Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Getting La3amon's Brut into Sharper Focus

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

Getting La3amon's Brut into Sharper Focus

Article excerpt

In writing this article, I am only too conscious that, when reading the Caligula Brut, we must all share the experience of being continually brought up short by unexpected speculation as to what particular words mean. My nagging sense of unease is gready assuaged if I manage to borrow a copy of Madden and have it by my elbow.1 With Madden as my guide, and with access to both the OED and the MED on-line, many questions dissolve. Then there are the three translations published between 1989 and 1995 to be consulted, Bzdyl, Allen, and Barron and Weinberg,2 where new readings lurk.3 But a far greater problem than the absence of volume III of the EETS edition is at the bottom of my unease:4 the lack of a firm sense of date for llamón. Evidence, if circumstantial, is accumulating for a date in, say, the 1270s for the Caligula manuscript (like Jesus 29, Digby 86 and Trinity College Cambridge 323), and for its origin in Worcester, ten or twelve miles from Areley Kings. llamón himself I think of as earlier, as perhaps beginning to write his Brut a couple of generations before, at about the time the Worcester scribe with the Tremulous Hand was reading his way through some of the cathedral priory5s books in English as well as Latin and finding much to interest him in old manuscripts, or a little earlier. However, were he writing "at a time perhaps as late as the second third of the thirteenth century55,5 that would move him on from the Ancrene Riwle group by half a century, and a full century from Orm.6 If La3amon5s language is thought of as archaistic, a date of composition near to the Caligula manuscript may be argued; yet "the syntax is not conservative, let alone archaic55 for Eric Stanley,7 marking for him a strong contrast with the poem's lexis.

Others have argued for a reassessment of the lexis, seeing in it a basic vocabulary that is plain and simple and suggesting that it does not bear the marks of conscious archaising.8 As Robert Millar has pointed out, llamón may be seen as using an "older, more elevated grammatical/stylistic register", whereas at the same time "a more modernized register" might have been used by "authors with contemporary, immediate concerns".9 And Françoise Le Saux, reviewing the papers published from the La3amon conference held in London in 2000, notes that "It increasingly looks as if the language of the Caligula text, though clearly in an older, more elevated register than certain other thirteenth-century texts from the same area, was not necessarily contrivedly so".10

The distinctive quality of La3amon's poem presents a further conundrum. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, there appears the first great telling of the story of Britain in English. Cannon, in his examination of the privileged position traditionally accorded Chaucer as the father of English poetry, argues that "Chaucer had made himself a conduit to a hieratic literature by joining his own writing to a privileged line of earlier poets, and his successors were more than willing to endorse his claim because, in their endorsement, they, too, partook of the fruits of his achievement".11 That Chaucer has been read without break since his own time, and adulated as "the poet who could save English from itself',12 is the simple message of Cannon's book. And "long before Chaucer, a linguistic border, on the one side of which lay status and capacity (in French and Latin), and on the other side of which lay obloquy and limitation, made abundandy clear that Romance languages had what English needed".13 Just when this remote time was remains cannily unrevealed, and the reader is left to speculate where the border is to be drawn and on which side of this putative "linguistic border" La3amon falls. Or is it rather that La3amon's creative period happens to correspond with the time-fault we have created, being neither Old English on the one side nor fourteenth-fifteenth-century Middle English on the other?

It came as a relief to find that Cannon accords La3amon's Brut and the Owl and the Nightingale special mention, for I had come to fear as I read on that La3amon would languish among the ranks where "obloquy and limitation" lay. …

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