Who Needs a System of Sigla: Redux

I now know the answer to the question ‘who needs a system of sigla?’

A: Piers Ploughman scholars. Lawrence, who cares (possibly too much…1) about manuscript sigla, told us on tuesday that there around fifty MSS of Piers. And a single MS could have several sigla, refering to the texts within (so, for example, an MS with both C and B recensions in it will have two conventional sigla- one for the C and one for the B text.) This is all very confusing, but, on the other hand, with so many MSS, if you tried reffering to them by manuscript short title, your word count would disappear quicker than you could say ‘verbose’.

On the other hand: Piers Ploughman scholars have sets of conventional sigla! I am very jealous.


1. Just kidding, Lawrence. One can never care too much about persnickety details, I say.


Balderdash for everyone: internet etymologist alert

Courtesy of WordPress’ tag surfer function, I present to you Balderdash for the Medieval Gay, by ChristopherWilliamsDance. The site describes the weekly feature (definition and etymology of an obscure and medievally derived word) as a compendium of queer words for the modern fag with a passion for the Middle Ages added hebdomadally on the Sabbath day.

With words such as ‘wergeld’, ‘spraints’, ‘rood’ ‘exuviae’ and ‘haruspicy’, CWD’s compendium of queer words is suitable for anyone with a taste for etymology and the obscure. It also appears to be the only constituent of his blog.

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: . 2 Comments »

Who needs a system of sigla?

Does anyone actually find alphabetic sigla for manuscripts helpful, in a book? I’ve been sitting here trying to sort out Wormald’s system of sigla (for which the directory, for some reason, is on page 167, rather than sensibly at the beginning or end of the book), and listing manuscripts mentioned in other books which I may also have to add, and it occurs to me that the whole enterprise is more confusing than helpful.

There’s no central directory- so my manuscript, Cotton Nero A.i, is variously ‘G’, ‘I’ and ‘Y’, just in the books I have around me on the floor at the moment. A sensible option might be to refer to everything by it’s Ker catalogue number, but then what do you do with new books, or relevant books not in Anglo-Saxon? Individual sets of siglum, relevant to the topic at hand, are the only really tenable option. For it all to make sense, though, you have to presume that the reader is reading your whole book- and that’s an unrealistically optimistic outlook. Fact is, people pick up books and flick through them looking for the bits they need: unless your work is really relevant to them they’re not going to read the whole thing, and searching around for lists of siglum is a downright nuisance.

Me, even when I am reading a whole book, I get the alphabetical sigla horribly mixed up. Are we talking about MS G part i, or MS GI? Which one was MS O again? Personally, I’d be quite happy if books were routinely identified by a short form of their MS title. It’s hard to get confused about what ‘CCCC 201’ means, and personally I’d find it easier to remember the difference between ‘CCCC 201′ and CCCC 265’ than MS C and D. Perhaps it’s that the longer string of numbers turns on my pattern-retention reflex, which is actually pretty good.1

Does anyone else feel this way?

Of course, the CCCCs are a fairly simple example. If only we could call them 4C201… My manuscript, BL Cotton Nero A.i(B) is rather more problematic, though. I can’t call it Nero- there’s another legal text, Cotton Nero E.i, which I may have to refer to. I can’t call it Nero A.i, because I have to refer to the first part of the composite, Cotton Nero A.i(A). So that leaves me with Nero A.i(B), which is rather lengthy and perhaps contains too many different types of information to read smoothly (as opposed to the CCCCs, which contain only two pieces of information even though the shorthand is hardly short).

writingI could call it Nero B, as opposed to Nero A, and specify that any other Nero manuscripts will be reffered to by their full shelf/number/part designations. Or I could use a siglum- in which case, I’d have to use sigla for the whole lot. Or I could teach MS Word to autocomplete Nero A.i(B) and save me the bother of typing it out every time…

What do you think, people?
Which would be the least odious form to read?


1. Which is why I never forget a randomly generated pin number. Don’t ask me why I can’t remember my own mobile phone number, though.

Happy Fact on a Sunday

Wulfstan was a puntuation nerd. According to Neil Ker’s article ‘The Handwriting of the Archbishop Wulfstan’, in MSS which were not produced under his direction, where Wulfstan’s handwriting is present in the margins, the punctuation has been edited in places to match the dominant scheme of punctuation in Wulfstanian MSS. You can’t tell for sure, but it is to be assumed that Wulfstan did it himself.

Wulfstan was a punctuation nerd. And, on a more practical note, this is a good indication that the punctuation in Wulfstanian MSS is a scheme designed for reading aloud- why else would it be important to synchronise older texts which you were also using with your personal scheme of punctuation?

I am also a punctuation nerd. This makes me feel that I have some kind of affinity with our favourite grouchy Archbishop. I own a teapot mat decorated with ampersands. Sadly, it was not available with Tyronean Notes on it, otherwise I could fondly imagine that that Archbishop Wulfstan would have appreciated it too.

Medieval Kink: or, what better way to up my google ranking?

nerd,pun,wicked_visionsI am, (un)fortunately, blessed with an innocent mind, and despite the best efforts of many of my friends and associates, sometimes, I just don’t get the dirty jokes. Fortunately, in the world of medieval literature, there is almost always someone who’s done a close text study of the dirty joke, and spelt it out in sensible terms like ‘symbolism’ and ‘inversion’ and ‘verbal echoes’, which is the only way an innocent nerd like me will pick up on it.

Tonight I have discovered, courtesy of one David Mills and the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, that the temptation scenes in SGGK are full of bondage jokes.1

I did realise they were an extended innuendo, I’m not that dim. Lady sneaks into Gawain’s bed, refuses to let him get up and dressed, baldly announces ye are welcom to my cors, and gloats about how many ladies wish they had him in their embrace, as she does here. Gawain, meanwhile, sputters and prevaricates, and manages, for three successive nights, to keep pushing their discourse back into the conventional exchange of loyalty and compliments between knight and lady. Amusing stuff, right? Is Gawain cleverly blocking her every attack? Or is he simply too dumb to pick up on what she’s offering? (The irony being that, even if he knows exactly what she’s offering, he can have no idea what game she and Bertilak, and Morgan behind them, are playing at.)

The factor that I’d not noticed until I picked up Mills’ article is that the Lady comes in and assumes the dominant role- not only by propositioning Gawain, but by doing so in the language of assault, restraint and servitude.

She addresses Gawain as a sleeping sentry, who ought to be on better guard: Ye ar a sleeper unslyge, Þat mon may slyde hider. Mills notes the use of the impersonal pronoun ‘mon’- while not specifically masculine, it removes from her any particularly feminine typecasting. Next, she announces I schal bynde yow in your bedde. Gawain picks up on this imagery of attack and conquest, asking her to deprece your prisoun, but evades the sexual innuendo, asking permission to get up and dress before he becomes the butt of any more sniggering jokes. The Lady refuses, announcing that Ye schal not rise of your bedde… I schall happe you here Þat oÞer half als, and syÞen carp with my knyght that I kagt have. In the next stanza, she alludes to other ladies, each of whom wishes she haf Þe, hende, in her holde, as I Þe habbe here. Politely speaking, many ladies wish they could hold Gawain in their arms… but the Lady’s halde on him is rather more forceful, a prisoun in spite of his attempts to extricate himself. In line 1257 she reduces him from Þe to hit holly in my honde Þat al desyres– which, as Mills puts it, ‘reduces him from a human-being to an object of desire’.

The symbolism here is working on several levels. The imagery of attack and capture parrallels nicely with the hunt scene in the previous stanza. I don’t know my courtly lyric poetry nearly as well as I should, but it strikes me that the Lady’s pursuit of Gawain is an inversion of the sort of hunting imagery associated with the ‘heart/hart hunt’ in The Book of the Duchess. Here, it is the woman who is actively hunting- and her quarry is not Gawain’s heart, but his body. (For one thing, that would be a damn sight less funny when it comes to the exchange of winnings at the end of the day…) Her ‘knightly’ role serves to create a link with her husband, out hunting and doing his knightly thing in the forest. At this stage, it looks as if there is a parrallelism forming between the two (Berty out in the forest, bravely hunting down what he wants… and the Lady, inside, going after her desire with the same dedication)- as the plot unwinds, it turns out they are in fact assaulting Gawain together, and, in hindsight, the Lady’s dominant role in the scene perhaps symbolises her husband’s masculine direction of her actions.2

Mills links the Lady’s sexual dominance with the genre of fablieux, which seems fair enough. It’s downright funny, watching poor little Gawain scrabbling to extricate himself from a sexual situation. Compared to the studly Gawain of the later Chevalier a L’Epee, whose lady-friend has to keep excusing herself from his attentions,3 our Gawain is far from the virile figure the Lady paints him out to be.

The joke goes further than mere sexual exuberance on her part, though. The Lady is offering Gawain the her body, to take his awen won from it. But how is she offering this service to his desires? [O]f fyne force, of course! By binding him in his bed and holding him against his will! What’s more, she intimates that any number of other women would love to dominate him in kind.

Now, this emasculation of Gawain is quite definitely not supposed to be read as the natural order of things. You could probably link it with the exchange of winnings and make a good homoerotic analysis out of it. And it all works wonderfully with the plot at large. But for the dirty joke to fly in the meantime, how much of an idea of erotic domination do you need circulating in your culture? It’s funny seeing a woman take on an unnatural role- but the intimation that other women would like to do the same suggests that the Lady doesn’t consider herself alone in her kink… and nor are the audience intended to.

I’m not suggesting that it would be encouraged or accepted, or that you could buy bondage gear on the streets of London. But it seems to me that the poem is suggesting that the Lady thinks domination would serve Gawain’s awen won (so therefore, the idea of domination as erotic can’t be completely foreign), and that the joke is on Gawain. As he scrabbles to escape, does he even realise exactly what she’s offering? Is he trying to preserve his honour by not sleeping with his host’s wife… or is he trying to keep his manly person out of the hands of this rogue domme and her unnatural tastes?

1. David Mills, ‘An Analysis of the Temptation Scenes in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’, JEGP 1968, p. 612-630.
2. But then, of course, there is Morgan Le Fay lurking around in the background, directing him. Gawain’s reduction to a sexual object in this scene may also be reflecting his reduction to the object of Morgan’s grudge against Arthur.
3. If you missed out on the fun, read about how Gawain keeps the ladies happy in bed here.

Let’s talk about Vikings!

As it turns out, my father has uninstalled Adobe Reader, and the freeware version he has on this computer appears to hate JStor files. Accordingly, I cannot print out and read Whitelock’s ‘Archbishop Wulfstan- Homilist and Statesman’, or anything else, and so instead, let us talk about Vikings.

medieval,Why the hell not?,nerd

Vikings can really spice up your century or three. The quick outline of English political history that I carry in my head, cobbled together from the battered copy of Carter & Mears’ A History of Britain (Oxford UP, 1937) which my father acquired when I was a teenager, and from Awesome’s introductory lectures two years ago, is quite light on chronology. I know there were two waves of Viking invasions, in between which, the descendants of Alfred had time to unite the kingdom and sponsor some monastic reforms, and I know a few details of kings or battles and religious politics, but all of these bits of knowledge float around on the loose. I can remember, more or less, what happens, but not the relationship in time, and this, as it turns out, is quite important if you want to think about things like the progress of Norse settlement in England.

Some weeks ago now, I sat in on a Norse Symposium at USyd, solely for the purpose of hearing one paper, entitled ‘The Viking Experience in Ninth Century England’. The presenter, Shane McLeod from the University of Western Australia (whaddya know, they have medievalists in Perth…), is a PHD student, working on applying something called ‘migration theory’ to the Norse invasions, and making deductions about the type of people who would have settled in England (apparently, not only the invading armies- ‘chain migration’ means that, as long as communication remained open with Scandinavia, those friends and relatives looking for a new start who could afford the journey would have been likely to come). Shane is also tracing links between Viking groups across Europe, England and Ireland, which suggest that not only did raiders pick up and head off to assist their fellows somewhere else, but that settlers are likely to have moved in and out of England and other occupied territories. I remember being taught by the formidable Margaret Clunies Ross that amongst the early settlers of Iceland were Norsemen who had previously settled in the Orkneys, and (in decreasing order of probability, as I remember it), the northern isles, Scotland, and Ireland, so this last suggestion fits in with what I already knew of Viking habits.

At the end of his presentation, I was wondering about two things:

1. What was the relationship between the Norse invaders and the local English communities? Did your bog-standard English farmer, over the process of a hundred years or so, start speaking Norse?
Migration theory in Celtic studies, as I learnt it from Lynette Olson, currently holds that, rather than a ‘wave’ of Celtic invasions across Europe, a phenomenon of successive ‘celticisation’ saw small groups of Celts setting up in a position of cultural dominance, replacing some ruling groups and allying with others, and the local peoples- both those now under Celtic control and those independent groups who saw fit to emulate Celtic lifestyles for political purposes- picking up Celtic language, religious customs and artwork. I’ve not made much investigation into it, but it seems logical that the same sort of thing would have come with the Anglo-Saxon invasions (aside from Dr Olson’s favourite genetic evidence, I’m thinking of those independant Celtic kingdoms which hang on for a while and then seamlessly dissipate into the surrounding Saxon kingdoms…)
It would follow, then, that any Norse settlement in England cannot have been wholesale replacement of the locals, and that said locals may have ‘Norsified’ (Vikingised?) under their new leaders/ more powerful neighbours. What happened to the local English under the Norse? And what’s more, what happened to those Englishmen when, after a generation or so, they found themselves under English rule again?

2. Along the same lines- what happens to the Norse settlers, the farmers and craftsmen, the women and so on, in the period between ‘invasions’? Presumably they can’t have all turned around and gone home- so what happened to them when the new Viking invaders turned up in the late 10th century? Did they still identify as ‘Norse’? Or had they settled into their new home?

Well, I now have my hands on both Carter & Mears, and Edward James’ excellent textbook Britain in the First Millennium. Coming next on the Naked Philologist: Highly sorts out her chronology, and learns some basic facts of Anglo-Saxon politcs, which will provide a sketchy answer to question 2, and perhaps some thoughts on question 1 as well.


102. It’s not Manx, either.

Bo, of The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast is hereby appointed Hardcore Medieval Philologist of the Month.