Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Transmission of Old English Poetry

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

The Transmission of Old English Poetry

Article excerpt

Peter Orton, The Transmission of Old English Poetry, Westfield Publications in Medieval and Renaissance Studies 2 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2000). xviii + 223 pp. ISBN 2-503-51072-8. Eur. 50.00.

Peter Orton examines Old English poems which survive in multiple copies in an attempt to address Kenneth Sisam's question of 19 53 as to how accurately Old English poetry was transmitted. Of the 185 Old English poems or fragments which survive, 20 have, wholly or in part, multiple manuscript versions, amounting to 2.2 per cent of the total surviving poetic corpus. Orton compares all of these in close detail, excluding only the three shortest texts, in order to discover as much as possible about the kinds of influence to which Old English poetry was subject during transmission. The book is organized by classification of variants according to probable cause: scribal imposition of standard spellings, mechanical errors, responses to existing corruptions (when detectable), modifications due to misunderstandings of the exemplar, and deliberate changes. Probably no one will agree with all of Orton's classifications and arguments, but all the evidence of variation is presented, and the general method is sound and leads to a number of interesting conclusions. There is considerable evidence that some copyists, especially those working late in the period, had a poor understanding of the language of the texts, especially nonstandard spellings, poetic vocabulary, or words used in unfamiliar senses, because their substitutions often do not fit the general context; these scribes had a narrow focus on the immediate context only. Other copyists seem to have been both more ambitious and more successful; for instance the versions of Solomon and Saturn and Azarius/Daniel often differ but in ways which make it difficult to access which might have priority over the other, and Azarius/Daniel in particular shows a wide range of variants of all kinds, even grammatical modifications, which are evidence of at least one free, confident, and competent transmitter. …

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