It is one year to the day since my first ever post on For the Wynn! Thanks to all of you who have read my posts, commented on them, and passed them on. Today I’m celebrating my bloggiversary by writing about the letter Ƿ (wynn). Ƿ is the Anglo-Saxon letter w, meaning ‘joy’; and, as I explained in that first post, this is a blog about things that I enjoy in Anglo-Saxon literature. Ƿ is also a lone letter that doesn’t fit in anywhere anymore. Derived from the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet, it was fitted into the Roman alphabet along with Þ (thorn) and Ð (eth), which represent the th sounds, in order to supply the lack of those sounds in the new writing system. Þ and Ð still exist – they are used in Icelandic to this day – but Ƿ is nowhere to be found anymore. It has no more use. It has been forsaken by editors of Old English texts, at least in recent times, who allow Þ and Ð to stand in their editions, but transcribe Ƿ as w.
So for my blog’s birthday, I will redress the balance a little by wending my way through some wonderful Ƿs.
Little Ƿ: In any endeavour, it is good to get the little wins out of the way first, so here is one from Bald’s Leechbook, a medical compendium. A lot of Anglo-Saxon medical remedies begin with the word ‘Ƿið’ – ‘with’, in this sense meaning ‘against’ a particular illness. This ‘Ƿið’ begins a new sentence, but mid-chapter: the scribe has begun the line with an enlarged Ƿ, with a little blue infill, inset into in the inner margin of the text block, but it is only one line high, the same size as the rest of the text. This example comes from a remedy for headache: grind up betony and pepper, let it hang on a cloth overnight, and rub (the head) with it. I’ve written about the curative properties of betony elsewhere.
Big Ƿ: This Ƿ is far more impressive. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Junius 11 is one of the four surviving major collections of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Dating from around the year 1000, it includes four long poems based on Biblical themes, with a number of line drawings – and some fabulous zoomorphic initials. This is from the Genesis poem, from the part known as Genesis B (the surviving text was created from the conflation of two earlier poems), where the snake goes to tempt Eve:
He took himself wrathfully to where he saw that woman, Eve, standing on the kingdom of earth, beautifully shaped. He said that the greatest of enemies would come to all of her descendants in the world: ‘I know that God, the Creator, will become angry with you …
And while we’re on the subject of snakes …
Snaky Ƿ: This Ƿ comes from another medical collection, one of my favourite manuscripts, London, British Library Harley MS 585. I’ve written before about the snakes slithering between the lines in the Herbarium which makes up the first part of the manuscript. This one is cunningly disguised as an initial Ƿ, but comes from some instructions for the use of gorse which have absolutely nothing to do with snakes:
Against fleas: take that same plant with its seeds boiled and scatter into the house: it kills the fleas.
Insignificant Ƿ: All of the examples so far have been from manuscripts written completely or predominantly in the Old English language. The Eadwine Psalter is a twelfth-century masterpiece – the book of Psalms in three different Latin versions, with interlinear translations into late Old English and Anglo-Norman, plus some fantastic illustrations in multicoloured inks. This Ƿ can be spotted discreetly glossing the opening of Psalm 74. While the Latin Romanum version of the psalm gets a decorated initial C (‘Confitebimur te deus’ – ‘We will confess to you, O God [and call upon your name]’), the Anglo-Saxon words are more modestly squeezed in in a smaller hand above the Latin: ‘ƿe ondettað þe god’.
Wrecked Ƿ: But not all manuscripts are as beautifully made as the Eadwine Psalter, nor so lucky as to remain in such good condition. In an earlier blogpost, I wrote about London, British Library Cotton MS Galba A. xiv, a small, low-status prayer collection, which suffered particularly badly in the Ashburnham House fire in 1731. If you look closely, there is an extremely faded Ƿ at the start of the fourth line, in the sentence:
… Ic bidde þe ðæt se sylfa deað
ƿeorðe me to life ·
(I ask you that the same death may become as life to me.)
Lost Ƿ: But some Ƿs suffered even more severely in the same fire. The Cotton manuscript Otho B. x was completely destroyed, along with its Rune Poem, a set of verses in which the meaning of each rune is given in the form of a riddle. Fortunately, the poem was transcribed before its destruction. The entry for Ƿ is:
He enjoys Ƿ who knows little of woes, trouble and sorrow, and has fruitfulness and joy for himself, and also the abundance of fortifications.
Future Ƿ: I have plenty of posts planned out for the future – on prayers and poems, blessings and curses, dreams and journeys, tears and time, but for my next post I will be writing about another Ƿ: a wealthy woman called Wynflæd.