Jim Earl

title.none: Liuzza, ed., The Old English Version of the Gospels (Jim Earl )

identifier.other: baj9928.0109.016 01.09.16

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jim Earl , Univeristy of Oregon, jwearl@OREGON.UOREGON.EDU

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: Liuzza, R. M., ed.,. The Old English Version of the Gospels, Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. vi, 368. 74.00. ISBN: 1-197-22313-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.09.16

Liuzza, R. M., ed.,. The Old English Version of the Gospels, Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Pp. vi, 368. 74.00. ISBN: 1-197-22313-3.

Reviewed by:

Jim Earl
Univeristy of Oregon

Sometime in the English 960's, it seems, when Edgar was king and Dunstan archbishop, as the Benedictine Reform was just getting under way, a team of monks at Canterbury was given the task of producing an English translation of the four Gospels. The purpose seems to have been to aid secular clergy in preaching on Gospel pericopes, which are rubricated in the translation (e.g., "ßys godspel man sceal raedan ofer eastron be ßaere rode and eft ofer pentecosten on ßone forman sunnandaeg"). The original MS has been lost, but four copies and a bit of a fifth survive from the eleventh century--from Canterbury, Exeter, Bath and Malmesbury--and two more (and a bit) from the late twelfth. From the start the project was obviously taken very seriously; it was distributed widely, and was still being fastidiously copied and corrected two and a half centuries later.

The first volume of Roy Liuzza's edition of the OE Gospels appeared in 1994. That volume "considers the translation as a long act of reading a Latin text," and reveals "not only what kind of Vulgate text the translators read, but how they read it". (II, vii) In his introduction to volume one Liuzza described the eight surviving MSS, explored their relationships, and explained his editorial practices. For those of us usually focused on literary criticism and theory, that introduction was a good reminder of the pleasures of textual scholarship, with memorable surprises. For example, his base text, CCCC 140, from Bath ("ego aelfricus scripsi hunc librum in monastereio Bathonio" [I, xxvi]), contains many tantalizing items interspersed among the Gospels. There is a homily; lists of popes, archbishops, bishops and relics; charters; and manumissions, each one a sentence-long short story ending with the charming rhyming curse, "Crist hine ablende ße ßis gewrit awende". (I, xxvi) There are also the minutes of a joint meeting of several monasteries, in which common liturgical practices are agreed to and the names of all the monks listed ("...Brihtnoth and Aelfric, Godric and Aelfric, Oswold and Aelfric, and Wulfward and Wulfric..." [I, xxv]), all in an unpretentious idiomatic OE that renders the scene wonderfully immediate.

Most important, of course, there is the Gospel text itself, which Liuzza describes as "a sustained piece of Old English prose, whose proper historical and intellectual context is to be found in the OE translations of Bede and Orosius, and the homilies of Aelfric and Wulfstan". (I, xvi) In fact it makes excellent reading. Because the original is so familiar (and so interesting), and because the OE is "literal but relatively idiomatic, translating 'sense for sense' as well as 'word for word'" (II, 50), even first year students can read the Gospels page after page, picking up the OE idiom fairly effortlessly.

The seventy-eight page introduction to volume one, impressive enough on its own, is now dwarfed by the immense display of scholarship in volume two. It is easy to see why the project took Liuzza more than a decade.

His first task in the second volume is to establish the Latin text from which the translators worked. In fifty pages he methodically surveys Anglo-Saxon Bibles (and their scholarship), describing the Italian, French and Irish textual traditions that entered England early, then the later editions by Alcuin and tenth century reformers. In the end, "the idea of a single 'Vetus Latina' version of the Bible, like the idea of a single 'Vulgate' version, is illusory" (II, 48); but with subtlety and patience Liuzza manages to deduce what sort of Bible the translators worked from, and exactly how they departed from it. This discussion will be of interest to anyone who works with biblical materials and traditions in Anglo-Saxon England. I've put it on my bibliography for graduate students.

Another fifty pages are given over to "The Work of Translation". The OE Gospels differ from the Vulgate in about 650 particulars, each of which Liuzza examines individually. Once all the possible Latin variants and patristic citations have been accounted for, and the translators' purposeful additions, paraphrases, omissions and harmonizations duly noted, Liuzza finally sifts out 154 which can be identified as "errors and bad translations". As readers of Latin, it turns out, our translators were not nearly as skilled as Aelfric; but most of their misconstructions are trivial, and their achievement is still impressive. (The same might be said about later copyists, who introduced another ninety errors of their own.) As for style, the translators' charge to be literal left them with little room for that, except in small choices of word order and synomyms; Liuzza claims, however, that "their voice, such as it is, can be heard, however faintly, in these details". (II, 99) That is like hearing trees grow; it is impossible to overstate the acuteness of Liuzza's ear.

Another twenty pages examine issues of authorship. Here Liuzza lays out the evidence for different translators, patiently charting the occurrence of such features as dative absolutes and inflected infinitives in the four Gospels. He concludes authoritatively, if undramatically, that "the best hypothesis to account for the evidence may be that the OE Gospels, like many medieval works of art, were produced at one centre and in a relatively short time by the corporate and coordinated efforts of several associates whose relative homogeneity masks, but does not entirely obliterate, the traces of their individuality." (II, 119) As in the previous discussion, the work is so thorough (and the conclusions so uncontroversial) that it is hard to imagine anyone ever having to cover this ground again.

Ditto the next eighty pages, which treat the orthography and language of the eight manuscripts. The descriptions in volume one are here amplified almost beyond endurance. From all this evidence comes an even clearer, more detailed picture of the relations among the manuscripts; the details, however, lead to unexpected levels of complexity, rather than to easy generalizations.

Liuzza's final topic is probably of most interest to most Anglo-Saxonists: those liturgical rubrics, which make us wonder about the translation's purpose. Here his conclusions are more surprising than usual. Considering the rubrics closely, he finds that the translation seems to have been made with homiletics rather than liturgy in mind--in spite of the fact that the Reform did not emphasize homilies on Gospel pericopes. "It is possible, then, that the OE version may have been adapted to meet the same need as that which drove Aelfric to publish his homilies, to aid the secular priests' explication of the Gospel....[However,] the evidence suggests that before Aelfric, and except for Aelfric, there was little biblical translation in the Anglo-Saxon pulpit." (II, 224) Thus (and this conclusion Liuzza does not draw) the distribution of the manuscripts over two and a half centuries might have been due to an even more basic purpose than the rubrics suggest--perhaps one as simple as reading the Gospels in the comfortable ambiance of the vernacular, the rubrics providing something of an excuse. Perhaps this is why Liuzza does not include the rubrics in his text, as the scribes did. Personally I wish he had, but in any case they are at the bottom of the page.

This veritable mountain of scholarship (followed by a beautiful glossary and Latin/OE wordlist), is an altogether welcome addition to the top shelf. I would be less than honest, however, if I did not mention the many frustrations of working with the dryasdust EETS format. Liuzza's most important reflections and conclusions are often buried deep in his mountain of evidence, and are expressed with such restraint that the reader has to be almost as alert as he is in order to find them. His lively mind, so evident in his other scholarship, is constrained here.