SWITCHING DISCOURSE ARCHIVES

I began this chapter with a brief description of the fire at Ashburnham House, which almost destroyed one of the most enigmatic and mysterious texts in Anglo-Saxon literature. I argued that the Beowulf manuscript, or perhaps more appropriately the Beowulf “text”, is at the heart of the ancient language myth, which has been used since the middle of the nineteenth century to instil a feeling of pride in the long heritage of the English language for those who tell the story and for those who listen to it or read it. It has not been my intention in this chapter to disparage the belief itself but rather to deconstruct the need to use Beowulf as a means of reinforcing it.

It should have become clear that I support Kiernan’s general argument, although I reject the idea that the manuscript was copied early in the reign of Cnut the Great. Despite Kiernan’s reliance on sociopolitical facts, I maintain that these are not enough in themselves to warrant such a conjecture. Howard’s suggestion that the reign of ^.thelrad II was not quite as negative as the Viking raids on England from 991 on imply might provide a certain amount of credibility to the suggestion that scribe B’s Beowulf project arose in Danelaw territory in the eastern part of the Anglian-speaking area sometime prior to 1011. In the last resort, however, we will never know the truth, and even if it should turn out that there was a long manuscript history after all, neither this fact nor the stronger assumption that the extant manuscript is the only manuscript and is, in modern terms, a draft of the Beowulf text can alter the fact that Beowulf is a work of genius.

To finish the chapter, however, I return to the following three questions posed in section 3 but not yet answered:

1. How does the Nowell codex come to be made up of three prose texts,

Beowulf, and the Judith fragment?

  • 2. Why is the Judith text only a fragment, and how and when did it come to be bound together with the other texts?
  • 3. Why was Beowulf of no apparent interest to antiquarians in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries?

Answers to these questions reveal that different archives determined the history of the Beowulf manuscript from the sixteenth century on. The questions of how and why the Nowell codex came to consist of three prose texts focusing, however loosely, on monsters, the Beowulf manuscript, and the Judith fragment are crucial for an understanding of how texts from the Anglo-Saxon era were evaluated in sixteenth-century England and why so little attention was paid to Beowulf. Central to my argument is the Judith fragment.

I shall assume, for the sake of argument, that scribes A and B were busy in the first decade of the eleventh century copying texts at a scriptorium somewhere in the Danelaw area of Anglian territory. Scribe A was given the job of copying prose texts such as the St. Christopher fragment, The Wonders of the East and Alexander’s Letter to Aristotle, while scribe B took on[1] the job of copying poetic texts based on the Vulgate version of the Bible, which would have included Judith. At some stage during this time scribes A and B were also engaged on their own private project putting together a composite version of the Beowulf stories circulating in the Danelaw area. After their deaths, all these manuscripts would then have become the property of the scriptorium in which they were working.

At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, many of the written records of the scriptoria of these monasteries were lost, burned, or otherwise destroyed. But fortunately, many came into the possession of assiduous collectors, including Matthew Parker, the first Archbishop of Canterbury in Elizabeth I’s reign. Parker took the trouble to scour the country looking for old Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in private libraries that had escaped destruction. Interest in those manuscripts was specifically directed at matters of religious, legal, constitutional and historical import. The argument used by Parker and his associates was that the Reformation of the English Church represented a return to the Church as it had been prior to the Norman Conquest, in which the vernacular was liberally used.[2] This lent support to Henry VIII’s break with Rome and to the

“right” of the English monarchy to head the Church of England. The Protestant, reformed church, however, rejected the Latin Vulgate Bible, which contained a number of books that were not in the original Hebrew Bible, and the book of Judith was one of those.

It is certainly conceivable that a series of saints’ lives in verse, containing a text on Judith, would have been anathema to a Protestant church. The Judith fragment may thus have been physically removed from the series. Kiernan is of the opinion that not much of the overall text is actually missing. If he is correct, the beginning of Judith may have occupied the verso, or part of the verso, of a folio. The removal of the Judith fragment may have been ordered by Archbishop Parker. Likewise the three prose texts at the beginning of the Nowell codex and the Beowulf codex deal with decidedly non-Biblical themes and were not important for Parker’s purposes. Laurence Nowell was part of the circle of Anglo-Saxonists associated with Matthew Parker and may have come into possession of all five texts, which he then bound, or had bound, into one codex.

All this is of course speculation, but it is at least well-founded speculation. It also explains why all five texts were not of importance in the first stage of interest in Anglo-Saxon studies in the sixteenth century. The dominant discourse archive at this particular moment of conjunctural time was religious. It was the struggle to assert Protestantism after the break with the Church of Rome that determined the focus on religious, legal, constitutional and historical texts of the Anglo-Saxon era. The Counter-Reformation in the seventeenth century sustained this dominant discourse and relegated interest in the longevity of the language and the poetic value of texts like Beowulftill a much later period.

As a whole, the longevity of English myth, consisting of the ancient language myth and the unbroken tradition myth, was a nineteenth-century phenomenon that lasted almost till the end of the twentieth century. The need to establish a linguistic pedigree for English was an important discourse archive within the framework of the growth of the nation-state and the Age of Imperialism. In the face of competition from other European languages, particularly French, it was perhaps necessary to construct English as a Kultursprache, and one way to do this was to trace English back to its earliest texts.

Kiernan’s book has not only created a revolution in Beowulf studies; perhaps more important, it has also introduced an alternative form of cultural discourse that seriously challenges the archive to which the ancient language myth belongs. Beowulf is a significant text in its own right, both from a literary and a sociohistorical and sociolinguistic perspective. Kiernan may not be completely correct in all his conjectures, and I and others (Dumville 1887; Rose 1997; Chase 1997) have challenged his dating of the poem to the first years of Cnut the Great’s reign. But this does not and cannot alter the literary and sociohistorical fascination of Beowulf. In the following chapter I shall move a little further into the future and consider another myth that contributes to the archive of creating a pedigree for English, the myth of the unbroken tradition.

  • [1] I use the verb take on at thisjuncture to suggest, tentatively, that scribe B, who was in all probabilityolder than scribe A and hence of senior position, assigned the texts to be copied to scribe A. In other words,scribe A was working under scribe B’s supervision.
  • [2] In point of fact, the Anglo-Saxon Church in England was always a staunch supporter of the papacy.
 
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