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Old English Textbooks and the 21st Century: A Review of Recent Publications


Andrew Scheil, University of Minnesota

The first few years of the new century have witnessed a revival of Old English pedagogy, at least in the publication of textbooks designed for the introductory experience of learning Old English. The leading edge of this change could be seen in the editorial work of Bruce Mitchell and Fred C. Robinson in the late 1990s. Mitchell published his Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England in 1995; Mitchell and Robinson published their student edition of Beowulf in 1998, and their A Guide to Old English was published in a revised 6th edition in 2001 (the work had not been updated since 1992). Since then the new textbooks or new editions have come at about the rate of one per year: R.D. Fulk's revision of John C. Pope's Seven Old English Poems in 2001; Richard Hogg's Introduction to Old English in 2002; Peter Baker's Introduction to Old English in 2003; Richard Marsden's Cambridge Old English Reader in 2004; Robert Hasenfratz and Thomas Jambeck's Reading Old English: A Primer and First Reader in 2005; and in 2007, the 7th edition of Mitchell and Robinson's Guide, Carole Hough and John Corbett's Beginning Old English, and the second edition of Baker's Introduction to Old English. And more books are on the horizon: Fulk has an introductory grammar/reader contracted for publication (perhaps in 2009) with the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies; Murray McGillivray of the University of Calgary has two introductory volumes (the Broadview Old English Grammar and the Broadview Old English Reader) contracted for publication with Broadview Press, also probably in 2009. [1] Clearly something is in the air.

Our current moment calls to mind the 1970s, the last period that saw so many new Old English textbooks and updated editions of old ones: the 3rd (and final) edition of Bright's Old English Grammar and Reader as revised by Cassidy and Ringler was published in 1971; Marckwardt and Rosier's Old English Language and Literature (now out of print) in 1972; Robert E. Diamond's Old English Grammar and Reader in 1973; the second edition of Quirk and Wrenn's Old English Grammar (1957) was reprinted several times up to 1973 (reprinted by Northern Illinois University Press in 1994 and still in print); the 10th edition of Moore and Knott's Elements of Old English (1955), revised by James R. Hulbert, was reprinted through 1977, then passed out of print; Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse, revised by Dorothy Whitelock for its 15th edition in 1967, saw a second corrected printing in 1975 (a version which is still in print); Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer, revised for its ninth edition by Norman Davis in 1953 (with a second corrected printing in 1957), was reprinted regularly throughout the 1970s up to 1982. And of course Bruce Mitchell published the first edition of the Guide in 1964 (without texts or glossary), and a second edition in 1968. Multiple reprints saw light during the 1970s; in 1982 he was joined for the 3rd edition by Fred C. Robinson, and the book, including texts and glossary, assumed the familiar shape we know today. [2]

Between the early 1970s and the turn of the 21st century dramatic changes have taken place in higher education, the humanities, medieval studies in general and Anglo-Saxon studies in particular. Not surprisingly, these new textbooks register a very different perception of audience and purpose than did their precursors of an earlier generation. The appearance of this new generation of textbooks casts an interesting light on the ways Old English and Anglo-Saxon culture are currently taught. [3] What are the stated and implied audiences of these books? How do they attempt to serve those audiences? Do they teach the language in new ways? How might they best be used by the community of Anglo-Saxonists? In both content and form, these new books reveal the changes, implicit and explicit, in the ways teachers present Old English to students.

I will not take up here an analysis of an important feature of 21st century pedagogy—online supplementation of textbooks. The teaching of Old English with online resources deserves its own separate essay. Full courses with introductory readers are now available online, such as Murray McGillivray's course at the University of Calgary [4] and Peter Baker's Introduction to Old English. [5] There are also numerous course web pages of varying levels of sophistication and public access created by instructors, sporting features such as .pdf files of handouts, links to other resources and so forth. Some instructors no doubt make creative use of course list serves and weblogs to distribute course content. Such resources will grow as time goes by; some people will certainly find themselves able to teach Old English with online resources alone, some will use them as supplements, while others will teach excellent courses without any such aids. It is my sense at the moment that we are far from living in a textbook-free world (a vision that is nirvana to some, nightmare to others); although we hear much about the electronic perspicacity of the current generation of students, my sense is that they still feel a physical textbook is an index to the seriousness of a course—online resources, as wonderful as they are, can still seem ephemeral to students and for the time being, I will assume that the symbolic value of a physical book (if nothing else) justifies the assumption that instructors of Old English will be ordering one or more of the books below for their courses.

Taken as a group, the new generation of textbooks is marked by three tendencies that distinguish them from the earlier generation. First, all of them acknowledge, in one way or another, the deficiencies of contemporary students in terms of their knowledge of traditional grammatical terminology and experience with other inflected languages. This recognition informs the conception of these books at many levels, from the substance and sequence of chapters to the style of the prose and beyond. Second, there is a greater emphasis on the literary/historical/cultural context of the Old English language as opposed to the more or less exclusively linguistic focus of the earlier generation; most of these texts attempt to introduce not just Old English language but Anglo-Saxon culture as well. At first glance this might seem to be only a plus, and it is certainly to be commended if "interdisciplinary" is simply a synonym for "good," as it often is in higher education. But there are potential downsides to this trend as well: is the teaching of Old English a zero-sum game? If more course time is spent on literary/cultural/historical matters, does that mean that less time will be spent on paradigms, vocabulary acquisition and translation? Will the contemporary student leave an Old English course well-versed about Anglo-Saxon culture, but with a weaker grasp of the language than the student of a previous generation? Third, when examined as a group, there is a greater sense of variety in terms of pedagogical mission for these texts than the previous generation. The earlier generation of scholars sought to write a textbook (e.g., the Mitchell/Robinson Guide) designed to serve all potential students of Old English, from weak undergraduates to advanced graduate students at elite institutions to independent learners; the current textbooks seem to be more narrowly targeted at particular constituencies and markets.



It hardly needs to be said that the contemporary student typically comes to an Old English class with a shaky or nonexistent knowledge of traditional grammatical terminology and concepts (e.g., the passive voice, the predicate, the preposition), and of linguistic terminology (e.g., parsing, inflection, syntax). The student is not at all likely to have studied Latin, Greek or Hebrew, or to have studied even a modern inflected language such as German or Russian; such experience was a given for an earlier generation of students. All of these new books try to help remedy this deficiency through a combination of methods: glossaries of terms, extra chapters and appendices that review basic Modern English grammar, and a more discursive presentation of the language.

One can get a sense of the change in tone from the earlier generation by comparing the initial presentation of strong verbs in an older textbook and a new textbook. The architecture of the strong verb is one of the major hurdles in any Old English course: the presentation of the very concept of the strong verb, its various gradation classes, its conjugation, and so forth is a good measure of the text's sense of its readership's needs. In Moore and Knott's Elements of Old English, strong verbs are introduced in Chapter XI ("Strong Verbs: Classes I and II"). The chapter is 3 pages long. One short paragraph introduces the strong verb for the first time and renders an explanation:

Strong Verbs. Strong verbs form their preterit and past participle by means of a change in the vowel of the stem. The change is called ablaut (or gradation) and these verbs are frequently called ablaut verbs. In Old English, as in the other old Germanic languages, there are seven classes of strong verbs (frequently called ablaut series), each class being characterized by a distinct series of ablaut changes. (49; emphasis in original)

Three sentences and we're out: minimalism in action. Then follows, in tabular form with very brief head-notes, a series of representative verbs illustrating the gradation series of classes I and II and a representative conjugation; one or two brief notes expand upon the conjugation, and then the chapter closes with a reading selection (a paragraph from the translation of Luke's gospel). One imagines that even in the 1950s this laconic presentation needed to be fleshed out by the instructor in the classroom; the chapter is really not much more than a schematic reference grammar—a series of tables with head-notes.

In Reading Old English, Hasenfratz and Jambeck realize that the strong verb arrives on the syllabus just when students can not believe there is possibly anything more they are required to learn. The authors try to cushion the blow as much as possible:

In this and the following chapter, you'll learn most of what you'll need to know about "strong" verbs. As we mentioned earlier (43.7) strong verbs change a root vowel to form the past tense and the past participle (see Modern English grow, grew, grown and sing, sang, sung). Weak verbs, on the other hand, form the past tense and the past participle by adding -d, -ed, or -t (i.e., a "dental suffix") to the root (see Modern English: walk, walked, walked; hear, heard, heard; and think, thought, thought). Strong verbs descended from Indo-European verbs while weak verbs are a Germanic innovation.

The main challenge that strong verbs present to any reader of Old English is that they are generally difficult to look up. Glossaries and dictionaries, as a rule, list only the infinitive form. Of course, when you encounter a word which looks suspiciously like a past tense or past participle of a strong verb, you could simply start at the beginning of the relevant letter in the glossary and scan through the entire section looking for the infinitive. That would be a time-consuming chore to say the least. Later on, if you read texts with the help of fuller dictionaries, you won't be able to block out enough time to roam through page after page of entries. Knowing something about the seven classes of strong verbs can definitely make you a more efficient reader of Old English by allowing you to triangulate more efficiently on the main glossary entry for any strong verb.

(Note: Should you want to consult other grammars, you should probably know that the change in the root vowel in strong verbs is usually called gradation or ablaut, from a German word meaning to "sound down." For this reason, some grammars refer to strong verbs as ablaut verbs and the series of changes in the root vowel as an ablaut or gradation series.) (254)

Quite a bit more follows in Reading Old English as other aspects of the strong verb are taken up in turn, but this is the main introduction. The contrast with Moore and Knott is obvious.

Moore and Knott assume the intrinsic value of learning the strong verb; not just useful as an aid to efficient glossary flipping, learning about strong verbs is an important step in drawing connections among the Germanic languages. The rhetoric of Reading Old English is far more pragmatic: its unspoken assumption is that the rare students whose souls are fired by comparative Germanic linguistics will find their way to the next level of instruction on their own. In Reading Old English, the authors are more concerned with convincing skeptical students why they should invest the time to memorize or even look at a table of gradation patterns. To make the case, they appeal to the students (hoped-for) sense of efficiency: you will be more efficient in finding headwords, therefore you will translate more rapidly, therefore you will finish your work earlier and therefore find early release from the "drudgery" of class preparation. This assumption might be extended to the new generation of textbooks as a whole: they assume (correctly, in my view) they are fighting an uphill battle: students generally will be uninterested in linguistic matters for their own sake, and will only be convinced to learn enough to make their reading comprehension quicker and easier; and further, reading is the goal—particularly reading texts that might be of interest for literary or cultural reasons (e.g., Beowulf, but really any eye-catching text such as Wonders of the East).

This is perfectly understandable, and as a pragmatist myself, it is exactly how I would initially "sell" the strong verb to students, but of course, there are linguistic students at some institutions (graduate and undergraduate, declared or in potentia) who may be interested in, well, linguistics. Some graduate students, particularly confident ones thoroughly committed to language study, might be put off by such lowest-common-denominator rhetoric and need supplemental texts to sustain more advanced study. If an instructor uses some of the new textbooks, he or she would want to keep an eye on such students in a class and make sure (perhaps through additional handouts or assigned reading on reserve) that they are being pushed in the proper direction. (Knowing the makeup/background of class members in advance would be of great help in choosing a text or texts.)

The difference between Moore and Knott and Reading Old English is one of voice—that instructional narrator emanating from the pages of the text. In an Old English course the "voice" of the textbook must stand as a proxy for the instructor's voice: there is so much to cover in class periods (particularly the time-consuming process of individual student translations) that one must expect that a certain burden of the teaching will be carried by the voice of the textbook itself, as the student reads and re-reads, e.g., the section on strong verbs, trying to decode what is going on and what is the point of it all, and how important it is anyway, relative to the potential time invested.

It is the zero-sum game once again. Students tend to meet with instructors for fewer class hours per week than they did thirty-five or fifty years ago; contemporary students at all levels are more likely to be employed in the workforce while doing their degree, and have a greater variety of extracurricular activities (justly or unjustly) demanding their time than thirty-five years ago, when one might expect that the student would take the laconic textbook to the library, mull the day's lecture over in his/her head, and then, using other reference works, pick through the grammar carefully again on his/her own for an extended time. Sad to say, in many institutions that is not going to happen today, particularly at the undergraduate level: the student leaves class to rush to work, gets home in the evening, and before settling down to do any academic work does the "essential" preliminaries: checks email and instant messaging, reads a few blogs, watches a few videos on YouTube, checks his/her MySpace account, all the while fielding a scattershot barrage of cell phone calls. Graduate students are perhaps more focused, but if nothing else they certainly tend to teach more than the graduate students of fifty years ago. All this is to say that the contemporary Old English textbook must have more of a vocal presence for the student than the previous generation of books; the student must be able to open up the book and through reading re-create the whole discursive context that will allow the learning to happen.

Moore and Knott has almost no voice within each chapter; in this it is much like the Sweet readers, Wrenn, Marckwardt /Rosier, and Cassidy/Ringler. Moreover, the voice that encloses or frames the paradigms, tables and readings, connecting chapters and building them into a sequence is almost nonexistent; there is no real sense of one chapter building upon another in a discursive fashion: the connections are generally implicit. The Mitchell/Robinson Guide certainly has more of a voice than the earlier generation of readers; in many ways the Guide is the text that bridges the gap between the early generation of grammars (from Sweet through the 1950s) and the current new textbooks. The Guide is a tightly packed text; its information is presented in a compact way, with minimal mediation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that for a number of years many instructors have wanted a more pervasive and consistent pedagogical voice, one more carefully modulated to the under-prepared student who does not attend Oxford or Yale. An important part of such a discursive presentation is the presence of brief graded readings attached to the sequence of grammatical explanations, such as to be found in Moore/Knott, Marckwardt/Rosier and Cassidy/Ringler. The Guide lacks this feature, content to allow the instructor to assign texts from the reader as needed from the very first week. My sense is that the Guide has become a successful text book when supplemented by an instructor's considerable classroom files, handouts and dexterity developed over a number of years. But not to be left behind, the textbook continues to be updated and augmented in new editions. To allow for greater instructor choice in material, four new texts have been added to the Guide in the past two editions: Wulf and Eadwacer and Judith to the sixth edition (2001) and selections from the Cotton Maxims and Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi ad Anglos to the seventh, for a total of 22 separate texts. The seventh edition has also added two appendices designed to help the under-prepared student: "Appendix D: List of Linguistic Terms Used in this Book" and "Appendix E: The Moods of Old English." (The Guide is also a substantial book for the price: $39.95 US.)

Peter Baker's Introduction to Old English (my comments here refer to the second edition of 2007) is in many ways a fleshed-out and updated version of Mitchell and Robinson. I say this as a compliment and not at all to detract from the originality of the book—in the lucid, authoritative prose of a seasoned teacher and expert philologist, Baker leads the under-prepared student through the stage-by stage process of learning Old English. The voice of the seasoned teacher can be detected in the chapter structure: each chapter begins with a brief overview ("Quick Start") that presents the most important points to be digested in said chapter; boxed-off asides marked with an exclamation point draw the student attention to particular hints, tips, pitfalls, etc. Such touches are the mark of an effective teacher who knows from long experience where and when student questions arise and how best to defuse them. Baker fills the need for short graded readings attached to the instructional chapters: most chapters include short passages ("Minitexts") drawn from a variety of Old English sources/translations: the prose psalms, Gregory's Dialogues, Wulfstan's homilies, a letter of Ælfric, Byrhtferth's Enchiridion, Blickling homilies, the prose Solomon and Saturn, Orosius, a riddle, Maxims I, a short passage from Beowulf. The grammatical presentation is in the same sequence as the Guide: pronouns, nouns, verbs (first weak then strong), adjectives then adverbs (though the Guide presents the adjectives and numerals earlier, with the nouns), then issues of syntax (a much longer and challenging section to be found in the Guide). The book begins with four preliminary chapters on "The Anglo-Saxons and Their Language," "Pronunciation," "Basic Grammar: A Review," and "Case," and it ends with three very helpful chapters on more advanced topics concerning "Poetic Style," "The Grammar of Poetry," and "Reading Old English Manuscripts." The "Anthology" section of the book consists of eighteen texts: "The Fall of Adam and Eve," "The Life of Æthelthryth," "Ælfric on the Book of Job," "Cynewulf and Cyneheard" and "The Martyrdom of Ælfheah" (both from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle), Wulfstan's Sermo Lupi ad Anglos , "Ohthere and Wulfstan," "The Story of Cædmon," "Boethius on Fame," "A Lyric for Advent," "The Battle of Maldon," "The Wanderer," "The Dream of the Rood," "Wulf and Eadwacer," "The Wife's Lament," "The Husband's Message," and "Judith." The selection of texts is very similar to the Guide, with only a few differences between the two.

One might, then, characterize Baker's Introduction as a new textbook that keep many of the organizational features and structures of the Guide, but updates them and makes them more "user-friendly," as a seasoned, effective teacher of Old English would. Baker's book seems to be what for many years was desired by users of the Guide when dealing with weaker students: a review of basic grammar and other background concepts; a more discursive explanatory voice that works with contemporary student linguistic skills, graded readings, and essentially the same anthology of canonical texts. Baker's book would be a good choice for (among others) long-time users of the Guide who would like an update for the modern student, but who do not fundamentally wish to change how they teach.

Baker's book is thoroughly integrated with web technology. The book was published by Blackwells in print form as it was simultaneously published in identical electronic form as part of Baker's "Old English at the University of Virginia" website (http://www.engl.virginia.edu/OE/index.html; the book is also hosted by Western Michigan University's Medieval Institute: http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/resources/IOE/index.html). Baker designed a suite of online exercises to complement the textbook, "Old English Aerobics" also available on the "Old English at Virginia" website. [6] It is an inexpensive textbook: $29.95 US in print form, or free on the web. Of all the new textbooks, it is the cheapest, complete and stand-alone option for a course.

Hasenfratz and Jambeck's Reading Old English ($45.00 US) is probably the text that goes furthest in providing remedial support through a pervasive discursive instructional voice. This very substantial book consists of eleven chapters and two Appendices ["A Basic Introduction to Traditional Grammar" (357–395) and "Summary of Sound Changes" (397–414)]. The introduction to traditional grammar appendix includes basic definitional information on sentences, parts of speech, clauses, phrases, all illustrated with Modern English examples. The appendix on sound changes discusses in greater detail than in the body of the text various standard phonological issues typically encountered in introductory Old English courses: Grimm's and Verner's Laws, gemination, breaking, syncopation, etc. (i-mutation is discussed in the main body of the text.) The book then presents a very brief reader, consisting of the Old English gloss to Ælfric's Latin Colloquy (Latin and OE texts), "Four Lives of St. Æðeldryð": 1. From the Latin text of Bede's Ecclesiastical History (with facing page Modern English translation); 2. the Old English translation of Bede; 3. the brief life from the Old English Martyrology; 4. Ælfric's Life of St. Æðeldryð. Then follows "A Quick Guide to Old English Poetry" (12 pages) covering the structure of the Old English poetic line, Sievers' scansion, variation, compounds and kennings. The book then ends with the text of The Wife's Lament and a glossary. Among the highlights is a nice chart on pp. 4-5, "A Crash Course in Anglo-Saxon Paleography": this covers the letter forms for Insular and Carolingian upper and lower case letters and runes. Baker's text is a bit more extensive in introducing manuscripts, devoting a whole chapter to the topic with plates and brief transcription exercises.

Each chapter of Reading Old English subdivides into 2-4 "Lessons" that cover familiar categories: e.g., Chapter Six: Lesson One: Adjectives; Lesson Two: Comparative and Superlative Forms; Lesson Three: Adverbs; Lesson Four: Prepositions. The most distinctive feature of the book is the great variety of brief illustrative "Exercises" liberally scattered among the lessons: reverse translation; fill-in-the-blank parsing of various sorts; brief translations, and so forth. Each Exercise is followed by a short vocabulary list dedicated to that exercise. A great deal of effort has gone into the generation of these creative exercises and they are really a wonderful feature. They are exactly the sort of pedagogical files that an experienced instructor will have developed over a number of years; it is invaluable to have so many gathered together here, to be used or not, or modified as the instructor desires. The Exercises can be gone over in class; completed and photocopied to be handed in by the student; or (since they are mostly short) they can be copied out by hand, completed, and handed in. Because the book does much of the heavy lifting, Reading Old English would be a good choice of text for someone teaching Old English for the first time, or a non-Anglo-Saxonist teaching Old English.

Supplementing the Exercises are "Readings" at the end of each chapter. These are more extensive Old English passages from a variety of sources, rising in difficulty and length throughout the book: bits from the gospels, riddles, Wonders of the East, prognostics, monastic sign language, Vercelli Homily IX, a medical text. The lists of vocabulary that follow each Exercise and Reading are impressive as well; they include helpful etymological hints for memorization, cross-references to the appropriate chapter section where the word-form is covered, and strategic capitalization to aid in vocabulary retention. Two examples, drawn at random:

cwic (adjective) = alive [see ModE the QUICK and the dead, §6.1] (from p. 353)

sār (n) = pain, SOREness; SORRow, distress [§2.9] (from p. 354)

Each chapter ends with a brief summary "Lessons learned" that highlights the most essential bits student need to have mastered before moving on.

The strength of Reading Old English is in the individual chapters rather than in the reader, as the authors intend. Hasenfratz and Jambeck state in their preface that "ideally, the grammar and readings take about six to seven weeks to cover, roughly two chapters per week, leaving a significant portion of the term for further readings" (xix). Thus the book is designed to be used in tandem with another reader: perhaps Fulk's Eight Old English Poems, Marsden's Cambridge Old English Reader, Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader, or perhaps a volume in the Exeter series. Using the Mitchell/Robinson Guide with Reading Old English is also a nice pairing: the Guide can function as supplementary reading throughout the term, provide more challenging philological detail for the more advanced students in the class and function as a reference grammar, leaving the extensive reader for the final part of the course after Reading Old English is finished. Alternately, one could use Reading Old English and then very easily place selected photocopied texts on electronic reserve (from the ASPR or elsewhere) and order the Clark-Hall dictionary for the class. For some classes, just getting through the text of Reading Old English by the end of the semester might be enough; there are more exercises in each chapter that can probably be covered in a semester. A student using Reading Old English and working through all the dedicated exercises/drills would likely learn the language in a deep fashion; however, the number of full-length Old English texts the student would actually read in a course during the semester would be fewer than when using, say, the Guide. (But how many students over the years, when working through the many texts in the Guide, simply looked up each occurrence of every word in the Guide's superlative glossary and never really learned the language?) The sooner one would finish Reading Old English, the sooner one would be able to move on to texts from another reader, but more than likely one would not read as many full texts in the original. So in other words, one might expect after a semester of Reading Old English to find the students have learned the language well, but have not read many of the typical Old English texts one would expect students to encounter in an introductory course (e.g., The Wanderer, The Dream of the Rood, The Battle of Maldon). In a perfect world, one might use Reading Old English for a semester, then the Guide or the Marsden Reader for a second semester, then a semester on Beowulf. Reading Old English is a very good undergraduate textbook; some graduate students might find it a bit elementary at times, but often the graduate students have just as much need for elementary language instruction as the undergraduates. Reading Old English is obviously directed toward the undergraduate side of the aisle; other new textbooks follow the same trajectory, to the point where they are really designed as introductions to the language, rather than carrying a full systematic semester's worth of instruction in the traditional sense.



Baker's Introduction and Reading Old English supply information about Anglo-Saxon culture as a way to supplement and make palatable the linguistic instruction. Other new texts proceed quite a bit further in this direction. As the texts adjust their rhetoric and presentation for the needs of today's students, they also tend to rely more and more on an introduction to Anglo-Saxon culture. The emphasis on culture makes sense when one realizes that Old English is generally not a compulsory course any more at any institutions, either at the undergraduate or the graduate level. That means that if a student does enroll in an Old English course, his or her interest probably has been piqued previously by exposure to medieval or Anglo-Saxon literature or culture from another course—from the Tolkien books or films, mythology, or whatever. Since they are interested enough in the culture and literature to enroll, it makes sense to season the linguistic work with healthy doses of cultural information. The first lesson to be learned, I think, is to keep sight of the reason students enrolled in the course in the first place and nurture that interest accordingly, since it is (presumably) what they expect out of the course.

Bruce Mitchell's Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England (1995) has the feel of all the personal pedagogical attention lavished upon students over the years codified in book form. Here the Old English grammatical material is thoroughly embedded in an extensive pedagogical voice. The book is divided into five main sections: "Spelling, Pronunciation and Punctuation," "Other Differences between Old English and Modern English," "An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England," "The Garden of Old English Literature," "Some Paradigms—For Those Who Would Like Them." The first two sections very gently introduce the student to the contours of Old English: in many ways one wishes that these first two sections could be interleaved into the Guide at the appropriate points, combining the two books. The third section, "An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England," is subdivided into five sub-sections: "Literature," "History," "Archaeology, Arts, and Crafts," "Place-Names," and "Life in the Heroic Society and the Impact of Christianity." This very appealing section includes engaging introductions to these various subjects, along with reference to secondary literature, plates and diagrams, and many connected illustrative Old English passages (with translation). The Fourth Section ("The Garden of Old English Literature") consists of a large number of further short passages of prose and poetry, a few including translations but most without.

The Invitation is, at least in North America, an underused resource. The problem is that if a class used it as its central textbook and worked through the whole thing in one semester (or most of it), students would learn a great deal about Anglo-Saxon culture, and they would have made a start on the language; at the end of the semester, however, they would not really have learned Old English. Given the price of the book ($51.95 US, paperback), it would be difficult, but not impossible, to use the Invitation as the text for the first part of a medieval survey course; but the drawback would be that all the readings from Anglo-Saxon England would then be short extracts rather than full texts. Perhaps one could supplement the Invitation with free texts off the web? If the price were not a problem, the Invitation could be used in tandem with another text book in an Old English class. One could use it and the Guide at the same time; the Invitation could also be used with Reading Old English very nicely since the latter does not have an extensive reader. It is also a very good book to recommend to the independent student.

Carole Hough and John Corbett's Beginning Old English follows a principle similar to Mitchell's Invitation; the text is shorter and less expensive ($26.95), but also even more introductory than the Invitation. The authors explain the purpose of the book in their Preface: "It is not the purpose of this book to dwell in detail on the linguistic subtleties of Old English: it is designed as a 'taster' to introduce [the student] to the character of the language and—crucially—to give [the student] confidence first in reading simple and simplified West Saxon texts and then in tackling some original literature" (ix). Part I consists of language instruction, Part II of "Four Old English Texts." There are seven chapters in Part I; the sequence and presentation of the material is quite original compared to the other books. The first chapter, "Origins," introduces the student to Old English through a discussion of Anglo-Saxon history and culture; chapter 2, "Recognising Old English Words," takes the innovative step (compared to other grammars) of devoting an entire chapter to instructing students in some ways to recognize modern derivatives of Old English words through spelling and pronunciation rules. The chapter also introduces the student to very common words such as personal pronouns, conjunctions, and adverbs. Chapter 3, "People and Things," focuses on nouns and pronouns, again first working on getting students to recognize nominal phrases they can see in Modern English and slowly introducing complications, generally by presenting short passages in Old English (with dedicated vocabulary lists) and talking the student through the passages with a great deal of provisional summary and recapitulation. This is a bit like what Mitchell does in the Invitation, but I would say that Beginning Old English is slower and more basic, concentrating more extensively upon fewer examples. Chapter 4, "Place, Time, Manner and Reason," introduces prepositional phrases and adverbs. This and other chapters use Sweet's prose paraphrase of Beowulf as a reading text. The pattern for each chapter is the same: the authors first introduce the grammatical topic at hand, then provide "Reading practice": they give a passage with a dedicated short vocabulary list, and ask a series of content-based comprehension questions about the passage: e.g., "After meeting Beowulf, how did Grendel's mood change? Where did Grendel wish to flee? Who lived there? Why could Grendel not escape?" (64) and so forth. The authors then talk the student through the passage and answers to the questions, pointing out the relevant grammatical features. Chapter 5, "Actions and Events," introduces verbs without really delving into the distinction between different types—weak, strong, anomalous, etc. Chapter 6, "Introducing Old English Poetry," talks the student through the various features of Old English poetry by using the following examples: "Cædmon's Hymn," three riddles, "Wulf and Eadwacer," and "Deor." Chapter 7 ("Translating Old English Poetry: Beowulf") begins by summarizing the plot of the poem and discussing its origins; it then moves to the traditions of translating and adapting the work, comparing several different translation of a particular passage (lines 2312-23), and again talking the student through the passage's grammatical features.

Part II offers "Four Old English Texts." The first is the Cynewulf and Cyneheard story from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, broken up into seven different short passages, each with vocabulary and discussion, following the pattern established in Part I. Each section ends with a "Glossary of Common or Familiar Words," making each selection a self-contained unit. The second section consists of passages from Beowulf; the third is the Battle of Maldon; the fourth is the Dream of the Rood. The book concludes with a "Glossary of Technical Terms," an appendix of some basic Old English paradigms, and a brief guide to further reading. There is no final comprehensive glossary, vocabulary instead being delivered after each reading in the form of short lists. The book is illustrated with twelve black and white images, ranging from manuscript pages to an image from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film. (All the new books tend to have nice plates.)

Throughout the book, the authors introduce not only grammatical information about how to construe passages, but also cultural and literary information relevant to comprehension. So like Mitchell's Invitation, the text serves as an introduction to the culture of Anglo-Saxon England even as it introduces the language. However, the emphasis must be on "introduce." As the authors readily admit, theirs is simply a primer for a more in-depth traditional course on the Old English language, not a substitute. The ideal situation would be to use this text in an institution with a healthy medieval studies program so that it (or the Invitation) would perhaps be used as a supplement to a lower level course on medieval literature for undergraduates, or an undergraduate history course on Anglo-Saxon England, or perhaps as part of a History of the English language course. Students would then go on to a more in-depth formal course in learning Old English, using a more advanced textbook.

Another way these texts survey a greater variety of Anglo-Saxon cultural forms than their predecessors is by simply including a greater variety of texts. While Marckwardt and Rosier spend most of their instructional chapters reading selections from one text (Apollonius of Tyre), the Baker Introduction and Reading Old English excerpt a variety of short texts for exercises, from medical remedies to laws to homilies to riddles and beyond. (Mitchell's Invitation does this as well.) This seems not only good pedagogical sense in terms of having the opportunity to present short lectures/discussions on a variety of Anglo-Saxon cultural topics over the course of a semester, but it would seem to make good linguistic sense as well, exposing the student to a variety of texts with different lexical domains and styles. Similarly, the readers of these various books keep expanding: more texts continually added to the Guide, to Baker's Introduction in its second edition (with more planned for future editions), Eight Old English Poems up from seven, and so forth.

The Cambridge Old English Reader of Richard Marsden offers the greatest example of this expansion principle, presenting the widest array of Old English documents of any of these books and therefore the broadest picture of Anglo-Saxon culture. The Marsden Reader presents 56 separate items of prose and verse (some of these are more than one text, e.g., #35 is "Five Anglo-Saxon Riddles") arranged into six thematic groupings: 1. "Teaching and Learning," (texts from Alfred, Ælfric, Bald's Leechbook, and more), 2. "Keeping a Record," (laws, chronicles, wills, historical texts), 3. "Spreading the Word" (Old and New testament prose and poetry), 4. "Example and Exhortation" (sermons, hagiography, some religious poetry), 5. "Telling Tales" (selections from heroic poetry and secular prose narrative), 6. "Reflection and Lament" (lyric and gnomic poetry). [7] Excellent headnotes lead off each section and each individual text with concise information and further reading suggestions. After a nineteen-page introduction that includes a short guide to manuscripts, pronunciation and the features of Old English poetry, the texts with their headnotes comprise 344 pages; a ten-page apparatus then details the manuscripts and textual emendations used in the volume; this is followed by a forty-page detailed reference grammar. The impressive 120-page final glossary does not reference every single occurrence of each word, but does reference each different word and each inflected/variant form of the words. In a very useful feature, all nouns in the glossary include after the headword a cross-reference to the relevant section of the Reference Grammar for the proper declension; thus a student can easily check to see how each individual noun fully declines. Also there is overdotting throughout the glossary marking palatal c and g.

The most commented-upon aspect of the Marsden Reader is likely to be its extensive on-the-page glossing: in addition to the excellent final glossary to the whole work, the text includes extensive page glossing. Degree signs in the text indicate single-word glosses (placed to the right for poetic texts, immediately beneath the main text for prose), brackets around phrases signal more extensive phrasal and sentence-level glossing and cultural/literary information. Thus a page of prose is divided into three zones: the main text (heavily sprinkled with degree signs and brackets); numbered single word glosses in the zone immediately below; numbered bracket glosses keyed to the main text in another zone immediately below that. To one accustomed to a cleaner page, the initial effect is disconcerting; however, with use the effect quickly dissipates. The pages set as poetry appear less busy, more like the combination of marginal/degree glossing and footnote glossing to be found in Norton anthologies and editions such as Cawley and Anderson's edition of the Pearl-Poet's works. [8] Will students internalize the language adequately with such extensive on-the-page help? Opinion on this is likely to differ and instructors will need to find out for themselves. It would be important to require steady parsing exercises if using the book. At $32.99 US, a strength of the text is the price: you get quite a bit for the money (cf. Eight Old English Poems at $22.40).

The Marsden Reader is just that—a selection of texts, lacking a formal series of chapters breaking down the language and teaching it in a series of lessons. A very experienced instructor with a large stockpile of handouts might be able to teach an introductory course with the Reader as the sole text, but in general it seems that the Reader would need to be paired with another book or online resources for instruction. The Reader would also be very good for a second-semester course in Old English that ranged widely over a number of Anglo-Saxon texts; it would also be a good text for graduate students to use in independent reading, particularly graduate students working in later fields, who wish to read quickly and broadly in Old English. Given its price and its extensive glossing, the Marsden Reader is a text one could see using in a variety of courses and educational settings, independently or paired with a variety of other books and resources.



Such flexibility is another distinguishing characteristic of these books. Once upon a time, deciding which book to order for an Old English course was fairly simple: no matter the institution or the level of class, all one needed to do was choose one of the two or three main textbooks. Now, with a greater variety of possibilities, the choice is more difficult. I've already remarked that a book like the Mitchell Invitation and Beginning Old English are really introductory texts for the undergraduate experience; Reading Old English would work for graduate students, but is particularly good for undergraduates; Baker's Introduction is quite good for graduate students and skilled undergraduates: different books for different constituencies. The mixture is rendered more complex when one adds in readers such as Fulk's Eight Old English Poems or Marsden's Reader, and even more complex when online resources and electronic reserve are brought into play. In the future, choosing the instructional materials for an Old English class might be more like assembling the pieces of a custom-made puzzle than the simple choice it was in the past.

We can add one more flexible possibility to the mix: Richard Hogg's Introduction to Old English ($22.95). This is a short text of 163 pages, the first in a series published by Oxford University Press: the others include Simon Horobin and Jeremy Smith, An Introduction to Middle English (2003; $22.95) and Terry Nevalainen, An Introduction to Early Modern English (2006; $21.95). Hogg's Introduction consists of ten brief chapters that follow the usual sequence of grammatical presentation: 1. "Origins and source"; 2. "The basic elements"; 3. "More nouns and adjectives"; 4. "Verb forms"; 5. "Strong verbs"; 6. "Noun phrases and verb phrases"; 7. "Clauses"; 8. "Vocabulary"; 9. "Variety" 10. "The future." The book ends with a useful nine-page "Old English – Present-day English glossary"; a "Glossary of linguistic terms" and a bibliography of recommended reading. It is Hogg's aim to write an introductory text; the preface ("To readers") explains that the book is "designed for students for whom this is the first experience of the language of the earliest period of English" (viii). He distinguishes his book from books like the Guide that present a "freestanding account of the grammar" followed by a "group of texts which the student is expected to read by reference to the relevant material in the grammar" (viii). In his own words: "The distinctive feature of this work is that I have attempted to present an integrated account, in which, for the most part, accounts of the linguistic history of Old English are immediately followed by relevant and exemplary texts" (viii). The book conveys a great deal of information in a lucid, conversational and amazingly compact form, but it is difficult to imagine it as the only book for a semester-long course in Old English. And as Hogg himself notes, the book only provides brief partial texts as readings/exercises at the end of each chapter. Should the instructor use it with the Guide? With Mitchell's Invitation? With the Marsden Reader? With Elaine Treharne's Old and Middle English: An Anthology?

This is an embarrassment of riches, but certain ramifications will only be seen in the future when more students have been taught with these books. For example, one possibility is that when a student says, "Yes, I've had Old English," or his/her transcript says the same thing, the instructor will probably need to investigate further to get a better picture of the student's linguistic facility: did you have a full semester with Reading Old English, but not read any full texts? Did you work through Baker's Introduction, including lessons and texts from the anthology? Did you just jump into reading with the Marsden Reader after a crash-course in grammar over the web or with Hogg's Introduction? Were you self-taught with Mitchell's Invitation or Beginning Old English? Once upon a time "a course in Old English" had a fairly stable meaning; as these textbooks pass into use, the phrase will be broader and more ambivalent. Another possibility is that Old English could now be introduced at a number of levels in a curriculum, in lower level survey courses, for example, through books like Beginning Old English and the Hogg Introduction used as supplements to other course materials. Learning some paradigms and beginning to understand the structure of the language need not wait for the formal, full-semester course in Old English. As far as I'm concerned, the more Old English that is placed in front of students at all levels, the better.

I also believe that it is imperative to embrace these new textbooks rather than fall back on out-of-print texts or updated nineteenth-century books, ordering Marckwardt and Rosier or Cassidy and Ringler as custom-published texts for a course. New textbooks are a sign of health in the field in many ways; the more instructors that use these texts, the better the sales will be and thus the greater likelihood of new editions that iron out errors and adjust the presentation of the information in response to feedback from the scholarly community. Getting behind these textbooks is a sign of good citizenship in the field and an investment in the future of Old English studies.


Books Discussed in this Essay


Appendix: A Selection of Old English Textbooks of an Earlier Generation

  • Bright's Old English Grammar and Reader, ed. Frederic G. Cassidy and Richard N. Ringler. 3rd ed., second corrected printing. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971. Out of print.
  • Diamond, Robert E. Old English Grammar and Reader. Detroit: Wayne State Univerity Press, 1973. In print: $21.95.
  • Marckwardt, Albert H. and James L. Rosier. Old English Language and Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 1972. Out of print.
  • Mitchell, Bruce and Fred C. Robinson. A Guide to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell. 1st ed. (Mitchell only) 1964; 3rd ed. (with Robinson) with texts and glossary, 1982; 6th ed. 2001, 7th ed. 2006.
  • Moore, Samuel and Thomas A. Knott. The Elements of Old English. 10th ed., revised by James R. Hulbert (1955). Ann Arbor, MI: George Wahr; repr. through 1977. Out of print.
  • Quirk, Randolph and C. L. Wrenn. An Old English Grammar. Second edition, 1955; repr. London: Methuen's Old English Library, 1973; most recently repr. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1994. In print: $15.00.
  • Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer. 9th edition, revised by Norman Davis (1953); second corrected printing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1957; repr. through 1982. In print: $30.00.
  • Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse. 15th edition, revised by Dorothy Whitelock (1967); second corrected printing. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975. In print: $35.00.



[1] The information on the in-progress texts of Fulk and McGillivray are courtesy of personal communications; publication dates are approximations only. I have been unable to obtain a copy of another new volume: Chris McCully and Sharon Hilles, The Earliest English: An Introduction to Old English Language (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2005).

[2] Full publication information on these titles can be found in the Appendix.

[3] An important resource for Old English pedagogy is the website of the Teachers of Old English in Britain and Ireland (TOEBI), http://www.toebi.org.uk/. Aside from new Old English textbooks, the last few years have seen a number of other important teaching resources, particularly introductory handbooks, collections and anthologies suitable for introductory classes. The following is only a representative sample: Phillip Pulsiano and Elaine Treharne, eds., A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001); R.M. Liuzza, ed., Old English Literature: Critical Essays (New Haven: Yale UP, 2002); Elaine Treharne, ed., Old and Middle English: An Anthology, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003; now being revised for a 3rd edition); R.D. Fulk and Christopher M. Cain, A History of Old English Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003); Daniel Donoghue, Old English Literature: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004); David Johnson and Elaine Treharne, eds., Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005).

[4] http://www.ucalgary.ca/UofC/eduweb/engl401/.

[5] http://www.engl.virginia.edu/OE/index.html. Another resource is Michael D.C. Drout's site, "King Alfred's Grammar Book," http://acunix.wheatonma.edu/mdrout/GrammarBook2005/KAGrammar.html.

[6] Due to technical and security difficulties with "Old English Aerobics" the exercises will not be supported in the future and references to it are removed from the second edition of Introduction to Old English; instead, Baker is going to place downloadable .pdf files of exercises on his website (personal communication from Professor Baker).

[7] The full Table of Contents can be accessed at http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0521456126/ref=sib_dp_pt/002-3337690-9343247#reader-link

[8] A.C. Cawley and J. J. Anderson, eds., Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (London: J. M. Dent, 1976).