Middle English Numbers

In the niche-lined halls of academia it’s generally considered a good idea to have a research specialization, a supposedly unique hat that fits you well enough that you might, over time, get known for doffing it at conferences and between the covers of critical journals. My CV shows that I’m an admittedly eccentric fellow in this regard — trying to wear three or four hats at once — but if I had to single out one hat that fits me best, it would be Editor of Middle English. I like to think I’m rather good at taking 13th to 15th century manuscripts and producing from them readable, usable texts like this.

Right now I’m in the homestretch of my biggest edition yet: a 700+ page edition of the massive Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament. It’s a beast I’ll be glad to get off my desk in the next few weeks. I finished the first draft in November and sent it to Russell Peck, my dissertation director, former boss, and the man in charge of the Middle English Texts Series, in which the book will be published (and for which I serve on the advisory board). Russell’s marked-up pages came back about a week ago, and I’ve been nose to the grindstone since.

Most of Russell’s suggestions are simple issues: add a gloss here, consider an additional explanatory note there … that sort of thing. But one concern he had has been something I’ve lost some sleep over.


You see, medieval scribes can be rather inconsistent folks, and it turns out that the scribe who copied out the manuscript of the Paraphrase I’ve been editing wasn’t consistent in the way he presented his numbers. He also has very small, sometimes not very neat handwriting, but it’s his inconsistent numbers that have been causing me the most grief.

For instance, the Paraphrase-poet, talking about Jacob stripping the bark on the rods that grow where Laban’s cattle breed, says that he peeled it back “six or seven” times. In the manuscript, the scribe records this as “VI or seven” (line 966). In other words, he uses both a spelled-out Middle English word and a Latin abbreviation (we might say Roman numerals). In my first draft I left these things stand as they are in the text, then included a gloss in the right margin that said “6 or 7” — just in case anyone was confused.

Russell isn’t so sure that this is the best idea, and he suggests that I go through the text and replace the Latin abbreviations with spelled-out Middle English forms. Part of the task of editing, after all, is changing the text to be more readable: adding the capitalization and punctuation that doesn’t appear in most manuscripts, inserting words that are missing in one manuscript but can be found in others (or that simply demand to be there on their own), inverting lines or words or letters where the scribe has messed something up … well, we change a lot. In fact, I’d even thought about doing this spelling-out originally but discarded the idea because I felt it was too strong a change to the medieval text without a significant benefit. With the glosses, after all, the meanings were clear as day.

Now, though, I’ve changed my mind. Russell’s queries pushed me back into the issue and what I kept finding was evidence — clear and unmistakable — that the poet’s word is Middle English in almost every case where he uses a Latin abbreviation (he does use Latin numbers on occasion elsewhere, but spells them out). Shortly after that “VI or seven” line, for instance, the scribe writes that Jacob made both his wives and their female servants pregnant, “So that he had hymself, … Of suns full semly XII” (lines 981 and 983). These lines have to rhyme (hymself : XII). Clearly, “XII” is “twelfe” (spelling taken from the poet’s own stock), so my text reads just that: “Of suns full semly twelfe.”

Thankfully, this change will make some lines just look a lot better, such as the statement of the widow of Obadiah about her husband’s good deeds in saving those whom Jezabel would have killed, which the scribe records as “I C held he hale of hew” (line 12163). The first two letters here represent “one hundred” rather than the first person pronoun and, as my younger students would imagine it, the verb “see.” So my text reads “One hunderth held he hale of hew” (this basically means “one hundred he kept whole of skin”).

Thus, too, the counting of the tribe of Aser in my edition will be “faurty thowsand” rather than the scribal “XL thowsand” (line 7707). So the Paraphrase-poet cannot now be construed as making a comment on Aserian waistlines. Bonus points there, I think.

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