Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

The Brut as Saxon Literature: The New Philologists Read Lawman

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

The Brut as Saxon Literature: The New Philologists Read Lawman

Article excerpt

Editing vernacular literature in the nineteenth century

In 1847 the Society of Antiquaries issued Frederic Madden's threevolume edition of the Brut4 This massive project had begun some sixteen years earlier - 17 March 1831 to be precise - when the Society passed a resolution to launch a publication series for editions of the literature of "Anglo-Saxon and early English writers". In the resolution the Society mentions three tides for "immediate publication": "Cædmon's Paraphrase", to be edited by Benjamin Thorpe; the "Metrical Chronicle of Britain, by Layamon", to be edited by "F. Madden, Esq[uire] ... and Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts] in the British Museum" (and shortly to become Sir Frederic, Keeper of Manuscripts); and the Ormulum, to be edited by Richard Price, the "Editor of Warton's History of English Poetry".2 Benjamin Thorpe's Coedmon's Metrical Paraphrase (that is, the Old English biblical poems of Junius 11) was duly issued in the following year,3 but the Ormulum, a twelfth-century homiliary penned by an Augustinian canon named Orm, was never published by the Society because of Price's untimely death in 1833.4

The resolution of 1831 mentions several additional titles that were planned to follow these initial three: Beowulf, the Exeter Book, the Old English "Romance of Apollonius of Tyre", "Ælfric's Grammar and Glossary", and Gospel glosses and translations.5 Of these, the first complete English edition of Beowulf was produced by John Mitchell Kemble and issued independendy of the Society in 1833.6 Apollonius of Tyre, an Old English prose romance, was edited by Thorpe and printed by a different publisher in 1834.7 Thorpe also edited the Exeter Book (one of the four major Old English poetic codices along with Junius 11, the Beowulf manuscript, and the Vercelli Book) and published it through the Society in 1842.8 Even though the Society ultimately published fewer titles than had initially been intended, there is little doubt that this wellestablished institution played a role in promoting editions of early medieval English literature in the mid-nineteenth century.

The Society of Antiquaries' enterprise was a response to the philological movement that had begun on the Continent in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. In the resolution of 1831 the Society acknowledged that much had been done of late for the cultivation of ancient native literature in France, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden and that the achievement of scholars in these countries was indeed so impressive that:

it has been a source of mortification to the English antiquary and philologist, that in this country few have been the steps taken, during the last century, towards communicating to the world the literary treasures preserved among us, from the times of our Saxon and Anglo-Norman forefathers.9

What interests us here in relation to Lawman studies is the parameters set by the Society for its publication series: by the "ancient native literature" of England it clearly meant vernacular composition in both Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman periods. The Brut and other postConquest texts were therefore grouped together with Anglo-Saxon compositions under the rubric of the originary literature of England.

The Society of Antiquaries' treatment of the early medieval vernacular was in line with the traditional view that English did not come into existence until the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, when the native Saxon tongue had presumably become intermixed with enough French elements to give rise to a new language. According to this century-old notion of English as an amalgam of "Gothic" and Romance languages, the period immediately following the Norman Conquest comprised a transition from late Saxon to the earliest phase of English. In his edition of the Brut, Madden adopted this framework and underlined the importance of the transitional vernacular in the study of linguistic and literary history:

It will be readily admitted by those who have investigated the history of the English language, that the most obscure, and yet in many respects, the most interesting period of its progress, is that during which the Anglo-Saxon language, already from the time of Edward the Confessor predisposed to change, was at length broken up, and clothed with those new characteristics, in which the germs of our modern tongue are found. …

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