Category Archive 'Old English'

12 Nov 2018

Old English Manuscripts

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A page from Cotton Vitellius A. xv containing the epic poem Beowulf.

Josephine Livingstone got to see the four manuscripts of Old English poetry exhibited currently at the British Library. It would be nice to be in London right now.

There are four original manuscripts containing poetry in Old English—the now-defunct language of the medieval Anglo-Saxons—that have survived to the present day. No more, no less. They are: the Vercelli Book, which contains six poems, including the hallucinatory “Dream of the Rood”; the Junius Manuscript, which comprises four long religious poems; the Exeter Book, crammed with riddles and elegies; and the Beowulf Manuscript, whose name says it all. There is no way of knowing how many more poetic codices (the special term for these books) might have existed once upon a time, but have since been destroyed.

Until last week, I had seen two of these manuscripts in person and turned the pages of one. But then I visited “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War,” a new show of artifacts at the British Library in London. It’s a vast exhibition, covering the art, literature, and history of the people whose kingdoms spread across Britain between the sixth and the eleventh centuries. The impetus for the show came from the library’s 2012 acquisition of the St Cuthbert Gospel, the “earliest intact European book,” in the words of the show’s catalog.

Seeing the earliest European book alone would be the event of a lifetime, for a certain kind of museum-goer. But for this viewer, the main attraction lay in a quiet little vitrine: all four Old English poetic codices, side by side. They don’t look that impressive to the casual eye. The exhibition room is dark and cold, to keep the books safe from damage. The manuscripts are brown, small, almost self-effacing. There’s no outward sign of how important they are, how unprecedented their meeting.

So why are these four books so special? It has to do, I think, with the concept of the original—a concept we have almost entirely lost touch with. The Beowulf Manuscript is not just composed of words that serve as the basis for every translation of the epic poem. It’s foremost an object, the only one of its kind. It is not merely a representation of a story; it is the story. In this respect, the manuscript resembles the Crown Jewels more than any document written in today’s world, any word that moves through the crazy fractal of the internet. The manuscripts confront us with a former version of our literary selves; identities that we barely recognize, and which estrange us from ourselves.

Each of the poetic codices has a specific history engraved into the text’s physical form. The very space they occupy on earth is meaningful. The Vercelli Book is named for Vercelli, a town in Northern Italy whose cathedral library holds the manuscript. Nobody knows for sure how the book got there, although the prevailing theory is that a pilgrim left it behind or gave it away on his travels. Who? Why? When? Unknown.

The Beowulf Manuscript’s permanent home is the British Library. Unlike Vercelli, we know exactly why it’s there. The manuscript’s pages have been remounted onto new ones, because the book was singed around the edges in a library fire in 1731. The fire consumed much of the collection of Robert Cotton—his unburned books were later all given to the British Museum, forming its foundational collection—but Beowulf only suffered a little. (The original Cotton collection was kept, with a horrible kind of accuracy, in a building called Ashburnham House.)

If we compare the Vercelli Book to the Beowulf Manuscript, we see different kinds of mysteries. The Vercelli Book is in fabulous condition, its English lines neatly written and sitting, inexplicably, in a region of Italy famous for its rice. The Beowulf Manuscript is a half-burned thing whose survival is a miracle. Its provenance is unknown: It was probably written down in the tenth or eleventh centuries, but it’s impossible to tell when it was actually composed.

RTWT

31 Mar 2015

Old English Medical Recipe Kills Bacteria as Well as Modern Antibiotic

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AngloSaxonRecipe
Bald’s Leechbook, British Library (Royal 12 D xvii)).

Scientists recently experimented with a recipe from Bald’s Leechbook aka Medicinale Anglicum an Old English medical text probably compiled in the ninth-century and found that a compound recommended for a common eye infection worked just as well as the modern antibiotic used to treat Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

New Scientist:

The project was born when a microbiologist at the University of Nottingham, UK, got talking to an Anglo Saxon scholar. They decided to test a recipe from an Old English medical compendium called Bald’s Leechbook, housed in the British Library. …

Sourcing authentic ingredients was a major challenge, says Freya Harrison, the microbiologist. They had to hope for the best with the leeks and garlic because modern crop varieties are likely to be quite different to ancient ones – even those branded as heritage. For the wine they used an organic vintage from a historic English vineyard.

As “brass vessels” would be hard to sterilise – and expensive – they used glass bottles with squares of brass sheet immersed in the mixture. Bullocks gall was easy, though, as cow’s bile salts are sold as a supplement for people who have had their gall bladders removed.

After nine days of stewing, the potion had killed all the soil bacteria introduced by the leek and garlic. “It was self-sterilising,” says Harrison. “That was the first inkling that this crazy idea just might have some use.”

A side effect was that it made the lab smell of garlic. “It was not unpleasant,” says Harrison. “It’s all edible stuff. Everyone thought we were making lunch.”

The potion was tested on scraps of skin taken from mice infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. This is an antibiotic-resistant version of the bacteria that causes styes, more commonly known as the hospital superbug MRSA. The potion killed 90 per cent of the bacteria. Vancomycin, the antibiotic generally used for MRSA, killed about the same proportion when it was added to the skin scraps. …

It wouldn’t be the first modern drug to be derived from ancient manuscripts – the widely used antimalarial drug artemisinin was discovered by scouring historical Chinese medical texts.

08 Jan 2013

Beowulf Meets Godsylla

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    Meanehwæl, baccat meaddehæle,
    monstær lurccen;
    Fulle few too many drincce,
    hie luccen for fyht.
    Ðen Hreorfneorhtðhwr,
    son of Hrwærowþheororthwl,
    Æsccen æwful jeork
    to steop outsyd.
    Þhud! Bashe! Crasch! Beoom!
    Ðe bigge gye
    Eallum his bon brak,
    byt his nose offe;
    Wicced Godsylla
    wæld on his asse.
    Monstær moppe fleor wyþ
    eallum men in hælle.
    Beowulf in bacceroome
    fonecall bamaccen wæs;
    Hearen sond of ruccus
    sæd, “Hwæt ðe helle?”
    Graben sheold strang
    ond swich-blæd scharp
    Stond feorth to fyht
    ðe grimlic foe.
    “Me,” Godsylla sæd,
    “mac ðe minsemete.”
    Heoro cwyc geten heold
    wiþ fæmed half-nelson
    Ond flyng him lic frisbe
    bac to fen
    Beowulf belly up
    to meaddehæle bar,
    Sæd, “Ne foe beaten
    mie færsom cung-fu.”
    Eorderen cocca-cohla
    yce-coeld, ðe reol þyng.

Tom Weller, Cvltvre Made Stvpid

Hat tip to Karen L. Myres.


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