Sunday, August 17, 2008

Getting Anglo-Saxon, or, Anatomy of a First Chapter

[picture from the Vortigern Studies website. It's supposedly Orosius!]

by Mary Kate Hurley

Around the same time we finished out our group discussion of Getting Medieval, I reached a milestone of my own. I’ve recently completed work on my first dissertation chapter – and, though the chapter will no doubt be returned from my adviser with plenty of comments for my revision, I thought that I’d do a short series of posts on the process of getting this first chapter written, and what I’ve found now that I’m there. I’d wanted to do so as I was researching and writing – however, it would appear that learning to write a dissertation chapter makes it really hard to step back and write about writing that dissertation chapter. I’m hoping that, now I’ve “learned” how to write a chapter, I can share more of the second chapter as I go. The interactive part: I’d love comments and feedback, of course, but I’d also love to hear how other scholars approach the questions I’m raising here – grad students and more advanced scholars alike. Most specifically: How do you write a 45(ish)- page chapter on a text that you could easily write a book about? How did you narrow down your focus on your source(s)?

Correct me if I’m wrong: everyone who does a field in Old English literature, including prose, for their exams comes away with one translation out of the Alfredian corpus that qualifies as their favorite. And there are plenty to choose from, too: the Boethius, the Psalms, the Pastoral Care, the Dialogues, the Soliloquies -- and the subject of my first chapter, the Orosius. Although I certainly have a soft spot for the Pastoral Care and the Boethius (after all, who doesn’t love getting consoled by philosophy? And in Anglo-Saxon no less!), I suppose the Orosius is my “favorite.” I’m not quite sure what it was that attracted me to the Orosius, but I do know that unlike the majority of work done on Old English translation, it wasn’t the preface.

Why does that matter? To back up for those who haven’t slogged through the great works of Anglo-Saxon prose: The Old English Orosius is a translation (some, following the work’s editor Janet Bately, would call it a “paraphrase,” contending that it’s too close to the original to even qualify as translation!) of the Latin Historiarum Adversum Paganos. Written by the fifth century Spanish priest Paulus Orosius, the Latin text was meant to be a companion-piece to Saint Augustine’s City of God Against the Pagans. In the Historiarum Orosius intends to show how history may be read in light of Christianity – and moreover, that such a reading will show that the past was, in a sense, destitute: understanding and insight into historical happenings could not exist without the acknowledgement of Christ. He avers that these “pagans” do not know how to read history, that “they do not inquire into the future, and either forget or do not know the past,” and so they attribute the calamity of the sack of Rome to the “increasingly less worship of idols.”(1) In short: they assume their punishment for converting to Christianity is the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410. Orosius sets out to show them how in the grand scheme of things, life is much better post-Christ than before his coming. In so doing, he interprets pretty much everything through a lens of how much worse it used to be, and how we can see God’s work explicitly bringing Rome to Christianity, after which, things were comparatively less bad.

Orosius, then, clearly saw himself in the same tradition as Augustine in terms of his
understanding of the relation of human history to Divine Providence – he’d undertaken the project at the behest of Augustine, though the results were not really what Augustine wanted. Orosius’ conception of historia differs significantly from his mentor’s, which makes it clear why Augustine was so disdainful of his work. (2) Orosius’ difference from Augustine in his historical reasoning is a function of the way in which history itself is structured. Confronted with “a universal sweep, a universal explanation of men’s basic motives, a certainty of the existence, in every age, of a single, fundamental tension,” Orosius over-generalizes, and produces what Peter Brown describes as “a neatly-patterned Christian ‘Universal History’”. (3) In Augustine, the work of God in the world is always implicit, but can rarely be seen – “we can only be confident in general that all history is in God’s hands, but we cannot watch his hand at work.” (4) Orosius, on the other hand, seems to be certain that the work of the Almighty is easily intelligible to those who know the signs by which it can be identified. Moreover, history is easily sorted, categorized and judged: Orosius’ “catalogue of worldly woe” shows explicitly how the world waxes more evil earlier before Christ one looks. Thus it is only the person who cannot see with the clearer light of the Christian faith who would aver that the present, with its knowledge of both Christ and His redemption, is worse than the ignorant – and therefore all the more wicked – past.

The translation into Anglo-Saxon of the Latin Historiarum is highly abridged – it cuts the original seven books down to six, and leaves out large sections of the text (Bately, in her introduction to the text, gives a more complete summary of the textual differences, both the abridgements and additions) . However, the OE Orosius is most often noted for its additions. First, there are additions of mythological and historical information Orosius did not include in the Latin -- these would have been familiar to 5th century Rome but not to Anglo-Saxon England. More tellingly however, critics have been overly enamored of the so-called “geographical preface.” The Latin Historiarum features a discussion of the landmasses of the world, and the various populations therein. Seeking, apparently, to do them one better, the Old English Orosius includes a much remarked on insertion, usually referred to as the “Ohthere and Wulfstan” part of the text. In it, two “norðmenn” tell King Alfred about their travels in Scandinavia and other parts of the far north, and about the people who live there (including various “magical” things they can do!). A quick survey of the critical literature reveals a huge emphasis on the preface, and these two travelers – and so, my first goal was to avoid talking about the “original” parts of the text, or at least to avoid the preface!

This didn’t really narrow things down all that much. It did, however, give me a chance to use a hard-won realization from my translation studies courses and workshops: translations, if they are true translations, must not be treated as “derivative.” That lesson, repeated to me over and over again by Michael Scammell (my workshop professor, who finally convinced me that if I am ever to translate Anglo-Saxon poetry, I must learn to love Modern English as much as Old English. That project is deferred indefinitely.) allowed me to formulate a different way of understanding the text: if I’m not concerned with what’s “original” in the translation, how do I locate Anglo-Saxon England in a text so close to the Latin from which it is translated?

Next time: What Orosius Said, or, The Trial by Appendix

1. “qui cum futura non quaerant, praeterita autem aut obliuiscantur aut nesciant praesenti a tamen tempora ueluti malis extra solitum infestatissima ob hoc solum quod creditur Christus et colitur Deus, idola autem minus coluntur, infamant.” Trans. Deferrari, 4.

2.Cf. Rohrbacker, David. The Historians of Late Antiquity, 148. Rohrbacker cites a number of scholars who identify the tone of Augustine’s second book of the City of God as arguing against Orosius’ less philosophically sophisticated version of a world history.

3. Brown, Augustine of Hippo 321

4. Bittner 355

Works Cited
Bittner, Rudiger. "Augustine's Philosophy of History" in Gareth B. Matthews (ed), The Augustinian Tradition. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1999. pp. 345-360.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Deferrari, Roy (trans). Orosius: Seven Books Against the Pagans. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1964.

Rohrbacker, David. The Historians of Late Antiquity. Routledge, 2002.

Cross posted at ITM.