Among European countries, Ireland and England hold the accolade of having explored the possibilities of writing in their vernacular languages earliest and most extensively. Over three million words of Old English, the major language of England from around 500 to around 1100, survive, largely in manuscripts now in English libraries. But Trinity has one medieval manuscript containing Old English, TCD MS 174, a codex in Latin but which appears to pronounce its origins in the vernacular.
It also has a number of copies made by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century antiquarians of Old English texts, most famously William Lambard’s 1563 transcript of a now-all-but-conflagrated copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
While three million words may sound like a lot, it is still insufficient to answer some major questions about the Old English language and its literature, and the discovery of new texts in the language, even if only a few words in length, is a cause of interest. It was therefore with some excitement that examining a twelfth-century Trinity manuscript in October last year with Immo Warntjes, Ussher Assistant Professor in Early Medieval Irish History, I spotted some annotations in the margins of several leaves that appeared to be in English.
Further research revealed that if not entirely unknown, these annotations – seven in all – were seriously neglected. This prompted a full investigation, the results of which have just been published in the German journal, Anglia: Zeitschrift fur Englische Philologie.
The first challenge was to decipher the annotations. Transcribing Old English is not difficult, whatever master’s palaeography students may tell you. However, these annotations presented several idiosyncratic challenges: first, the vast majority of them were written in the outer margin of the leaves, perpendicular to the text block, a position where readers’ fingers are liable to have rubbed any writing; second, the script was extremely small, almost wilfully inconspicuous. Thus one of the annotations in the margin of fol. 4r had formerly been transcribed as ‘seolas scaelie’, just about recognisable as Old English, but not intelligible as such because no word ‘scaelie’ exists; in good light and with patience, I was able to recognise the word intended as ‘weolocscælle’.
The next challenge was to explain what the annotator was up to. Fortunately, I was well positioned for this task, having written my PhD on the ways in which medieval readers used manuscripts. One thing that immediately struck me was that the spelling of the annotations was at odds with their twelfth-century date. This suggested it would be worth checking if they had been taken from an earlier work. Investigation revealed this was indeed the case, with all having come from an earlier translation of the Latin work being annotated, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. The annotation of a Latin work with equivalent phrases from an English translation might suggest a student cribbing his way to the understanding of the original Latin (my copy of Virgil’s Æneid still has my annotations from when I first encountered it as a sixteen-year old schoolboy). But closer consideration of two of the annotations suggested the actual situation was more complex.
Both of these annotations concern Bede’s account of St Alban, the man he celebrated as the first English martyr and the man who gave his name to the monastery and later town of St Albans in Hertfordshire. Both annotations give details found in the English translation not present in the Latin: that a visitor Alban received was a monk and that the place of Alban’s martyrdom was half a mile from the town wall. They suggest that the annotator was not a student struggling to understand Bede’s Latin, but a scholar making a detailed comparison of the Latin text and its Old English translation and, perhaps surprisingly, according them equal weight.
The annotations in TCD MS 492 are therefore a witness to the authority that the vernacular held in England before 1200, an authority paralleled in the Europe of this time only in Ireland. The publication of these neglected seventeen words of Old English adds just a little to the more than three million words of Old English already known to have survived, and it doubles the number of codices known to contain Old English in Trinity, but more importantly it tells us that Old English works continued to be read and studied well into the twelfth century, just as we still enjoy the novels of Dickens and Trollope today.
Ussher Assistant Professor in Medieval Literature