Daniel Donoghue: Fragments of Anglo-Saxon England

In this episode of Houghton75, we speak with Daniel Donoghue, John P. Marquand Professor of English. It is a glimpse into the ancient past of England when the world was approaching the first millennium, literature and poetry were shared mainly orally, and the languages spoken by both the clergy and lay people were very different from today. The manuscript fragment Prof. Donoghue chose is on display in our current exhibition, where it can be viewed through April 22, 2017. Find out more about the exhibition and Houghton Library’s 75th anniversary celebrations at http://houghton75.org/hist-75h

Music by Blue Heron

Daniel Donoghue’s reading of Beowulf from the Woodberry Poetry Room’s Listening Booth

Podcast Transcript and Music Notes

[Title sequence background music: Fireworks, Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra]

Alex Csiszar: Houghton is just this amazing place.
Deidre Lynch: It’s fascinating.
Stephen Greenblatt: It’s yours for the asking, and that is incredible!
Stephanie Sandler: Plus it’s cool.

James Capobianco (JC): Welcome to Houghton75. I’m James Capobianco.

Hannah Ferello (HF): And I’m Hannah Ferello.

[end music]

JC: Houghton Library opened its doors at Harvard in 1942. Throughout 2017, we’re celebrating the library’s world-class collections, and support of research and teaching over the last 75 years.

HF: This podcast is only one of the ways to participate in our year-long program of events that promises a unique glimpse of some of Houghton’s most treasured holdings and the way they inspire scholars and students. Visit houghton75.org for more information.

[background music: “Clausula, latus est,” performed by Blue Heron, on the CD accompanying the book Capturing the Music by Thomas Forrest Kelly (W.W. Norton, 2014), track 7]

HF: You might be surprised to learn that most books and manuscripts in Houghton survive pretty well to the modern day. Even many books over 500 years old, because of the sturdy linen rag paper at the time, have often held up better than a paperback from the 1920s!

JC: Today, we welcome Daniel Donoghue, John P. Marquand Professor of English, to talk about a manuscript on exhibition at Houghton that only survives in a damaged fragment of vellum (or animal skin) from more than 1000 years ago!

HF: It’s a glimpse into the ancient past of England when the world was approaching the first millennium. Literature and poetry were shared mainly orally, and the languages spoken by both the clergy and lay people were very different from today.

[end music]

Daniel Donoghue (DD): Only a very small fraction of the surviving manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England are in Old English, whether that’s poetry or prose. By far, the greatest number of manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts and records of manuscripts that no longer survive are in Latin. That’s primarily because writing at this time was still very much in the province of the Church. So you would have monasteries and also cathedral centers that would produce things in Latin. Latin was the language of the church and there was an advantage in that, too, because you could travel from England to Wales or to Gall or someplace, if you were a cleric and you knew Latin, and you would just speak Latin to the people that you had to deal with. So it was nobody’s native language, but it was a universal language among members of the church with a certain level of education. We know that not every cleric had enough Latin to carry on a conversation, and we have ample testimony from people at different times expressing outrage that clerics “these days” don’t know enough Latin. But that always was the ideal.

JC: I know a lot of librarians working with early modern and medieval books (myself included) have the same angst about not knowing enough Latin. It’s comforting to know that even back when Latin was the “lingua franca,” some clergy had the same problem!

HF: But Prof. Donoghue is a professor of English, not of Latin. So how does this ubiquity of Latin relate to his study of Old English? Did people ever hear the clergy speak in “plain English?”

DD: There was preaching in Latin to a clerical audience, but somebody like Bishop Wulfstan, who lived before and after the year 1000, he wrote homilies that were designed to be delivered to the English people. Aelfric is the most productive writer of Old English homilies and it’s not clear to what extent that Aelfric circulated these homilies to parish churches where most of the people would have heard their liturgies. They could have been delivered anywhere because anybody would be able to understand them, because they were written in the local vernacular. But it’s more immediate audience would be monks and then local people who attended services in the monastery and who would be in a position to hear them.

JC: It’s easy to imagine many sermons being preached in both Old English and Latin, but in libraries like Houghton, the things that survive are those that were both written down and were deemed important enough to save.

HF: Remember, this was hundreds of years before printing was started in the west, so everything had to be laboriously written or copied by hand and the material written on (at least this time, only animal skin, since paper would not make its way to Europe until a few hundreds of years later) was also quite expensive.

JC: So we asked Prof. Donoghue what types of longer pieces were written in the England of the 10th century.

DD: Most of the things that were written down in Anglo-Saxon England had to do with religion. There would have been Bibles and Gospels copied, Psalms copied. There would have been biblical commentaries. There would have been treatises by Augustine and Gregory and Christian authors from the Middle Ages and from late Antiquity. There also would have been a good deal of authors like Ovid and Horace and Virgil that were copied and kept in monasteries because they appreciated their value as literature, and also because it provided them models for their own writing. Even if they were writing a saint’s life, for example, in Latin, they may draw models of how to construct a sentence or how to construct a poetic line from the prose or the poetry of these classical Latin writers. There was quite a bit of borrowing that way, and that was actually considered an elegant, smart thing to do. Today we think about it in terms of plagiarism, but that would not have crossed their minds.

HF: Besides having been written down in the first place, the second part of the equation of what actually survives to the present day is value. Value to the people at the time, but also value to subsequent generations, until today.

JC: It may seem obvious, but sometimes it’s amazing to think that some of these books were valued enough for a thousand years, to not have been destroyed or lost forever. And in fact, many probably were. But we can thank Monastic libraries for much of what survives in the west.

DD: There are some Medieval monasteries that either still exist largely intact, or there are book lists compiled in the Middle Ages about all of the holdings in a library. And there you get a sense of the proportion of religious texts versus secular texts, poetry versus prose, and always the amount that’s given over to the vernacular is a very small fraction of the total. We value the vernacular literature for historical reasons, and I think in general we would value the more literary texts among the vernacular texts. Although, there is more and more movement today in Old English scholarship and Anglo-Saxon scholarship to look into these adjacent areas; things like prognostics or charms and things like that.

JC: If you’ve taken an English class in high school or college that dipped back into the earliest material written in our language (or what would later become modern english), you probably didn’t read religious texts or treatises on charms.

HF: I’d bet you might have read at least part of an epic story about a certain well-known monster-slayer and King of the Geats. Was it valued then as much as it is now, or was it valued at least as much as a copy of a religious text?

DD: Yeah! So we value Beowulf quite highly. I will personally say I think Beowulf is a masterpiece. And that’s not to say that they didn’t think it was a masterpiece or that some of the Anglo-Saxons saw great poetic value in it. But it survives in only one copy, and that might largely reflect the fact that to produce a manuscript was a very labor-intensive and expensive proposition. So you would put more of your effort into biblical commentaries and copies of the Psalms, and then if you had time and material left over you might copy out some of the vernacular poems. In a way, maybe we’re looking at it from the wrong point of view. Maybe we should say that was an extraordinary thing when they copied the Beowulf manuscript and preserved those two poems and three prose works in Old English that are in the Beowulf manuscript.

[Reading from Beowulf in Old English by Prof. Donoghue. Recorded 7 Nov 2013 as part of “Seamus Heaney: A Memorial Celebration.” From the Woodberry Poetry Room, and accessible on their Listening Booth online]

HF: Let’s just stop and reflect on that amazing fact for just a moment… we owe all the many copies of Beowulf out in the world right now to one, lone surviving copy. This epic oral poem might have been shared hundreds or thousands of times in the Anglo-Saxon period in England and we have one slightly burnt and damaged copy left in the whole of the world’s libraries!

JC: Even for a librarian working with very rare and amazing material (and alas, no Beowulf manuscript) I find it almost unfathomable.

[end Beowulf reading]

DD: Just about every rare books library has fragments or damaged manuscripts where they were saved from further destruction but the traces of that destruction are still apparent everywhere. In fact, there’s a famous manuscript with Old English poetry, the Exeter book, which sometime after the Middle Ages was still intact but on the back side of it you can see circles where somebody put down a beer mug and you can see slice marks from a knife. So they were using this incredibly valuable manuscript of Old English poetry as a cutting board and as a place to put your beer.

HF: That is taking pretty literally the idea of “coffee table book!” Talking about the survival of these manuscripts inevitably led to talking about how they were written. And more specifically, in what kind of script they were written.

JC: One of the key skills for medievalists and those studying older manuscripts (especially in Latin) is palaeography, or the study of old handwriting. At the time of the 10th century, there were actually a few scripts in use, and the one used for Old English is called Anglo-Saxon minuscule.

HF: Professor Donoghue helped us see some amazing links between these 1000 year old scripts and our own writing today.

DD: This is the hand that continued to be in use when the Anglos-Saxons were writing out their own poetry and their own prose. Whenever they wrote Latin, they would then switch over to the Caroline miniscule. As you may know, Caroline refers to Charlemagne. It’s a result of the Carolingian reforms that Charlemagne instituted, and part of that reform was to standardize a form of writing where the letters would be clear. It’s sort of a testimony to the effectiveness of that program that we are still using those forms of the Roman alphabet in our printing fonts today, and we use the Roman square capitals as capital letters.

It’s an odd fact that most people don’t think about too much – why we have uppercase and lowercase letters and why they have such different forms sometimes. Like the letter “B,” capital “B” and lowercase “b,” or capital “Q” and lowercase “q.” Some of them clearly resemble one another, but what we have with our alphabet is a set of capital letters that come from Roman stone monuments because those are the things that were visible to people in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. And then the Carolingian script was also visible in all of the manuscripts that survived from Carolingian France. And when early modern printers came to sort of standardize the letterforms that they would be using they turned to these square Roman capitals because of their connection with classical antiquity, and they also saw these old manuscripts that had the Carolingian miniscule and they thought that these might be very, very old. They might go back to Roman times. So they thought that these letterforms might actually be survivors from late classical antiquity. And so we are the heirs now of this hybrid, this bringing together of two separate ways of using the Latin alphabet, and we consider it one thing but it’s really two different things.

JC: So, we owe not just the way we write to those in the Middle Ages, but the making and use of books themselves, or what we in the rare book world call a codex. The world is a different place than it was 1000 years ago, but books have remained relatively unchanged across time.

DD: I never get tired of opening a manuscript that was written 800, 1000 years ago and imagining myself in a different time and place with it. And one of the things I like to remind my students is that one of the things that the Middle Ages mastered was the production of books. And I like to point out to students that if we could imagine some time travel and bring somebody from the Middle Ages into one of our libraries, they would look around and they would be amazed at a lot of things like our light fixtures and our computers and things that may even escape our notice right now because they’re so common, but if you showed them a book they would know exactly what it was.

They wouldn’t be able to read modern English, but they would be very impressed with the uniformity and the smallness of the printed word now because of the printing press and the later developments. There’s a lot in it that they would already know and would be familiar with. You’d hand them a book, they would flip it open. They would know how to use it. So when you look at it that way, a book is an amazing way of delivering textual material. It’s durable, it’s compact, it holds a lot of information. And what we now know as a book was something they knew in the Middle Ages. And they mastered it.

Now the book actually goes back to late Antiquity, but the Middle Ages was when they really mastered the technique of binding, and how to produce the vellum and ink, and how to assemble a book, and what kind of things could go into a book and not, how to decorate a book. That was something they mastered in the Middle Ages.

[background music: “Gregorian Chant, Introit Resurrexi,” performed by Blue Heron, on the CD accompanying the book Capturing the Music by Thomas Forrest Kelly (W.W. Norton, 2014), track 2]

JC: Thanks so much to Daniel Donoghue for coming in and transporting us to a time over 1000 years ago.
I want to take this opportunity to give a special personal thank you to Prof. Donoghue as well. Some years ago, as a first year student in his History and Structure of the English Language class, I was led into a session taking place in Houghton Library to look at English dictionaries. That was my first view of some of the amazing treasures at Houghton, and it was definitely a contributing factor to my working here as a librarian today. Thanks so much!

HF: The bit of Beowulf in the original Old English was Professor Donoghue and recorded at the memorial celebration for the Seamus Heaney, creator of perhaps the best known and loved translation of the epic poem. The service was given by the Harvard English department in the Harvard Memorial Church in November of 2013. Thank you to Christina Davis and the Woodberry Poetry Room for the recording.

JC: Thanks also to Blue Heron, the vocal ensemble based in the Boston area and directed by Scott Metcalfe, for their kind permission to use the recordings you heard in the podcast. You can find out more about this amazingly talented group of musicians exploring renaissance and medieval music at blueheron.org.

HF: Whether you are tuning in from near or far, we hope you will join us for the next episode of Houghton75.

[music continues to end]