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16 - Reading Beowulf with Isidore's Etymologies

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 September 2020

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Summary

Thou shalt not sit

With statisticians nor commit

A social science.

W. H. Auden, Phi Beta Kappa Poem

A book bewitched them. Isidore of Seville's Etymologies charmed the literati of Anglo-Saxon England from Aldhelm, Bede, and Boniface to Ælfric, Byrhtferth, and beyond. His volume was plundered by the author of the Liber Monstrorum, quoted in Alfredian circles, and mined by Wulfstan of Winchester. Anonymous hands added Isidorian glosses to Anglo-Latin texts written for most conditions of men, some conditions of women, and a few conditions of children. Latin-English glossaries drew on the Etymologies beginning with the school of Hadrian and Theodore in the seventh century and culminating in the several-thousand entries of Antwerp-London in the eleventh. Vernacular poets were not immune. Whenever Beowulf was composed, Isidore was in the neighborhood, relentlessly channeling the words and things of classical antiquity into the medieval present. Yet literary histories do not treat the Old English poem and the Etymologies as a couple, or even friends with benefits. Nor have source databases such as Fontes Anglo-Saxonici found any trace of a relationship. The 190-page introduction to the standard edition of Beowulf mentions Isidore just once, and then only in connection with Irish tradition. Recent studies stressing the importance of the Etymologies in Anglo-Saxon culture never depict the Beowulf poet sipping from Isidorian streams.

The present essay places Isidore and the Beowulf poet side-by-side in a conversation that never took place, recording the two men as they disclose trade secrets, how to harvest and extract the truth in words, how to reunite things split apart. I then turn to a few vocabulary items used by the poet: earmbeag ‘arm-ring’, mene ‘neck-ring’, sigle ‘necklace’, and eoferspreot ‘boar-spear’. These and a few other words in Beowulf describing the realia of ancient days are marked in the standard edition of the poem as ‘not elsewhere found in poetry [but occurring] in prose also’. Of the four just listed, however, only sigle ever occurs in prose; outside Beowulf, the others are found solely in glosses and glossaries heavily influenced by Isidore's Etymologies, whence the poet may have plucked them.

Type
Chapter
Information
Old English Lexicology and Lexicography
Essays in Honor of Antonette diPaolo Healey
, pp. 245 - 259
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2020

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