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23.04.05 Kramer et al. (eds. and trans.), Anonymous Old English Lives of Saints

23.04.05 Kramer et al. (eds. and trans.), Anonymous Old English Lives of Saints

The neat, readable, scholarly, affordable Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series has made an immense contribution to my students’ experience of medieval literature. This volume of 22 anonymous prose Old English saints’ lives supplements the three-volume set of Ælfric’s Lives of Saints and together they provide (almost) complete coverage of early medieval vernacular hagiography. This is a remarkable achievement. Most texts presented here have not been edited for at least a century, and the editors point out six (Chad, James the Greater, Machutus, Neot, Pantaleon, and a fragment on Quentin) that have not been previously published in translation. The editors have worked with sixteen manuscripts along with a range of editions to provide not only a readable set of translations, but ideal initial guides for their further study and excellent, thoughtful, editions. The notes to the texts, in particular, are superb and provide material for much further investigation into scribal interactions with these texts. Editing from manuscripts like these, which have often been subject to different programs of revision and annotation as well as experiencing different forms of damage, is immensely challenging, and the editors deserve credit both for their careful thought about whose text they want to present and for how clearly they explain those choices.

When working with so many very different texts, manuscripts, and editorial histories, some unevenness is inevitable. This is perhaps particularly noticeable in the Notes to the Translations where, for instance, a recently-edited text such as Guthlac receives vastly more detailed comment than James the Greater which, unedited since 1917 and never previously published in translation, is arguably more worthy of close attention. Likewise, while the introduction does a good job of sketching out some details about each saint and perceptions of them in early medieval England, the secondary studies cited are far from exhaustive and the list of Relevant Studies at the end of the bibliography is brief in the extreme. There is little to no comment on the (quite different) Latin texts that have been translated in different ways by a range of Old English scholars. The work involved in producing the volume, though, has been extraordinary and to treat each text with the same level of attention, let alone to consider source material and provide comprehensive bibliographies, would have multiplied the work tenfold and made the publication unwieldy as a single volume; this is less a criticism than a note that considerable space still exists for modern scholarly editions to be produced for some of these texts. The volume should be treated as an inspiration and jumping off point rather than being the final word on any of these texts.

There are places where the translation produces a readable text at the expense of representing the idiosyncrasies of the Old English translators’ style. In Pantaleon (535-571), for instance, the Old English habitually introduces scenes with And þa... (“And then...”). Omitting this phrase results in a more fluid narrative, but feels like it obscures the different voices that have each been so thoughtfully edited here. Likewise, the repeated use of nædre in one of Machutus’ adventures (260-263) becomes “dragon” when referring to the creature being encountered and “serpent” in the translation of Christ’s words in Luke 10:19. The Old English translator is here making a deliberate connection between Christ’s promise and Machutus’ actions, hence the subsequent shift to draca later in the episode, a nuance that is lost by the management of it into a clearer translation. But 650 pages of text and translation is bound to invite multiple disagreements in choices made, and the overarching objective of clear and readable texts is indisputably achieved. I should note, too, that tone is sometimes wonderfully conveyed: I particularly enjoyed the translation of Mary of Egypt’s description of her past self on þam bryne forligeres licgende as “lolling in the fire of promiscuity” (402-403).

It is a little frustrating that information about the texts is in three different parts of the volume: the Introduction (vii-xxxix) gives details about saints and sometimes also comments on manuscripts and language; the Note on the Texts (653-671), introducing the detailed notes on manuscript variation, focuses on manuscript and editorial context; the Notes on the Translations (715-750) comment on matters of textual and historical interest. Not many readers are likely to read the volume through from start to finish, but for those who do, it would have been helpful to have three or four integrated bookmarks rather than the series standard one!

The rationale of the volume within the Dumbarton Oaks series is clearly explained, and of course limits had to be set on what would be included in this volume. There are some slightly disappointing decisions here; I find it especially unfortunate that Christopher is not included here, on the basis that an incomplete copy of his life is included in R. D. Fulk’s edition of texts from Cotton Vitellius A. xv. [1] The incipit and explicit of Margaret’s Life from Cotton Otho B. x as preserved in Wanley’s transcription is edited here; it is disappointing that the incipit of Christopher, also preserved by Wanley and not included in Fulk’s edition, does not feature. [2]

These quibbles aside, this volume is a truly monumental achievement. It not only achieves the by-now standard practicality of the series; it also brings together genuinely obscure and vastly understudied texts together with more well-known pieces and renders them all readable and accessible. By contextualizing anonymous Old English saints’ lives with one another, it also calls attention to both the consistency of early medieval interest in hagiography and to the varied nature of that interest, with different styles and modes of translation on display. It is a fine platform for further and deeper exploration of translation practices, manuscript culture, linguistic variation, and hagiography in the period and is indispensable for any scholar working on or teaching these issues.



1. R. D. Fulk, ed. and trans., The “Beowulf” Manuscript: Complete Texts and “The Fight at Finnsburg,” Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 3(Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Library, 2010).

2. Humphrey Wanley, Librorum veterum septerntrionalium catalogus (Oxford: Sheldonian Theatre, 1705). The Margaret sections are on pp. 192-193; Christopher on p. 191.