The Old English Version of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica
Sharon M. Rowley
Anglo-Saxon Studies, vol. 16
Cambridge: D.S.Brewer, 2011
Hardcover. xi+ 257 p. ISBN-13: 978-1843842736. £60.00
Reviewed by Roger Collins
University of Edinburgh
This is one of those books that start from an idea so simple and so seemingly obvious that the reader is left wondering why nobody ever thought of it before: in this case the turn of elegant genius is that the Old English translation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica is the product of a coherent series of rational choices on the part of those who made it. To some earlier generations of scholars, whose views are well described here, OEHE, as it is usefully abbreviated throughout the book, was a botched job representing no more than two thirds of the Latin original, with omissions dictated by little more than the tedium tolerance of its translators. While therefore unworthy of detailed investigation in itself, for some of these commentators, the main or only value of OEHE lay in its role as another component of that well-known corpus of texts that was turned into Old English by the indefatigable King Alfred, while he was not otherwise engaged in defeating Danes. It was, thanks to its deficiencies, not seen as a work from that learned monarch’s own quill pen, but rather as the product of one or more of the lesser collaborators in his project to improve the quality of English education; a process still ongoing.
Almost all of what constituted orthodoxy in this area has now been questioned or even overturned, not least by Professor Rowley in this important book. She does not go quite as far as some in seeking to deconstruct almost the whole of Alfred’s literary programme – to which might be added the point that he was also not quite the military genius sometimes claimed – but she decisively removes the OEHE from the decaying orbit of his supposed school of translators, showing that not only is the dialect used Mercian rather than West Saxon but also that certain key ideological emphases, notably in the use of the word Angelcynn, which are strongly associated with the Alfredan texts, are not to be found in this work.
Freed from shackles of this spurious West Saxon context, OEHE in Professor Rowley’s hands becomes a thing of beauty. The decisions made by its translators as to what they omitted from Bede’s Latin original, or even in very rare and brief instances, added to it, are shown to be comprehensible and sensible. For example, the elimination of most of the material in Book One relating to the Arian and Pelagian controversies is not the product of intellectual inertia or incomprehension, but a conscious choice that still leaves the Britons responsible for that loss of divine favour that resulted in most of their lands passing into the hands of the Anglo-Saxons (who should not be seen as members of ‘Germanic tribes’, as here in one of this book’s very few defects). In OEHE’s version, the Britons are defeated thanks to their moral failings and above all their cowardice in the face of the invaders, rather than as the result of their fondness for heresy, as Bede’s narrative seems to suggest. This is an altered interpretation of the age of the Anglo-Saxon conquests that will have resonated far more strongly in an age in which the kingdoms that emerged from that process were themselves now falling victim to new invaders from Scandinavia.
This raises the question of the date, as well as the location in which the translators of OEHE were working. Lacking any external evidence, the answer depends on analysis of the handful of surviving manuscripts in which the work is to be found, a process carefully conducted in the first chapter of this book. One consequence is to make clear the fact that Bede’s work can only be found in the tenth century in its new Old English guise rather than in its Latin original, as no codices of the latter date from this period. Professor Rowley is prepared to allow that the translation itself, if not therefore early tenth century in date, might just be a product of the last years of the ninth century. Her assurance that this could not be much earlier than c.883 rests upon the current orthodoxies of Old English palaeography, which claim a precision that seems both startling and possibly spurious when compared with the greater uncertainties of most Continental counterparts. The impression that the scripts of late Anglo-Saxon England changed as frequently, as uniformly, and as efficiently as its coinage challenges belief.
Bede’s salvation narratives and the complexities of the terminology of ethnic identity are but two of the features of OEHE subjected to sustained and convincing analysis in this ground-breaking book, which in nine chapters looks at a range of notable elements of the text that distinguish it from the Latin original. In the process it makes sense of all of those features, such as the moving of Gregory the Great’s Libellus Responsionum from its original context to an entirely new one at the end of Book Three that have baffled or aroused the scorn of earlier commentators. In every case the argument is convincing, and our understanding of this intriguing work is deepened. There are photographs of samples of all the manuscripts and fragments, useful charts and tables ideally located in the appropriate places, and four appendices, the first of which contains a comparative table of contents of the Latin and OE versions, and two of them devoted to glosses, including an edition of those in the earliest manuscript. All in all this is an exemplary and innovative work of scholarship.
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