The Transmission of Old English Poetry

Overview

No detailed study of Old English poems surviving in multiple (two or more) contemporary manuscripts has yet been published, in spite of a recognition as early as 1946 (by Kenneth Sisam) of the potential value of a monograph comparing the various versions of these poems. This book fills that gap. Of some 185 extant Old English poems or fragments, twenty are preserved, either wholly or in part, in multiple manuscript versions, involving a total overlap of about 679 verse-lines (2.2% of the total surviving poetic ...

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Overview

No detailed study of Old English poems surviving in multiple (two or more) contemporary manuscripts has yet been published, in spite of a recognition as early as 1946 (by Kenneth Sisam) of the potential value of a monograph comparing the various versions of these poems. This book fills that gap. Of some 185 extant Old English poems or fragments, twenty are preserved, either wholly or in part, in multiple manuscript versions, involving a total overlap of about 679 verse-lines (2.2% of the total surviving poetic corpus of 30,535 lines). The various versions of each poem are here compared in close detail with a view to discovering as much as possible about the influences to which Old English poetry was exposed in the course of its transmission. Among questions addressed here are the authority of late texts of Old English poems; the accuracy of copyists and the extent of their understanding of the texts they reproduced; the degree of freedom with which they treated their exemplar texts; the significance of the deliberate modifications that they imposed; and the question of oral versus literary transmission. Prof. Tom Shippey (St Louis Univ.) writes: 'Peter Orton's study is an impressive work. It examines and refutes two views about OE poetry which have become accepted, or canonical. The first is Kenneth Sisam's statement from 1953 that a few cases where OE poems exist in two manuscripts show a laxity of phrasing and a percentage of variation which suggests oral transmission rather than literate; the second, Katherine O'Keeffe's more modern and more nuanced argument, from 1991, that such poems are the product of formulaic reading and demonstrate a state of residual orality. Orton convincingly demonstrates that the variants represent (more or less) judicious editing. A further corollary is that current editorial practice of accepting manuscript readings is a gullible one - with two versions to compare.

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