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A Memoir: The Whole Haggis: Lessons From the Work of Lister M. Matheson

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 July 2016

Julia Marvin
Affiliation:
University of Notre Dame
Jaclyn Rajsic
Affiliation:
Lecturer in Medieval Literature, School of English and Drama, Queen Mary University of London
E. S. Kooper
Affiliation:
Reader Emeritus in Medieval English, Utrecht University.
Dan Embree
Affiliation:
Retired Professor at the Mississippi State University
Edward Donald Kennedy
Affiliation:
Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. To retire 1st July 2012
Alexander L. Kaufman
Affiliation:
Professor of English Auburn University at Montgomery
Julia Marvin
Affiliation:
JULIA MARVIN is Associate Professor, Program of Liberal Studies, University of Notre Dame
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Summary

Without knowing if Lister worked on the letter h for the Oxford English Dictionary or the Middle English Dictionary, there is no way of knowing if he could have worked on the word haggis. According to the Middle English Dictionary, it is first attested in English around 1400. Here is a seventeenth-century definition, from Gervase Markham's English House-Wife: ‘This smal oat-meale mixed with blood, and the Liver of either Sheepe, Calfe, or Swine maketh that pudding which is called the Haggas or Haggus, of whose goodnesse it is in vaine to boast, because there is hardly to be found a man that doth not affect them.’

One thing that lovers of haggis and lovers of medieval chronicles or historical linguistics have in common is that they seem to have a hard time understanding why others might not share their enthusiasm. But this is not the only reason to start with haggis. Nor is it just a matter of indulging in Scottish stereotyping – although Lister liked and cooked a fine haggis himself.

But to take ingredients that are not as easy to use as others, or might seem bland in isolation, and to make something not just distinctive and nourishing, but really tasty, out of them – that is not a bad description of Lister's scholarship, although he did not have to render the constituent elements unrecognizable in the process of preparing them for consumption. A first lesson to learn – from haggis and from Lister Matheson – is that nothing from a sheep or a surviving element of medieval literate culture need be dismissed out of hand as useless or valueless.

After working at the Oxford English Dictionary and completing his Ph.D. at Glasgow in 1978, Lister came to the University of Michigan and the Middle English Dictionary, where he cultivated the lexicographer's habits of attention to detail, a wide sense of the possibilities of usage, alertness to preconceptions and healthy skepticism towards received wisdom. Some of his earliest publications were on ‘ghost words’.

These habits served him well in his years of work on the huge, motley corpus of manuscripts of the Middle English Prose Brut, which thanks to him we now know survives in over 180 manuscripts representing over 200 medieval texts in a fabulous variety of versions and subversions.

Type
Chapter
Information
The Prose Brut and Other Late Medieval Chronicles
Books have their Histories. Essays in Honour of Lister M. Matheson
, pp. 7 - 12
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2016

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