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Historiē in Palimpsest: Ethnographic Wonders in the Old English Orosius

Kyle Khellaf

The field of classical receptions has sought antiquity everywhere, it seems, but the North Sea. With few exceptions, notably William Mullen’s essay “Sailing Homer’s Baltic” (2007) and Felice Vinci’s controversial The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales (2005), the relationship between Mediterranean texts and non-monastic Northern Europe has received scant attention from classical philologists. Yet the lack of interest in these receptions is surprising, given the overwhelming number of Latin texts known to the Anglo-Saxons. These range from the predictable – Christian writers such as Ambrose and Augustine – to more remarkable attestations including Plautus, Cato, Terence, Propertius, Lucan, and Statius (Ogilvy 1967).

A salient illustration is the Old English translation of Orosius’ Historiae Adversus Paganos from King Alfred’s reign in the 9th Century. Far more than a simple paraphrase, the new rendition takes the Latin geographical preface with which Orosius began his work and expands it to give greater prominence to Northern Europe, her peoples, and her emerging position as a guardian of the classical tradition. Particularly striking is its inclusion of two palimpsests which recount the periploi and ethnographic encounters of two Norse explorers, Ohthere and Wulfstan. In this paper, I contend that these narratives essentially preserve Greco-Roman methods of geographic, ethnographic and zoological inquiry, while simultaneously reappropriating them within a new, Anglo-Baltic framework – its unexplored regions, peoples, and their unique customs. In essence, the palimpsests offer us a remarkable glimpse of how Old English translation was a vibrant, multi-directional process: not only a careful transcription of the classical texts into the English language, but also the application of Greco-Roman encyclopedic traditions as paradigms for engaging with and reframing Baltic cultural thaumata.

In a notable amalgamation Ohthere recounts the walrus (horshwæl, lit. “horse-whale”)-hunting traditions of the Beormas people and incorporates Greco-Roman zoological conventions absent from the Anglo-Norse canon. The palimpsest focuses on the animal’s tusks (hie habbað swiþe æþele ban on hiora toþum / “they have exceedingly strong bone on their teeth,” f. 8v, 32 Bately) and its thick hide’s functional applications (hiora hyd bið swiðe god to sciprapum / “and their hide is exceedingly good for ship-ropes,” f. 10v, 1 Bately), which models itself on descriptions of the hippopotamus in Pliny (cauda et dentibus aprorum…tergoris ad scuta galeasque inpenetrabilis, HN 8.95) and even Herodotus (χαυλιόδοντας φαῖνοντὸ δέρμα δ᾽ αὐτοῦ οὕτω δή τι παχύ ἐστι ὥστε αὔου γενομένου ξυστὰ ποιέεσθαι ἀκόντια ἐξ αὐτοῦ, 2.71). Yet the parallels indicate an additional reason for the hippopotamus as model – the linguistic similarities in these animals’ names (OE walrus: horshwæl; Lat: hippopotamus; Gk: ἵππος ὁ ποτάμιος), which suggest a borrowing from the Greco-Roman equine conflation (dorso equi et iuba et hinnitu, HN 8.95; σιμόν, λοφιὴν ἔχον ἵππουοὐρὴν ἵππου καὶ φωνήν, Hdt. 2.71). Moreover, just as the Herodotean account uses the bull, another animal, to compare the animals’ sizes (μέγαθος ὅσον τε βοῦς ὁ μέγιστος, 2.71), so too does the Old English Orosius compare the horshwæl to other whales to stress its proportions (Se hwæl bið micle læssa þonne oðre hwalas / “The whale is much smaller than other whales,” f. 10v, 1 Bately).

In this report – one of many in the two palimpsests – the Old English translators show a remarkable attentiveness to classical traditions. This engagement also asks whether Greek texts such as Herodotus’ Histories were still circulating in Alfred’s court. Indeed, Bede alleges that late into the 7th Century Greek was still being taught alongside Latin at Canterbury by Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus (Hist. Eccl. 4.2), a native Greek versed in both literatures (Hist. Eccl. 4.1), whose students living well into the 8th Century offered proof of this instruction (Hist. Eccl. 4.2). Nevertheless, the communis opinio asserts that Latin alone was preserved in the West while Greek was restricted to Byzantium and Arabic translations until the Renaissance (Reynolds and Wilson 2013). Among other conclusions, this paper suggests that a reassessment of this claim is long overdue.

Session/Panel Title:

Recovering the Monstrous and the Sublime

Session/Paper Number

63.2

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