Tearas Feollon: Tears and Weeping in Old English Literature

Hugh Magennis*

*Corresponding author for this work

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This contribution surveys the range of images of weeping in Old English literature, concentrating particularly on weeping due to suffering, grief and unhappiness, and on tears of compunction, but examining other types of weeping as well, including supplicatory and sympathetic weeping (these latter are found in prose but not in poetry). Taking account of contemporary theory, the study understands weeping to be a physical manifestation of distress, but also to function as a social gesture, as reflected in the circumstance that most weeping in Old English is public rather than private. It is noted that saints do not normally weep in the literature despite the suffering they typically endure, and also that in traditional Old English poetry weeping is seen as not appropriate for men, or at least for men in the prime of life. Some of the most interesting instances of weeping in Old English, however, are to be found in episodes that appear to contradict or problematize such expectations, as is illustrated by the examination of a number of relevant examples. The references to weeping cited in this study are in the majority of cases based on Latin models, and reflect the wider Christian literary tradition in the early Middle Ages, rather than being specific to Anglo-Saxon England; but, in both religious and secular works, Old English writers are shown to be thoughtful and imaginative in their treatment of weeping and to deploy images of it to forceful emotive effect.
Original languageEnglish
Article number54
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 12 Apr 2022


  • Anglo-Saxon culture
  • medieval Christian tradition
  • emotions
  • hagiography
  • Old English literature
  • Old English poetry
  • Old English prose
  • Latin literature


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