Common Ground

Someone has been google-searching ‘Anglo Saxon customs in Australia’. Now, I happen to think we in Australia have some common cultural ground with our Anglo-Saxon forbears, and it is this: booze. Anglo-Saxons liked booze. Australians like booze. Australian social culture revolves around boozing far more than some of us would like.

I give you Wulfstan’s Admonition to Bishops:

And hit is egeslic gewuna, Þæt we eac habbað: sylfe we bysniað oft and gelome Þæt we geornost scoldan ægwær forbeodan… we oferdrucen lufiað to georne and mid ðam huru ðencað, Þæt we us sylfe weorðian wide, Þe we oðre men drecan to swyÞe.
And it is (a) dreadful custom, which we each have: we (our)selves set an example often and frequently which we should most eagerly forbid everywhere… we love drunkenness to eagerly. And certainly think upon that, which we ourselves praise widely, so that we make other men too greatly drunk.1

Now, to the best of my knowledge neither the Anglican nor Catholic Archbishop of Sydney has lately been accused of ‘staying too long on the bench of the ale-house’, as were Wulfstan’s fellow-bishops. I have known a good few ministers of the Word in my time who happily trot down to the pub after church for a beer or two- a perfect example of the moderation Wulfstan advises.

I’m quite sure, however, that Wulfstan would consider the other book-learned members of our society- the politicians and the lawyers, the doctors, the students, and yes, quite definitely the medievalists- likewise responsible for setting a good moral example to the degenerate footballers of the nation. Wulfstan would not be encouraging students to drink their stresses away. Wulfstan might even argue that the inebriated examples of those who should know better are in some way responsible for the antics of, say, Shane Warne. He would certainly have some choice alliteration to describe the kind of drunken embarrassments to the country (let me have a stab at this) which one may find here:

Hooligans and hoons, racists and rioters, misogynists and misanthropes, criminals and crooks, lushes and lechers, and those who, all too often, embarrass the establishment, with drunkenness, which they should defend.2

In conclusion: one Anglo-Saxon custom we cling to very eagerly, O Google Searcher, is that of social drinking, often to excess. Drunkenness as group bonding. Convivial imbibing as the key to ‘networking’. Whether or not this is a good thing, I leave to your discretion.

Finally: when next you’re having a glass before knucking down to write, remember to:


1. For the persnickety: the Admonition is in Jost’s edition of the Institutes of Polity, p. 262ff, and if from the MS London, British Library, Cotton Nero A.i: f. 100v.ff. The translation is mine and shouldn’t be trusted.
2. OK, it’s nigh impossible to keep one’s syntax straight and alliterate a sentence. I am suddenly more tolerant of convoluted Anglo-Saxon expressions.

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.

Getting off Scot-free

Ever wondered what was so free about Scots, anyway? If escaping over the border into Scot-land exempted you from punishments?
Or, having learnt that the Old English “sc” makes “sh” sounds, perhaps you wondered if in fact those getting off ‘scot-free’ had escaped bowfire somehow?


The etymological wonders of the English language await you. Scot is in fact a fee, tax or imposition. It appears as an Old English term (apparently derived from a Germanic root word, which gives us ON skot and OF escot); in fact, the idiom scot-fre(o) occurs five times in the Old English Corpus online database. I wonder how many English language idioms have survied that long or longer?

The Middle English ‘scot’, according to the OED online, shows more Scandinavian influence than Anglo-Saxon- which is how we’re now pronouncing ‘scot’ rather than ‘shot’.

Some of the scots which you could be charged, according to the various law codes in Cotton Nero A.i, include:

*Church-scot, which, according to the OED, is

in OE. times a custom of corn collected on St. Martin’s day; extended to other contributions in kind and money made for the support of the clergy, or demanded as a traditional ecclesiastical due

* Soul-scot- a mortuary tax, the price you pay to be buried on consecrated ground.

*Romscot, or ‘Peter’s Pence’- an annual household tax, or hearth-penny, sent to the papal see in Rome.

All of these are attested in Middle English sources on the OED as well as Old. Exactly when any of them originated is a fuzzy question, because consientious characters like the Archbishop Wulfstan, when compiling collections of laws (like Cotton Nero A.i), could retro-actively adapt past law to current, inserting calls for plough-alms and Peter’s Pence in passages which already called for tithes and church-scot, for example. Wormald, in his ‘Making of English Law’, uses the calls for scots in different versions of individual codes to help map out a picture of their development. Invariably, those codes in Wulfstanian texts show greatest evidence of adaptation- even the codes he originally wrote evidence later developments; for example, AEthelred’s codes were being retro-actively adapted as Wulfstan worked on Cnut’s comprehensive codes.

How does ‘scotfre(o)’, ie, free of taxes, become ‘scot free’, free from punishment or sanction? The OED doesn’t have a suggestion regarding the semantic shift- it could be a modern shift, as the word ‘scot’ lost meaning. I wonder, though, if perhaps somewhere along the line ‘scot’, taxes, picked up a little semantic contamination from ‘weregild’, fines levied for crimes against individual men according to status?


As I’m sure you’ve heard from Jonathan Jarrett and Brandon, the newest thing in medieval blogging is here: What Would Wulfstan Do?

Which is my question for the day: Would Wulfstan spend the day arsing around with tables? Would Wulfstan spend the afternoon commenting upon Sir Gawain? Would Wulfstan spend the day translating sermons? Would Wulfstan get dressed and go and examine Cotton Nero A.i?

(Answers: no- lived in a fortunate age before MS word; no- lived in a fortunate age before courtly poncing around; yes- quite often; yes- presumably, it being his MS and all. But WHY, oh why, would he be examining it? If I knew that, I’d have a whole chapter written already.)

Would Wulfstan have breakfast and a cup of tea first? Yes, yes he would.

Thinkin’ about the Thesis: What do YOU want in a manuscript description?

academia,small,study As I was ranting in my LJ last night about the nightmare of creating a table format Manuscript Description, Brandon started me thinking about the possibility of broader problems with the manuscript-describing conventions in Anglo-Saxon studies.

I’ve found three main problems with the descriptions of my manuscript (London, B.L., Cotton Nero A.i- part B):

* Firstly, none of the comprehensive descriptions (Wormald’s Making of English Law, Ker’s Catalogue, Loyn’s facsimile introduction) are written at the level I want them. You more or less have to know what’s in the manuscript before you can understand the descriptions. Loyn’s introduction, being the most comprehensive, has been the most useful to me, but even he assumes the reader knows what he’s talking about. In the early stages of research (not having much idea of Anglo-Saxon legal history or of manuscript studies), what I really wanted was a description which told me in a few sentences for each entry what sort of text it was (law, homily, Institutes of Polity, other tract), whether or not it was by Wulfstan, and what general topics it dealt with. I can find all these things out, that’s what God invented research for, but it struck me as odd that none of the descriptions provided that.

* Secondly, all the descriptions are presented as lists, meaning that you can only really use them by reading through in the order in which the texts appear in the MS. What I wanted, when I was first starting my enquiries, was the ability to scan quickly through and isolate all the homilies, or all the laws, or all the chapters of the Institutes.

* Thirdly, except for Wormald’s table in The Making of English Law (p. 200-201), they don’t note quire divisions within the list. If you’re sitting there with Wormald’s book, or his article Archbishop Wulfstan and the Holiness of Society, and trying to figure out which texts were in the MS at which point in its life, this is most frustrating. Wormald’s table was obviously designed for this purpose, breaking the MS into five sections, but the list of contents is in such a shorthand form that again, unless you knew the works of Wulfstan well, you’d find yourself unable to isolate any themes or patterns to the groupings of texts.

Accordingly, I’m making myself a table which will do all of these things at once. If Micrsoft Word doesn’t drive me insane in the process, I will end up with a lovely guide which should be of great use throughout the rest of the year.
Brandon suggested to me, in response to the Livejournal rant about the difficulties of making tables, that I’m not the only one frustrated by Ker and co, and that although invaluable, his methods may be getting a little out of date. Brandon has heard word of a paper given somewhere by Elaine Treharne talking about the need for a new approach to manuscript descriptions, so I guess I’m not the only one frustrated.

Which brings me to the Questions of the Day:

For the Anglo-Saxonists:
* What, if any, do you think are the weaknesses of Ker’s Catalogue?
* Which scholar do you feel presents the most easy-to-read manuscript description format?
* Can anyone give me references to (recent-ish) articles or books in which the principles of manuscript description are discussed? Has there been “scholarly debate”, as they say, about the need to update our approach?

For all and sundry:
* What do you want in a manuscript description? What makes a description easy to use? What sort of features do you look for first? What features do you want to group together or to compare? (Do you want to be able to quickly scan the the orthography section and locate common features of all the scribes? Is it important to be able to quickly compare notes concerning the wear & tear on different sections? Which of these would be MOST important to your work?)
* If you prepare descriptions for your own reference, what sort of format do you use?