NEH banner [Return to Query]

Products for grant FA-251516-17

Secrecy and Divinity in Early English Literature
Benjamin Saltzman, California Institute of Technology

Grant details:

Bonds of Secrecy: Law, Spirituality, and the Literature of Concealment in Early Medieval England (Book)
Title: Bonds of Secrecy: Law, Spirituality, and the Literature of Concealment in Early Medieval England
Author: Benjamin A. Saltzman
Abstract: Bonds of Secrecy investigates the powerful and pervasive tension between human acts of concealment and the belief in divine omniscience as it materialized in Anglo-Saxon legal culture and monastic life: I argue that in these two institutional settings there emerged a distinct culture of scrutiny that fundamentally shaped the practices of literary interpretation during the period. The experience of secrecy in early medieval England was inseparable from the belief that God knows all human secrets and that God’s secrets remain unknowable to human beings. Although largely overlooked by scholars, this double-edged conception of secrecy and divinity profoundly affected the way believers acted and thought as subjects under the law, as religious within monasteries, and as readers before books. It manifests, for example, in a certain rhetoric of bondage and servitude used to describe acts of concealment across various contexts (laws, monastic rules, hagiography, and riddles) where the impossibility of human concealment in the face of God’s prior and complete knowledge paradoxically made secrets not into possessions to be kept, but instead into possessors that bound and enslaved those who sought to conceal them. More importantly, it produced an ethical relationship between the self and the world that was radically different from its modern reflex. Whereas today secrets might be judged for the consequences of reticence or disclosure, I have found that in the early Middle Ages a person attempting to conceal a secret was judged for believing he or she could conceal it from God. In other words, to attempt to hide from God was not only to attempt the impossible, but to commit a sin. However, to hide from the world while deliberately acknowledging God’s constant observation (as in acts of private prayer) was often a hallmark of spiritual virtue.
Year: 2019
Primary URL:
Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press
Type: Single author monograph
ISBN: 9780812251616
Copy sent to NEH?: Yes