Niggling with the Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament

No one ever accuses academia of being speedy.

I reported on June 22, 2008 that I had completed the edits for my edition of The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, a 700+ page behemoth of a book.

Today, April 8, 2011, I got my first request for an edit from the publisher.

I’m not complaining — first, the request is a good catch from a good editor; second, I’ve had plenty to keep me busy and didn’t need the publication credit immediately — but I will say that it’s pretty hard to spin my mind back through the years and the intervening projects to try to get back into the groove of what I was thinking and working on back then.

The publisher’s request is that I reconsider the 77th footnote to my Introduction of the poem (which I guess means the first 76 rocked!). That note is a quick rendition of the earliest history of English translations of the Bible, which the editor observed is at best misleading in its current form (more likely just plain wrong). And I wholeheartedly agree. As I said, this was a good and welcome catch.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a quick and easy fix.

For starters, given the length of time I worked on the book — added to how long since it has been completely out of my hands and my head — it has been at least five or six years since I wrote this footnote (indeed, maybe even more). I have no idea what I was trying to say in the footnote. None. Nor do I know on what basis I was saying it. Reading it now is literally like reading the work of a complete stranger.

Worse, I can’t easily access any organized notes on the matter. I had them once, of course, but since I wrote that 77th footnote (out of 145 in the Introduction), I’ve switched jobs, switched states, moved my office four or five times, culled papers and books and materials countless times, had multiple hard-drive failures, written dozens of essays and stories, edited the massive Brunanburh book … and, well, the short of it is that whatever rationale I once had for those sentences, they’ve gone the way of the Dodo.

So I’m starting from scratch.

Which means that for the greater part of this beautiful Friday evening in Charleston I was reading and reading to come up with this new rendition of footnote 77, summarizing the efforts to translate the Bible into Anglo-Saxon (Old English):

Bede reports that in the seventh century Cædmon composed songs rooted in Scripture, though whether these efforts are best considered translations or paraphrases cannot now be known; we encounter similar uncertainty regarding Aldhelm’s supposed vernacular uses of Scripture around the year 700 (Paul G. Remley, “Aldhelm as Old English Poet,” pp. 92-94). The earliest reported literal translation of the Bible into Anglo-Saxon comes from Cuthbert and Ranulf Higden, who both record that Bede himself translated at least parts of the Latin Gospel of John on his deathbed in 735 (Mary Dove, First English Bible, p. 14). The earliest surviving translation of Scripture into English is the Vespasian Psalter, which dates to the later eighth century. The ninth century saw Alfred the Great’s organized effort to distribute parts of the Bible into the vernacular — including his own translations of parts of Exodus, Acts, and Psalms — which was succeeded by a relative flood of tenth-century translations from Aldred and Ælfric among many others.

This is a huge improvement of the previous note, even if I’m not certain whether this is the final form it will take: it’s a first revisionary draft, and there still might be niggling to be done. (And there’s a good chance I’ll wake up at 4am realizing I forgot X, Y, or Z.)

Perhaps happily, though, there’s only so much time for the niggling: as I recently mentioned regarding my The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook from the University of Exeter Press, The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament will be on display at the Kalamazoo Congress, where Medieval Institute Publications will be taking orders for it.

Publication date, I’m told, will be this summer.


  1. Wonderful edition.

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