The Medieval Review 17.10.21


Godden, Malcom R., ed. The Old English History of the World: An Anglo-Saxon Rewriting of Orosius. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 44. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016. pp. xxi, 472. ISBN: 978-0-67497-106-6 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Nicole Guenther Discenza
University of South Florida
ndiscenz@cas.usf.edu

The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library aims to do for medieval texts what Loeb editions do for Latin and Greek classics: offer affordable, accessible texts with facing-page translations. DOML currently focuses on Medieval Latin, Byzantine Greek, and Old English, and it hopes to expand to other vernaculars in the future. The Old English History of the World is a good addition to the Old English side of the triangle.

Paulus Orosius completed a Latin text titled Seven Books of History against the Pagans around 420 to counter arguments that Rome had gone into decline with the coming of Christianity. Instead, he presents Christianity as bringing with it a new era of peace. In the late ninth or early tenth century, one or more translators rendered it into Old English. The Old English version (more often called the Old English Orosius) begins with a geography that silently updates Orosius's own in places; it gives draws a picture of the world that includes Asia, Europe, and Africa and locates a large number of sites and peoples within the three continents and in relation to each other. The geography is interrupted for a dozen paragraphs for the accounts of two travelers apparently contemporary with the translation, Ohthere and Wulfstan, who tell of voyages and customs in Scandinavia and along the Baltic Sea. Their reports are widely anthologized, both in Old English readers and in translation, but the main text has not always received the attention it deserves.

The Orosius has great interest to scholars as early English prose and a relatively free early medieval translation, condensing seven books to six and making a variety of additions and changes as well as omissions. Like its Latin source text, The Old English History of the World maintains a narrative of four successive, war-torn empires, culminating in a Roman empire that becomes more peaceful as it adopts Christianity. The Old English does not extend all the way back to creation as Orosius's Latin account does but begins with Ninus, King of Assyria, becoming the first king in the world, 1300 years before Rome. Virtually every chapter starts with a dating from before or after the founding of Rome. The work ends with Alaric's taking of Rome with almost no violence and subsequent negotiations and peace between the Goths and Honorius. The unique blend of Latin and Anglo-Saxon historiography has attracted increasing scholarly attention in recent years, so this volume fills a need.

Despite a relatively low price, this volume is a sturdy hardcover with an attached ribbon. The facing-page translation is well printed and easy to read. Textual notes are in one section in the back and explanatory notes in another, giving pages an uncluttered feel while offering more interested readers the opportunity to learn more without the confusion a full apparatus might bring. (Janet Bately's edition of the text for the Early English Text Society is excellent for scholars but difficult for those without a solid foundation in Old English and practice with scholarly editions.) Godden provides a rendering that is both accurate and readable, though the translation feels a little too colloquial at times: it has many contractions and some distinctly modern usages, as in "when his companions realized that he still didn't want to quit fighting" (book 3, chap. 9, p. 199). Readers who understand little or none of the Old English will get a full sense of the narrative and some sense of the style from the translation alone. The Old English translator uses a good deal of parataxis and shows a fondness for lists (like Orosius himself), and Godden follows suit. Pointed editorial comments from the Anglo-Saxon writer appear frequently to remind the audience that before Christ, people committed many sorts of depravities; Godden conveys the sarcasm well. Readers who have some knowledge of Old English can use the edition to read the whole in Modern English and then easily find the Old English for passages of particular interest to them.

Where Bately based her edition on manuscript L (London, British Library, MS Add. 47967, the Lauderdale manuscript) with emendations from C, Godden uses manuscript C as his base (British Library, MS Cotton Tiberius B I) and consults L. He records only significant changes, setting aside the many very minor spelling differences. He also does not use or mention the three very small fragments that remain nor the suggested but as yet unproven relationship between the Old English version and the thirteenth-century Old French poem Les Emperors de Rome by Calendre (unknown but for this poem). In addition, Godden avoids the brackets, italics, and other marks that can make scholarly editions intimidating for those outside the field. The resulting format is welcoming and easy to read.

The introduction provides useful background about the Latin text and its sources, the Old English translation, and Godden's own methods in editing the text and rendering it into Modern English. Yet Godden also makes up a translator. He notes that the translator is anonymous and acknowledges the possibility of multiple writers but then says, "for present purposes we will assume a single author and call him Osric, since it is inconvenient to go on using circumlocutions, and a name helps to give a figure substance (the name is chosen simply because it chimes with Orosius)" (xii). He then usually writes "Osric" instead of "the translator." As someone who has worked with the Old English Orosius and scholarship on it, I found this usage jarring. As someone who has used Loebs without always reading their introductions, I wonder how long it will be before the fictive Osric finds himself enshrined in student papers and possibly even published work by people outside Anglo-Saxon Studies, for Osric's many appears many times in the notes with no indication that the name is Godden's own invention. Graduate students and specialists in other fields turning to this useful volume may be misled on this single but important point.

The textual notes are fairly sparse (in keeping with the rest of the series) but cover some major differences between texts, and their headnote gives a very concise introduction to the two manuscripts. Notes to the translation too are not numerous but helpful (and readers who wish for more should consult Bately's edition as the standard). The bibliography is brief but includes five earlier editions of the Old English Orosius, one of the Latin, and one translation of the Latin, as well as several crucial secondary sources. The index includes personal names, place names, names of peoples, and occasionally major topics such as "Christianity/Christian Times/Christian Faith."

This volume will be a useful addition to many libraries, both institutional and personal. It should bring a wider readership to The Old English History of the World, which has much to offer those interested in early medieval historiography, vernacular adaptation of a late antique source, and Old English prose. It should be particularly helpful to graduate students and their instructors.



Copyright (c) 2017 Nicole Guenther Discenza



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