Why did the years of the Civil Wars and Interregnum, some of the most turbulent decades of English history, also produce so many crucial works in the study of early medieval England?
One needs very little knowledge of English history to know that the 1640s and 1650s were violent and uncertain times. England was engulfed in bloody wars between Charles I and his Parliament. The Book of Common Prayer, for decades the bedrock of English devotional practice, was banned in ceremonies such as weddings and baptisms. Following Charles’s execution in 1649, English government underwent dizzying changes, and the threat of war remained constant.
It was with some surprise, then, that I realized that several major milestones in the study of early medieval England and its language date from exactly this period. The first professorship of “Saxon” was established at Cambridge University at the end of the 1630s. Abraham Wheelock, who held the position, edited the Old English translation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, extracts from several Old English homilies, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in a single-volume publication in 1643; none had been edited before. In 1644, he and Sir Roger Twysden produced an edition of Old English law codes, mostly reproduced from a 1568 work but also containing first editions of legal texts such as the Leges Henrici Primi. Wheelock’s patron, Sir Simonds D’Ewes, spend much of that decade at work on a dictionary of Old English, in addition to being an active member of the Long Parliament. After D’Ewes death in 1650, the torch of Old English lexicography passed to William Somner. In 1659, Somner’s Dictionarium Saxonicum-Latino-Anglicum was printed, and for the first time students of Old English had a dictionary, the most crucial of reference texts. Sir William Dugdale drew also on deep knowledge of pre-Conquest England for his influential 1656 Antiquities of Warwickshire. Why did so many of these works, arguably laying the foundation of early English studies as a discipline, happen when we might least expect it given England’s political turmoil?
At first one might assume that these milestones’ production during a time of widespread upheaval was coincidental, or that the scholarship in which these men engaged was a form of escapism to distract their minds from war and its aftermath. The editions and dictionaries themselves, I argue, show the opposite—these works very much participate in the same debates about church and state which spurred contemporary conflicts. To puzzle through this apparently bizarre convergence of recondite and painstaking research and unprecedented social upheaval, I adopted the approach of medievalism—examining how conceptions and representations of the Middle Ages perform social work in later periods. With that framework in place, it began to make sense that seventeenth-century scholars labored on early medieval texts and history during a time when England’s very identity was shaken. In their works, the early Middle Ages tell the early modern English who they are—religiously, politically, ethically, and even somatically in the medical texts used by Somner. Once we understand what early medieval studies offered, we realize why so many of its key editions were produced at a time when England’s political and confessional identity was in chaos.
Answering these questions ultimately led to my book, Old English Scholarship in the Seventeenth Century, where I talk about these works (and others) in detail, locating them in the contemporary discourses in which they participated. These texts respond to current events and think through the past and present together, in a range of ways that support a variety of possible positions. National crisis actually spurred Old English studies and led to some of the foundational works of the discipline.
This guest post was written by Rebecca Brackmann, Associate Professor of English at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee.