What Have Manuscripts to Do with HEL?

Drawing of a chained library in Hereford Cathedral

This semester I had the pleasure of teaching a graduate seminar on “The History of the English Language” (from beginnings up to the early modern period), and it has led me to all sorts of useful reflections on language and history. Foremost, I have my students to thank for such an exciting and engaging seminar–and next semester I get to teach the second half of the seminar, from the early modern period up to the present. I have been especially thinking about manuscripts and their role in how we tell histories of English. It’s no surprise that manuscripts are so wrapped up in the language–they contain the major witnesses to English up into the early modern period. But several ideas in particular have underscored the connection for me this semester.

Several weeks ago I tried an experiment. We had begun studying Old English (alphabet, phonology, & nouns) and students were getting used to seeing and working through basic Old English sentences. But they had mostly seen modernized printed sources so far (with the exception of some images of the OE Caedmon’s Hymn in the margins of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History). So we looked at the Blickling Homilies. (I wish that I could put a photo here, but Princeton has strict policies on permissions; the whole digitized manuscript is available online here.) This manuscript is, of course, a wonderful artifact for thinking about intersections between linguistic, literary, historical, and material contributions to the history of English. Written around the year 1000, the Blickling collection contains eighteen Old English anonymous sermons, all presumably copied from earlier exemplars, which generally represent an Anglian dialect, probably Mercian more specifically, with some Kentish features. In addition to Old English sermons, the Blickling book also contains a calendar added in the fifteenth century, as well as notes about official business for the city of Lincoln (including officials’ names), ranging from the fourteenth through seventeenth centuries throughout the margins. With these additions, the value of the manuscript for studying medieval English languages is striking: the evidence stretches over eight centuries, spanning much of medieval England’s temporal history and a range of representatives for geographic differences.

A few reflections arose from our discussion of the Blickling sermons. First, these sermons demonstrate how earlier texts were taken over and linguistically updated by scribes copying them. Second, these sermons show how studying Old English is wrapped up in different dialect forms, mixing and mingling, although we often like to standardize or ignore these qualities. Third, these sermons remain clear evidence of the multilingualism of Anglo-Saxons, mixing vernacular and Latin, sometimes even revealing Norse-derived loanwords. Finally, considering the later medieval additions only enhanced these notions of linguistic updating, dialect mixing, and multilingualism as they flourished in the medieval period. These points became even more apparent when, a few weeks later, we read Elaine Treharne’s book Living Through Conquest, which heavily relies on the continued survival of preaching texts well into the twelfth century. The Blickling sermons, then, represent a key confluence of themes that we followed throughout the seminar.

The Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, early 15th-century, showing the Knight

We continued to return to manuscripts for the rest of the semester. While working through specimens of Middle English, we looked at the manuscript of The Orumulum to understand Orm’s scribal practices in light of shifting language forms and Norse loanwords, the Ellesmere Canterbury Tales to work out dialect mixing in fourteenth-/fifteenth-century London English, and the Winchester Malory in comparison with Caxton’s Malory to consider the relationships between manuscript and print. We also used A Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English and A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English (both in print and online) to discuss the nuances of dialects across time and geography–discussing the necessity of returning to manuscript witnesses for these projects. All of these explorations helped to centralize the inevitable materiality of English.

In short, we had many productive exercises for reflecting on the question I posed in the title of this post. And they were good reminders that manuscripts, in fact, have quite a lot to do with the history of the English language.


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