Top of chapter Contents Bibliography 16.1. Manuscripts
16.1.1. Construction of the manuscript 16.1.2. The Old English alphabet 16.3. Abbreviations 16.1.4. Punctuation and capitalization 16.1.5. Word- and line-division 16.1.6. Errors and corrections
16.2. Runes 16.3. Other inscriptions

16. Old English in Its Material Context

If you continue long enough in your study of Old English, you will sooner or later want to consult one or more of the roughly four hundred manuscripts (complete books and fragments) in which the language is recorded. Some sixty-five percent of these manuscripts are owned by just three libraries: the British Library in London, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the Parker Library in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. These and most other libraries will grant you access to their collections if you come with the proper credentials and have a legitimate research interest in Old English manuscripts. A great many manuscripts have been published in facsimile editions: these include all of the poetic manuscripts along with some of the most important of the prose ones. Eventually the series Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile will include every manuscript that contains even a word of Old English (see Further Reading for references). The availability of so many facsimiles means that you can work with Old English manuscripts even if your circumstances do not allow you to consult the real thing.

6.1. Manuscripts

16.1.1 Construction of the manuscript

Most Anglo-Saxon manuscripts were written on vellum (Old English fell) made of calf skin. This was stretched, scraped smooth, whitened with chalk, cut into sheets, ruled with a stylus, and folded into quires of eight leaves (four sheets), or sixteen pages. After the scribes had done their work, the quires were sewn together and bound.

16.1.2. The Old English alphabet

The Anglo-Saxons adopted the styles of script employed by the Irish missionaries who had been instrumental in the conversion of the northern kingdoms. These styles included Insular half-uncial, used for fine books in Latin, and the less formal minuscule, used for both Latin and the vernacular. Beginning in the tenth century Anglo-Saxon scribes began to use caroline minuscule (developed in Francia during the reign of Charlemagne) for Latin while continuing to write Old English in Insular minuscule. Thereafter Old English script was increasingly influenced by caroline minuscule even as it retained certain distinctively Insular letter-forms. Once you have learned these letter-forms you will be able to read Old English manuscripts of all periods without difficulty.

Here are the basic letter-forms of Old English script, illustrated in a late Old English style:

The Old English Alphabet

Take particular note of these features:

Old English has no use for q or z. J and v do not have the status of separate letters but are occasional variant shapes of i and u (more common in roman numbers than elsewhere). Old English scribes used k rarely, and only to represent the [k] sound, never the [ʧ] (ċ).

16.1.3. Abbreviations

Old English scribes used only a few abbreviations, of which the most common is Tironian nota ( = and, ond), a sign (Latin nota) from the shorthand system developed by Cicero’s assistant M. Tullius Tiro, and hence called the Tironian nota. Another common abbreviation is abbreviation for that for þæt. A stroke over a letter often signals that an m or n has been omitted; thus bocum abbreviated with stroke stands for bocum and guman abbreviated with stroke for guman. The ġe- prefix can also be abbreviated with a stroke (abbreviation for ge-), as can þonne (abbreviation for thonne).

16.1.4. Punctuation and capitalization

Writers of Modern English follow a rather strict set of rules for punctuation—for example, placing a semicolon between independent clauses that are not coordinated with and and a comma between independent clauses that are so coordinated. Such punctuation guides the reader through the syntax of the sentence. Where the rules give us a choice, say, among comma, semicolon and dash, we use punctuation as a rhetorical device, marking the intensity of a pause or the formality of a clause boundary.

Old English scribes did not have so strict a set of rules to follow, and usage varies widely even among books produced at the same time and place. Some scribes used punctuation with fair reliability to mark clause- and sentence-boundaries, while others punctuated so lightly that their work is, for practical purposes, unpunctuated. To meet the expectations of readers accustomed to modern rules of punctuation, it has long been the practice of editors to modernize the punctuation of Old English works. Editors have debated how heavy this editorial punctuation should be, how much it should be influenced by the punctuation of the manuscript, and whether modern punctuation is adequate for representing Old English syntax.

Here is a passage from a manuscript of Ælfric’s homilies, illustrating the punctuation used by one good scribe.[1]

Cambridge, University Library, MS. Gg. 3. 28, fol. 255r. A facsimile of this page is printed as the frontispiece to Henel 1942. The passage is printed as in the manuscript, except that word- and line-division have been normalized (see Word- and line-division). In this and the other quotations in this chapter, the style of script is not intended to reproduce that of the manuscripts being quoted.

passage in Old English script

[I thank the almighty Creator with all my heart that he has granted to me, a sinful one, that I have, in praise and worship of him, revealed these two books to the unlearned English nation; the learned have no need of these books because their own learning can suffice for them.]

The most common mark of punctuation is the point, which sometimes is placed on the baseline (as in Modern English) and sometimes, as here, somewhat above the line. The semicolon is used where a heavier syntactical or rhetorical break is indicated (here at the end of a pair of related sentences, which the translation coordinates with a semicolon). You may also occasionally see punctus elevatus (the punctus elevatus, marking a lighter pause than the semicolon but a heavier one than the point), and sometimes the punctus interrogativus (the punctus interrogativus or question mark—but marking the end of a question is optional). At the ends of sections you may see some combination of punctuation marks used as an ornament.

In some poetic manuscripts punctuation is used to separate verses and lines—a convenience to modern readers, since scribes always wrote poetry from margin to margin, as if it were prose. Here are the first lines of The Battle of Brunanburh from the oldest manuscript of that poem[2] (the original line-breaks have been retained here):

Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS. 173, fol. 26r. This is the Parker manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (see the reading “Cynewulf and Cyneheard” in Old English Aerobics), in which the poem is the entry for the year 937. For a facsimile of this manuscript see Flower and Smith 1942.

passage in Old English script

[Anno 937. Here King Æthelstan, lord of warriors, ring-giver of men, and also his brother, Prince Edmund, struck life-long glory in battle with the edges of swords near Brunanburh.]

As you can see from these passages, proper names are not capitalized. Some scribes capitalized words for God and the beginnings of sentences, but most did not do so with any consistency. Those editors who modernize punctuation usually do the same with capitalization.

16.1.5. Word- and line-division

Word-division is far less consistent in Old English than in Modern English; it is, in fact, less consistent in Old English manuscripts than in Latin written by Anglo-Saxon scribes. You may expect to see the following peculiarities:[3]

Most of the examples in the following list are from the reading “Cynewulf and Cyneheard” in Old English Aerobics.

The width of the spaces between words and word-elements is quite variable in most Old English manuscripts, and it is often difficult to decide whether a scribe intended a space. “Diplomatic” editions, which sometimes attempt to reproduce the word-division of manuscripts, cannot represent in print the variability of the spacing on a hand-written page.

Most scribes broke words freely at the ends of lines. Usually the break takes place at a syllable boundary, e.g. ofslae-gen (= ofslægen), sum-ne (= sumne), heo-fenum. Occasionally, however, a scribe broke a word elsewhere, e.g. forhaef-dnesse. Some scribes marked word-breaks with a hyphen, but many did not mark them in any way.

16.1.6. Errors and corrections

Everyone who writes makes mistakes, and it is probably safe to say that every Old English text of any length at all contains errors. Most manuscripts also contain corrections, either by the scribe himself or by a later corrector. But the correction of texts was often inconsistently carried out, and may not have taken into account errors already present in the copy from which corrections were being entered. In general you should not assume that a corrected text retains no uncorrected errors.

When a corrector added words to a text, he usually placed a comma below the line at the insertion point and wrote the addition above the line; longer additions might be written in the margin, very long ones on an added leaf. To delete a letter, the scribe would place a point under it; to delete a word or phrase he would underline it. Some correctors erased text, but erasure roughened the vellum, making it difficult to write on; so erasure was most suitable when no substitute text was to be supplied.

16.2. Runes

Runes are letters in an alphabet used by speakers of Germanic languages before the adoption of the Roman alphabet; afterwards they continued to be used for various purposes. Runic inscriptions are often older than the earliest manuscript records of Old English and the other Germanic languages, and so of great linguistic interest; and as they turn up frequently in archaeological excavations, they are responsible for regular additions to the corpus of early Germanic texts. However, runic inscriptions are nearly always short and frequently cryptic or even nonsensical (since runes were used for decoration as well as for writing).

The runic alphabet (called the fuþorc after its first six symbols) was highly variable: Anglo-Saxon runes differ from those of Scandinavia and Germany, and everywhere the fuþorc evolved over time. Here is the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc as usually given, with transliterations as in Page 1999:































Most of the transliterations will be familiar to students. Some (not all) inscriptions distinguish between ġ (ᚷ or ᛡ, as at an early period there were two different sounds) and g (ᚸ), or between ċ (ᚳ) and c (ᚸ), with ᛤ representing c followed by a high vowel. The ŋ (ᛝ) rune is for the sound usually spelled ng, and e͡a (ᛠ) is the diphthong usually spelled ea. The ɨ rune (ᛇ) sometimes represents a vowel and sometimes a spirant (e.g. the h in beorht). The œ (ᛟ) rune is for a sound (like German ö) not found in the dominant West Saxon dialect.

Each rune had a name, usually an Old English word containing the sound it represented; however, the meanings of some names are unknown (they may be nonsensical) or doubtful.

ᚠ    feoh ‘money, property’ ᛁ   īs ‘ice’ ᛚ   lagu ‘water’
ᚢ   ūr ‘aurochs’ ᛡ   ġēar ‘year’ ᛝ   ing name of a god or hero?
ᚦ   þorn ‘thorn’ ᛇ   eoh ‘yew’ ᛞ   dæġ ‘day’
ᚩ   ōs ‘god’? ᛈ   peorð meaning unknown ᛟ   œþel (ēþel ) ‘homeland’
ᚱ   rād ‘riding, road’ ᛉ   eolhx ‘elk’? ᚪ   āc ‘oak’
ᚳ   cēn ‘torch’? ᛋ   siġel ‘sun’, seġel ‘sail’ ᚫ   æsc ‘ash-tree’
ᚷ   ġifu ‘gift’ ᛏ   tīr ‘victory’ ᚣ   ȳr ‘bow’?
ᚹ   wynn ‘joy’ ᛒ   beorc ‘birch’ ᛠ   ear ‘earth’?
ᚻ   hæġl ‘hail’ ᛖ   eoh ‘horse’ ᚸ   gār ‘spear’
ᚾ   nȳd ‘affliction’ ᛗ   man ‘man’ ᛦ   calc ‘chalk’?

The most important Old English runic text is surely the inscription on the Franks Casket (see Plate 3 in the printed edition of Introduction to Old English), an eighth-century box made of whalebone—which unfortunately exists only as detached panels, the silver fittings that once held it together having been lost. Each of the five decorated panels has a runic inscription ranging in length from a single name (ᚫᚷᛁᛚᛁ, Ægili) to two texts that go all the way around the outside border of the panel. The one illustrated in Plate 3 is a poem on the making of the box:

Top (left to right): ᚠᛁᛋᚳᚠᛚᚩᛞᚢ᛫     ᚪᚻᚩᚠᚩᚾᚠᛖᚱᚷ
Right (running downward): ᛖᚾᛒᛖᚱᛁᚷ
Bottom (right to left): ᚹᚪᚱᚦᚷᚪ᛬ᛋᚱᛁᚳᚷᚱᚩᚱᚾᚦᚫᚱᚻᛖᚩᚾᚷᚱᛖᚢᛏᚷᛁᛋᚹᚩᛗ
Left (running upward): ᚻᚱᚩᚾᚫᛋᛒᚪᚾ

Transliteration (arranged as verse):

Fisc flodu     āhōf on ferġenberiġ;
warþ gāsrīċ grorn     þǣr hē on grēut ġiswom.
Hronæs bān.
[The sea cast the fish onto the mountain stronghold;
the creature (?) became sad where it swam onto the sand.
Whale’s bone.]

The inscription illustrates some of the interesting (and infuriating) characteristics of runic texts. They may run not only left-to-right, but also in the other direction: not only does this text run right-to-left along the bottom of the panel (so that the whole inscription may be read clockwise), but all the runes in that line are mirror images of their usual shapes. Word division is often absent (as here): what appears to be punctuation may actually be decorative (notice how the runes ᚪᛋ come together to make an awkward space which the runemaster has filled in with a colon-like device). The spellings of runic texts often seem eccentric, governed less by convention than in manuscript text. This text is more intelligible than many, but the word transliterated here as gāsrīċ is otherwise unknown: is it a variant of gārsecg ‘sea’, or, as the Bosworth-Toller dictionary suggests, an otherwise unattested word meaning ‘furious creature’? The grammatical characteristics of runic texts can also be puzzling: the -u ending of flōdu has occasioned much comment, since the u-stem noun flōd is thought to have lost its nominative singular ending before the eighth century.

Another important inscription is carved on the Ruthwell Cross, an eighth-century standing stone cross in Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire: it is an extended excerpt from The Dream of the Rood in the Northumbrian dialect, probably added some unknown time after the cross was made, but in any case before the end of the tenth century. Even if late, this inscription is of great importance since our records of the Northumbrian dialect are scanty. A number of rune stones are memorials, and these often have some rough-and-ready verse carved on them. For example, an eighth- or ninth-century stone at Great Urswick, Cumbria, has this:

Tunwini settæ     æfter Torohtrēdæ
bēcun æfter his bæurnæ:     gebiddæs þēr sāulæ.
[Tunwine set up this monument in memory of
Torhtred his son: pray for his soul.]

Note that the -æs ending of gebiddæs is imperative plural, while þēr is for West Saxon þǣre. Other inscriptions occur on a variety of objects, including rings, amulets, coins and weapons: these usually record the name of the maker or owner.

Runes sometimes appear in Old English poems: for example, the first Beowulf scribe uses the ᛟ rune as an abbreviation for ēþel ‘homeland’. More interestingly, the poet Cynewulf wove his runic signature into the final lines of several works: Christ II, Elene, Fates of the Apostles and Juliana. Several of the Exeter Book riddles encode answers or hints as runes, which are also used in riddling fashion in The Husband’s Message.

Finally, one of the most fascinating runic texts is The Rune Poem—not an inscription, but rather a wisdom poem structured around the fuþorc. For each runic character the poet has supplied two to five lines of commentary, for example:

ᚻ (hæġl) byþ hwītust corna:     hwyrft hit of heofones lyfte;
wealcaþ hit windes scūras;     weorþeþ hit to wætre syððan.
[ᚻ (hail) is the whitest of grains: it whirls from the heaven’s air;
the wind’s showers toss it; and afterwards it turns to water.]

The poem is well edited by Halsall 1981. Students wishing to investigate Anglo-Saxon runes further should consult Page 1999. Internet research on this subject should be conducted with great caution because of the appropriation by New Age, Neopagan and other groups of runes for their own purposes.

16.3. Other inscriptions

Numerous non-runic inscriptions are preserved in both Latin and Old English, some carved in stone and others engraved on jewelry and other objects: well over 200 such inscriptions have been catalogued (not including coins, which form a very large and specialized category of objects). Many of these are similar in function to runic inscriptions, and additionally many are religious in character. Especially notable inscriptions include that on the Brussels Cross (see Okasha 1971, no. 17), which records that it was made by one Drahmal for Æthelmær and Æthelwold in memory of their brother Ælfric (none of these people can be identified) and includes two lines of Old English verse which echo or allude to The Dream of the Rood:

Rōd is mīn nama.     Ġeō iċ rīċne cyning
bær byfiġende     blōde bestēmed.
[My name is ‘rood’. Long ago I, trembling,
bore the powerful king, drenched in blood.]

Another poetic inscription is found on the Sutton Brooch (Okasha 1971, no. 114; see Plate 4 in the print edition of Introduction to Old English), an elegant silver disk with animal images and an inscription on the back which was evidently meant to deter thieves:

Ǣduwen mē āg;     āge hȳo Drihten.
Drihten hine āwerie     ðe mē hire ætferie
būton hȳo mē selle     hire āgenes willes.
[Eadwyn owns me; may the Lord own her.
May the Lord curse him who takes me from her
unless she gives me of her own will.]

The verse is notable for mixing alliteration with rhyme, which was increasingly popular in the early eleventh century (the probable date of this object). The curse it directs against thieves is not uncommon in medieval inscriptions (including those in books), but this one is especially charming for the scrupulous provision it makes for the possibility that Eadwyn will want to give it as a gift.

Non-runic inscriptions have been exhaustively catalogued by Okasha (1971, 1982, 1992, 2004).