The Hisperica Famina as an Ars Poetica

An interpretation of the A-text

  • Piet S. Gerbrandy


Hitherto the group of seventh-century texts and fragments known as Hisperica famina has defied interpretation. Following suggestions made by a.o. Andy Orchard, I propose to read the A-text as an ambitious piece of literature, in which linguistic competition, hilarious though it may be, is seen as a tool to cope with the anxieties of living in an inhospitable world. After offering a new perspective on the text’s dialogic structure, suggesting that the narrator is an Englishman recalling his student years in Ireland, I read the descriptions of sea and fire as metapoetical symbols and the final section on a cattle raid as an allegory. Subsequently, I pay attention to irony and self-mockery, to conclude that the text is not only about words and grammar but has literary, social, and existential value as well.