The highs and lows of editing medieval manuscripts

As a medievalist, I have ample reason to be grateful for the work of nineteenth-century scholars. Many of the great series of medieval texts were founded at that time, including some which are still going, such as the publications of the Early English Text Society, and the liturgical editions produced by the Henry Bradshaw Society. The bibliography to my thesis is a testament to the importance of these: I have cited works such as A. B. Kuypers’ HBS edition of the Book of Cerne (1902), Skeat’s EETS editions of Ælfric’s Lives of Saints (1881-1900) and Ernst Dümmler’s edition, in the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, of the letters of Alcuin (1894). Without the work of nineteenth-century scholars, we would be so far behind in our ability to analyse and make sense of medieval texts.

And then, every now and then, you realise that some of their editorial decisions were a little … unfortunate.

Let’s start with some of my favourite kinds of Anglo-Saxon texts: medicine, prognostics and scientific knowledge. In 1864-66, Oswald Cockayne produced a fascinating three-volume collection of these, with the fabulous title Leechdoms, Starcraft and Wortcunning, presenting Old English texts with a facing-page translation into modern English. Well, sort of. Cockayne uses a kind of semi-medieval language which draws on the original Anglo-Saxon, like this snippet from Bald’s Leechbook:

When the milt becometh upblown, soon it will harden, and then it is not easy to cure, when the blood hardeneth on the veins of the milt: then treat it with the before named worts …

(Cockayne, ed., Leechdoms, vol II, p. 251)

Now, I’m by no means against showy language in certain situations, nor against reviving medieval words; and there are some fictional works which use a kind of constructed ancient English in order to give off the impression of a past time: Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (which I still keep meaning to read). But that’s not really what I’m after in an edition of an early medieval prose text. In these situations, I’d prefer the clarity which comes from a more literal translation into contemporary English. (Incidentally, ‘milt’, which renders the Old English se milte, means ‘spleen’.)

And then there’s another issue. When we look back to earlier scholarship, it becomes easier to see how prejudices and personal agendas can be brought into research. In his 1849 edition of the Old English Benedictine Office and some other Anglo-Saxon texts, E. Thomson remarks:

The specimen of the ancient devotional forms contained in the second part, bears equal testimony to the comparative purity of worship in those early times. In the Offices we find no Ave Maria, no prayer or praise addressed to angel or saint or “maiden-mother;” of any intercessor beside the One Mediator, only a single hint.

(Godcunde Lar 7 Þeowdom: Select Monuments of the Doctrine and Worship of the Catholic Church in England before the Norman Conquest, p. xiii)

If his edition was intended to prove that Anglo-Saxon religion featured no prayers to the Virgin, saints or angels, then he presumably didn’t read a lot of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts! I could mention the protective prayer known as the ‘Lorica of Laidcenn’ (which calls on the heavenly host for protection); the entire Office of the Virgin in Ælfwine’s Prayerbook (with its miniature depicting the Virgin and Child sitting happily alongside the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in what has been called the ‘Holy Quinity’); or the various prayers to the saints, and for their intercessions, in Cotton Galba A. xiv and in the Portiforium of St Wulstan. But how is it that am I aware of these things, which Thomson appears not to have been? Because more editing has been done since his time, of course, and that makes it quicker and more convenient to gain a wide knowledge of medieval writing.

(By the way, may I say here, how great it is to be able to discuss this quotation now, several years after I first came across it? The Benedictine Office was the first text which I looked at when I started working on my thesis, but in the end it only became a fairly minor part of the finished work. I encountered Thomson’s edition when looking up the Office, made some notes on it in a Word file, and then never wrote about it. It just goes to show how, in scholarship, you should never throw anything away.)

Returning to Cockayne’s Leechdoms, it should be noted that, while he both edits and translates Anglo-Saxon texts in full, every time those texts includes a piece of Latin text, he leaves it untranslated. Presumably the assumption is that anyone who was likely to be reading his work would be well-versed in Latin, but that might not be such a helpful policy now. However, perhaps the most startling outworking of this attitude can be seen when the manuscripts turn to sexual or gynaecological matters, something which the compiler Bald and his contemporaries had little problem discussing. Some years ago, I was flicking through Cockayne’s edition of the gloss to a dream prognostic in London, British Library Cotton Tiberius A.iii. Skimming my eye down the facing-page translation, I was arrested by the sight, in a couple of places, of the modern English text abruptly switching into Latin. Then I realised what Cockayne was up to.

Cum sorore concumbere, betokens harm. Cum matre, freedom from vexation.

(Cockayne, ed., Leechdoms, vol. III, p. 203)

Translates ‘mid his swuster gelicgan hearm hit ge[tacnað]. Mid his meder orsorhnysse hit ge[tacnað]’ – literally, ‘to lie with his sister, it means harm; with his mother, it means security’.

Creepy dreams
Creepy sexual dreams: not suitable for the unlearned

Evidently this was rather too delicate a matter to put into English!

It’s the same when he edits remedies for women’s medical problems, of which there are a number in the Leechbooks. Mentions of menstruation, for example, are covered with a brief switch into Latin, such as in this rather terrifying remedy for heavy periods (please don’t try this at home):

Si muliebria nimis fluunt:* take a fresh horses tord, lay it on hot gledes, make it reek strongly between the thighs, up under the raiment, that the woman may sweat much.

(Cockayne, ed., Leechdoms, vol. II, pp. 331-3.)

* This translates the Anglo-Saxon ‘Gif wife to swiþe offlowe sio monað gecynd’: literally, ‘if the monthly nature of a woman flows too greatly’.

Cockayne and Latin
It’s a period, Cockayne, you massive wuss

Nevertheless, these Victorian editors were replaced by those who came after them. The grandson (and sometimes granddaughter) of the Victorian editor is the Mid-20th-century editor, whom, again, we have to thank for innumerable editions and studies, many of which I still cite in my work today. About the Mid-20th-century editor, I have just two quibbles.

Firstly, sometimes you find that someone has edited only the main text of a manuscript and left the rest – fair enough if a large proportion of the manuscript is made up of other texts, but when they omit a mere fraction of the total, you wonder why. I have tracked down editions of Anglo-Saxon psalters only to find that the editor, having patiently transcribed hundreds of folios of Latin with an Old English gloss, has completely ignored thirty folios of prayers that, of course no-one could possibly ever want to read. (On this note, my thanks to Sherman M. Kuhn for his 1965 edition of Cotton Vespasian A. i in its entirety.) Of course, editing texts always means sacrificing something. Take the six-volume Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records, edited in 1931-53 by George Krapp and Philip Dobbie. It gathers together all surviving Old English poetry, and is still indispensable to the study of Anglo-Saxon literature. But, inevitably, this comes at the price of lifting all those poems out of their manuscript contexts. We are no longer reading them alongside whatever Latin or prose works, perhaps with marginal comments or illustrations, that the original users would have seen.

Secondly, I have seen editions which divide medieval texts up according to modern-day ideas just a little bit too much. Take J. H. G. Grattan and Charles Singer’s 1952 edition of medical texts from a part of London, British Library Harley 585 known as the Lacnunga. They give each medical remedy an editorial heading , which does not appear in the manuscript itself, thus categorising the text and squeezing it into a narrative in which some things are pagan and others Christian. These headings include: ‘Christian Prayer’, ‘Pagan Lay of the Magic Blasts’, ‘Christian Charm for Rheumatism’, ‘A Semi Pagan-Christianized Rite for Heartache’, and my personal favourite, ‘Gibberish Veterinary Charm’. Twentieth-century scholarship can sometimes become a little over-preoccupied with the origins of texts and ideas, and I am by no means unsympathetic to that cause: who wouldn’t be interested to know more about what Anglo-Saxon pagans believed in and practised? But the tide of academic work has turned in a different direction, towards focusing on the manuscripts which we still actually have, and on how they were used. What did the eleventh-century compiler themself think about what they were writing? Did they differentiate strongly between Christian and pagan words, or merely see them all as good for healing? How did a Christian deal with the fact that the name of Woden appeared in a healing poem which also called upon Christ?

So what is the purpose of all of this whinging? Not, of course, to dismiss the illuminating work done by earlier scholars, but to shed some light onto present-day editing practices and what our own blind spots may be.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books … Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors being now open and palpable, will not endanger us …To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

(C. S. Lewis, ‘On Reading Old Books’)

As I say, the trend now is to try to understand manuscripts from the point of view of their users, rather than in terms of origins, and to deal with manuscripts as a whole, instead of omitting glosses, marginal texts, and secondary texts. Now, of course, we have the technology to digitise whole manuscripts and post them on the Internet for everyone to see. This is clearly a good thing in terms of widening access to manuscripts and of taking a holistic view of them. But, of course, we still need edited texts, to show easily the relationship between different versions of a text and to facilitate reading.

Present-day scholarship, inevitably, must have its own biases and assumptions which, perhaps, we cannot yet see clearly. I am working on an edition of a few prayer texts from an Anglo-Saxon psalter, which were left out of the edition of the main text in the 1970s: of course, I’m trying to make up for the editor’s decision not to deal with the entire manuscript, but in doing so I am also guilty of the same. If I had to guess what my own potential failing as a scholar is, I would say it is a tendency to impose artificial divisions on texts. A major part of my work is about figuring out how medieval monks and nuns used their prayer manuscripts, and where different programmes of prayers began and ended. But this does run the risk of dividing up a manuscript, with its endless run of prayers, into several individual ‘texts’, rather than seeing it as a continuous whole, as the original owner might have done.

Of course, I am only guessing. Perhaps if anyone in 2075 or so manages to come across this post in some future incarnation of the Internet, they will be so good as to write an update on the Early 21st-century Scholar, and his/her annoying little habits.


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