18.09.30 Neidorf, The Transmission of 'Beowulf'

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Craig R. Davis

The Medieval Review 18.09.30

Neidorf, Leonard. The Transmission of Beowulf: Language, Culture, and Scribal Behavior. Myth and Poetics II. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2017. pp. xx, 200. ISBN: 978-1-50170-511-3 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Craig Davis
Smith College

In several studies and collections that he has published over the past few years the author pursues with unusual devotion his quest for an early Beowulf. He claims that there is scholarly "consensus" (xiii) that this Old English poem was composed--or first committed to writing--around the year 700 CE among one of the Anglian peoples to the north of England, closely replicating ancient metrical forms and legendary traditions shared by other Germanic-speaking migrants to Britain and elsewhere during the fifth and sixth centuries. There is indeed consensus that an archaic oral tradition of highly allusive alliterative verse lies behind the prosody of the poem, since the same kind of poetry appears wherever verse is first recorded in a Germanic language over hundreds of miles of territory and a millennium of time, beginning ca. 400 CE with a runic inscription around the rim of a golden horn from Gallehus, Jutland, not far from the ancestral homeland of the Angles in Schleswig. Beowulf may very well, as Neidorf believes, reflect an early written form of this oral poetic tradition brought to the former Roman diocese of Britannia by incoming groups of Germanic settlers during the migration period and put to vellum in the Roman alphabet within two or three generations of their conversion to Christianity in the seventh century.

Unfortunately for our confidence in this theory, the unique witness to the poem is three hundred years younger, having been preserved only in the Nowell Codex of London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv, a scorched and damaged manuscript which most scholars, including Neidorf, agree was produced by two late West Saxon scribes in an undistinguished scriptorium far to the south of England around the turn of the eleventh century. In fact, no one knows when, where, by whom or for whom the original written text or "archetype" of the poem was first created. It has no known Anglo-Saxon reader or auditor, except for the two Nowell Codex scribes themselves. And even they, Neidorf contends, copied the poem mechanically--word by word--showing very little interest in or understanding of its contents. Nor do we know how many copies of the poem lie between its archetype and exemplar, the version of Beowulf that the Nowell Codex scribes had on the desk in front of them. What series of desperate chances could have saved an early northern Beowulf from the destruction of the monasteries and Viking conquests of Northumbria, East Anglia and eastern Mercia during the ninth and tenth centuries? Who in that long devastation would have troubled to rescue an old poem about the last king of a lost tribe once living in southern Sweden? Pre-Viking Anglo-Saxon kings paid scant attention to their own tribal prehistories in Jutland and northern Germany, much less those of more distant peoples across the Kattegat: their foreshortened genealogies stop virtually at the North Sea's edge, leaping in a few un-storied generations to Woden, the mythical war-god of the migration. And who among Christian Anglo-Saxon clerics would have felt the need to preserve this memorial to a benighted pagan people, whose inglorious demise after the death of their king is predicted three times at the end of the poem? Who in Anglo-Saxon England would have had any interest in preserving this relic of another people's past? And why does so much of the material culture of the poem--with its huge halls, masted ships, tarred hulls and ringed prows--comport far more closely with that of the ninth and tenth centuries than with the technology of an earlier period for which there has yet to be found in the ground physical evidence for such innovations or anything like a unified kingdom of Denmark to the extent celebrated in the opening lines of Beowulf? Could we not explain the poem's archaic metrical and linguistic features more economically as reflexes of an earlier age preserved in a conservative, regionally hybrid poetic language, like that of the Homeric poems in ancient Greece? Tenacious linguistic fossils are much more easily explained than are material anachronisms projected by an imaginative poet into his re-creation of a legendary past. And finally, why was a long poem about an obscure people included in the Nowell Codex in the first place? If the scribes cared as little about the contents of their source-text as Neidorf claims, who else would have been concerned to sponsor their copying and invest a considerable amount of labor and calfskin to see it through? Who would have cared enough for this old poem to preserve it at some expense for an unknown posterity?

These are all questions Neidorf chooses not to address in his study of the transmission of Beowulf. Instead, he focuses much more narrowly on the way the two Nowell Codex scribes (and quite possibly one or more predecessors) processed the graphic representations of individual words that they found in the folia before them, stumbling over those they only partially understood and thus copied incorrectly or intentionally altered to what they thought to be more intelligible forms. Neidorf identifies at least three hundred such scribal errors in the extant version of Beowulf, assuming at least one lost intermediary between the poem's archetype and the penultimate version copied by the Nowell Codex scribes. He very usefully analyzes these presumed errors into characteristic types of misunderstanding that he confidently believes can be corrected "to recover the antecedent reading with considerable certainty" (xiv). By scrubbing away such scribal interference, Neidorf contends, we can recover much of an ancient Anglian poem glimmering through the imperfect folia of the Nowell Codex.

He first focuses on the linguistic sources of the scribes' mistakes: (1) unrecognized changes in the form or meaning of words through time; (2) differences in the form or meaning of words between the various regional dialects of Old English, mainly Anglian to the north of the Thames and Saxon to the south of it; (3) misinterpretations of syntax, very easy to do in the copying Old English verse with its many "squint constructions," phrases that can be construed with both preceding and following clauses; (4) "trivialization," by which Neidorf means the adaptation of unrecognized words or exotic names to more ordinary terms familiar to the copyist; and (5) interpolation, the introduction of minor function words--only seven of these--that some metrists believe disrupt the expected rhythm of the line.

Moving from linguistic form to narrative content, Neidorf further identifies several kinds of error that he attributes to the decay of an archaic poetic tradition, that is, the scribes' apparent ignorance of the heroic repertoire of an older poet, revealed by the presence of (1) personal names that are garbled, misspelled or treated as common nouns; (2) ethnonyms similarly unrecognized and mistreated; (3) inconsistent spacing or spelling of compound names, revealing a lack of familiarity with their conventional forms; and (4) the incorrect emendation of names that the scribes thought had been misspelled in their exemplar, even when such hypercorrections disrupt the alliteration of the verse or introduce other infelicities. Neidorf argues that, taken together, this collection of errors demonstrates that heroic legends, which must have circulated widely in the seventh and eighth centuries, had fallen out of public performance during the Viking wars of the ninth, rendering them unfamiliar to copyists of the Beowulf manuscript in its later recensions. This assumption leaves a terminus ante quem for the obsolescence of archaic oral tradition sometime around the middle of the ninth century, even though we can demonstrate some continuing knowledge of heroic legend and old poetry in the south of England through the turn of the tenth. That is where we find our first independent record of Scyld Scefing, for instance, the legendary founder of a united Denmark honored in the introductory passage of the poem, a figure whose fame was presumably brought (or returned) to England by Danish Vikings calling themselves in Latin Scaldingi, that is, Skjöldingar in Old Norse or Scyldingas in Beowulf. In fact, most of our knowledge of Old English heroic legend comes from manuscripts preserved in the deep south of England around the time the Beowulf manuscript itself was copied, though much of this material was presumably funneled through the nearby court of King Alfred at Winchester in the 890s, a monarch whose interest in this old ethnic and dynastic lore is well attested. The desuetude of an oral tradition of heroic verse that Neidorf attributes to the ninth century or earlier in the north may very well have occurred rather later in the south, accelerated by the unification of all England into one Christian polity by the West Saxon kings and introduction of a more rigorous ecclesiastical regime during the Benedictine reforms of the tenth century.

Neidorf next turns to a somewhat more speculative interpretation of scribal behavior, offering a "lexemic theory" in which he imagines the scribes engaged in a strictly focused, routine task of replicating the discrete words they found in their exemplars with little grasp of the text's "continuous sense" (103). He views Old English scribes as mere "mechanical laborer[s] fixated on the text's orthography" (109), even though we know that in some instances they copied vernacular poems--unlike scriptural texts in Latin--with considerable freedom, flexibility and sometimes even panache. Whenever we have more than one version of an Old English poem extant, we find scribal variations in at least one-fifth of the verses. Neidorf thus disagrees with one of the foremost translators of the poem, Roy Liuzza (1999), and others, in arguing that the scribes did not read for narrative or thematic sense or appreciate the verbal artistry of the poems they were copying. He compares scribal practice in the Nowell Codex to that of other surviving compilations--the Exeter Book, the Junius Manuscript and the Vercelli Book--concluding that "the occurrence in these codices of numerous corruptions comparable to those found in the manuscript of Beowulf suggests that Anglo-Saxon scribes maintained a relatively uniform approach to textual transmission" (126), that is, they cared only for copying their source-text word-for-word, rather than taking an interest in the form or content of vernacular poems themselves.

In conclusion, Neidorf stresses the unity of Beowulf based upon "subtle linguistic regularities throughout the poem" (137), which he attributes to a single poet whose verse was committed to writing around 700 CE in Mercia (160). This text was copied slavishly, though often ignorantly, by an unknown number of scribes over the next three centuries. Most Beowulf scholars would agree on the authorial unity of the poem--that there is a consistency not only of language, but of thought and feeling as well--though many might still wonder why the original composition must necessarily be quite as early as Neidorf insists. Could not its unity be more easily and "probabilistically" explained as the result of a composition rather closer to the date of its extant text, thus minimizing opportunities for scribal corruption or a loss of the manuscript itself through war or the ruin of time? Certain obvious mistakes, especially the Nowell Codex scribes' repeated mis-readings of particular letters in their exemplar, suggest that it had been written in a hand unfamiliar to them, probably "Anglo-Saxon set minuscule," which had gone out of use only about a century or so earlier. In addition, this lost exemplar from sometime before ca. 900, apparently in an earlier form of the West Saxon dialect of Old English, could very well have contained a mixture of dialectal forms shared by much earlier times and places. These may indeed reflect a version first written down in seventh- or eighth-century Northumbria, Mercia or East Anglia, or, alternatively, represent a kind of Sondersprache, an older-fashioned compositional idiom reserved for elevated discourse in verse that continued to be cultivated in the courts and monasteries of the south. Two poems, The Battle of Brunanburh, composed in or soon after the year 937, and Judith, which follows Beowulf in the Nowell Codex, also reveal conservative features that distinguish them from later tenth-century poems like The Battle of Maldon, composed in or after 991. Neither Brunanburh nor Judith matches Beowulf in the consistency or variety of its use of Sievers' five metrical sequences (1893), but both poems still deploy old-fashioned heavy verses to deepen the gravitas of their effect. They also display a conservative lexicon of heroic compounds with which their audiences were still obviously familiar. Some southern poets were thus competent to compose in the old formulaic tradition and could replicate it well into the tenth century, even if not as confidently as the Beowulf poet himself, who was by far the superior craftsman, both in his mastery of traditional verse forms and in the density and virtuosity of his poetic diction, some of which could be called truly innovative--a stunning panoply of creative locutions seen nowhere else in the surviving corpus of Old English poetry. The author of Beowulf is the Shakespeare of Anglo-Saxon poets--an utterly unique talent, which is perhaps the best argument for the unity of his poem.

To this point, Neidorf offers an appendix on the textual criticism of Beowulf by J. R. R. Tolkien, unpublished in his lifetime, but made available in 2014. Neidorf hopes thereby to recruit the authority of this distinguished scholar to support his case for an early, northern, unified Beowulf, even though Tolkien himself, in his famous address to the British Academy in 1936, stressed not textual considerations for the unity of the poem, but artistic ones. Tolkien believed that the case for a unified Beowulf is most apparent in its "glamour of Poesis," the power of its poet to "look out upon the sea" from the tower of his verse, to conjure there the distant vision of a multilayered past retreating endlessly into Prospero's "dark backward and abysm of time."

Neidorf takes the opposite tack, working his way up from the correction of single dubious or erroneous words. In this task, he has thoughtfully supplied indices to both verses and subjects for those who wish to check his explanation of particular scribal errors or literary cruces. The usefulness of his effort is thus substantial, though circumscribed by its own self-restrictions, strengthened in detail but hampered as a whole by the filters the author has placed upon the evidence he is willing to admit. In addition, Neidorf has embraced assumptions about the character and duration of oral tradition in the north and south of Anglo-Saxon England that are difficult to maintain when so much information has been lost through the ephemeral nature of its medium. His early Mercian Beowulf is certainly possible, but whether it is as "probable" as he insists will require answers to many more questions and the consideration of many more kinds of evidence than he has yet permitted himself to address. We can be quite confident, however, that this scholar will have much more to contribute to the study of Beowulf, if only to make the rest of us work harder in rethinking our own assumptions about the poem.

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