Roy Liuzza

title.none: Marsden, The Cambridge Old English Reader (Roy Liuzza)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.015 04.12.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Roy Liuzza, University of Tennessee,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Marsden, Richard. The Cambridge Old English Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xxxiv, 532. $85.00 0-521-45426-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.15

Marsden, Richard. The Cambridge Old English Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pp. xxxiv, 532. $85.00 0-521-45426-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Roy Liuzza
University of Tennessee

For all the disheartening talk one hears these days about the decline of Old English studies in universities, there is no shortage of books intended for the Old English classroom: Mitchell and Robinson's Guide to Old English is now in its sixth edition (2001), and Bruce Mitchell's Introduction to Old English and Anglo-Saxon Studies (1995) is still in print. More recent works include Peter Baker's Introduction to Old English and Richard Hogg's Introduction to Old English (both 2003); R. D. Fulk has revised, expanded and renamed John Pope's venerable Seven Old English Poems (2001), long a mainstay of introductory classes, and Elaine Treharne's Old and Middle English anthology has gone into a second edition (2004). Are the great publishing houses all striving to corner the lucrative market in introductory Old English texts? Probably not. It seems more likely that this variety reflects not so much a proliferation of new courses and students as a general lack of consensus on how, exactly, one goes about teaching Old English in the modern university.

The challenge of teaching Old English may lie in the fact that one must do so many things simultaneously, and in most universities within a single semester. First one must introduce a language with all its accoutrements--grammatical terms, paradigms, vocabulary, rules, exceptions, idioms, and the even more ponderous armature of Germanic philology, with its ablauts and breakings, its laws and classes, and its focus on comparative phonology. This language one tries to introduce is embodied quite imperfectly in the surviving manuscripts, so for almost every rule one must admit the occasional exception, and for every memorized form a manuscript variant. Second one must introduce students to the complexities of a distant historical period, its laws and customs, its cultural expectations, its political movements and its own imagined histories, its great names and vast unknown spaces. Third one must try to convince an already overtaxed body of students that the texts through which they are struggling, looking up nouns and verbs, construing subjects and predicates, glossing strange new items of vocabulary, are in fact literary works whose form and style and meaning are worthy of notice, and that once they have exhausted themselves over the literal translation of the text there is still a world of beauty and delight awaiting them in the wordplay and imagery, variation and balance, echoes and allusions, sentence structure and diction.

Simple arithmetic suggests that such a task is beyond any teacher of Old English--there are not enough minutes in the academic hour even to mention all these things, let alone explain them to the whole gamut of students in a classroom. Culture militates against it as well--just when it no longer seems sufficient to focus an Old English class entirely on phonology and sound change or use texts strictly as data for linguistic inquiry, one can no longer assume that students begin the semester with even a basic understanding of grammar and the study of language; many of them may not know terms like "dative" and "clause," or recognize categories like declensions and structures like inflectional paradigms. Much of one's time must therefore be spent in what is frankly remedial instruction in the basic terms used to talk about language. In a pedagogical climate in which expanding ambitions meet diminishing expectations, where students need considerably more instruction in the basics of language learning than they once did, and the instructional task seems larger and more complex than ever before, can a responsible teacher of Old English really hope to impart, along with some basic reading knowledge of the language, a sense of the richness, diversity, strangeness, beauty, and importance of Anglo-Saxon culture? Richard Marsden's Cambridge Old English Reader speaks to these concerns by offering a bountiful assortment of diverse texts thoughtfully edited for basic students of Old English. The book seems to arise from a long and dedicated engagement with Old English pedagogy, and its sheer diversity and breadth of scope makes it likely that almost any teacher of Old English will find something in it of value.

Marsden lays out his goals in his Preface; he hopes the work will offer "a range of texts far wider than the narrow canon available in the primers and readers in print" and that these texts will be "edited to modern standards of 'userfriendliness,' in the way of presentation, glossing and annotation" (ix). It is of course possible to interrogate these intentions at the outset--how narrow is the range of currently-available material? what reasons lie behind the ubiquity of certain canonical texts? what exactly constitutes "friendliness" in a student edition?--but a closer look at the texts and their presentations helps clarify Marsden's conception of these issues and indicates that he fully delivers on his promise. A textbook is somewhat like a cookbook--it is designed for performance, not for the solitude of the study; both kinds of books require a certain amount of imaginative energy to reveal their real character. And in the process of imagining the scenes implied by the text, one can also infer something of the taste and character of the work's author. Every page of this book reveals the intelligence and attention to detail that characterize Marsden's scholarly work; in his textual practices one may also catch glimpses of his pedagogical principles.

The selection of texts is imaginative and eclectic; Marsden edits fifty-six texts grouped into sections like "Teaching and Learning," "Keeping a Record" and "Spreading the Word" (on preaching and biblical translation). These seem naturally suited for use as course units, though he recognizes that the groupings are somewhat arbitrary and the same texts could be reorganized into different but equally valid groups. Each section begins with a concise introduction, and individual selections have more detailed headnotes. Sectional introductions are somewhat unsystematic: the section on "Teaching and Learning," for example, leaps from Bede to Ælfric to Alfred to Ælfwine to Bald's Leechbook, offering not so much an overview of the proposed topic as a justification for the collection of texts that follows. This does not detract from their value; Marsden's book is a reader, not a literary or cultural history, and the introductions will help students make connections they might not otherwise recognize. Each introductory section concludes with a brief bibliography for "Further Reading."

The texts include a number of familiar prose pieces, such as a selection from Ælfric's Colloquy, Alfred's Preface to the Pastoral Care and Ælfric's preface to Genesis, some entries from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bede's story of Cædmon, Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi and brief selections from the Hexateuch and the Gospels. But many interesting and less familiar pieces are also found, such as three selections from the Ælfwine Prayerbook (London, BL Cotton Titus D.xxvi and xxvii), recipes from Bald's Leechbook, selections from Ælfric's Grammar and the OE Boethius, a substantial selection of Anglo-Saxon laws, and the Fonthill Letter. The poetry too combines the familiar--The Seafarer, The Battle of Maldon, Wulf and Eadwacer, some Riddles, a slice of Beowulf--and the offbeat, including a passage from Genesis B, the Durham Proverbs, Maxims II, and even Bede's Death Song in both Northumbrian and West-Saxon versions. The presence of this last-mentioned poem, otherwise a curious choice--if ever an Old English poem deserved to be called marginal, it is Bede's Death Song--betrays one of Marsden's real interests: the evidence for Old English dialects. From the textual introductions to the annotations, this work consistently pays more detailed attention to orthography and phonology than almost any other introductory Old English reader. Marsden seldom passes up an opportunity to call attention to dialectal features in a text or to characterize spellings as late, early, or odd. This philological material may be beyond the needs of a beginning student and outside the scope of an introductory class, but it will be interesting to more advanced readers, and available to any student who may become unexpectedly intrigued by the play of language across time. Marsden's book would be an excellent choice for a class that wanted to emphasize dialect, orthography, and language change; by making this material so abundantly and easily available it may even convince some teachers to point out (or, one suspects, to re-learn themselves) the variations in dialect and orthography that are such important evidence for the cultural history of Old English.

The book also contains a "Reference Grammar" (355-95), thorough and compactly organized but perhaps too dense for the sort of beginning students imagined by the texts; a glossary; a guide to terms (mostly grammatical, but also literary); and a subject index. The glossary is complete but not comprehensive--it includes every word but not every occurrence of it. Nouns in the glossary are classified by type (e.g., "B2i") keyed to the Reference Grammar, a fairly elaborate scheme which is, as with other features of the book, perhaps beyond the needs of the casual student but useful for more serious scholars.

The page layout of the individual selections is complex and requires some explanation. In each text glossed words are marked with bubbles; marginal glosses appear for the poetry and foot-of-the-page glosses for prose texts. This latter system is not as convenient for the reader as it must has been for the publisher, and the added difficulty of placing marginal glosses alongside the prose would probably have been worth the effort. The glossed words are also found in the Glossary at the back of the book; the glosses are presumably not intended to replace the Glossary, though no doubt that is what they will do for many students. Annotations at the bottom of each page are signaled in the texts by half-brackets; the notes "cover historical context, as well as matters of grammar, syntax and vocabulary" (xvii). Sometimes, in fact, they cover several of these at once. Not all the notes will be regarded as equally necessary. Some supply basic facts of Christian doctrine (e.g., the Eucharist, the Crucifixion) which students might well be expected to have discovered for themselves. Others (like the introductions to the texts) may be faulted as too narrowly prescriptive in their interpretations--e.g., the note on ofermod in The Battle of Maldon, p. 258; they offer students easy answers to difficult questions of interpretation which arguably ought to be earned, not given. Still others state as facts what are really points of considerable scholarly contention (e.g., the question of the date of Beowulf, pp. 270-1). But if any book could somehow manage to cover so much diverse territory without making any claims with which one or another of its readers would disagree, it would hardly be worth reading.

At many points in his edited texts Marsden seems committed to introducing students to the full evidence of the manuscript, in all its oddity and inconsistency. This is a somewhat unusual decision in a student reader, conceivably at odds with the dedication to "userfriendliness" expressed in the Preface, and it is worth considering in more detail; for reasons of space two small examples must suffice as illustrations. A short text (only forty-one words) on the Age of the Virgin from the Ælfwine Prayerbook (selection 2c, p. 16) expresses relationships of time four times: for three of these it uses the genitive plural, including "geara" twice; once it uses the accusative "gear," in a grammatical situation precisely parallel to the genitive "geara" in the preceding phrase. Marsden leaves "gear" in the text and adds a note explaining that it is an "acc. of time." This is a reasonable explanation, and probably intended as a reminder to students that they must not expect complete consistency in the grammar even of a single text. But one cannot help wondering whether it would not have been better to emend, on the assumption that "gear" is not a variant but a copying error for "geara" (since the genitive of time is regular elsewhere in this section of the MS). Certainly in a critical edition one would never emend such a form, but in a student edition it might be misleading not to emend, giving the impression of linguistic inconsistency where there is very probably only scribal error. In Bede's story of Cædmon (selection 9b, p. 78, edited from Oxford, Bodl. Lib. Tanner 10), Marsden retains MS belumpen in the first sentence, a form which looks like a subjunctive plural, where one would expect an indicative belumpon. Other manuscripts in fact have the standard form in -on, and the Tanner MS itself uses the standard form in the same word a few lines further on. Marsden's note states that "belumpen is a [subjunctive] form," but it might have been more less misleading to say only that "the scribe has written -en for -on" and avoid any pronouncement on the meaning of this variation: in truth all that can be said is that in this instance the subjunctive and indicative endings have lost their distinction, and again, what looks like linguistic variety may be only orthographic inconsistency.

One can certainly understand the desire to leave the complexities of the manuscripts in the text--students need to understand the irregular nature of the evidence for Old English--and one must appreciate the care with which they are pointed out to the reader. And yet what makes the practice more striking is the fact that when emendations are made, they are not indicated in any way in the texts but consigned to a list of "Manuscripts and textual emendations" on pp. 345-54. Given Marsden's obvious commitment to the readings of the manuscript, this is an opportunity lost. It assumes, for one thing, that it is always possible to distinguish scribal errors from scribal variation, an assumption which deserves to be considered far more closely. It conceals editorial decisions that have consequences not only for understanding scribal practice but also for understanding the texts themselves--in the Finnsburh episode of Beowulf, for example (selection 31a), common but not uncontroversial emendations are made which have profound consequences for how we understand the action of the story, and yet nothing in the text alerts the reader to the fact that what he or she is reading is not in fact text found in the manuscript. Noting these emendations would hardly have made the texts, already marked with bubbles and brackets, any less complicated for the beginning student to decipher, or have further marred an already busy page design. Their presence on the same page as the text would have complemented the ample notes on grammatical oddities and dialectal forms, introduced students to the apparatus found in full critical editions, and offered further opportunities for discussing the complicated relationship between evidence and interpretation, manuscript and text, scribe and author and reader, in the study of Old English literature.

Questions of page design and textual emendation may be minor in themselves but they trace the contours of a much more serious debate on pedagogy and practical training, and they raise provocative and perhaps intractable questions of the propriety and the limits of textual emendation and explanatory apparatus. Of this Marsden is fully aware, and takes a vigorous and principled stand: in his preface he quotes with disapproval the view of Henry Sweet that students should be given only a text and a dictionary, and counters that "[t]he aim of this Reader is both to enable students to read Old English texts and positively to encourage them to do so. There is no virtue, as far as I can see, in withholding anything that might help them" (ix). These are generous words, and the rich variety of resources in the book attest to the seriousness of his intention to live up to them. But some features of the page design and textual practice--the hesitation to emend where emendation seems harmless and eminently justifiable in a student edition, and the contrary policy of invisibly altering the text when one does emend--unavoidably makes one consider more closely the precise nature of the "help" that students need. At the same time, the placement of glosses on the same page as the text, which will no doubt be a time-saving aid to reading for many casual students, might well ensure that such students always remain casual readers, seldom having to puzzle out a form or consult a glossary, never forced to survive by their wits in Sweet's stark landscape armed with only a text and a dictionary. They may come away from a book like this believing that they have learned Old English, when in fact they have relied throughout on the editor's generous same-page glosses for their entire sense of the text.

It is one of the great strengths of Old English studies that one is never far away from these fundamental questions of text, meaning, and audience; no reader or editor of an Old English text has the luxury of taking these matters for granted. Even as it raises such questions of practice and pedagogy, Marsden's Reader offers much to admire: the scholarly precision of its texts, the generosity of its apparatus, the insights of its annotations and introductions, and the obvious talent and care with which it was assembled. The book is a boon to beginners and advanced students who might want to experience some of the of the vividness and variety of Old English literature, and a challenge to teachers whose pedagogy has become routinized in a few canonical texts, unquestioned assumptions and repetitive readings. It is a welcome reminder that there are many roads less traveled in Old English studies--not just texts, but ways of thinking about texts and ways of presenting texts, literary themes, cultural history, and an exciting diversity of languages, manuscripts, and approaches. The rich banquet found in the Cambridge Reader would not easily be exhausted in a semester, or even a year-long course in Old English; it is sure to inspire in both students and teachers alike a fresh dedication to the work of understanding Anglo-Saxon England.