Tag Archives: scribes

MA Texts and Contexts Week 14

The study of ancient manuscripts offers a great deal of information about the history of the book and the progression of texts from oral to written form.  They also act as a valuable source of information on the cultural and social habits of their readers and writers. One such text is the Exeter Book. The Exeter Book contains a large selection of miscellaneous Anglo-Saxon poetry in manuscript form. It dates from about 960-980 and is thought to have been written by just one scribe (Blanchard and Schriber). Richard Gameson states that “its importance for the study of pre-Conquest vernacular literature can hardly be exaggerated” (135). Of the four codices of Anglo-Saxon poetry that exist, the Exeter Book is the only one in which there does not seem to be a uniformity in the poems selected for inclusion in the text (Lawrence 2). This in itself can reveal a lot about the scribes and their audience. Interestingly, the Exeter Book contains several hundred corrections which, according to Bernard J Muir, “reveal a great deal about how one particularly careful scribe worked, and perhaps more about the working habits of Anglo-Saxon scribes in general” ( 150). The fact that so many corrections were made suggests that the scribe was using a standardised language for writing. However, “[t]he standardised language in the codex is not by any means uniform”, and there are variations in spelling (Lawrence 5). While there is a lack in uniformity of spelling, the Exeter Book is a valuable source for examining the development of the English language in the tenth century. The selection of texts contained within the manuscript of the Exeter Book is also worth studying, as it contains a selection of ninety-seven riddles on various subjects juxtaposed with several examles of religious poetry.

(Video source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtOsDeEl19w)

Works Cited

Blanchard, Laura B., and Carolyn Schriber. “The Exeter Book: Introduction.” ORB: The Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies. 1995-1999. Web. 30 Sept. 2011.

Gameson, Richard. “The Origin of the Exeter Book of Old English Poetry.” Anglo-Saxon England 25 (1996). Print.

Lawrence, David Herbert. The Phoenix. Manchester: University ND, 1968. Print.

Muir, Bernard James. “Editing the Exeter Book: AProgress Report.” Medieval Texts and Images: Studies of Manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Ed. Margaret M. Manion and Bernard James. Muir. Chur: Harwood Academic, 1991. Print.


MA Texts and Contexts Week 6

The last two weeks’ seminars have focused on the topic of book history. These seminars raised some important issues regarding the origin, authority and materiality of manuscripts. For example, what is the origin of the text of the Beowulf Manuscript. This is a question that cannot be definitively answered. The answer may only be postulated. For example, the text contained in the manuscript itself might not be original. It may have originated from an oral version of the poem, it may have been transcribed from another manuscript, it could be a translation or it could be a compilation from other sources. There are many varied possibilities. The materiality of the artifact also makes an interesting study – every animal varies so in turn each page of a manuscript varies. Books also held different functions in the Middle Ages. They were very much seen as status objects. The uniqueness of these manuscripts is also important. They were not standardised objects. Even two copies of the same text would have contained many differences. The material itself varies, scribes and fonts vary, and even mistakes add to the individuality of every codex. The way a book came together and the definition of an author also differ significantly to today’s book production and authority. Bonaventure sums it up as follows: “The method of making a book is fourfold. For someone writes the materials of others, adding or changing, and this person is said to be merely the scribe. Someone else writes the material of others, adding nothing but of his own, and this person is said to be the compiler. Someone else writes the materials of other men, and of his own, but the materials of others as the principal materials, and his own annexed for the purpose of clarifying them, and this person is said to be the commentator, not the author. Someone else who writes his own materials and those of others, but his own as the principal materials, and the materials of others annexed for the purposes of confirming his own, and such must be called the author” (Minnis 94). Questions on the origin  and variability of texts also lead to doubts about the reliability of modern editions of these texts. Kevin Kiernan raises questions on these issues in his article “Reading Cædmon’s “Hymn” with someone else’s Glosses“. Kiernan states: “From its humble start as a marginal, secondary text, the vernacular “Hymn” first worked its way into the central, primary text by means of a tenth-century Old English translation of Bede’s entire History. It continued to appear, nonetheless, as a marginal text from the eleventh to the fifteenth century in Latin manuscripts of Bede. Nowadays scholars are generally convinced that we have inherited by this process authentic witnesses of Cædmon’s debut as a poet; in fact, they print the “Hymn,” in both scholarly editions and general anthologies, as the central text, with Bede’s Historia Ecclesiasticarelegated to the margins. The textual history of Cædmon’s “Hymn” provides an unmiraculous case history of how re-productions of literary texts both purposely and unintentionally re-present our past” (157). It is clear that there is a big divide between what the audience of such a text read or heard, and what a modern audience perceives.

Works Cited

Kiernan, Kevin S. “Reading Cædmon’s ‘Hymn’ with Someone Else’s Glosses.” Representations 32 (1990): 157-174. Print.

Minnis, A. J. Medieval Theory of Authorship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1988. Print.

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