Monday, July 28, 2008

Medieval Literature I Didn't Know I.c

After a mere month's break between posts on this wonderful little piece, I finally have cleared the decks enough to return to the questions raised. Just as refreshers, the Original Post is here, the second post is here, and the third here. This is the fourth post, and it deals with comments on the second post.

Brandon commented:

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)?

Yes, the absence of Wulfstan(s) is interesting. Particularly so since Alphege is mentioned, d. 1012, when Wulfstan is already on the rise in importance. And if the poem is indeed from Worcester, and copied in Worcester, the absence of Wulfstan is particularly notable and troubling.

The only answer I have to that, and I admit it isn't a satisfactory one, is that those who are specifically mentioned fall into two somewhat overlapping categories: 1) some dealt with Biblical materials (Bede, Alcuin, Aelfric) and 2) they all died before Alphege, 1012. This might suggest a date. If the poet has a criteria that the person has to be dead to be in his list, and has to be known as a teacher of the people, that would put the poem between 1012 and 1023...Wulfstan is not mentioned simply because he is still alive. If the poem is later, and post-Norman I can truly think of no reason at the moment why either Wulfstan (well, Wulfstan the Homilist and Wulfstan II) would be omitted from the list. Tis a sticky wicket.

Dr de Breeze commented:
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.

I understand what you mean, but I think that that feeling is based in *OUR* stress on 1066. After all, in spite of recent work on 12th century texts, manuscripts, and linguistics, we're taught from the time we're knee high to grasshoppers to see 1066 as a watershed. But let's remember that there was a another take over by a foreign people in 1016, and it wasn't at all peaceful, and it only became smooth when Aethelred and Edmund died and there was no one else left but Canute. It would not appear, that as benevolent as Canute seems in many ways, that the transition was all that smooth (one of the reasons Canute spent so much of his reign in England and married the redoubtable Aelfgifu (Emma--what a woman!)--anything to cement that hold. Meanwhile he could send off his second wife and son by her to rule Denmark, Norway, and his Swedish holdings for him (though they botched it but good). I. E. I think it shows in part that the transition to Canute's reign was not quite as smooth as the sources present it....and the wars leading up to 1016 were devastating on the whole country. Who was left to teach them? ANyway, all of that to say that I agree it feels like a "post-Norman" piece, but I wonder how much of that feeling is due to my conditioning to see 1066 as a watershed event, but to hardly consider 1016 as anything more than a new king coming to the throne, when the facts on the ground indicate something else again.

de Breeze continues:
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).

I'll have to reread it. I remember not being convinced, particularly in light of some of latest things coming out about how early Middle English is (i. e. what we call early Middle English in the 12th century, is actually the spoken English of the late "Old English" period, the written language we know as Old English in the 10th and 11th century is archaic, deliberately so, and literary, and not the spoken language at all. Add to that some of Tom Bredehoft's analyses of LATE Old English poetry and meter, and Brehe's article in my memory begins to come apart at the seams. ) But I'll have to reread it to make sure my memory isn't playing tricks on me.

But let's say for the moment that Brehe is right: how do we know that this is the original form of the poem and not the Tremulous Hand's doing? He's known to change texts as well as get things wrong....can we really get behind his text in terms of meter and orthography and say definitively that it represents the original of the poem? Sure, I'm aware that raising that issue, we have ask the same question about the content of the poem. But I'm prepared to think that he got most of the content more or less right, while the way he recites poetry might be off a bit. Still thinking.


Prof. de Breeze said...

I'm really enjoying this discussion, Larry, and it's making me learn and think about the late-OE/early-ME division in interesting ways.

I guess I have to admit that the early date you suggest is a distinct possibility, but I'm still leaning towards the post-Conquest period. Yes, it's possible that the apparently late language is due to the split between spoken and written Old English in the 11th century. Yes, it's possible that the Tremulous Hand made changes in the metrical form to render the poem more like stuff contemporary with himself. Yes, it's possible (maybe even likely) that we're preprogrammed to see 1066 in a piece like this. But the simplest explanation still seems to me to be that the poem was written in the very late 11th century or very early 12th century.

theswain said...

Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the discussion, wonder if my next choice will generate as much interest.

Well, I'm not sure I'm convinced, these have been more thinking through things. I think it'd take a good article and reconsideration of meter, content, etc to really convince that an earlier date is likely. But I hope at least that I've opened the door to consider the possibility.