Alfred the Great’s Burnt Boethius

Alfred the Great’s Burnt Boethius

Kiernan, Kevin S.

The Iconic Page in Manuscript, Print, and Digital Culture, edited by George Bornstein and Theresa Tinkle. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press (1998) 7-32.


While medieval manuscripts are filled with beautiful and eloquent iconic pages, some of the most interesting problems of transmission are hidden away in the ugly, silent types. It would be hard to find uglier, less communicative iconic pages than many of those precariously preserved in British Library Cotton MS Otho A. vi, the only surviving copy of the Old English prose and verse translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy by Alfred the Great (871-99). This tenth-century manuscript was severely damaged in the same infamous fire in 1731 that burned away the edges of the Beowulf manuscript. Nineteenth-century efforts at restoration, moreover,
have compounded the fire damage by cutting up, covering up, or actually washing away parts of the text that managed to escape the fire. Technological advances in the twentieth century—notably ultraviolet fluorescence, fiber-optic backlighting, electronic photography, and digital image processing—make it possible to recover many of these losses. But editorial practice from the seventeenth century to the present has conspired with the vicious eighteenth-century fire and the virtuous nineteenth-century curators and conservators to render the iconic pages of this manuscript all but invisible in the editions we now use. The two standard editions, both monuments of modern Anglo-Saxon textual scholarship, are based on this manuscript, and yet one edition is entirely in prose, while the other is entirely in verse. These editions thus present ironic iconic pages that radically misrepresent the prosimetrical manuscript that preserved the text.

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