Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Something Old, Something New: English Orthography in the Thirteenth-Century South-West Midlands. *

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

Something Old, Something New: English Orthography in the Thirteenth-Century South-West Midlands. *

Article excerpt

"In East Anglia (especially Norfolk), and also in Lincolnshire, an individual writer's range of variant spellings for a single word is generally greater than in most other counties ...; the contrast with the more disciplined orthographies of the West Midlands is particularly striking. Regional differences in the tradition and circumstances of vernacular literacy are perhaps to be inferred, and call for the attention of social historians no less than of philologists." (A Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English [henceforth LALME] 2: x). The nature and origins of such regional disciplines do indeed call for attention, and some evidence for the development of South-West Midlands orthographies survives.

The maps of a synchronic survey like LALME present us with the practices of a particular period, in this case the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. A first impression of the thirteenth century evidence might be that at this stage South-West Midland orthographies too are still highly variable. If settled practices developed earlier in this region, the difference is presumably related to the circumstances in which English was copied, including the degree of continuity between different attempts to do so and the role of centres of local influence.

One relevant difference in the traditions and circumstances of vernacular literacy is that in the thirteenth century literary miscellanies rich in English texts appear in the South-West Midlands and nowhere else. Three miscellanies can be regarded as central: Cotton Caligula A.ix, Jesus College Oxford 29, and Digby 86. (1) The three are roughly contemporary: Jesus was produced somewhere between 1256 and about the end of the century, (2) C about the same time, (3) and Digby can be dated to the period 1272-1282 (Miller 1963: 25-28). Geographically, too, they are close: more will be said below about localisations, but all three are from the South-West Midlands. Caligula and Jesus are close textually as well: most of Caligula's texts occur also in Jesus (though one that does not is Lazamon's massive Brut, which constitutes the bulk of the manuscript), and in versions so similar that they certainly derive from a proximate common exemplar.

The English texts of Caligula other than the Brut are in the hand of a single scribe, best known for the faithfulness with which he has reproduced two sharply distinct orthographies in The Owl and the Nightingale. In his copies of the remaining English texts, which I shall refer to as the Minor Poems, he further shows his tendency to reproduce, evidently literatim, different varieties of English. The appearance of a literatim copyist at this date is of interest, in the light of observations by Jeremy Smith (1991: 54) and Margaret Laing (1991: 38-42) that the Early Middle English period shows the breakdown of Late West Saxon habits of literatim copying, in favour of scribal translation.

One result of the faithfulness of the Caligula scribe is that we are quite unable to say where he worked. (There is no non-linguistic evidence for provenance either, and the customary classification of this and related manuscripts as "friars' miscellanies" is unfounded.) (4) On the other hand, his faithfulness allows us to say a great deal about his exemplar (which I shall refer to as X), and something about the earlier transmission of the materials that fed into this collection. The two orthographies of The Owl and the Nightingale are generally denoted I and II. II has close resemblances to the AB language that is the nearest approach to a standardised written English in the Early Middle English period. Unexpectedly, in spite of its archaic air, II can I believe be shown to be an innovation, introduced into the X copy, a scribal translation of an exemplar that was in something resembling orthography I. (5) This is no aberration: such standardisation, necessarily of a conservative kind, has been identified in various Early Middle English manuscripts, particularly those from the South-West Midlands. …

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