Early English Poetry in a Worcester Manuscript

The monk with the tremulous hand made many small entries in the Cathedral’s Anglo-Saxon manuscripts so they would be easier to understand. He also copied out one manuscript himself, using any odd pieces of parchment he could find. It contained an Anglo-Saxon and Latin wordlist, and two Anglo-Saxon poems translated into the English of the thirteenth-century West Midlands. This is the manuscript that we wrote about in January, that had been cut up and pasted together to strengthen the covers of a large book in the Worcester Cathedral Library collection. The famous Victorian book collector, Sir Thomas Phillipps of Broadway found it, restored it and published an edition to make it known to the entire world.

In this blog I want to look closely at the first poem. It takes up only fifteen manuscript lines, and sadly the right-hand side of the page has been trimmed so that words on the ends of lines are now lost, and have to be guessed. It might have been longer once, but the manuscript page has no more to show.

Tremulous hand of Worcester in Worcester Cathedral Library.  IMEV 3074.3

F. 174 f.68 r, showing the poem. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

Here are the opening lines of the poem, translated into modern English:

Saint Bede was born     here in Britain with us

and he wisely       translated books

so that the English people      were taught through them.

Bede is Britain’s most famous religious writer and scholar from Anglo-Saxon times, best known for his History of the English Church and People. He wrote in Latin, but translations of his works in Old English were widely available. Note that each line of the poem is split into two halves. The lines do not rhyme, but as the first line of the translation shows, there are words starting with the same sound inside the line:

Sanctus Beda was iboren      her on Breotene mid us (in the original)

Saint Bede was born    here in Britain with us

The process of repeating sounds like this is called ‘alliteration’. The poem goes on:

Abbot Aelfric     whom we call Alcuin

Was a writer     and translated five books:

Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy,     Numbers, Leviticus

Through these were our people      taught in English.

Aelfric was another religious author and translator, who really did write in Anglo-Saxon English. He died in 1010, towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, just 56 years before the Norman Conquest. He and Bede mark a period of more than 300 years of religious teaching. Aelfric translated the writings of the English abbot Alcuin of York, who was invited to take charge of religious teaching at the Carolingian court by the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne himself. The poet seems to think they were the same person.

It is difficult to reproduce the original text in a way that can easily be read. Here are some of the lines that are clearest to be seen;

Tremulous hand of Worcester Oswald Cathedral library

List of English bishops, including Oswald of Worcester. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

It lists Anglo-Saxon bishops who were famous for teaching ordinary people about religion in their own language. If you want to read it yourself, you may need a few clues. Some of the letters used are different. The first person shown is ‘Wilfrid of Ripum’, meaning Abbot of Ripon Monastery. The first letter of ‘Wilfrid looks more like a funny kind of ‘p’ than a modern ‘W’ – that was how it was written. You can see it again on the next line where it says ‘Oswald of Wireceastre’ – the bishop of Worcester.

There is also a letter ‘þ’ (another funny kind of ‘p’ called a thorn) that stands for ‘th’ in modern spelling: on the third line we see ‘Swithun’ (with a double thorn), then ‘Aethelwold, and on the first line ‘Cuthb’ a cut-off version of ‘Cuthbert’.

To make matters even more confusing to the modern eye, poems were written to then end of the manuscript line, not allowing any wasted space; manuscript parchment was much too precious to allow any waste of space. We use much more plentiful paper and can afford to print lines even if they are very short.

Several more famous bishops and abbots are listed, ranging in time and place from Aidan of Lindisfarne who died in 651, to Alfheah of Canterbury, killed by Vikings in 1012. Three bishops of Worcester are mentioned: Egwin, Oswald and Dunstan. And then the poem goes on:

These teachers taught     our people in English

Their light was not dark      but it glowed fairly.
Now is that teaching forsaken     and our people lost
and another people     teaches our folk
and many of our teachers are damned     and that folk with them.

The big question is, what does it mean? Who are the other people now teaching our folk? Why are they damned? The Anglo-Saxons, including famously King Alfred, lamented the destruction of sacred objects and holy places from 795 onwards by the heathen Vikings. But the poem does not mention destruction, only that the teachers are no longer English, and it might well be referring to the French-speaking bishops and abbots that followed the Norman warriors after the Conquest of 1066. This must have been a subject close to the heart of the Tremulous Hand, who spent so much of his time trying to find texts in English, however old-fashioned, and to make them intelligible to people of his own time.

Worcester Cathedral Library Bayeaux Tapestry

Detail from an 18th Century drawing of the Bayeaux Tapestry, showing Norman knights riding to war. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

At the end the poem goes back to the Latin Bible:

Now says our Lord thus,       Sicut aquila provocat pullos suos

Ad volandum      et super eos volitat.

(‘as an eagle prods      her young to fly and hovers over them.’)
This is the word of God     sent into the world
that we should happily fasten     our faith to him.

It might seem a little ironic that a poem lamenting the loss of teaching in English should end with a Latin quote – and no translation! It is an appropriate passage   from Chapter 32 of Deuteronomy, a warning to a faithless people who had turned to alien gods.

So there it is – a poem otherwise unknown in English literature, copied out by a disabled monk for the benefit of others, using scraps of precious parchment, and at some time in the past, clearly considered not worth keeping, but now a fine and important item in Worcester Cathedral Library.

Tim O’Mara

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