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Abstract

This essay surveys the effects of disciplinary categorization on the study of Anglo-Saxon literature. Because its languages and forms are so different from later British literature, Anglo-Saxon literature receives short shrift in literary studies. The institutional location of Anglo-Saxon studies within English departments encourages readers to approach early medieval texts through critical categories that often hamper their understanding of the texts themselves. Survey textbooks often cast Anglo-Saxon literature as a quaint and curious ancestor of British literature, while scholarly editions and critical studies reinforce anachronistic categories of genre, form, and language that do not best describe Anglo-Saxon texts. Anglo-Saxon literature in languages other than Old English is generally ignored, and texts that are not easily categorized as poetry or prose narrative are likewise overlooked. The author argues that students and scholars can use Anglo-Saxon literature to question the basic definitions and literary categories that have dominated and distorted the discipline.