Old English Literature and Critical Theory

Renee Trilling

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


From the outset of the theoretical turn in the 1980s and 1990s, Old English studies appeared to be inimical to the adoption of the newer critical practices introduced to the rest of the humanities. Rooted firmly in the traditional methodologies of philology and historicism, scholars of Old English literature resisted the indeterminacy and uncertainty championed by critical theory in the wake of the post-structuralist revolution. They were prudently skeptical of applying models of subjectivity, sexuality, and identity developed in modern contexts to the cultural products of an era whose belief systems and modes of thought differ dramatically from those of the present day. As a result, it took some time for Anglo-Saxonists to fully embrace the new critical tools that have by now become part of established practice in literary studies. Today, however, it is rare to find work on Old English literature that does not draw in some way on the theoretically informed questions and conversations that animate contemporary humanistic inquiry. Post-structuralism and feminism have been especially productive theoretical models for the study of Old English, but every form of critical theory that has had an impact on the humanities in the last thirty years has likewise impacted Old English studies. In many cases, it is difficult to differentiate among varying theoretical categories; scholarly work frequently combines models, such as feminism and psychoanalysis, or deconstruction and historicism, to tease out the nuanced implications of a text. The interdisciplinary nature of Old English studies introduces further complications, as scholars frequently reference history, theology, art history, archaeology, and other disciplines in the course of a literary study. As a result, the selections and categories in this article may appear somewhat arbitrary, but its focus is on the most influential scholarship on Old English literature that takes a self-consciously theoretical approach. While many of these approaches announce themselves clearly as belonging to a particular school or movement, others employ hybrid or multifaceted methodologies that bridge multiple categories.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationOxford Bibliographies in Medieval Studies
EditorsPaul E Szarmach
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherOxford University Press
StatePublished - 2016


Dive into the research topics of 'Old English Literature and Critical Theory'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this