Suburban Academic

Musings of a domesticated scholar

Ælfric and the Rabbit Hole

Welcome back, readers!

I’m working on my  first dissertation chapter–about seafaring saints in Old English hagiography–and I wanted to share my initial experiences. This post is a rant about my frustrations, a suggestion about how others might avoid my pitfalls, and a declaration of my intention to renew the study of Old English by making it–and its contexts– more accessible.

My research strategy was clear: 1) find the Old English saints’ lives that feature boats; 2) close read said texts; 3) find their original Latin sources and compare them; 4) make claims about the seafaring saints’ stories and their analogs.

This is all pretty standard, yes? I’d just go to my editions of hagiography and look at the footnotes. For the Old English Martyrology, this is precisely what I did. Using Christine Rauer‘s “Edition, Translation, and Commentary” I was able to find relevant saints’ tales and their sources. TA-DA!

And then I went back to Ælfric. I have Skeat’s Lives of Saints, whose hagiographic works are  most relevant to my project, and took cursory notes on the Catholic Homilies. Now, Skeat doesn’t give much background on the LS, and the edition is from the late nineteenth century. What followed were days and days and days of fruitless research and of course, all that persistent self-doubt that hitches a ride on these frustrating pursuits.

NationalGeographic

Eventually, though,  I discovered Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints’ Lives and Their Contexts, and it changed everything.  If you want to write on Ælfric, you need this book. 

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Why, you ask?

For the introduction, at the very least. E. Gordon Whatley guides his readers through the Ælfrician canon and the issues attending its many sources in “An Introduction to the Study of Old English Prose Hagiography: Sources and Resources.” His chapter follows “from published Old English  texts to largely unpublished Latin manuscripts” but maintains “its underlying theoretical bias: that English saints’ legends are best read in relation to their individual Latin source texts and in the larger context of Latin hagiography in England and Europe in the early medieval period” (4). Next, he includes a list of “all the texts of individual saints’ lives in OE prose”– a great resource for someone like me who has trouble keeping things straight. The list includes the short title and the text’s id number according to Cameron and Franks’s Plan.

Wait, what plan? “A Plan for the Dictionary of Old English,” which is reviewed here. You might notice that the second paragraph begins by discussing the 280-page “List of Old English Texts” which makes up the third chapter. Is there no better name for this massive document than “Plan”? And why doesn’t every student who’s taken a course in Old English  know about it? Or, even more worrisome, does everyone else know about it? Just how isolated am I?

I didn’t even realize there was a Plan until this week. And this is in part because of how Old English is taught. Once we’ve learned the grammar (and if we do, it’s with no thanks to Bright and Cassidy’s confounding book), we read at first from anthologies. The best of these is Elaine Treharne‘s because it introduces each text within its manuscript context. But of course, the leap from introduction to advanced research is a big one to make, and especially difficult to do on one’s own. It seems to me that  Old English courses should begin in the library, and move out from there. Explain first the bibliographic information, then the manuscript record, and then get to the texts.

Whatley’s explanation of his list illustrates just how complex the field is, even when only pertaining to Ælfric: 

“For reasons of space and redundancy, I have not given manuscript information or, in most cases, citations of printed editions; both are supplied at the appropriate place in the PlanI (which does not, however, include references to Godden’s later edition of ÆCH II). Editions printed since the publication of the Plan may be located in the bibliography of Luke Reinsma for Ælfrician texts and that of Karen Quinn and Kenneth Quinn for non-Ælfrician texts (see second edition), but I have included references (in the Notes) to important editions not mentioned in the Plan, Reinsma, or Quinn and Quinn” (4). 

He recommends other bibliographic resources and clearly articulates particular elements of the  Plan. Then, bless him, he takes us through the many steps of researching an Ælfrician life. Below is a summary of the steps, with my reactions/objections in italics:

  1. Pick a saint
  2. Find the source (passio, probably)
  3. Check an encyclopedia such as Bibliotheca Sanctorum
  4. Consult Books Known to the English, Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture-What happened to SASLC? Is it ongoing? Why can’t I find much about it on their website?
  5. Recall 19th century groundwork: Forster for Legends in CH; Ott for Skeat’s first volume of LS
  6. Consult Acta Sanctorum, a compilation by Bollandists, of “vitae  or passiones of nearly all the known saints of the Christian Middle Ages whose feast days occur from January through November” (10).  What about December?   “Although Acta Sanctorum remains the greatest single collection of hagiographic texts, it is also, like J.-P. Migne’s more familiar library of patristic texts, Patrologia Latina, out of date and deficient by modern scholary standards…[Its] editions of late classical and early medieval texts…are not usually representative of the sort of texts that Anglo-Saxons such as Aldhelm or Ælfric used in their own hagiography” (10-11).Great.
  7. Look for your specific saint in Analecta Bollondiana,another 19th c Bolandist publication, which “publishes articles in the whole field of hagiography…” Although “working through copious indices of notices of one’s chosen saint, text, or manuscript can be tedius,” it is nevertheless “necessary and invariably rewarding…for anyone in the early stages of a hagiographic project” (11). EARLY STAGES? I’M AT STEP 7! 
  8. Find the Bollandists’ monograph series, Subsidia Hagiographica, which “includes editions of longer texts, special studies, and catalogues of hagiographic texts in medieval mss in the larger and smaller libraries of Europe”.  For my purposes, “catalogues of the libraries of Paris, Brussels, and Rome, which include manuscripts of insular origin, some of the most significant of which, for hagiorgaphy in ASE, have only recently begun to be recognized as insular” (11).
  9. Read this against a) Delehaye’s “classic popular introduction to hagiographic literature” and b) Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina (BHL), an alphabetical listing of all the Christian saints, Eastern as well as Western, whose lives are preserved in Latin” (11, 12). But once I find the number, how do I find the actual source? Am I using their database all wrong?
  10. Check the Bollandists’ 2 supplements, which relate recensions, new printed editions, studies, and issues in numbering.
  11. Backtrack: Many saints’ lives come from Greek anyway. Look at Siegmund and Berschin. Footnote reveals that Siegmund writes (not surprisingly) in German. Thankfully, Berschin translated by Frakes: Greek Letters and the Latin middle Ages from Jerome to Nicholas of Cusa).
  12. Ooops! Early MSs of England are rare and Bollandists aren’t cataloguing English libraries anyway. Damnit!
  13. Retrieve Zettel’s unpublished dissertation from library (in my case, I asked my cousin at UVA to send me their copy, since no schools in North Carolina had one).  Zettel finds that the Cotton-Corpus Legendary was actually written after Aelfric, but “appears to derive from a collection of saints’ lives, a legendary in effect, in use in late tenth-century England, which in turn derived from a ninth-century continental collection” (14). Why am I doing this? What’s the point? We’ll never figure any of this out. This is stupid. I’m stupid. Arrrgghhh.
  14. Take courage from Whately’s tip to look at Cotton-Corpus Legendary, Harley 3020, Paris BN Lat. 5574, ff.1-39, BN Lat 10861.

So these are the steps one takes to track down an Ælfrician source. I wish there were a more streamlined way to go about this research, but as of now, I rely on this book, my dissertation director, and my fellow medievalists.

In related news, I will be updating and reformatting the Taxonomic Chart of Medieval Research Tools next week, in hopes of contributing a solution to the problem I have raised here. I welcome all recommendations for websites, databases, and even BOOKS you think should be included.

Until then, wishing you each success in discovering the light at the end of your tunnel.

Baby rabbit

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1 Comment

  1. John Pomeroy

    Sounds like you are using the most valuable tools you possess: patience and flexibility. Your efforts will be rewarded and your followers will benefit as well from your exhaustive and exhausting research.

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