A Medievalist’s Life: Hunting Ben-hadad

What does a medievalist do, exactly? Is there more to it than brandishing swords at cowering students?

Well of course there is. (Sadly?) And while things like discovering European maps of the New World that pre-date Columbus sound pretty exciting, much of my life as an academic medievalist is spent in libraries, hunting down obscure facts and opinions to explain some detail or another.

Here, for example, is what I spent a good chunk of my afternoon doing:

By way of introduction, I do a fair bit of editing as a scholar, which is essentially the process of taking a medieval manuscript — with all its illegible handwriting and sloppy-scribe errors — and making it readable and understandable. In practice, I read 500 to 1000-year-old handwriting, type it up, “edit” it for sense, translate it when necessary, add copious notes explaining what it’s about, and then publish it, making it available for other people to study without needing to go to the manuscript and what-not.

So today I’ve been working on the editing of an enormous poem written around the time of Chaucer: The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament (and though that’s a boring name, it’s aptly descriptive of the thing). At one point the anonymous poet of this work writes the following:

Now lefe we the kyng Occozi. ———-Ahaziah
of other Joram wyll we tell
That soyjornd kyng in Samary ———–remained; Samaria
and led that land of Israel.
He geydderd hym grett cumpany
with Kyng Benedab more forto mell, ——Ben-hadad; interfere
Bycause he had wun with maystry ——-violence
Ramatha and thor con he dwell. ——— Ramoth-gilead and there did
Joram wold wyn agayn
that cyté yf he myght;
Bot his werke was in vayn,
that boldenese dere he boyght. ———cost him dearly

(One aspect of the editing I do is glossing the text: giving “translations” for difficult words in it, which are set off from the text above by a sequence of dashes.)

A bit of punching around the Old Testament and one can see that the poet is here paraphrasing 4 Kings (2 Kings) 9:14 and 2 Chronicles 22:5, in which King Joram of Israel (thus the “other Joram” since there’s a King Joram of Judah, too) decides to besiege the Aramean ruler of Ramoth-gilead.

Except that there’s a problem.

The Bible, and the other known sources for this poem (largely Peter Comestor‘s Historia Scholastica, itself making heavy use of JosephusJewish Antiquities), all identify the besieged king as Hazael, not Ben-hadad, who was already dead at Hazael’s hand — a story, in fact, that the Paraphrase-poet told at some length less than a hundred lines earlier.

Sometimes, when this sort of thing happens, you can blame a scribe, whose eye, as a result of copying from one manuscript to another, perhaps skipped from one line to another. However, in this case there are actually two surviving manuscripts of the Paraphrase, and they both read “Benedab” here. This makes some sort of eyeskip less likely, since it would pretty much require that both surviving copies were made from another (now lost) copy in which the eyeskip took place, and that none of the people involved in the production process of these now three manuscripts (one hypothetical) ever noticed the error.

So where did this mistake come from?

Old French Paraphrase, folio 105vThe French, of course! One of this poem’s sources is a similar paraphrase in Old French, which has never been edited (alas!). My ability to read medieval French isn’t great (not that my Modern French is exactly grand), but after a bit of perusing I found, in the manuscript of this Old French paraphrase now kept under lock and key in the British Library, the corresponding section of text. And there, in clean text, is “Benadab” (you can see it in the scan at left).

Mystery solved.

Or at least partially. Now I’m left to wonder where this French poet got Ben-hadad (perhaps that scribe got it via eye-skip?). And I must also decide whether or not I’ll leave “Benedab” in my edited text or change it (with notes explaining why, of course) to “Azaell.”

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