Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Ouer and Ouer Again in the Peterborough Chronicle

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Ouer and Ouer Again in the Peterborough Chronicle

Article excerpt

The meaning "in addition" or "furthermore" is well attested for the Middle English adverb over, but the earliest attestation of the word in this sense that is recorded in the Middle English Dictionary is from 1382) (1)The question thus arises whether this meaning is a late development or whether it might be discoverable in earlier Middle English texts.

Old English ofer seems never to have had precisely this meaning, though it is not difficult to see how the meaning "in addition" should have developed from some types of Old English usage, as with the clause "[eth]u ne wilnast nanes o[eth]res pinges ofer [thorn]a" [you will desire nothing more than that] in the Old English Boethius, and the phrase "eall, paette ofer bi[eth] to lafe" [all that remains], rendering "quod superest," in the Old English Bede. (2)

The language of the Middle English annals in the Peterborough Chronicle, however, is not far removed from Old English, and a particular example of adverbial over in this text is perhaps best interpreted to mean "in addition." In the much-anthologized entry for the year 1137, describing the Anarchy under the reign of King Stephen, the chronicler offers a harrowing account of the torments devised by the powerful to extort valuables from anyone of even slender means, and how the barons taxed, plundered, and burned the towns. He then turns to the topic of ecclesiastical property, and since the context is of some relevance to the determination of the meaning of over, the passage may be quoted in full:

Wes naeure gaet mare wrec\c/ehed on land, ne naeure hethen men werse ne diden [thorn]an hi diden, for over sithon ne forbaren \hi/nouther circe ne cyrceieerd, oc namen al pe god [eth]at [thorn]arinne was & brenden sythen [thorn]e cyrce & al tegeedere. Ne hi ne forbaren biscopes land ne abbotes ne preostes, ac raeueden munekes & clerekes, & aeuric man other pe overmyhte. Giftwa men oper .iii. coman ridend to an tun, al pe tunscipe flugaen for heom, wenden [eth]at hi waeron raeueres, be biscopes & lered men heom cursede aeure, oc was heom naht [thorn]arof, for hi uueron al forcursaed & forsuoren & forloren. (3)

Since the precise meaning of the passage remains to be established, a translation will be supplied at the end of this discussion. The last few words of the second sentence, "and aeuric man other be overmyhte," are generally taken to mean "and every man [robbed] another anywhere he could" on the assumption that overmyhte is two words, over myhte. The form overmyhte in the edition of Irvine is apparently due to acceptance of the proposal that the word reflects Old English *ofermihte, meaning "had the power," to a verb attested once in the corpus of Old English. (4) This solution (generally credited to Bruce Dickins, though it is to be found already in the glossary of Plummer and Earle) (5) is certainly preferable to the earlier view, according to which over reflects Old English a-hwaer, "everywhere." (6) One difficulty with this earlier analysis is that in the Second Continuation (for the years 113254), which is all in the hand of one scribe, the word over always reflects OE ofer, and intervocalic u always represents [v]; moreover, at the beginning of a syllable, [w] is always represented as either uu or wynn.

But if it is true that over in this instance, too, reflects OE ofer, it is not necessary to assume a compound verb. If over and myhte are regarded as two words, the last few words of the sentence should perhaps be interpreted instead to mean "and everyone else who, in addition, could [be robbed]." This seems an improvement over both the earlier interpretation and the reanalysis of Plummer and Earle, and Dickins, since the context tells against the supposition that the annalist means that everyone robbed his neighbor. Throughout this annal, both before and after the phrase in question, the chronicler's aim is not to portray general, random lawlessness but more specifically to indict the lords and their henchmen who wrought such mayhem. …

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