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  • Purloined Letters: The Twelfth-Century Reception of the Anglo-Saxon Illustrated Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv) by A. N. Doane and William P. Stoneman
  • Susan Irvine
Purloined Letters: The Twelfth-Century Reception of the Anglo-Saxon Illustrated Hexateuch (British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv). By A. N. Doane and William P. Stoneman. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2011. Pp. ix + 366. $70.

British Library, Cotton Claudius B.iv, the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch, has long been celebrated by scholars of Anglo-Saxon literature and art. Relatively little attention, however, has been paid to the late twelfth-century annotations that feature on virtually every page of the manuscript. A. N. Doane and William P. Stoneman have set out to redress that neglect with a comprehensive edition and analysis of these annotations. As the authors show, the annotations, written in English and Latin, offer important evidence of late twelfth-century interaction with Anglo-Saxon culture, as well as with contemporary continental Biblical commentary, at St. Augustine’s Canterbury. This engaging and thought-provoking book explores the nature and significance of a cycle of annotations that have for so long lain hidden in plain sight.

Although the book is not conceived primarily as an edition of the annotations, nevertheless a sizeable proportion of it (almost half) is devoted to “the textual evidence” that underpins its later more discursive chapters. This section of the book comprises an invaluable resource for the study of the annotations. The authors present a semidiplomatic edition of the English and Latin annotations as they appear sequentially in the manuscript, with accompanying translations and footnotes containing textual comments. Such an edition cannot, as the authors acknowledge, do full justice to the ways in which the annotations and the original Old English text and illustrations constantly interact with one another (for which readers can consult further the online images of the manuscript at the British Library website), but proper attention to this interaction plays an important part in the argument that Doane and Stoneman subsequently present on the annotations and their function. [End Page 393]

The focus of the book, as reflected in its structure (seven chapters rather than a conventional critical edition), is not so much on the presentation of the text but on the study and interpretation of the evidence it can provide. In a chapter on the English annotations, the authors argue convincingly that the direct source for these annotations is the Historia Scholastica of Peter Comester (rather than the earlier sources of that work), and that the version used by the annotator was the revision produced in about 1180 rather than the ca. 1169 version. The notes, though composed in the late twelfth century, are linguistically conservative, depending heavily on late West-Saxon in terms of vocabulary, orthography, morphology, and syntax, albeit “still a very weird sort of late West-Saxon” (p. 200). In the authors’ view, the annotator has only limited competence in English written discourse, as is further attested by his apparent lack of confidence in departing from the model of the Latin. This is a writer who, it seems, curiously chooses to undertake original translation from Latin into English despite being hampered in the task by limited linguistic resources. A more detailed linguistic analysis of the annotations than was possible within the scope of this book (one which takes fully into account other late twelfth-century compositions in English) will undoubtedly shed further—and perhaps a different—light on their usage of English.

In a fascinating chapter on scripts and codicology, Doane and Stoneman analyze the various scripts in the annotations (characterized broadly as “insular” and “Norman”) and their complex relationship, assessing the implications for the number of scribes and the process by which the annotations were added. In the case of the Norman scripts, they argue that a single writer is at work, employing two kinds of script in order to distinguish his different sources. The aspect of the Insular script, itself far from consistent, and the varying relationship between the English and Latin notes in their layout on the page...


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