Paul Szarmach and Larry Swain

title.none: Burnley, Old English (Paul Szarmach and Larry Swain)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.038 02.09.38

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Paul Szarmach and Larry Swain, Western Michigan University,,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Burnley, David. Old English: A Multimedia History. London: The British Library, 2001. Pp. CD-ROM. $75.00. ISBN: 0-712-34320-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.38

Burnley, David. Old English: A Multimedia History. London: The British Library, 2001. Pp. CD-ROM. $75.00. ISBN: 0-712-34320-2.

Reviewed by:

Paul Szarmach and Larry Swain
Western Michigan University,

[J.] David Burnley, whose books on Chaucer's language and his other writings have illuminated the earlier history of the English language for students for well over twenty years, offers a CD- ROM to introduce the language and culture of England from the adventus Saxonum until the Norman Conquest. The CD-ROM covers many of the expected topics -- sounds and their technical representation, writing systems, the development of sounds, vocabulary, and syntax over time, dialects, and poetic language -- but language in context is also a major theme as Burnley adduces more than 300 images of manuscripts, sculpture, architecture, and jewelery to suggest the cultural context. This treasure trove of visual and material evidence alone makes an impressive addition to any course in Old English or on the History of the Language. It is technology that makes such material so easily accessible, for old-style print would make easy use difficult and production costs beyond reasonable means. Yet technology is no unalloyed benefit, and sometimes where it giveth, it also taketh away.

Some sense of the dual face of technology, in bono et in malo, is present in the presentation of the "Timeline," accessible off "Historical Background" off the "Main Contents" page [the user must be certain of the "contents" page in view, for there are many]. The Timeline offers a chronological series of dates down the left margin headed by "Language," "Culture" [= mainly art and archaeology] and "History." The user clicks on a date and then chooses one of the three headers. The call-up produces about a halfscreen page on the right and only one page. The user can choose one header after another, succeeding hits appearing as layers. To go "Back" the user delayers the pages by clicking "x" at the top right. Now Timelines can produce their own tyranny, as the scribes of the Anglo-Saxon knew when they trotted out annal numbers and produced annals "barren" of any information. In some years apparently nothing happened. Language developments and specific dates are notorious for a lack of correlation. Here for the year 449 "Language" receives a general treatment of West Germanic developments, while "History" and "Culture" contain no information at all. The half-screen page format creates is own constraints, as anyone who writes to space well knows. Even within those constraints some treatments are puzzling. In the discussion of Kentish Christianity King Aethelbert gets name and mention, but his Frankish princess and wife Bertha receives periphrastic treatment: her works and influence get mentioned, but she never receives a name, which is clearly a case of contemporary erasure not Anglo-Saxon. The discussion of the battle of Mount Badon contains no mention of King Arthur, whatever his reality and role. As Alcock taught us to ask, if Arthur was such a mighty foe and such a most puissant prince, why does he not appear in the Anglo-Saxon record? For the generalist audience or the beginning student such questions will undoubtedly dissolve in the face of the brilliant Sutton Hoo belt buckle or the touristic shot of Bamburgh Castle.

The presentation of language qua language takes some special advantages from the layout and design. Burnley is able to offer much information both from general linguistics as well as from a specific focus on the features of Old English. The CD requires users to become somewhat more active than readers who fumbled with a standard codex book in their search for the knowledge necessary to understand technical language study. The introduction to the International Phonetic Alphabet might be a concession to the non-specialist audience from some perspectives but anyone who has taught a history of the language course knows that the IPA, or some equivalent system, is a necessary pre-step to understanding OE. The color diagrams are an obvious advantage in explaining the place and manner of articulation, and with an operating sound card the user can be certain of what the figure is trying to mimic. The use of expedient letter forms when the character set cannot represent certain sounds is definitely not an advantage, on the other hand, for beginners will not quickly understand that there are no such forms in OE.

To focus more on technical matters, the CD is packaged with manuals and demos that the viewer may only access by browsing the CD. In this day of "plug and play" products, it is unfortunate that one must go to the CD and search for some of these basics rather than having them linked from the Introduction page. The information is never stated nor can it easily be intuited.

The technical apparatus of the CD offer an interesting mix. The section on "The Historical Background" contains the majority of images. By double clicking on a site on the map of England, the viewer is taken to a subsection listing several more sites. Thus, for example, clicking on London brings up not only the London area but also Winchester, Oxford, Wing, and other sites. Double-clicking on London opens a screen listing the British Library, the British Museum and so on. The CD provides a quick tour of Anglo-Saxon era items held by the British Museum, very much like a museum tour, but once you are in the Museum, you can only leave it -- you cannot go back to the rest of the CD. In fact, going "Back" is often very difficult. The images of the artifacts and manuscripts leaves are usually very good, and they are described by the accompanying text. One issue, however, is the way these images are presented. Some of the images appear to the side of the text, and within the text a red link to a related artifact image is provided. Some of these red links, however, display differently. Some appear in windows that obscure the text with the result that the viewer is not able to readjust its placement. The advantage to these windows is that a simple mouse click removes the image and returns one to the text. Yet other images appear in separate windows where these windows do allow the user to adjust their placement. The problem is that these images must be closed by clicking on the X in order to move on in the CD. There does not appear to be any explanation of the practice, and on the "museum" tours the two types of imaging often appear within the same paragraph of text.

The images, undoubtedly a welcome addition to the CD, will make this a useful teaching tool. One minor criticism is that while the user may click on any part of the image to magnify it and see some detail, magnification results in significant loss of resolution and clarity. Fortunately, the images themselves are of sufficient quality that magnification is usually unnecessary, and the texts do supply some images of details of some of the pieces.

The Old English texts supplied with the CD are in Acrobat Reader format, and the appropriate readers are included on the CD. One must install the correct version of Acrobat Reader in order to search the texts. The choice of this method of text delivery is puzzling. Although Acrobat is readily available for free, the CD already assumes the use of Netscape or Internet Explorer when it supplies web links. It would be as useful to provide xml or html marked texts, automatically searchable by the browsers and capable of displaying the special Old English characters. It would also make the texts easily navigable. One weakness of the choice of Acrobat Reader is the lack of navigable places in the text. The table of contents lists for example "The Vercelli Book" but does not offer a sub-list of the works in the Vercelli Book, or of chapters in Alfred's Orosius which would make navigation of the texts so much easier, and thus easier for students to use.

Web publication is not an event; rather it is a process, the inception of which implies continued change and even development. Certainly the dot.coms and the now not.coms encouraged flux in hardware and software to boost sales, whatever their claims for "new" improvements. As we indicate above, some of this technological flow has already by-passed features of this CD-ROM. Still one remembers John Glenn. His three trips around the globe were hailed as a NASA success, even though subsequent analysis showed that there were over 300 things wrong with the launch that, had the engineers noticed, would have cancelled the launch. We applaud this launch and look forward to the continuing development of this prototype.

These are the system requirements:

Windows 3.1, Windows 95/98, or Windows NT. Minimum hardware requirements: an IBM-compatible PC with 486 processor, a sound card, 16 Mb of memory and a 15" monitor displaying 256 colors at 800x600 resolution. Recommended hardware specifications: an IBM-compatible PC with Pentium 90 processor, a sound card, 32 Mb of memory and a monitor displaying 32,000 colors at 800x600 resolution.