The Code and Context of Monasteriales Indicia: A Semiotic Analysis of Late Anglo-Saxon Monastic Sign Language

Article excerpt

1. Introduction. The manuscript and Benedictine contexts of Monasteriales Indicia

Monasteriales Indicia is an Old English description of the sign language used by the Benedictine community at Christchurch, Canterbury, and possibly at other monastic establishments of late Anglo-Saxon England. The text is preserved in folios 97v-101v of the mid-eleventh century manuscript Cotton Tiberius A.iii, now at the British Library. The manuscript also contains a glossed copy of AElfric's Colloquy and Latin versions of the Regula Sancti Benedicti as well as some of its adaptations in the Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon worlds: the Memoriale Qualiter, the Collectic Capitularis and, especially, the late-tenth century native consuetudinary, the Regularis Concordia, with an Old English gloss. (1) The gathering together of key writings on the reformation of English monasticism, like the Rule of St. Benedict and the Regularis Concordia, and practical or educational texts, like AElfric's Colloquy and the Indicia, makes it possible that the manuscript was compiled with a didactic intention. It is well-known that n ovices were read the Rule several times during their first year at the cella novitiorum and throughout this preparatory period they may have also been taught Latin, by means of the Colloquy, and the signs prevalent at each monastery, with the help of Monasteriales Indicia (Porter 1994). As Banham suggests, this manuscript context may imply that the aim of Cotton Tiberius A.iii was to make the reform and its basic texts comprehensible to English speakers (1997). In fact, the similarity between the Anglo-Saxon list and contemporary continental codes written in Latin - like the one included in William of Hirsau's Constitutiones (late eleventh century) and the lists by Bernhard (1075) and Udalrich (1083) (Jarecki 1981) - may point to a common Latin source, which was possibly compiled at Cluny and extended geographically with the reform movement. Indeed, the fact that the Anglo-Saxon Indicia is the only list translated into the vernacular may also point to the didactic aim of the manuscript: the original Latin tex t may have been translated so that the novices who did not have an adequate command of Latin could learn the signs, possibly because this language was harder to acquire by the Anglo-Saxons than by their continental French contemporaries (Banham 1991: 11). (2)

Despite its obvious interest for comprehending the characteristics of reformed monastic life in England, not much attention has been given to this text. The exceptions are an early edition by Kluge (1885) and the textual notes by Logeman (1899) and Swaen (1920). A recent description and translation of the system by Sherlock (1989), the semiotic discussion by Barley (1974) and the latest edition by Banham (1991) have all contributed to revive scholarly interest in the sources and functions of this medieval system of non-verbal communication. In this paper I intend to explore some aspects of the Old English text which may be of interest for the interpretation of late Anglo-Saxon monastic culture. Firstly, a review of the contents of the Indicia and the comparison with contemporary Cluniac sign lists may provide evidence on everyday details of Anglo-Saxon monastic life. Secondly, the application of modem semiotics to this code of communication may allow us to observe the different procedures used for the construction of these signs, in order to reach conclusions on how the surrounding world was viewed and represented by the members of these religious communities.

2. The monastic context of Monasteriales Indicia

The Rule of St. Benedict supplies the immediate cultural context which induced the compilation of sign lists like Monasteriales Indicia. The Rule considered silence indispensable for divine contemplation - both as an instrumentum bonorum operum (4: 51-54) and a means of achieving humilitatis gradum (8: 56-58) - as well as necessary for the regulation of religious life. …

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