Help me inject more medievalist jokes into Narnia fandom!

OK, I had been planning to keep my fannish activities and my medieval blogging as separate as is humanly possible, but here I am with a question that, really, the medievalist blogosphere stands a much better chance of answering than anyone in fandom.

As a present for a friend who is both a medievalist and a Narnia fan, I’m working on a short piece using Digory/The Professor. Because a) I like to show off my obscure knowledge and b) it’s actually a cool idea, I’m trying to write a scene in which Digory encounters the Old English Bede’s version of the story of Caedmon. The “Sing me Creation” line, and all the resonances between that and the creation of Narnia, is just too good to pass over.

The question is: would he have been learning OE at school or at university? Was Old English taught in (elite) British schools in the early 1900s?

Anyone out there know anything about the history of British education and/or the history of Old English in British schools?


6 Responses to “Help me inject more medievalist jokes into Narnia fandom!”

  1. Nathaniel Says:

    I don’t think it was taught in any elite schools. Until a few years ago (I think), Old English was a compulsory first year subject for those taking an English degree at Oxford. However, I don’t know when that requirement started, so it might not fit your need for it to be in the early 20th century. It’s entirely possible it was in force at that time though.

    Anyway, I’m sure someone will come along and supplement/contradict me.

  2. highlyeccentric Says:

    Until a few years ago (I think), Old English was a compulsory first year subject for those taking an English degree at Oxford.

    Now, that, that is a useful piece of information wot I did not know. Thanks for that!

  3. kishnevi Says:

    From what I remember of the bios of JRRT and Sayers, they learned OE at university, but I think they took degrees in philology, and not English per se. (Actually, Sayers didn’t get her degree until a few years after she “graduated” because at the time she attended, women could study at Oxford but weren’t given degrees. Her degree was sort of a retroactive recognition on the part of the University when it did start giving degrees to women.)

    However, my knowledge of the Oxford degree system is based mostly on half remembrances of the aforesaid bios, and multiple rereadings of Gaudy Night, so I may be off base. And I have no idea of how early in college they would have been exposed to it.

    However, I am fairly certain that OE was hardly ever found as a pre-college subject. The elite schools seemed to think that only Latin and Greek were worth studying, with perhaps modern French and German on the side. You could always invent a teacher who initiated the Professor into OE as a personal matter, outside the standard curriculum, or have him begin to learn it on his own from books found in the school library, but if you want his first exposure to be formal classwork, then I’m pretty sure you would need to make him wait until he arrived at college.

    You might as a substitute or prelim. have him study German precollege and then begin to branch out into OE. I’m starting to follow the “lessons” at Unlocked Wordhoard, and I’m noticing that some very basic stuff transfers over fairly easily because they’re cognate–the pronouns are very recognizable forms of the modern High German versions, for instance. So it’s feasible that prior knowledge of German would help him learn OE on his own, or on the side with a teacher-mentor, before he gets to college.

  4. highlyeccentric Says:

    Word has it that OE used to be compulsory in first-year English at Oxford, and Brandon recalls reading that Tolkien learnt some OE from a teacher at school, as an informal extra-curricular thing.

    Looks like university will be the best option all round 🙂 I want him studying it formally, because I want him to turn in a neat poetic translation of the Song 🙂

  5. Larry Swain Says:

    Um….the story of Caedmon was likely encountered in Latin….Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica was typically read in its original Latin rather than in the Alfredian era Old English translation.

    But yes, Old and Middle English were typically taught in “public schools”, both Lewis and Tolkien had a foundation in at least Middle English literature before university, and yes, Old English was a requirement in the olden days for the study of English literature at Oxbridge.

    I think it would be “cooler” and probably easier to write from a historical point of view if you had Digory (do we know what the good Professor is professor of? I know we know that Ransom from Lewis’ Space trilogy is a philologist based on Tolkien, but what do we know of Digory? He cites Plato…..) take a look at the Moore Bede or even the St. Petersburg Bede….both are Latin manuscripts but have versions of Caedmon’s Hymn in Old English in the margins. The Moore is at Cambridge.

    Much would probably also depend on how old you make Diggory. For example, you could make him Thomas Miller’s assistant as he’s preparing the edition for the OE Bede….

  6. Larry Swain Says:

    Oh, I should also say that I don’t know how early OE became a requirement….would it have been for a man of Diggory’s generation, an older contemporary of Lewis and Tolkien?

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