Ða ic ða ðis eall gemunde, ða gemunde ic ac hu ic geseah—ær ðam ðe hit eall forhergod wære ond forbærned—hu ða circean giond eall Angelcynn stodon maðma ond boca gefyldæ, ond eac micel mengeo Godes ðiowa. Ond ða swiðe lytle fiorme ðara boca wistan, for ðæm ðe hie hiora nanwuht ongiotan ne meahton, for ðæm ðe hie næron on hiora agen geðiode awritne. Swelce hie cwæden: “Ure iedlran, ða ðe ðas stowa ær hioldon, hie lufodon wisdom, ond ðurh ðone hie begeaton welan ond us læfdon. Her mon mæg giet gesion hiora swæð, ac we him ne cunnon æfter spyrigean. Ond for ðæm we habbað nu ægðer forlæten ge ðone welan ge ðone wisdom, for ðæm ðe we noldon to ðæm spore mid wure mode onluton.” Ða ic ðis eall gemunde, ða wundræde ic swiðe swiðe ðara godena wiotena ðe giu wære giond Angelcynn, ond ða bec ealeæ be fullan geliornod hæfdon, ðæt hie hiora ða nænne dæl noldon on hiora agen geðiode wendan. Ac ic ða sona eft me selfum andwyrde ond cwæð: “Hie ne wendon ðætte æfre menn sceolden swæ reccelease weorðan ond sio lar swæ oðfeallan; for ðære wilnunga hie hit forleton, ond woldon ðæt her ðy mara wisdom on londe wære ðy we ma geðeoda cuðon.”
When I remembered all this, then I also recalled how I saw—before hit all was ravaged and burnt—how the churches throughout all of England stood filled with treasures and books, and also a great many of God’s servants. And they knew very little wisdom from these books, because they could understand nothing from them, since they were not written in their own language. It is as if they said: “Our forefathers, who formerly held these places, loved wisdom, and through it they acquired wealth and left it to us. One can see their footprints here still, but we cannot follow after them. And therefore we now have lost both the wealth and the wisdom, because we would not send forth our minds on that path. When I remembered this, then I wondered greatly at how those good and wise men who were formerly throughout England, and had previously studied those books, that they would not wish to translate any part of them into their own language. But afterward I soon answered myself and said, “They did not imagine that men should ever become so careless and teaching so decayed; therefore, they intentionally neglected it and hoped there would be more wisdom here, the more languages that we knew.”
-From the Alfred’s preface to Gregory’s Pastoral Care, c. 890.
I apologize for the sheer length of the above quotation, but I do believe that every project worth doing correctly is worth beginning with the Old English preface to Pastoral Care. I promise to use a much more skillful editing eye in my next post. Besides, this selection resonates too nicely with what I want to discuss in this post—that is, how we encounter and engage with medieval texts—for me to leave it out.
As someone with an interest in historic languages and historic texts, I can appreciate what Alfred is getting at in this excerpt. Translations of texts, whatever their origin and subject, are fantastic in that they convey to foreign audiences information that would otherwise be inaccessible. In this sense, translations of texts can get us to the same “place” we’d have arrived at had we read and translated the texts for ourselves. Yet there’s something about reading a text in its original language, encountering it in its native environment, that passes along to us a different kind of knowledge—knowledge that offers a more complete understanding of the text itself. For example, when reading a poem in its original language, we can engage with/react to/comprehend word play, rhyme, and meter in a way that would be impossible were we working from a translation of that poem. By reading poetry in its native tongue, we are able to encounter the artistry of the poem, and, therefore, the poem itself.
This is, perhaps, stating the obvious. And I don’t mean to rehash old news in this blog post. But I think this line of thought has some interesting implications, both for our current Old English language project and for medievalists in general. How we encounter texts and the environment in which texts appear is crucial. As I’ve said, the language in which we encounter a text is important. To access language is to access knowledge. Thus, as readers, our interaction with texts (especially texts from which we are so drastically chronologically removed) begins with language. However, our interaction with texts should not also end with language. In addition to language, we need the ability to visualize and interact with the original manuscript in which a given text appears.
I don’t know that this is especially true of texts that are represented in more than one manuscript, but, as I’ve been thinking a lot lately about digital editions of texts, that is what I’m going to muse on for a moment.
As Farkas Gábor Kiss et al. discuss in “Old Light on New Media: Medieval Practices in the Digital Age” (Digital Philology 2.1, 2013) the purpose of traditional critical editions is to create the “best” possible version of a text. That is, the version of a text that most closely aligns with an editor’s understanding of authorial intention. Whatever textual variants exist from manuscript to manuscript are placed in the edition’s critical apparatus, separated from the edited text. Textual variants, after all, are not always minor or unimportant things. Illustrations, the alteration of a word, the contents of a manuscript that accompany a text etc. all could potentially alter how we read text. Consequently, this process creates a manageable, though overly simplified, picture of a text.
However, digital tools are allowing us to have all our texts and read them too. Kiss et al. (see pages 19-21) suggest a number of ways in which digital methods can make textual tradition more accessible and manageable. Likewise, the DM Project co-directed by Shannon Bradshaw is developing a set of tools that allows scholars to track themes, language, etc. across various manuscripts, enabling scholars to interact with and manage sets of texts that would have been previously unmanageable in print editions. For more on the DM project see the video below:
For learners and readers of Old English, textual variants are not really much of problem because most Old English texts survive only in a single manuscript. However, I would love the opportunity to track words and themes across various Old English texts (wouldn’t you?).
And I maintain that some level of interaction with Old English texts is a vital component in the process of learning the language. The ability to visualize and contextualize a given text in its native language and environment imparts to the learner a certain kind of knowledge that is would otherwise be unavailable to us. I’m honestly still struggling to express what exactly that knowledge is, so for now I will conclude by sharing some of my personal experience on this subject. Earlier this semester I taught the Old English poem Judith to a group of undergraduates. I began our discussion of the poem by showing them images of the manuscript and discussing the contents of the manuscript. After I had shown them an image of the manuscript’s binding, one student said, “Wait? Old English poems are in books?” I said that they were, and asked this student what they had previously imagined the poem looked like. The student responded, “I don’t know. But now I see the poem completely differently.”