Death and Violence in Old and Middle English Literature

Author: Sutton, John William
Explores how medieval English authors used the spectacle of a character’s death to express their views about the martial culture of their aristocratic countrymen. The argument is set forth that authorial attitudes toward the warrior ethos evolved from respect or even veneration during the Anglo-Saxon period to condemnation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when, after hundreds of years of incessant warfare, writers came to see this ethos as little more than a system of institutionalized violence. Given the texts it considers, this book should appeal particularly to Anglo-Saxonists and Arthurianists, as well as to scholars of war in the Middles Ages and to gender theorists who study medieval conceptions of masculinity.


“This book will appeal to student, professor, and the interested lay-reader. It is the first examination of the literary spectacle of death in war to take such a comprehensive and ambitious range, and it bridges that tiresome divide separating Old and Middle English in University curricula. More importantly, it charts the widening chasm between manly prowess and its celebration ... and the developing sense that institutionalized violence and the endless cycles of vengeance are ultimately flawed.” – Dr. Sarah Higley, Associate Professor of English, University of Rochester

“... an admirably wrought study of English heroic literature from the tenth through sixteenth century. The argument is carefully situated within the broad field of literary criticism and English social and political history. Dr. Sutton defines heroic literature in terms of martial exploits of an aristocratic warrior class, where the virtue of the hero is adjudicated primarily in terms of the performative nature of his death ... this work reaches far beyond the sixteenth century even into our own day, where we have so much difficulty trying to figure out what might be worth dying for or understanding those who think they do know and train themselves in the spectacle as well as the speculum of death.” – Dr. Russell A. Peck, John Hall Deane Professor of English, University of Rochester

Table of Contents

Foreword by Sarah L. Higley
1 Reciprocity in Death
2 Beowulf and Holofernes
3 Death in the Chronicle Tradition
4 The Wages of Tyranny
5 The Fall of Arcite
6 Sir Gawain’s Near Death Experience
7 The Death of Arthur