What This Blog Will Be About

Since I wanted just to dive into writing a couple weeks ago, I neglected to give any notice of what readers might expect from this blog. I haven’t determined any strict parameters, but, basically, I will be posting short pieces that highlight things I find important or curious about my primary interests as well as readings of my own work and other work I want to share.

From my teens I have found literature (especially poetry) and the world’s religious traditions (especially their contemplative traditions) most fascinating. My schooling, my translating, my own verse, my scholarship, all  revolve more or less in these orbits, and so that’s what I’ll be posting about.

To be more precise, this blog will feature contextual material for understanding Old English and Middle English poetry, my own translations of medieval verse and other material, information on medieval and modern western monasticism and contemplative traditions, and audio samples of my own work and other materials as they seem relevant.

To sum up: it’s going to be eclectic (which is a nice way of saying, “a pretty mixed bag”).

Resources for Understanding Anglo-Saxon Monasticism and Old English Poetry

As part of my continued efforts to make available more obscure resources for understanding the cultural, intellectual, and religious context of the culture in which Old English poetry was copied down, I have created a page on my website for translations of texts that are difficult to find.

The two installments (no more are planned right now, but if folks find them helpful for themselves or students and let me know, I’d be happy to do more) are both documents providing some background to the early moves of the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform. I have heard both of these texts referenced in classes once or twice throughout my studies, but never actually read them. I found out recently that at least part of why I never read them is that there aren’t readily available Present Day English translations. Hence the new page.

Both texts have to do with the refounding of monasteries in Winchester. Why Winchester? It was the seat of royal power at the time, it had a bishop’s see, there was a growing city in the period with agriculture and craftspeople, and St. Æthelwold became bishop there, establishing a school that would shape Anglo-Saxon music, manuscript illustration, and the standardizing of the Old English language for decades.

The first text is a translation of the New Minster Charter from 966. Written in the voice of King Edgar, it was almost certainly composed by Æthelwold, and it is a surprisingly elaborate charter written in gold lettering and including an illustration of King Edgar that visually situates the grandeur and limits of royal power. The charter was likely intended to sit on the New Minster’s altar for the monks and the visitors to see, and it was meant to be read aloud throughout the year (though the chapter that promises to describe that process is missing.) The text places the refounding of Winchester’s New Minster in the context of salvation history, blesses those who will help the monks, condemns those who would hinder them, and notes that the monks will be able to choose their own abbot, all in a surprisingly elaborate way.

The second text is a letter from Pope John XII (+964) that gives permission to King Edgar (+975) and St. Æthelwold (+984) to eject secular priests from the Old Minster in Winchester and to set up monks in their place. The letter is important 1) in showing the papal blessing on innovations in church governance that the Reform was pursuing, like having monastic cathedral chapters and monks electing bishops (both of which were unique at this time in the western church), and 2) it helps attenuate somewhat a picture of St. Æthelwold as a particularly harsh figure. (An excellent treatment of how this perspective came to be can be found in Alison Hudson‘s article.) Though we do not want to understand such actions naively, the letter translated here provides context for Æthelwold’s actions at Winchester’s Old Minster in 964–namely, that King Edgar had received permission for the expulsion from Pope John XII via a letter to the pope from St. Dunstan (+988), archbishop of Canterbury. Æthelwold was the agent on the ground, as it were, but it is good to keep in mind that he was acting in concert with other powerful forces.

These pieces can help interested readers and students of western monasticism and Old English literature understand a bit more of the institutional conduits through which the majority of Old English, and lots of Anglo-Latin, was copied, preserved, and passed down the centuries.

The Rule of St. Benedict in Old English

Ever since I first saw Old English poetry on the page (when I happened on J.R.R. Tolkien’s edition of Finn and Hengest in the library of a Dominican University in California) and heard it recited aloud (by my first Old English teacher at UW-Madison), I have loved it. (Old English is the English language as spoken and written ca. 450-1100.) The verse’s sonic qualities are second to none and the use of letters strange to us English-speakers a thousand years on appeal to my aesthetic sense for novelty too. After falling in love with Old English poetry, I decided to study it for real and I’ve been doing so for the last thirteen years of my life. (Which seems like a lot when I say it.)

One thing that has always seemed very strange to me is how little the social and cultural and, let’s say it, religious context of Old English poetry is tended to in the classroom, and in popular collections of translated Old English. I’ve been in lots of Old English and medieval literature classrooms–my teachers’, my own, and some of my colleagues–and specifically the monastic and Benedictine context of the production of Old English verse is mostly left out of the discussion. Scholars research the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform, and professors sketch in the nature of the church and the royal court in general terms in the classroom, but almost all that we have of Old English poetry was recorded either by the monks of the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform or other clerics in their cultural orbit. Old English poetry can certainly be understood without a keener sense of the specific subculture that produced its material record, but the fact that we do have a good sense of this subculture still leaves me fairly baffled as to why we (teachers and translators of Old English) mostly don’t share this with our students and audiences.

Cistercian Publications recently published my translation of St. Æthelwold of Winchester’s Old English rendering of the Rule of St. Benedict, and I largely took on this project in order to provide students and more general readers of Old English poetry with easier access to information on and primary texts of this literary subculture. In his “translation” of the Rule, Æthelwold shows clearly that he understands the original Latin, but he also shapes the text as he likes. He inserts his own commentary, omits material, changes the meaning of certain sections that conflict with the goals of the Reform movement he co-headed, and inserts commentary from the Frankish abbot Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel–all without acknowledging that he is doing it. And so the “translation” becomes its own text, a “reception” of Benedict’s text by a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon abbot and bishop. I’ve also included a translation of another Old English text by Æthelwold that describes the progress and goals of the Reform and a “Life” of St. Benedict by Æthelwold’s pupil Ælfric of Eynsham. My hope is that these texts can give students, general readers, and burgeoning scholars alike a clearer window into the lives of many of the people responsible for handing Old English poetry on to us.

With all this in mind, I’m also going to be trying this approach out in a class this fall. I will be teaching Old English poetry as a genre class with an emphasis on the monastic culture in which it is historically anchored. I’m looking forward to seeing what students make of this more direct contextualization of the poetry and am excited to see how they teach me about the connections between these two discrete but intertwined sets of texts.

Looking forward to this, and simply wanting to share how enthralling I find all this material (I still also just think Old English sounds amazing), I have recorded a reading of the Prologue to The Old English Rule of St. Benedict in the original Old English followed by my Present Day English translation. I’m planning for this to be the first of many readings on this blog, so stay tuned for further recitations of the arcane…

 

(And that’s Mary Berry and the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge chanting Christmas in Royal Anglo-Saxon Winchester in the background–highly recommended!)