Anglo-Saxon Micro-Texts, eds Ursula Lenker, Lucia Kornexl (De Gruyter, 2019)

Review: Anglo-Saxon Micro-Texts

Ursula Lenker and Lucia Kornexl, eds. De Gruyter [2019]. pp. viii + 377. £91 ISBN 9783110629439

A version of this review is forthcoming in The Year's Work in English Studies.

This fascinating and authoritative collection of essays originated in a symposium in honour of Helmut Gneuss’ ninetieth birthday. The theme of the symposium and subsequent collection arose from Gneuss’ extensive collection of notes on manuscript ‘details’, such as ‘minor additions and alterations, scattered glosses in Latin or Old English, supply leaves, additions of any kind, and glosses […] entered after 1100’ (p. v), which have not generally been included in his formidable Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts: A Bibliographical Handlist of Manuscript Fragments Written or Owned in England up to 1100 (edited with Michael Lapidge). The volume’s editors, following Gneuss, attribute the particular ‘richness’ of Old English literature to the survival of ‘short texts’, which they characterise as ‘indispensable puzzle pieces’ to scholars of the language and its transmission (p. 1). The term micro-text is coined by the volume, both as a counterpart to the term macrotext (which refers to the ‘primary text in [a] manuscript’, p. 2), and with reference to applications of micro­- as a prefix in such modern media terms as microblog and micropost. The editors examine the idea of the micro-text in the context of Classical brevitas, and as a category that both corresponds with and pushes at the borders of a general definition of ‘texts’. The collection is informed by a sense of heterogeneity: the micro-texts discussed come from texts of different genres and functionalities, and are inscribed on different materials and with different intertextual relationships to accompanying macrotexts and/or to shared knowledge within a community of readers and writers.

A unifying approach across the chapters is the attention paid to the material contexts of these micro-texts. Frequently it is the precise details of their physical manifestation— marginality, portability, positioning and script— which informs the authors' conclusions. It is refreshing to see texts set in metal, inscribed on lead or sewn into clothing being analysed within the same framework as manuscript texts. Students of archaeology, manuscript culture and textual voice will find much of value in this volume.

The majority of chapters in the collection deal with manuscript texts, but the first three deal with text inscribed on metal or woven into fabrics. Rory Naismith’s chapter on ‘Reading Money: An Introduction to Numismatic Inscriptions in Anglo-Saxon England’ (pp. 13–27) gives an account of the early heterogeneity of letter-forms used in coinage, which developed into regional ‘idiosyncracies’ post-900. Naismith argues that numismatic inscriptions were themselves a source of ‘inspiration’, whose producers were linked to broader epigraphic practice. Naismith also reviews trends and variations in name and title inscriptions, as well as the processes by which inscriptions were communicated to craftsmen and implemented. Metal media of a different kind are the subject of John Hines’ chapter, ‘Practical Runic Literacy in the Late Anglo-Saxon Period: Inscriptions on a Lead Sheet’ (pp. 29–59). Hines identifies a ‘Late Anglo-Saxon phase’ in the corpus of runic inscriptions, exemplified by a set recently discovered on pieces of lead sheet, and characterised by ‘a predominantly ecclesiastical and learned character’. Gale Owen Crocker’s expertise on textiles is brought to bear in the third chapter, ‘Text on Textile: Ælfflæd’s Embroideries’ (pp. 61–86). The objects of focus are the Durham Stole and Maniple, discovered among the relics of St Cuthbert in 1827, which are embroidered with Latin text on the inner side. Owen Crocker analyses the ornamentation and inscription of the textiles, which includes the name of its commissioner, Ælfflæd. The woven micro-texts testify to ‘royal female patronage and piety’, and the structure and ornamentation of the objects point to a diversity of European influences in the West Saxon court.

The second set of essays in the volume handle scribal engagement, and the written responses of readers. Richard Gameson (‘The Colophons of the Codex Amiatinus’, pp. 89–115) examines the ‘invocations’ and ‘colophonic phrases’ adjoined to eighteen of the rubrics in the Codex Amiatinus. Gameson argues that the evidence of the colophons shows the reception at Wearmouth-Jarrow of Italian and late-antique ‘conventions’, but also that for scribes, ‘a modest degree of autonomy was entirely acceptable in relation to ancillary features’. Donald Scragg’s ‘Cryptograms in Old English as Micro-Texts’ (pp. 117–29) examines the small corpus of Old English cryptograms, both individuals words and sentences, with close attention to their manuscript contexts. The author suggests that the significance of these micro-texts becomes clear when they are examined ‘in conjunction with both a pan-European tradition and cryptic writing in England in other languages’. Joyce Hill visits a micro-text written by Ælfric in ‘Two Micro-Texts in Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies: A Puzzle Revisited’ (pp. 131–41), in which the medieval author explains his reasoning for not including homilies for the final three days of Holy Week in his Catholic Homilies. In particular, she focuses on two manuscript witnesses that feature objections to Ælfric’s statement, one being a note from a century later, by Coleman, and the other being an unsigned note in a hand of the second half of the eleventh century. Hill lays out the theological considerations arising from Ælfric’s particular positioning in the Benedictine Reform movement which might explain his note, given a) these later objections and b) that ‘the injunction was overridden in practice’. Three essays follow on glosses and ‘scribbles’. Susan Irvine argues that a scribble in London, British Library, Royal 2.B.v, may be an aid to the poetic composition of ‘poetic paraphrases’ of the psalms, consistent with ‘a culture which saw vernacular verse as an appropriate vehicle for learning the psalms’ (‘“No sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English” (Lewis Carroll): Making Sense of an Old English Scribble in the Royal Psalter’, pp. 145–60). In ‘The Old English Dry-Point Glosses’ (pp. 161–73), Andreas Nievergelt reviews the dry-point tradition in Old English and its associated scholarship, and argues in favour ‘of revitalising research on the Old English dry-point tradition’. Glosses are also the subject of Patrizia Lendinara’s chapter, ‘Minimal Collections of Glosses: The Twelve Rooms of Thomas’ Palace’ (pp. 175–201). Lendinara explores the relationship between the Latin Passio Thomae apostoli, in which a description of the central palace has been interpolated (compared to Greek and Syriac versions of Acts of Thomas), and the Glossariolum de domiciliis, a glossary of the ninth century in which terminology is categorised into the same twelve rooms as described in the Passio. Kees Dekker reviews the heterogenous textual category of encyclopedic notes, which are ‘either single statements [...] conveying factual information, or lists itemising simple knowledge’, in six manuscripts (‘Encyclopaedic Notes as Micro-Texts: Contextual Variation and Communicative Function’, pp. 203–24). While some notes survive singly, there are many copies of others, frequently involving significant variation. Exploring a set of notes from six manuscripts, Dekker concludes by arguing that they represent ‘purposeful additions in the form of micro-texts that were inspired by associations made by producers, scribes and users’, but argues for caution in scholarly engagement with this category more broadly. In ‘The Micro-Texts of the Tremulous Hand of Worcester: Genesis of a Vernacular liber exemplorum’ (pp. 225–65), David F. Johnson suggests that the Tremulous Hand of Worcester’s use of marginal annotations and punctuation interventions may have been intended to mark  exempla intended for compilation as part of a preaching manual. Johnson posits a reconstruction of this liber exemplorum, which he suggests forms ‘a unique vernacular fore-runner to the collections produced in Latin later in the thirteenth century’. Winfried Rudolf presents the transcriptions and translations of four Wulfstanian micro-texts in London, British Library, Additional 38651, which were previously almost illegible due to reagent damage (‘Wulfstan at Work: Recovering the Autographs of London, British Library, Additional 38651, fols. 57r–58v’, pp. 267–306). These autograph texts show ‘Wulfstan at work in his various roles as writer, correspondent of Ælfric of Eynsham (d. c. 1010), legislator, and preaching (arch) bishop’. Hans Sauer addresses the phenomenon of a micro-text embedded in, and separable from, a macro-text, in the form of a prayer at the beginning of Augustine’s Soliloquia (‘A Text within a Text: St Augustine’s Prayer at the Beginning of his Soliloquia and its Old English Version’, pp. 307–16). Sauer analyses both the Latin prayer and an Old English translation, as well as the latter’s manuscript transmission.


The final three chapters of the book handle Old English and Anglo-Latin poetry, including Alfred Bammesberger’s essay, ‘Discrepancies between Cædmon’s Hymn and its Latin Rendering by Bede’ (pp. 329–46). Beginning with recent and historical debate about the relationship between the text of Cædmon’s Hymn and Bede’s Latin version, Bammesberger goes on to argue that the Old English text is not a back-translation of the Latin, and indeed that it has priority over the version of the Historia ecclesiastica. Further, he suggests that Bede made alterations to the text, where the original Old English did not conform to his ‘strictly orthodox theology’.