Bede has often been suggested because it was culturally advanced and Bede was the greatest Anglo-Saxon scholar. The kingdom of Mercia during the reign of Offa the Great (756-798) has been suggested, partially because the poet included 31 lines praising Offa's ancestor, also named Offa. Recently a late date has become popular. Kevin Kiernan believes that the existing manuscript may be the author's own copy. This would mean the poem was written very close to 1000 A.D. An early date for Beowulf (675-700) is now usually connected with East Anglia. It has been suggested that the East Anglian royal family considered themselves descended from Wiglaf, who comes to Beowulf's aid during the dragon fight.
The main argument for this early date, however, is based on archaeology. The poem's descriptions of magnificent burials reflect practices of the late sixth and seventh centuries, but this does not mean that the poem was written then. A person witnessing such a burial might describe it accurately fifty years later to a child, who might then repeat the description another fifty years later to the person who would then write it down a century after it happened. Some scholars assume that the poem, celebrating the ancestors of the Vikings, could not have been written after their raids on England began. Others suggest that a mixed Viking Anglo Saxon area or even the reign of the Danish Canute (King of England when the manuscript was written) would have been the most obvious time and place. It has also been suggested that the poem might have been written to gain the allegiance of Vikings settled in England to the family of Alfred, since they claimed Scyld as an ancestor. On the other hand, Alfred's family may have added Scyld to their family tree because he and his family were so famous through an already existing Beowulf.
Intense scholarly debate has raged over the question of the identity of the Cid's author. Critics are divided into two camps, the "traditionalists" and the "individualists." The former group, led by Ramón Menéndez Pidal, believes that the poem was composed as an oral composition soon after the historical Cid's death, and was written in a manuscript only later, thus negating the importance of the idea of a single author for the poem. The "individualists," on the other hand, (championed most recently by Colin Smith) insist that a single, brilliant author wrote the poem in 1207. Some critics point to Per Abbad, the name that appears at the end of the poem, as the author, although the text states that this personage "wrote" the text (escrivó), indicating that he was the copyist rather than the author. Opinion on the subject is so divided that individualists tend to call the work the "Poema" of the Cid, whereas traditionalists entitle it the "Cantar," or Song of the Cid, to emphasize its oral origins. The interpretation of the text varies widely according to the stance of a given critic with regards to the text's authorship and the author's intentions.
The person who wrote the 1207 version of the text was undoubtedly a talented author. The individualist school (especially the British Hispanists) insists that the author had extensive knowledge of the law and the Bible, and used written historical documents to bolster the more historically sound...
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Everyman is a morality play that first appeared in England early in the sixteenth century. The author is unknown, but it has been speculated by scholars that the play was written by a cleric or under the direction of the church. It is now thought to be based upon a Dutch play, Elckerlijk (‘‘Everyman’’), written in 1495 by Petrus Dorlandus, a Carthusian monk. Four copies of the sixteenth century editions of Everyman still survive, with all four published between 1510 and 1535. Although the author is unknown, the play's content, themes, and ideology reflect those of Catholic Europe. The play's emphasis on good deeds as a mechanism for salvation reflects medieval Catholic ideology.
The use of Christianity as a topic and a force behind theatre reflects a significant change from Christian opposition to early drama. Traditionally, the Catholic Church opposed the theatre because it frequently included nudity, fights with wild beasts, and because Roman sacrifice of Christians was often included as a part of pagan spectacle. An additional reason for church opposition was the use of falsehood. In drama, an actor pretends to be someone else. Although modern audiences accept this as "acting," it was interpreted by the early church to be lying. By the tenth century, drama would again become acceptable to clergy when it was reborn as liturgical drama.
The earliest liturgical dramas were included as a part of the church service and frequently took the form of a simple dialogue, often sung, between two clerics. Eventually this exchange began to include additional participants and by the thirteenth century, these dramas became a means to educate an illiterate congregation. More elaborate staging of plays began to be included in feast day celebrations, and they eventually moved from the church to the town square, which accommodated a larger audience. Eventually plays were sponsored by various guilds or trades, and they became known as miracle or mystery plays, derived from the Latin word, minister. By the end of the fifteenth century, these early mystery plays evolved into morality plays, of which Everyman is the best known.
Little is know about the anonymous author or authors of the Song of Roland. The oldest surviving manuscript, the Oxford Digby 23, is signed "Turoldus" and written in Anglo-Norman, a language predominant in England following the Norman invasion from France in 1066. Few people outside the clergy in medieval France and England were literate, so Turoldus may have been a monk. One school of thought argues that the tale shows signs of being composed orally, perhaps copied down by Turoldus and other scribes when the story was performed at a feast or celebration. The extent to which the text's first scribes might have added their own creative touches to the story is not known, but scribes are generally considered to be recorders of traditional tales, and not authors of original ones.
Another theory maintains that the legend, existing from the time of Charlemagne, was put into poetic form by a single individual in the late eleventh century. The debate over the authorship of the Song of Roland probably can never be resolved.
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The twelfth-century manuscript called The Book of Leinster preserves a note stating that at one time none of the poets of Ireland knew the full Táin Bó Cúailnge. Two pupils of the poet Senchán Torpéist set out to find a copy that had been taken out of Ireland to exchange for a copy of the Cuilmenn, the Irish name for the Etymologiae of Isidore of Seville, the greatest digest of learning of the early middle ages. On their way, they happened upon the grave of Fergus, one of the great heroes of the Ulster cycle of tales. His spirit came and recited the whole Táin Bó Cúailnge to them. The note's scribe, however, added an alternative version: some people said Senchán himself learned the whole story from some of the descendants of Fergus adding, "this seems reasonable."
The existence even in such a note is characteristic of the history and scholarship of Táin Bó Cúailnge. The Táin Bó Cúailnge survives in several versions. The Book of the Dun Cow, or Lebor na hUidre, copied in the twelfth century and the Yellow Book of Lecan, copied in the late fourteenth century preserve an older, shorter version, perhaps as old as the seventh or eighth century. This version is often described by scholars as 'mutilated' and 'interpolated' with alternative and sometimes contradictory versions of events. Other scholars suggest that these 'additions' are the author's own attempt to acknowledge variant material, and that this early version should be seen as a collection of materials relating to the great cattle raid of the Cooley peninsula. The Book of Leinster, copied in the twelfth century, preserves a fuller, more unified version. The compiler of this later version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge attempted to clear up inconsistencies and repetitions and produce a polished narrative. The elaborate style, however, suffers in comparison with the older version, despite its variants and additions.
There is no real consensus as to exactly when the original author of the Táin Bó Cúailnge wrote, or even if it is essentially the version that survives in The Book of the Dun Cow. Older scholars pushed the composition back as far as they might on linguistic grounds, but recently it has been strongly suggested that the Táin Bó Cúailnge was consciously composed to have the feel of an ancient work.
There are good modern editions with translations of both The Book of the Dun Cow and Book of Leinster by Cecile O'Rahilly. In 1969, the poet Thomas Kinsella produced a translation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge working from the earliest version with additions from the later versions. It is this version that is generally used by non-specialists.
Most scholars agree that the Mahabharata was not written by a single individual. Instead multiple authors compiled it over the course of several centuries. According to mythic tradition, however, the rishi (sage) Vyasa—who is also a character in the Mahabharata—wrote the work. In Sanskrit, the name Vyasa means "collector," "compiler," or "arranger." Thus, Vyasa represents the countless individuals who put together the various tales, stories, histories, legends, and treatises that are known collectively as the Mahabharata. A legendary figure occupying a prominent position in ancient Sanskrit literature, Vyasa is said to have composed the eighteen puranas, or "ancient tales," and to have written the four Vedas, the sacred texts of the Hindu religion. Also according to myth, he is supposed to have written more than 3 million stanzas of the epic poem, the majority of which were for the entertainment and enlightenment of the gods, while only one hundred thousand of the stanzas were to be repeated among human beings as the Mahabharata. The legend of Vyasa's creation of the poem is this: The great seer Vyasa wanted to write down the story of his people, the Bharata (an ancient Aryan tribe whose name has became synonymous with India). While meditating on how he would give the work to his disciples, the elephant-headed god of writers, Ganesha, appeared. The deity offered to write down Vyasa's story on the one condition that...
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The author of the Nibelungenlied is not known. The author is thought to have been male, possibly an Austrian from the Danube region, either a minstrel poet (a travelling poet or one associated with a court), a knight, or a clergyman associated with court life. Some critics express doubt that the author was a knight, primarily because the epic does not contain convincing or extensive details about military skill and technique, despite the numerous battle scenes. Critics believe that the "final'' version of the poem was written by only one author because of its consistency in tone, language, and action. It was conventional at the time not to sign literary works. In fact, many written works that survive from the Middle Ages (the years 500 through 1500, approximately) are anonymous.
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