Editing Old English Poetry: Reconciling Orality and Text

Christine Arnold

Copyright 2005


Even a cursory review of the literature concerning the editing of OE texts reveals that a standard procedure for this exercise does not exist. Furthermore, there is not even a consensus on the purpose of editing OE poetry. Irving concisely states this problem when he asks, "do we present the poem as Then, stressing its alien condition, embedded as it is in remote time, or do we present it as Now, trying to bring out its still living qualities as a still possible experience for today’s reader?" (14). This question strikes at the heart of the problems surrounding OE texts and editors’ attempts to present them to a society that is fundamentally different than that of Anglo-Saxon England. O’Brien O’Keeffe illustrates the issue of different types of literacy when she writes, "manuscripts of OE verse preserve a form of literacy different from our own . . . [It is] still deeply influenced by its situation in a residually oral culture" (148).

The degree of literacy in Anglo-Saxon England and the role of orality in OE poetry are oft-debated subjects. However, scholars generally agree that literacy was largely confined to the clergy for much of the OE period; even with King Alfred's advocation of education, there is no evidence of "widespread vernacular literacy" (Doane and Amsler 425). Although vernacular writings increased in King Alfred's time, "it is doubtful ... that there was ever a continuous or widely disseminated tradition of OE writing" (Doane and Amsler 425). Most scholars believe that these writings were "used to a large exent as an auxiliary to the voice and as a cue for memory, recording oral events (poems, medicinal recipes and spells, legal transactions and decisions)" (Doane and Lindhal 562). Consequently, OE poetry is often seen as deriving from a traditiona oral style, with written records used as a means of preservation for a culture that was in the process of becoming increasingly literate.

The Oral Nature of Old English Poetry

The orality of OE poetry is often overlooked in modern editing practices. Doane goes so far as to state that "OE textual studies have so far developed no systematic way of dealing with the traditional production and motility of texts (mouvance) influenced by orality" (Oral Texts 75). This inherent lack of fixedness is oxymoronic to the idea of written text, which is, in the very act of writing, static and fixed on the page. The idea of an oral text as sui generis results in complications when modern editing practices are used to edit OE poetry. Since an oral text is changeable, it is problematic when an editor uses an intertextual approach to the editing of an OE poem. Intertextual editing allows the editor to consider both "a wide variety of OE sources as a concordance [to the manuscript being studied]; and a secondary intertext consisting of all previous editorial conjectures about a given text" (Doane Oral Texts 76). The result of such an approach is a narrowing of meanings and significations into one definitive edition. This denies the existence of different versions and voices that is at the very essence of oral texts.

Editors in the process of analysing a manuscript intertextually are searching to illuminate the author’s ultimate intention (Doane Oral Texts 76). Not only are the authors of most OE poems unknown, but there are other issues which make the concept of authorial intention a slippery subject. Scholars do not know how the process of recording OE poems was conducted in the largely illiterate Anglo-Saxon England. Did the poet dictate the poem to the scribe, or did the scribe record the poem during a performance? Either way, the scribe mediated the recording of the poem; the written text reflects the scribes’ interpretation of the poet’s performance. Consequently, authorial intention is elusive and possibly irrecoverable. The modern practice of intertextual editing does a disservice to OE poetry. By focussing on details that interest a modern literate culture, scholars ignore the very essence of OE poetry: its orality. The question then becomes, what is the best way to illuminate the oral nature of OE poetry while committing it to the page?

Concepts for Editing Oral Texts

There has been very little work published on the possible means of editing an oral text while retaining its orality. However, there are a handful of scholars who have put forth ideas on how to accomplish this feat. They all advocate a return to the original manuscript.

O’Brien O’Keeffe is insistent on this fact: "the material text constitutes a fundamental part of a poem’s existence and . . . the cost of ignoring a poem’s material existence is no less than abandoning crucial elements of its historical meaning. This is so, in part, because the OE poetic work has an intrinsic visual dimension which cannot be translated from the manuscript" (152).

Some scholars believe that the visual layout of the manuscripts provide clues to the oral nature of OE poetry. Doane states that "manuscript texts . . . are organized not visually, the way we like them, but sonically" (Spacing 49). Consequently, aspects such as variable spacing, free morphemic word division, erratic punctuation and unsystematic diacritics "parallel and ‘literally’ imitate features of speech that modern textuality does not formally mark, such as rhetorical pauses, rhetorical word stress and variations of pitch and loudness" (49)  Elsewhere Doane states that "accent marks, notations, spacing, sectional divisions, diacritics, spelling, hesitations, broken syntax, phonic repetitions supplemental to 'formal' metrical demands, corrections, notations ... supply the most direct evidence for conditions of production, performance and audibility" (Oral Texts 76).Doane's call to reconsider the scribes’ chirographs is echoed by Mitchell who writes that "the worst enemy of those trying to appreciate OE prose and poetry is the unmodified use by editors of a system of punctuation designed for an entirely different language, either modern German . . . or modern English" (385). Mitchell analyses the punctuation in OE writings and concludes that while it was used differently by different scribes, punctuation still gives meaning to the text and should not be ignored or simply replaced by modern practices. The damage of this replacement is that "it imposes an interpretation of the poem on the reader" (398). For Mitchell, an alternate mode of punctuation must be sought if editors wish to clearly represent the manuscript to a modern public without prescribing their own interpretations and prejudices on the text. Clearly, a return to the manuscript is needed not only to reassess scribal chirographs but also to remember the importance of the different versions and voices that permeate an oral text. Modern editors need to remember that they are editing a different tradition and culture which placed value in different modes of communication and artistry. Ultimately, this is what makes OE poetry so difficult for modern editors and readers to grasp, but it is also what makes it so fascinating to study.

For Further Reading

Cunniff Plumer, Danielle. "The Construction of Structure in the Earlies Editions of Old English Poetry." The Recovery of Old English: Anglo-Saxon Studies in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Ed. Timothy Graham. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institue Publications, 2000. 243-280.

Doane, A. N. "Oral Texts, Intertexts, and Intratexts: Editing Old English." Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History. Ed. Jay Clayton and Eric Rothestein.Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991. 75-113.

---. "Spacing, Placing and Effacing: Scribal Textuality and Exeter Riddle 30 a/b." New Approaches to Editing Old English Verse. Ed. Sarah Larratt Keefer and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1998. 45-66.

Doane, A.N. and Mark Amsler. “Literacy and Readership.” Medieval England: an Encylopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach, M. Teresa Tavormina, Joel T. Rosenthal. New York: Garland Publishers Inc., 1998.

Doane, A.N. and Carl Lindahl. “Orality and Aurality.” Medieval England: an Encylopedia. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach, M. Teresa Tavormina, Joel T. Rosenthal. New York: Garland Publishers Inc., 1998.

Foley, John Miles. "Editing Oral Epics Texts: Theory and Practice." TEXT. 1 (1980) : 75-94.

Gneuss, Helmut. "Old English Texts and Modern Readers: Notes on Editing and Textual Criticism." Words and works: Studies in Medieval English Language and Literature in Honour of Fred C. Robinson. Ed. Peter S. Baker and Nicholas Howe. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998. 127-142.

Irving, Edward B. "Editing Old English Verse: The Ideal." ." New Approaches to Editing Old English Verse. Ed. Sarah Larratt Keefer and Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1998. 11-20.

Mitchell, Bruce. "The Dangers of Disguise: Old English Texts in Modern Punctuation." Review of English Studies. 31 (1980). 385-413.

O’Brien O’Keeffe, Katherine. "Editing and the Material Text." The Editing of Old English: Papers from the 1990 Manchester Conference. Ed. D.G. Scragg and Paul E. Szarmach. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1994. 147-154.