The Medieval Review 17.05.12

Orton, Paul. Writing in a Speaking World: The Pragmatics of Literacy in Anglo-Saxon Inscriptions and Old English Poetry. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 445. Tempe: The Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2014. pp. xiv, 266. $68.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-86698-493-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth Okasha
University College Cork

This is an interesting and timely monograph. It is timely because what Orton calls "deixis" bears a close relationship to what many epigraphers term "multimodality," an idea which is epigraphically much in vogue at present. The book is, however, particularly interesting in the sections where Orton is discussing not inscriptions but Old English poetry. This is not surprising since Orton is a well-known and admired critic of Old English poetry. These sections of the book seem to me much the best parts of the whole. The least satisfactory facet of the book is that it is not all up-to-date, especially the parts on inscriptions and Anglo-Saxon literacy. There has been quite a lot of recent, and not so recent, work on literacy in Anglo-Saxon England which is not discussed. There is no mention made of the important distinction between a literate individual and a literate society: a literate individual can read and, perhaps, write, but a literate society is not one where the majority of individuals possess these skills. Instead it is a society which is based on, and relies on, the use of written documents for its laws and governance. Relevant works on literacy in Anglo-Saxon England that are not mentioned by Orton include some dating from over twenty years ago [1]. Indeed, almost all references made to Anglo-Saxon literacy, and to literacy theory, pre-date 2000: for example, when "fairly recent research" (25) is discussed, the most recent reference given actually dates from 1990.

The argument of the book rests on two assumptions, both of which may be considered to be to some extent problematic. The first assumption is that there "are few inscriptions which do not use some form of deixis" (94), that is that most inscriptions are multi-modal, with the text and object closely related to and informing each other. While this assumption is no doubt true, it is very largely self-evident and is hardly new. The second assumption is that in Anglo-Saxon England, "the earliest writings were epigraphical texts" (96). This may or may not be true. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived from the continent in the fifth century, there were a fairly large number of Roman and sub-Roman inscribed stones in existence, as indeed there still are. Thus it is not entirely certain that "the only form of writing known to the Anglo-Saxons" (231) were runic inscriptions. If by "earliest writings" is meant the early runic inscriptions, the statement might be true but is not particularly helpful: there are few early runic texts and by no means all are comprehensible. Moreover it is hard to trace any direct line of descent from the earliest runic inscriptions, to the earliest Anglo-Saxon roman-letter inscriptions, to the earliest Old English manuscript texts; indeed, most Anglo-Saxon roman-letter inscriptions post-date the earliest manuscript texts.

However, other sections of the book are most interesting and thought-provoking, for example the connections made between runic inscribed texts, the occasional rune used in a roman-text inscription, and runes in manuscripts, notably in the Cynewulfian poetry. Orton's discussion of these texts illuminates them all. This material is largely contained in chapters 4, 5 and 6. Orton's comment that "artifacts, books, and literary works were regarded as products of an inseparable combination of art, craft, and piety" (137) is entirely convincing.

Chapter 4 compares the inscriptions with nine manuscript poems: the four Cynewulfian poems, the Dream of the Rood, and four verse prefaces. While these comparisons are not new in the case of the first five of these manuscript poems, comparisons between inscriptions and the verse prefaces have not, to my knowledge been made previously in any detail and they yield some fascinating insights. The discussion of the Cynewulfian signatures brings together some useful discussion of these poems and is much more up-to-date than some of the earlier parts of the book. It is an interesting and thought-provoking idea that Cynewulf was literate (116), even if it is less than certain that he chose to preserve his name in runes because runes were associated with inscriptions (131).

In the discussion of the Dream of the Rood and the Ruthwell Cross, Orton argues rather convincingly that the Ruthwell Cross text was composed first and the author of the manuscript poem used it as a basis for the longer poem. One problem with this argument is that it might seem to imply that the author of the longer poem actually travelled to Ruthwell to read the text, a notion which strains credulity. The alternative, implied but not stated, is presumably that the early cross poem was preserved in a manuscript version that would have been more readily accessible to the later poet than the actual cross would have been. I would argue that, although the poem could indeed have been composed for carving on a stone cross, that this is unlikely to have been for the actual Ruthwell cross itself. This is because the poem is carved particularly awkwardly, down the narrow sides of the cross, with only two, three or four runes to a line and no word-division. This makes it virtually impossible to read without the benefit of a transcription. Had the poem been commissioned for the Ruthwell Cross, surely a more convenient place for carving it would have been prepared.

Chapter 5, on the Old English riddles, seems to me the most interesting chapter in the book. Here Orton explores the relationships between reading, writing and speaking in the light of the riddles. Riddles 47 and 60 are concerned with the making of books and theme of the latter riddle seems clearly related to the theme of the poem the Husband's Message. This discussion is full of thought-provoking ideas. Other riddles that could have fruitfully been discussed in this context are the two where the solution is apparently a hring "ring," Riddles 48 and 59. [2]

Orton is particularly interesting on the runic riddles and is clearly correct in concluding that the runic riddles are spelling puzzles and that, as such, they "imply a high level of literacy" (161). Further discussion about who composed this literate audience would have been rewarding. Especially full of new insights is the section on the 'homodiegetic' riddles, those riddles with a disembodied voice requiring the reader to identify the object. An instance is Riddle 5, whose solution is "shield" and which starts ic eom anhaga iserne wund, "I am a solitary, wounded by iron" (145-146). These are compared most convincingly to first-person inscriptional texts containing formulae such as X me worhte or X me fecit.

Chapter 6 is also full of new ideas. This chapter discusses the links between six of the seven existing Old English lyric poems (excluding Ruin) and those texts, both manuscript and inscriptional, already discussed. In all six lyrics, the narrator plays an important role in the poem giving rise to an interesting discussion as to whether or not the poets of the lyrics were themselves literate. What Orton considers quite certain, and argues convincingly, is that the lyrics were "the product of a literate culture" (212). The chapter also contains some nice insights into the narrative structure of the poems and how the Wanderer, in particular, shows signs of an "emergent fictionality" (223), something which is more usually considered to be a modern phenomenon.

As suggested above, the less satisfactory sections of the book are the chapters on the Anglo-Saxon inscriptions. At the very start, Orton poses the question: why were runes all written on durable media? This is surely a non-question: it is most likely that very few runic inscriptions on wood have survived from Anglo-Saxon England, as compared with Scandinavia, largely due to the climate. This is not to say that they did not exist, and indeed 34 Durham I, St Cuthbert's wooden coffin, does survive.

Chapter 2 is largely theoretical and suffers, as noted above, from not being as up-to-date as could be wished. There is, however, an interesting discussion on the possible semantic extension of secgan into written Old English by analogy in the minds of newly literate Anglo-Saxons between books and speakers as sources of utterances. Of course, this can only be a hypothesis, but it is an interesting idea. Alternatively, secgan might have primarily indicated the transmission of knowledge or fact and only come later to refer to speech. In section 5, the suggestion is made that the scribal colophon in BL Cotton Otho Ci reading wulfi me wrat "shows the scribe anticipating the reception of his work" (47). This of course rather depends on how wrat is translated. Did Wulfwi mean that he "composed" or "translated'" or "interpreted" or "wrote" or merely "copied" the text? That is, wrat might be merely describing the physical act, and have little or nothing to do with translation or authorial content. Finally, the "crisis of uncertainty" and "anxiety" (56) about the use of first-person pronouns seems rather exaggerated.

A large part of chapter 3 consists of the texts of some of the inscriptions, others being relegated to footnotes. Orton divides the inscriptional texts into sixteen categories, as he explains (61-62). As he remarks, classification is indeed not easy, but it is hard to see how these sixteen categories are any more helpful than any other attempt at classification. Again, this part of the book suffers from not being up-to-date. It is, for example, stated that the non-runic inscriptional texts are taken from Okasha's publications, her Hand-list and the three supplementary papers (63, footnote 13). However, there are no texts quoted from the third supplement, which contains a further twenty-nine inscriptions. Again, in his discussion of the York helmet (74), Orton does not mention the various interpretations of the text put forward by Okasha in her second supplement. However, in this chapter, some new and useful interpretations of other inscriptional texts are offered. For example, Orton suggests that the text of the now lost Essex ring, which apparently read DOLGBOT, should be interpreted as "wound-cure." This would then suggest that the ring was an amulet. This is good and convincing, and certainly an improvement on Okasha's suggestions of its being either an unrecorded (and improbable) personal name, or the unhelpful "compensation for a wound" (79)

In conclusion, this book is an ambitious attempt that is ultimately less than fully successful. Orton argues for a continuum between all inscriptions and manuscript poetry which, in my view, the evidence simply does not sustain. Although in some places Orton takes date into account, which is essential since the Anglo-Saxon period lasted for some six or seven centuries, in other places he does not, as in the over-generalisation, "To the majority of Anglo-Saxons, writing and reading were no doubt esoteric activities" (237). While that might well have been true in the seventh and eighth centuries, it is much less certain for the tenth and eleventh centuries. Others have in fact argued that, at least by the later centuries, writing was a recognised symbol of power and authority. Indeed Keynes has suggested that late Anglo-Saxon England was "a society in which considerable respect was accorded to the written word." [3]

There is a great deal in this book that is stimulating and thought-provoking. It is just a pity that these excellent parts occur so much more frequently in the chapters on literary texts than they do in those on literacy and on inscriptions.



1. E. Okasha, "Literacy in Anglo-Saxon England: the Evidence from Inscriptions," ASSAH 8 (1995): 69-74; T. Klein, "Anglo-Saxon Literacy and the Roman Letters on the Franks Casket," Stud. Neophil 81 (2009):17-23

2. E. Okasha, "Old English hring in Riddles 48 and 59," Medium Aevum 62 (1993): 61-70.

3. S. Keynes, "Royal Government and the Written Word in Late Anglo-Saxon England," in The uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe, ed. R. McKitterick (Cambridge, 1990), 226-257, here 248.

Copyright (c) 2017 Elizabeth Okasha

Give Now

ISSN: 1096-746X | Administrator Login