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Old English textual criticism

In his valedictory address to the University of Oxford (1959), J. R. R. Tolkien noted:

I would always rather try to wring the juice out of a single sentence, or explore the implications of one word than try to sum up a period in a lecture, or pot a poet in a paragraph.

This sort of Kleinphilologie also underlies much of my research: what does a given word mean in the cultural, historical and intellectual context of the text? Does the manuscript reading accurately render the original text? What sources did authors use and how did they adapt their sources to suit their own purposes? Some of my publications have uncovered sources, suggested emendations for manuscript readings and proposed solutions to age-old textual cruces.

In the Old English poem Beowulf, several body parts are put on display, including Grendel’s arm at Heorot and Æschere’s head on top of a cliff. The first instance has been widely discussed by various scholars, who have tried to find out why and where the arm was hung. By contrast, scholarly treatments of the second instance are relatively scarce. This article places the exhibition of Æschere’s head by Grendel’s mother in the context of similar practices of decapitation and display in Anglo-Saxon England. It will be argued that the placement of the head of Æschere on top of the cliff towering over Grendel’s mere resembles the Anglo-Saxon heafod stoccan, ‘head stakes’, which acted as boundary markers. The monster’s act, therefore, would not strike as foreign to the Anglo-Saxon audience, but would be familiar. As we will show, the identification of Æschere’s head as a boundary marker, placed at the edge of the monsters’ domain, also has some bearing on the interpretation of other potential boundary markers in the poem, including Grendel’s arm and the dragon’s corpse. Lastly, we will argue for a new reading of two textual cruces in Beowulf’s speech prior to his fight with Grendel.

This note calls attention to a precursor of the Latin text of Durham Proverb 7 in the ninth-century Collectanea Pseudo-Bedae and, in doing so, sheds some light on the unresolved relationship between the Old English and Latin versions of the Durham Proverbs in general and Durham Proverb 7 in particular.

Author’s post-print PDF in CORE

This article discusses the development of the spelling for the name of Cnut the Great, Viking king of England from 1016 to 1035, from to . The origin of this disyllabic spelling is uncertain and has been attributed to taboo deflection, the simplification of the consonant cluster /kn/ in English and even a pope’s inability to pronounce the name Cnut. A survey of documents contemporary to Cnut the Great and later chronicles, however, suggests that the disyllabic spelling is found first in sources of Norman origin. As such, the disyllabic spelling should be considered a romanisation. This conclusion has important implications for a recently found, early tenth-century coin, bearing the inscription “AIRDECONUT”.

Author’s post-print PDF in CORE

“In ‘Two Notes on an Old English Confessional Prayer in Vespasian D.xx’ (N&Q 60[2013] 493–8), Thijs Porck first suggests that the Vespasian text is a close analogue to the Latin text in the Book of Cerne (Cambridge University Library MS L1.1.10). Listing correspondences between those two and two other Old English prayers in BL MS Tiberius C.i and the Old English Handbook for the Use of a Confessor, he suggests that all four texts ‘may have sprung from a common, Latin original’ (p. 496). Porck’s second note considers the unique word omo in the Vespasian text. Comparing it with lists of body parts in his proposed analogues, he suggests that omo be amended to leomo (‘limbs’).” (R. Fisher et al., ‘Old English’, The Year’s Work in English Studies (2015)

Author’s post-print PDF in CORE

Forthcoming publications

  • ‘Columbanus’s De mundi transitu in Anglo-Saxon England: A New Source for an Old English Homily in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 343 (Irvine VII)’, in Susan Irvine and Winfried Rudolf, Anonymous Old English Homilies: Sources – Composition – Variation – Digital Editing (Brill; scheduled for 2019)
  • An article, co-authored with a student, about emendations for a line in Beowulf: we reject four prior hypotheses on semantic, paleographical and metrical grounds, and then propose a new emendation.


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