The Cohesion of the Worcester Fragments

By Johansen, Jan Geir | Papers on Language & Literature, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

The Cohesion of the Worcester Fragments

Johansen, Jan Geir, Papers on Language & Literature

"The Worcester Fragments" (hereafter WF) is the name given to 216 long lines on the last four of sixty-six trimmed and separate vellum sheets discovered by the antiquarian Thomas Phillipps, in the binding of an unspecified book at Worcester Cathedral in 1838.(1) The first sixty-three sheets of this MS., Worcester Cathedral F. 174, contain a version of AElfric's Grammar and Glossary (Butler, 93-323 ). The MS. as a whole represents the most extended work of Worcester's famous scribe with the "tremulous" hand, who may, according to Ker, have worked as late as the mid 13th century.(2)

It may seem perverse to suggest that something with the word "fragments" in its title is in fact a cohesive whole.(3) In this case, however, the "fragments" of the established editorial title for this work may exaggerate somewhat the fragmentary nature of the MS.; the text as we have it seems more-or-less complete. The sheets are physically disconnected but all that is missing from them appears to be one or a few lines at the top of sheets and some words or parts of words on one side, where the sheets were trimmed to make them suitable for use in binding of "one of the old registers" (Wright, Vocabularies 1: col. 536, n. 1).

Two significant problems result from the disconnected condition of the MS. sheets. The less serious one, to my mind, is a consequence of the fact that the sheets are disconnected, and concerns the relationship of the last sheet (f. 66) to the preceding three (ff. 63, 64, 65). Although his edition retains the traditional order, Douglas Moffat has suggested that f.66 might originally have followed f. 63, arguing that such a sequence of sheets gives better stylistic and structural coherence to the soul-and-body text which he edits ("Address" 123-40; Soul's Address 44-49). On the other hand, he also notes that such a rearrangement would violate the normal arrangement of folios by hair and flesh sides in the MS. In addition, on f. 66 alone the scribe uses the ampersand as well as his usual Tironian et (7). Placing f. 66 between any of the preceding folios would imply that the scribe adopted a new abbreviation for one folio only, then dropped it abruptly and regularly thereafter. This seems most unlikely. It remains possible, however, that there may have been one or more sheets between f. 65 and the present f. 66.

More serious is the problem that results from the absence of some, perhaps as many as 4 or 5, lines trimmed from the top of the verso of f. 63. To an important degree, because these lines are missing it has become easy to believe that WF contains two distinct works: the so-called "Bede Fragment" on the lower half of f. 63r, a lament or complaint on the lack of great teachers and the national decline that has resulted from this lack, and a soul-and-body text, sometimes called "The Departing Soul's Address to the Body," on ff. 63v to 66, i.e. to the end of the MS.

Except for Phillipps's more-or-less diplomatic text of 1838 and Halls partial edition (63r-64v) of 1920, no editions of the lament (63r) have included all or part of the soul-and-body text, nor have editions of the soul-and-body text included the lament. Hall, though he prints the lament and part of the soul-and-body text together, is careful to distinguish between them in his notes (2:223). This treatment of WF by editors is reflected and reinforced by its treatment in various authoritative lists and catalogues. The Index of the Middle English Verse and its Supplement, Ker's Catalogue of MSS. Containing Anglo-Saxon [#398], Angus Cameron's "List of Old English Texts" in A Plan for the Dictionary of Old English [B.3.4.13 & B.3.4.5], and Richard Osberg's 1981 catalogue of short alliterative ME poems, all treat WF as containing two distinct works (Brown and Robbins 695-96; Robbins and Cutler 308, 366; Ker, Catalogue 265-66; Frank and Cameron 106, 107; Osberg 322. See also Robbins, "Poems" 1436).

Considering the brief description of the two "works" - a lament for lost learning, and a soul-and-body text - and given the absence of any transitional passage, such as may have been in the lines missing from 63v, perhaps this separation of WF into two texts seems plausible. …

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