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15.10.06, Thier, Old English Sea Terms

The Medieval Review

15.10.06, Thier, Old English Sea Terms

The maritime world of the British Isles during the medieval period continues to be a growing field in recent scholarship. Texts such as Sebastian Sobecki's The Sea and Englishness in the Middle Ages (D.S. Brewer, 2011) and Richard Gorski's Roles of the Sea in Medieval England (Boydell, 2012) both collect fine essays, largely culled from academic conferences, devoted to the connection between medieval peoples and the sea. More specifically, and recently, the 2009 biennial meeting of International Society of Anglo-Saxonists gathered under the theme, "The Maritime World of the Anglo-Saxons." Selected papers from this conference saw publication under the same name, as edited by Stacy Klein, William Schipper, and Shannon Lewis-Simpson (ACMRS, 2014). As scholars of Anglo-Saxon studies continue to explore more thoroughly the relationships between culture and the environment, more and more research emerges devoted to the crucial relationship between the Anglo-Saxons and their surrounding waters.

Katrin Thier, in her Old English Sea Terms, seeks to provide a tool useful in just such investigations. Based upon her 2002 monograph, Altenglische Terminologie für Schiffe und Schiffsteile: Archäologie und Sprachgeschichte 500-1100, Thier expands the scope of that work to extend to the year 1300 and aims to "replace the more detailed, scholarly approach of that study" with a text "accessible to readers from varying disciplines" in the form of "a dictionary, with a basic discussion at each headword" (5). While her title knowingly reflects the influence of Bertil Sandahl's Middle English Sea Terms on her research, a more accurate title for her dictionary might replace the word "sea" with "seafaring" or "nautical," as her focus is restricted to seagoing technology, and not the maritime environment as a whole. Nevertheless, the result of her work is a text that performs as an eminently accessible introduction to the specialized vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon nautical terminology.

Available only in paperback, formatted at a relatively large 8.5 x 11 inches (216 x 280mm), with a commensurately large font, numerous illustrations (over 100), and roughly 60 of its 208 pages devoted to back matter, the text initially gives the impression of being stretched to fill its length. These format choices, coupled with the author's stated mission to make the work accessible to a wide audience, might initially lower reader expectations for the scholarly rigor and usefulness of the text. However, from her editorial apparatus to her treatment of each entry, Thier carefully presents the raw materials useful to the study of nautical topics relevant to the Anglo-Saxons.

Thier begins her text with information to quickly orient the reader to both the state of Anglo-Saxon seafaring research and the format and content of her dictionary. Noting the difficulties of both the archaeological and literary records of the Anglo-Saxon period in relation to her subject (scarcity on the one hand, and the lexical vagaries of Old English poetic idiom on the other), she adequately illuminates the limits of early medieval nautical materials available to her study. In terms of her own project, she helps to clarify her subject through the initial presentation of very practical, if brief, glossaries of both nautical and philological terminology.

The groundwork having been laid, Thier commences with her dictionary by means of a very effective five-part format for each entry: Sense, Etymology, Evidence, Discussion, and Reading. Each headword is presented alphabetically, typically in the form of a nominative singular noun, and is marked "P" or "G" to denote exclusive appearance in poetry or glossaries, respectively, if applicable. This notation is particularly helpful in quickly appertaining if a word is solely a literary or linguistic artifact, or one of common parlance. Spellings have been normalized to coincide as much as possible with those of the University of Toronto's Dictionary of Old English (A-G). The nearly 170 headword-entries appear comprehensive, encompassing both individual terms and, in the case of poetry, their many appearances as parts of poetic compounds, or kennings.

In addressing meaning, the use of term "sense" rather than "definition" is a welcome nod to the polyvalence of a good number of the entries, especially as they appear in poetic contexts. Thus, while the specific term bord-stæþ might be literally translated as "board-stay/shore," Thier more helpfully provides the nautical sense of "perhaps 'side of a ship'" (35). Likewise, a more general word, such as cræft, is rendered in terms of its nautical context: "'watercraft', normally 'strength, skill'" (49). In all cases, the etymologies focus on the Germanic languages, reaching back to an Indo-European root when possible. Thier also includes Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Celtic, Baltic, or Slavic associations where relevant, but sensibly does not delve quite so deeply into the etymologies of outright borrowings as these are not, strictly speaking, Old English terms.

The "Evidence" section of each entry is particularly helpful in collating the specifically nautical attestations of each term. For example, instead of weeding through the over 1,300 entries for appearances of the word cræft in The Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus to identify its use in a seafaring context, Thier points the reader directly to the one instance in which this is the case (i.e. in the poem Andreas). Although attestations of early medieval nautical terminology may be teased out of open access online resources, like the University of Michigan's Middle English Dictionary or the various incarnations of the public domain versions of the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Thier's text saves the researcher both time and, in the case of subscription databases, money.

While the previous parts of each entry aid the reader in identifying and locating nautical terminology of the Anglo-Saxon period, it is the "Discussion" section that provides crucial interpretive information. A fairly representative entry is that for the word bytming, that Thier defines as the "'bottom part of the ship', perhaps 'hold' or 'bilge'" (40). In the discussion section of the entry, Thier moves from the linguistic development of the term to the appearance of this structure in the archaeological record of the Skuldelev ship find. She then ties this to the word's use in relation to Noah's ark in both Old English literature (in Ælfric's Catholic Homilies I.35) and Anglo-Saxon art (as illustrated in the Old English Hexateuch, London, British Library, MS Cotton Claudius B iv). This interdisciplinary approach is a hallmark of Thier's work. The reader is as likely to encounter a ship-burial, a glossary, or a tapestry while perusing any given entry.

Each entry concludes with suggested readings of secondary sources. Although Thier acknowledges that the current text "is largely based on my 2002 monograph" (5), she has done due diligence in updating and incorporating more recent sources treating on nautical history, archaeology, and linguistics. However, that the back matter ("Sources") is fully one third as long as the content of the dictionary suggests a need for streamlining. Primary sources are initially presented as tables listing the names of the sources, their manuscripts and dates, the modern editions in which they appear, and the abbreviations used to identify them in numerous dictionaries. This format is applied first to vernacular sources, then Anglo-Norman and Norman French sources, then manuscripts in other Germanic and Celtic languages, and finally to Latin texts. These tables are then followed by a list of modern editions containing these works. While this format does provide much useful information, it also requires somewhat convoluted cross-referencing between the tables and list to get the complete bibliographic picture of a given text (especially if it appears in multiple manuscripts or languages).

The final table, "Catalogue of Images and Finds," on the other hand, might have provided a little more information. Usefully listing the names, places, dates, and secondary literature relevant to the manuscripts and archaeological finds mentioned in the text, Thier also notes under which headwords the artifacts are pictured. Thus, for example, the reader can quickly find that illustrations of the tenth-century Graveney boat can be found under the headwords hlæst-scip ("cargo-carrier") and stefn ("stem") (67, 126). However, providing an index that also includes mention or discussion of each of these artifacts would have been welcomed. Readers could then also find mention, if not illustrations, of the Graveney boat under such headwords as ac ("oak"), mærels ("mooring-rope"), or nægled-bord ("ship with nailed planks") (14, 79, 87), among others.

Ultimately, Thier succeeds in her mission to provide a useful and accessible specialized reference tool for the study of Anglo-Saxon nautical terminology. Fascinating in its own right, her work will also facilitate the important growth of interdisciplinary study of the early medieval period in the British Isles. Archaeologists, linguists, historians, and literary scholars interested in Anglo-Saxon maritime culture all stand to benefit from her efforts. While the text, admittedly, is only a starting point for further, more technical investigations of the Anglo-Saxon seafaring world, it will surely perform commendably as a ready reference for such future studies.