Exaudi Domine: An Approach to Anglo-Saxon Monastic Reading
Reading Before an Audience?
The title of this paper conceals a conceptual pun. It is a critical commonplace that for medieval scholars reading meant ‘reading aloud’. Nicholas Howe characterizes early medieval reading as a ‘communal’ activity. The monastic lector, as Mass or in the Refectory, declaimed written texts to a silent audience who were expected to ruminate upon the words. However, the monastic environment also provided for a more intimate textual experience through the personal and private activity of meditative reading or lectio divina. The audience envisaged in this form of ‘reading’ is divine. In fact, monasticism itself subverts the notion of an audience since its spirituality is predicated upon the continual presence and beneficial intercession of heavenly auditors. Early medieval writers and readers were primarily concerned with this celestial ‘audience’ and hoped, like a little Ph.D student, that the careful reading of appropriate texts would assist them in that most fearful viva voce, the inevitable ‘audience’ with God. Understood in these terms, the notion of the textual ‘audience’ ceases to be a fundamentally late medieval or even more recent theoretical development. This paper sets out to show some of the ways in which Old English poetic texts function to direct their readers meditatively towards spiritual truths and to align human readers with the expectations of an invisible, extra-temporal but relentlessly discerning celestial fellowship.