Jan Crenshaw

title.none: Fairweather, Liber Eliensis (Jan Crenshaw)

identifier.other: baj9928.0711.023 07.11.23

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Jan Crenshaw, San Jacinto College, Jan.

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Fairweather, Janet, trans. Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005. Pp. xliv, 576. ISBN: $60.00 1-84383-015-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.11.23

Fairweather, Janet, trans. Liber Eliensis: A History of the Isle of Ely from the Seventh Century to the Twelfth. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2005. Pp. xliv, 576. ISBN: $60.00 1-84383-015-9.

Reviewed by:

Jan Crenshaw
San Jacinto College

Today's medieval historians should welcome the first translation into modern English of this important but problematic source. This massive work begins with the seventh century establishment of a church at Ely by King Aethelberht and ends with the death of Thomas Becket in 1170. The Liber Eliensis (hereafter referred to as LE) is divided into three books reflecting the major changes in the institution's status. The first is dedicated to the life and miracles as Saint Aethelthryth (also known as Etheldreda or Audrey), founder and first abbess of what was begun as a double monastery, its destruction by the Danes in 870, and its subsequent history to the reign of King Edgar. Book II begins with the restoration of Ely by Edgar, this time as a Benedictine monastery under Dunstan; the abbacies of Stigand, Thurstan, and Richard of Bec; and ends during the reign of Henry I. The third book starts with the conversion of Ely to an episcopal see and its history under the reign of its first two bishops, Hervey, who apparently commissioned this history, and the despicable Nigel.

LE is important for a number of reasons. The author/translator/compiler, who remains unknown, apparently worked from Ely's own library and cartulary, sometimes citing his sources such as his direct references to Bede but more often inserting sentences and even whole texts without acknowledgement. Books II and III especially are heavily interlarded with royal charters, papal privileges and mandates, and archiepiscopal and episcopal letters and charters. The work provides accounts of the battles of Maldon and Hastings, paralleling but not always agreeing with better-known sources. The level of learning at Ely is reflected in the work's allusions to Greek mythology and Roman history, the occasional Greek word, and the generally high quality of the Latin into which the earlier documents had been rendered from Old English. The text reflects a lively interest in the politics of the day since the monastery was occasionally in the thick of it, as when it was besieged by William I. At other times it provides a view of events limited by its location, as in the case of the Anarchy. Here, nonetheless, the writer makes no secret of his pro-Stephen sentiments. Attitudes of the era permeate the work, be it a comment on the "inconstancy of the feminine mind" or, as in one of its several detailed land transactions, when it includes in the listing of stock to be exchanged not only sheep, pigs, and oxen but also two men. It provides insights into the economics of monastic life with references to food rent and an explanation of "shoe-land." Medical symptoms are described so minutely that one suspects that a modern diagnostician could identify what had ailed the medieval sufferer. Problematic for modern historians are the numerous miracles and tales of divine retribution, shape-shifters and witches which are reported credulously throughout.

Fairweather based her English translation upon a Latin edition by E. O. Blake published in 1962, which he had constructed from twelve variant manuscripts, primarily Trinity College, Cambridge, MS O.2.1. Blake's edition is meticulously footnoted as to where it had been supplemented from the other versions or when the text was so corrupt that words simply had to be provided to make some sense of the original.

Fairweather describes herself as "a Latinist with no particular expertise in medieval English history." She has wisely turned for help from a host of outstanding scholars in the field including Simon Keynes and Rosalind Love, whose personal comments are scrupulously footnoted. Fairweather has retained Blake's arrangement into books and sections, footnotes and appendices which are comprised of the full text of the Libellus Aethelwaldi, the opening chapter of the Book of Miracles (British Library MS Cotton, Domitian A iv), and a poem on the translation of the Ely saints by Richard of Bec (British Library MS Cotton Domitian A xv). She has added her own footnotes to explain the bases of her translations, relating the Latin to Old English and Anglo-Norman usages, for a total of 1123 footnotes for the 495 pages of the text and appendices. To Blake's name index she has added a topic index. The two indices cite book and section numbers rather than page numbers so that they may be used to reference not only her English translation but also Blake's Latin edition. To one appendix she has restored some lines omitted from Blake's. Her extremely useful introduction serves as a caveat for those proposing to undertake the translation of such a complex work, explains the apparatus used to identify the inclusions to the basic manuscript, and also includes concise explanations of dating, money, weights, measures, social ranks and legal and feudal terminology. Of particular interest is a full listing of all of the Latin and Old English authorities cited or paralleled in the LE. Her choice of such words as "hullabaloo" and "hankering" enliven the text more than it is reasonable to expect.

Fairweather suggests the need for further research as to the exact relationship of LE to the Chronicle of the Abbots and Bishops of Ely and for an exhaustive historical commentary for LE. Until that time, this translation will be a godsend to historians who do not want to become Latinists in order to use this source.