Saturday, March 24, 2007

What I've Learned Today: Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Edition

When I say today, I clearly mean "over the past two weeks" -- that's probably the first thing I ought to say. With all of the reading I did over the break on writing history, I've had some strange ideas starting to come up.

Perhaps the most important thing I've learned: Our profession is not geared toward the success of the study of older periods. By that, I actually mean : The fact that editions/translations are no longer 'real' dissertations, while it makes sense for the profession (i.e., they don't count for tenure, either, if I understand correctly), is utterly ludicrous in a field where you might be able to get a newer edition of Alfred's Grammar, but it's apparently a reprint of the edition that was done by Zupitza in the late 1900s, and it's definitely in German.

Also, we've got the slight problem of how to arrange texts. While, theoretically, reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in Swanton's stunningly fluent translation is possible, it's not quite the easiest thing to sit down and do. Particularly if you tend to forget that the entries from all manuscripts are laid out comparatively -- Winchester and Peterborough, therefore, are often on facing pages where the chronicles coincide, with the other texts coming up when they also have entries for a particular date or event. This is a genius arrangement for scholars who want to see the relative similarity/difference of the texts -- however, for a grad student of very little brain, it often results in a feeling of deja vu only alleviated when said grad student looks back at the top of the page and gets the vague feeling she ought not have been accepted at quite so highly-ranked a school if she can't keep this straight after 200 pages...That said, Swanton's translation is fantastic -- it's my brain that isn't up to snuff.

Finally, there's the question of "how do you solve a problem like temporality?" Which, though it doesn't scan with the song I'm thinking of, is remarkably similar to the answer to "how do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?" I've just finished reading Alice Sheppard's chapters on Alfred in Families of the King (Univ. of Toronto Press, 2004). Sheppard's analysis of the interpretation of Alfred's life yielded by the Chronicle, and further, by Asser, is brilliant -- her assertion that Alfred's teaching was more important than his personal learning or intelligence struck me as a perfect remedy to my malaise about the relative value of an academic life versus a more political one (or at least a more politically active and/or traditionally "useful" life -- not to suggest scholars aren't useful, but you know what I mean...):

...Asser suggests that individual learning and scholarship are insufficient as political tools for sustaining loyalty. Loyalty is built when the king takes that knowledge out of the private realm and activates it by personally teaching his men.

Teaching can be political, and moreover can be a political act -- of course, the problem then is what is taught, and to whom.

More on Sheppard once I've finished the book. However, what immediately struck me was that she didn't seem to notice -- or remark on -- the manifold inconsistencies of Asser's Vita. To be fair, I reiterate that I've only finished the section of the book on Alfred -- perhaps it's a subject she returns to. What's difficult about not addressing the problem of temporality in the Vita is I think you end up missing part of the Alfredian project as a whole -- learning becomes a process, true -- but it is also a manifested fact, one that happens (in Asser's Life at least) miraculously for the king. His desire to learn and translate is inflamed by it, to be certain -- but the learning itself, though facilitated by Asser, is still an instrument and manifestation of God.

And I find myself, similarly to last week in North Carolina, about to be kicked out of the library because it's closing. Hopefully I'll have something less open-ended on all this by the time my 4.15 meeting with my orals adviser comes up on Monday...Guess I have my Saturday night cut out for me, don't I.

Edit after the walk home
It occurs to me that I should note a couple of things that were clear in my head as I typed but may actually not be clearly stated:

1. I am (mostly) just being whiny about the issue with editions. Although there is a dearth of newer editions, I'm essentially being slightly lazy. I just had to order a bunch of reprinted editions of things like the Saints Lives and the Old English Pastoral Care, so it's on my mind.

2. What I meant by the "difficult temporalities" of Asser's Life of Alfred is that, on my reading of the text at least, its quite hard to construct a coherent narrative of the king's life from it. Thus, it's hard to tell precisely when he could read, for example. As Sheppard notes, he's crowned four times, with the last one being the moment where Sheppard locates the beginning of his true reign (if I read correctly). But still -- Alfred was crowned, with all of his brothers still alive, by the Pope. That seems to matter more, to me, than the others -- after all, it suggests that God blesses the kingship, and I'm inclined to wonder if that makes it of a slightly different tone than the other crownings -- not least of all because it, like Alfred's miraculous knowledge, comes from God.

And a shout-out to someone I know doesn't read my blog -- Dr. V, if you ever see this, I found the connection between Old English and Sasanian Persia!! The idea of Anglecynn as Sheppard constructs it bears a remarkable similarity the Xwarna of the Persian Kings. Ah, for the days of my undergraduate honors history thesis. By the end of my time at Wake, it was called "Sacred Soldiers: the Zoroastrian Character of the Military Kingship of Sasanian Persia". But in 2001, in the Spring of my Sophomore year, it was still obsessed with an earlier topic, and the title connected to this Xwarna idea I wanted to pursue (and seem, finally, to have found again this year, though 500 years later, in Anglo-Saxon England, and in an entirely different course of study): "Invocations of the Divine: The Royal Xwarna and the Purity of Magian Kingship". I was just cocky enough, as a 19-year-old, to make the subtitle "Part I: Ardeshir I and Atar". One of these days (perhaps in my next lifetime) I'll learn Middle Persian, go back to the law codes and the Shahnameh -- and write part II.


Melinda said...

It's not Alfred's Grammar; it's AElfric's.