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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: July 2016

9 - Old English in the Margins

from Part II - Text


The honoree of this volume has written widely on the Bayeux Tapestry, and it is in tribute to a piece about the borders of the embroidery that this essay focuses on marginal entries in manuscripts. Entries in the margins of manuscripts and in blank spaces are often referred to as scribbles, which may be an appropriate term for palaeographers, who are principally concerned with script, but is too generalized and implicitly dismissive for wider use. Occasional words and phrases in both English manuscripts and those which are predominantly in Latin have to be assumed to be meaningful until it can be proved otherwise, and it is this stance that is adopted here. It follows, then, that the Old English that can be found in manuscript margins and blank spaces may be as useful in gleaning valuable insights into Anglo-Saxon culture as Gale's essays have been in illuminating the Bayeux Tapestry.

Everyone who embarks on a serious study of Old English is introduced to the prefatory letter by King Alfred to the translation of Pope Gregory's Cura Pastoralis, which Alfred ordered to be distributed to his bishops c. 894, and in which the king lays out a programme for the revival of English letters and for the education of the young. There is no doubt that this is an important document in the development of early English literature. Equally important in my view, however, is the information that we derive from seeing a writer at work, and perhaps the earliest example of this in English comes in the form of marginal notes to a copy of the First Series of homilies by Ælfric in British Library, MS Royal 7 C. xii. Of these notes, the function of the first is self-evident: on fol. 64r we have twenty-two lines (almost a whole page) marked for erasure and a hand other than that of any of the copyists in the manuscript writing in the right margin (letters cut off by a binder in square brackets):

ðeos racu [is] fullicor on ð[ære] oðre bec. w[e hi] forbudon on [þys]sere þy læs þe h[it æ]þryt þince gif [heo] on ægðre bec b[eo]

this discourse appears more fully in the second book, and we remove it from this one lest it seem tedious if it is in both books.