17.02.18, Stephenson and Thornbury, eds., Latinity and Identity in Anglo-Saxon Literature

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Gernot Wieland

The Medieval Review 17.02.18

Stephenson, Rebecca and Emily V. Thornbury, eds. Latinity and Identity in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016. pp. 253. ISBN: 978-1-4426-3758-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Gernot Wieland
University of British Columbia

The ten papers collected in this engaging volume derive from papers originally presented at the 45th (2010) and 46th (2011) International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo as well as the 2011 Congress in Leeds. From these humble beginnings they "blossomed," as the editors say in the acknowledgements, "into articles" (vii). The papers are arranged in chronological order, beginning with the Latinity of Boniface (died 754) and ending with Osbern's (died between 1088 and 1093) search for a new identity in the post-Conquest era.

In the first article, Michael Herren, "Boniface's Epistolary Prose Style: The Letters to the English," examines Boniface's prose style in the letters to Anglo-Saxon correspondents. He concentrates on alliteration, hyperbaton, chiasmus, and rare lexical items. Herren comes to the conclusion that while Boniface clearly was influenced by Aldhelm's style, he tempers some of the Aldhelmian exuberance. Herren also notes that Boniface would step back from the Aldhelmian style when he could assume that the recipient of his letter would find it difficult to understand its complexities. His letters to bishops and archbishops thus fully employ the Aldhelmian style, while those to abbesses and kings rein it in. One could sum up that Boniface created his identity as a writer by following Aldhelm but by modifying some of Aldhelm's excesses.

Scott DeGregorio, "Interpretatio Monastica: Biblical Commentary and the Forging of Monastic Identity in the Early Middle Ages," shows how Bede creates his identity by both following in the footsteps of, and at the same time distancing himself from, Gregory the Great. Both Gregory and Bede share a monastic identity which in turn gives rise to a particularly monastic type of exegesis. Focussing on Gregory's Homilies on Ezekiel and Bede's On Ezra and Nehemiah, both of them relatively rarely explicated Old Testament texts, DeGregorio finds that Bede considers the literal interpretation very important, while Gregory at times quickly skips over the literal to the spiritual. He also notes that the two Old Testament prophets with which Gregory and Bede identify--Ezekiel for Gregory, Ezra for Bede--create an additional difference between the two. Gregory sees himself as the watchman against the Lombards, which take the place of Ezekiel's Babylonians, while Bede chooses the less active and more textual Ezra as his model for reforming the Anglo-Saxons. Bede, incidentally, is one of the few Anglo-Saxon authors of this book who does not write in the "hermeneutic" style. The identity here created, namely that of the individual author (as with Boniface) at the same time already partakes of a group identity, namely that of monasticism.

Emily Thornbury, "Aethilwulf poeta," also compares two authors to each other, namely Aethilwulf and Alcuin. Aethilwulf clearly knew Alcuin's poetry, and like Alcuin, Aethilwulf employs the term and concept of poeta/vates self-referentially. Whereas Alcuin at Charlemagne's court sought temporal patronage, Aethilwulf invoked a higher patron, namely God Himself. Aethilwulf's creation of a poetic identity for himself, though building on Alcuin's creation, is unique in Anglo-Saxon England and found no successors.

Christine Rauer, "The Old English Martyrology and Anglo-Saxon Glosses," takes the rare Old English vocabulary of the Old English Martyrology as her subject. At first glance this seems to have little to do with "Latinity," but it becomes clear very soon that this rare vocabulary of the Martyrology derives from glosses to Latin texts. The martyrologist seems to have used glossed Aldhelm manuscripts and/or relied on glossaries such as the Corpus Glossary. At times he employs Latin/Old English word pairs, and Rauer can show that he did this less to make the text more legible to the reader than to remain as faithful as possible to his source texts. Rauer does not explicitly address the question of identity, but the rare Old English vocabulary used by the martyrologist seems to suggest that he attempted to create his own Old English identity. As Rauer can show, however, the identity is not self-created but derives from Old English glosses to Latin lemmata.

Jonathan Davis-Secord, "Sequences and Intellectual Identity at Winchester," argues that Winchester created its own identity, at least as far as sequences are concerned, by taking both East and West Frankish elements of the sequence and grafting them on an Anglo-Saxon stem. According to Davis-Secord, in the East Frankish sequence "each musical note should generally be matched with a single verbal syllable" (96) and "each melodic line was generally repeated with different text before moving on to the next melodic line" (96). The West Frankish sequence did not have this tight structure. The Winchester Tropers (CCCC 473 and Oxford, Bodleian, Bodley 775) contain examples in the mode of both the East and West Frankish sequences, thus characterizing Winchester's intellectual identity as "an openness to and thirst for outside traditions and knowledge" (113).

Rebecca Stephenson, "Saint Who? Monastic Identity through Computistical Inquiry in Byrhtferth's Vita S. Ecgwini," makes an interesting suggestion concerning Byrhtferth's Vita S. Ecgwini, a saint of whom little is known. She suggests that the computistical passages in the Vita--and she takes "computistical" in the widest sense including prognostical and numerological--fulfill a similar role as the "hermeneutic" style in which it is written. Just as the "hermeneutic" style after the Benedictine Reform encodes a Benedictine identity, so do the computistical passages. By inserting computistical passages, Byrhtferth identifies himself as a Benedictine, and creates a communal Benedictine identity for the readers of the Vita. Stephenson even extends this Benedictine identity to Ecgwine himself, who, whatever he was in the eighth century, is through both the hermeneutic style and the computistical passages encoded with a Benedictine identity and hence of direct relevance to the tenth-century readers.

Like some earlier contributors to the volume, Damian Fleming, "Hebrew Words and English Identity in Educational Texts of Aelfric and Byrhtferth," compares two authors, and he does so by specifically looking at their use of Hebrew words. Fleming finds that when Aelfric discusses Hebrew words, he explains and seeks to include. Byrhtferth, on the other hand, uses Hebrew words in such a way as to address only the cognoscenti and to exclude those with lesser knowledge. He for instance coins the sentence De quaternario faciamus Galileam ad quinarium, "From four let us make a Galilee to five," which is unintelligible unless one knows that Galilea in Hebrew means "transition." While both Aelfric and Byrhtferth share an identity as literate English Benedictine monks, Byrhtferth's use of the "hermeneutic" style, his drawing on computistical material (see Stephenson above), and his exuberant use of Hebrew words clearly create an additional identity different from Aelfric's.

Leslie Lockett, "Oswald's versus retrogradi: A Forerunner of Post-Conquest Trends in Hexameter Composition" provides a brilliant analysis of Oswald's retrograde verse, that is verse that will produce the same results regardless of whether it is scanned from left to right or from right to left. She searches for antecedents to Oswald's poems and finds them in Optatian, which might connect Oswald to Abbo of Fleury who also consulted Optatian's poetry while he was in England. As Oswald "is the only Anglo-Saxon author known to have composed in retrograde meters" (176), and as techniques similar to the ones he used were attempted only on the Continent, he has created a unique identity for himself in late Anglo-Saxon England.

Elizabeth M. Tyler, "German Imperial Bishops and Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture on the Eve of the Conquest: The Cambridge Songs and Leofric's Exeter Book," attempts a comparison between the Cambridge Songs manuscript and the Exeter Book. Both stem from the late Anglo-Saxon period; both are the largest collections of poetry, the Cambridge Songs manuscript of Latin and the Exeter book of Old English poetry; and both have some overlap in content or in theme. Tyler examines the figures of Ealdred, who possibly brought the Cambridge Songs to England, and Leofric, who was educated on the Continent and who eventually owned the Exeter manuscript. Much of what she says is interesting, though speculative; unfortunately, however, she does not directly address the theme of identity. There is a suggestion that Anglo-Saxon Latinity was shifting towards a more Continental one, but it is not developed--nor can it be developed since the Anglo-Saxon period came to an end soon after the Cambridge Songs manuscript was written and had already ended, at least politically, when Leofric donated the Exeter book to the Cathedral.

The last of the articles, Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe, "Writing Community: Osbern and the Negotiations of Identity in the Miracula S. Dunstani," deals with Osbern's attempts to create a new, post-Conquest identity for the monks of Christ Church in his Miracula S. Dunstani. The first step Osbern takes is writing in Latin, a language common to both the Anglo-Saxons and Normans of Christ Church. He also elides any references to ethnic or linguistic divisions, but the careful suturing comes apart as he has the Norman abbot, who cannot cure Aegelward's demonic possession, defeated by the Anglo-Saxon saint, who can. Osbern's "between-ness" becomes most apparent in a comparison with Eadmer's Miracula S. Dunstani, which does not hesitate to speak about the ethnic and linguistic differences. Though Osbern takes tentative steps into the direction of fusing the two communities, he is not entirely successful. The new identity he tries to create cannot completely hide the old identities lurking underneath.

As this necessarily brief summary of the articles indicates, when the Anglo-Saxons used Latin, they created multiple identities for themselves: Boniface's setting himself apart from Aldhelm or Oswald's retrograde verse point to the creation of individual identities; the sequences of Winchester, which draw on both East and West Frankish traditions, point to the creation of a group identity, as does Byrhtferth's use of the computus and of Hebrew words; and Osbern's struggles with the fact that his monastic community consists of two national identities, and his use of Latin as a language that favours neither, point to the creation of a post-Conquest national identity. Since the Anglo-Saxon authors create so many different identities, maybe the singular "identity" in the title of the book is not well-chosen. By juxtaposing "identity" and "Anglo-Saxon" the book creates the impression that the articles will explore those elements of the Anglo-Saxons' Latin style that created for them a national identity. That, however, clearly is not the aim of the book, and the plural "identities" might much more clearly signal the real content to the reader.

Even the singular of "Latinity," as the editors recognize, presents some complications. They do refer to Townsend's article on "Latinities," but do not explicitly say why they chose to retain the singular for the title of the book. I think that here they have made a more defensible choice since most of the articles in the book in one way or another refer to the "hermeneutic" Latin which since Aldhelm seems to have been the preferred style of writing Latin in Anglo-Saxon England; the two exceptions would be Bede and Aelfric. The book repeatedly refers to the claim that after the Benedictine Reform Benedictine authors in England wrote in "hermeneutic" Latin to distinguish themselves from the English secular clergy. Continental authors did not employ this style to any large extent, and thus almost by default "hermeneutic" Latin became the Latinity for Anglo-Saxon England--and hence the singular is, with the exception of Bede and Aelfric, defensible.

The book contains an index of manuscripts as well as a general index. It is to be commended for its bibliography, which encompasses the primary and secondary sources of all the articles; it is also to be commended for presenting articles most of which hew very closely to the stated theme of "Latinity and Identity," even though in the opinion of this reader "Latinities and Identities" might have been a more accurate title.

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