The Art of Beekeeping Meets the Arts of Grammar: A Gloss of "Columcille's Circle"

Article excerpt

Folio 15 verso of British Library manuscript Cotton Vitellius E.xviii, an eleventh-century codex written in all likelihood at Winchester, preserves a short item that begins with the words Pis is sancte columcille circul.(1) The diagram and instructions that follow are for a device meant to protect bees during a swarm. The Old English text for this beekeeping device reads Writ pysne circul mid pines cnifes orde on anum mealm stane 7 sleah aenne stacan on middan pam ymbhagan 7 lege pone stane on uppan pam stacan paet he beo eall under eordan butan pam gewritenan [Write this circle with the point of your knife on a malmstone, and drive a stake into the ground in the center of your apiary, and put the stone on top of the stake so that it is completely under the earth but for the writing].(2) The diagram that is included with these instructions (see figure) consists of two concentric circles; the inner circle is bisected twice to create four quarters. In the upper right-hand quarter of this inner circle, the following Latin text appears, which is the text to be etched on to the malmstone:

contra

apes ut

salvi sint

& incorda

eorum. S a h.

[Against bees so that they may be safe and in their hearts. S a h.](3)

The other three quarters of the circle include a series of Roman numerals. Charles Singer has identified this arrangement to be a version of Petirosis' circle, a Greek medical prognostic device (350).(4) The directions and diagram for "Columcille's Circle" share a page with various items of practical wisdom, including directions for protecting bees from theft, a charm for finding a stolen possession, remedies for cattle and sheep, and charms for livestock and crops.(5) The bulk of the manuscript in which this brief item appears is devoted to a Gallican Psalter with Old English interlinear gloss; according to N. R. Ker, the Old English gloss and "Columcille's Circle" are written in the same hand, a hand that is also contemporary with the Psalter itself.(6)

This brief text--a few lines of Old English mixed in with other bits of practical advice--presents a modern scholar with a small, nearly mute fragment of Anglo-Saxon Benedictine culture. Like a minuscule textual fragment from our own culture--an ad on a matchbook cover, the logo on a candy-bar wrapper, the lettering on a pencil or paper bag--"Columcille's Circle" tests the limits of our notions of the scope and appropriate object of literary criticism; these items seem to be at once too ordinary and too enigmatic for analysis. Nevertheless, these fragments--whether tucked into a Psalter or a briefcase--occupy vital spaces in the matrix of everyday life; as such, they record some of the most intimate interests and concerns of their respective cultures. An examination of "Columcille's Circle" with an eye trained to the nuances of its symbolism reveals this minute cultural artifact to be an intricate textual crystal whose multiple facets reflect an intriguing array of images of monastic life in eleventh-century Winchester, a life devoted to the love of learning and the love of God.(7) Even more significantly, though, a study of the systems of power encoded in this textual crystal sheds light on the interpretive and communicative mechanisms of medieval grammatica in which a specifically literate spirituality was constituted.(8)

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At the moment when some now-forgotten monk was carefully recording the directions and diagram for "Columcille's Circle" onto a sheet of parchment, the monastic community at Winchester would have been busy with the many demands of practical and devotional life. Enshrined in the cathedral not far from the scriptorium in which this monk labored, were the remains of two earlier abbots of Winchester--Saint AEthelwold and Saint Swithun--and as this monk's quill scratched parchment, pilgrims from London and from the surrounding countryside may have been milling around these shrines, praying for the beneficent intercession of these saints. …