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What We Are Reading: September 2021

Northwestern Europe’s early development owes much to the Carolingian dynasty, which led Germanic society into Christendom from the dead end of paganism. It set the stage for the lush flowering of knightly culture, with its ideals of chivalry, courtesy, and courtly love, which established the Western habit of mind.

This Western ethos is rooted in classic literary works, and chief among these is the Old Saxon epic poem The Heliand, dating from the early ninth century and likely commissioned by Louis the Pious, the son of Charlemagne. The subject matter is the life of Christ, wherein loyalty, honor, courage, faith and love are defined. Its apt title, The Heliand (“The Savior”), is not original but added by the first editor in 1830.

At nearly 6,000 lines in length, the poem survives in six manuscripts, two nearly complete, one of which dates from the 10th century. Although the author is not known, we are told that he was a well-known master-poet and monk at the famed monastery of Fulda in what is now Germany. Though it appears to have been popular in its day, The Heliand remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world because of poor translations.

The first, published in 1966 by Mariana Scott,...

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