HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH

Pre-Roman Britain

Man lived in what we now call the British Isles long before it broke away from the continent of Europe, long before the great seas covered the land bridge that is now known as the English Channel, that body of water that protected this island for so long, and that by its very nature, was to keep it out of the maelstrom that became medieval Europe. Thus England’s peculiar character as an island nation came about through its very isolation. Early man came, settled, farmed and built. His remains tell us much about his lifestyle and his habits. Of course, the land was not then known as England, nor would it be until long after the Romans had departed.

We know of the island’s early inhabitants from what they left behind on such sites as Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, and Swanscombe in Kent, gravel pits, the exploration of which opened up a whole new way of seeing our ancient ancestors dating back to the lower Paleolithic (early Stone Age). Here were deposited not only fine tools made of flint, including hand-axes, but also a fossilized skull of a young woman as well as bones of elephants, rhinoceroses, cave-bears, lions, horses, deer, giant oxen, wolves and hares. From the remains, we can assume that man lived at the same time as these animals which have long disappeared from the English landscape.

So we know that a thriving culture existed around 8,000 years ago in the misty, westward islands the Romans were to call Britannia, though some have suggested the occupation was only seasonal, due to the still-cold climate of the glacial period which was slowly coming to an end. As the climate improved, there seems to have been an increase in the number of people moving into Britain from the Continent. They were attracted by its forests, its wild game, abundant rivers and fertile southern plains. An added attraction was its relative isolation, giving protection against the fierce nomadic tribesmen that kept appearing out of the east, forever searching for new hunting grounds and perhaps, people to subjugate and enslave.

The Celts in Britain used a language derived from a branch of Celtic known as either Brythonic, which gave rise to Welsh, Cornish and Breton; or Goidelic, giving rise to Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx. Along with their languages, the Celts brought their religion to Britain, particularly that of the Druids, the guardians of traditions and learning. The Druids glorified the pursuits of war, feasting and horsemanship. They controlled the calendar and the planting of crops and presided over the religious festivals and rituals that honored local deities.

Many of Britain’s Celts came from Gaul, driven from their homelands by the Roman armies and Germanic tribes. These were the Belgae, who arrived in great numbers and settled in the southeast around 75 BC. They brought with them a sophisticated plough that revolutionized agriculture in the rich, heavy soils of their new lands. Their society was well-organized in urban settlements, the capitals of the tribal chiefs. Their crafts were highly developed; bronze urns, bowls and torques illustrate their metalworking skills. They also introduced coinage to Britain and conducted a lively export trade with Rome and Gaul, including corn, livestock, metals and slaves.

Of the Celtic lands on the mainland of Britain, Wales and Scotland have received extensive coverage in the pages of Britannia. The largest non-Celtic area, at least linguistically, is now known as England, and it is here that the Roman influence is most strongly felt. It was here that the armies of Rome came to stay, to farm, to mine, to build roads, small cities, and to prosper, but mostly to govern.

The Roman Period

The first Roman invasion of the lands we now call the British Isles took place in 55 B.C. under war leader Julius Caesar, who returned one year later, but these probings did not lead to any significant or permanent occupation. He had some interesting, if biased comments concerning the natives: “All the Britons,” he wrote, “paint themselves with woad, which gives their skin a bluish color and makes them look very dreadful in battle.” It was not until a hundred years later that permanent settlement of the grain-rich eastern territories began in earnest.

In the year 43 A.D. an expedition was ordered against Britain by the Emperor Claudius, who showed he meant business by sending his general, Aulus Plautius, and an army of 40,000 men. Only three months after Plautius’s troops landed on Britain’s shores, the Emperor Claudius felt it was safe enough to visit his new province. Establishing their bases in what is now Kent, through a series of battles involving greater discipline, a great element of luck, and general lack of co-ordination between the leaders of the various Celtic tribes, the Romans subdued much of Britain in the short space of forty years. They were to remain for nearly 400 years. The great number of prosperous villas that have been excavated in the southeast and southwest testify to the rapidity by which Britain became Romanized, for they functioned as centers of a settled, peaceful and urban life.

The highlands and moorlands of the northern and western regions, present-day Scotland and Wales, were not as easily settled, nor did the Romans particularly wish to settle in these agriculturally poorer, harsh landscapes. They remained the frontier — areas where military garrisons were strategically placed to guard the extremities of the Empire. The stubborn resistance of tribes in Wales meant that two out of three Roman legions in Britain were stationed on its borders, at Chester and Caerwent.

Major defensive works further north attest to the fierceness of the Pictish and Celtic tribes, Hadrian’s Wall in particular reminds us of the need for a peaceful and stable frontier. Built when Hadrian had abandoned his plan of world conquest, settling for a permanent frontier to “divide Rome from the barbarians,” the seventy-two mile long wall connecting the Tyne to the Solway was built and rebuilt, garrisoned and re-garrisoned many times, strengthened by stone-built forts as one mile intervals.

For Imperial Rome, the island of Britain was a western breadbasket. Caesar had taken armies there to punish those who were aiding the Gauls on the Continent in their fight to stay free of Roman influence. Claudius invaded to give himself prestige, and his subjugation of eleven British tribes gave him a splendid triumph. Vespasian was a legion commander in Britain before he became Emperor, but it was Agricola who gave us most notice of the heroic struggle of the native Britons through his biographer Tacitus. From him, we get the unforgettable picture of the druids, “ranged in order, with their hands uplifted, invoking the gods and pouring forth horrible imprecations.” Agricola also won the decisive victory of Mons Graupius in present-day Scotland in 84 A.D. over Calgacus “the swordsman,” that carried Roman arms farther west and north than they had ever before ventured. They called their newly-conquered northern territory Caledonia.

When Rome had to withdraw one of its legions from Britain, the thirty-seven mile long Antonine Wall, connecting the Firths of Forth and Clyde, served temporarily as the northern frontier, beyond which lay Caledonia. The Caledonians, however were not easily contained; they were quick to master the arts of guerilla warfare against the scattered, home-sick Roman legionaries, including those under their ageing commander Severus. The Romans abandoned the Antonine Wall, withdrawing south of the better-built, more easily defended barrier of Hadrian, but by the end of the fourth century, the last remaining outposts in Caledonia were abandoned.

Further south, however, in what is now England, Roman life prospered. Essentially urban, it was able to integrate the native tribes into a town-based governmental system. Agricola succeeded greatly in his aims to accustom the Britons “to a life of peace and quiet by the provision of amenities. He consequently gave private encouragement and official assistance to the building of temples, public squares and good houses.” Many of these were built in former military garrisons that became the coloniae, the Roman chartered towns such as Colchester, Gloucester, Lincoln, and York (where Constantine was declared Emperor by his troops in 306 A.D.). Other towns, called municipia, included such foundations as St. Albans (Verulamium).

Chartered towns were governed to a large extent on that of Rome. They were ruled by an ordo of 100 councillors (decurion). who had to be local residents and own a certain amount of property. The ordo was run by two magistrates, rotated annually; they were responsible for collecting taxes, administering justice and undertaking public works. Outside the chartered town, the inhabitants were referred to as peregrini, or non-citizens. they were organized into local government areas known as civitates, largely based on pre-existing chiefdom boundaries. Canterbury and Chelmsford were two of the civitas capitals.

In the countryside, away from the towns, with their metalled, properly drained streets, their forums and other public buildings, bath houses, shops and amphitheatres, were the great villas, such as are found at Bignor, Chedworth and Lullingstone. Many of these seem to have been occupied by native Britons who had acquired land and who had adopted Roman culture and customs.. Developing out of the native and relatively crude farmsteads, the villas gradually added features such as stone walls, multiple rooms, hypocausts (heating systems), mosaics and bath houses. The third and fourth centuries saw a golden age of villa building that further increased their numbers of rooms and added a central courtyard. The elaborate surviving mosaics found in some of these villas show a detailed construction and intensity of labor that only the rich could have afforded; their wealth came from the highly lucrative export of grain.

Roman society in Britain was highly classified. At the top were those people associated with the legions, the provincial administration, the government of towns and the wealthy traders and commercial classes who enjoyed legal privileges not generally accorded to the majority of the population. In 212 AD, the Emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to all free-born inhabitants of the empire, but social and legal distinctions remained rigidly set between the upper rank of citizens known as honestiores and the masses, known as humiliores. At the lowest end of the scale were the slaves, many of whom were able to gain their freedom, and many of whom might occupy important governmental posts. Women were also rigidly circumscribed, not being allowed to hold any public office, and having severely limited property rights.

One of the greatest achievements of the Roman Empire was its system of roads, in Britain no less than elsewhere. When the legions arrived in a country with virtually no roads at all, as Britain was in the first century A.D., their first task was to build a system to link not only their military headquarters but also their isolated forts. Vital for trade, the roads were also of paramount important in the speedy movement of troops, munitions and supplies from one strategic center to another. They also allowed the movement of agricultural products from farm to market. London was the chief administrative centre, and from it, roads spread out to all parts of the province. They included Ermine Street, to Lincoln; Watling Street, to Wroxeter and then to Chester, all the way in the northwest on the Welsh frontier; and the Fosse Way, from Exeter to Lincoln, the first frontier of the province of Britain.

The Romans built their roads carefully and they built them well. They followed proper surveying, they took account of contours in the land, avoided wherever possible the fen, bog and marsh so typical in much of the land, and stayed clear of the impenetrable forests. They also utilized bridges, an innovation that the Romans introduced to Britain in place of the hazardous fords at many river crossings. An advantage of good roads was that communications with all parts of the country could be effected. They carried the cursus publicus, or imperial post. A road book used by messengers that lists all the main routes in Britain, the principal towns and forts they pass through, and the distances between them has survived: the Antonine Itinerary.. In addition, the same information, in map form, is found in the Peutinger Table. It tells us that mansions were places at various intervals along the road to change horses and take lodgings.

The Roman armies did not have it all their own way in their battles with the native tribesmen, some of whom, in their inter-tribal squabbles, saw them as deliverers, not conquerors. Heroic and often prolonged resistance came from such leaders as Caratacus of the Ordovices, betrayed to the Romans by the Queen of the Brigantes. And there was Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) of the Iceni, whose revolt nearly succeeded in driving the Romans out of Britain. Her people, incensed by their brutal treatment at the hands of Roman officials, burned Colchester, London, and St. Albans, destroying many armies ranged against them. It took a determined effort and thousands of fresh troops sent from Italy to reinforce governor Suetonius Paulinus in A.D. 61 to defeat the British Queen, who took poison rather than submit.

Apart from the villas and fortified settlements, the great mass of the British people did not seem to have become Romanized. The influence of Roman thought survived in Britain only through the Church. Christianity had thoroughly replaced the old Celtic gods by the close of the 4th Century, as the history of Pelagius and St. Patrick testify, but Romanization was not successful in other areas. For example, the Latin tongue did not replace Brittonic as the language of the general population. Today’s visitors to Wales, however, cannot fail to notice some of the Latin words that were borrowed into the British language, such as pysg (fish), braich (arm), caer (fort), foss (ditch), pont (bridge), eglwys (church), llyfr (book), ysgrif (writing), ffenestr (window), pared (wall or partition), and ystafell (room).

The disintegration of Roman Britain began with the revolt of Magnus Maximus in A.D. 383. After living in Britain as military commander for twelve years, he had been hailed as Emperor by his troops. He began his campaigns to dethrone Gratian as Emperor in the West, taking a large part of the Roman garrison in Britain with him to the Continent, and though he succeeded Gratian, he himself was killed by the Emperor Thedosius in 388. Some Welsh historians, and modern political figures, see Magnus Maximus as the father of the Welsh nation, for he opened the way for independent political organizations to develop among the Welsh people by his acknowledgement of the role of the leaders of the Britons in 383 (before departing on his military mission to the Continent) The enigmatic figure has remained a hero to the Welsh as Macsen Wledig, celebrated in poetry and song.

The Roman legions began to withdraw from Britain at the end of the fourth century. Those who stayed behind were to become the Romanized Britons who organized local defences against the onslaught of the Saxon hordes. The famous letter of A.D. 410 from the Emperor Honorius told the cities of Britain to look to their own defences from that time on. As part of the east coast defences, a command had been established under the Count of the Saxon Shore, and a fleet had been organized to control the Channel and the North Sea. All this showed a tremendous effort to hold the outlying province of Britain, but eventually, it was decided to abandon the whole project. In any case, the communication from Honorius was a little late: the Saxon influence had already begun in earnest.

The Dark Ages

From the time that the Romans more or less abandoned Britain, to the arrival of Augustine at Kent to convert the Saxons, the period has been known as the Dark Ages. Written evidence concerning the period is scanty, but we do know that the most significant events were the gradual division of Britain into a Brythonic west, a Teutonic east and a Gaelic north; the formation of the Welsh, English and Scottish nations; and the conversion of much of the west to Christianity.

By 410, Britain had become self-governing in three parts, the North (which already included people of mixed British and Angle stock); the West (including Britons, Irish, and Angles); and the South East (mainly Angles). With the departure of the Roman legions, the old enemies began their onslaughts upon the native Britons once more. The Picts and Scots to the north and west (the Scots coming in from Ireland had not yet made their homes in what was to become later known as Scotland), and the Saxons, Angles, and Jutes to the south and east.

The two centuries that followed the collapse of Roman Britain happen to be among the worst recorded times in British history, certainly the most obscure. Three main sources for our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon permeation of Britain come from the 6th century monk Gildas, the 8th century historian Bede, and the 9th century historian Nennius.

The heritage of the British people cannot simply be called Anglo-Saxon; it is based on such a mixture as took place in the Holy Land, that complex mosaic of cultures, ideologies and economies. The Celts were not driven out of what came to be known as England. More than one modern historian has pointed out that such an extraordinary success as an Anglo-Saxon conquest of Britain “by bands of bold adventurers” could hardly have passed without notice by the historians of the Roman Empire, yet only Prosper Tyro and Procopius notice this great event, and only in terms that are not always consistent with the received accounts.

In the Gallic Chronicle of 452, Tyro had written that the Britons in 443 were reduced “in dicionen Saxonum” (under the jurisdiction of the English). He used the Roman term Saxons for all the English-speaking peoples resident in Britain: it comes from the Welsh appellation Saeson). The Roman historians had been using the term to describe all the continental folk who had been directing their activities towards the eastern and southern coasts of Britain from as early as the 3rd Century. By the mid 6th Century, these peoples were calling themselves Angles and Frisians, and not Saxons.

In the account given by Procopius in the middle of the 6th Century (the Gothic War, Book IV, cap 20), he writes of the island of Britain being possessed by three very populous nations: the Angili, the Frisians, and the Britons. “And so numerous are these nations that every year, great numbers migrate to the Franks.” There is no suggestion here that these peoples existed in a state of warfare or enmity, nor that the British people had been vanquished or made to flee westwards. We have to assume, therefore, that the Gallic Chronicle of 452 refers only to a small part of Britain, and that it does not signify conquest by the Saxons.

The Anglo Saxon Period

To answer the question how did the small number of invaders come to master the larger part of Britain? John Davies gives us part of the answer: the regions seized by the newcomers were mainly those that had been most thoroughly Romanized, regions where traditions of political and military self-help were at their weakest. Those who chafed at the administration of Rome could only have welcomed the arrival of the English in such areas as Kent and Sussex, in the southeast.

Another reason cited by Davies is the emergence in Britain of the great plague of the sixth century from Egypt that was particularly devastating to the Britons who had been in close contact with peoples of the Mediterranean. Be that as it may, the emergence of England as a nation did not begin as a result of a quick, decisive victory over the native Britons, but a result of hundreds of years of settlement and growth, more settlement and growth, sometimes peaceful, sometimes not. If it is pointed out that the native Celts were constantly warring among themselves, it should also be noted that so were the tribes we now collectively term the English, for different kingdoms developed in England that constantly sought domination through conquest. Even Bede could pick out half a dozen rulers able to impose some kind of authority upon their contemporaries.

So we see the rise and fall of successive English kingdoms during the seventh and eighth centuries: Kent, Northumbria, Mercia, and Wessex. Before looking at political developments, however, it is important to notice the religious conversion of the people we commonly call Anglo-Saxons. It began in the late sixth century and created an institution that not only transcended political boundaries, but created a new concept of unity among the various tribal regions that overrode individual loyalties.

During the centuries of inter-tribal warfare, the Saxons had not thought of defending their coasts. The Norsemen, attracted by the wealth of the religious settlements, often placed near the sea, were free to embark upon their voyages of plunder.

The first recorded visit of the Vikings in the West Saxon Annals had stated that a small raiding party slew those who came to meet them at Dorchester in 789. It was the North, however, at such places as Lindisfarne, the holiest city in England, lavishly endowed with treasures at its monastery and religious settlement that constituted the main target. Before dealing with the onslaught of the Norsemen, however, it is time to briefly review the accomplishments of the people collectively known as the Anglo-Saxons, especially in the rule of law.

By the year 878 there was every possibility that before the end of the year Wessex would have been divided among the Danish army. That this turn of events did not come to pass was due to Alfred. Leaving aside the political events of the period, we can praise his laws as the first selective code of Anglo-Saxon England, though the fundamentals remained unchanged, those who didn’t please him, were amended or discarded. They remain comments on the law, mere statements of established custom.

In 896, Alfred occupied London, giving the first indication that the lands which had lately passed under Danish control might be reclaimed. It made him the obvious leader of all those who, in any part of the country, wished for a reversal of the disasters, and it was immediately followed by a general recognition of his lordship. In the words of the Chronicle, “all the English people submitted to Alfred except those who were under the power of the Danes.”

Around 890 the Vikings (also known as Norsemen or Danes) came as hostile raiders to the shores of Britain. Their invasions were thus different from those of the earlier Saxons who had originally come to defend the British people and then to settle. Though they did settle eventually in their newly conquered lands, the Vikings were more intent on looting and pillaging; their armies marched inland destroying and burning until half of England had been taken. However, just as an earlier British leader, perhaps the one known in legend as Arthur had stopped the Saxon advance into the Western regions at Mount Badon in 496, so a later leader stopped the advance of the Norsemen at Edington in 878.

But this time, instead of sailing home with their booty, the Danish seamen and soldiers stayed the winter on the Isle of Thanet on the Thames where the men of Hengist had come ashore centuries earlier. Like their Saxon predecessors, the Danes showed that they had come to stay.

It was not too long before the Danes had become firmly entrenched seemingly everywhere they chose in England (many of the invaders came from Norway and Sweden as well as Denmark). They had begun their deprivations with the devastation of Lindisfarne in 793, and the next hundred years saw army after army crossing the North Sea, first to find treasure, and then to take over good, productive farm lands upon which to raise their families. Outside Wessex, their ships were able to penetrate far inland; and founded their communities wherever the rivers met the sea.

Chaos and confusion were quick to return to England after Cnut’s death, and the ground was prepared for the coming of the Normans, a new set of invaders no less ruthless than those who had come before. Cnut had precipitated problems by leaving his youngest, bastard son Harold, unprovided for. He had intended to give Denmark and England to Hardacnut and Norway to Swein. In 1035, Hardacnut could not come to England from Denmark without leaving Magnus of Norway a free hand in Scandinavia.

Although the two hundred years of Danish invasions and settlement had an enormous effect on Britain, bringing over from the continent as many people as had the Anglo-Saxon invasions, the effects on the language and customs of the English were not as catastrophic as the earlier invasions had been on the native British. The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic race; their homelands had been in northern Europe, many of them coming, if not from Denmark itself, then from lands bordering that little country. They shared many common traditions and customs with the people of Scandinavia, and they spoke a related language.

There are over 1040 place names in England of Scandinavian origin, most occurring in the north and east, the area of settlement known as the Danelaw. The evidence shows extensive peaceable settlement by farmers who intermarried their English cousins, adopted many of their customs and entered into the everyday life of the community. Though the Danes who came to England preserved many of their own customs, they readily adapted to the ways of the English whose language they could understand without too much difficulty. There are more than 600 place names that end with the Scandinavian -by, (farm or town); some three hundred contain the Scandinavian word thorp (village), and the same number with thwaite (an isolated piece of land). Thousands of words of Scandinavian origin remain in the everyday speech of people in the north and east of England.

There was another very important feature of the Scandinavian settlement which cannot be overlooked. The Saxon people had not maintained contact with their orginal homelands; in England they had become an island race. The Scandinavians, however, kept their contacts with their kinsman on the continent. Under Cnut, England was part of a Scandinavian empire; its people began to extend their outlook and become less insular. The process was hastened by the coming of another host of Norsemen: the Norman Conquest was about to begin.

William of Normandy with his huge host of fighting men, landed unopposed in the south. Harold had to march southwards with his tired, weakened army and did not wait for reinforcements before he awaited the charge of William’s mounted knights at Hastings. The only standing army in England had been defeated in an-all day battle in which the outcome was in doubt until the undisciplined English had broken ranks to pursue the Normans’ feigning retreat. The story is too well-known to be repeated here, but when William took his army to London, where young Edgar the Atheling had been proclaimed king in Harold’s place, English indecision in gathering together a formidable opposition forced the supporters of Edgar to negotiate for peace. They had no choice. William was duly crowned King of England at Westminster on Christmas Day, 1066.

William’s victory also linked England with France and not Scandinavia from now on. Within six months of his coronation, William felt secure enough to visit Normandy. The sporadic outbreaks at rebellion against his rule had one important repercussion, however: it meant that threats to his security prevented him from undertaking any attempt to cooperate with the native aristocracy in the administration of England.

By the time of William’s death in 1087, English society had been profoundly changed. For one thing, the great Saxon earldoms were split: Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and other ancient kingdoms were abolished forever. The great estates of England were given to Norman and Breton landowners, carefully prevented from building up their estates by having them separated by the holdings of others.

The majority of Old English manuscripts are scattered throughout the libraries of England. The two largest collections belong to the British Library and the Bodleian Library of Oxford University. While these documents are national treasures and should be accessible to anyone, they obviously need to be protected; hence, heightened powers of persuasion notwithstanding, it is unlikely that an individual without an academic position or recommendation will be allowed access. Fortunately, many of these documents are on public display.

Most of the existing Old English manuscripts were made in the scriptoria of monasteries by members of the clergy. Anyone who has ever visited the remnants of such a monastery can imagine how difficult this must have been, with such little comfort, light and warmth in winter. It only goes to show the skill of monastic scribes in rendering their words so beautifully.

Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were written exclusively on parchment or vellum. While in modern times we know these media as semi-transparent writing papers used for tracing and sketching, they were originally made out of calf, goat or pig skins which had been stretched, shaved and treated. The result of this process was a thin membrane with one completely smooth side and another with a thin layer of leftover hair. Hundreds of animal skins were required to make a single book. This meant that the cost of creating literature during the Anglo-Saxon period was staggering – and hence the value of the finished product.

After the skins had been treated, they were folded into page-size squares (one fold created a folio, two folds a quarto, four folds an octavo, and so on – denoting the number of pages created by the folds). The result was a “quire,” or section of pages. This process permitted the scribe to prick small holes through the pages of each quire, which could then be ruled, making uniformly straight lines of text on each page. Finally the quires would be bound together and covered. Unfortunately, we have few decent examples of what these covers looked like; one notable exception is the small Gospel book found in St. Cuthbert’s tomb, now on display at the British Library. This method of book production meant that manuscripts could be easily unbound, permitting portions of texts to become separated, swapped or lost. For this reason, and because medieval writers frequently wrote wherever they could fit text (in blank spaces, on flyleaves, etc.), many manuscripts contain a wide assortment of different documents.

The dominant script of the Old English manuscripts is Anglo-Saxon (also called Insular, a Latin word meaning “island”; in this context, the term means “from England or Ireland”). It stemmed from the Uncial script brought to England by Augustine and his fellow missionaries, and incorporated the initially Irish Roman Half-Uncial. The Anglo-Saxon hand was generally miniscule (a calligraphic term meaning smaller, lower-case letters), reserving majuscule characters (larger, upper-case letters) for the beginnings of text segments or important words (this developed into the norm for modern writing – beginning sentences and “important” words with capital letters). These fonts are perfect for calligraphers who want to work on their hand or experiment with page layouts before writing. They may also be useful for those who are unfamiliar with the slight variations between the appearances of Old English and modern English characters.

The most popular element of medieval manuscripts in general is illumination – the decoration of text with drawings. Latin texts were more often illuminated than were Old English texts. But there are some spectacular examples of Old English illumination, including the stark line drawings, the biblical illustrations of Cotton Claudius, the mysterious Sphere of Apuleiusin Cotton Tiberius, the Lindisfarne Gospels (Cotton Nero – one of the few manuscripts that approaches the Book of Kells), and so on.

Why would someone want to read a manuscript facsimile of an Old English text rather than a printed edition? A couple answers come to mind. First of all, Old English manuscripts are, by and large, beautiful. Second, you never know exactly what you’re getting when you read a printed edition (maybe this is a slight exaggeration, but still only a slight one). Some printed texts are “normalized,” reducing the natural variation in spelling, conjugation, declension, etc., common in Old English works (most medieval writers were not nearly as concerned with consistency of spelling as modern writers). Furthermore, some printed texts collate or “average” between multiple manuscripts of the same work, offering a composite text which, while perhaps more representative of that work, loses the qualities which make a manuscript unique. Naturally, this process can thwart anyone trying to make deductions about the dialectical, calligraphic or interlinear aspects of a particular manuscript (sometimes the most interesting aspects).

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