Friday, June 20, 2008

Medieval Literature I Didn't Know I.a

Steve Muhlberger and Brandon H raised some good issues in the comments to my last post on Worcester Fragment A. The issues are good and require enough of an answer that I thought a full follow up post would be better than answering in the comments.

Steve asked:
"Couldn't the new teachers be post-Conquest continentals who don't know English and may even scorn English saints?" and related Brandon H asked: 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?

The answer is that I think it depends very much on when one dates the original poem. That is, it is evident that the poem as we have it is dependent on an Old English original that the Tremulous Hand of Worcester has not completely understood in his copy and updating of the orthography (Utronomius for Deuteronomius). So if the original is post-1066, then these new teachers condemned in the poem must be the Normans. If the original is pre-1066, and depending on how pre-1066, then there seem to me to be two possibilities:

1) if written early in the 11th century, 1016-1035 or so, the referents must be the men Cnut brought with him. The contents of the poem speak well to this, I think, in that there is nothing in the poem that necessarily indicates a post-1066 date, and certainly all those mentioned in the poem are deceased long before 1066. Against this however, and I need to check this out in more detail, I don't know how many Norse churchmen were appointed in Cnut's reign that might earn the ire of an English monk! As far as I currently remember, most of the leading churchmen in Cnut's kingdom were Englishmen.

2) If written more in the middle of the 11th century, then the referent is probably still the Normans: Both Emma and even more so Edward the Confessor brought a host of Normans into England and they were quite close to the throne for some much they took over the church I'm not certain and again is something I'd have to check into when I get round to doing a paper on it. But in that case, still NOrman, just pre-Conquest Normans. These Normans close to Edward excited a bit of commentary from the English, and the Godwins eventually forced Edward to send them packing in the early 1050s, about the time he was forced to marry....I've forgotten the exact chronology at the moment.

So those are the three possibilities, and much depends on dating. Typically, what little scholarship that has been done on this text dates it as post-1066, though as I mentioned in my original post there is reason to think it pre-1066.

Brandon H. went on to express interest in the names in the list and noted that we have saints and bishops, no mention of Alfred and suggests that in spite of his importance to us moderns, that maybe he wasn't all that important to them.

It is an interesting list of names. I think more important than that those named are all saints and bishops (not wholly true: Aelfric, Alcuin, and some others on the list don't quite fit the bill on that score....), but that they are all MONKS! And I think it is this latter that is important to note. If this writer is a vestige of the Benedictine Reform, we know that Edgar for example is held up as an example of the Golden Age, but he is not mentioned either.

Further to note about the list of names is that the majority come from two periods: they are either mentioned in Bede or come from the Benedictine Reform movement of the 10th and early 11th centuries. Two minor exceptions: Aldhelm (who is mentioned by Bede, but more in a moment) and Swithun. Aldhelm, though mentioned by Bede as I just said, was an important writer for the Benedictine Reform and was highly influential on Dunstan and Aethelwold. Swithun, who was a bishop during Alfred's reign, was an "invented" saint by Aethelwold (note that his "vita" contains nothing about his actual life, but almost entirely deals with posthumous miracles.) and the Reformers and he becomes the patron of New Minster in 972, so that explains their presence in the list. Given this, the absence of certain figures between those two periods I don't think should excite a great deal of comment. One thing about both groups: those in Bede faced non-Christians and a newly Christianized people to teach and so were always at risk. Note who is not named in the list, but is said to be important: Alcuin, but Prof de Breeze has chimed in noting this, so I'll hold off for just a moment. But other important figures who are much like Alcuin are not mentioned: Boniface, Willibrord, Theodore, and more who are left out.

The claim that they all taught the people in English is an interesting one. We can not confirm that in a lot of cases: certainly Bede is described as having translated some works into English, though none survive, and Aldhelm we're told by Geoffrey of Monmouth also wrote some Old English works, of which I think only one riddle survives though someone will likely correct me there. Aelfric, certainly. But do we have any evidence of Aethelwold, Dunstan, Swithun etc teaching English PEOPLE (not just monks) in ENGLISH? I suppose that like Aelfric they must have preached to congregations including lay men and so used English.....we do have plenty of anonymous homilies in Old English. But nothing confirmatory that I'm aware of.

Let me turn to Dr. de Breeze's note before finally closing this. The mention of Aelfric, whom "we call Alcuin" is interesting and puzzling. Here are the interpretive possibilities as I see them.

1) the line simply bears witness to its subject: the lack of learning in England has resulted in the confusion of 2 of its teachers in history
2) the Tremulous Hand has made a scribal error and conflated two lines or some other error causing the two names to be associated.
3) According to PASE, there are some 115 different men named Aelfric in the 10th and early 11th century, many of them monks or churchmen. There must be some way to distinguish them all: Archbishop Aelfric, Aelfric Cild, Aelfric Bata, there an otherwise unattested "Aelfric Alcuin" or better "Aelfric Ealhwin" meaning Aelfric of Eynsham? Since, so far as I know, this is the earliest mention of Aelfric of Eynsham outside his own writings, it might be a possibility.
4) related to #3, one of Aelfric's works is a "translation" of Alcuin's Interrogationes Sigewardi in Genesin. I don't know anything about the manuscripts of this text, except to say that there is one that is mid to late 11th century from short, the author of the poem, regardless of date, likely read the text, and a) didn't know who Alcuin was, but took the introductory material of the English text which talks about Alcuin, and how he taught many English men etc. as identifying the author of the English text, i. e. Aelfric. It is clear I think from the poem that the author values ENGLISH teaching, not as a nationality necessarily but as a LANGUAGE, more than Latin and I see no evidence in the poem to argue for a high degree of Latinity, so it isn't likely that the poet knew Alcuin's works.

I don't know that anyone else has made the latter suggestion, or how well it stands as an explanatory argument, the one that seems to be the most popular is #1, the poet simply didn't know and was ignorant. I suppose my suggestion is really an expansion of that in one direction....

It is worth noting that Alcuin is in large part dependent on Bede both for the idea of addressing "Interrogationes" as a method of teaching and exegesis (not original with Bede either, but Bede's "questions" were well known and popular) as well as for the content of his own Interrogationes. Aelfric translating Alcuin also often used Bede as a source, and so the text in question ties all three of those names together.

de Breeze further asks: "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."

I don't know of any other sources that confuse or conflate Aelfric as Alcuin, but then I also do not know any other texts that mention the two in the same breath either.

As for implications of date, I don't think so. The Benedictine Reform was key, but had already experienced some significant set backs under Aethelred and by the time we get to Cnut it seems to have dissipated. We have a lot of copies of manuscripts from the 11th century, but little original work other than Wulfstan (note: not "no original work", but "little original work"). So I think the confusion of Aelfric and Alcuin, particularly given the above, is just as likely in the reigns of Cnut and Edward (and Harthacnut if I remember rightly that he came between) as after the Conquest.

I think one thing that might in fact indicate date is the emphasis on ENGLISH teaching rather than....than what? Latin? That would be the most natural assumption, and I know that was something of an issue for the Normans who looked askance at church things being done in the vernacular and not Latin, though in other ways they seem to have tried to learn English. That emphasis on English vs. Latin as a vehicle for Christian education might indicate the post-Conquest date.

Jonathan Jarrett has posted some probing questions, I'll answer those and any others that come in a further post and perhaps get around to posting some bibliography.



Brandon H. said...

Oops--my bad on the bishops and saints (forgetting my monks and abbots).

You discuss those names that are and aren't mentioned with interesting notions that could no doubt be probed there. I'm especially interested in the fact that the poet doesn't mention the name Wulfstan--either the Archbishop of York or the Saint. As you write, "the majority come from two periods: they are either mentioned in Bede or come from the Benedictine Reform movement of the 10th and early 11th centuries"--and Wulfstan, Archbishop of York was esp. a product of the Benedictine Reform and vernacular education through preaching, law, and his Institutes. Furthermore, St. Wulfstan was quite a social reformer in his own right, bridging pre- and post-Norman Conquest. Could the lack of either name contribute to a theory of the poem's date before the prominence of these figures--as pre-Conquest, even pointing to a date in the first decade of the 11th century (before Wulfstan became so prominent in legal work and before he composed his Institutes)?

Anonymous said...

I like theory (iv). Anything that makes the gaps easier to jump sounds good to me, really.

Prof. de Breeze said...

Very interesting stuff, Larry. I'm still not sure I buy the pre-Conquest date, however. Most basically, it just feels like a post-Conquest piece lamenting the displacement of the English people and language as a result of Norman incursions. Also, Brehe's 1990 article "Reassembling the First Worcester Fragment" makes a compelling argument that the poem displays late-12th century versification (which also helps to explain the list of bishops in lines 11-15).

As a side note, I think it's dangerous to base any arguments on what is not included in any text, especially one in verse. I have to admit that the absence of the two Wulfstans here bothers me, as does the fact that Aelfric is commemorated only as the author of Biblical translations (i.e., not as the author of the Catholic Homilies or Lives of Saints, or even as a preacher. But my problem with these exclusions is likely to be just that: my problem. In other words, it's based on my modern understanding of what was important to people a thousand years ago. We simply don't know enough about the period to understand why an author writing in the eleventh or twelfth century would have included some items and left out others. Maybe for metrical reasons. Maybe for political reasons. Maybe for geographical reasons or thematic reasons or personal reasons. Who knows? We have to deal with what the text contains, not what we think the text should contain.

This is great fun, by the way. Keep it up!