Adventures In Middle English, or: Why Can’t We Trust Students to Bugger It Up On Their Own?

language,Funny This week’s Adventure in Middle English applies just as much to Old, or indeed to anything where editions are heavily glossed by the editor.

My article for the week was “Pinning Gawain Down: The Misediting of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”- Arthur Lindley, in The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 96 (1997), 26-42. To judge by the articles the rest of the class read, it’s merely one in a series of articles complaining about the narrow glossing of the Tolkien-Gordon(-Davies) editions, which focus on rendering a realistic narrative and iron out ambiguities and important thematic echoes.

One example: the separate glossings of greme at 312 and 2370 as wrath and mortification respectively. The latter ties in with glossings of ll. 2387-88, where Gawain says to the Green Knight Letez me ouertake your wylle/ And eft I schal be ware, which is normally constructed as a request for penance, in keeping with his confession. Problem is, Gawain then erupts into an angry rant against women. Lindley would rather read it as a deft double meaning: the polite, along the lines of ‘let me earn your (good) will, and afterwards I will do better’, and the resentful ‘let me catch your (larger) purpose, and I will be on guard in the future’. Basically, Gawain could be both ‘wrathful’ and ‘mortified’ here- and don’t they often go together?

Lindley suggests the principle that ‘complex terms should be glossed complexly’, which sounds fine, but the suggested gloss he gives on p. 39 is not so much a gloss as a whopping great textual note. Not to mention the question of who decides what is a ‘complex’ term, and what if, in thirty years, Lindley’s ideas of complexity are found to be just as restrictive to the future reader as TGD’s ideas of ‘sense’ are now?

If a gloss is to ‘explain’ the meaning of a word at any one point, it will necessarily be limited by editorial vision at the time. One option would be to simply give a range of definitions and leave it up to the reader to pick one- a sort of short-range dictionary for the specific text.
But if we were to go that far, why not let students loose with ditionaries? What a revolutionary idea! Lindley is entirely right, of course, that the MED is far too big and could be inaccessible to some students. A quick- and possibly faulty, since the website is playing up- search of the USyd website informs me that the only ‘concise’ Middle English Dictionaries we own were published in the 1880s. This is not in itself a bad thing- the sort of dictionary I would like to have is one parallel to J.R. Clark Hall’s A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, first published in the 1880s and nicely revised and reprinted as of the 1960s by the University of Toronto. Or, again, since both the MED and the Old English Dictionary are of mammoth proportions, if there were a Middle English equivalent of the Electronic Bosworth & Toller Java App distributed freely by the Germanic Lexicon project, such a program could be used to provide a more detailed, but not overwhelming, resource for more advanced students.

Lindley notes that the problem of outdated editorial glossing isn’t just one which plagues Sir Gawain, but one which lurks around all editions of medieval texts. A gloss has its benefits. My Supervisor, for example, prefers students to translate from gloss rather than dictionary, possibly because it reduces the amount of truly daft translations he recieves. I note that I am using the gloss in Pope’s collection of AElfrician sermons, simply because it’s easier than waiting for the B&T app. to load, and, unlike flicking through Clark-Hall, I know the answer will come out making sense.

As it happens, until now I haven’t been taught Anglo-Saxon by my Supervisor- let’s call him Bocera1– but by a woman known to the Blogosphere as Awesome. Not so long ago a student herself, she prides herself on toughening students up for life in academia2. All of last year, I relied on Clark-Hall and the B&T application. This resulted in some very interesting translatory experiences. By comparison, translation with a gloss feels like a game of join-the-dots- the only major stumbling block is in putting the words in the wrong order. Translating by dictionary, on the other hand, taught me not to trust myself, to check and double check, and to make wild guesses and hope for the best.

It’s all very nice to have things make sense, but sometimes they don’t. It strikes me as a sort of senior academic arrogance, trying to smooth everything out so that it Makes Sense For The Students. Of course things are going to make less sense to the students, because students haven’t had years of practice at finding the sense. But how are we to learn to find meaning, and, more importantly, to question accepted meanings, if we’re not toughened up and taught how unreliable we are, taught to check and double check, taught to make wild guesses and then back them up?

To that end- why not teach Middle, and Old, English using easy-to-navigate but relatively comprehensive dictionaries, like any other language is taught?


1. Which makes him the first person ever to recieve an appropriately respectful blogonym from Highly. Other teacherly characters in this blog may include: Awesome, Granddad Lecturer, Devious, and Lolo.
2. Which means she will on the one hand give me mercilessly constructive criticism, and on the other, buy me drinks in the name of improving my alchohol tolerance.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: