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  • The Linguistic Past in Twelfth-Century Britain by Sara Harris
  • Scott Gwara
sara harris, The Linguistic Past in Twelfth-Century Britain. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. 292. isbn: 978–1–107–18005–5. $105.

In this fine book, Sara Harris has explored the Dark Continent of twelfth-century English historical, literary, and legal writings. Focusing on the incipient awareness of a layered linguistic past—Brittonic giving way to Latin, giving way to Old English (including Norse), giving way to Anglo-Norman—Harris identifies the theoretical means of conveying pastness in etymologies, archaisms, discursive commentary, and outright invention. Engagement with such a linguistic past, she suggests, embraces multi-ethnic ancestral identity, cultural awareness, political authority, and models of conquest. In her introduction, Harris grounds native perceptions of language history in scriptural terms, describing how languages fall away from a pre-lapsarian transparency, disperse worldwide at the Tower of Babel, and then suffer ‘corruption.’ She explains how Latin ultimately provides the grammatical structures for analyzing vernacular tongues.

This promising start triggers an avalanche of percipient deductions. Chapter One covers efforts in English monasteries to validate Anglo-Saxon privileges through documents incorporating Old English, either in the original or in translation. Norman encroachments on pre-Conquest monastic possessions explain why vernaculars were thought to convey authenticity. Ramsey Abbey apparently translated authentic grants. Bury St. Edmunds, by contrast, concocted forgeries, as did St. Albans. Its charters [End Page 80] (one uses the term advisedly) underpinned the lost Gesta abbatum monasterii Sancti Albani, which survives in the Liber additamentorum of Matthew Paris. The Gesta was allegedly translated from a Romano-British book found in a wall at the abbey. The manuscript disintegrated after being translated. Æðelwold of Winchester also found an ancient source in a wall at Peterborough, presumably a version of the Relatio Hedde abbatis, which verifies the founding of Peterborough in 654–55.

Chapter Two concerns the prestige of Old English texts in the twelfth century. Henry of Huntingdon is shown to have had a solid, but imperfect, knowledge of Old English. He usually translated sense-for-sense but could also produce more granular renderings. Reflecting on Henry’s appreciation for linguistic mutability, Harris illustrates his strategies and failings. His translation of the ‘Battle of Brunanburh’ correctly rendered ‘heardes hondplegan’ as ‘duro manus ludo’ (p. 73), while ‘hamora lafan’ was misconstrued as ‘domesticae reliquiae’ (p. 75), confusing OE hamor (‘hammer’) as OE ham (‘home’). Regardless of the inaccuracies, Henry’s effort acknowledges ‘the authority of ancient documentation’ (p. 78). ‘Brunanburh,’ in fact, highlights the ‘literal meaning and the literary experience of reading’ (p. 75), in which pastness can be re-imagined and re-deployed. Harris finds a similar theoretical statement made by the Eadwine Psalter, a complex, multi-lingual, illustrated manuscript. Its historical ‘accretions’ include artwork drawn from the Utrecht Psalter, a Romanum exemplar of demonstrable antiquity, and Old English glosses from multiple sources, many unknown. Harris interprets this complexity, and especially the English vernacular, as evidence of Canterbury Psalm scholarship established in a co-linguistic context.

Writings by Geoffrey of Monmouth are the subject of Chapter Three. In Harris’ view, Geoffrey’s ‘liber vestustissimus,’ the alleged source of Gesta regum Brittaniae, validated Brittonic languages for historical study. The antiquity, content, style, and etymological interest of Welsh rivaled that of English and Anglo-Norman. Geoffrey’s gambit of validating Brittonic sources recalls how Historia Brittonum assimilated Brittonic legend and folktale genres into Latin chronicle history. Endorsing the etymological strategies used for Latin or English place names, Geoffrey legitimized Brittonic writings for an audience of skeptical Normans. Harris concludes, ‘[Geoffrey] endowed the Britons with a much fuller history’ and ‘located the significance of that history in their language’ (p. 97). The success of Geoffrey’s Prophetia Merlini, also advertised as a translation, likewise proved the status of vernacular sources. Commentaries that emerged around the prophecies invited interpretation via a Latin exegetical tradition. Gerald of Wales, finally, employed language to ‘[reconstruct] ethnic history’ (p. 117). In one notable episode from the Itinerarium Kambriae, the Welsh phrase ‘halgerin ydorum’ (‘pass the salt’) evoked the origin of Welsh in the Greek tongue spoken by Trojans.

Chapter Four centers on legal language. Just as ‘archaic...


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pp. 80-82
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