A few people have recently complimented me on my very first scholarly publication, “Eþel-weard: The First Scribe of the Beowulf Manuscript,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 105 (2004): 177–186. This short article was based on my very first conference presentation at the first Vagantes Conference at Harvard University in 2002, which itself grew out of my seminar paper for my Beowulf course I took with Antonette diPaolo (“Toni”) Healey during my MA at the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto in 2000. All this to say, this article is pretty special to me, so I’m glad people are reading it and getting something out of it. At the same time, I can’t help feeling a embarrassed at my clunky, unpolished writing style. But that feeling probably never goes away. I am far more concerned about a type of argument I make in that paper which could be used to support white nationalist appropriation of medieval materials. I offer this post to make clear the problems with this article and suggest how I would change it.
The central argument of the article is unproblematic and I hope useful for scholars of medieval manuscript materiality and Old English literature. Namely:
- There is an interesting thing in this manuscript (the “Beowulf manuscript”)
- People have rarely talked about it before
- It’s worth talking about
I have only more recently come to realize how close this article is to my current and ongoing projects, which are primarily concerned with the reception of Hebrew during the early English period (700-1100) and how this reception is manifested in understudied manuscript materials.
In the case of the Beowulf manuscript (London, British Library Cotton Vitellius A xv), the “interesting thing” is the use of the ethel rune ᛟ in place of the Old English word “ethel” (“homeland”) three times in manuscript, all written by the first of the two scribes of the poem. Seeing as everything we know about the poem Beowulf is dependent on this single manuscript witness, little details like this are surely worth noting, especially since this is not a widespread scribal abbreviation. Thanks to the ever increasing easy availability of digital facsimiles of medieval manuscripts, these peculiar features of manuscripts are easier to discover and share than they ever have been before.
There is no question, there are runes in the only surviving copy of Beowulf! That is cool! What is even cooler is that the third and final ethel rune in the manuscript appears on the same manuscript folio that describes Hrothgar’s examination of the hilt of the giant sword Beowulf brought back from Grendel’s mere. Hrothgar reads the “runestafas” at the same time that a reader of the manuscript is presented with a runestaf.
In my 2004 article I argue that the occurrences of the rune can be understood with reference to the narrative content of the poem: when the poem is talking about Germanic peoples, the scribe, I argued, is more inclined to signal that with the rune. In retrospect, I went overboard on the significance of the rune here, and connected it to the scribe’s sense of some “glorious Germanic past.”
I’ve never felt very strongly about that reading, and nowadays I would repudiate it. I recently realized that ethel / ᛟ, the word and rune, have been appropriated by white supremacists and neo-nazis. This should not have surprised me, since medieval texts and mythologies, perhaps most especially those associated with the European north, have a long history of being used in this way.
The ethel rune was actually incorporated into some WWII-era Nazi symbolism. White supremacist narratives are obsessed with mythical fantasies of originary homelands, so the ancient germanic rune representing “home,” is not a surprising target. I could even imagine my 2004 reading of the rune in the Beowulf-manuscript being used to bolster such an appropriation: as if the eleventh-century scribe of the Beowulf-manuscript was trying to invoke an idealized germanic past. I no longer believe there is any justification for reading the rune in this way, and want to unambiguously distance myself from any perception of sympathetic beliefs.
Since writing that paper over a decade ago I have read and reread and taught Beowulf many times. I love the poem more every time I read any portion of it, but my understanding of it has changed significantly. I no longer imagine reading Beowulf as a celebration of germanic pre-Christian culture. I read Beowulf as similar to the majority of extant Old English poetry: deeply melancholic, explicitly Christian, and critical of the pre-Christian culture it presents. In teaching Beowulf I try to guide students to see the tragic triad of women—Wealhtheow, Hildeburh, and Grendel’s mother—whose suffering epitomizes the destructive nature of the violent culture they are caught in. At the most recent Medieval Academy of America meeting, a series of panels on Feminist Approaches to Old English literature, organized by Robin Norris, Rebecca Stephenson, and Renée R. Trilling, included a paper by Stephen Yeager who presented a thoughtful reading of Beowulf as a poem written potentially for women and potentially by a woman. His reading, which drew upon the work of generations of feminist scholars before him opened my eyes to possibilities I am shocked I had never considered before, since they are so consistent with how I had already be reading the poem.
My mind also turned to my little ethel paper and thinking about the only manuscript of the poem, written by two scribes with two pointedly different styles of handwriting, The first scribe, who wrote the three ethels in the manuscript, was a generation younger than the second scribe. On paleographical hands, the scripts of the first and second scribe could be dated up to fifty years apart. But the “younger” hand wrote first, and the older hand took over halfway through the manuscript, right in the middle of Beowulf.
Over the years I’ve entertained all sorts of fantasies about the relationship between these two scribes: why they were working together; why the younger scribe copied the first half of the poem; why the first scribe stopped in the middle of the poem, maybe in the middle of a word. Yeager rightly raised the possibility that even the scribes of Beowulf could have been women. There is no particular reason to assume that any given manuscript was copied in a male rather than a female religious house.
Since then I’ve happily considered the possibility that the Beowulf scribes were women. Maybe we even know the first scribe’s name: Ethel. After all, she signed the poem three times with the rune signifying her name. Signing one’s name via runes in an Old English poem is far from unheard of. One of the few named poets of Old English poetry, Cynewulf, is only known through his runic signatures. Similarly, “Farmon,” the scribe of the Old English gloss to the Rushworth or MacRegol Gospels uses the rune for the word “man” ᛗ to sign his name “Farᛗ”
Furthermore, Cynewulf’s poems—while written in traditional, alliterative Old English verse like Beowulf—are thoroughly Christian poems which in no way look back nostalgically on the germanic past. There is no reason to assume that use of runes in a manuscript context in anyway signals a connection to a real or imagined germanic past.
Now the name Ethel does not appear as a simple name in the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England database, but many Anglo-Saxon names begin with Æthel, both male and female. It would be very difficult to argue seriously that the rune could stand for a name and that we should read that name as a woman’s. I also acknowledge that the rune name ethel (“home”) and the name element Æthel (“noble”) are etymologically distinct.
Nevertheless, Beowulf and medieval literature broadly has been subjected to far worse fates. Political and cultural ideas are often projected onto medieval literature in highly troubling ways. This is most clear in the current resurgence of white supremacist rhetoric. But Beowulf is not theirs. There is so much we don’t know and will probably never know with any degree certainty about this amazing poem: when it was written; by whom; for whom; who read it or heard it read. So much of what we take for granted about this poem, however, has already been filtered though generations of problematic assumptions. The very field of germanic philology grew up alongside the nineteenth-century nationalistic movements which led to two world wars. We are almost always reading texts like Beowulf through the assumptions and desires of long dead scholars. Why not read them through our own?
As a teacher and scholar of Old English, manuscripts, and medieval literature, I hope the next time you read Beowulf you will at least think for a moment about its sole surviving manuscript; its two scribes; and maybe especially about the first scribe. I call her Ethel.