Gentlemen, man your wives!

No, wait, I can’t not blog this. Welcome to Humourous Translation Mistakes 101, or Idioms You Really Wish Your Dead Language Had.

Misreading of the day: þurh hæmedþing wife gemanan– through sexy things to man (a) wife. Gentlemen, man your wives!

Anglo-Saxon regular verbs end in –an or –ian. So gemanan being the last word I copied out, I instinctively went to treat it as the verb, and wife as the object. What sort of verb would it be? A cognate of the modern ‘to man’, I assumed (“Man the guns!”). Sadly, gemanan is not a verb at all, but a weak noun of some kind (genitive? doesn’t matter, they all look the same…)

The law code V Æþelred says, of priests, þæt hy nagon mid rihte þurh hæmedþing wife gemanan: ‘That they may not have (nagon) with/in justice, through sexual intercourse (hæmedþing), the company (gemanan) of a wife.’

Or possibly through marriage. The definition is a bit circular- hæmed is ‘sexual intercourse, marriage’, and hæmedþing would be… ‘marital activities’? I quite like ‘through sexy things’, myself.

So, these priests aren’t allowed to boink their wives, basically. Which is exactly what my Humourous Translation Mistake said, but said in a much more amusing fashion. (No one bothered to write down what the wives thought about all this…)

Word of the Day!

Hello and welcome to ‘Highly has a new favourite word and will wander around muttering it under her breath for the next week’!


Say it nice and slowly. be-ste-al-kee-an1 It means ‘to move stealthily, to stalk’, and it has the most fabulous past tense form you could imagine:

Hinguar færlice swa swa wulf on lande bestalcode and Þa leode sloh…2

Hinguar (that’s particularly nasty Viking) suddenly, like a wolf, stalked on (the) land and then slew (the) people.3 Bestalcode. Isn’t it… sinister?

medieval,Why the hell not?,nerdAll the sinister effect is ruined by the fact that Hinguar’s fellow-scary-Viking-Chief-dude is named Hubba. Sorry, can’t afford you any respect at all with a name like Hubba.


1. I think. In three years I still haven’t internalised the c/ch rules. I think, from peering at Alex Jones’ Guide To Everything, that that’s how it goes. And then you have to deal with the fact that my phonetic description may not match your phonetic description. No, I don’t know IPA, but I probably should learn it sometime.
2. Which is from AElfric’s Life of St Edmund, around l. 156 in the Mitchell & Robinson textbook edition.
3. Or ‘stalked on the land and slew the people’. Leod being a feminine singular accusative, Þa could be the accusative definite pronoun. Or not. I like it better not.

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.

Adventures In Middle English: Serendipitous Practical Codicology

academia,medieval,Scribal Error,punSo, Lolo is off jet-setting around being a bigwig medievalist, and accordingly our Gawain class was cancelled this week. And next week, I believe. In the absence of serious Middle English content, let me tell you about the serendipitous lesson in practical codicology which befell our class last week.

Our topic was ‘Manuscript and Editorial History’, and is responsible for the previous post on this page. While I was considering the falliability of Papa Tolkien, my classmates were considering the vexed question of the Four Fitts, as opposed to the Nine Decorated Initials. Which did the author intend? The scribe? Why are we reffering to the sections as ‘fitts’ anyway? Is there a hierachy of sections, and is it related to the size of initials?

Classmate D, being a conscientious student, borrowed out the antiquated Early English Text Society facsimile, and went in search of these nine decorated initials. She turned up to class most perplexed- only eight initials were to be found. Someone suggested that maybe she hadn’t looked through the whole text- but no, f. 124b , where she ended, is clearly the end of the poem. By reference to the line numbers in the articles, and the marginal folio numbers in the TGD edition, each initial was hunted down again. Until suddenly, they weren’t there. Kids, this is what we pay tuition for: Lolo, being the smart cookie in the room, noticed that f. 117 was, in our fascimile, promptly followed by 124, which was in turn followed by the shiny blank leaf signifying the end of the book.

Published in 1923, the facsimile in question is one of those lovely old string-bound books, which still have recognisable quiring structures. The absence of what we calculated to be three sheets was cause for some consternation- there was evidence of repair on the blank leaf, but no evidence for torn or missing pages. The general concensus was that either the final quire had fallen apart, and only two leaves been replaced, or our copy of the facsimile was simply defective and had never HAD those three leaves. The book was passed around and examined as an example of the sort of fate which has often befallen medieval manuscripts.

When I got a chance to scrutinise the repair job closely, it didn’t seem that any pages were actually missing. The quire seemed to be tightly bound, each page had a counterpart on the other half of the folio. And here I decided to do what none of us had done yet: turn over the blank leaf, and examine the blank pages at the end of old books which balance out the final quire. And lo and behold, rather than blank pages, there were the missing folios, all messed up and out of order. The last quire had fallen apart, and had been repaired by a non-medievalist librarian who obviously didn’t know quite what was going on with this manuscript business. To make his or her job harder, whoever had gone through the MS in the 16th and numbered the pages did a bodgy job- a couple of leaves had no numbers marked on them and there seemed to be two f. 120s.

Lesson for the day: it’s very easy for someone who doesn’t read the script and doesn’t speak the relevant language to accidentally mess up manuscript repair. It’s easy to think of medieval or early modern fudging around with manuscripts as poor workmanship- people just didn’t know how to treat books back then! But all it shows is that the book hasn’t always been treated by specialists with our priorities in mind. We handle our Rare Books, even facsimiles, with great reverence, but it’s worth remembering occaisionally that modern scholars aren’t infalliable: witness the fate of a facsimile not kept in Rare Book reserve.

A similar principle applies to scribal error. We can gripe and whinge and emend the errors of foolish scribes, but it’s really an easy mistake. Lolo’s method of pointing this out was a sort of paelographical Chinese Whispers- he passed to Classmate D a short note explaining that he was sorry about the death of Heath Ledger in Januay 2008. Student D recopied it and passed it on, and by the time it passed through five students and back to Lolo, the spelling of his name had changed and Heath Ledger died in 2003. The Bocera doesn’t need an illustration so complicated in Anglo-Saxon class (just as well, it wouldn’t really work with just me): in copying out an AElfrician sermon by hand last week, I managed to drop a whole line, and accordingly produced a rather odd translation. It’s all too common, the Bocera stopped to impress upon me, for modern scholars to take scribal error as evidence of stupidity or laziness on the part of the scribe, when all it takes is a simple eye-skip from one similar word to another.1 I wonder if it’s something we find harder to understand or be tolerant of today, because we do so little by hand? You can’t misread Times New Roman, and it’s mighty hard to skip lines when you copy and paste…


1. And I bet you make more and more scribal errors when you’re tired. Or drunk. Stop, Revive, Scribe! Don’t Drink and Scribe, people!

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.