Apr. 7th, 2017

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By coincidence of finding them in different places second-hand, I just finished Tolkien's Finn and Hengest back to back with Sisam's Studies in Old English Literature.

Together with some other texts (I also read Matthew Wright's The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy recently as well), they set me thinking about the cultural erasure which occurred between the mid Eleventh Century and the Sixteenth, and more generally about loss associated with both classical and old Germanic cultures.

Most of this will be about history or fiction, but let me start with something smaller: a name. The odds are good that, unless you're an Anglo-Saxonist, you've never run into the name Wynfrith; although the man with that name is better known than, say, St. Wilfrid or St. Edmund Martyr, his principal cultus was on the Continent, and he is referenced in the histories as Boniface - a calqued Latin translation of his name - even in English.

Before 1066, of course, this was not the case. In letters translated from Latin into late Old English in about the Tenth Century, the Latin form (which would have been original in the Latin letters) is reverted to its native English form.

A similar but less drastic Latinization means that most readers of The Lord of The Rings, even those who have taken a history of the British Isles from Caesar onward, will not connect The Mark with the Anglian form underlying the Latin Mercia.

With a very few small exceptions such as Caedmon's hymn we have only one MS witness for any given poem in the surviving Old English poetic corpus. Worse, they are typically poor witnesses; they record texts the majority of which may have been written in a different dialect and certainly a couple of centuries - at least - before the MS date, in a period in which the form of writing itself was in flux, and the scribes - the latest ones, at least - were inexpert in poetic vocabulary and metre.

The poems themselves were written for an audience which understood a set of conventions, and a literary and historical background, to which we have only the barest access. They are full of hapax legomena words or entire expressions. Beowulf is almost composed of interpretative cruxes.

The matériel of the OE poetic corpus was once a coherent body on which poets could draw, confident in their audience's recognition. Its preservation had already come under pressure from a high culture which looked askance at old pagan or heroic stories (Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?); after Hastings the changeover in patrons meant its eclipse. The nobility were not interested in the old stories any more. (The next substantial poem in alliterative verse we have, the Brut, only a century later, follows the Matter of Britain and a Norman French original in Wace.)

Classical literature, honestly, isn't a lot better, though it has some advantages. Although some works survive with one witness - Catullus' Carmina survived in one MS when it was printed - most of the core works have multiple witnesses - but except in the very richest areas (Virgil, for example) the witnesses we have frequently go back to a common source at some remove from the original. (For any Classical Greek texts, pretty much by definition, our MSS reflect the edited texts if the Alexandrian scholiasts, which is good in one way - we inherit their scholarship and sometimes some of their editorial apparatus - but bad in another, as we have a hard time getting behind the homogenized texts to earlier versions[1].)

What we do have is a continuous tradition of interpretation for (some of) the major texts we have. (There were effectively no Anglo Saxon studies between the late 11th Century and the mid 16th Century[2], and it was only in the early 18th century that even a useful grammar was produced.) Still, even Virgil has numerous cruxes which have bothered interpreters since at least the late Classical period.

Most of Greek literature is irretrievable, barring a miracle from Herculaneum or the like. (The sole play by Menander of which we have the full text was unearthed from the sands of Egyptian in the mid-20th Century.) The same is true of most of the Latin Literature Virgil knew; we have only fragments of Ennius.

We grow up thinking we know Roman history, but even it looks more uncertain the more you know about the details. We have Cicero, Caesar, Sallust and Tacitus, but they all have agendas which makes them biased witnesses. We lack chunks of Livy, because he ceased to be popular in the late Roman Empire - complete sets of his history were already rare in the Fifth Century - and people didn't bother copying him. And we have none of the variant histories which qualified Livy.

In a manuscript culture nobody has to suppress unwanted texts. Texts in which nobody is particularly interested don't get copied into the future. It's not that anyone was hostile to Agathon, or Asinius Pollo, or the vast quantity of Anglo-Saxon writers; they just had other things to do.

And the texts we do have came out of a different world.

Tolkien considered it likely that the Hengest of the Finn episode in Beowulf is the Hengest of Bede's history; other historians have considered Hengest and Horsa to be entirely mythical. Either way, the whole fabric of historical and allusory background that informed, say, Alfred, has dropped out from around the texts we have, leaving us to scrabble for the bits of what Tom Shippey has called "asterisk-history" to piece together what we can.

The same is true, although there is a difference in degree, for the classical world. We have Cicero's letters, but we have to reconstruct the laws of the late Republic under which he litigated his cases; Virgil (probably) knew Etruscan; even the records of awarded triumphs hide much that we cannot now know. Even for very well documented figures like St. Augustine, random discoveries (such as the Divjak letters) can change our understanding a great deal.

Of course, context drops out all the time, even for far more recent cases. Much of Elizabethan drama never made it to the printing-press; we have no text of Kyd's Hamlet, or Shakespeare's Cardenio. Arguments fly over exactly how the Tudor Reformation was greeted on the ground because for all that we have Roper and More and the Petition of Right and the Protestant controversialists there was a strict censorship with the Star Chamber behind it to prevent a general and accurate landscape of reaction from emerging into the records.

This is part of why I distrust and dislike translations.

It is not simply the interlingual gap, the "traddutore traditore", which is present for even contemporary texts. (Eliot's "Anabasis" cannot be Perse's "Anabase", no matter how hard it tries.) It is the way in which the translator's need to resolve cruxes hides them, the false veneer of certainty when a reader takes the translation as standing for the original. I make two exceptions: cribs (which (a) are meant to be read with the original and (b) frequently preserve cruxes with notes referring back to their complexity in the text) and translations which make no pretence to represent the original closely (some of Pound comes to mind) and have to be evaluated as works on their own with the original as a pattern at best.

[1]The same problem applies in spades to the Masoretic text of the Tanach, as the Masoretes had no interest in recording variants, and our main witness to alternative earlier forms is the Septuagint (plus some later Targums). This is one area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were greatly of use.

[2]We owe the rebirth of Old English studies partly to the fact that in the wake of the English Reformation some people thought that they could uncover a pure pre-RC English Christianity by reading AElfric and Wulfstan. (They were wrong, but they ended up republishing some important prose sources and collecting and preserving MSS which turned out to be important as poetry sources.)

There's also a sudden blossoming of interest in pre-Conquest history in poetry and drama, whence Lear.

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