My primary area of scholarly interest is Old English language and literature. While a lecturer U of T's Department of English, I taught Old English. My approaches to Old English are varied, including such areas as philology, translation, and narrative, and recently I have become interested in syntactic formula in Old English poetry. I am a graduate of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the U of T and was a student researcher at the Dictionary of Old English. I wrote my dissertation on The Conceptualisation of Futurity in Old English, which you can read about in this entry. The entries in this archive are concerned with my work with Old English both as a teacher and a researcher.

July 10, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part II)

(This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.)

But back-tracking to the middle ages for a moment, we can see a similar metaphor, only the characterisation is different in the Christian world view. For instance, in the Old English elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” harsh exile is pictured in terms of a lonely journey in a boat, and the homiletic implication of this exile/pilgrimage is that the Christian soul’s ultimate destination is back to God. God is the only course to steer towards. Similarly, in the later middle ages, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Man of Law’s Tale, Custance, who is set adrift at sea by her antagonists to get rid of her, puts her faith in God: “In hym triste I, and in his mooder deere, / That is to me my seyl and eek my steere”. God is her sail and her rudder, her means of propulsion and steering. Again, this is a metaphor of the relationship between the Christian soul and God, and therefore of man’s place in the world. Though as in the ancient world, man does not control his fate, it is not a capricious god to whom he is subject.

Known as great sailors in the earlier part of the middle ages, the Vikings, who really only had the square sail, cheated a bit by lowering one end of the sail to allow for greater manoeuverability. But for the most part they made do with very simple means and no sophisticated navigational equipment. Here’s a picture of a Norse knarr (click to enlarge):


They were often blown off course, and as described in the Vinland Sagas, it was often due to accident that they made discoveries such as Greenland and Vinland. Interestingly, there’s quite the mix of chance, fate, luck both good and bad, pagan, and Christian in the Vinland Sagas.

As for the advance in sailing technology, in the late middle ages or early renaissance, the triangular lateen sail began to be used in Europe. Here’s a picture of a lateen sail:


The triangular sail, of course, works like a wing — high pressure on one side and low pressure on the other — and it allows a ship to sail almost directly into a headwind. And so by tacking in a zigzag pattern ships can sail go in any direction and are no longer at the mercy of the wind, as long as there is wind, as seen here (click to enlarge):


(You can read a good explanation of all this here.) Ships also started using sternpost rudders rather than steering with an oar hanging off the right side (starboard, literally the steering side, as opposed to the left side called port which was the side towards the dock, also known as larboard or loading side). The stern mounted rudder made it possible to steer larger ships, and larger ships could carry more provisions, including most importantly fresh water. These along with the old square sail (to take efficient advantage of favourable winds), as well as improvements to navigational technology allowed for real exploration to begin at the end of the middle ages and throughout the renaissance, kicking off the European age of discovery. Here’s a picture of the complete package:


Note both the square sails and the triangular lateen sail.

These advances too are reflected in the imaginative literature of the period. This is of course the age of humanism, when the cultural focus shifted from the purely religious to the world of man. People began to define their place in the world in terms other than purely spiritual ones. The eighteenth century, for instance, is full of travel literature, perhaps most famously Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver goes out into the world ostensibly to discover things about other people and places, but in fact learns about his own country in the process. Mankind defines itself through its exploration of the outside world, through its own ability to direct its own course in the world. This is a radical shift from the medieval seagoing metaphor as demonstrated most clearly in Chaucer’s Custance, who is really only defined by her relationship to God. The humanist shift in cultural focus goes hand in hand with the seagoing technological shift.

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

(Continued tomorrow)

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April 17, 2006

Beowulf & Grendel

I finally managed to see the recent Beowulf & Grendel movie. My first reaction was that it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting. Be warned: there may be spoilers here…

First of all, it looked beautiful. Filming in Iceland was a brilliant idea—it substituted well for a pristine medieval Denmark. And the sets and costumes (though one can certainly pick out anachronisms) were effective—not bad compared to most Hollywood-medieval. Certainly they shouldn’t have had stirrups, but they were riding little Icelandic ponies instead of huge stallions. And I enjoyed touches like the Thor’s hammers the Danes were wearing and the Anglo-Saxon glassware (known as claw beakers), though I may be one of the few who notice such things.

The performances were generally good, and they really brought out the sympathy for Grendel that I always thought was there—indeed I always bring up the point when teaching the poem.

As for the plot and the script, naturally some changes had to be made in order for the story to work on the screen. It didn’t really bother me that Grendel’s attacks were drawn out, rather than having Beowulf defeat Grendel on the first night he tries. That’s just the way movies often work in order to build the tension.

As for some of the other changes, although they weren’t necessarily problematic, I have to ask why. I didn’t quite see why it was necessary to give Grendel the motivation of revenge for the killing of his father, rather than the simpler sour grapes for being excluded and the fact that trolls or draugar or whatever he is just act that way. It had the effect of turning the plot into that of an Icelandic saga with a blood feud. I suppose to some extent that’s already implied in the plot with Grendel’s mother seeking revenge. But does Grendel really need to have a father? Still at least this detail is not inconsistent with Germanic legend.

The element that bothered me most was the addition of the character Selma. Besides the fact that I thought she was unnecessary, she kind of stood out like a sore thumb, and was a bit irritating with her moral self-righteousness. She provided insight into Grendel’s character for Beowulf, but he really isn’t supposed to have that insight—Grendel is supposed to be too far removed from the world of man to be understood.

Well, I could go on, but it would soon descend into a lengthy discourse on my reading of Beowulf, so I leave it at that. Any Anglo-Saxonist ought to see it if given the chance, whatever one thinks about it. It might even be interesting to see what students thought about it, comparing it with the original text.

And oh yes—Andy Orchard was given special thanks in the credits…

Posted by Mark at 05:34 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 08, 2006

Geoles bec

Unsurprisingly, I was given several books for Christmas. I love receiving books, as I’m often given books that I probably wouldn’t buy myself, but which I quite enjoy. And now I know what I’ll be reading over the next little while.

Among the books I got are Murder’s Out of Tune by Jeffrey Miller, a mystery involving a crime-solving cat. As is clear from the sidebar list of readings, I’ve read a number of books like this featuring cat protagonists, so this looks like just the book for me. Thanks go to my parents-in-law for this one. I’ll post some comments on it once I’ve read it.

My wife gave me a number of books, including Cassell’s Dictionary of Norse Myth & Legend, by one of my doctoral committee members, Andy Orchard. This is an excellent reference book, and it will be useful to have a copy of this close at hand. She also gave me a copy of Chickering’s edition of Beowulf, which contains a useful commentary, and Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, a book often recommended to me. And finally, she gave me two books by James Burke, The Knowledge Web and Twin Tracks, about which/whom I will post more later.

So quite the bonanza of books. I wish I could spend all my time reading…

Posted by Mark at 05:04 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

January 07, 2006

Doceo linguam Latinam

Way back I posted that Aven and I were about to move to Sackville, New Brunswick to teach at Mount Allison University. Well here we are already one term in, and I haven’t posted at all about my teaching here. I’m teaching in both the Classics department and the English department, so this entry will focus on my Latin teaching, and later I’ll post about the English course I taught.

For the Classics department I’m teaching first-year Latin. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m not actually a classicist, but in fact a medievalist. However, the rigorous Latin training one receives at the Centre for Medieval Studies is well known, and so here I am teaching first-year Latin. Besides, I’m a philologist, and so language is a particular interest of mine, and much of my work, including some more recent avenues of investigation, focus on Latin translation (that is, translation of Latin into medieval vernaculars), so I’m quite enjoying the opportunity to teach Latin.

The departmental choice of textbooks, Ecce Romani, would not have been my first choice — personally I prefer a more rigorously grammar-based approach rather than the reading-based approach. Of course the other popular choice for an undergraduate Latin textbook is Wheelock, which it must be said has its own drawbacks. Nevertheless, I think it’s a better textbook. But I haven’t had a look at the latest edition of Wheelock, so I’d be interested in hearing from anyone who had seen it, or even taught from it. The CMS favours Moreland and Fleischer, Latin: An Intensive Course for the baby Latin course. This works very well for graduate students who are highly motivated to learn Latin grammar as quickly as possible so as to be able to move on through the programme, but it might be too intensive for undergraduates. Any other options?

In the first semester, the final enrollment was 50 students—quite large for a language class, but consistent with the class sizes I had with Old English. This term I have about 12 at the moment, which is a definite luxury. These students will get quite a good class with all the individual attention I’ll be able to give them. We had a good time last class, talking about the Roman delicacy of stuffed mice.

We also discussed the concept of relative clauses, not in itself the most difficult topic—I described relative clauses as giant mutant adjectives of course—but what is initially difficult is the fact that relative pronouns agree with their antecedent in gender and number but not in case. I’ll start the next class with a continuation of this topic, and I think I’ve come up with a better way of explaining it. Rather than starting with a sentence with a relative clause in it and taking it apart, bracketing off the clause, I’ll start with two separate sentences and show how subordination can combine them. This way I can show how a relative pronoun functions like any other pronoun. Hopefully this will make it all clear. I do find relative clauses to be a tricky concept for many students. Still, it’s much more straightforward in Latin than in Old English, which uses an indeclinable relative pronoun, sometimes in combination with other pronouns. Old English was just not made to subordinate that much. In any case, it’s interesting to compare teaching the two languages.

Posted by Mark at 04:07 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 09, 2005

Dreamas and deaþ

I started this entry a while back in the midst of teaching Chaucer’s dream vision poems. Here’s the completed entry…

Reading all these dream vision poems by Chaucer recently has made me really want to teach a class in medieval dream visions more generally, starting with the Old English Dream of the Rood and including the Middle English Pearl, one of my all-time favourite poems, and William Langland’s Piers Ploughman. One could also include excerpts of various saintly dream visions (such as from Bede) and various background texts such as Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. One could even get into medieval dream theory a bit, looking at Macrobius’ commentary on the Somnium Scipionis and other medieval treatises on dream theory.

Another grouping of texts that would make a good seminar class is poems dealing with death and bereavement in the Middle Ages. It would include Old English elegies like The Wanderer and The Seafarer as well as Middle English poems such as Pearl and Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. It’s kind of a depressing idea, I suppose, but it would be very interesting. I wonder what other texts would be good for such a grouping…

NB — A cookie for the first person to point out the problem with this entry’s title.

Posted by Mark at 05:04 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

March 04, 2005


I haven’t yet posted on my teaching since my blog rose from the ashes a few weeks ago, so now seems like a good time. As I posted a long time ago, I’m teaching two full year courses this year, Old English again and Chaucer, and both have gone quite well. Today I’ll post about the Old English class and soon I’ll do another about the Chaucer class.

I tried out a new Old English grammar textbook this year, Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English. While I like the idea behind the arrangement of the book, I’m not entirely satisfied by the execution. The main problems with the old standard textbook for Old English, Mitchell and Robinson’s Guide to Old English, are that it isn’t user friendly, it presumes that the students already have some grounding in at least modern English grammar if not another inflected language like Latin, and it isn’t arranged in a pedagogically useful manner. Thus, it is up to the instructor to provide the necessary structure and explanation, as I did last year when I used the book. Baker’s book, on the other hand, is an attempt to make up for this lack. The material is arranged in such a manner so as to allow the students to progress through the grammer in a somewhat graduated fashion, while slowly introducing them to simple short texts. Unfortunately, there are a number of errors in the book and some of the explanations are rather vague or incomplete. Perhaps these issues will be addressed in future editions, but I don’t think I’ll use this textbook again. Instead, I would go back to Mitchell and Robinson, which is far more reliable, and supplement this with a photocopied package of materials which I would put together myself. This proposed package would include what is essentially an interface to Mitchell and Robinson, arranging the material in a pedagogically sound manner with accompanying readings and exercises. This way I would have the reliability of Mitchell and Robinson’s treatment of the grammar with an arrangement more like the old warhorse Latin texbook by Wheelock in graduated sections. Well, it’s a bit of a pipe dream now, as it would be much work to put such a thing together, but I do think it would be worth it.

Otherwise the class is going well. The enrollment dropoff is a little higher than in recent years, but those who are sticking with it are talented and keen. We just finished with The Wanderer, which seemed to really catch the students’ interests and produced some good class discussion. Before that we looked at The Dream of the Rood. I become more and more fascinated by the poem every time I read it. One of these days I’m going to have to sit down and put together an article on it. Now we’re on the Deor, which is always fun because it gives me the opportunity to tell all the stories behind the allusive (and often elusive) references to Germanic legend in it. By the way, it’s interesting to note that my entry from exactly one year ago today has much the same comments.

Posted by Mark at 03:33 PM | Comments (0)

February 18, 2005


Well, I’ve registered again for the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo. At this year’s conference, I’ll be giving a paper entitled “Pragmatic Markers in Old English Narrative” in session 230 Old English Language on Friday, May 6th at 10 am (see schedule). Now all I have to do is write the thing…

Posted by Mark at 06:39 PM | Comments (0)

August 14, 2004


Well, it’s getting to that time of year when I have to prepare for the new academic term. At the beginning of the summer term, after over a month of not actually being in front of a class, I was quite excited at the prospect of teaching again. I guess it’s the performer in me. I have the same feeling again, though somewhat tempered by the thought of all the things I have yet to do.

This year I’m teaching Old English again, as well as, for the first time, Chaucer — and not Effective Writing again, which is a very time-consuming course. It will be great to teach Old English again because I’ve already built the course, and I’ll be able to fine tune it. All the fun but not too much work. I’m both excited and a little nervous about teaching Chaucer for the first time. Since my main area of research is Old English, not Middle English, I don’t have the same comfort level yet in Middle English as I do in Old English, but I’m having a great time reading up on Chaucer and preparing the class. And it will certainly be a great addition to my resumé.

I’ve ordered my textbooks now, with a few changes from last year. In the past, for Old English I’ve used Mitchell & Robinson’s A Guide to Old English, as most Old English teachers do. The biggest problem with this text is that it is very difficult for those who don’t have much of a background in language and grammar to use. If the students already had somewhat of a background in, for instance, Latin, it would be no problem, but the reality is that most students today have little formal training in Modern English grammar, let alone an inflected language like Latin. So instead, this year I’ve decided to try out Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English, which has an accompanying website. This text is more geared to students who have no prior linguistic knowledge, but unlike Bruce Mitchell’s An Invitation to Old English & Anglo-Saxon England, it has a structured approach to learning the language. To supplement the anthology of texts contained in Baker’s text, I’m also using Pope & Fulk’s Eight Old English Poems, mainly because I also like teaching The Battle of Brunanburh and Deor, which aren’t included in Introduction to Old English. As supplements, like last year I’m also using The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, as well as translations of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Beowulf, specifically Michael Swanton’s and Roy Liuzza’s translations respectively.

As for the Chaucer class, the main text is The Riverside Chaucer, really the only choice. Apparently there is a soft-cover version, but it’s only available in the UK. I would love to have used it, to protect both the students’ wallets and backs from this weighty tome. Ah well. I spent a lot of time considering what supplementary text(s) to use and finally settled on Robert P. Miller’s Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds, which contains excerpts from parallels and sources to a variety of Chaucer’s works. I also wanted to use some kind of commentary volume, but given the expense of the two other texts, I only added a recommended text, The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer. I’d be curious to know what others think of these textbooks.

Now I have to put together the syllabus for each of my classes, so there’s still a lot of planning to do. It’s funny, I’m almost as excited as I used to be when I was a student about to start new classes. I enjoy teaching — being in front of a class is so much fun — and I love the material I’ll be teaching this year. Now if only all my other work would fall into place…

Posted by Mark at 03:27 PM | Comments (0)

July 09, 2004

Þære wucan word


Check out the Old English word of the week at the Dictionary of Old English website. (A cookie for anyone who can correctly identify the quotation in the graphic above.)

Posted by Mark at 02:40 PM | Comments (1)

May 17, 2004

From Kalamazoo to...

At long last an update on my activities during the last two weeks. As I mentioned before, I attended the 39th International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

My paper, “Verbal Constructions and the Structure of Old English Narrative”, went well, though there weren’t many people attending that session; this may have been because the room had been changed, and there were only two papers in the session. In any case, those who were there seemed to enjoy the session, and there was some good discussion after the papers were given. I guess I’ve delivered enough of these conference papers now — not to mention the fact that I’m used to performing in front of a class on a daily basis — that the whole process was particularly smooth and enjoyable for me.

I didn’t get to as many other sessions as I would have liked because I had to bring exams to grade with me to Kalamazoo, but I did see at least a few good papers (as well as a few not-so-good papers). I also attended quite a number of receptions with open bars — the real reason people go to Kalamazoo. And I managed to pick up a few books at the exibit hall. I bought mostly editions, and fairly inexpensive ones at that, so I didn’t spend too much money. And of course the crowning glory of the weekend was the Saturday night dance. There is little that is more surreal than seeing a room full of medievalists letting loose on the dance floor.

All in all, it was a good Kalamazoo. I’m always lethargic about going just before leaving, but I always enjoy myself. And I’m sure I’ll feel it worthwhile to submit another paper for next year.

Posted by Mark at 11:51 PM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2004

To writenne spell

In about a week and a half, I leave for Kalamazoo, Michigan for the 39th International Congress on Medieval Studies where I will be delivering a paper entitled “Verbal Constructions and the Structure of Old English Narrative”.1 I’m still working on the paper.

When I submitted my proposal, way back in August or September, I was shortly about to sit my thesis defence, so at the time the only thing I had on my mind was the material in my dissertation. While the title of the paper is suitably vague enough, I am bound somewhat by the contents of the proposal. I’ve got plenty of new material that I’ve been working on since then (as well as some unused material from when I was writing my dissertation) which could be worked into the paper (more interesting for me and potentially more interesting for the audience), but there is only so far I can stretch it, and only so much material I can fit into a 20 minute talk. Also, I find myself needing to balance the desire to talk about my more recent material against the exigencies of presenting a coherent and unified paper. Hopefully I’ll find the right balance…

1 The session I’m speaking in, Ideas of Style in Old English, is on Thursday May 6th at 3:30 pm, but instead of the location printed in the programme it will take place in Schneider 1355, or so I’m told.

Posted by Mark at 06:13 PM | Comments (2)

April 24, 2004

Forðgewiten fulfremed and mare þonne fulfremed

On Tuesday I attended an interesting lecture by Professor Matti Kilpiö from the University of Helsinki entitled “Diachronic Changes in the Inflection vs. Non-Inflection of the Past Participle in Old English Perfect and Pluperfect Constructions Formed with Habban”. Professor Kilpiö is writing the entry for habban for the Dictionary of Old English. His findings are perhaps still somewhat preliminary, but he showed some very interesting patterns. While the non-inflection of the past participle in perfect and pluperfect constructions is by far more common than the inflection of said participles, they are in variation during the Old English period (as the inflection becomes gradually less common over the period). He even had examples of sentences with both inflected and non-inflected participles. There were definitely some interesting distribution patterns (including word order patterns), and Professor Kilpiö supplied some very useful handouts.

Posted by Mark at 11:45 PM | Comments (0)

April 23, 2004


Over at Languagehat there’s a discussion of and link to Saganet. Even if you’re not interested in Old Norse manuscripts, it’s worth just taking a look at some of these images.

On a similar note, there are some nice manuscript images available from the British Library on their Turning the Pages site, including images from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Also quite stunning.

Posted by Mark at 12:34 AM | Comments (0)


There is an interesting posting on kennings over at Language Log and a link to a Lexicon of Kennings. Both worth a look.

Posted by Mark at 12:24 AM | Comments (0)

April 22, 2004


There’s an interesting post on Language Log about phrasal verbs and which verbs are permitted to take these so-called “prepositions”. I think Mark Liberman is dead on here. This does represent an older linguistic pattern which has survived to the modern English.

This interesting discussion has inspired me to write on a topic which perscriptive grammarians often make erroneous statements about: ending a sentence with a “preposition”. What perscriptivists don’t seem to realise is that up in sentences like “He cleaned up” or “She finished up” is not a preposition at all. It is more accurately thought of as akin to the separable prefix of separable prefix verbs in German, and due to the Germanic principle of embraciation, the normal word order for such separable prefixes is often the end of a sentence. Ending sentences with such separable prefixes was perfectly normal word order in Old English and in Middle English, and is still normal and acceptable in Modern English. So don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t end a sentence in a “preposition”.

As an interesting aside, I should point out that in Old English prepositions sometimes come after the noun they govern (as in him biforan ‘before him’).

Posted by Mark at 11:46 PM | Comments (0)

And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche

As I mentioned earlier, I’m in the midst of grading Old English essays at the moment. While this is a fair amount of work — though I fortunately do have a teaching assistant to help mark the 41 eight to twelve page essays — it’s actually quite enjoyable work. For the most part, the essays are really quite excellent, far more sophisticated than one might expect in a second year undergraduate course. This is largely due to the fact that many of the students are actually in upper years, and many are going on to do graduate work. Also, as I wrote earlier, I’m quite pleased with the essay topics. Assigning essay topics is quite fun: you come up with all these interesting topics, don’t have to do all the work, and suddenly all these great essays appear! Indeed, from the very best essays I’m learning new things myself. Not a bad return on the teaching.

Posted by Mark at 05:33 PM | Comments (0)

April 17, 2004

Dissertatio: Back to the Future, or The Future is Now (available)

My dissertation, The Conceptualisation of Futurity in Old English (abstract), is now available for download from UMI ProQuest Digital Disserations (free for those with academic affiliations and with a charge, which doesn’t go to me, for the general public). Strangely enough, it is not yet available in the U of T Library — they seem to be very slow to catalogue new items — but it is available in the PIMS library. It’s about the development and usage of futural verbal constructions in Old English.

Now anyone who wishes can have relatively easy access to it. This is a good thing, I think, since I don’t think I’ll be trying to have it published as is. Instead, I plan to suck all the marrow out of its bones and publish a series of articles based on the best parts of it. Chapter 1 could probably be expanded into a monograph and published on its own, and the rest of it would make sense as shorter articles, also expanded and revised. I think the material will be more approachable that way, and, to be mercenary about it, I’ll get more lines on my résumé that way. But what do others think of the relative merits of publishing a dissertation as a book or as a series of articles?

Posted by Mark at 06:13 PM | Comments (1)

April 16, 2004


In the last week of term, I covered riddles with my Old English class. I figured it would be a fun way to end the term. We started with the a couple of basic riddles from the textbook and then moved on to some riddles that I prepared as a handout. Mitchell & Robinson’s A Guide to Old English doesn’t contain any of the double-entendre riddles, riddles which seem to suggest a rather salacious solution but in fact have a perfectly ordinary and polite solution, so I had to make up a mini-edition of some good ones (with glossaries) to use in class. I think the class quite enjoyed them and were only a little traumatised by the experience.

The riddles are also quite interesting for a variety of reasons in addition to the use of humour in Anglo-Saxon literature, as they give an insight into the Anglo-Saxon cultural commonplaces and reflections on the natural world.

Here for the entertainment of my readers are (translations of) some of the riddles we looked at in class. A cookie to the first one to guess the solution to each of the riddles. The first two are polite riddles, the second two are suggestive:

Riddle 46
A man sat at wine with his two wives and his two sons and his two daughters, beloved sisters, and their two sons, noble firstborn; the father of each of those two young men was there with them, uncle and nephew. In all there were five of those men and women sitting there.
Riddle 86
A creature came going where many men sat in an assembly, wise in mind; it had one eye and two ears, and two feet, twelve hundred heads, a back and a belly and two hands, arms and shoulders, one neck and two sides. Say what I am called.
Riddle 44
A wonderous thing hangs by a man’s thigh, under the man’s garment. In the front is a hole. It is firm and hard, it has a good place; then the man lifts his garment over the knee, wishes to touch with the head of his hanging object that familiar hole which he regularly before often filled.
Riddle 45
I heard something grows in a corner, swells and is erect, raising its covering; a bride groped that boneless thing with proud hands, the lord’s daughter covered the swelling thing with a garment.
Posted by Mark at 01:06 PM | Comments (2)

April 05, 2004

Awendednesse Beowulfes

In answer to this question from Blinger I can recommend three translations of Beowulf, actually.

For a very literal, accurate translation, the one in S.A.J. Bradley’s Anglo-Saxon Poetry, which contains translations of the majority of Old English poems, is a quite reliable prose rendering. Bradley is usually the first translation I reach for for Old English poetry.

On the other hand, for a more entertaining verse translation, there is always the recent version by Seamus Heaney. Heaney’s version is quite interesting as a poem in and of itself, but he does take some liberties with the text. There is a handy dual language edition with facing page text of the original Old English poem. Or there is a critical edition from Norton, which has a number of useful extras such as commentary and a collection of important Beowulf scholarship.

R.M Liuzza’s verse translation is quite a successful compromise between these two ends of the spectrum. I quite like Liuzza’s version, actually. It is an accurate representation of the text, and it is interesting to read. It also contains a slew of useful materials in appendices, such as translations of various analogues to the poem and sample passages for a number of Beowulf translations for comparison.

It’s quite interesting comparing these three versions. Bradley and Liuzza are both Old English scholars, and Heaney, of course, is a famous (Irish) poet. Heaney has certain goals in his translation which he explains in his introduction. One of the essay topics I set for my Old English students was to compare two different translations of an Old English text. In addition to the translations of Beowulf there are some quite interesting versions of Old English poems by otherwise famous English poets, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Battle of Brunanburh and Ezra Pound’s The Seafarer. I’m quite looking forward to what my students come up with.

For those who have read any of these translations, what did you think?

Posted by Mark at 09:46 PM | Comments (0)

April 04, 2004

Ex tempore

A little while back, Blinger wrote an entry about the importance of being over-prepared for teaching, a sentiment I certainly agree with. However, there are times that improvising in the classroom can be very effective.

Last week I gave a lecture (acually part of a lecture) that I thought was quite good, which was done without full preparation. In my Old English class (as I’ve mentioned before), we were looking at a passage from the poem Judith. I’ve been working on the poem in my own research recently, and I had done some additional work with the aim of making some introductory remarks on the poem in class, but I decided that there wouldn’t be time for a lengthy introduction, so I never actually wrote up my notes for class, opting only for some brief remarks.

As it turned out, we finished the passage from Beowulf more quickly than expected, so there was a good 20 to 30 minutes or so at the end of one class for me to do my introduction for Judith, so I just improvised on the subject off the top of my head. I think it was one of my more successful recent lectures actually. It even inspired one student to change his essay topic. Admittedly, I had done a lot of research beforehand, but I wasn’t working from a set of notes. Perhaps the best method is to make the notes and then throw them away. In any case, I certainly couldn’t do a lecture by just reading from a set of notes. I much prefer actually talking to my class and being able to read the expressions on their faces as I go.

Well, I’ll finish off this entry with the Beowulf joke I told my class last week (not my joke originally, by the way): “Beowulf is the story of how the hero Beowulf comes to Heorot to stop Grendel from eating all the Danishes.”

Posted by Mark at 09:28 PM | Comments (1)

April 03, 2004

Tacen sweotol

Over this past week in my Old English class, we’ve been reading parallel passages from Beowulf and Judith (as I’ve mentioned in a previous posting), specifically dismemberment passages: Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and the tearing off of his arm (ll. 809-836), Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother (ll. 1557-1590), and Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes (ll. 94b-121).

In the first passage, in a fight with Grendel, Beowulf mortally wounds Grendel by ripping his arm off; Grendel then flees the hall to die in private. Beowulf then puts the arm on display in the hall Heorot (Hart House, anyone?) as visible evidence — tacen sweotol ‘visible token’ — that he defeated Grendel.

In the second passage, Beowulf cuts Grendel’s mother’s head off with a special ancient sword he finds in her underwater abode. He then proceeds to mutilate the already dead body of Grendel, cutting the head off. Beowulf does this for two reasons, for revenge and so that he can bring the head back with him to Heorot. When Beowulf arrives at the hall, he shows it to the Danes tires to tacne ‘as a token of glory’, again, visible evidence of his victory.

In the final passage we looked at, Judith saves her people, the Hebrews, from Holofernes and his invading army of Assyrians. The Assyrians have beseiged the city of Bethulia, and Judith uses feminine charms to gain access to the enemy camp. The wicked Holofernes holds a banquet and becomes very drunk. Deciding to have his way with Judith, he orders her brought to his bedchamber, but then passes out from all the alcohol. Judith takes this opportunity to cut Holofernes’ head off, though it takes two blows to do it, and then sneaks out of the camp bringing the head with her. When she returns to her city, she orders her handmaiden hyt to behðe blodig ætywan ‘to show it, bloody, as a sign’ to her people. And she says, “Her ge magon sweotole … on ðæs laðestan hæ&eht;enes heaðorinces heafod starian” [‘You may clearly gaze on the head of that most hated heathen warrior’]. Having seen this visible evidence of Holofernes’ death, the people of Bethulia are enheartened and attack and defeat the now leaderless Assyrians, who panic and flee.

I find this all very interesting, the need for visible evidence, the motives for dismemberment, the thematic implications. I should also point out that both these poems are found in the same manuscript, so drawing parallels between the two is very tempting.

Posted by Mark at 05:55 PM | Comments (0)

March 31, 2004

What's in a name

I saw another Quizilla quiz which I found curious. Here is my result (if you can manage to overlook the various typos and grammatical errors):

You are from the Anglo-Saxon time period. It was
a very hard time for the people - sickness,
death, barely anyone being able to read. But
the people learned to have a stoic acceptance
to these things. Truly, this is the era where
the stuff of legends are made - the most famous
one being Beowulf. You have a strong sense of
right and wrong. You never give up. Life is
sometimes hard but you learn to look on the
bright side of things. You have a strong
beleif in things that explain; religon, magic
swords, omens, etc. Sometimes, though, you
have a tendecy to make things look bigger,
better, or worse than they are.

Which Era do you belong to?
brought to you by Quizilla

First of all, I find it interesting that the time period is referred to as the “Anglo-Saxon time period”. I suppose this quiz is based on the literary time periods of England. However, another possible result from the quiz is the “medieval time period”. Is Anglo-Saxon England not part of the middle ages? At least they didn’t use the term “dark ages” (a term I find problematic) to refer to ASE.

The content of the quiz result is also intriguing. I guess it’s the usual stereotype people have of the Anglo-Saxon world. I find the use of the term stoic quite interesting. I guess it’s the closest parallel.

For the purposes of comparison, here is the result for the “medieval time period” (with humorous spelling error):

You are from the Medievil time period. If you read
any history book, it’ll tell you all about
sickness, disease, poor living conditions, and
death. But if you look into a literature book,
it will show you something more; honor and
chivalry, love and romance, conquest long
journey’s for love and family. You’re a
hopeless romantic (I remember reading that in
another quiz … ). You don’t waste time on
Earth because you know that some people don’t
have a lot. This is the time period where
people began to relize they could discover and
create something new. You always look to the

By “medieval” they mean the high middle ages or Middle English period in England. Again, these are the standard stereotypes. What particularly fascinates me is the final sentence: “You always look to the future”. Of course the common assumption is that the Anglo-Saxons were always looking to the past. While this is certainly true (as expertly pointed out by Roberta Frank), in my dissertation I argued that the future was an important concept and going concern for the Anglo-Saxons as well. So I hereby reappropriate that sentence in the name of the Anglo-Saxons.

Posted by Mark at 06:01 PM | Comments (2)

March 25, 2004

Wit oððe we, unc oððe us

A student in my Old English class asked me an interesting question today. We were reading Wulf and Eadwacer and pondering the use of pronouns in the poem. In the refrain line (Ungelic is us ‘It is different with us’, or something along those lines), the speaker uses the plural pronoun us, and it is not clear who this ‘us’ is or how many people it refers to. Later in the poem the speaker refers to Uncerne earne hwelp ‘our wretched whelp’ and uncer giedd geador ‘our song together’ using the dual pronoun uncer.1 It’s still unclear who the pronoun refers to — there seems to be a love triangle in the poem, so it refers to the speaker and one of the two men, Wulf or Eadwacer — but it is clear that it refers to only two people. It has been suggested (though I don’t know if it has been universally accepted) that the plural refers to the speaker and one of the two men, and the dual refers to the speaker and the other of the two men.

My student asked me if the use of the dual pronoun implied greater intimacy. I wasn’t really sure how to answer this. Is the dual pronoun ever used to refer to two antagonists in Old English? I suppose one could say that the dual pronoun is sometimes used when the dual number of the referent is specifically regarded, not only because of intimacy. Sometimes the dual is conspicuous by its absence; for instance Adam and Eve are not refered to using dual pronouns in Ælfric’s translation of Genesis.

But what of other languages? I know that Old Norse also preserves the dual pronouns. What other languages do? Is there any special implication in the use of the dual in those languages (other than simply number)?

1 Old English has dual-number forms of the 1st and 2nd personal pronouns:
wit, unc, uncer ‘we two, us two, etc.’ and git, inc, incer ‘you two, etc.’, as opposed to the plural we, us, ure ‘we, us, our’ and ge, eow, eower ‘you, you, your’.

Posted by Mark at 03:26 PM | Comments (6)

Webbstowa be stæfcræfte

I’ve added a number of new links on the sidebar to language blogs that I read.

The first language blog I started reading was the excellent On English, which I’ve had listed on the sidebar for some time and have mentioned before.

There is an interesting discussion in Language Log (here and here) about case and military prowess in the ancient / early medieval world. As was pointed out, the actual conquerers of Rome were in fact Germanic speakers, specifically Goths, who had nearly as many cases to deal with as there are in Latin. They did, however, have a simpler tense/aspect system. Hmm…

Blinger has a useful entry on putting together a teaching dossier, a process that I’m going through at the moment.

Languagehat has a posting on the Englisc List, an e-mail discussion group about composition in Old English of which I am a lurking subscriber. There is also a review of Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything that is rather more critical than my own. Languagehat makes some valid points. I guess my reaction to the book wasn’t as critical because my expectations were somewhat different; I was expecting a light, entertaining history of the OED, and that’s what it is.

Also worth a read are Tenser, said the Tensor and The X-Bar, which both have excellent titles. Click over to all of these blogs if you’re interested in peculiarities of language.

Posted by Mark at 02:00 PM | Comments (2)

March 22, 2004

Underðeodendlic gemet (Be he live or be he dead...)

Another cross-over between my Old English class and my English writing class.

There’s a line in The Wife’s Lament that has a particular use of the subjunctive forms of the verb ‘to be’: “Sy æt him sylfum gelong / eal his worulde wyn, sy ful wide fah / feorres folclondes” which can be very literally translated ‘be all his joy in the world dependant on himself, (or) be he very distantly outcast from his far country’ or perhaps more smoothly though freely translated as ‘whether all his joy in the world is dependant on himself, or whether he is very distantly outcast from his far country’.

This use of the two subjunctive forms to form a correlative construction with the sense ‘whether … or’ survives into Modern English (though somewhat archaic) in Jack and the Beanstock: “Be he live or be he dead, I’ll grind his bones to make my bread”.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that some of my English writing students have a tendency to use this construction. I wonder if they do so in an attempt to sound more formal. I generally suggest they change it to ‘whether … or’, which I feel is more common in Modern English, but perhaps the construction is fine in current usage. Does anyone else use this construction in their writing (or speech, I suppose)?

Posted by Mark at 10:35 PM | Comments (1)

March 21, 2004


We got most of the way through The Wife’s Lament in my Old English class this week. Next week we’ll finish it off and read the fairly short Wulf and Eadwacer. I’m saving the last week of term to do Old English riddles with the class, but that leaves a good week open, so I put it to a vote as to what text to read next. The group decision was to read parallel exerpts from Beowulf and Judith, so the sections I chose were the dismemberment passages: Beowulf’s fight with Grendel and the tearing off of his arm (ll. 809-836), Beowulf’s fight with Grendel’s mother (ll. 1557-1590), and Judith’s decapitation of Holofernes (ll. 94b-121). It should be both fun and thematically interesting. Indeed, I’m quite happy with the passages I settled on.

I’m also pleased with some of the topics I’ve got my students working on for the final essay. In particular, I’ve got a couple of students working on word studies, a topic close to my own heart. One is working on the word uht, a word that means ‘dusk, the period before dawn’, and its various compounds (such as uhtcearu ‘sorrow at dawn’). Another might be working on compounds such as eorþscræf ‘earth cave’ and eorþsele ‘earth hall’, which might have also have the connotation of ‘grave’. These are interesting words and should produce good essays. I’m really looking forward to reading what my students come up with.

I’ve also been getting much encouraging feedback from students lately, from both my Old English class and my Effective Writing class. At least I know I’m doing something right. I’m glad to hear that I’ve been able to make my classes both useful and interesting.

Posted by Mark at 12:46 AM | Comments (2)

March 17, 2004

Dies Sancti Patricii

Happy St Patrick’s Day to all! Have a Guinness or a Jameson, (or ignore the day completely if you prefer). Tomorrow I’ll write about tonight’s St Patrick’s Day dinner. For now I’ll mark the day with a bit of trivia.

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the year 430, St Patrick is (or may be) briefly mentioned: “Her Patricius wæs asend fram Celestine þam papan to bodianne Scottum fulluht” (ChronE 430.1).1 This is in the E text of the ASC; all the other texts read “Palladius” (as does Bede’s HE). In the A text of the ASC, there is an interlinear addition of ‘or Patrick’ in what is apparently a post-Conquest hand. So there seems to be some confusion here, but it seems like it should actually be Palladius and not Patrick.2 Patrick gets all the glory in later tradition, and poor Palladius get Guinness drunk in his honour every year.

It’s also worth noting that the Irish are referred to as the Scots, which was common at the time (I’m sure it will infuriate many to read this). The passage in Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis anglorum reads: “Palladius ad Scottos in Christum credentes a pontifice Romanae ecclesiae Caelestino primus mittitur episcopus” (HE 13).3 This passage is translated into Old Engish as: “Þæs caseres rices ðy eahteþan geare Palladius biscop wæs ærest sended to Scottum, þa ðe on Crist gelyfdon, fram þam biscope þære Romaniscan cyricean, Celestinus wæs haten”.4

Scots… Irish… to those in the middle ages it’s all the same. What a final sentiment for a St Patrick’s Day posting. Well, I’m off to drink some Jameson and Guinness. I’ll finish off with the only other mention I’ve found in the Old English corpus of St Patrick: “Ðonne resteð sanctus Aidanus and sanctus Patricius on Glæstingabirig and fela oðra sancta”. (KSB 8.2 37.1). A cookie to the first one to correctly translate this passage…

1 ‘In this year, Patrick was sent from Pope Celestine to preach baptism to the Scots.’

2 There is an article on the confusion between the two figures: D.N. Dumville, “‘Acta Palladii’ preserved in Patrician hagiography”, in Saint Patrick, ed. D.N. Dumville (Woodbridge, 1993), pp. 65-84.

3 ‘Palladius was sent from Celestine, bishop of the Roman Church, to the Scots, who believed in Christ, as their first bishop.’

4 ‘In the eighth year of that Emperor’s reign, bishop Palladius was first sent to the Scots, who believed in Christ, from that bishop of the Roman church who was called Celestinus.’

Posted by Mark at 05:06 PM | Comments (1)

March 10, 2004

Werlic cynn and wiflic cynn

It occurs to me that I haven’t blogged about a linguistic topic in a while, so I thought I’d write about the issue of gender in language as it became an issue in both my English Writing class and my Old English class this week.

The grammar topic I covered with my English Writing class this week was agreement (subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent), and this brought up the problem of the lack of a gender non-specific singular personal pronoun in English. Of course it has become pretty much standard usage in spoken language to use they for this purpose as in: ‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in their waiting room.’ I had to convince my students that it wasn’t correct to use their that way in written language.

My students weren’t terribly happy with the rather clunky solution of using he or she or s/he (‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in his or her waiting room’), but there really isn’t any way around that is there (suggestions welcome).

Historically, most languages (or at least the Indo-European ones I know) use the masculine gender to cover both (‘Every doctor has outdated magazines in his waiting room’), but this no longer as acceptable, not only for the sake of political correctness, but also for logical correctness; with respect to my sample sentence, a hundred years ago one might be more or less safe in assuming that all doctors are male but that’s certainly not true now.

While it isn’t correct to use they as a gender non-specific singular personal pronoun in written English now, I’m sure that in a hundred years or so it will be (unless some other pronoun is developed to fill that void). I’d be interested to hear from anyone who might be able to enlighten me as to how other languages not familiar to me handle this problem.

On a related topic, I find it stunning how often scholars have tried to interfere with the gender expressed in the Old English poem The Wife’s Lament. The poem is a first person monologue, with no name given for the speaker. It is clear from the first sentence of the poem that the speaker must be female because of two adjectives referring to the speaker which have unambiguous feminine endings (geomorre and minre sylfre). A surprising number of Old English scholars have suggested emending those inflectional endings so as to take the speaker as male. It is a testament to the systematic misogyny of 19th century scholars, I suppose. What is perhaps even more surprising is that even as late as the 1960s such arguments were still being floated. And it is remarkable the lengths that these scholars went to explain away the gender expressed in the text and how inventive some of their arguments were. It’s a shame, because it is such a compelling poem and such a powerful female voice.

As a final note, if you enjoy reading about language, click over to On English (also linked to on the sidebar), a very entertaining and interesting blog written by Rethabile Masilo, who enjoys punning neologisms as much as I do.

Posted by Mark at 10:31 PM | Comments (1)

March 09, 2004


Well, I’ve put this off long enough. While it is no secret that music is a great interest of mine (I play a number of instruments and even started a music degree as an undergraduate), it may not be common knowledge that over the past year I have become quite devoted to the ukulele.


For my birthday last year, my wife Aven gave me a ukulele, specifically a Denver Duke. Little did she know what she’d started.

I found out that there were two other types of ukes availible at our local music store, and I couldn’t resist. I bought a baritone ukulele, a lower-pitched ukulele made by Hilo, and a guitalele, a six-stringed ukulele made by Yamaha. If only I’d had these when recording the Folk Brigade material!

As it turned out, the guitalele came with a cloth carrying case, but the other two didn’t, and so, rather than buying cases over the internet, I decided to make cases:


The plaid one in the middle is the guitalele case, and the two black ones are the ones that my wife and I sewed out of black denim and grey fleece for the lining. Here you can see a closeup of the inside of one of the cases.

The surprising thing is that I’m not the only Old English scholar with a ukulele connection. Although he doesn’t play the ukulele himself, Roy Liuzza plays in a band called The Rites of Swing that features a ukulele. I haven’t heard any of their music, but I imagine it would be great.

In addition to the Ukulelia weblog linked to on the sidebar, another site I’ve found useful in my exploration of all things uke is the ezFolk Ukulele Section. I’ve even fuelled my uke habit by putting together my own book of ukulele transcriptions. My latest plan is to do some digital recording on my computer of Gershwin songs played on the uke. I don’t know why, but somehow it seems appropriate. Maybe when I do get around to doing this, I’ll put clips up on this blog for you all to hear.

As a side note, the original ukulele I got for my birthday came in an oddly shaped cardboard box, which strangely enough is the exact right size and shape for Tigger:


I’ve taken to calling him my furry ukulele. I’ll never be able to take away these boxes because he’d be so upset with me. Here are a couple more pictures of the furry ukulele to bring up the cuteness quotient of this posting.

Well, I guess I end this rambling entry with a picture of me playing the uke, as well as the baritone and guitalele:


Posted by Mark at 05:42 PM | Comments (0)

March 06, 2004


I just finished reading The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester (see the list of readings on the sidebar and this previous posting). As I noted earlier, this is a book about the history of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, and, as someone who has previously worked at a dictionary (the Dictionary of Old English), I found this book to be particularly congenial. The book is well written and quite interesting; in fact, it has certainly made me want to read Simon Winchester’s previous book on the OED called The Professor and the Madman.

There are a lot of interesting facts in this book that I didn’t know, such as the fact that Henry Sweet, whom I’m familiar with as an important Old English scholar who wrote various OE textbooks, a student’s OE dictionary, and editions of OE texts, was the model for Henry Higgins in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Indeed, having read the prefaces to his Early English Text Society edition of King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care and The Student’s Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon, where he comes across as a fairly ornery fellow, I am not entirely surprised by this revelation. There are also many wonderfully interesting bits of trivia contained in his very entertaining footnotes.

I’m quite the dictionary fanatic and never pass up the opportunity to acquire another. And I find it fascinating to read the history of all these linguistic tools that I use constantly, such as the OED and the editions of the Early English Text Society, a society which was created to supply reliable editions for the OED, and of which I am a member. I really should have been a nineteenth century scholar of language and Old English. In any case, reading The Meaning of Everything has put me in a non-fiction state of mind, so next up is Colin Peter Field’s The Cocktails of the Ritz Paris.

Posted by Mark at 12:32 PM | Comments (0)

March 05, 2004


The academic job market has, of course, been very much on my mind lately. And this insightful posting by Michael Drout has inspired me to make this my topic today.

Having defended my dissertation in September 2003 and spending the 2003-2004 academic year as a part-time sessional instructor at U of T teaching Old English and English writing, this was the first year that I was really on the job market. Now realistically I know that one must often expect to be on the marked for a few years before landing that much-coveted tenure-track job, but it seems like a steeper climb than I had originally thought.

As Michael Drout pointed out in the aforementioned posting, graduates of the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto have often been quite successful in getting jobs, but I’m not so sure that’s as true recently as it has been in the past. There were a number of Centre students on the market this year, myself included, who didn’t get jobs in this round of hiring. I think there are some more general reasons for this as well as some specific ones in my case.

I suspect English departments may have a general bias against medieval studies. Students from medieval studies programmes have a lot of specialist knowledge. The Centre for Medieval Studies places a lot of emphasis on languages and skills such as textual criticism, Latin, and palaeography. Many English department hiring committees, however, may be looking for candidates who will teach medieval literature in a way more in keeping with the ways other areas of English literature is taught.

Am I suggesting that a PhD from an English department is better than one from a medieval department? Not at all. In fact, I believe in many ways a medieval studies graduate is on the whole often better prepared to produce solid scholarship on medieval literature than a graduate from an English department, but the English department graduate still has an advantage when it comes to the job market.

I think it’s particularly difficult for Old English specialists. As a friend of mine pointed out to me today, medievalists often have to position themselves as early early modernists. And there often seems to be a (wrong-headed) belief that it’s better to hire a Middle English specialist who can teach Old English than it is to hire an Old English specialist who can teach Old English.

In my case specifically, I imagine I am somewhat disadvantaged by the fact that the focus of my research is philological. I know that many people would suggest that one’s thesis topic should be chosen with a hiring committee in mind, but I simply refuse to sell out just to get a job. A trendy topic may garner attention in the short term, but fifty years from now it’s the philology that will still be relevant. Besides, one has to enjoy what one is researching, otherwise it probably won’t get done.

I had initially thought that my teaching experience would be a big advantage. I had had a lot of TA positions and was applying as a current sessional instructor. But I now think publications are far more important. As Michael Drout pointed out, an article in the right journal can open a lot of doors. So now my priority is getting published, and hopefully for me that will make the difference in the next round of hiring.

Well, that’s enough ranting for today, I guess. Though I may sound a little bitter, I guess it’s just because I’m venting a little. I haven’t by any means lost hope, but it is a little discouraging.

Posted by Mark at 04:16 PM | Comments (0)

March 04, 2004


It occurs to me that I haven’t writting anything about teaching my Old English class yet. This week we finished up the poem The Wanderer and are now in the middle of Deor. Reading these poems again, I was again struck by how fascinating they are (though for very different reasons). I’m enjoying teaching these poems immensely.

For a poem ostensibly about a wanderer or eardstapa (literally ‘earth-stepper’), it’s striking how solipsistic The Wanderer is. Certainly the poem contains much description of the physical realities of the wanderer’s situation, but so much of the poem is about his internal psychological state. Indeed the poem is quite a sophisticated examination of the psychology of despair and consolation, it seems to me.

Deor, also a poem that examines despair and consolation, is fun to teach because it gives me the opportunity to talk about Germanic heroic legends (as well as Classical mythological analogues). And while some scholars back away from the suggestion that there is Boethian influence on the poem, I find the parallels quite striking, particularly when taking into account King Alfred’s translations. Aside from the passage that parallels the refrain in Deor, most of the legends referred to in the poem are also referred to in Alfred’s version or are paralleled by a Classical analogue.

But the main reason why I’m enjoying teaching this stuff so much is how keen my class is about it. They seem to be as fascinated by it as I am. It’s very encouraging to get that kind of response.

Posted by Mark at 11:04 PM | Comments (0)

March 01, 2004

Ða Wealas and leac

Well, I don’t have time for a full posting today, but I thought I’d just take a moment to wish everyone a happy St. David’s Day. I suppose it’s odd that I titled this posting in Old English (‘The Welsh and leeks’), but I’m afraid I don’t know any Old Welsh (would someone care to enlighten me?); it’s especially odd since the word ‘Welsh’ comes from the Old English word Wealh, which originally meant ‘foreigner, slave’. The poor Welsh were made slaves and foreigners in their own country by the Anglo-Saxons!

In celebration of St. David’s day, we put leeks in our chicken noodle soup last night (made from our home made stock). Etymology for the day: the word ‘leek’ comes from the Old English word leac, which is actually a general word for ‘onion’ and is the second element in the compound garleac ‘garlic’, literally ‘spear-leak’ because of its shape.

Posted by Mark at 11:46 PM | Comments (0)

February 26, 2004


I’ve been pondering syntax rather intensely over the last couple of weeks, both Old English and Modern English. Well, perhaps I’m always pondering syntax, but there are two things in particular I’ve been thinking about recently. Today I’ll post on my Old English musings and tomorrow I’ll write about my Modern English musings.

While working on a discourse analysis of the Old English poem Judith a while ago, I ran into the phrase sittan eodon (sittan being an infinitive meaning ‘to sit’, and eodon being preterite plural of the verb ‘to go’),1 and it occurred to me that in the context (men attending a feast), it didn’t seem to make sense to translate it as an infinitive of purpose (‘they went to sit’); it seemed like two separate actions (‘they went and sat’).

Of course, it is often pointed out that an infinitive with a verb of motion or of perception in Old English often seems to function like a present participle in Modern English (‘he went running’ or ‘I saw him running’). In fact, in Modern English we can still use the bare infinitive after a verb of perception in this way (‘I saw him run’). With the verb of perception, the infinitive can be anything, but with the verb of motion, the infinitive is generally something appropriately connected to the motion, perhaps describing the manner in which the subject moved. The classic example is in Beowulf: “Com on wanre niht / scriðan sceadugenga” (‘The walker in the darkness came gliding in the dark night’).2 Less frequently a verb of rest is used instead, as in lagon slapan (‘they lay sleeping’).

What I wondered is to what extent this construction was relevant to my Judith passage, an infinitive of rest following a verb of motion. Of course many scholars would (and have) simply classify this as an infinitive of purpose. Perhaps the infitive shows consecutive action (‘they went and sat at the banquet’), or perhaps the passage should be translated as ‘they went, sitting at the banquet’).

The thing about syntax questions like this is that the more you think about it, the less clear it becomes. Do ‘they went and sat’ and ‘they went to sit’ come to the same thing anyway?

Stæfcræft is seo cæg, ðe ðæra boca andgit unlicð (‘Grammar is the key, which unlocks the meaning of these books’).3

1 The full quotation is: “Hie ða to ðam symle sittan eodon” (‘They then went to the feast and sat’) Jud 15.

2 Beo 702b-703a.

3 ÆGram 2.16-17.

Posted by Mark at 02:31 PM | Comments (0)

February 25, 2004

On angynne...

Well, every blog needs a first entry, and this is mine. I don’t intend to write on any specific theme to start off with, but this blog won’t simply be a diary of my day-to-day activities either (though where relevant there may be some of that). I’ll start out just writing about my thoughts and observations on language, literature, music, food, culture, history, and so forth in the hopes that someone may be interested in reading my mad ramblings. In the future, I may blog (if I may use this word as a verb) about music as I write or record it or my academic pursuits as I engage in my research, but for now this site will contain amalgam of all these things. Thanks to Mike for making all this possible. Enjoy the ride.

Oh, and a cookie to anyone who correctly identifies the title of this entry.

Posted by Mark at 03:29 PM | Comments (4)