OETG #8: ‘natural’ orders of society and environment

In the final week of  term we discussed one of the most well-known passages from Maxims I, lines 71a-80b:

The extract begins apparently stating a list of eternal, cyclical truths relating to the turning of the seasons and the passage of time. It seizes the attention of the reader with its sudden change in rhythm. These lines are noticeably shorter than those in the passages preceding and following.

Sceal creates difficulty in translation in that it can be translated either as ‘shall’ or ‘must’. It is the most often repeated word in the Maxims, offering both structural and thematic functions, and therefore requires particular care from the translator. Sceal is a central thread shaping the Maxims, binding together the poem as a whole, and thus the world it describes. ‘Shall’ in Modern English is generally used to create the future tense, rather than the present continuous, so translating sceal as ‘shall’ here might indicate a consolatory tone: winter is difficult, but it will pass eventually. ‘Must’ indicates that frost has no option but to freeze, that it is in its nature. This draws attention to a larger thematic focus on the inexorable passage of time, which can never be altered except by felameahtig god (74b-75b).

Throughout the Maxims, we can glean meaning from the juxtaposition of everyday observable truths with larger societal truths, strengthened by the structural symmetry of equal half-lines weighted over the axis of the caesura. What has dom (80b) to do with frost? Dom is itself a rather slippery term, with an apparently very wide semantic range: the University of Toronto’s Dictionary of Old English lists thirteen separate categories of definition, including ‘jurisdiction’, ‘God’s judgement, especially the Last Judgement’, ‘good sense’, ‘discretion’, ‘authority’, ‘power (merging with senses of glory, fame)’. Each of us in the group seemed to have picked a different word for our translation, and I chose ‘honour’, as I felt it encapsulated the most of these possible meanings in Modern English. Perhaps dom, like frost, is cyclical and eternal, and this passage is relating societal cycles to natural ones.

In our discussion we came to an understanding that this passage seems to be describing funerary rites. This is indicated by the juxtaposition in lines 79a-80a between the apparent ritualistic burning of holly and the much more pragmatic practicalities of inheritance and redistribution of property. It is significant that holly is mentioned specifically. As an evergreen tree, holly links thematically to the earlier lines describing the turning of the seasons, in that it seems resistant to that cycle of life and death. As elsewhere in the Maxims, proximity indicates relationship, and regardless of whether or not holly held particular ritualistic significant, it seems to indicate here the balance between life and death.

Finally, we discussed the editorial difficulties raised by lines 77b-78a. Sund unstille and deop deada wæg are sometimes separated into two sentences. This distinction is not made in the Exeter Book manuscript, and potentially changes the meaning of the lines. The juxtaposition of the ‘unquiet sea’ and the ‘deep way of the dead’ indicates a symbolic relationship between death and deep waters: to the living, unknown and unknowable. Without the sentence break, this relationship is much more direct, but regardless, in these lines there is a close relationship between the lives of humans and the cycles of the natural world.

– Miranda, OETG 2016-2017

OETG #7: meetings of minds in Maxims I

Following on from that striking imperative to frige mec frodum wordum! (‘Ask me with wise words!’) we’ve met again to inquire into Maxims 1 up to line 22b, and there found some other meetings of minds:

Eardas rume
meotud arærde     for moncynne,
ælmihtig god,     efenfela bega
þeoda ond þeawa.     Þing sceal gehegan
frod wiþ frodne;      biþ hyra ferð gelic,
hi a sace semaþ,     sibbe gelærađ,
þa ær wonsælge     awegan habbađ.

the Ordainer created for mankind,
– almighty God! – abounding countries,
as many peoples as customs.
The wise must hold a meeting with the wise,
their souls are alike,
they ever settle disputes, preach peace,
which the unblessed have previously destroyed.

(Maxims 1, ll. 15b-21, translation mine)

Here the poem echoes its own didactic interests – encouraging the ‘wise’ to hold a meeting (literally – and charmingly- a ‘thing’, Þing, l.18) and teach peace. The poem suggests that heterogeneity in peoples and their ways was a purposeful part of Earth’s creation. The þeoda ond þeawa (‘peoples and customs’ l.18) with their missenlicu mod (‘diverse minds’, l.13) were ordained to be different, and this encourages and even necessitates (that demanding sceal, l.18) communication with one another. Does alterity here become represented as a force which ought to unite, not divide?

How should we translate ferð in line 19? As Roland suggested, earlier in the poem we might use more mind-centric terms for these words which encompass mind/heart/spirit/soul – the interior of a person. Is this the case here? The context of the surrounding lines is important to consider. Some discussion was held over whether sibbe gelærað might be translated as ‘preach peace’ rather than ‘teach peace’, taking into account the Christian context of exchanging wise words, religious sayings, and of oral conversion. I found that interesting, and have chosen to illustrate this in my translation. Perhaps, considering this, ferð may be considered here in the field of ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ to suggest the power of these meetings and exchanges, that the soul of the wise Christian is the same sort of soul as its brethren, all saved and blessed alike in the reception of the Word of God.

The power of communication between such ferð is positive, it brings sibbe, ‘peace’ (l.20). The wise must wrixlan their gieddum (l.4) – creatively exchange their wisdom-sayings, an action which echoes the act of divine Creation. Indeed, Maxims 1 urges us to use our words to first praise God, before we do anything else with them (l. 4). The ‘right’ and ‘wise’ exchange of words suggests an act that peacefully maintains that which God has measured out for us.

At line 21 we also meet some others, the wonsælge – those who ‘destroy’ this peace. Wonsælge poses a challenge for translation: Bosworth-Toller gives ‘unblest’, ‘miserable’, or even ‘evil’ as possibilities. Literally it means ‘lacking/wanting blessedness’, where sælig conveys spiritual blessing. The dreaded Grendel is famously wonsælig (Beowulf l. 105), there is a sense of unholiness. In conjunction with the Meotud as the Ordainer or Measurer of ordered creation, here we see the ‘unblessed’ directly oppose and reverse the action of the wise: they awegan — ‘destroy’ – the peace. This has a sense of taking something away (‘awaying’ it) but against the backdrop of creative action in this poem, ‘destroy’ provides a striking contrast. If the ‘wise’ (by implication, ‘blessed’) sort of  ferð come together to create peace, the ‘unblessed’  ferð unravel and disperse it, creating discord in a once-ordered world. This must be repaired through another ‘thing’ – the meeting of minds, and the sharing of wisdom.

– Rose Evans, King’s English Department Undergraduate

OETG #6 — Speak your ferð: translating the ‘mind’ words in Maxims I

Translating the opening lines of Maxims I, one is immediately struck by the concentration of words relating to thought, the mind and intellectual activity. Since the maxim poems belong properly to the realm of wisdom and knowledge, it seems important to capture this vocabulary accurately from the outset.

Three words/phrases designating the mind occur: ferð, hygecræft, heortan geþōhtas. Those familiar with the elegies will recognise ferð from The Wanderer, where it occurs 5 times. The word means both ‘spirit’ and ‘mind’. It finds wide usage in both religious and battle poetry, as well as in personal names. Interestingly, it also appears once in an epithet for God, frēan on ferðe (Azarias l. 97a). Line 90a of The Wanderer shows the collocation frōd in ferðe, which explicitly associates the word with intellect and justifies semantic extension into this field.

Frige mec frōdum wordum!      Ne lǣt þīnne ferð onhǣlne

Try me intelligently, don’t hold back your mind

l. 1 Maxims I – translation by RB

hygecræft is a rare compound containing hyge, another word for ‘mind’, and cræft, a word bi-valent to the fields of practical, creative skill (as in Modern English – eg ‘handcraft’, ‘woodcraft’) and ‘force’, ‘strength’ and ‘power’ (the etymological meaning of the word). A challenge for translation arises from the preceding words relating to wisdom and intellect and the following line glēawe men sceolon gieddum wrixlan, ‘the ingenious will re-work the old songs’. The notion of poetic dexterity is here harmonised with intellectual depth implied by þæt þū dēopost cunne. One could render þīnne hygecræft as ‘the power of your intellect’, ‘the force of your intellect’ or ‘the extent of your intellect’ as easily as ‘your ingenuity’ or even simply ‘your skill’. Practical facility and intellectual perspicuity do not seem quite as separate as they are to modern conceptions.

This idea is reinforced by the adjective glēaw, ‘clear-sighted’, ‘prudent’ and ‘discerning’, used in conjunction with the verb wrixlan. This verb normally describes the activity of the scop ‘poet’ in exerting special craftsmanship on his material (see Beowulf ll. 366, 874). It is a specialised word, almost always used in relation to verbal creativity. It seems regard should be paid to the appearance of this specialised word for poetic craftsmanship. One might then look for a translation for hygecræft including this notion of verbal dexterity – ‘mental prowess’, perhaps?

For translating heortan geþōhtas, all agreed one should avoid an etymological Modern English rendering ‘the thoughts of your heart’. The Modern English ‘heart’ is too embedded in the domain of romantic love to be useful here. But its semantics in Old English were wider, including, to an extent, the Modern English emotive connotations, along with notions of courage and mental activity. The exact phrase appears in The Seafarer l. 34a. In the context of wisdom poetry (as opposed to battle poetry) and what follows – a litany of eternal truths – one might translate þīne heortan geþōhtas as ‘your convictions’, in the sense of the things one is ‘convinced’ of to be general and true, perhaps even ‘principles’?

                                                                      Nelle ic þē mīn dyrne gesecgan,
gif þū mē þīnne hygecræft hylest      ond þīne heortan geþōhtas.

I shan’t tell you mine,
if you hide from me your proficiency and your principles.
l. 2b-3 Maxims I – translation by RB

Roland Brennan, PhD candidate, UCL

Postgrad Forum #2 – Episcopal Exon – Lois Lane

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-12-44-32At first Medieval Postgrad Forum of 2017, Lois Lane (History, King’s) gave us a detailed insight into the Exon Domesday project that she has been involved with. The project is funded by the AHRC (2014-2017) and is a collaboration between scholars from the King’s College London, the University of Oxford, and the Friends and Dean and Chapter of Exeter Cathedral.

The Exon Domesday is a detailed register of the lands, properties, and subjects of the South West region of England, put together for William the Conqueror as part of his Domesday survey project.

Until this project, the details, intrigue, and stories held in the manuscript – MS 3500 in the Exeter Cathedral Library – have been inaccessible to most. There’s no published translation available, and the only edition (in Latin) was compiled in the eighteenth century, long before we had many of the historical and palaeographical insights now available to us.

Lois’ PhD project has a particular focus on the role of Bishops in the Domesday survey. By analysing the type of information collected, how it is presented, and whether any corrections were made in the writing process, Lois explained how she can get a sense of the political roles played by Bishops, and differences between the political clout and interests of sheriffs and members of the church. Studying the type of information collected, as well as linguistic oddities or variance in spelling, also offers clues as to the origins of the scribes, the administrative interests of William and his allies, and can give us an insight into the writing and documenting cultures of church and state authorities in the eleventh century.

Keen Domesday scholars will have to wait a little longer until the Exon Domesday – a marvel of administrative power put together in just a few short months – in all its manuscript, transcription, and translated glory will be available. Have a browse around the project blog in the meantime!

Fran – MRG co-organiser

Full forum schedule Spring 2017

2nd Feb – Fran Allfrey (English, Anglo-Saxon poetry, objects, and place, and contemporary museums)

16th Feb – Get in touch if you would like to present (see below)

2nd March – Manuel Garcia Munoz (History, ‘Matthew Paris and his collaborators: scribes at St Albans’ scriptorium (1230-1259))’

16th March – Anais Waag (History, on 13th century queenship)

30th March – Harriet Cook (Spanish, representations of masculinity in medieval Galician-Portuguese love lyric)

If you would like to present at the PGF this term, please do email the organisers Matt Lampitt matthew.lampitt@kcl.ac.uk and Fran Allfrey francesca.allfrey@kcl.ac.uk.

We especially would welcome MA students to propose ideas for sessions. You may want to practice a paper for a conference, or present initial dissertation ideas, using the group as a ‘sounding board’ to pose questions and develop your thinking. Two to three MA students may present during the same session.

OETG #5 — 4 December: one of three beasts

On our fifth session, we approached the poem’s last ten lines. We attempted a different modus operandi on them: each of us had their way with all lines beforehand, and then we tried to assemble a cohesive translation.

It was hard to ease the panther into silence, quite literally: a throng of men and beasts gathers around the heavenly cat after the singing of a few lines earlier. As the poem swirls to its conclusion, however, smell emerges as its sense of choice. It ends, in fact, with an interjection of grave, if somewhat funny, olfactory appeal: þæt is æþele stencOne does not quite know what to do with such a half-line. The hardest part of the session was perhaps reconciling our differing takes on it: it is tempting to go for ‘that was a noble stench’, but apparently ‘stench’ in nowadays’ English easily has more unpleasant connotations than Old English stenc, for which Bosworth-Toller has ‘smell’, ‘scent’ and ‘odour’.

The poem therefore closes on a synaesthetic note: the sense given most importance is definitely smell, but the reader, following the lines on the page, is asked to exercise sight — as much as the gathering crowd exercises hearing.

Illumination of a panther surrounded by a throng of beasts from an early 13th century Latin physiologus, now Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 16r. The serpent, beneath the panther, looks much like a dragon in this representation.

Being our last session for the term, however, we tried to draw some conclusions on what our translation’s aims were; in short, on what is it that we looked at for these past few months. Despite the fragmentary character of the Old English literary tradition, one always works within a context. The Panther belongs in a group of three poems, clustered together in the Exeter Book; each of these three poems tells of a different animal, respectively the panther, the whale and the partridge, or phoenix. They have parallels in the tradition of the Latin physiologus, a late antique predecessor of the medieval bestiary: in fact, they appear to be renditions of these late antique Latin texts themselves.

The relation between these ‘originals’ and The Panther, as well as its sister texts poses a number of questions. The Latin physiologus, in fact, although far from being a stable text, is usually composed by a sequence of over twenty units detailing as many creatures, legendary or uncanny, or less so. Are these three poems in the Exeter Book therefore to be taken as a fragment of this archetypal longer sequence, or do they brush a self-sufficient image as a triptych? The fact that in the Latin the three poems generally appear in the same disposition would encourage the former understanding, but surely we cannot answer with any certainty, nor, perhaps, do we need to.

Illumination of a panther from the  Physiologus Bernensis, Cod. 318 at Burgerbibliothek Bern, f. 15r, from around the year 830. The prancing deer and wolves make for a jubilant picture.

It seems impossible to rid Old English literature of its fragmentary character. Moreover, this exchange between the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon raises a number of questions for us as translators. What is the value of our action of translation and remediation of an already-translated text? Perhaps, translations have a significance, literary and otherwise, in and of themselves. Is Old English The Panther a lesser text because of its being a translation from another source? It seems that, after a term’s work, we are left with more questions than answers, and with more fragments than wholes.

Get ready for our 2017 translation of the Maxims. Maybe more answers will come our way.

Antonio Lenzo, OETG

OETG #4 – 22 November: The Fire-Breathing Devil

In the penultimate session this semester, the religious allegory of The Panther poem seems to come to a climax.

dreams dragons devils old english

In these lines, God, the ruler of mirth and joy, is juxtaposed against the dragon (devil) that is the origin of evil. One point of discussion arising from this section, and an idea that has intrigued me since I started translating Old English is how close can you or should you stay to the original? Line 55 has the word ‘dreama’, and to a modern reader, we automatically want to translate that to ‘dream’. However, the Old English meaning is more like joy, ecstasy, happiness, mirth. Calling God the ruler of ‘Dreams’ keeps the sound of the original, but is then losing the intended meaning. Oh, translation dilemmas.

The other thing I found really interesting about this extract, is the word ‘dracan’ which the Bosworth-Toller tells us means either dragon, serpent or the devil (although it explicitly references ‘dracan’ from line 57 to mean the Devil). Choosing ‘serpent’ keeps the poem in line with the animal subject, the Panther, however if we take this allegorically, as Bosworth-Toller has, it is intriguing that the medieval writer imagines the devil as a dragon. The poem seems to have a focus on creation and destruction, but it seems ambiguous here who is the Creator. We would assume God, but He doesn’t seem to take ownership of the ‘other created things’, perhaps showing His humble nature. However as the dracan is the ‘origin of poison’, we see how the Devil is rooted in destruction, or anti-creation, if there is a difference.


We had an interesting discussion about fyrnum teagum, as fyrnum conjures ideas of fire and hell, again linking back to the fire-breathing Devil. However, fyrnum also means ancient, which resonates with ealda. ‘Ancient bonds’ implies that this battle between good and evil is eternal, and will continue, despite the amount of suffering both sides endure. Are we reading too much into this Christian allegory though? Does this poem call upon religion to make sense, or is it demanding us to question its own origin: who is the Creator of this poem and who or what are they battling against?

By Serena Cooke, undergraduate, King’s College London English Department.

Postgrad Forum #1 – Images of Iberia in Oswald von Wolkenstein’s poetry – Doriane Zerka

Oswald von Wolkenstein, via Wikipedia

This Thursday, Doriane Zerka from the German Department at King’s presented some of her research on Oswald von Wolkenstein (c.1376-1445). This eccentric polymath was a diplomat for the court of Sigismund I, a knight, and prolific writer. In his poems, Doriane explained, he retells his travels across Europe. Doriane’s focus is on his poetry about medieval Spain, or Iberia.

Doriane began by explaining how even introducing her research topic is a tricky task: with ‘Spain’ and ‘Europe’ as we understand them not yet established in the medieval period, there are a whole host of other place-names that describe the area. The different names for ‘Spain’ as a whole, or parts of Spain – Iberia, Galicia, Grenada – didn’t just have different connotations of the space they refer to. In her reading of Oswald’s poetry, these different names also carried various political or cultural meanings too.

Oswald’s poetry can be read as autobiographical. He tells his travels in particularly fantastical ways, casting himself alternately as a brave traveller, a charming courtier, and a proto cultural-tourist. He is equally happy to show off being adorned with rings in his ears and beard by the fairy-like ‘white hands’ of an Iberian queen as he is describing donning a ‘Moorish’ outfit to dance and parade in Grenada.

This map shows the kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula from 1270 to 1492. It shows how medieval kingdoms have shaped present-day Spain. Adapted from Muir’s Historical Atlas, 1911. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook.
This map shows the kingdoms of the Iberian peninsula from 1270 to 1492. It shows how  many areas of Spain have retained the names of medieval kingdoms. Adapted from Muir’s Historical Atlas, 1911. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook.

Doriane explained how many scholars have read his poetry and then tried to prove it ‘true’ or ‘false’, searching for other records and letters which show that Oswald was where he said he was, when he said he was. But Doriane’s interest is to look at Oswald’s images and language closely, to read his motives for casting himself in so many various roles, which on the surface might contradict the sort of behaviour one might expect of a knight of a Western court. She explained how throughout his poems Oswald performs the role of the well heeled yet enigmatic diplomat. European courts in the Middle Ages were all about performances and personas. Writing the poetry was therefore an act of performance about performances. Oswald was shaping his identity through and within his writing.

Doriane suggested how we might also read a sort of ‘proto-orientalism’ to Oswald’s depictions of Iberia. I was really interested in Doriane’s discussion of this – especially, as Doriane mentioned, it can be difficult to apply modern theories to medieval texts. For me, however, through his poetry we can certainly see the recognisable actions of colonial powers that still cause problems today. Whilst he seems to have a genuine affection for the people and places he describes, Oswald was able to put on and take off the garb of a ‘Moor’ without any apparent impact on his political standing. Was Oswald truly celebrating other cultures in his poetry? Or was he just showing off his own social and political powers by playing dress-up with other cultures that he found exciting and exotic, before he ultimately returned to courtly life with Sigemund I? Did he admire the different cultures he found in Spain, or was he part of a colonial project laying foundations of treating different cultures as ‘Other’?

Thanks so much to Doriane for providing so many provocaitons and food for thought. Thanks also for reading aloud in Middle German, as an Anglo-Saxonist I love getting the chance to hear other medieval poetry!

– Fran Allfrey, co-organiser of the MRG

Doriane Zerka is a PhD candidate in the German Department at King’s College London. Her work considers depictions of Spain in medieval German literature, from the epic, lyric and travel writing genres. @dorianezerka