The Politics of Solomon and Saturn II

The Poems and Their Performance

The poem known as Solomon and Saturn II is long and rather messy with substantial sections missing from the ms. In tone and metrical irregularity it resembles Maxims I from the Exeter Book, which is also a wisdom piece. As I have suggested in another post, Maxims I may be, like Solomon and Saturn II, a piece for two speakers. I imagine it being read aloud at a special occasion to demonstrate the learning of its authors. This is consistent with Ursula Schaefer’s invaluable Vokalität concept [Schaefer, Ursula. Vokalität: Altenglische Dichtung zwischen Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit (ScriptOralia 39). Tübingen: Gunter Narr 1992]. There is evidence that a related set of satyrical poems, known as Solomon and Marculf, were read aloud on the continent at a reasonably early date.  An entertainment at the northern French court of Guînes in 1194 included tales of a “Merchulfo” that Sabine Griese identifies with Marcolf. (Griese, Salomon und Markolf cited in Section 4 & footnote 19

The framing conceit for Solomon and Saturn II is a wisdom competition between King Solomon (Saloman) and a Chaldean prince by the name of Saturnus. In a different and effective twist on the normal Anglo-Saxon clerical media strategy of using Germanic poetry structures to preach christian doctrine, the legendary characters and backstory of this poem are drawn from the Old Testament. Although some excellent scholarship was required to track down most of the individual places and people in the poem, (i.a. Menner, O’Keeffe) the basic constellation and oppositions are already clearly comprehensible from the Bible. Solomon is the legendary wise King of Israel and Saturn is a pagan prince of the Chaldeans/Babylonians who were the principal adversaries of the Israelites.

The manuscript also contains another poem, Solomon and Saturn I and two prose passages, the Prose Solomon and Saturn and the Pater Noster Solomon and Saturn, all spoken by the same characters. A short metrical passage appears between one of the prose passages and the start of Solomon and Saturn II, but it actually seems to be an ending to that poem.

The Role and Character of Saturnus

In the prose works, Saturnus does little more than ask set-up questions for Saloman, rather like Question Time in Westminster Parliaments. In the poem Solomon and Saturn I, his character is filled out more – he is presented as a traveller and seeker after spiritual knowledge. But his dramatic role is still simply that of respectful questioner. His love of books is charmingly expressed in Solomon and Saturn I

….       Mec ðæs on worolde full oft
fyrwit frineð,         fus gewiteð,
mod gemengeð.         Nænig manna wat,
hæleða under hefenum,         hu min hige dreogeð,
bysig æfter bocum;         hwilum me bryne stigeð,
hige heortan neah         hædre wealleð.

In Solomon and Saturn II we learn more of his background, character and travels and his statements and questions are marked by gravitas and intelligence. As Daniel Anlezark says, the tone of the debate is “learned and friendly” (note to S&SII l. 352) Nevertheless Saloman seems reluctant to engage in a battle of wits with Saturn and has issues with the Chaldeans. After a missing page where Saturnus’ challenge to a wisdom contest is presumably issued, Saloman accepts the challenge to avoid the risk that Saturnus will claim to have beaten him if he refuses:

…..            oððe ic swigie,
nyttes hycgge,         ðeah ic no sprece.
Wat ic ðonne, gif ðu gewitest         on Wendelsæ
ofer Coforflod         cyððe secean,
ðæt ðu wille gilpan         ðæt ðu hæbbe gumena bearn
forcumen and forcyððed.  

He gets in a swipe at the attempt by the Chaldeans to build the Tower of Babel:

                          Wat ic ðæt wæron Caldeas
guðe ðæs gielpne         and ðæs goldwlonce,
mærða ðæs modige,         ðær to ðam moning gelomp
suð ymbe Sanere feld.

And again

Wa bið ðonne ðissum modgum monnum,         ðam ðe her nu mid mane lengest
lifiað on ðisse lænan gesceafte.         Ieo ðæt ðine leode gecyðdon;
wunnon hie wið dryhtnes miehtum,         forðon hie ðæt worc ne gedegdon.
Ne sceall ic ðe hwæðre, broðor, abelgan;         ðu eart swiðe bittres cynnes,
eorre eormenstrynde.         Ne beyrn ðu in ða inwitgecyndo!

The first rebuke doesn’t amount to much and would be considered complementary in epic poetry, for the sin reproved is that of pride. The second, while clearly a reproach, is softened with ne sceall ic ðe hwæðre, broðor, abelgan. Both fall within the traditional parameters of flyting. Rather than the picture of “representative of eastern error” painted by some recent commentators, it resembles the carefully worded verbal sallies of the post-detente Cold War. For the Chaldeans are the same people as the Babylonians, the enemies par excellence of the Israelites. They will later take the Israelites into captivity and be threatened with divine retribution in the form of total destruction in Jeremiah books 50 and 51.

While they are not mentioned in any of the texts, the figures of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew seem likely to be a model for the figure of Saturnus. Just as these wise men of the East are portrayed positively in the Gospel, so is Saturnus portrayed as knowledgeable and a genuine seeker after spiritual knowledge. The name Magi originally referred to a Zoroastrian (Persian) priestly caste, but the legendary Magi of the Gospel were said to be from different kingdoms and one of them, Balthasar, was a Babylonian.

As such Saloman stands for the positives of pre-christian civilisation. Treatment of pre-christian virtue this must have been a thorny subject for the formerly pagan Anglo-Saxons. So much is clear from conversion accounts in Bede, where pagans are presented as eager to adopt the new and superior christian religion and the emphasis on the harrowing of hell, where Christ saves virtuous prechristians, in accounts of the resurrection. More broadly, the respect for ancient pagan science in the form of natural history, geography, medicine and astronomy is a constant feature of medieval christian learning, even before the revival of interest in Aristotle.

It is instructive that the most “heroic” section of the poem, the ‘weallende wulf’ story, is spoken by Saturnus. Saloman’s rather dismissive reply can be seen as a reflection of the Church’s ambivalent attitude to such still popular material.

The Philosophy of Saturnus

Unlike the stooge character in the prose dialogues, Saturnus in Solomon and Saturn II has some good lines and asks some pretty good questions. He describes a mighty warrior and his doomed battle against a invasion of dragons from hell. He asks Solomon for the truth about something which has been tormenting him for years – the monster ‘vasa mortis’, which is destined to destroy his race. He asks a couple of standard riddles which Solomon correctly answers (old age and books). His best questions seem thematically related to classical physics and are about weather, fortune and fate. He recites a gnomic formula linking them:

Nieht bið wedera ðiestrost,         ned bið wyrda heardost,
sorg bið swarost byrðen,         slæp bið deaðe gelicost

In fact they are such good questions that Saloman’s answers, while often excellent, sometimes avoid the issue (more later) or fall flat. Here is a list of his best questions:

  • Why must we have winter? ll. 319-325 The answer is missing, perhaps an analogy of the resurrection.
  • What causes a doomed man to die? ll. 353-355 A lead-in for the excellent answer – gewurdene wyrda, ðæt beoð ða feowere fæges rapas – ‘destinies come to pass’.
  • Why doesn’t the sun shine in deep valleys and moors? ll. 365-369 Saloman makes this an analogy for unequal fortune. His answer, referring to poor clerics and the rewards in heaven, is evasive. See discussion below.
  • Why does sorrow disturb our happiness? ll. 375-378 Saloman’s answer that a person who complains constantly is useless and sins against God is presumably an evocation of the virtue of patience.
  • Why do evil people have long lives? ll. 390-393 Answer – they will be damned in the end and that is all that matters.
  • Why do children of the same mother turn out so different? ll. 397-405 The answer to this surprisingly modern-sounding nature or nurture question – a mother has no control over how her children turn out – points to innate character.
  • Why don’t young people pursue virtue? ll. 423-426 The answer seems irrelevant, but is actually quite good. It is easy for a lucky person to choose a gentle lord, a wretch has no such choice. This again refers to innate character.
  • Why is water never still? ll. 432-437 Answer missing. The question seems to introduce a discussion on elements in the missing page. Solomon’s next remarks relate to light and fire.
  • Which is stronger, fate or foresight? ll. 464-475 Good question and a good answer. Fate is hard to turn, but may be governed with wisdom and good advice.
  • Why does fate cause so many problems in the world? ll. 484-491 The classic question of the origin of evil. Answer – the devil is behind it.
  • Why do we have to live out our full life span before facing judgement? ll. 519-524 Answer – angels and devils must contend for our soul.

The unifying theme running through these questions is determinism v free will, issues which come up in both Augustine and Boethius and which, in the form of wyrd, fascinated the Anglo-Saxons. The unanswered questions regarding winter and water reveal an interest in physics, some schools of which were deterministic.

Hidden Meanings and Evasions

The following sequence contains a series of cryptic and seemingly unanswered questions. Starting from line 359:

Saturnus cwæð:        
“Ac hwa demeð ðonne         dryhtne Criste
on domes dæge,         ðonne he demeð eallum gesceaftum?”
Salomon cwæð:        
“Hwa dear ðonne dryhtne deman,         ðe us of duste geworhte,
nergend of niehtes wunde?         Ac sæge me hwæt nærende wæron.”
Saturnus cwæð:
“Ac forhwon ne mot seo sunne         side gesceafte
scire geondscinan?         Forhwam besceadeð heo
muntas and moras         and monige ec
weste stowa?         Hu geweorðeð ðæt?”

The answer to the fairly banale question: who will judge Christ? is: who would dare judge the one who created him? The meaning of the second line ‘saviour (who made us) from the wound of night’ is rather opaque. Kemble thought it made no sense and amended wunde to sunde, ‘ocean’, but an error of ‘w’ for ‘s’ is unlikely. Menner suggested wambe, ‘womb’, which is subject to similar objections. It is indeed so difficult to find a satisfactory alternative to the ms. reading of wunde that it may well be original.

The second half of the line ends with a riddling question – Ac sæge me hwæt nærende wæron? – which doesn’t receive an answer, or so it seems.

There is some doubt as to the meaning of the question. B-T doesn’t know what nærende means, while Clarke Hall follows Grein’s translation of ‘not being’, which would normally be næsende. Menner emends to næren ðe (for næron ðe), to obtain substantially the same meaning as Clarke Hall with a more plausible emendation. If Menner is right, then this would be a very Eleatic riddle indeed: tell me what were not, which were.

O’Keeffe follows an idea of Menner while rejecting his ‘interpretative frame’ of a riddle. She surmises that the answer could be the tenebrae, shadows, from the creation story in Genesis, which ‘were’ over the face of the water. She refers to the work of Fridugisus of Tours, De nihilo et tenebris (translation here), for a contemporary argument as to the existence of shadows. This context would explain the plural, the past tense and also the mysterious earlier niehtes wunde, sustained when it was separated from light. Saturnus’ next utterance, which is a question, brilliantly conceals the answer to the previous question, because the subject of his question is – shadows! But not only that, it is itself something which is and is not – it both is and is not an answer. But while O’Keeffe is almost certainly right about the answer and its source she is wrong to completely reject Menner’s interpretive frame. This is indeed a riddle and a most delicious and complex one at that.

It is also significant that here we have two seemingly unanswered questions in a row – Saloman’s question about non-beings and Saturnus’s question about places the sun doesn’t reach. Unless we are dealing with more copying errors, it looks like there is some deliberate avoidance going on here. Perhaps the arguments about day and night, light and shade, were regarded as controversial material which could only be alluded to in a manuscript for public performance, but which would be understood by initiates. In fact, given the theologically vexed nature of the question of predestination v. free will (in e.g. Augustine), perhaps it is understandable why Saloman’s replies are sometimes evasive. If this is Question Time, the answers are bound to sometimes resemble the empty mouthings of a Minister!

Postscript on Post-Structuralism

I have been reading Catherine O’Brien O’Keeffe’s article ‘Source, Method, Theory, Practice: On Reading Two Old English Verse Texts’ (available here – warning, not for the faint-hearted!). This piece is a very effective defence of ‘source studies’ in Old English from attacks by Derridean deconstructionists, using their own post-modernist constructs, so the argument is necessarily turgid. But there is no doubt as to the brilliance of O’Keeffe’s scholarship and I must confess that, as a sometime computer programmer, I find her recursive data structure of arcane metanarratives to be a thing of beauty!


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