Reconstructing Medieval Canons

By Yun Ni, doctoral student in Comparative Literature

The Dumbarton Oaks medieval Library Series (DOML), though firmly anchored in the medieval literary tradition, moves actively towards a re-imagination and reconstitution of the deep past. More than one thousand years ago, the Old English authors likely never imagined their vernacular writings would enjoy the luxury of sitting on the same shelf with Greco-Latin texts, all of them delicately bound in exactly the same style. But language follows power. Though English was a less cultured vernacular in the early middle ages, it came to address the widest audience across the sweeping geographical scope, where even Latin, the high-brow international language then, failed to reach. Unsurprisingly, modern English in turn has empowered its older version. At the same time, it is the language in which Greek and Latin texts reach many readers.

A page from a manuscript of Orosius’s Histories held at Biblioteca Laurenciana in Florence.

A page from a manuscript of Orosius’s Histories held at Biblioteca Laurenciana in Florence.

The interaction between the vernacular and Latin has been the thematic thread stringing together my projects this summer. As a copy editor of DOML, I am proofreading and commenting on submitted Medieval Latin and Old English texts and their modern English translations, which will be published on facing pages. Editing Old English texts informed by the classical Latin literary tradition has offered me an unexpected lens through which to reexamine the formation of the English language and the British national identity.

My first project is to proofread and make index for an Old English translation of Orosius’s Historiae Adversus Paganos, which the author originally composed in Latin. Orosius’s teleological narrative pattern—implicit in it is the argument that universal history is moving towards a better end since the advent of Christianity—is well preserved in the Old English translation, but some subtle twists inevitably happened. Rendering these nuances into modern English poses serious challenges to the translator. For instance, on the subject of the collective memory: “Leode, þeode, folc” (coming from Latin “gentes”) are heavily used in Old English to designate certain national and ethic groups as political entities. But they deny translations into modern counterparts like “country,” “nation” or “tribe,” which have acquired geographical, cultural or political undertones over time. The translator tactfully avoided the awkwardness and added a note to address the nuances. Combing through the text and the translation word by word has directed me to these details, which point to larger shifts in political theories about national identity.

The tension between individual and community has been a lingering question with regard to the formation of nation. In the process of index-making, how to pinpoint the characters indicated by the mangled Roman names in the Old English version has been the most challenging and the most intriguing task. While sorting out who these “Aemilius,” “Claudius” or “Gaius” are, I often think about how easily individuals were glossed over in the teleological narrative pattern, especially in a reworked version. The gist of the tale can reach the audience of another language conveniently—perhaps too conveniently to call attention to each individual involved in the narrative. Simplified names could have been the first step towards abstraction. Their offices, like Roman consul, remained intact in the Old English version. Their names, however, were not fleshed out. These figures were more of means than ends. This is arguably inevitable in any transmission and translation of canons, but I wonder how much light it can shed on the Anglo-Saxon perceptions on individuals, institutions, and collective memory.

While plowing through Old English and Latin this summer, I have been reflecting upon my small repertoire of teaching. Harvard English department’s core medieval literature curriculum is entitled “Arrivals.” The rationale behind the name is how European languages, cultures and literary traditions “arrived” at the British Isles in the Middle Ages. The clashes, assimilations and inter-cultural dialogues brought up in that course have been lingering in my thoughts. Sometimes I am also thinking beyond it for another course I have taught, namely, world literature. How will these volumes, filtered through our institutions, “arrive” across the world? What thoughts will these reconstructed canons evoke among the readers whom the medieval authors never thought they should or could target?

I am thinking of China, where I am originally from and where people now are eager to enter into a dialogue with the western world not only on science, technology or democracy but also on philosophy, ethics and spirituality.

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