Old English Newsletter


Back  |  Print


Standard Old English and the Study of English in the Eleventh Century


Donald Scragg, University of Manchester

Anyone familiar with the range and scope of writings in Old English must recognize that the language is the best recorded European vernacular before the high Middle Ages. Perhaps of even greater significance is the fact that so many of the surviving manuscripts in which Old English is recorded display a fairly uniform written "dialect." The concept of a standardised written form of Old English was posited by Henry Sweet in the nineteenth century, [1] and this became a widely accepted position, to the extent that Kenneth Sisam in 1931 was able to write that "the early eleventh century was the period in which West Saxon was recognised all over England as the official and literary language." [2] Sweet had opted for the language of King Alfred (so-called early West-Saxon) as the basis for that standard, and it was not until 1933 that his view was formally questioned, and an alternative, that of a standard based on the Winchester dialect of c. 1000 (sometimes called late West-Saxon but perhaps better known now as standard Old English), was proposed. [3] This is now the accepted view.

Of the hundreds of manuscripts containing Old English, only a dozen or so can be reliably dated before the last quarter of the tenth century, with the greatest number being eleventh century. [4] However, systematic grammars of Old English still present the language of King Alfred as the norm from which all other "dialects" may be seen to deviate. [5] The use of early West Saxon as the basis for the study of Old English is largely, one suspects, because a thorough investigation of the later Old English standard has yet to be made. In November 2000, I made an application to the Arts and Humanities Research Board of Great Britain, with Alexander Rumble cited as a co-applicant, for funding for a project to remedy the lack. This would take the form of the compilation of an inventory of script categories and spellings in eleventh-century English by a team of scholars at the Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies at the University of Manchester. In May 2001 we received £267,839 to be spent over a period of three years, beginning in October 2001 (as reported in OEN 34.3).


The project

The project has two principal aims. The palaeographic side will define the scripts used in the writing of eleventh-century English not just in texts but also in historical documents and glosses and it will identify, localize and date script categories and even, where possible, individual scribes in the vernacular and in Latin in the century which spans the Norman Conquest. As far as English is concerned, this will be the most comprehensive advance in the description of eleventh-century script since the publication of Ker's Catalogue in 1957. These script categories or scribes may then, perhaps, be associated with individual scriptoria or areas of production.

The linguistic wing will assemble as comprehensive an inventory as possible of spelling variants in stressed syllables in eleventh-century English. By attempting to relate such variation to the range and diversity of the scribes, it is hoped that it might prove possible to determine what, precisely, the outer reaches of the employment of the late Old English written standard were, and how consistently it was adhered to. We need to see what can be established about the linguistic uniformity of the texts produced in a given scriptorium, especially, obviously, the larger and (potentially) better organized ones such as Winchester and Canterbury, and how far a pattern emerges of forms which had permissible variants, such as i/y and the simplification of double consonants. More difficult may be obtaining answers to such questions as: are spelling (graphic) variants more permissible than those that may be thought to reflect phonological variation, and how exactly and definitively can recurrent non-standard forms be located?

Answers to questions such as these can be achieved only if it proves possible to isolate patterns in the data of the inventory, and to link these with the individual scribes or script categories identified by the palaeographic wing. Ultimately, if links emerge between scribes or script categories on the one hand and spelling variants on the other, we may identify developments in the data chronologically, and even apply a combination of linguistic and palaeographical indicators of date and localization to the question of the origin of particular surviving eleventh-century manuscripts, expanding present knowledge of scriptoria and the training of scribes. Potentially this project will significantly increase our understanding of the culture of late Anglo-Saxon England by showing how and where scribes were trained and texts transmitted, and it will illuminate the education system generally in a society where the use of the vernacular was not a necessity forced upon an intellectually impoverished nation but something which was deliberately fostered.



Data will be assembled in a relational database which will ultimately be posted on the web, with a link at the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies website, http://www.art.man.ac.uk/english/projects/mancass. The palaeographic wing has begun work on datable material, usually single-page documents, to try to establish a chronological framework as well as a pattern of letter-forms and punctuation. One immediate result will be to produce an extensive web-accessible database of script categories, giving scholars the opportunity to compare and contrast letter forms in any text or document of this or contiguous periods.

The starting-point for the definition of spellings is in the new edition of Ælfric's Catholic Homilies by Clemoes and Godden, [6] the glossary to which gives a complete listing of forms used in the two manuscripts thought to be closest to the author himself, BL, Royal 7 C.xii (which has Ælfric's annotations) and Cambridge, University Library Gg.3.28. Spellings of eleventh-century copies of the homilies in a range of manuscripts will then be compared with those of the early manuscripts, and this should give a lexicon of Old English words in a variety of forms throughout the century. From there we can extend outwards to other manuscripts and documents, where necessary by using an etymological basis for the spelling "norms." A pro-forma database has already been established in the opening weeks of the project, which will be refined when sufficient data has been collected to show how well it works. The matching of scribes to the spellings that they use will provide a substantial resource for linguists to investigate how far the written standard was consciously promulgated in the period, how far its promulgation was uniform throughout England, and how far variant spelling forms may reflect the spoken language. The advance in understanding of early developments in the history of the English language that this represents can hardly be overstated.

The project will run in close collaboration with investigations directed by Mechthild Gretsch at the Georg-August University of Göttingen into the inflections used by Ælfric and his copyists. Professor Gretsch has already put much of her work and that of her students and of her colleague Carolin Schreiber at our disposal, and we are very grateful for that. I should also like to take this opportunity of thanking Malcolm Godden for giving us an electronic version of his glossary to the First and Second Series. In July of 2003 the Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies will run a residential conference linked to the project, details of which can be found on the website.


Project staff and opportunities for students

My role is coordinator of the whole project, and I am responsible for the linguistic wing. Alexander Rumble takes responsibility for the palaeographic side. Manchester has appointed two Research Associates to the project, both Manchester graduates. Joana Proud, whose doctorate included a detailed analysis of manuscripts and scribal habits in late Old English hagiographic texts, will assemble spelling data from texts. Susan Thompson has an extensive database of letter-forms in historical documents in her unpublished PhD dissertation, "External characteristics of the original Anglo-Saxon royal diplomas," which she is now expanding in the manner suggested above. Manchester has also recently appointed Kathryn Powell of Notre Dame University as a Research Fellow in Old English, to extend the range of scholars working with manuscripts, and part of her duties will involve being associated with the project. The whole team are working together to create the database.

An exciting opportunity offered by this major project is the prospect of associating graduate students with it. Already we have one PhD candidate: Joanna Clatworthy, recently awarded an MA in Old English with distinction by Manchester, has been given three years of funding by the Arts and Humanities Research Board to pursue a doctorate on the spellings of a specific early eleventh-century manuscript in conjunction with the project. It is hoped that further studentships and bursaries for doctoral candidates will follow. Any student looking for PhD openings and wishing to acquire linguistic, palaeographic, and technological skills at the highest level is encouraged to contact me at d.g.scragg@man.ac.uk with a view to joining what promises to be one of the most important international collaborative research projects of the early twenty-first century.




[1] It begins in the introduction to King Alfred's West Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care, EETS, os 45 and 50 (London, 1871-72), where Sweet complains of the use of late copies for editions of Alfredian texts before his, and the lack of good editions of the late Old English prose works of Ælfric and Wulfstan. But the argument is developed more fully in "Dialects and Prehistoric Forms of English," Transactions of the Philological Society 1875-76, and in his History of English Sounds, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1888).

[2] "MSS. Bodley 340 and 342: Ælfric's Catholic Homilies," first published in The Review of English Studies 7 (1931): 7-22, 8 (1932): 51-68, and 9 (1933): 1-12. I quote from the reprint in his Studies in the History of Old English Literature (Oxford, 1953), pp. 148-98, at 153.

[3] See C. L. Wrenn, "Standard Old English," Transactions of the Philological Society 1933: 65-88.

[4] See N. R. Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford, 1957).

[5] In the standard reference grammar in English, Alistair Campbell's Old English Grammar, the accidence records eleventh-century forms (listed as lW-S) under "Early, late, and dialectal forms." The more complete grammar by Karl Brunner, Altenglische Grammatik nach der angelsächsischen Grammatik von Eduard Sievers, 3rd. ed. (Tübingen, 1965), notes "als streng westsächsisch ist im folgenden bezeichnet, was sich als gemeinsames Eigentum der Sprache Ælfreds und Ælfrics nach Ausscheidung der Besondheiten der einzelnen Schreiber feststellen lässt" (§2, Amn. 6), but although the grammar cites many more eleventh-century forms than Campbell, the inflectional paradigms are those of early West Saxon. Samuel Knott and Thomas A. Fowler's The Elements of Old English (frequently revised, but cf. the tenth edition, Ann Arbor, 1955) states (p. 1) "As the norm of our studies we take EWS, and consequently all the selections in the Elementary Grammar are normalized to that dialect." What is probably the most widely used introductory grammar today is Bruce Mitchell and Fred Robinson's A Guide to Old English, 5th ed. (Oxford, 1992). Their comment (p. 11) is: "since there are some disadvantages in the use of l[ate] W[est] S[axon], the paradigms are given here in their e[arly] W[est] S[axon] forms and the sound laws are discussed with eWS as the basis." What those problems are is not clarified, but note Sisam's comment: "Some not very critical studies of Anglian elements in Ælfric's vocabulary have raised doubts about the purity of his West Saxon; and to avoid these doubts there has been a tendency to rely chiefly on the prose works for which Alfred's authorship is generally accepted as the standard of pure West Saxon vocabulary" (Studies, p. 120). Work on dialect vocabulary has advanced greatly since this was written, of course. Of the most familiar readers with normalised texts, John Pope's Seven Old English Poems (Indianapolis, 1966) and Sweet's Anglo-Saxon Primer (first printed Oxford 1882 but frequently revised and reprinted), are both normalised to early West Saxon, although Norman Davis's revision of the latter in 1953 has the comment in the Preface (p. vi): "I have followed Sweet's practice of normalizing on a conventional Early West Saxon basis, unhistorical as it is" (my italics). One grammar which departs from the norm is Randolph Quirk and C. L. Wrenn, An Old English Grammar (London, 1955), where it is stated: "We take, then, classical OE as the literary standard language of England from about 900 to 1100, particularly as written at its best by Ælfric and his contemporaries, and with this form of OE as its normative basis, this grammar will, as far as possible, draw its illustrative material from the texts which the student will in fact normally read" (p. 6).

[6] Ælfric's Catholic Homilies: The First Series: Text, ed. Peter Clemoes, EETS, ss 17 (Oxford, 1997); Ælfric's Catholic Homilies: The Second Series: Text, ed. Malcolm Godden, EETS, ss 5 (London 1979); Malcolm Godden, Ælfric's Catholic Homilies: Introduction, Commentary and Glossary, EETS, ss 18 (Oxford, 2000).