Epistolary Acts

Anglo-Saxon Letters and Early English Media

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Jordan Zweck
Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series
  • Toronto, ON: 
    University of Toronto Press
    , February
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In its various incarnations, from the letters of Cicero to James Baldwin’s “My Dungeon Shook,” the epistolary form has long been recognized as a venerable literary medium worthy of popular admiration and scholarly attention. In Epistolary Acts, Jordan Zweck reminds us that the early medieval English literary tradition ought also to be considered in this context, despite two substantial evidentiary barriers.

First, and unlike similar traditions in other languages, no formal theory of epistolarity has survived from early medieval England (4). Second, only approximately ten “real” Old English letters­—that is, actual letters written to be sent from one individual to another—remain extant (8). In the face of such obstacles, Zweck’s elegant approach takes the form of recovery and reconstruction, and she focuses not upon these few surviving “real” letters (documents often penned by and for society’s elites), but instead upon the literary representations of letters depicted within other forms of vernacular, and often religious expression.

By examining how letters were constructed in the literary imagination through these eponymous epistolary acts, Zweck argues that we can start to understand how these texts “would have so captured the imagination of people who might never have produced, sent, or received letters themselves” (4). Importantly, she also suggests that we can begin to build a more perspicuous theory of the role and function of letters in early medieval English society at large (9).

From the outset, Zweck emphasizes her use of contemporary media theory in reconstructing Old English epistolarity. After invoking the well-studied notions of immediacy and hypermediacy (18), she introduces a compelling new framework of her own, which she dubs the “double immediacy of epistolarity” (26). Involving the interplay between “the fantasy of immediate communication between sender and recipient” as well as “the immediacy of media forms, in which the medium of an object desires to become invisible to the audience” (26), Zweck’s notion of double immediacy is a promising concept that demonstrates one way in which media theory can be usefully applied to the continued examination of Old English vernacularity.

In placing media theory in conversation with more traditional historical and literary analytical modes, Zweck presents an extended and well-sourced overview of the form, language, sources, and mediums of early medieval English letter crafting in chapter 1. Her specific discussions of Old English salutatory formulae (33-38) and the polysemous vocabulary used to describe written documents (47-61)—to name just two examples—work to build a convincing reconstruction of an early medieval English theory of epistolarity and also demonstrate the sophisticated epistolarity with which the literate culture of pre-Conquest England would have certainly engaged. With the outline of a recovered epistolary theory in hand, Zweck spends the rest of the book surveying a number of Old English texts that can be read in this context, such as the Letter of Abgar, the Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, and the Life of Saint Basil.

One of the most compelling examples of Zweck’s approach can be found in chapter 2, through her careful attention to the apocryphal Old English Sunday Letters. These documents are a collection of letters (not unique to England or even to the medieval period) that claim divine authorship while prescribing pious Sunday behavior, coupled with depictions of the retribution awaiting both those who ignore the holy commands, as well as those who fail to circulate the letter within their communities.

Through her media theory framework, Zweck convincingly argues that unlike other cultural instantiations of the Sunday Letters that serve singular apotropaic purposes, the Old English Sunday Letters are instead “highly adaptable” forms of mass communication that exploit the “materiality of the letter as a genre” in their self-replicating, circulating transmission of notions of religious behavior (105). Here, as in the rest of Epistolary Acts, we see the utility of Zweck’s masterful synthesis of media studies with literary analysis and historical contextualization in exploring one example of an epistolary act, which in turn aids in her overall project of recovering a broader early medieval English epistolarity.

Further noteworthy examples include Zweck’s discussion of the blurring of boundaries between a letter’s messenger, message, and medium as shown in Apollonius of Tyre (113-120) as well as her provocative evaluation of the soporific, body-filled, and textually pleromatic cave in the Legend of the Seven Sleepers as a Derridean, reiterable, and remediated archive (178-183).

On the whole, even though Zweck tends not to address the theological and doctrinal underpinnings of her source texts with any extended discussion (a notable exception being her nod towards potential Johannine and Matthean influences on the Letter of Abgar [129-130]), her analysis does serve to grant the theologically minded reader fresh insights into early medieval vernacular manifestations of religious expression. By skillfully syncretizing media studies with more traditional analytical frameworks, Zweck ultimately succeeds in presenting a recovered early medieval English epistolarity, grounded significantly in vernacular religiosity, that focuses not upon the private utterances of elite letter writers, but instead upon often anonymous literary voices and the attentive audiences that their texts might have been addressing.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alexander D’Alisera is a PhD student in Medieval History at Boston College.

Date of Review: 
June 10, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jordan Zweck is Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.


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