Elisabeth van Houts

title.none: Bredehoft, Textual Histories (Elisabeth van Houts)

identifier.other: baj9928.0211.002 02.11.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Elisabeth van Houts, Emmanuel College - Cambridge,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Bredehoft, Thomas A. Textual Histories: Readings in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 229. $70.00. ISBN: 0-8020-4850-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.11.02

Bredehoft, Thomas A. Textual Histories: Readings in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001. Pp. xii, 229. $70.00. ISBN: 0-8020-4850-1.

Reviewed by:

Elisabeth van Houts
Emmanuel College - Cambridge

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) is the collective name of a group of manuscripts, each of which represents a unique version of a set of annals that goes back to the time of King Alfred (871-99). Compiled under his auspices, probably in the 890s, the annals begin with a genealogy of the kings of Wessex, double back to the birth of Christ with some information about Roman history, and then continue in an annalistic style covering the history of England with emphasis on Wessex. It was one of the first attempts at vernacular prose writing in Anglo-Saxon England and the original text, known as the 'Common Stock' annals, became the authoritative one. Of this version no manuscript has survived and it can only be reconstructed by comparative analysis of the surviving manuscripts. These are known by a classification system that names the manuscripts by the first letters of the alphabet: A,B, C down to H. Besides these manuscripts there is one Latin version of the ASC compiled by Aethelweard in the tenth century, and there are various twelfth-century Latin chronicles based on the Old English versions, e.g. by William of Malmesbury, John of Worcester and Henry of Huntingdon. Also from the twelfth century dates an Old French adaptation by Geffrei Gaimar. The availability of facsimiles of some of the ASC versions (A, E and F), diplomatic editions (a multi-volume collaborative edition under the general editor David Dumville from 1983 onwards) and editions that print some versions parallel (e.g. Plummer's edition of 1892-9 which gives the texts of A and E) facilitate the work of scholars. Autopsy of the manuscripts in situ, however, remains a crucial requirement for any study of the ASC. Whereas both the collective 'ASC' and the individual versions have been exhaustively mined by historians for their historical information, relatively little attention has been paid to the text in its various guises from a literary perspective. A combination of the last two points, careful attention to scribal practices and analysis of the literary text, turns Bredehoft's book is a most welcome addition to the growing scholarship devoted to the ASC.

Bredehoft's book is divided into six chapters, which each deal with a different literary aspect of the ASC. In the first chapter he analyses the Common Stock genealogies and its new alliterative form. Although his conclusion, that the alliteration owes a great deal to Old English verse patterns, is not new, he nevertheless argues that the Common Stock (Alfredian) author was responsible for this form of genealogies which differs considerably from older genealogical forms. Very interestingly, in this context, he argues that the regular pointing tradition in the manuscripts was not necessarily a response to the transition from orality to literacy, but that is was the result of scribal negotiation of the textual space (ie lettering on parchment). In the second chapter the emphasis falls on a single passage, the annal of 755 on Cynewulf and Cyneheard. This annal has often been identified as an oral interpolation into the Common Stock material. On the basis of a detailed analysis of its layout in the oldest manuscripts Bredehoft puts forward, convincingly, that the variations in this annal do not necessarily go back to an oral tradition. Scribes were versatile enough to produce texts that on occasion could break a traditional mould if they wished to make a particular point. By interpreting Cyneheard as hero (instead of Cynewulf) Bredehoft sees the Alfredian author using the extended story to support West Saxon dynastic claims. Chapter 3, a competent though not very exciting chapter, deals with the vernacular recensions compiled after King Alfred's time (but also see below). In chapter 4 the focus is on the use of Old English verse in the annals, and here the author makes an important contribution to the debate as to which passages were meant as verse, which were recognised as verse by scribes and which are recognised as verse by modern scholars. A survey of the editions brings to light a great deal of confusion and I would agree with Bredehoft that the haphazard inclusion of some ASC verses to the exclusion of others in the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Record has had a negative effect on the study of the ASC poetry. Again his careful scrutiny of scribal practice has brought interesting elements to light. The fifth chapter on Latin in the ASC has the merit that it proposes the chronicle as a bilingual product and that it extends a discussion of Asser's adaptation of the ASC (for his Life of Alfred) and of Aethelweard's translation to those versions that contain extensive Latin glosses (F in particular). I would have wished him to have gone further by taking into account the post-conquest Latin versions (see also below). The sixth and concluding chapter is the most historical of all, because there Bredehoft analyses the impact of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 on the ultimate demise of the ASC which was a slow process that finished in the middle of the twelfth century (versions E and H). If one argues, as Brdehoft implicitly does, that the ASC in the vernacular is a text predicated on the existence of a dynasty biologically linked with the old Wessex house, then any discusssion of the text should end in 1066. He rightly points out that contemporaries of course did not know or realise the finality of the Norman occupation, and that all manuscripts show signs of continuation beyond that year: in the oldest manuscripts from Canterbury in Latin but of non-annalistic nature (A,B and F), in C one passage, in D a continuation until 1079, which in annal 1067 combines verse, genealogy and Latin, and finally in E and H with the old English tradition of annalistic venacular writing continued well into the twelfth century. Despite the attention he paid to the evidence of a continuing tradition of annalistic writing even after 1066, Bredehoft does not extrapolate further. It is here that I sorely missed a conceptual link with the twelfth-century Latin chroniclers who adapted the ASC into Latin. In particular John of Worcester and Henry of Huntingdon consciously perpetuated, albeit in Latin, the annalistic genre of the ASC. And Henry of Huntingdon did so by mixing Latin prose with Latin verse in a contemporary exploration of the very genre (of mixing prose and verse) that Bredehoft analysed so excitingly in chapter 4.

If I have once criticism of Bredehoft's work it is this lack of widening his conclusions beyond the limits of the ASC, Anglo-Saxon history and studies of Old English. There is very little awareness of the concept of 'living texts' outside early medieval Britain. On the Continent of Europe as elsewhere in the world there exists a vast literature on the writing of history in various genres (annals, chronicles, gesta, historiae). For each of these genres extensive research into the manuscript tradition has shown that although individual scribes were acutely aware of the authority of the original there was nevertheless a considerable margin of authorial freedom for interpolators, continuators and translators to adapt an existing text for their own purposes. One would have expected to find at least a reference to the series of the Typologie des sources medievales (Turnhout, Brepols) which has good introductory volumes for each of these genres which all deal with the problems of living texts. The work of Leopold Genicot on genealogies, in particular, ought to have been digested. But even within the parameters of the Anglo-Saxon period there is room for extrapolation. I would have thought that texts like the Encomium Emmae Reginae or the Life of Edward the Confessor offer plenty of scope for comparative research which might highlight why, say, the eleventh-century scribes of the ASC manuscripts did what they did. Bredehoft's discussion of the 1065 poem on Edward's death would have benefitted from an acknowledgement that contemporary material on exactly the same topic in exactly the same genre albeit in Latin existed in the Life of Edward (ed. F. Barlow, Oxford, 1992) written in 1065-6. Moreover, in that very same work we find a mixture of prose and verse.

Despite these reservations, I consider Bredehoft's well written Textual Histories an important contribution to the study of Anglo-Saxon historical writing, to the study of the interaction between prose and poetry in historiography and to the close reading of medieval scribal practice.