The Massachusetts Medievalist returns to the Old English Exodus (and the startling African woman at its end)

The Massachusetts Medievalist took advantage this week of some bonus time to return to the semi-stalled project on the African woman of the Old English Exodus (all my students are reading and writing but as of this moment I have no student work to read). I blogged about her last spring during my initial burst of activity on this project, and I now face a deadline, since I’m giving a paper about her at Kalamazoo in May.

I’m still wrestling with the end of the poem, where the afrisc meowle (“African woman”) appears during the Israelites’s celebration after their crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army in the same waters. She is “easily-found, on the ocean’s shore, gold-adorned” (þa wæs eðfynde Afrisc meowle, / on geofones staðe golde geweorðod , ll.580-581). In April, I stated that I thought she was the “only woman of color in the Old English poetic corpus.” Today, I’m sure that she’s the only African woman in the entire Old English corpus, both poetry and prose. I’m still not quite sure exactly why that’s important, but I know it is.

Sometime in the last few months, I stumbled upon the following wisdom from one of our Nobel laureates:

“Imaginary Africa was a cornucopia of imponderables that, like the monstrous Grendel in Beowulf, resisted explanation” Toni Morrison, Origin of Others (104).

Morrison’s latest essay collection, The Source of Self-Regard, also includes a version of this sentence (as well as, separately, a full essay about Grendel and his mother). I’m interested here in her point that “Imaginary Africa….resisted explanation” — voicing for me the way the afrisc meowle has resisted the patristic explanations imposed upon her by critics in the last 50 years, as I discussed in April. I’ve also discovered that a number of early editors wanted to eliminate her entirely, emending the very clear text in the manuscript to remove her disturbing presence that “resists explanation” by changing afrisc to [h]ebrisc or meowle to neowle (or both).

Thanks to limited but free access for individuals to the Dictionary of Old English at the University of Toronto, I was able to find myriad references to journeys in Africa londe, a reference to a probably fictional author named Africanus, and a mention of a general’s victory ofer þa Africanas in Carthage, but no other women, no other individuals, described as African. So the afrisc meowle is multiply-unusual: she appears in a poem, she is female, she is individually distinct. She is also gold-adorned, a not-unusual descriptor for high-status women in Old English poetry (think of Wealhtheow in Beowulf, passing the cup in the hall).

The two lines describing her do little more than break up the otherwise seamless narrative of the Israelites’ celebration on the shore of the Red Sea. Before the description of her, they sing victory songs; after it, they divide the treasure that has washed up after the destruction of the Egyptians.  There’s no narrative reason in the poem for her appearance, and there’s no Biblical reason either — the narrative from the Hebrew Bible moves from the songs of celebration to the departure from the shore, with no distribution of treasure and no haunting, disruptive reference to a gold-adorned African woman.

So more research has led simply to more questions: I stand by my earlier rejection of patristic “explanations” for her presence and need to think more — and more quickly!– about her increasingly unsettling, Othered presence at the end of the OE Exodus. I’m sure she will resist any explanation of her that I propose as well.