Re-Locating the Voice of the Sad Shield in Exeter Book Riddle 5

Translation, like any cultural practice, entails the creative reproduction of values.

— Lawrence Venuti, The Scandals of Translation (1998), 1.

In the introduction to the provocative collection The Word Exchange (Norton, 2011), Michael Matto cites the anonymity of Old English poetry as a constraint on its perceived voice, a problem exacerbated by the likelihood that any anthologized group of Old English poems will have been rendered by the same translator (Broadview, I’m looking at you). Matto states that avoiding this singularity is a motivation for seeking the efforts of established American, English, and Irish poets to have a crack at the highlights of the extant corpus. And some of these versions are quite tasty. [Particularly fun is James Harpur’s version of the “Rune Poem” or the Metrical Charms section. Many of the riddles are good too].

However, the cast of characters is pretty uniform otherwise: mostly white [Yusef Komunyakaa is the only Black poet featured] and all intentionally non-specialists. There may be a desire to bring multiplicity to the corpus, to “frequently exchange/ kindred voices” there — to cite my current translation of Riddle 8’s nightingale [wrixle geneahhe / heafodwoþe, ll. 2–3] — but the tone is pretty level no matter what. Mostly serious, mostly stately, mostly the expected sorts of voices. This is unfortunate. A good opportunity lost to the basic assumptions of the field. Dan Remein makes a similar observation, noting how conservative impulses to translation inevitably “converts Old English to popular contemporary workshop verse,” and produces a “homogenizing operation of conversion” (“Auden, Translation, Betrayal: Radical Poetics and Translation from Old English,” Literature Compass 8 [2011], 813).

I’m no stranger to Old English translation. Like Leonard Cohen says, “I know this room and I’ve walked this floor.” I took on a massive translation project unasked in 2007 as a game, as training, as a challenge. It started with Andreas, a text I needed for my dissertation and eventual book (Political Appetites [The Ohio State University Press, 2017]) and it ballooned from there. I have to admit I started it in pique, after being assigned S. A. J. Bradley’s Anglo-Saxon Poetry (Everyman, 1982) back at Princeton. Those translations are so thoroughly non-apt, tamed and domesticated — yet so bloody canonical, ubiquitous like a cough. So, I went to work: rendering fifty lines a day for years, through change and transformation, learning a lot and making many, many mistakes along the way [many you can still find in my as-yet unedited versions online].

But after rendering about 27,000 lines of Old English poetry (which you can find here), I can only hear a dry wheeze in the “accepted voice” for its translation, the voice preferred even in The Word Exchange — the voice my work fell into as I went along, I am ashamed to admit. I stepped into the arena wanting to render poetry into poetic translations but failed at it largely. The conservatism of the field was a tide risen up to my thighs, and it was obstructing my steps.

Studies of Old English poetry have been resistant to change, slow to adapt, quick to distrust innovation, eager to exclude alternatives and erase competing arguments. It lags in time — and flirts with its own irrelevance. Part of the answer to this hesitancy, as far as I can survey in this valley of dry bones, rests in sepulchers of translation. In canons of respectability, as if Frederick Klaeber’s going to reach out from wherever and say, “Good job.”

But screw that, I no longer want to practice respectability.

I want my translation work to be scandalous. Queer. Deviant. Affronting. Extra extra. I want my translations to streak across the sky, their path both fyre gefysed and “scrawling red RSVPs in the sky” (Beowulf, 2309, tr. Headley, 2313).

Sure, I’m punk rock kid and I want to freak out the squares, but my desire is scholarly as well. These fusty translations do not invite interesting theories. They are largely “dog-trots,” to be truthful — guides to the language, and little more. Tightly controlled curations of a historical experience. They sacrifice poetry and music while chasing the dragon of “accuracy.” They often don’t even acknowledge that new arguments have been made and old ideas overshadowed or passed over, repeating the same old interpretation again and again. Largely this is because translation is not seen as productive scholarly work. It’s something thrown to a senior scholar, someone vested in the traditional ways of doing things. And any attempt to even gently question the party line is usually met with shuddering revulsion. How many Beowulves are out there that say exactly the same thing, that contain no fresh insights?

As Lawrence Venuti argues in The Scandals of Translation (1998), translation is fraught, difficult, and bound up in power differentials — these relations conscribe the translated text to the service of the translating culture (4). It is no different for translating Old English poetry: the theories and the needs of scholarship drive how the text is revealed. We clothe that figure. There is no objectivity possible in the act. There is no accurate translation. Even the reflex to claim authenticity is suspect — how often are the words themselves subject to emendation when they don’t accord with what an editor or dictionary-maker or metricist presumes should be there? Sculan does a lot of work in Old English studies, and the infinitive isn’t even extant.

Tl;dr — I am less interested these days in translating with propriety in mind and more about discovering new ways the poems might work through playing at their glitches. I am all about treating this archive less like a fetish in a glass box, and more like one of the items in my colleague James Brown Jr’s RCADE resource (the Rutgers-Camden Archive of Digital Ephemera), a place where one learns about the intersections of technology, culture, and code by “cracking” an archived device — breaking it in effect.

That is where hip hop comes into the “Shield” Riddle.

It is clear that this lyric does not operate in the same way as its comrades in either run of Riddles in the Exeter Book. It does not riff on anaphoric hwilum clauses. It does not demand answers to its identity. It does not even move that far afield in its figurative leaps: a matter of sad synecdoche rather than eager metaphor. Its solution is only half the picture, and not really the most interesting part. Far more daring and challenging is how the poem exploits riddlic technology to invest an everyday object with otherwise unrepresentable emotion. There usually is no room in heroic literature for the aftermath, for the wounds and losses, for the pain even in victory or survival. The shield speaks those remainders — the real guþ-laf —  through the glitches in its design.

I have long been an admirer of hip hop culture. At first, I was intrigued by its contrariety, its insistence on reinterpreting history beyond white exceptionalism. How it thwarts musical expectations by making “noise” into structure, lovely in its chaos. I loved how it reverses chains of the commodity through sampling and loops and breaks and beats. The artform reclaims products of dominant culture to serve the needs of those it marginalizes. The consumer determines a proper use for the commodity — a reversal of the idea of “productive consumption” (to use Marx’s term [“Introduction to the Critique of Political Philosophy” (1857), 92]). It’s what “poaching” might sound like in de Certeau’s scheme of strategies versus tactics as resistance (The Practice of Everyday Life [Berkeley, 1984, trans. Steven Rendall], I.xii).

Only later did I start to appreciate the poetic designs of its emcees. How traditional practices of “signifying” not only challenge dominant schemes of language but also unfolds their fullest potentials in chains of signification (see Gates, The Signifying Monkey (1988), see ch. 2, 44ff.) in exactly the same way as the samples, poaching the resources of a language many did not choose. Rap lyrics encode minoritarian resistance to linguistic structures of oppression (such as Deleuze and Guattari describe in A Thousand Plateaus, 106ff.) Tricia Rose, in her foundational 1994 study of hip hop history and aesthetics, Black Noise, invokes hip hop’s Legbean quality of rising from the intersections of US urban cultures:

“Situated at the ‘crossroads of lack and desire,’ hip hop emerges from the deindustrialization meltdown where social alienation, prophetic imagination, and yearning intersect. Hip-hop is a cultural form that attempts to negotiate the experiences of marginalization, brutally truncated opportunity, and oppression within the cultural imperatives of African-American and Caribbean history, identity, and community. It is the tension between the cultural fractures produced by postindustrial oppression and the binding tics of black cultural expressivity that sets the critical frame for the development of hip hop” (21).

Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s 2011 release, “Golden Era” (with one of his earlier rhymes superimposed), edited by Aaron Hostetter (2021).

Dr. Rose’s invocation of “Black noise” is appropriate here: hip hop thrives in the immense marches that Eurocentric poetics rely upon as exclusion, as outside to acceptability in order to create its own spaces of power. Hip hop poetry is a mearc-stapa (here, Ini Kamoze might chorus, “Word ‘em up!”], a voice from a culture many are conditioned not to accept as poetical at all. Jay-Z, in his book Decoded (2010), discusses the flush of language possible in the intersection of rhythmic spaces, low social expectations, and the desire to express oneself on multiple levels at once:

The words you use can be read a dozen different ways: They can be funny and serious. They can be symbolic and literal. They can be nakedly deceptive. It seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally, as raw testimony or autobiography. (54)

Jay-Z hits at a common truth here: just like with hip hop emcees who could not possibly be creating elaborate metaphorical worlds of identity and expression, ancient poets are also denied fictionality and ambiguity by many modern readers. Scholars reduce their voices into stereotype. So, my goal is to locate and celebrate the moments of distortion, play, and contradiction in these lyrics.

Here, in Exeter Book Riddle 5, I though the best way to do so was to try my hand at writing bars.

Hip hop also features an expansive metrical form, embodied in the tension between rhythm and verbal stress, with unstressed syllables popping in to fill spaces between hard beats. The structure of a line is very similar to Old English meter, roughly built in groups of four strong stresses (to follow a rhythmic musical line in 4:4 time). The uneven distribution of unstressed syllables creates frequent opportunities for syncopation and off-stress sound effects (much like extant Old English poetry does, when performed properly).

Additionally, hip hop poets frequently glory in sound relations of every sort, including slant-rhyme, internal rhyme, off-beat rhyme, assonance, consonance, and of course alliteration. Most importantly, hip hop is explicitly a performed poetics, negotiating both sides of a supposed “Great Divide” between oral and written literatures, always already both and the same.

For my re-translation of this riddle, I chose to adopt a dense lyrical style similar to that used by the late MF DOOM (but is hardly exclusive to his rhymes). For example, see the intricate network of sound-play in this couplet:

Spot hot tracks like spot a pair of fat asses.
Shots of the scotch from out of square shot glasses (Madvillain, “All Caps” [2004]).

Also check out this couplet from Inspektah Deck:

My mind’s all-smart, it’s in the ballpark as Jean-Paul Sartre.
Yours is in the parking lot of Walmart bagging Duck Dynasty wall-art [Czarface, “Deviatin’ Septums” [2015]).

The translation cannot be just voiceless, so I thought I’d engineer an easy beat and arrangement for it (I’m only just learning how to do this). The backing track is an instrumental version of “Mind’s Playin’ Tricks on Me” by The Geto Boys (1991), a song about the psychological costs of violence and stress. The samples are eclectic, some Bringing Out the Dead (1999), some Space is the Place (1974), and a bit of Dead Presidents (1995), as well as Admiral Akbar, Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and Biggie Smalls. The idea is to link the experience of post-traumatic stress disorder possibly alluded to in the Shield Riddle, with expressions of reality made weird through warfare and violence, especially as that trauma has been unevenly distributed to African-American communities. To give the shield warrior’s space to heal: to be their læcce-cyn after all these centuries.

Aaron Hostetter
Associate Professor of Old and Middle English
Rutgers University-Camden

For Dr. Hostetter’s translation and recitation, see his Exeter Book Riddle 5.

For more translations by Dr. Hostetter, see his Old English Poetry Project.

Ambrosiana MS B44 Inferiore and an Easter Homily of Maximus of Turin

MS B44 Inferiore of Milan’s Ambrosiana Library is an unstudied aestivial (summer season) homiliary from the thirteenth century. It is an exceptionally large manuscript, measuring approximately 40cm by 30cm. An eighteenth-century librarian of the Ambrosiana marked it as a homiliary of the “Ambrosian rite,” which is not a description meaningful for ascertaining the paradigms on which the homiliary’s structure is based. The invocation of the “Ambrosian rite” does, however, point to peculiarities in the Lombard region’s liturgical calendar which B44 might reflect. The homiliary’s reflection of local liturgical traditions could best be judged through a study of its “sanctorum” portion; this, however, was not the focus of my time with the manuscript. Despite its large size and length, the homiliary only spans the summer part of the liturgical year. Its de tempore section begins with the Easter Vigil and ends with the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. The Feast of Mary’s Nativity was locally important since the Milanese Duomo was dedicated, from at least the eleventh century, to the Blessed Virgin’s birth.

            To familiarize myself with the manuscript’s structure and homiletic content, I surveyed the sermons it included for the Easter season (1v-52r), noting sermon incipits from Easter until Pentecost. Though for the sanctorale section, there are a wide variety of authors, the Easter de tempore section largely consists of homilies from Sts. Ambrose, Bede, Gregory, and Augustine. The sermon choices are, however, eclectic, and do not match the arrangement of the paradigmatic homiliaries summarized by Réginald Grégoire in his still-unsurpassed Homéliaires Liturgiques Médiévaux. In short, MS Inf. B44’s Easter sermons do not match those included in the Roman and Toledan homiliaries, nor those in the collections of Pseudo-Fulgencius, Paul the Deacon, or Romain d’Agimond. As far as contemporary homiletic developments go, Inf. B44 also is far removed from the pocket-manuscript homiliaries popular among the mobile mendicants; more generally, the patristic collection of Easter homilies here does not reflect high medieval developments in preaching. No “scholastic” sermons based around themae are included, nor is there any trace of the politically and socially-charged “activist” preaching of mendicants like Giordano da Pisa (1255-1311) or Remigio de Girolami (d. 1319). In short, though Inf. B44 compiles an eclectic set of sermons, it is a conservative exemplar of the homiliary genre.

            The description of the eighteenth-century Ambrosiana librarian on the manuscript’s first folio also notes that B44 Inf. was acquired for the Ambrosiana in the seventeenth century, when it was removed from Milan’s cathedral. It is unknown if the homiliary had been a possession of the cathedral from the outset, and, if not, why or when it was moved to the cathedral. Judging by the highly moralizing and interior-focused content of the Easter sermons, it is possible that the homiliary had been used by the cathedral canons or a northern Italian monastic community. From its large size, it seems the homiliary likely would have stayed in one place, for use in private mediation or as an aid for the composition of monastic sermons. If we seek a more specific paradigm, it should be noted that B44 Inf. shares basic similarities with high-medieval Cistercian homiliaries copied in northern Italian and Burgundian monasteries, such as the house of Morimondo near Milan. These Cistercian homiliaries were usually fairly large, written in twelfth-century miniscule, and included sermons of Augustine, Bede, Ambrose, and Gregory—all characteristics that B44 Inf. shares.[1] However, further study of the Cistercian homiliaries of northern Italy is necessary to ascertain whether these and our manuscript conform to a common paradigm.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Maximus-of-Turin-Miniature-from-Medieval-Manuscript.jpg
Saint Maximus of Turin, Anonymous (Italian, Piedmontese), Carte Sciolte, n. 390, Archivio Storico della Città, Turin, from Codice degli Statuti di Torino o Codice della Catena,” 1360.

            Particularly interesting among Inf. B44’s Easter sermons is the second entry for the fifth day after Easter, located between ff. 16v and 17v. This homily, misattributed in the manuscript to St. Ambrose (probably as a result of local enthusiasm for that venerable bishop), is actually a probable composition of St. Maximus of Turin, and its main theme—defending oneself from lustful temptations—coheres well with the manuscript’s probable monastic origin. However, how the sermon conveys this theme is in no way typical, as it does so by extended engagement with the story of Ulysses and the Sirens. Though in Late Antiquity, scientific exegesis of Greek mythology was very common in neo-Platonic circles, Christocentric engagement with a mythological text is a rare phenomenon, even within Maximus’ own homiletic corpus.

            To provide a brief analysis of the sermon: Maximus begins by recalling the passage of Ulysses’ ship past the isle of the Sirens, whose lusty song is irresistible to the sailors. Because Ulysses knows that the ship will be lost if it is captured by the siren song, he ties himself to the mast. For Maximus, the mast and the ship to which the sailors cling are figures of the cross of Christ, on which all sin is expiated. Maximus soon moves from the example of Ulysses—whose story he calls “fictive and not factual”—to Moses’ healing of his people by means of a snake affixed to a staff. Unlike the Ulysses example, the history of the Jewish people is factual, and so truly prefigures Christ’s sacrifice. It can be argued that Maximus’ Christocentric interpretation of Ulysses’ binding to the mast is inspired by Christian exegesis of the Hebrew Scriptures, the methods of which Maximus then applies to Greek myth. There is, after all, a strong exegetical tradition, beginning already with the second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr, which sees ships—specifically Noah’s ark—as a figure of the cross. From there, the paradigm might be easily transferred even to the ships of Greek myth. But transference is not all that Maximus is doing, notwithstanding his curt dismissal of Ulysses’ story. For later in the sermon Maximus encapsulates salvation-history thus: “Fittingly is he crucified on wood so that, since man was deceived in paradise by the tree of desire, he might now be saved by the same tree of wood; and the matter which was the cause of death might be the remedy of health.” In Maximus’ thought, nature itself—here instantiated in wood—constitutes the means of salvation, providing remedies for the bodily weakness of humankind. Since Ulysses’ salvation came directly through divinely-created nature, his tale is not just some forgettable fable. In this conception, however subtly stated, pagans and non-Christians are not outside the economy of salvation, for they, too, exist within a grace-filled nature which can proffer the remedies for their ailments.

For my transcription, translation and recitations (in Modern English and Latin), see my multimedia edition of Maximus of Turin’s homily for the fifth day after Easter in Ambrosiana MS B44 Inferiore.

Mihow McKenny
PhD Candidate in History
University of Notre Dame

[1] Mirella Ferrari, “Dopo Bernardo: biblioteche e ‘scriptoria’ cisterciensi dell’Italia settentrionale nel XII secolo,” in Pietro Zerbi, ed., San Bernardo e l’Italia. Milan, 1993, pp. 253-306.


D’Avray, D. L. The Preaching of the Friars: Sermons Diffused from Paris before 1300. Oxford: Clarendon, 1985.

De Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis: The Four Senses of Scripture. 3 volumes. Translated by Mark Sebanc and E. M. Macierowski. Eerdmans, 1998-2009.

Ferrari, Mirella. “Dopo Bernardo: biblioteche e ‘scriptoria’ cisterciensi dell’Italia settentrionale nel XII secolo.” In Pietro Zerbi, ed., San Bernardo e l’Italia. Milan, 1993, pp. 253-306.

Grégoire, Réginald. Homéliaires liturgiques médiévaux : analyse de manuscrits. Spoleto: Centro italiano di studi sull’Alto Medioevo, 1980.

Longère, Jean. La Prédication Médiévale. Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1983.

Maximus of Turin. Maximi episcopi taurinensis sermones.Edited by A. Mutzenbecher. Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 23. Turnhout: Brepols, 1962.

Rahner, Hugo, S.J. Greek Myths and Christian Mystery. Translated by Brian Battershaw. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.

Christine Ebner and the Engelthal Sister-Book: Some English Translations

Scores of women mystics. The dead returning to speak to the living. Even a mystical pregnancy. Who wouldn’t want to read this book?

Fortunately for us, it is more properly these books. There are nine “Sister-books,” or Schwesternbücher, from fourteenth-century German convents (plus several from fifteenth-century Netherlands). All are filled with short glimpses at the piety of different sisters.

Many scholars today argue that these collective biographies cannot tell us anything about the individual nuns. Rather, using rhetorical and devotional elements of their time, the books build a picture of how the community envisions itself. There is perhaps no better individual signal of this purpose than the title of Christine Ebner’s Schwesternbücher for the sisters of Engelthal: Buchlein von der genaden uberlast, which might be translated “Little Book on the Excess of Grace.” The books reveal the manifestation of God’s grace in each convent in a way that other people will understand.

Given that women wrote the Schwesternbücher about other women, it is surprisingly difficult to find English-language discussion of them, much less published translations.

So here I present three entries from Christine Ebner’s Buchlein von der genaden uberlast (Little Book on the Excess of Grace), which tells of sisters from the Dominican convent at Engelthal, near Nuremberg.

One sister was named Reichgard [Richardis] and was our patron’s sister and came to our community. She had been a black nun [Benedictine] and knew our craft. As she now had come into our cloister, she took up the practice with great industriousness and went unceasingly to choir for thirty years, that she never missed a single day. And she was also without meat these thirty years and came only rarely to bathe and fasted unceasingly, and was awake every night after Matins, and said no more than three Salve reginas with great devotion. The first Salve regina, she said that for the cloister and all good people; the second Salve regina for all sinners; the third Salve regina for the souls in purgatory. She was a righteous person for all her life, and Our Lord never did her any special grace until the time that her life would take an end. Then she lay after Matins in front of the alter in choir on her knees for a long time. There came Our Lady and led her son Jesus Christ by the hand, and he was like a child around ten years old and said to her, “Stand up, beloved Reichgard.” And when she got herself up, then our Lord gripped her by her chin and said, “The time has come, prepare yourself: your brother and your sister await you with great desire. You are invited to the eternal company; there I will give you all of the wages you have earned from me.” In the same place she arrived at death and died with a holy death. Not many days after she came back here and said: she had traveled to heaven not without respite; her purgatory had been in a green meadow.

One sister was named Mechthild von Neidstein, and came here from the court of the count of Herzberg, and was an unceasing servant of God and cried in her prayers every day for God to give her a good end. This he allowed her and gave her indeed a devout death. Then she came back after her death and said: God had given her an unmeasurable reward because she had been loyal to the convent, and especially that she had suffered in the office of prioress with loyalty.

[Mechthild] had a niece, who was named Sophie von Neidstein, who died before her, and was around twenty-four years old, and was an undefeated person. When she lay on her deathbed, then she was enraptured. When she again came to herself, then she said, “I was in the other world and have seen and heard—should I live five hundred years more, I could never fully say what I know. As I am now at peace, so I want to say something about it.” Then she lifted up a song, which no one understood other than the last word, that she said “Mary,” and then said: “I was made aware, that I am one of the saved people; this I did not know before.” After that, she died one more day after that. When she did her last action, then she lifted up the Salve Regina: “Greeted you are, queen,” and sang it with a sweet voice. As she was then dead, so she came back to a valued sister. She said to her: as she had prayed the Salve regina, then our lady Mary entered in a purple robe, and St. Agnes and many virgins entered with her. Then our lady wrapped the robe around her; thus everything flew away. This grace she had earned with a Psalter that she had read every day standing. Thus she had fallen under silence for three hours, when she was dressed for death, and died on the day of Our Lady.

All translations based on: Christina Ebner, Der Nonne von Engelthal Büchlein von der Genaden Überlast, ed. Karl Gustav Theodor Schröder (Tübingen: Litterarischer Verein in Stuttgart, 1871), 25-26.

Cait Stevenson, PhD
University of Notre Dame