Translating a poem is a tall order. There are many factors to consider and issues which must be negotiated in the process. Which is better—literal accuracy or stylistic approximation? We have asked modern translators from the Medieval Institute and English departments at University of Notre Dame to share translations of their favorite Old English poems, digitally displayed alongside their medieval counterparts. Recitations, both in Old and modern English, will likewise be featured as complementary audio files, accompanying both versions of each respective poem translated.
Today, we’d like to draw your attention to the first of these translations, which is now available on our site. Almsgiving is contained in the Exeter Book, a collection of Old English poetry copied c. 970, and thus the oldest surviving collection of English literature in the world. Jacob Riyeff, a PhD candidate in Notre Dame’s Department of English, has translated this beautiful poem, and you can read it below, as well as hear recordings of him reciting the Old English text and his own modern English translation. We hope you enjoy!
PhD Candidate in English
University of Notre Dame
Almsgiving from the Old English Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501)
Translation and Recitations by Jacob Riyeff
OLD ENGLISH ORIGINAL POEM:
Wel bið þam eorle þe him on innan hafað,
reþehydig wer, rume heortan;
þæt him biþ for worulde weorðmynda mæst,
ond for ussum dryhtne doma selast.
Efne swa he mid wætre þone weallendan
leg adwæsce, þæt he leng ne mæg
blac byrnende burgum sceððan,
swa he mid ælmessan ealle toscufeð
synna wunde, sawla lacnað.
ASPR III, 223.
MODERN ENGLISH TRANSLATION by Jacob Riyeff:
That disciple is blest whose spirit burns
with generosity, renovating the inner room
of her heart. The world rejoices at her worthiness
and the Lord glories in the welcome glow of her light.
Jesus ben Sirach says a surging
flame will be snuffed, raging fires
put down with welling water—no longer
able to damage dwellings with burning—
when that disciple douses sin, healing souls
with the gracious gift of her alms.
Have you heard of medieval anchoresses? Most people haven’t. Anchoritism was a fascinating (and odd) phenomenon that happened all across Western Europe and has roots in the early Christian desert hermit tradition. An anchoress was a laywoman who wanted to withdraw from secular life and live instead in solitude, enclosed in a small room attached to an exterior wall of a church or castle, devoting the rest of her earthly life to Christian devotion and such works of service as she could perform from her cell (embroidering liturgical cloths is one example). She would have required a patron or an income from landholdings or other source to support her needs, such as food, water, and clothing. Among women this phenomenon was first documented in England in the twelfth century and became an increasingly popular choice that continued well into the sixteenth. Several handbooks were written for these women, at first in Latin and then in English. Arguably the most famous is the Ancrene Wisse, composed in the early thirteenth century, of which an impressive seventeen manuscripts survive.
This lifestyle choice seems very strange to us today. Who among us would choose to confine herself to a one-room cell for the rest of her life? Wouldn’t you get claustrophobic, or addled by cabin fever, or die from lack of exposure to sunlight? Wouldn’t you just get bored? Not to mention the deeper and off-putting mythologies that have grown up about anchoresses: rites of the dead were said over them at enclosure, they were bricked into their cells, they dug their graves in their cell floors with their hands a little bit every day, they never saw anyone, and their cells were always on the north side of the church so they’d suffer more from cold (they were just that penitential).
Perhaps the most chilling myth is that anchoresses were all walled up in their cells, like Fortunato in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” In fact, while sometimes the exterior door of the cell was bricked in, that was not always the case. Further, the ceremony happened with great solemnity and was a voluntary commitment on the part of the anchoress. Various medieval pontificals, service books for Church bishops, record these rites. The office in the fifteenth-century pontifical of Bishop Lacy calls for the door of the cell to be built up. Others, like the sixteenth-century pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge directs the anchoress’s door to be firmly shut from the outside. The image above, from an early fifteenth-century Pontifical held at the British Library, accompanies an enclosure rite that begins “Ordo ad recludendum reclusum et anaco/ritam,” or “Ordo [a book containing the rites, sacraments, and other liturgical offices of the Church] for enclosure of a recluse and anchorite.” The bishop makes the sign of the cross above an anchoress entering her cell before enclosing her.
As part of the research for my dissertation-in-progress, a study of lay English women’s literacy in the thirteenth century, I’m visiting a number of medieval English churches that hosted anchorholds (or are rumored to have done so) and chronicling it on my blog. Two of the sites still retain their medieval anchorholds, one pictured at the top of the post and the other below. Interestingly, both have exterior doors.
There is, of course, much more to be said about the exterior fabric of these cells and what has changed over the course of five or six hundred years than is room for here. Nonetheless, the evidence demonstrates that anchoresses’ access to the world was a more complex matter than myth would have you believe.
Megan J. Hall, Ph.D. Candidate Department of English, University of Notre Dame
The Pontifical of Bishop Lacy: Exeter, Cathedral Library of the Dean and Chapter, MS 3513
The Pontifical of Archbishop Bainbridge: Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, MS F. vi. 1
F. M. Steele, “Ceremony of Enclosing Anchorites,” in Anchoresses of the West (London, 1903), pp. 47-51.
Rotha Mary Clay, The Hermits and Anchorites of England (London, Methuen 1914).
London, British Library, Cotton MS Nero A.x (pet-named the Gawain-Manuscript and at times the Pearl-manuscript) contains the only extant copies of some of the most celebrated Middle English literature. As a 14th century Middle English manuscript, and one that survives without any Anglo-Norman or Latin companion pieces, the illuminated initials and the various illustrations, mark it as a unique, multimedia project.
This can be taken a step further, as the audience of this manuscript would be twofold, namely those reading and experiencing the literature visually, and those listening and experiencing it aurally.
One of the most peculiar features of the manuscript may be the placement of the metrical “bob” in the last poem in the manuscript, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The respective bobs most often appear as many as two or three lines above its accompanying “wheel” directly before which, editors (and indeed most scholars) assume the bob would have been read. Despite that all editors from J. R. R. Tolkien onward move the bob in order to metrically perfect the poem, sloppiness on the part of the scribe seems doubtful considering the care taken in illuminating initials, thus the placements of these bobs may well be intentional.
By positioning the bob in such a way, Kathryn Kerby-Fulton sees potential for equivocation and the possibility that this bob might be a floating marginal device resonating with more than one line. Because of the syntactic flexibility of a bob, it can in fact (sometimes much more sensibly) be understood in the context of where it actually occurs in the manuscript. For a reader of this text (which is to say a literate, visual audience), such an interpretation is appealing. Kerby-Fulton persuasively argues that wyth wynne, placed between lines describing the respective foundings of Rome and Britain, could equally apply to both joyful events.
Howell D. Chickering has an interpretation of the irregular positioning of the bob, which reflects aural reception and considers the performative function of the poem. The audience of such a performance would likely understand the bob in only one place, where it is spoken; however, Chickering argues that the bob often appears preemptively to alert the recitator of the abrupt shift in meter, and almost always is found on the same page as its accompanying wheel. In giving the recitator this warning, Chickering suggests the performance might move more smoothly. These two interpretations both highlight the importance of manuscript context in understanding both the literary texts and their multimodal means of understanding and experiencing the poem.
The manuscript also reveals that a symbol, called a “trefoil”, often accompanies bobs, and if this symbol serves to add emphasis, as Peter J. Lucas has demonstrated it does in the work of John Capgrave, the trefoils in Sir Gawain may similarly indicate the importance and purposeful placement of bobs. While the manuscript’s systematic reasons for employing certain symbols remains a mystery, it seems likely that there was some premeditated method to the scribal adornment of bobs with trefoils.
Indeed, analysis of the positioning of bobs in Sir Gawain demonstrates how close attention to the manuscript presentation of a text contributes to a better understanding of how it might have been read and performed.
Department of English
University of Notre Dame