13.09.25, Rowley, The Old English Version of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica

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Kelley M. Wickham-Crowley

The Medieval Review 13.09.25

Rowley, Sharon M.. The Old English Version of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica. Anglo-Saxon Studies 16. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2011. Pp. xii, 258. ISBN: 978-1-84384-273-6.

Reviewed by:
Kelley M. Wickham-Crowley
Georgetown University

Sharon M. Rowley's excellent study of the Old English version of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica recasts our views on this most important text in all its variations. She clearly shows how scholars have privileged the Latin text at significant cost to what the Old English manuscripts demonstrate about reshaping Bede's text for altered purposes. The book, nine chapters and a conclusion, is remarkably readable for its level of detail and close reasoning. Its first two chapters begin with the material evidence of manuscripts and editions, covering contexts and the history of scholarship. Rowley then addresses key aspects of Bede's Latin text (his idea of gentes, "national" identity, and his view of Rome and the English as central to salvation history) to set up how the OEHE reshapes those aspects some two centuries later. The next chapters focus on issues of authority, ranging across dialogues over translation, papal authority and its place in the text, conversion, gender, and substitution. She shows how the OEHE addresses place and localizes its narrative and its teleological goals, examining the three Otherworld visions in the latter part of the history. Rowley's final chapters look in detail at signs of use in the surviving manuscripts, methodically examining what they tell us of reader reception through the fourteenth century and the evidence for skilled readers of Old English later than many would grant. Along the way, using theory with a light touch, she reveals intelligent revision of narrative strategies and genuinely exciting details, such as previously unknown neuming of non-liturgical texts.

No tenth century Latin copies of Bede's history exist for England, but we have five manuscripts in Old English from that time, whole and partial. The earliest manuscript evidence for the OEHE dates between c. 883 and 930. Rowley considers translation as transformation, an act of reading and shaping. Instead of the problematic relationship of text and "reality," she engages OEHE as concerned with representation and narration, a witness to how uses and understandings of Bede's text changed over the centuries. After rehearsing the main arguments about West Saxon vs. Mercian translation of OEHE, Rowley asks a provocative question: since Bede saw himself as living on the edge of the known world, what if the main translator did too? He would be not part of Alfred's circle but in dialogue with it. She notes that the Old English (OE) wealhstod, "translator," more literally means "foreigner/Welsh/Briton stands," and such a standing evokes both opponent and representative. The "dynamics of confrontation that form the conditions for translation" allow her to historicize Bede's account and the place of Latin in a culture where multiple languages co-exist, "producing and being produced by contact and difference, increasingly marked by status" (9). Modern editions reiterate the complications and status issues. Of the four editions, Thomas Miller's edition of 1890-1898 is the standard but gives a "deeply misleading impression" (27). Miller provides an OE edition of the Bodleian's Tanner 10 with translation, but rearranges the (different) OE narrative silently, privileging the order of the Latin text (which he does not print) and thus basing his comments on a flawed process. This intervention erases what the surviving material text can tell us of translation and reader reception, falsifying the OE text that modern scholars have "known" and justifying Rowley's project to accept the OE versions as revealing in themselves, even if some are incomplete. If we see their gaps as "facts of material textuality and part of the readerly experience" which "confronts the act of reading history as such" (34), it increases "readerly self-consciousness, as one strives to locate subject, time and place" to establish meaning (35).

Asking to what degree awareness of continuity survives from the Mercian hegemony to the writing of the OEHE, Rowley's Chapter 2 notes that parts of southwest Mercia included monasteries and centers of learning such as Worcester which survived the Viking attacks. Recent scholarship suggests greater continuity in the Christian tradition of the West Midlands than Bede records; the translator may have had access to British church materials that prompted revisions to Bede. Rowley reads Mercia then as a "crucial geographical and intellectual bridge...between earlier and later Anglo-Saxon England," noting Michelle Brown's points that the Mercians produced some of the finest Anglo-Saxon art and that the Book of Cerne provides some of the earliest OE prose (53). She concludes that linguistic evidence suggests OEHE is part of a "larger arc of cultural transmission from Mercia to Wessex--though not as part of King Alfred's program" (54). The independence of the translation emerges in its less negative view of the British and a reduction of Roman centrality to the history.

Chapter 3 engages the translation of Bede's gentes names and the question of "national" identity in OEHE. Did the OEHE help construct national identity at the West Saxon court? Despite its circulation in Alfred's time and after, the OEHE does not stress the unifying Alfredian term Angelcynn, meaning the English race or people, England, the English language, etc. How Bede's gens Anglorum is translated in over twenty ways challenges whether OEHE asserts a common identity at all, evidenced by three Tables of Gentes terms from the Latin Bede, the OE Corpus, OEHE, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (64-67). To simplify, the Mercian translation uses Ongelcynn and Ongelþeod, the latter the most frequent, the former used half the time in pairings with race and kinship grouping terms. For England itself, the OEHE exclusively uses Breotone. Rowley concludes the OEHE "articulates the history of the Ongle as one þeod, mægðe, cynn, folc and cirice among the many in Breoton" (70).

Chapter 4 demonstrates the significant reshaping of Bede's salvation history in the OEHE. Where Bede's Latin emphasizes British heresies to drive the Britons to geographical margins and redraw boundaries in favor of the Germanic chosen people, the OE performs a self-conscious reconceptualization. It gives a detailed account of Alban, presents British Christianity more positively than in Bede's Latin, omits the Pelagian heresy, and blames military weakness rather than moral weakness for British failure. The OEHE omits the Alleluia victory and goes directly to Augustine's Oak, relocates the stinging charge that the British refused to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Book V, and notably adds details using its noted "tautological, alliterating word pairs" (84). The results make the English and Irish thoroughly Catholic/Roman, with the Britons refusing the unity of God's Church by rejecting Roman Easter practices. The account Bede's Latin gives of the Easter controversy is much reduced in OEHE, omitting Whitby completely but not, as earlier scholars argued, because the debate is old and dead. Rowley again produces stimulating reasons: the state of computus had changed between Bede's day and the late ninth century, and the textual omission of Pelagius thus increases the "narrative work that the Easter controversy has to do in the OEHE" (87). Thanks to Bede's computus work, orthodoxy was a fact; Roman Easter set the calendar for the year. Rowley notes that Easter reckoning was integral to ecclesiastical history, heavily symbolic in patristic detail, and to misread or reject its astronomical symbolism denied man's need for grace (89). She thus explains how OEHE can both abridge and also consistently include key Easter references in the narrative.

In Chapter 5, Rowley uses the question "Who read Æthelbert's letter?" to address how and why the OE translation, in removing all but one papal letter, restructures Augustine's mission and allows for a broader role for cultural interaction among the various peoples depicted. Bede's eight papal letters, the fruits of sending Nothhelm to Roman archives to copy them, include one to Æthelbert of Kent. Rowley wryly notes that this king had no Asser to report a "miraculous gift of Latin literacy" (100) and urges us not to read backwards as Bede did to assume a universal Latinity. She points out that translation here is not shown at work, despite two other places in the history where it is, and employs current studies that challenge nearly all details in the Latin account. Bede was dependent on what Nothhelm located, and Nothhelm would not have known to broaden his search to a more international context. So the surviving Latin letters generate a powerful, first-person authority which could have differed substantially if other letters were included--or, as in OEHE, if all but one are removed. In careful and sensitive readings, Rowley teases out changes in Augustine's character in the OE account, the greater prominence of British literate clergy, a reduced dichotomy of written/oral authority, and how the Christian language of exile is deployed. That last aspect features the words elþeodig, more than simply peregrinus. Powerfully put, "At the core [of elþeodig] one also finds the alienation of the crisis of language, capturing, in a word, the ways in which one is translated in this life from one's true people, homeland and language, in a world that is not only post-Eden, but post-Babel" (110-111). Rowley reads the space left by the missing papal letters as allowing space for other voices vital to conversion and to history.

The title of Chapter 6 wittily frames the discussion of marriage, conversion and papal authority with the phrase "queen takes bishop." Rowley argues that the OEHE relocates Gregory's Libellus Responsionum (LB) to the end of Book III to depict wives and daughters more fully as agents of conversion and makers and breakers of political alliances. All modern editions of the OE ignore this relocation, "replacing" the LB in Book I, as it is in HE: Rowley's evidence shows how misguided and distorting that is. Given the absence of HE's earlier papal letters, placing Gregory's answers on female sexuality just before Theodore's arrival in Canterbury pulls papal authority to the mid-seventh century and away from the Kentish court. Against Bede's Latin, where Rowley argues Church unity causes the elision of diversity and downplays women's roles in conversion, the OEHE uses a "symbolic economy of substitution" (118). Such omissions and substitutions make it easier to read the conversion as a series of marriages and births revealing power dynamics, not Bede's spiritual marriage. Rowley then discusses the placement of LB as reorienting attention to marriage, episcopal authority, and translation itself. Thus, the Baptist's death results from a confrontation with a king over an illegal marriage; Sigeberht breaks Bishop Cedd's prohibition of visiting a kinsman excommunicated for unlawful marriage and is murdered; with Whitby omitted, Wilfrid's episcopal rights become the focus instead of Roman orthodoxy; Oswiu more clearly uses Christian structures to benefit himself in a long-term dynastic conflict. In Rowley's words, her reading "turns on rhetorical strategies rather than new historical evidence" (132), and she ably argues that relocating the LB is a brilliant move.

Considering the cultural construction of space, Rowley points out that Bede saw history as always already including the future: heaven, not England, was the desired state. Chapter 7, "Visions of the Otherworld: Endings, Emplacement and Mutability in History," shows how Books IV and V emphasize English saints and miracles, revealing Britain's proximity to Christianity's Otherworld. Fursey's vision of hell bridges the history's parts, with his scars and his monastery materializing his otherworldly experience in this world. Fursey's scar is a tacen that foretacnode, "a mark from the past that becomes a sign of the future" (144). The three later visions of these last books are those of the enduringly popular Dryhthelm, who dies and returns to a reformed life, the Mercian thane who sees angels and devils holding books of his deeds, and the drunken brother who tells of seeing hell and despairs. Each draws closer to the time and place of Bede and the reader for Rowley, stressing the present and local as new confirmation that Britain's history "is legible according to divine intention" (155) through these direct revelations of the End.

The final two chapters cover the signs of use, heavy in all five OEHE manuscripts. Rowley's work here is some of the most important. In some manuscripts, she finds an interest in historical moments and figures, in others an interest in orthography and language but not modernization, in yet others, an "archival impulse," associating a "surprising range of texts with OEHE" (158). Especially intriguing is the strong likelihood that OEHE was mined for vernacular preaching materials, with a focus on local history via hagiographical reports. Boldly, Rowley asserts that how the OE translates the Latin does not reflect the decline in learning described by Alfred. Repeatedly, she demonstrates, over centuries, examples where scribes "grappled with a living, changing language and with...transmission and reception" (162). Discussing CCCC Ms. 41, she points out Coleman's annotation on Dryhthelm: "read it and understand well and you will be better" (185), penitential advice stressing the practical interest of the vision and text for both monastic and secular clergy. Rowley discovers non-liturgical neumes previously unknown to musicologists in the same manuscript. She notes, "if the musical notation here was not meant as part of an oral performance in eleventh-century Exeter, at the least it calls clear, and possibly musical, attention to the act of writing music," a "cutting-edge skill" at the time (171). And the Bodleian's Tanner 10 shows that as late as the fourteenth century, genuine knowledge of OE survived, even if in limited areas. Both OE glosses independent of the Latin and chapter divisions that differ from the Latin show a "significant level of facility with OE" (191), while annotations and running titles help readers locate key figures. Notably, except for Cuthbert, all saints and kings annotated in Book IV fail to appear in the South English Legendary; OEHE thus supplements, with materials on Hild, Æthelthryth, and "Saint Benedict of Wearmouth" (193). The implications of these signs of use for many fields within Anglo-Saxon and medieval studies are significant. Four additional appendices add to the value of Rowley's work. Besides a summary of chapters and chapter breaks in both versions of Bede and a chart of the OEHE forms of Ongelþeode and Angelcynn, she publishes two appendices featuring editions of the OE and Latin glosses of Library Tanner 10 for the first time (omitted in Miller's edition).

Rowley's book is groundbreaking. Her careful and thorough scholarship enhances her fresh, original readings, and her willingness to think through larger contexts and implications is a major strength. The study necessitates changes in how we consider the impact and uses of Bede, and shows the value of sensitive adaptation of modern theory to the large questions raised by medieval texts. Even more, her forthcoming edition of the OEHEð with Gregory Waite looks to be a scholarly necessity. Alterity can be overused as a term, but Rowley proves how ignoring its real implications damages our scholarship. Her own work is a welcome and model correction.

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Kelley M. Wickham-Crowley

Georgetown University