An Old English Formulaic System and Its Contexts in Cynewulf's Poetry

Charles D Wright

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A group of half-lines in Cynewulf’s poetry that take the form þurh + demonstrative pronoun + adjective + gesceap/gesceaft constitutes a distinctively Cynewulfi an realization of a more widespread formulaic system (x X gesceaft). Only Cynewulf substitutes (in two closely similar contexts) gesceap for gesceaft, and Cynewulf consistently uses both words to refer to a specifi c ‘created thing’ instead of to ‘creation’. Within the system as a whole, the specifi c referent of gesceaft in the sense ‘creation’ (heaven, or earth, or all of creation) is often clarifi ed by deixis, specifi cally in the type of demonstrative pronoun that modifi es the word. Cynewulf’s choice of the distal pronoun þæt likewise indicates that the apparently ambiguous referents of gesceap/gesceaft in Juliana 273b and 728a and Elene 789a are heavenly or unearthly things, and analysis of context as well as Christian Latin analogues supports a specifi c identifi cation of the referent in each case. While availing himself of an existing formulaic system, then, Cynewulf was innovative in its metrical realization as well as in its semantic application.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)151-174
Number of pages24
JournalAnglo-Saxon England
StatePublished - Dec 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • General Arts and Humanities
  • History


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