Carl T. Berkhout
Department of English
University of Arizona
Tucson, AZ 85721

Laurence Nowell and the Old English Bede

The abridged Old English translation of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica survives chiefly in five manuscripts that either are or presumably once were complete, all containing essentially identical versions. One of these manuscripts, British Library Cotton Otho B.xi, was largely destroyed by fire in 1731, but the texts in it, including the Bede, are preserved in a transcript, now British Library Add. 43703, made by the antiquary Laurence Nowell in 1562.

To his Bede transcript Nowell later added about seven brief interlinear or marginal passages in Old English--some eighty words in all--that translate Latin passages not otherwise attested in the surviving manuscripts of the shorter Old English version. Robin Flower determined in 1935 that these additions were the concoction of Nowell himself, using some easily available manuscript of the Latin Bede; Raymond Grant and virtually all other students of the matter have concurred. Indeed, the additions contain quite a few errors in accidence and phonology (though no lexical or syntactic blunders), and it is not reasonable to attribute the density of such grammatical anomalies as from Brettas or contemporary spellings such as gefeoght and wight to an Anglo-Saxon scribe. Yet, despite Nowell's known interference in other Old English manuscripts, such as his partial interlinear translation of Christ I in the Exeter Book, and his inclination to cobble up short bits of imperfect but passable Old English, it is not reasonable either that he would have meddled with and contaminated a transcript that he was soon to use his for historical and lexical study. He did not do such a thing elsewhere in the numerous texts that he transcribed; his marginal additions and collations in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Laws in Add. 43703 are all taken from other verifiable manuscript sources. Moreover, Nowell knew very well that the Old English Bede in Otho B.xi was an abridgment of the Latin; throughout his transcript he regularly notes the omissions in his margins with desunt nonnulla, desunt aliquot, etc.  Also, Nowell's Old English additions are confined to just four adjacent pages (ff. 19v to 21r) in Add. 43703--that is, to Bede I, 15-16, which tells of the arrival of the Saxons in AD 449 and the defeat of the Britons. The language of Nowell's additions generally does not reveal significant departures from idiomatic Old English or from Nowell's usual patterns of morphological and phonological error in his transcripts of Old English that can be compared with the original manuscripts.

Is it conceivable that Nowell had his hands on some manuscript fragment, perhaps only a couple of internal leaves and perhaps not entirely legible, containing an unabridged translation of Bede I, 15-16, and thus representing a putative Old English version of which there is otherwise no surviving manuscript evidence?  Such an explanation is perforce as speculative as it is tempting, but it is not out of the question. Nowell was a friend of the poet, diplomat, and antiquary Daniel Rogers, who in the 1570s compiled a notebook for a history of Roman Britain (never published), which is now British Library Cotton Titus F.x.  On f. 71r of this notebook Rogers wrote, referring to the arrival of the Saxons, "Vide Saxonicum meum fragmentum, quod Laurentius Noelus mihi dedit, id est quod hoc accidisse asserit anno à Christi nativitate 449." So it seems that Nowell did possess a vernacular manuscript fragment, no longer extant, whose text was in accord at least with the opening sentence of Book I, Chapter 15, of the Old English Bede. (The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records the arrival of the Saxons in the annal for 449 but does not specify this particular year for their arrival; the Old English Bede is the only known "Saxon" text that explicitly does so.)  The matter is worth further investigation, for if in the end we are persuaded that Nowell's additions to his Bede transcript, however flawed, could have been derived from this or any other such fragment and were not cooked up from the Latin Bede, then we shall have to reconsider our entire linguistic, stylistic, and general philological understanding of the Old English Bede and its manuscript transmission.

Abstract of paper read at the meeting of the Medieval Association of the Pacific, Claremont, CA, 12 March 1999