Medieval Manuscripts: Continuity and Comfort for the New Year

Guest Post by Cynthia Lange

Cynthia is a Research Assistant on Bridging on Unbridgeable, a project in progress at Leiden University regarding the development of English usage guides.

One of the things I love most about medieval manuscripts – apart from their particular kind of beauty – is the sense of comfort that they bring. Manuscripts provide evidence which supports the assertion of Ecclesiastes 1:9. There is, indeed, nothing new under the sun.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this in connection with the alleged Mayan apocalypse of 21 December 2012. The hullabaloo which preceded this non-event reminded me of one of my favorite chapters in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature: Joseph Trahern’s ‘Fatalism and the Millennium.’ I found it difficult to get through this chapter without drawing anachronistic (and arguably far-fetched) parallels with our contemporary situation. The chapter deals with the Anglo-Saxons’ attention to questions of fate, free-will, and individual responsibility in the context of the millenarian ideas of Abbot Ӕlfric (c.955-c.1010) – among others.

Sandwiched between Y1K, and the approach of 1066 – not to mention ongoing Viking invasions – these guys were living in uncertain times. Today, fiscal, environmental, and political instability provides the writings of these medieval men with extra resonance. Abbot Ӕlfric wrote that ‘Men need good instruction especially in this time, which is the ending of the world”[1] Whether or not the sentiment is hyperbolic, as a student and research assistant, I wholeheartedly agree with the first part of this statement at least.

Aelfric’s Catholic Homilies (1060, Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII f.13r) ©

Aelfric’s Catholic Homilies (1060, Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII f.13r) © British Library

Moreover, the tone of Ӕlfric’s ‘Preface’ reminds me of an article by Junot Diaz which appeared in the Boston Review in the summer of 2011 entitled ‘Dispatches from the Apocalypse.’ Citing circumstances surrounding recent catastrophes, Díaz argues that what are often referred to as ‘natural’ disasters are made possible by societal choices. His hope is that we will eventually learn from what disasters reveal about our society and begin to take collective responsibility.

I think of Díaz as a modern-day Ӕlfric. Both men are crafting an argument based on their observations in order to elucidate ideas and influence the trajectory of their respective societies. This idea is both a happy and hopeful. It also provides evidence that medieval manuscripts are an excellent source if one is looking to find a comforting sense of continuity. I think this sense of continuity is pleasant and appropriate for the first days of this new year.

[1] ‘menn behofiaþ godre lare swiþost on þisum timan þe is geendung þyssere worulde’ (Trehern 1991:168), in  The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature (1991) Godden, Malcolm, and Lapidge, Michael (Eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

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