Feature of the Month: a Saxon Treatise in 1623

In 2016 Senate House Library is commemorating the quartercentenary of the death of William Shakespeare. This year’s Features of the Month celebrate books published in the same year as Shakespeare’s first four folios: 1623, 1632, 1664 and 1685.

A Saxon Treatise Concerning the Old and New Testament
Aelfric
London: J. Haviland for H. Seile, 1623
[E.M.W.] 012 (SR)

Although this treatise purports on the title page to be by Abbot Aelfric of St Albans (d.1005), later Archbishop of Canterbury, its author is generally accepted as having been Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham (c.955-c.1010) — author of the Catholic Homilies and Lives of the Saints and the most prominent known figure of Old English literature, celebrated for his stylistic excellence, educational principles, and breadth of learning.

Yet it is the editor and translator, William Lisle (c.1569-1637), who renders this particular edition of the Saxon Treatise significant. His English translation faces Aelfric’s Old English text across 86 pages. Before the treatise itself comes a 40-page preface, extremely long in proportion to the main work, with its own table of contents. Lisle’s purpose in translating the work is both religious and political. He explains it in this preface, to preserve “an auncient monument of the Church of England” (b1r) – and therefore to validate the Church of England as an ancient body. He sees himself as following the example of King James I in publishing religious writings (c3r), and he emphasises the value of possessing the Scriptures in a known tongue, as the Anglo-Saxons did. Most importantly for the scholar of Anglo-Saxon and of the attempt by Renaissance scholars to preserve it, Lisle details how he taught himself Old English, via Dutch and Scottish, starting by fragments within published works and then reading Old English manuscripts belonging to the antiquarians Henry Savile (a kinsman) and Robert Cotton (a friend) and to libraries in Cambridge, where Lisle was a Fellow of King’s College. He is frank about the initial difficulties: “the Saxon … the older it was, became harder to bee vnderstood” (c4v).

As we celebrate the English language with the printing of the first folio of Shakespeare in 1623, there is a pleasing link in reading what Lisle has to say about it:

our language is improued aboue all others now spoken by any nation, and becake the fairest, the nimblest, the fullest; most apt to vary the phrase, most ready to receiue good composition, most adorned with sweet words and sentences, with witty quips and ouer-ruling Prouerbes: yea able to expresse any hard conceit whatsoeuer with great dexterity; weighty in weighty matters, merry in merry, braue in bruae (f3r).

This particular copy of the Treatise was formerly owned by W.W. Greg (1875-1959), a redoubtable bibliographer whose work included examination of Shakespeare’s early quartos and the First Folio.

 

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