Saturday 10 November 2018

All Things Weird

My column in the November issue of History Today can be read online here (and do buy the magazine - lots of good stuff in it this month!). Here's an extract:

There is a widespread myth about the history of the English language, which goes like this: it began as the sturdy, rugged Germanic tongue of the Anglo-Saxons – good for writing about battles, but not much else – and was refined into a decent level of sophistication by the influence of Norman French, which shaped it into a language fit for discussing elegant and cultured topics. This trajectory – from earthy to elegant, coarse to cultured – is a story regularly repeated in popular narratives of English history, usually by those who have not read much Anglo-Saxon literature; the stereotype of Old English as unsophisticated or ‘rude’ (in every sense of that word) falters in the face of contact with the intricate poetry or thoughtful prose written in that language.

In the late Anglo-Saxon period, Old English was developing a sophisticated technical vocabulary with which to discuss scholarly, scientific and theological subjects. Many of these terms have not survived to the present day, but they are evidence of how carefully some Anglo-Saxon writers thought about their own language and how much consideration went into the production of new words and compounds.

One example is an intriguing word that brings us back to my opening question: wyrdwritere, meaning ‘historian’. This word was coined towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, probably in the tenth century, as an English equivalent for the Latin word historiographus. It was then adopted by some Anglo-Saxon scholars to refer to writers of various works of history, including the authors of the historical books of the Old Testament and Roman historians.
Read the rest here, on what the Old English word wyrd might actually mean and how it became our modern weird. I'm fascinated by this word and the twists and turns of its history, from The Wanderer to Macbeth; at no point is it particularly easy to define, and any single translation ('Fate', especially) has the potential to be misleading. I've discussed this mysterious power as it appears in some different Old English poems here and here, but wyrdwritere is a term from learned Old English prose, coined (as Mechthild Gretsch argues in The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform, pp. 160-2) in the tenth century by scholars glossing the works of Aldhelm. This usage of the word very definitely refers to works of written history, but there is a broader sense in which wyrd, in poetry, often appears in connection with reflections on the passage of time and the contemplation of the remains of past societies - the stuff of history, at least as medieval writers understood it. Most famously:

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.
Stondeð nu on laste leofre duguþe
weal wundrum heah, wyrmlicum fah.
Eorlas fornoman asca þryþe,
wæpen wælgifru, wyrd seo mære,
ond þas stanhleoþu stormas cnyssað,
hrið hreosende hrusan bindeð,
wintres woma.

Where is the horse? Where is the warrior? Where is the treasure-giver?
Where are the seats of feasting? Where are the joys of the hall?
Alas, the bright cup! Alas, the mailed warrior!
Alas, the glory of the prince! How that time has passed away,
grown dark under the cover of night, as if it had never been.
There stands now in the tracks of the dear troop
a wall, wondrously high, decorated with serpents.
The warriors were taken away by the power of spears,
weapons greedy for slaughter, wyrd the famous;
and storms batter those rocky cliffs,
snow falling fetters the earth,
the tumult of winter.
(The Wanderer)

Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon;
burgstede burston, brosnað enta geweorc.
Hrofas sind gehrorene, hreorge torras...
ældo undereotone. Eorðgrap hafað
waldend wyrhtan forweorone, geleorene,
heardgripe hrusan, oþ hund cnea
werþeoda gewitan.

Wondrous is this wall-stone, wrecked by wyrd,
cities broken open, the work of giants destroyed.
Roofs are ruined, towers fallen...
eaten by age. The grip of earth holds
the mighty builders, decayed and gone,
the hard grasp of the ground, until a hundred generations
of peoples have passed away.
(The Ruin)

In The Seafarer, the reflection that 'there are no kings or caesars, nor gold-givers as there once were' prompts the conclusion:

Wyrd biþ swiþre,
meotud meahtigra þonne ænges monnes gehygd.

Wyrd is stronger,
the Measurer mightier than any man's thought.

And in Maxims II, as well as the cities of past societies, wyrd's power is somehow connected with the passage of time through the seasons of the year, and through the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

Cyning sceal rice healdan. Ceastra beoð feorran gesyne,
orðanc enta geweorc, þa þe on þysse eorðan syndon,
wrætlic weallstana geweorc. Wind byð on lyfte swiftust,

þunar byð þragum hludast. Þrymmas syndan Cristes myccle.
Wyrd byð swiðost. Winter byð cealdost,
lencten hrimigost - he byð lengest ceald -
sumor sunwlitegost - swegel byð hatost -
hærfest hreðeadegost, hæleðum bringeð
geres wæstmas, þa þe him god sendeð.

A king should defend a kingdom. Cities are seen from afar,
the skilful work of giants, which are on this earth,
wondrous work of wall-stones. The wind in the sky is swiftest,
thunder is loudest in season. Great are the powers of Christ.
Wyrd is the most powerful thing. Winter is coldest,
spring frostiest - it is the longest cold -
summer sun-brightest - the sun is hottest -
harvest most glory-blessed; it brings to men
the year's fruits, which God sends them.

Perhaps it's not difficult to see the movement from this to the historian's contemplation of past events, expressed by the word wyrdwritere. Wyrd in these contexts is usually translated as 'fate', but here at least I tend to think that it means rather 'the passage of time': an inexorably unfolding sequence of events, which from moment to moment can only sweep us forwards. It does mean other things in other contexts, most notably in the (imagined) pagan world of Beowulf, but the instance I think of most often comes from Solomon and Saturn:

Gewurdene wyrda,
ðæt beoð ða feowere fæges rapas. (156-7)

The second line means 'those are the four ropes of the doomed', and the first something like 'things which have happened', or 'deeds done'. Simple, and astonishingly powerful.

Ælfric's Wyrdwriteras us secgað (Oxford, Bodleian MS. Hatton 115, f. 63)

I first encountered wyrdwritere in the short piece by Ælfric known as Wyrdwriteras us secgað, where he adduces a number of historical precedents on the question of whether kings ought to lead their armies into battle themselves, or delegate to trusted commanders. (A controversial issue in the reign of Æthelred, it seems...) Ælfric uses wyrdwritere a number of times in his writings, but elsewhere he also explicitly objects to ideas of fate and destiny relating to ðan leasan wenan, þe ydele men gewyrd hatað ('that false idea, which foolish men call wyrd'). So the question of what he personally understood the word wyrdwritere to mean is an intriguing one. The origins of wyrd, as far as we can guess, are likely to be pre-Christian - a power which corresponds to some kind of pagan idea of destiny. But there is also a significant Christianised understanding of the word which Ælfric must have been familiar with from other Anglo-Saxon sources: in the Old English translation of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, attributed to Alfred the Great, wyrd is the term used to refer to the working-out of God's will in time (Boethius' fatum).

Se God wunaþ simle on þære hean ceastre his anfealdnesse and bilewitnesse. Ðonan he dælþ manega 7 mistlice gemetgunga eallum his gesceaftum and þonon he welt eallra. Ac þæt, þætte we hataþ Godes foreþonc 7 his foresceawung, þæt biþ ða hwile þe hit þær mid him biþ, on his mode, ærþam þe hit gefremed weorþe ða hwile þe hit geþoht biþ. Ac siððan hit fullfremed bið, ðonne hatað we hit wyrd.

Be þy mæg ælc mon witan þæt hi sint ægþer ge twegen naman ge twa ðing: foreþonc and wyrd. Se foreþonc is sio godcunde gesceadwisnes. Sio is fæst on þam hean sceopppende þe eall forewrat hu hit geweorþan sceal ær ær hit geweorþe. Ac þæt, þæt we wyrd hataþ, þæt biþ Godes weorc þe ælce dæg wyrcþ, ægþer ge þæs þe we geseoþ, ge þæs þe us ungesewenlic biþ. Ac se godcunda foreþonc heaþeraþ ealle gesceafta þæt hi ne moton toslupan of heora endebyrdnesse. Sio wyrd ðonne dælþ eallum gesceaftum andwlitan and stowa and tida and gemetgunga. Ac sio wyrd cymþ of þam gewitte and of þam foreþonce þæs ælmihtigan Godes. Se wyrcþ æfter his unasecgendlicum foreþonce þonne swa hwæt swa he wille. Swa swa ælc cræftega þencþ and mearcaþ his weorc on his mode ær ær he it wyrce, and wyrcþ siððan eall, þios wandriende wyrd þe we wyrd hataþ færþ æfter his foreþonce and æfter his geþeahte, swa swa he tiohhaþ þæt hit sie.

[God dwells eternally in the high city of his oneness and mercy; from there he deals out many and various measures to all his creatures, and in that way he governs them all. But regarding that which we call God’s forethought and his foresight, it exists while it abides with him in his mind, before it is brought to pass, and while it is only thought. But as soon as it is accomplished, then we call it wyrd.

From this everyone may know that there are two names and two things: forethought and wyrd. Forethought is the Divine Reason, and remains fast in the high Creator who knows how everything shall come to pass before it happens. But that which we call wyrd is God’s work, which he works day by day, both that which we see, and that which is invisible to us. The divine forethought holds up all creatures, so that they may not fall asunder from their true place. Wyrd therefore allots to all things their forms, places, seasons, and proportions; but wyrd comes from the mind and the forethought of Almighty God. He causes to happen whatever he chooses, according to his ineffable forethought. Just as every craftsman thinks over and marks out his work in his mind before he works it out, and then carries it out altogether, so this changing wyrd [perhaps here 'course of events'] that we call wyrd proceeds according to his forethought and purpose, just as he determines that it shall be done.]

(Isn't that glorious prose? Nothing earthy or 'rude' about that!) This seems to be the careful adoption of a native term into the discourse of Christian philosophy - almost, perhaps, an attempt to give the word a new definition, or to clarify what it means in this particular context as distinct from its various other meanings. It was perhaps in this sense that Ælfric used wyrdwritere, especially when thinking about the writers of the Old Testament: those who chronicle the unfolding of God's purpose as it is revealed in time.

An illustration from the Old English translation of the Book of Genesis 
(of Jacob and his people journeying to Egypt), in BL Cotton Claudius B IV, f. 66v

Whatever way you take it, it is very different from the modern understanding of a historian's role. Getting away from the Anglo-Saxons for a moment, I'm interested in the idea of alternative words for historian in part because it's a term whose use today is somewhat contested. Every so often in the history corner of Twitter (a lively place!) there's a skirmish about the question of who is entitled to call themselves, or to be called, a 'historian'. Is it a term which requires particular qualifications? Should it be restricted to those who have an undergraduate degree in History, or a doctorate in History, or are engaged in academic teaching and research in the field? Or can it be used more loosely to refer to anyone writing or broadcasting about the past? These disagreements usually break out in response to the British media's very liberal approach to the term, where it is applied to just about anyone who does any activity relating to anything which happened more than a decade or two ago (especially if it's a man and he's famous). Professional historians, understandably, are often troubled by this and argue back against it. You might think this is primarily an academic concern, but the question does seem to worry the audiences of popular history too - I lurk in a big amateur history group on Facebook where these debates pop up regularly and become pretty acrimonious. Many people attach a very definite status to the word historian, and object to what they see as its misuse.

Related to this is the question of how far people who feel strongly about the term will allow it to be applied to pre-modern writers about the past; they often propose that such writers, too, should be subjected to some kind of qualifying test. Medievalists tend to call writers like Bede and William of Malmesbury historians (though with the implicit understanding that their conception of the purpose of writing about history was different from our own), but there are those who argue that the presence of miracle-stories or anecdotes in the works of medieval historians disqualifies them entirely - if it's not academic history in the modern sense, they say, it shouldn't be called history at all. It gets more complicated still with the multifarious medieval forms of writing about the past which are less palatable to modern historians even than historia and chronicle: romance history or hagiography, for example, which don't fit easily into modern generic categories but which were for many centuries immensely popular and influential ways of writing about what we call 'history'.

Of course the reason for all this is that historian is a term which means different things to different people, with connotations formed in a particular social, cultural, and institutional context, and therefore no more easy to define than wyrdwritere is. I don't personally have strong feelings about the question - though I do understand why some professional historians do - and as an observer I find the debate quite interesting. My own academic background is in English literature, so I don't tend to think of myself as a historian; those of us who work on the Middle Ages get to use the conveniently general term medievalist, and like many medievalists, my work is very much interdisciplinary, since the boundaries between history and literature are less strictly drawn in my field of study than they are for those who work on later periods. I research, teach and write about texts which straddle the boundary, which don't belong by rights to one field or the other, and that's a common and understood practice within my discipline. But medievalist is a term not much used outside academia, and I was a bit taken aback a few years ago when this blog started to get a bigger audience and all of a sudden people were referring to me as a historian. By the definition of the people I mentioned above who have strong feelings about historians' qualifications, I'm not a historian at all, nor do I particularly want to be one (I like studying literature!) - but what other term is there? In public, I pretty much have to be a 'historian'. Outside academia, that's almost the only word available for people who write about the past - from whatever angle - but it's not a perfect one, and no wonder it's contested.

My field doesn't have an equivalent term, and so we don't really have equivalent debates about how to define or defend it (there aren't exactly tons of media personalities clamouring to declare themselves literary critics). But it's also a disadvantage when it comes to public communication, and that does trouble me a bit. There's an established market and an audience for popular history as there isn't for other fields, and so for public consumption everything relating to the literature, art, religion, and intellectual culture of the past tends to be subsumed into 'history'. This can be done well - History Today, for instance, does it very well indeed, offering an interdisciplinary and holistic view of the past by using a very inclusive definition of 'history' for a wide audience. Not all forums for popular history are so broad-minded, and I think there are a lot of topics which don't get as much attention as they should, or don't perhaps get the right kind of attention, because they can't be squeezed into 'history'. It's not that there are no forums for discussing those topics, but they don't feature much at the more popular end of the pop history spectrum (especially in the publishing of popular history books) - and I think that's a shame. I'm convinced that one reason the popular stereotype of the dark and stupid Middle Ages persists is that there are not many places where the interested public can be introduced to what medieval people thought, rather than just what they did - so they conclude, not unnaturally, that medieval people didn't really think at all. It's hard to hear their voices, their words, ideas, beliefs, and stories, if popular history insists on focusing only on their deeds; and for the medieval period, popular history usually means battles - kings and battles. That's the only thing that sells, publishers say, and I expect they're right - but then, it's the only thing they offer for sale. (It would be hypocritical of me to say I'm opposed to books on kings and battles, of course, though my book too fits uneasily under the 'history' label, and I wish there was somewhere else for it to go). It's no wonder that people think that kings and battles are all the medieval period consisted of, and it's a vicious cycle; if only this kind of history gets published, only this kind of history sells, so only this kind of history gets published. And many of the people who are successful at writing this kind of history, as I said above, have a particular view of what history should and shouldn't consist of and have been trained in a way which makes them well-informed about some aspects of the past but not about others (which is why some popular historians keep saying English evolved from the Anglo-Saxons' rugged earthy grunting into a sophisticated... you know. Because they never read Ælfric.)

The evolution of English from its monstrous origins, as illustrated for us by the Guardian

Anyway, there's not much any of us can do about this (gæð a wyrd swa hio scel), but it's good to remember that terms like historian have a history themselves, and do not set the limits of our potential interest in the past. Wyrd doesn't have much to do with history as modern historians understand it, because it relates not so much to what happens as why, in the largest possible sense of that question: what is the power which governs events in the world, which makes leaves grow and cities fall? Fate, time, God - all are possible explanations, and the question is still one which human beings seek to answer, and probably always will. It's not a question which belongs within the discipline of history as currently understood, though it used to be, and may one day be again - you never know, wyrd being what it is. But it's a timeless question, which many people have thought about over the centuries, and a question where writers, thinkers, and poets of the past have valuable perspectives to contribute. The reason I'm not a historian is, partly, that I care about their thoughts, and their words, on this and many other matters too deep for the historian's art.