Wednesday, November 30, 2016

William L'Isle, A Saxon Treatise Concerning the Old and New Testament, 1623

L'Isle, A Saxon Treatise, 1623
Often enough, an interesting old book is found in an unprepossessing binding. In this case, the book in question is William L'Isle's 1623 printing of an Old English text by Ælfric of Eynsham, which L'Isle printed under the title, A Saxon Treatise Concerning the Old and New Testament.

As luck would have it, this copy includes only the front matter and Ælfric's piece; the full-sized book ought to also have a reprint of the older A Testimonie of Antiquitie as well as some additional materials, as described (in brief) on the title page of the present book.

But even a quick glance at the binding suggests that the book has been its current size at least since the middle 1800s. More, the pebbled cloth that now covers the boards looks like it may lie overtop of an older brown calf covering: the boards, at least, may belong to an even older binding, though whether that older binding included only the present pages or once included the whole of the original book may no longer be determinable. It is possible, of course, that this copy of this book provides evidence for an early independent presentation of just the initial Ælfric material, but the most we can be sure of, I think, is that the book has stood in its present form for some 150 years or so.

My academic interest in Old English, of course, makes printed books with Old English texts an area
Title Page; a pencil note beside the
final section of the title reads "Not Here"
of special interest for me. L'Isle, with the publication of this book, really set in motion the seventeenth-century project of publishing Old English texts (some had been printed in the 1500s, but not many), and before the century was out, a good many of the familiar Old English prose and verse works would have been set into type at least once.

During all the time I worked as an academic, I never had occasion to consult L'Isle's book, I am sorry to say. My long-standing project of reclaiming Ælfric as a poet or versifier might have led me here, though, as this Ælfrician composition is, indeed, in his characteristic rhythmical style. This alliterative style has (in my opinion) long been misunderstood and mischaracterized as prose. L'Isle, of course, seems to have had no notion that the work he was printing was in verse, and his error has been repeated now for almost four centuries.

As is the way of things when I encounter a new old book, I took the time, of course, to glance through this new one, and I was surprised to encounter the following passage in the final section of the Preface:

The bottom of leaf f3 [verso]; the typesetter
appears to have misunderstood L'Isle's "son,"
printing "same," giving "Woden, which was
the same of
Frealaf, &c." (left margin)

Here, L'Isle imagines King Alfred reflecting on the present [i.e., 1623] state of learning about the Anglo-Saxons, and lamenting it in terms clearly influenced by Alfred's own Preface to the Pastoral Care, which had been printed (the Preface, that is), in the 1574 edition of Asser's Vita Alfredi. In part, of course, I am interested in the alliterating genealogies as they are also another unrecognized type of Old English verse.

Seeing this passage, I immediately thought it would be a fun project to try to track down which manuscript L'Isle might be taking the genealogies from: with a West Saxon and a Mercian genealogy, a manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle immediately seems a possibility.

Interestingly, as L'Isle prints it, the genealogy of Ine (or "Ina") includes the reading "Ceolwald Cuþulfing,"which is present in copies of the West Saxon Regnal Table (in the copies associated with both A and B Chronicle manuscripts), but not in the Chronicle proper. Unfortunately, here I've run aground, and I have not--yet, at least--been able to trace where the unusual forms "Þinferð" and "Ænwulf" come from, neither of which seems to turn up in the Chronicle manuscripts. David Dumville's edition of the genealogies found in Cotton Vespasian B vi, CCCC 183, and Cotton Tiberius B v likewise indicates that none of those is the source for these spellings ("Anglian Collection," Anglo-Saxon England 5, pp. 23-50). Attempting to trace these genealogies has given me, I must admit, a kind of fun puzzle to work on, and even if I haven't solved it all, it has indicated the real breadth of manuscripts and texts that L'Isle must have known. 

And, of course, if any of my readers can pin down L'Isle's source or sources for these genealogies, I'd be eager to hear about it.

1 comment:

  1. [Here's footnote 49 from my forthcoming article "Then Alfred took the throne and then what?"]
    ‘In the seventeenth century L’Isle used Douglas's 1513 Scots translation as part of his programme to teach himself Old English: ‘The due consideration hereof first stirred vp in me an earnest desire to know what learning lay hid in this old English tongue: for which I found out this vneasie way, first to acquaint my selfe a little with the Dutch both high and low; the one by originall, the other by commerce allied: then to reade a while for recreation all the old English I could finde, poetry or prose, of what matter soever. And diuers good bookes of this kinde I got, that were neuer yet published in print; which euer the more ancient they were, I perceived came neerer to Saxon: But the Saxon, (as a bird, flying in the aire farther and farther, seemes lesse and lesse;) the older it was, became harder to bee vnderstood. At length I lighted on Virgil Scotished by the Reuerend Gawin Douglas Bishop of Dunkell, and vncle to the Earle of Angus; the best translation of that Poet that euer I read: And though I found that dialect more hard /[sig. d1r] than any of the former (as neerer the Saxon, because farther from the Norman) yet with helpe of the Latine I made shift to vnderstand it, and read the booke more tan once from the beginning to the end. Wherby I must confesse I got more knowledge of that I sought than by any of the other, for as at the Saxon Inuasion many of the Britans, so at the Norman many of the Saxons fled into Scotland, preserving in that Realme vnconquered, as the line Royall, so also the language, better than the Inhabitants here, vnder conquerors law and custome, were able.’ William L’Isle, A Saxon Treatise Concerning the Old and New Testament (London, 1623), sigs. c4v – d1r. I thank Timothy Graham for this reference."