17.02.22, Stephenson, The Politics of Language

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Damian Fleming

The Medieval Review 17.02.22

Stephenson, Rebecca. The Politics of Language: Byrhtferth, Aelfric, and the Multilingual Identity of the Benedictine Reform . Toronto Anglo-Saxon Series . Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2015. pp. xii, 232. ISBN: 978-1-4426-5058-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Damian Fleming
Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne

Rebecca Stephenson's new book is the first book to have the name "Byrhtferth" in the title that was not an edition of one of his texts. Byrhtferth of Ramsey (died c. 1020) is one of late Anglo-Saxon England's most prolific writers. Nevertheless, scholarship on Byrhtferth has always been greatly overshadowed--and outnumbered--by his contemporary, Ælfric of Eynsham. I can personally attest to this, having organized a session on Byrhtferth for the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo last year. A program archive search revealed that mine was the first ever session solely concerned with Byrhtferth. The history of the Congress--perhaps a barometer of work in medieval studies--particularly rich in Anglo-Saxon literary studies--revealed only a dozen or so papers with the name "Byrhtferth" in their titles. The majority of those were papers by Peter Baker as he prepared, with Michael Lapidge, the critical edition of Byrhtferth's major Old English work, his Enchiridion--a bilingual commentary on computus. [1] This edition is now over twenty years old, and one hopes that Stephenson's exciting book, which builds upon Baker and Lapidge's work as well as constructively criticizes some of their editorial decisions, will signal the beginning of Byrhtferth studies in earnest. Stephenson's book will be essential reading for all Anglo-Saxonists, especially those with interests in the place of the vernacular and Latin in late Anglo-Saxon England.

The Politics of Language is divided into two major sections, analyzing first the works of Byrhtferth and then Ælfric in the context of the late tenth-century Benedictine Reform movement. This royally supported reform, which saw the displacement of secular canons by Benedictine monks at institutions throughout England, is central to late Anglo-Saxon cultural and literary history. A significant portion of the surviving literary output of Anglo-Saxon England, in English as well as Latin, derives from this reform. Central to this movement is a paradox, which Stephenson carefully untangles throughout this book: the Latin texts of the movement favor a type of purposefully difficult language which Lapidge once dubbed "hermeneutic Latin;" the Old English texts from the same movement, however, stresses clarity and simplicity above all else. Why did these learned men seemingly chose such disparate approaches in their composition methods? Stephenson's book examines "the political context that encouraged the simultaneous development of a simple English style and an esoteric Latin style" (5) ultimately concluding that this conundrum stems from Benedictine monks' desire for an identity clearly discrete from the secular priest they were replacing. At the same time, the wide use of clear English demonstrates the wide reach of the monastic reformers' influence. Stephenson demonstrates these two purposes in her pioneering careful examination of Byrhtferth's Enchiridion and her multifaceted reconsideration of Ælfric's corpus.

The first half of the book is devoted to close readings of Byrhtferth's Enchiridion, a text which "provides a provocative specimen for studying latent attitudes about language" in late Anglo-Saxon England (39). Surprisingly little work has ever been done on Byrhtferth's text, which is a bilingual companion to a computus. Apart from Baker and Lapidge's edition, few scholars have tried to make much sense out of this unique text. Stephenson's book will certainly change this. In chapter one, Stephenson constructively challenges many of the assumptions underlying the Baker/Lapidge edition by paying close attention to the sole complete manuscript of this work (Oxford, Bodleian Ashmole 328). Stephenson excitingly suggests that the "idiosyncratic nature" of the manuscript and the text itself perhaps make it "more representative of Anglo-Saxon classroom practices and attitudes" than other surviving texts (41). Stephenson demonstrates how Baker/Lapdige's heavy editorial hand actually obscures some other interesting aspects of this text, most notably, the increasing dominance of the English language in the manuscript, which slowly comes to "not just complement the Latin original, but instead to supplement and even supplant it" (54).

Chapter 2 is a revised version of Stephenson's Anglo-Saxon England article, "Scapegoating the Secular Clergy: The Hermeneutic Style as a Form of Monastic Self-Definition," one of the most important pieces of scholarship written on Byrhtferth and central to our understanding of the late-tenth century monastic reform. [2] A memorable facet of the Enchiridion is Byrhtferth's regular invective against the laziness of the secular clergy compared to the reform-supported monastic students. The images Byrhtferth invokes--including secular clergy playing dice instead of studying—can be quite humorous and on the su--face support the reform movement's push to replace these "lazy clerks" with virtuous monks. Stephenson's masterful analysis reveals that the situation is far more complicated. She shows how Byrhtferth's evocation of a caricature of the lazy, ignorant cleric authorizes Byrhtferth to translate large portions of the text into English, including those sections which would only be of value for the monastic students. In other words, Byrhtferth's monastic students were likely as in need of remedial help--including English translation--in order to fully understand the material. Rather than admitting that his monastic students need a leg up, Byrhtferth lays the blame for using English on the presence of secular clergy in his classroom. At the same time, Byrhtferth continues to instance on the importance of Latinity--and the most difficult, "hermeneutic" Latin--as a central to monastic self-definition.

Stephenson develops this argument further in chapter 3, looking at the role of English in the Enchiridion since it may "well reflect attitudes and mentalities similar to those in other monastic classrooms throughout England" (102). She considers the iconic and performative needs fulfilled by certain types of manuscript content, such as computus tables, and suggests that the show of cultural literacy in monastic contexts is perhaps not matched by a genuine depth of knowledge. Hermeneutic Latin, with its purposefully showy vocabulary, likewise fills such a role. Mastery of such Latin is an essential component of monastic reformers' self-definition; nevertheless, Byrhtferth's texts clearly suggest that not all his students had such mastery. Byrhtferth uniquely develops a type of hermeneutic English: an esoteric, purposefully difficult register of language which can likewise further a sense of monastic self-definition. Throughout, Stephenson demonstrates the disconnect between the surface message of Byrhtferth's works, especially as regards the English language and Latin and the secular clergy and monks.

The careful, groundbreaking research of the first half of the book is used to elucidate the language attitudes of Ælfric of Eynsham, the most prolific and widely-studied named Old English author. In contrast to Byrhtferth and most all other reform authors, Ælfric shuns difficult Latin. Although the majority of his writings are in English, and unlike Byrhtferth he rarely names his audience, Stephenson shows that Ælfric likewise asserts monastic superiority over the secular clergy and in fact uses his corpus of vernacular homilies to "colonize" a pastoral space which traditionally belonged to the secular clergy. Additionally, like Byrhtferth, Ælfric's large-scale translation work was also of great benefit to the monastic audience.

Stephenson's final chapter explores another understudied aspect of Ælfric's literary output: his Latin compositions and his translation of Latin works originally written in difficult hermeneutic Latin. Following on the work of Winterbottom and Lapidge, Stephenson shows that Ælfric's first step in translation was creating narratively and conceptually simplified Latin epitomes. [3] In these abbreviated narratives, Ælfric appears to have attempted to create a standardized, clear, vocabulary in Latin comparable to the "Winchester vocabulary" in Old English. Such regularized Latin is not found in the writings of any of his predecessors or contemporaries. Above all, Ælfric is interested in clarity: "narrative that functioned at only a literal level" (180). Ultimately, Stephenson shows that Ælfric's translation project and his attitude toward it are paradoxical: he makes monastic material more widely available while at the same time limiting the content of that material.

There are some crucial, wide-reaching insights in this book which I would like to draw special attention to so they are not overlooked in the important, sometimes hyper-specific work of understanding these authors. Stephenson raises issues that I hope she and others will develop further. One is her discussion of the "iconic" or "performative" nature of computistical content in medieval manuscripts. The date of Easter is of course central to Christian practice and computes--the art and science of calculating its date--is at least superficially rather important. The central focus of Byrhtferth's Enchiridion is to teach enough computus so that every cleric could explain how the date of Easter is calculated. The condition of much computus- related manuscript material, nevertheless, leads one to wonder whether these materials were actively used; would this knowledge really be tested? Would individual clergy actually be called upon to calculate this date, or would they more likely simply be told the date of Easter by some authority? Stephenson suggests that these materials represent "the desire to perform (or affect) a mastery of computus" (111). Such a view can help us understand not only the computus material per se, but the varied, sometimes bizarre, material that tends to accumulate around computus materials, such as collections of foreign alphabets. Thinking about the performative nature of material like this helps us understand why it is included even when it is copied incompletely or incorrectly, such as in the only surviving manuscript of the Enchiridion and many other manuscripts with similar difficult material.

Additionally, Stephenson provides a primer on understanding and assessing Ælfric's translation process, which likely often began with creating a Latin abbreviation of the Latin source. As Stephenson points out, although recent scholarship on Ælfric's translation techniques is flourishing, most scholars appear to be unaware of the mechanics of Ælfric's translation technique. This is perhaps forgivable, since this technique was first outlined by Lapidge deep within an introduction to a scholarly edition of Wulfstan of Winchester's Life of Æthelwold and more recently developed in the middle of an 800-page volume on the cult of St. Swithun. [4] While both of these volumes are important for all Anglo-Saxonists, neither volume is exclusively concerned with Ælfric and may have escaped some scholars' notice. As Stephenson kindly states, there is a need "for scholarship that pushes forward the study of hermeneutic Latin in terms intelligible to scholars who work primarily on English-language texts" (161). Let us hope that Stephenson's book leads the charge.

Finally, Stephenson shows that Ælfric's process of abbreviation of difficult hermeneutic Latin texts actually reveals how redundant these texts can be, and suggests that perhaps they were not necessarily read very closely. "Perhaps medieval readers did not construe every word…but merely strove to get the underlying idea and extrapolated the rest of the words from context" (187). I hope Stephenson and other scholars will develop this line of thought to help us understand multiple modes of medieval reading.

Stephenson's book is genuinely groundbreaking. Not only has she crafted a space for understanding and appreciating the place of Byrhtferth in late Anglo-Saxon England, she has added depth to our understanding of attitudes towards and the role of the vernacular in the Benedictine Reform and the writings of Ælfric, its most celebrated author.



1. Byrhtferth's Enchiridion, eds. Peter S. Baker and Michael Lapidge (Early English Text Society, ss 15; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

2. Rebecca Stephenson, "Scapegoating the Secular Clergy: The Hermeneutic Style as a Form of Monastic Self-definition," Anglo-Saxon England 38 (2009): 101-135.

3. Wulfstan of Winchester: The Life of St. Æthelwold, eds. Michael Lapidge and Michael Winterbottom (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991).

4. Ibid.; Michael Lapidge, The Cult of St Swithun (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003). Curiously, this text has been overlooked in Stephenson's bibliography at the end of the book, although a complete citation to it is found in the first footnote, p. 3.

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