Gernot Wieland

title.none: Gwara,ed., Prosa de Virginitate (Gernot Wieland )

identifier.other: baj9928.0401.001 04.01.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gernot Wieland , The University of British Columbia,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Aldhelm of Malmesbury. Gwara, Scott, ed. Prosa de Virginitate cum Glosa Latina atque Anglosaxonica, 2 vols. Series: Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vols. 124, 124 A. Turnhout: Brepols, 2001. Pp. 399, 761. ISBN: $150.00, $320.00 2-503-01242-6, 2-503-01244-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.01.01

Aldhelm of Malmesbury. Gwara, Scott, ed. Prosa de Virginitate cum Glosa Latina atque Anglosaxonica, 2 vols. Series: Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vols. 124, 124 A. Turnhout: Brepols, 2001. Pp. 399, 761. ISBN: $150.00, $320.00 2-503-01242-6, 2-503-01244-2.

Reviewed by:

Gernot Wieland
The University of British Columbia

As the title page proclaims, and as Gwara mentions in his Introduction, this new edition is compiled editione Rudolfi Ehwald adhibita et aucta, "making use of and augmenting Rudolf Ehwald's edition." This reverence shown to tradition on one level indicates the thoroughly conservative approach taken to the task of editing but at the same time masks some quite revolutionary statements contained in the Introduction.

A quick glance at the Textus shows one reason why Ehwald's edition is considerably aucta: Gwara has painstakingly collected all Latin and Old English glosses and prints them on the left-hand pages. Since, according to Gwara's estimate, there are some 60,000 of them, it is no wonder that their inclusion has a significant impact on the length of the volume. It also has a significant impact on the appearance of the edition since the left-hand pages are crowded with glosses in small print, while the text on the right-hand pages occupies between three to nineteen lines, and is often separated from the apparatus by considerable white space. I hasten to add that I have no suggestion to improve the book's appearance, and that I most emphatically welcome the inclusion of the Old English and Latin glosses. Aldhelm's vocabulary is notoriously difficult, but the glosses quickly help to resolve most of these difficulties. In the edition they function as a facing- page dictionary, just as in the manuscripts they serve as an interlineary dictionary. By providing both gloss and text, Gwara brings us closer to the experience which medieval readers had, and modern readers have as they peruse Aldhelm's manuscripts.

Gwara also provides a list of some 140 lexical emendations by which his edition differs from Ehwald's. Considering the length of the text, this does not constitute a very large number, and confirms Gwara's traditionalism. In addition, Gwara's detailed examination of the origin and dissemination of the glosses to Aldhelm's Prosa de virginitate (=Pdv) is a model of traditional scholarship. Examining the glosses, he comes to the conclusion that there is a "Common Recension," i.e. glosses appearing in a large number of manuscripts and thus likely to have formed an original core to which other glosses accrued. Considering the large number of manuscripts, and considering the large number of glossing hands-- Gwara counts some forty-- it was no easy undertaking to establish a "Common Recension." Gwara has done excellent work here.

So where are the revolutionary statements? Gwara makes them in chapters I and II of the Introduction, entitled respectively "Aldhelm's Career" and "The Prosa de virginitate." The first of the revolutionary statements lies in Gwara's claim that Aldhelm was a missionary, and the second can be found in his claim that the ten nuns mentioned at the beginning of the Pdv are not the abbess and sisters of one community, but abbesses of ten different convents or monasteries. Both of these claims have, to my knowledge, not been made before and fully deserve our attention.

Was Aldhelm a missionary? Here is how Gwara answers the question: "Even the present state of our knowledge encourages us to believe that Aldhelm founded a missionary outpost in a defiantly pagan territory" (46). I would like to draw attention to the words "encourages" and "believe." Clearly, we are not talking about certainties. Bede, who mentions Aldhelm in V, 18 of the Ecclesiastical History has nothing to say on any missionary activity by Aldhelm. Gwara is aware of Bede's silence, but draws a larger picture of the period and correctly identifies several heathen kings of Wessex who lived during Aldhelm's time. While this picture shows us a Wessex that has not completely converted to Christianity, it unfortunately has no unambiguous statement that would show Aldhelm as a missionary preaching to pagans, tearing down their idols and temples, or baptizing the newly-converted. In order to bolster his argument, Gwara argues that the "Pdv ... reveals itself to be the major missionary statement to have survived from the era of conversion" (62). The two pillars on which his argument rests are "virginity ... as a state engendering, first, a 'magical' power necessary to drive conversion, and second, a faculty that enabled one to endure, and even overcome, suffering" (62). It is debatable whether the Pdv concentrates more on the "magic" than on the "suffering," and quite possibly these two statements should be reversed, but even then they do not provide an unambiguous link to the missionary effort. The Pdv is addressed to those who are already converted. It may serve as a document confirming the correctness of the converts' choice, but-- aside from the fact that it is in Latin and would therefore not be understood by the pagans-- because of its negativity towards pagans it is hardly suitable as a text which a skilled missionary would use in his attempts to convert pagans.

If, however, Gwara means by "major missionary statement" a document inspiring Christians to go forth and preach to the pagans, then he first needs to ask and answer a few questions. Have stories of the faith exhibited by martyrs not always been popular in the Church, regardless of missionary activity? If the stories of the Pdv really were inspirational, why do we not have any martyrs in Wessex at that period? Would the lack of martyrs in Wessex not indicate that the pagans tolerated and even accepted the Christians in their midst, and hence did not subject them to any suffering? Would stories intending to inspire missionary zeal not concentrate on the success of the mission rather than on the missionary's earthly demise, even if this demise is interpreted as the missionary's entry into heaven? Gwara's statement about Aldhelm as missionary is undoubtedly thought-provoking and suitable for initiating discussion, but in my opinion the case for Aldhelm's missionary activity is not proven. More questions need to be answered before it can be accepted as fact.

Gwara also departs from received opinion when he claims that "one could assume that Aldhelm addressed his text to West Saxon abbesses generally" (53). He carefully declares his claim to be a "hypothesis," and yet pursues this hypothesis with great fervour. The received opinion states that Aldhelm addressed the Pdv to Hildelith, abbess of Barking, and that the other nuns mentioned-- Justina, Cuthburg, Osburg, Aldgyth, Scholastica, Hydburg, Beorngyth, Eulalia, and Thecla-- formed part of the Barking convent. Gwara, however, notices that an "inauthentic" charter, which "could record genuine evidence" provides us with a "Cuthburg" as abbess of Wimborne in 705, i.e. some twenty years after the presumed composition of Pdv. On the basis of this charter he suggests that Cuthburg never was a nun at Barking, but always had been abbess of Wimborne. Similarly, an authentic charter of 681 identifies one "Bernguidi" (=Beorngyth) as second abbess of Bath, and she promptly becomes another dedicatee of the Pdv. And finally, Gwara speculates that "Osburg" of the dedication may be identical to one "Bugga," who had been granted land near Withington in the reign of Aethelred of Mercia (674X704), and can be presumed to be Withington's first abbess. Gwara's detective work is very intriguing, and he may well be right, though one wishes that he could equally well identify the remaining "abbesses." He does overlook one important lexical item, though. Aldhelm singles out Hildelith by referring to her as regularis disciplinae ... magistra[.]. None of the other nuns are similarly distinguished. The question is: why is Hildelith referred to as "teacher," but all the other supposed abbesses are not given any honorific titles? Gwara inadvertently provides a strong indication that magistra does indeed refer to an "abbess," when he quotes William of Malmesbury describing the abbess Cuthburg as ipsa magistra regulae Wimburnae. If magistra, as is likely, does refer to an "abbess," then the absence of any such title for the nine nuns other than Hildelith would suggest that they are not "abbesses," but indeed "nuns." I should add that though Gwara has not convinced me, I find his hypothesis most intriguing. If more historical evidence of the period be unearthed that proves that an Eulalia, Hydburg, or Aldgyth likewise was an abbess of a convent or double monastery around Malmesbury, then Gwara's hypothesis could coagulate into a strong argument. As it stands, however, it is no more than a fascinating speculation.

The remainder of the Introduction consists of three more chapters: chapter III, "The Glossed Manuscripts of Pdv;" chapter IV "Highlights of the Transmission of the Old English and Latin Glosses to Pdv;" and chapter V, "How to Use this Edition." These chapters provide a detailed description of all the glossed manuscripts and establish a stemma, argue for the "common recension," and briefly comment on the differences between Gwara's and Ehwald's editions. Much of this sounds very traditional: Gwara relies on collation of texts and glosses, and detailed and careful examination of the evidence so established. The arguments are often complicated and replicating them would transcend the expected length of a review. Suffice it to say that the conclusions often depart from received opinion and take earlier scholars to task for evidence they had ignored: Napier (194), Goossens (195ff), and Page (220), for instance, are shown to have missed important evidence. Since Gwara's conclusions rest on the evidence of both Latin and Old English glosses of all PdV manuscripts, while earlier scholars concentrated on Old English glosses alone, and not always on the full range of manuscripts, Gwara can indeed advance our knowledge of the transmission of both text and glosses of the PdV. Even when he is traditional, he can still be revolutionary.

Without doubt, this is an important edition. Though I am not convinced of all the points Gwara makes, especially his characterization of Aldhelm as a missionary, and his claim that Aldhelm did not dedicate the PdV to one abbess and nine nuns but to ten abbesses, I will readily admit that these points are fascinating and deserve further study. What impresses most about the edition is the tremendous amount of work that went into collecting all of the circa 60,000 glosses, the subsequent diligence with which this unwieldy amount of evidence was examined, and the sometimes startling results the evidence yields.