Monday, June 16, 2008

Medieval Literature I Didn't Know

I'm starting a new series over the summer. I'd like to say that it will appear once a week, but we'll see how that goes. But there is a great deal of early medieval literature of all kinds that folk don't know about, including me. So I thought I might begin a long process of slowly collecting some of that seldom studied, often overlooked stuff and talk about it. There's a purpose here too, some of it in the form of outreach to interest people in the early medieval period more, and some of it practical for some publications I'm working on.

Today, I'd like to introduce Worcester Fragment A, a piece that I'm actually quoting in the introduction to the Magnum Opus, the never ending dissertation I seem to be doing. Worcester Fragment A is so named because on f. 63R of Worcester Library ms. 174 there is this verse (followed by another verse on the soul and body). It is of course untitled in the manuscript and has gone under many names: First Worcester Fragment, The Disuse of English, Sanctus Bede or Beda Fragment, or Sicut Oves absque Pastor (which competes in my opinion with Worcester Frag. A as the best title: WFrag A has the advantage that it simply names the manuscript and identifies the piece. Sicut Oves identifies the content. Since I'm a new old fashioned text critic privileging the actual manuscript, I've opted for Worcester Fragment A.

The manuscript is early 13th century and largely contains a copy of Aelfric's Grammar and Glossary, or at least this is what remains. 66 leaves remain, few of which have all the text that was written on them, some cut in two. The leaves containing the "Worcester fragments" were used as binding in another book, were identified in the 19th century by Sir Thomas Phillips and the whole of what remains rebound in correct order. All told, in addition to the 66 leaves, there are some 15 fragments identified as belonging to this manuscript and kept with it. The famed Tremulous Hand of Worcester is not just the annotator, but the scribe of the text. The verso of the leaf that the poem below is on contains a poem about the coming of death and is followed on the next leaves by a Soul and Body poem.

Fragment A is almost always dated as 12th century, though Christopher Cannon in _The Grounds of English Literature_ makes a very good argument in my view that the poem is pre-1066---in large part because nothing of its contents demands or even suggests the post-1066 context! He fails however to cite some of the linguistic studies that suggest that what has been called "early middle English" is really spoken English of the 10th, 11th, and 12th centuries, and the "Old English" written in the period is not intelligible but purposely static as a "learned" written language. That would go even further to prove the poem's point and help establish it as an 11th century piece. Anyway, after too many days putting this together, here is the poem and my translation:

Sanctus beda was iboren her on breotene mid us
and he wisliche writen awende
that theo enclisc leoden thurh weren ilerde
and he theo cnoten unwreih;
the questiuns hoteth
tha derne digelness the deorwurthe is
aelfric abbod th we alquin hoteth
he was bocare and the fif bec wende
Genesis Exodus Utronomius Numerus Leuiticus
thurh theos weren ilaerde ure leoden on englisc
thet were theo biscop9es theo bodeden cristendom
wilfrid of Ripum Johan of beoferlai Cuthbert of Dunholme
Oswald of wirceastre Egwin of heoueshame aeldhelm of malmesburi
Swiththun aethelwold Aidan Biern of winaestre (Pau)lin of
rofeceastre S Dunston and S aelfeih of cantoreburi
theos laerden ure leodan on englisc
naes deorc heore liht ac hit faeire glod
[nu is] theo leore forleten and thet folc is forloren
nu beoth othre leoden theo larep ure folc
and feole of then lortheines losaeth and that folc forth mid
Nu saeith ure drihten thus Sicut aquila provocat
uullows suos ad uolandum and super eos volitat
this beoth godes word to worlde asende
that we sceolen faeier sep festen to him.

I could not figure out how to get unicode into my blog entry, forgive me for being stupid. So "th" in the above represents a thorn, ae, ash, and there's one yogh that I simply used g for. I couldn't find an edition on the Net either. I've adapted the above from Joseph Hall's Selections from Early Middle English 1130-1250 and silently expanded abbreviations and not included the marks representing errors and corrections that have been entered into the text. I've also changed the "tyronean ond" to "and." Hope however that the one or two readers besides me reading this will be able to make sense of the text.

Here's my translation:

Saint Bede was born here in Britain among us
and he wisely translated books
so that the English people were taught through them
and he unbound the knots which called the Questions,
the secret mystery that is precious.
Abbot Aelfric whom we call Alcuin
Was a writer and translated five books:
Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Leviticus
through these were our people taught in English.
These bishops taught the Christian faith
Wilfrid of Ripon, John of Beverly, Cuthbert of Durham,
Oswald of Worcester, Egwin of Evesham, Aldhelm of Malmebury
Swithun, Aethelwold, Aidan, Birinus of Winceaster,
Paulinus of Rocester, Saint Dunstan, and Saint Alphege of Canterbury.
These teachers taught our people in English
Their light was not dark but it glowed fairly
now is that teaching forsaken and our people lost
and another people teaches our folk
and many of our teaches are damned and that folk with them.
Now says our Lord thus, As an eagle prods
her young to fly and hovers over them.
This is the word of God sent into the world
that we should happily fasten our faith to him.

This is poem of loss, obviously, and mourns specifically the loss of Christian learning in Anglo-Saxon England. It in interesting to note that the two figures grounding the lament are Bede, d. 735, and Aelfric of Eynsham, d. 1008?, two great figures on either end of the period, literarily speaking. In between it is worthy to note that the focus is on matters Biblical: The "questions" I think refers to Bede's 30 Questions on the BOok of Kings, which focuses on Israel's downfall and eventual exile in disobedience, and then the poet turns to Aelfric's translations of Biblical materials, specifically the Pentateuch in which the emphasis is on Israel's obedience to God (or disobedience) and facing sets "heathen" foes. The "beautiful faith" is an allusion to Deuteronomy 32:11 when Israel, poised now to enter the Promised Land, anticipate conquerering the land and living in a land flowing with milk and honey. So the poet seems to want to see his people as having had their own "Moseses", there own great saints who taught the people but the people are now damnded, lost, sheep without their shepherds and taught by a foreign, heathen people. Its quite the commentary on the 11th century.

It is worth noting that the range of people mentioned extends from Paulinus of Rochester, aka Paulinus of York who lost the latter office when Edwin was defeated by Penda and Christianity was lost in the north and the last is Alphege who was a Viking victim in 1012. There's no mention of anyone afterward or of the French.

Well, I've spent 2 weeks on this now....surprise, surprise, surprise, and its time to post. Hope you enjoy!


Steve Muhlberger said...

Good idea for a series!

Couldn't the new teachers be post-Conquest continentals who don't know English and may even scorn English saints?

Brandon H. said...

This is an excellent piece of work, and quite the commentary on the social milieu of education. It is particularly striking who is and who is not mentioned in the poem by name. It's especially telling that all of these men are saints and bishops--and there is seemingly no mention of Alfred, as important as we moderns looking back now see him to literature and literate reform in Anglo-Saxon England.

I'm intrigued about who the author refers to with "another people teaches our folk"--could it be the Normans (as Steve has posed)? Perhaps Viking-influences seen in the late Anglo-Saxon era? Who are these seeming "others" with their "damned" education?

theswain said...

Brandon and Steve,

Excellent questions and points! I'll actually do another short post addressing the issues you both have raised, as it gives me a chance to fill out some things I left out of the original post, I'll try and get to it over the weekend here.

Prof. de Breeze said...

I love the idea of being introduced to new (old) texts through blogs that I read anyway. Good fun.

My question is about the line which identifies Aelfric, "whom we call Alcuin." I've never run across this confusion of names before. Do other sources refer to Aelfric as Alcuin? Does this reference have any implications for the date of the text? I'm thinking that it would be less likely for a pre-Conquest text to include this kind of "alternate" name.

Any thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Brandon and Prof. Muhlberger, I guess what Larry is guiding us towards is a suggestion that the `others' here are the new Danish rulers of the period 1016-42. I could imagine anyone looking at Harold Harefoot's court in this frame would have thought things had come to a pretty pass.

The Æfric/Alcuin thing is a weirdness too; it might be argued that it reflects confusion, suggesting a later date, or maybe one could say that the author knew of Charlemagne's court's habit of learned Biblical by-names for the court scholars and had mockingly or affectionately assigned Æfric a learned Carolingian by-name...

Excellent little text: thankyou for writing it, Larry. Are these poems and the Æfric the whole MS, as it remains? What I'm getting at is, are there any contents which could not be assigned happily to a pre-Conquest date? As it stans it seems to be a copy of a pre-Conquest MS, so you have questions of use and audience several times, original poem, first gathering, recopying by the Tremulous one. Worcester all the way? I could believe in a Worcester self-image as the last redout of learning in a vulgar age, somehow, but for all that time? Or is the piece just lucky enough to be foudn by someone sympathetic every now and then? I love these sorts of questions, even when they have no answers...

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resurgam said...

This is a fascinating piece!

However, as a to a pre-conquest date:

Doesn't the lack of a 'ge' prefix to words such as 'iboren' (geboren) indicate a post-conquest orthographic/phonetic change? Also, 'questions' is a latinate word which (I believe) has no usage recorded prior to the ME period.

theswain said...

Hey resurgam!

First, let me apologize for the delay in posting your comment: I didn't know it was there and only found it accidentally.

That said, the lack of the "ge-" only indicates that the text was probably copied later, not that it was composed later. Another example is Aelfric's Letter to Sigeweard, written in the early 11th century, but the 12th century copy has "modernized" the orthography by doing things like changing all the initial ge- prefixes to i- prefixes. There are other Aelfrician, Wulfstanian, and anonymous homiletic texts from the pre-Conquest period that undergo a similar "modernization" by 12th and early 13th century users of those texts. Thus, the orthography only indicates when the poem was copied, but very little about when it was composed.

That's a good point about "question". Here though the poet is referring to Bede who wrote a work in regum librum quaestiones XXX; there is also the VIII Quaestiones that seems to be a later "editing" of some original Bedan texts about the time the poem was composed in the 11th/12th century. The author(s) we call "Pseudo-Bede" also wrote a number of Biblical commentaries that were done in the style of "quaestiones" on the text answered by the Commentator. The poet could be referring to any of these. But it seems to me that the poet is referring to a Latin title, not using "questiuns" as an English word. Titles and quotations in Latin appear in English texts frequently.