Sunday, July 20, 2008

No words

Okay, so I was in the middle of writing a long post about the future of online scholarship a few minutes ago, when Older Monkey came out of her bedroom and told me she was going to the bathroom. A few seconds later, she came back into the living room and told me that she saw a spider in the hallway that scared her. I did the good dad thing and got up from the sofa to help her, though I assumed that the probably tiny spider she had seen was already long gone. Imagine my surprise when I saw not just a spider but a TARANTULA!!! In. My. Fucking. House!

I just don't even know what more to say about it. I mean, Miss Goddess and I got it out of the house, in a low-comedy procedure that involved luring it into Older Monkey's cardboard-box-cum-pinhole-camera from last month's Art Camp. I'd like to say that I behaved throughout with the detached grace and calm befitting a scholar, but that would be a lie. I'm just thankful that I didn't wet myself.

Tarantula, with Younger Monkey's right Croc for purposes of scale.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Snakes in the water and other discoveries

Sorry to have been so long without posting. We've been extraordinarily busy around here. Miss Goddess decided that, as a birthday gift, she wanted to completely redo our kitchen. The kitchen now looks absolutely beautiful, though we had to neglect the rest of the house (and both of our children, to some extent) for more than a week to get it that way. Last week was Older Monkey's sixth birthday, an event which we celebrated by taking her and two of our nieces to see Kit Kittredge: An American Girl, followed by a trip to the American Girl Boutique and Bistro. I was dreading this stop, but I have to say that the American Girl operation is quite impressive. The stuff is crazy expensive, of course, but the attention to detail (aesthetic and historical) is remarkable. Too bad the dolls are taken only from American history. I found myself wishing for Aethelflad: A Mercian Girl, but, alas, it was not to be. I also started teaching summer classes last week, so I had to play like an employed person again. I wasn't really ready for long pants again so soon.

Though I haven't been posting recently, I have been reading. Specifically, I've been rereading Heinrich Henel's edition of Aelfric's De Temporibus Anni, a text which I posted about a few weeks ago. It's been a strange experience going back to this work after such a long hiatus from it. The last time I looked carefully at it was before I even chose a dissertation topic, probably twelve or thirteen years ago. At the time, I was just learning Old English, just learning how to be a medievalist, in fact. Now I'm still learning Old English, still learning how to be a medievalist, but returning to this work has shown me that I have at least matured somewhat in my understanding, and what little I have learned has colored how I read De Temporibus Anni, raising some interesting questions about the work and about Aelfric's approach to it.

In the first section of the text, for example, Aelfric attempts to explain the relationship between the sun and the earth, leading to a fuller discussion of the concept of day and how the earth is lit by the sun. He begins by recounting the first six days of Creation, in language close to that used in his own Old English translation of Genesis. That's not a surprising strategy for an early Medieval writer, I suppose, but it is a bit surprising for Aelfric, I think. Perhaps the best-known piece in all of Aelfric's works, a piece often anthologized in introductory Old English textbooks, is his Preface to Genesis, in which Aelfric expresses his deep concerns about Biblical translation, explaining that he undertook the translation of Genesis with great reluctance and that he was careful to translate as exactly as possible. He specifically says that he "did not dare to write any more in English than the Latin has, nor to change the order of words, except in the case in which Latin and English do not have the same way of expressing" (my translation).

So I found it a little surprising that Aelfric includes what is essentially a translation of much of the first chapter of Genesis here at the beginning of De Temporibus Anni. I was even more surprised by an apparent error in this section, however. When discussing the fifth day of Creation, Aelfric states:

On ðam fiftan dæge he gesceop eal wyrmcynn and ða micclan hwalas and eal fisccynn on mislicum and menigfealdum hiwum.

[On the fifth day He created all reptiles and the great whales and all kinds of fish in various and manifold forms.]

The problem, of course, is that Genesis does not say that God created reptiles on the fifth day. Or at least I don't think it does. The situation is actually a little complicated. See, Genesis 1:20-21 in the Vulgate reads as follows:

Dixit etiam Deus: Producant aquæ reptile animæ viventis, et volatile super terram sub firmamento cæli. Creavitque Deus cete grandia, et omnem animam viventem atque motabilem, quam produxerant aquæ in species suas, et omne volatile secundum genus suum. Et vidit Deus quod esset bonum.

[And God said: Let the waters produce the creeping live things, and those flying over the earth undter the firmament of heaven. And God created the great whales, and every living and moving creature, which the waters produced in their kinds, and all flying creatures according to their kind. And God saw that it was good.]

The crux here is the Latin word reptile, which does not really mean "reptile" in its English sense, but rather "creeping" (though it is, of course, the source of our modern word "reptile"). In fact, the word appears again in verse 24, which covers the sixth day of Creation:

Dixit quoque Deus: Producat terra animam viventem in genere suo, jumenta, et reptilia, et bestias terræ secundum species suas. Factumque est ita.

[And God said: let the land produce the living creature in its kind, cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their species. And it was made so.]

It's not difficult to imagine how Aelfric may have been confused by the appearance of "reptile" in Genesis 1:20. Really, (and I'm soooo not a Biblical scholar, here) the Hebrew word that the Vulgate translates as "reptile" appears to mean something more like "swarming things" than "creeping things," so Aelfric may be getting it no more wrong than the Vulgate before him.

But here's the thing: Aelfric knows better. I know he knows better, because he doesn't make the same mistake elsewhere. In his translation of the first part of Genesis, for example, Aelfric renders verse 20 as follows:

20 God cwæð eac swylce: Teon nu ða wæteru forð swymmende cynn cucu on life and fleogende cynn ofer eorðan under þære heofonan fæstnysse.
21 And God gesceop ða ða miclan hwalas and eal lybbende fisccyn and styrigendlice, ðe ða wæteru tugon forð on heora hiwum, and eall fleogende cyn æfter heora cynne; God geseah ða ðæt hit god wæs.

[20 And God also said: Let now the waters bring forth swimming creatures that are alive and flying creatures over the earth, under the firmament of heaven.
21. And God created then the great whales and living and moving kinds of fishes, which the waters brought forth in their forms, and all flying creatures according to their kind; God saw then that it was good.]

The substitution of swymmende ("swimming") for Latin reptile ("creeping") is not, I think, evidence that Aelfric doesn't know how to translate the word. Probably he just thought that swimming creatures made more sense coming out of the waters than creeping creatures did. His willingness to make this change, however shows a certain thoughtfulness on Aelfric's part regarding this word, a thoughtfulness that makes it even harder to understand his treatment of the fifth day of Creation in De Temporibus Anni.

There are, I suppose, a few different possible explanations for the discrepancy between De Temporibus Anni and Aelfric's translation of Genesis. It's possible that one of the two texts is corrupt, the result of a scribal error. I can't speak to the textual integrity of the translation of Genesis (mainly because I don't have Crawford's edition of the text before me at present). Considering the text in question (as well as Aelfric's explicit warning to copyists not to make any changes), however, a scribal change there seems unlikely. We're also on pretty firm ground regarding the text of De Temporibus Anni, which appears in a manuscript that may have been supervised by Aelfric himself (or based directly on another manuscript so supervised). So I'm reluctant to take the easy way out and blame the scribe here.

The more interesting possibility, and the one I favor, is that what we see in these two different interpretations of Genesis 1:20 is a development in Aelfric's own understanding of the verse. The chronology of Aelfric's works is a question of some debate, and it's not known where in that chronology De Temporibus Anni fits, but scholars generally believe it to have been written early in Aelfric's career, some time before he wrote his translation of Genesis. In the intervening years, his Latin must have improved. Or maybe he just came across the more orthodox view in his own reading. In his translation of Basil's Hexameron (also a later work), for example, Aelfric says that on the fifth day, God created fish, whales, and birds, but resigns the "creopendan wyrmas" ("creeping reptiles") to the sixth day. For whatever reason, Aelfric seems to have abandoned the idea that reptiles were created on the fifth day not long after writing De Temporibus Anni.

I've now gone on much longer than I intended to about what is an extremely minor textual point in this relatively minor text. But I have to admit that I love this kind of thing. To me, scholarship is only really fun when you're making discoveries, no matter how small they may be. And this kind of discovery, the kind that can give you real insight into an author's development, is especially rewarding. I'm reminded of the first time I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, when I was still a teenage and something of a novice at art museums. I remember standing before a huge Matisse painting and being blown away by the fact that the pencil lines were visible beneath the paint. Those lines made that painting and Matisse much more real for me. For just a minute the painting became something more than an artifact; it became a particular product of a real live person. I could imagine Matisse in his workshop actually drawing those lines, planning the eventual painting. It was a very cool moment to my seventeen-year-old self and changed, at least a little, the way I view art even today.

And that's why I love medieval studies in general, because those glimpses happen all the time when you're studying such old and little-known stuff. The first manuscript I ever worked with, for example, was a collection of booklets from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, bound together in the early fifteenth. The booklet I was particularly interested in was really just a quire and had, at least for a while, been carried around in somebody's pocket (or the medieval equivalent thereof). I know this because the booklet was clearly creased across the middle, and the back leaf was heavily worn from being folded against itself. The moment I figured that out was the moment that I became hooked on manuscript work.

Anyway, sorry for going on at such length. I still plan to post more about De Temporibus Anni, but I'll try to make future posts about more than a single word.

Now I have to go back to Freshman papers. In July. There ought to be a law.