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22.05.06 Brady (ed.), Old English Tradition

22.05.06 Brady (ed.), Old English Tradition

Lindy Brady’s engaging, even collection of essays will be welcomed by readers interested in fundamental issues of the textuality, reception, and interpretation of Old English literature. Contributions map well onto the interests of the honorand, J. R. Hall, showing how philological scholarship might continue productively into the future. While many of these essays are traditional in their concerns and approaches, they are not afraid to challenge traditional wisdom and thus provide models of critical investigation into the Anglo-Saxon literary past.

The brief introduction by the late Fred C. Robinson notes Hall’s doctoral education at the University of Notre Dame and career at the University of Mississippi from 1978-2012, where he is now emeritus. Robinson groups Hall’s scholarship into two broad categories: textual criticism and explication, including source study, and early Anglo-Saxon scholarship. Robinson praises Hall’s ability to clarify, elucidate, or solve hard problems in Old English texts, placing him “firmly among our greatest practitioners of that craft” (xi). Hall did extensive service for the discipline from 1976-2001in his annual reviews of scholarship on Old English poetry for the Year’s Work in Old English Studies. Before his list of Hall’s publications, Joseph B. Trahern seconds Robinson’s characterization of Hall’s scholarship and highlights Hall’s work on the unity and poems of the Junius manuscript, particularly Exodus. Trahern notes Hall’s generosity in crediting the work of his predecessors and his clear, direct approach to scholarship, which is nonetheless capable of “great (and occasionally wicked) wit and wisdom” (xviii).

The volume contains five sections of two to five essays each. The four essays in section one treat “Old English Poetics.” Roberta Frank adds to the literature on medieval friendship with a nuanced philological analysis of the work and play done by wine, one poetic Old English word meaning “friend” that hasn’t survived. Frank reminds us to consider contexts and to listen to the voices below the surface of words. In “Death the Grim Hunter,” another philological close reading, Jane Roberts explains that “Old English had a metaphor for death analogous in force to the Grim Reaper--the Grim Hunter” (22). Such personifications of death, sometimes masquerading as a devil and occurring alongside the verbs cuman (come) and niman (take), haunt various texts, including perhaps several instances in Beowulf. Many a scholar has felt like dying trying to make complete sense of The Wife’s Lament. Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe helps revive us by offering an effective affective reading of this troublesome and “radically unquiet poem” (37). The poem uses tropes and traditions of Old English poetry to open a space for their critique and thus becomes a disobedient poem. Arguing that affect is at the heart of the poem, O’Brien O’Keeffe suggests we attend to how its speaker expresses herself and judges her situation, whatever that situation might be exactly. The poem is about feelings of sadness, betrayal, and longing for their own sake, not feelings used to serve a narrative. These feelings are the wages of obedience, not quite how the traditional Old English ethos of loyalty would have her see things. So, “the Wife’s Lament shows us a voice forming judgments on the consequences of obedient behaviors by taking attitudes towards them” (47). “Progress in Old English Metrics” by Thomas M. Cable in its way is also interested in the “how” of Old English poetry. This specialized essay shows how we might study Middle English alliterative poetry to learn about the “rhythmical dissimilation” (58) possible within lines of Old English verse. Matters of resolution and the role of phonology in Old English metrics are yet to be resolved.

Section two, “Anglo-Saxon Christianity,” is the longest in the book with five essays. A. N. Doane considers two “strikingly anomalous” (73) illustrations of Enoch in the Junius 11 manuscript. Modifying the work of Barbara Raw, Doane argues that these illustrations, problematically strongarmed into the narrative structure of Junius 11, present “a combination of accident and design, of illustrative figures and revelatory figurae” (73). The two Enochs illustrate two different traditions, one Carolingian and one original to the Anglo-Saxon illustrator. If this is the case, the original picture of Enoch is “a big interpolation as bold as that of the interpolation of Genesis B into Genesis A” (107). Frederick M. Biggs argues that the Latin hymn “Apparebit repentina dies magna Domini,” now attributed to Bede, is not the “principal” or “important” source for Christ III that Albert Cook once proposed. While “the possibility of individual borrowings remains” (110), both hymn and poem share a source in Gospel accounts of the Last Judgment, with the poem also drawing on Irish biblical exegesis. The late Paul E. Szarmach, building on the work of J. E. Cross, considers the presence of Alcuin’s Liber de virtutibus et vitiis in three of the homilies in MS Pembroke College 25 to show these homilies “offer different examples of Alcuin’s embedded and apparent unattributed influence” (133). That influence inspired and was adapted by later writers who made Alcuin’s text “new for their times” (133). In “The Eucharistic Dance of the Angels: I Cnut, IV, 1-2,” Thomas D. Hill reminds us that many Old English legal texts are religious, even homiletic. He argues that this legal text, presumably by Wulfstan, contains essential iconographical meaning and a “learned motif” (141) missed by translators. The passage in question describes how when priests consecrate the host angels ‘circle,’ not ‘hover,’ about them in a kind of spiritual dance. Perhaps unorthodoxly, Wulfstan implies that “the presence of the angels is dependent upon the sanctity of the priest” (138), though mainly Wulfstan emphasizes “the importance of good clerical life” (139). This motif of angels circling God when they worship him occurs in a variety of other Anglo-Saxon texts, including others by Wulfstan. R. D. Fulk ends section two with editions of two Old English homilies, “The Capital Sins” (HomM 2) and “Lenten Tide” (HomM 10). Following the requisite introductory matter, Fulk gives texts, translations, and commentary for these two homilies, both glossed by the Tremulous Hand of Worcester, adding to their interest. “The Capital Sins,” which could be by Ælfric, is printed here for the first time. Unlike “Lenten Tide,” which was intended for individual study, “The Capital Sins” was probably meant for public delivery.

The third section comprises three essays on Beowulf. The late E. G. Stanley examines unusual uses of several “perhaps confusable” (161) verbs resembling þingian, þeon, and þywan to wonder how Anglo-Saxon audiences understood them and to give us permission to rethink them beyond modern philological consensus. In a fitting tribute to Hall, volume editor Lindy Brady’s “Ironic Use of Lāf and Three Swords of Doomed Inheritance in Beowulf” builds on an argument by Hall about the ironic use of hord in Beowulf to argue for the multiply ironic and finally tragic use of laf in the poem. Grendel’s mom’s sword kills her. A Heaðobard sword kills the Dane who acquired it. Wiglaf will die from the sword his father took from a Swede. These swords are taken rather than inherited, result in the death of the characters who now have them, and the characters’ deaths are foretold without their knowledge. Ultimately, “while many swords in Beowulf are valued heirlooms, the word lāf is applied ironically to these weapons to imply that the inheritance of an ill-gotten heirloom is death” (173). Howell Chickering revisits the ambiguities, conflicts, and interpretations of Beowulf lines 3074-3075 to make two points: Beowulf’s status as blameless or flawed depends on our interpretations of these lines, and our interpretations are “at the mercy of our own presuppositions” (204). Probably it is best to admit indeterminacy rather than certainty and accordingly to view Beowulf as both a good and bad hero, since the text justifies both views.

The two essays in section four, “Codicology,” the shortest section of the book, are quite different. Building on the work of Christine Franzen, David F. Johnson looks at a post-Anglo-Saxon manuscript containing an Old English translation of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History glossed by the Tremulous Hand of Worcester. The glosses contain only part of the story, however. Johnson details how attention to the Hand’s “punctuation interventions” (217), especially concentrated in descriptions of martyrdoms and visions (e.g., the martyrdom of St. Alban), reveal his practical interest in passages that could be compiled in a priest’s vernacular handbook for preaching to a lay audience. Gregory Heyworth’s “New Light on the Vercelli Book: Textual Science and Manuscript Recovery” describes intensive reading of a more modern sort. Heyworth explains how “textual science” (think “chemistry-aided palaeography” [227]) goes back centuries and can extend, rather than replace, traditional philology and codicology, perhaps even correcting received notions of book history. The Vercelli Book provides a test case, and Heyworth shows that it “was not written in iron gall ink, a conclusion that challenges basic notions of Anglo-Saxon book production” (224). Along the way, Heyworth questions the motives and ethics of C. Maier, who in the 1830s first transcribed the manuscript but damaged it by carelessly and selfishly applying a chemical reagent. He cared about the text and his career, not the physical manuscript.

Section five, “Early Anglo-Saxon Studies,” concludes the volume with four essays concerning some pre-twentieth-century editors, translators, and reviewers of Old English texts. Daniel Donoghue examines three passages in the Junius 12 manuscript containing a transcription of a damaged version of the Old English Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (Meters 9.23-30, 25.22-23, and 11.17-19) to show how Junius’s decisions influenced subsequent editions of the Meters of Boethius. Old English verse syntax can be ambiguous and tricky, making the correct discernment of half-lines difficult. Junius presents lines accurately most of the time, no small feat in the seventeenth century, but not always, so “we need to scrutinize his transcription carefully because it has pre-conditioned the modern reception of the text” (259). We must not uncritically accept all Junius’s half-lines or give his text “undeserved authority by mere repetition” (257). In “Laurence Nowell and the Old English Bede,” Carl T. Berkhout explains how this Renaissance antiquarian’s transcription of the Old English Ecclesiastical History might seem to contain compositions by him. “Nowell’s cookery” (263) of Old English manuscripts, revealed by errors of spelling and grammar, is well known. In this Bede transcription, however, the supposed fakery is limited to one passage from Chapters 15-16 of Book 1, of which Berkhout provides a semi-diplomatic edition with commentary. Exonerating Nowell in this case, he suggests that rather than forging lines, Nowell was working from an unabridged Old English translation of Bede, though no such unabridged manuscript survives. Dabney A. Bankert’s essay describes the similarities and possible professional rivalry between two nineteenth-century scholars, Benjamin Thorpe and Joseph Bosworth. The exact nature of their relationship remains elusive. They might have been friends, and Bosworth might have been a mentor to Thorpe, though their scholarly temperaments differed. Bosworth stole from the work of other scholars, perhaps from Thorpe most of all, so that “any analysis of Bosworth’s work is, to some extent, also an analysis of Thorpe’s” (283). Finally, John D. Niles offers in “Who Wrote the Non-Racist Essay ‘The Anglo-Saxon Race’? Longfellow and Nineteenth-Century American Anglo-Saxonism” a timely piece of detective work. The essay in question, published in 1851 in The North American Review, responds to two 1849 textbooks on Anglo-Saxon by Louis F. Klipstein, these being perhaps “the first major North American contribution to Old English philological scholarship” (293). Klipstein was also a white southerner who promoted Anglo-Saxon racial superiority. The anonymous author of this review essay challenges Klipstein’s view with a different, non-racially-motivated vision of America’s debt to an Anglo-Saxon past. Using internal and contextual evidence, Niles convincingly argues that no one in America besides Henry Wadsworth Longfellow could have written this essay. Longfellow knew a lot about Anglo-Saxon and Norse topics, held ideological views consistent with those expressed in the essay, and twice previously had published anonymously on Anglo-Saxon topics in the North American Review. Longfellow chose not to sign the essay out of concern for his financial well-being. An earlier book of poetry by him sympathetic to enslaved people caused him to be attacked by southerners and accused of plagiarizing Edgar Allan Poe. Both Poe and Klipstein were Virginians, and Longfellow was unwilling to risk a signature. Niles suggests we remember Longfellow not only as a poet, translator, and critic but “as a staunch promoter of the traditional values ascribed to the field of Anglo-Saxon studies at a time when racialist ideologies were threatening to derail both that field of studies and the nation” (301).

The volume’s bibliography is divided into manuscripts, primary sources, and secondary sources. Not all research cited in the essays appears here. Publication of the book was delayed after essays were submitted in 2014, but some of the notes and bibliography have been updated. The usefulness of the book is limited by the absence of an index.

A few of the essays may be highlighted. Frank’s essay is characteristically clever and readable: More scholars should read and write like this. Repaying careful slow reading is O’Brien O’Keeffe’s nuanced essay that deftly balances attention to language, the poem, and relevant literary traditions. The essay manages to be current while reasonably stopping short of claiming the poem as an impossible revolutionary manifesto. Though more subtle than Frank, O’Brien O’Keefe, too, offers nice turns of phrase and writes with feeling as well as insight. Brady offers a sharp, plausible reading of swords in Beowulf that shows how what we take from the past isn’t always right.

Overall, the contributions read consistently well, especially as a Festschrift for J. R. Hall. Essays are often smart, circumspect, and careful, clarifying texts and textual issues without being too insistent about solving them. Sometimes the method is the matter. We are shown how to read Old English texts, along with their sources and reception, as well as what to read for and find. Notes of circumspection and skepticism can be heard or tasted (choose your preferred indulgence) throughout the collection. Several of the authors, perhaps especially Stanley and Chickering, usefully remind us that historical texts must be read very closely and are still up for debate. That many things about Old English texts remain unknown, and perhaps unknowable, is an incentive, not a defeat. At the same time, other authors, for instance Roberts, Biggs, Hill, Donoghue, and Niles, demonstrate that it is possible to argue compelling cases. The book exemplifies how the Old English tradition of its title was and remains a hermeneutic activity.