Maxims in Old English poetry
The focus of the thesis is on maxims and gnomes in Old English poetry, but the occasional occurrence of these forms of expression in Old English prose and in other Old Germanic literature is also given attention, particularly in the earlier chapters. Chapters 1 to 3 are general, investigating a wide range of material to see how and why maxims were used, then to define the forms, and distinguish them from proverbs. The conclusions of these chapters are that maxims are ‘nomic’, they organise experience in a conventional, authoritative fashion. They are also ‘proverbial’ in the sense of being recognisable and repeatable, but they do not have the fixed form of proverbs. Chapters 4 to 7 are more specific in their focus, applying techniques from formulaic theory, paroemiology and the sociology of knowledge to the material so as to better understand how maxims are used in their contexts in the poems, and to appreciate the nature and function of the Maxims collections. The conclusions reached here are that the maxims in Beowulf 183b-88 are integral to the poem, that maxims in The Battle of Maldon show how the poet manipulated the social functions of the form for his own purposes, that there is virtually no paganism in Old English maxims, and that the Maxims poems outline and illustrate an Anglo-Saxon world view. The main contribution of the thesis is that it goes beyond traditional commentary in analysing the purpose and function of maxims. It does not merely focus on individual poems, but attempts to deal with a limited aspect of the Old English oral and literary tradition. The primary aim is to understand the general procedures of the poets in using maxims and compiling compendia of them, and then to apply insights gained from theoretical approaches to the specifics of poems.