The Medieval Review 10.10.16

Godden, Malcolm and Susan Irvine. The Old English Boethius: An Edition of the Old English Versions of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae (2 vols). New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. 1240. $365 ISBN 978-0-19-925966-3. .

Reviewed by:

Sharon Rowley
Christopher Newport University

This meticulous, thorough two-volume set fills a longstanding gap in the editorial history of the Old English version of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae. Godden and Irvine, along with Mark Griffith and Rohini Jayatilaka, whom the editors acknowledge "are essentially the third and fourth editors of this book" (xii), ably combine much original historical, linguistic and paleographical scholarship with philology in these two volumes. Not only do the editors present the first ever critical edition of the prosimetrical version and the first edition of the prose version to be published in over a century--no mean feat in and of itself--but they also include a detailed commentary, extensive textual notes, a complete glossary and fluid Modern English translations of both versions. The critical texts, notes and apparatus will provide valuable resources to scholars and students of Old English, as well as scholars of early Middle English and the transition between periods. Their discussion of the medieval commentary tradition and of the phonology of texts will provoke debate on textual and intellectual communities in Anglo-Saxon England, as well as contribute to the vigorous rethinking of Old English dialects that has begun to take place in recent years. The translations, combined with the editors' discussion of the medieval commentary tradition, not only make these texts newly accessible to scholars of late antique and early medieval philosophy and history, but present important new data for and scholarship on the history and reception of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae and the philosophical tradition among the Carolingians as well as in early Britain (hereafter, the De Consolatione Philosophiae will be cited as DCP).

The multi-disciplinary scope of this edition warrants a complete outline of the contents: Volume I begins with a "select," but extensive bibliography, including previous editions, primary and secondary sources. Lists of abbreviations and manuscript sigla for the Latin DCP follow. The introduction begins with a brief account of Boethius, his DCP, early medieval commentary on the text and an initial comment on the Old English versions. The detailed manuscript descriptions cover Junius's transcription and the lost Napier Fragment in addition to the two main Old English manuscripts: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 180 (B; late eleventh- or early twelfth-century, the prose version) and London, British Library, Cotton Otho (C; tenth-century, the prosimetrical version). After a brief discussion of manuscript relations and textual transmission, the editors present a detailed account of the composition, nature and purpose of the Old English prose version, plus a treatment of Boethian terminology in Old English. Mark Griffith's extensive chapter on "The Composition of the Metres" and prosody follows.

Volume I continues with a balanced, yet provocative discussions of "The Relation of the OE Boethius to other Alfredian Texts," the authorship and dates of both versions, language, orthography, phonology, accidence, diction and syntax. A section on later uses includes discussions of AElfric, the Distichs of Cato, and Nicholas Trevet, who wrote a commentary on the DCP around 1300, in which he cites the OE version. After an account and critique of previous editions, the editors provide their editorial conventions and a Table of Correspondences between the two OE versions and the Latin. Readers unfamiliar with the conventions by which scholars refer to different sections of the DCP would do well to familiarize themselves with this Table before reading the introduction. The first volume concludes with critical texts of B and C, Napier's printed fragment and a brief section of passages in which AElfric of Eynsham draws on the OE Boethius.

Volume II includes the translations, textual notes, commentary, glossary and list of proper names. The glossary usefully cites six examples after the headword, and indicates whether words are poetic, prosaic or unique. Although the contents of Volume II can be summarized in one short sentence, the value of this volume should not be underestimated. Having the translation, notes, commentary and glossary in a separate volume facilitates reading and reference tremendously, as one can have both volumes open so as to look at the text and commentary (or the notes or glossary) simultaneously, without having to flip back and forth in the same volume.

A close look at the editions themselves both confirms the wisdom of choosing the two-volume format, and demonstrates the skill with which the editors combine a massive amount of information in a reader- friendly lay-out. Reader-friendly, I should caution, to those who take care to spend time on the "Discussion of Editorial Procedure and Conventions." In addition to advising readers as to how the two layers of apparatus work, the nature of the editorial signs, and the significance of the marginal annotations, the editors reveal some crucial information here. For example, the Prose Version, edited from B, follows fresh transcriptions from the manuscripts and an examination of high-resolution digital images. The editors consider data from C, as well as Junius's transcriptions and the choices of previous editors, where relevant. The edition of the Prosimetrical Version, derives from C. Because this manuscript was badly damaged in the fire at Ashburnham House in 1731, the editors have also used digital images using both normal and ultra-violet light (for which they thank both the British Library and Kevin Kiernan). They reconstruct C using what they have gleaned from the manuscript combined with readings from B and Junius's edition.

The choice to use the later manuscript along with a set of early Modern transcriptions and edition may raise a few eyebrows amongst those who believe that editors ought only to consider the best and oldest manuscripts when emending their text. However, given that both manuscripts are unique and given the extensive damage to C, careful deliberation of the significant variants in relation to scribal practice and the historical record of readings (qualified, of course, by a close study of Junius's habits aided by Kees Dekker) provides the editors with evidence that allows them to determine "where there is good reason to think that [a reading] represents the original translation from which both B and C derive" (226). Accordingly, the editors mark emendations in square brackets, and indicate where they reconstruct C by using italics. Although the editors expand abbreviations silently, they carefully account for and visually mark all of their other interventions in the text. Some readers of Old English texts and manuscripts, long familiar with the more draconian and often invisible interventions of many nineteenth-century editors (who nevertheless provided accurate texts invaluable to the study of Old English), will be exceedingly grateful to Godden and Irvine for the clarity of their layout and apparatus, and for their concise, transparent discussion of practices and conventions.

The choice to emend based on a consideration of surviving readings and scribal practices may also derive, at least in part, from the complicated findings of the editors' study of the language and phonology of the texts. They adduce a complex situation, beginning with the tenth-century evidence of C, revealing phonological and orthographical evidence demonstrating both eWS (early West Saxon) and some lWS (late West Saxon) features "infiltrated" by Kentish. They note that the scribe of C "seems to have moved easily between forms characteristic of each dialect," plus Mercian and Kentish, suggesting that he was either "south-eastern or WS in origin" (153). Although they determine that "the BC archetype was, according to this hypothesis, a copy made in the south-east from a WS original" and suggest that a Wessex origin is "more likely to be correct" than Canterbury for the original translation, they do not oversimplify the nature of the linguistic evidence (171). The frequency with which the analysis reveals that any given variation may reflect either Mercian or Kentish dialect influence, or some combination of eWS or lWS clearly limits the extent to which the editors could emend based on our current understanding of OE dialects.

Linguistic evidence from B not only complicates the picture further, but also provides information important to our understanding of the transition from Old to Middle English. While the scribe of B includes more lWS forms than early ones, the editors point out that some "graphemic confusion...may suggest that the scribe's writing tradition is the lWS standard, but that in his spoken language has occurred the levelling of previously distinct sounds associated with the transition between Old and early Middle English" (170). Combined, the layers of transmission of the texts of the OE Boethius provide linguistic information ranging from early to lWS, across the complex relationship between these dialects, Kentish and Mercian (evidence, perhaps, of a kind of intellectual Schriftprovinz), and into the transitional phases between OE and ME. As a result, the sections on language alone make this edition invaluable to a wide range of scholars and will contribute to current research on dialect accommodation in Old English, as well as provide important new data for sociolinguistic studies of OE dialects.

Another area in which this edition contributes valuable original scholarship is in the analysis of the ways in which the Old English versions incorporated aspects of the medieval commentary tradition. In fact, their analysis and data challenge the established scholarly consensus on both the nature of the commentary and its use in OE Boethius. Although the initial section on commentary is quite brief (5-8), it provides a succinct history of relevant scholarship and previews the fact that the current study suggests that the commentaries are no such thing; rather, they are "highly fluid compilations of glosses and scholia, continually supplemented and adapted over a long period" and reflective of more than the two distinct strands historically designated as "Remigian" and "St. Gall" (7-8). Later, in the section entitled "The Use of Boethian Commentary," is where the editors' work (especially Jayatilaka's) really pays off. Because many of the manuscripts were transmitted from France to Wales, Cornwall and/or England, "by many hands in many places...through a process of collation and copying and augmentation over three centuries," the editors collated "seventy-five pre-1100 manuscripts" (55). In doing so, they have been able to identify "over thirty cases of extremely probable influence, most of them not noticed before" (55). These findings entirely overturn earlier conclusions that any similarities must be merely coincidental. In turn, these findings also shed an entirely new light on the scholarly and intellectual situation in Anglo-Saxon England, the extent to which plays out in the commentary provided by the editors in Volume II. Far from having fallen off, it seems that Latin learning was alive and well--at least in relation to the DCP, its glosses and scholia- -in some tenth-century centres of learning, whether Wessex or Canterbury.

The depth of Latin learning confirmed by the combined lexical accuracy and consistency with which the translator renders key Boethian terminology, and the clearly attested awareness of the medieval Latin commentary tradition will undoubtedly cause the minds of Anglo- Saxonists to turn toward Alfred's Preface to the Old English translation of Gregory the Great's Cura Pastoralis, which claims that "learning had declined so thoroughly in England that there were very few men on this side of the Humber who could understand their divine services in English or even translate a single letter from Latin into English." [1] Clearly, at least as regards this text, Alfred was wrong. Indeed, the editors date the original translation of the OE Boethius to sometime between 890 and 930, but "worked on the hypothesis that the OE Boethius was the work of an unknown writer of substantial learning" (146). They present a long, clear, and balanced comparison of the text to other "Alfredian" texts, as well as internal and external evidence. Any scholars interested in the continued debate about Alfredian authorship will find these sections balanced, thorough and thought-provoking.

This review has already waxed long, but the 1240 pages under review have proven to be a rich combination of hard philology and innovative scholarship. Scholars and students of Old and Middle English language, literature and prosody, along with late antique and early medieval historians and philosophers will find a wealth of information here in the form of an accurate, clear edition with an insightful, informative introduction. The apparatus is easy to use, with textual notes, commentary and glossary conveniently located in the second volume. I would have liked to see a few more images, especially in relation to the editors' discussion of the commentary and linguistic forms, but production costs for such a lengthy work must have precluded that possibility. Although this is a costly set, it is well worth the investment. These volumes demonstrate clearly the complexity of the history, transmission and reception of this text. They also demonstrate the massive amount of learning and scholarship this team of editors brought to the table in order to be able to produce such an historically, linguistically and paleographically sensitive, yet critical, edition. While some purists may object to the combination of texts that contributed to the readings, they will always be able to ascertain which text any given reading came from, as well as whether any emendation was made to that text. All in all, this is an extremely useful, important and insightful set of books; I, for one, am extremely grateful to Drs. Godden, Irvine, Griffith and Jayatilaka for all their hard work.

-------- Notes:

1. Alfred, "Prose Preface," Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources, ed. and trans. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (Penguin: 1983), p. 125.