The Old English Translation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum in its Historical and Cultural Context
By Andreas Lemke
Göttinger Schriften zur Englischen Philologie, Vol. 8 (2015)
Introduction: Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (HE), written c. 731, enjoyed a great popularity among the Anglo-Saxons and Carolingians and was one of the most popular texts in medieval Europe. This is underscored by the fact that Anglo-Saxon writers revered it as source from the ninth to the eleventh centuries. Its importance can be further gauged by the number of Old English texts which drew upon the HE. In addition to these sources stands the (more or less) full-blown translation of Bede’s work, the Old English Historia Ecclesiastica (OEHE). This vernacular rendering by an anonymous translator (or translators) was without a doubt a demanding and time-consuming endeavor. It required on a basic level advanced skill, if not mastery, in both Medieval Latin and Old English. On a more sophisticated level it required the interpretative capability to grasp the meaning of Bede’s Latin original without challenging its author(ity) while at the same time rendering it into Old English, a medium so different on various levels from the Latin in which the HE was written. The translation had to transpose a text imprinted with the cultural forces of eighth-century Northumbria into the historical and cultural context of an Anglo-Saxon society considerably removed in time (and space?) from Bede. In addition to the linguistic level and cultural transformation, a vernacular Old English rendering of a work such as the HE triggers more general questions concerning medieval translation. Should a translation be aimed primarily at readers who do not understand the original and does it, therefore, serve purely practical ends? Although this is an undeniable aspect of translation it does not sufficiently explain its general nature. If we regard a translation as faithful if not slavish rendition of a text in order to make the original intelligible, this deprives us of the cultural and intellectual forces that shape any translation and bars our view as to its purpose and inherent power. Consequently, the questions of why the HE was translated into the English vernacular and which historical and cultural forces shaped this translation process will be addressed in this thesis.
What triggered the HE to be translated? The earliest manuscripts of the OEHE have been dated on paleographical grounds to the period c. 890×930. Consequently, it happened to be associated with the famous translation program of King Alfred of Wessex (871-899). The main reason why this putative connection to Alfred is so appealing is the king’s famous lament on the dismal state of learning and literacy and the poor level of Latin in England in the Preface to the Old English Pastoral Care (OEPC). Apparently, the Anglo-Saxons were no longer able to understand Latin texts and therefore unable to access the intellectual and intrinsic religious worth therein. Given the output of an allegedly impressive think-tank that gathered at Alfred’s court at the end of the ninth century it seems reasonable to assume that the OEHE was also produced in this setting, or at least is difficult to imagine in a contemporary context independent of the Alfredian program. Claims for the OEHE to stem from an earlier Mercian school of translation, mainly based on the Mercian dialect admixture in the earliest manuscripts, have been convincingly refuted.