the art

"ond þe þæt selre geceos, ece rædas; oferhyda ne gym"

"choose what is better, the eternal wisdom; heed not the blinding pride"

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Aelfric's Old English Genesis, Part I

Eac swylce seo næddre wæs geapre ðonne ealle ða oðre nytenu ðe God geworhte ofer eorðan. And seo næddre cwæð to ðam wife: "Hwi forbead God eow ðæt ge ne æton of ælcon treowe binnan Paradisum?" Þæt wif andwyrde: "Of ðæra treowa wæstme ðe synd on Paradisum we etað: and of ðæs treowes wæstme þe is onmiddan neorxnawange, God bebead us ðæt we ne æton, ne we ðæt treow ne hrepodon, ði læs ðe we swelton." Ða cwæð seo nædre eft tō ðam wife: "Ne beo ge nateshwon deade, ðeah ðe ge of ðam treowe eton. Ac God wat soðlice ðæt eowre eagan beoð geopenode on swa hwylcum dæge swa ge etað of ðam treowe; and ge beoð ðonne englum gelice, witende ægðer ge god ge yfel." Ða geseah ðæt wif ðæt ðæt treow wæs god to etenne

Moreover, the serpent was more deceitful than all the other beasts that God had prepared over the earth; and the serpent spoke to the woman, "Why did God refuse you, bidding you not to eat of all the trees within Paradise?"  The woman answered, "Of these fruit trees in Paradise we eat, and of this fruit tree, here in the center of eternity, God asked us that we not eat, that we not touch the tree unless we should perish."  Then the serpent spoke again to the woman, "No, you will not die, not at all.  But God truly knows that your eyes will open on the day you eat of the tree, and you will be like an angel, knowing both the good and the evil.  Then the woman saw that it was good to eat of the tree.

translation by Reid Hardaway

Aelfric was an Anglo-Saxon monk from the late 10th century. An accomplished scholar, he wrote in the vernacular, as well as Latin.  He composed homilies, grammars, hagiographies, biblical commentaries, and translations of scripture.  The Old English selection of Genesis from above is ascribed to Aelfric.

Aelfric composed in the native Anglo-Saxon because he was committed to the cause of literacy and enlightenment for the English people.  Interestingly, he did worry that his translations of the Heptateuch would inspire the natives to literally imitate the rituals of the ancient Israelites.  I imagine Aelfric was particularly concerned with the Hebrew Bible's consistent endorsement of blood sacrifice and he felt that, given the Germanic inheritance of the Anglo-Saxons, the local English might be keen on resurrecting gruesome rituals from their pagan past, appealing to these new Christian translations as a convenient justification.

Yet, he was finally convinced of the inherent value of writing in the vernacular.  Five centuries ahead of the Reformation, Aelfric translated parts of the Bible into the local tongue, and he did this with the expressed purpose that it should be understood by every Anglo-Saxon in England, either through reading, or more probably through listening.  Such an impulse might sound a bit too egalitarian for an Anglo-Saxon.  But Aelfric was working within a scholastic tradition formalized by King Alfred.  For a civilization that is often referred to as barbaric, the late Anglo-Saxons were, in reality, committed to expanding literacy and education.

The above selection begins at Genesis 3:1.  While this might be the most familiar passage in all of literature, Aelfric makes some very interesting decisions which reflect tendencies that are, in my opinion, uniquely Anglo-Saxon.  The most obvious is the use of OE englum, when the serpent tells Eve that she will be like an "angel" after eating the fruit.  Of course, every Anglo-Saxon reader would have also read "english"; the words are clearly related etymologically, but in this case they are actually the same.  The dative plural of engel, "angel," and the dative plural of engle, "english," are both englum.  Is the serpent, then, suggesting to Eve that if she eats of the apple she will 'truly' be like 'the english'?  Stay tuned for Part II of this special series, Aelfric's Old English Genesis.

Here is a link to the British Library digitized copy of Cotton MS Claudius B IV, an 11th century manuscript which contains the Old English Hexateuch and number of translations ascribed to Aelfric of Eynsham.  Cotton MS Claudius B IV

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