Thursday, November 30, 2017

To the letter: Philology as a core component of Old Norse studies

I have just finished reading To the letter: Philology as a core component of Old Norse studies, by Svanhildur Oskarsdottir. This excellent article was originally published in volume 60 of Scripta Islandica (citation below) and by a very happy serendipity it hits right at where I am in my own journey as a Germanic Philologist. I want to use this space to explore some of these ideas at greater length later, but for now, some especially choice quotes:

"But to shut manuscripts up in libraries abroad, where no one will ever be able to understand them, and thus keep useful sources away from capable readers forever – a practice, which out of ignorance has long been tolerated, to the great detriment of historical enquiry – is indeed not to preserve old lore but to destroy it." These are the words of Bishop Brynjólfur Sveinsson of Skálholt in a letter to Professor Villum Lange in Copenhagen, the librarian of King Frederik III, dated the 10th of July 1656. The letter accompanied several manuscripts, one of them probably Flateyjarbók, which the bishop sent to the king in response to a request for old books for the royal library. This statement follows from Brynjólfur’s urging that the texts contained in the Icelandic manuscripts be published, in the original language as well as in Latin translation. (Svanhildur 7-8)

That [the question of how to raise funds to finance editorial work] is a central problem related to the low status editions and editorial work occupy within the academic hierarchy, a condition that needs to be challenged at every opportunity (within funding bodies, in academic committees etc.). But I would also like to stress that, in my view, working on editions is not a question of either/or. Rather, editorial work should form a part of every Old Norse specialist’s training and they should subsequently reckon editing to be one of the avenues for their scholarship, not the only outlet. (Svanhildur 7)

The scenario he pictures in the quotation is of mute books stored away from their interpreters. The words on the pages will not be heard unless they find their mediator, a human mind that is able to convey their meaning to the wider world. Brynjólfur mentions Latin translations, and translations are of course an important element in the transmission of Old Norse texts. But because my time is limited here today, I shall have to leave these outside my main focus. I want, instead, to use Brynjólfur’s letter as a starting point for a discussion of palaeography, textual criticism, textual commentary and the practice of editing – a discussion of philology in other words, where philology is seen to encompass all the fields I mentioned. (Svanhildur 8)

We are, it seems to me, in the middle of a strange paradox: the worldwide interest in Old Norse texts seems to be greater than ever before – as the record number of participants at this conference seems to bear out; this interest has spread to cover more genres than in the past; and the development in electronic text-processing is gradually opening up possibilities of transmitting these texts in new, revolutionary ways. At the same time the production of text editions seems to be grinding slowly to a halt. There are telling exceptions to this, the most obvious one being the Skaldic editing project, which I will return to later on. But the pessimistic (and by no means unrealistic) view is that
we will continue to rely on Unger and Finnur Jónsson for decades to come unless we begin to see some change in the way we go about these things. (Svanhildur 12)

On the literary front there were also developments that changed the circumstances for textual editing and in fact changed the whole definition of what constitutes a text. New criticism arrived with its reaction against the biographical approach to literary studies. The sixties and the seventies came with structuralism, oral-formulaic theory, anthropological approaches and an inclination to read the texts as evidence of the society that produced them. University syllabuses changed drastically in the 1970s as the content of degree programmes was redefined. Old languages did not do well out of that shake-up. The scholars who represented fresh ideas or new approaches and who were most likely to inspire new generations of students did not do philology. Philologists withdrew into their shell and their defence sometimes took the form of shrouding their activities in mystery, giving the impression that dealing with manuscripts was only for the hardiest of souls – or possibly only for curmudgeons. Philology had developed a serious image-problem, as Odd Einar Haugen noted very succinctly in his Gothenburg paper: Philology was seen as elitist and monumental, obsessed with narrow detail and archetypes. In short: it was out of date and out of touch. Boring.
At this point one has to pinch one’s arm – are we not talking about incredibly important texts preserved in old manuscripts, each different from the other, each with its fascinating history? How could it have come to this? Show a moderately curious person a manuscript and he or she is invariably smitten, drawn towards its peculiarity, its message, the miracle of its existence. Verily I say unto you: Those medievalists who deny themselves the opportunity to work with manuscripts are losing out on one of the greatest pleasures they can have with their clothes on. (Svanhildur 14-5, bold emphasis mine)

One of the main reasons, I believe, for the bankruptcy (if that is not too strong a word) of the Arnamagnæan approach to editing is the fact that projects have been the responsibility of individuals. The ever-increasing demands that every stone be turned have blown the edition of even the shortest of texts into a gigantic task that requires years of solitary confinement to complete. No sane person wants to spend her life like that. And why should she? Modern editorial projects should be defined
as group projects. Not only will this save editors from depression and loneliness, but it will increase the likelihood of the projects making it past the goalposts, of editions actually materializing, and – last but not least – it is the only way out of the prison of specialization. By bringing together the efforts of a group of people and pooling resources, we can have our cake and eat it – we can fulfill the modern criteria for accuracy and transparency in the presentation of the manuscript evidence, but we can also unite the world of nineteenth-century philologists and the interests of the many branches of twentieth-century scholarship. This is because every member of the group will wear the cloak of the philologist as well as being a linguist, or a historian, a literary historian, or art historian. The collective work on the text will inform the studies of the individuals, and their various expertise will bring valuable insights and interpretations which will be fed into the commentary on the texts. (Svanhildur 16-7)

And the main thing is: anyone can do it [manuscript editing]. The only prerequisite is a knowledge of the language – a skill that is necessary anyway for any person who intends to become seriously involved in Old Norse studies. The flip-side of that coin is that one’s knowledge of the language is greatly enhanced by grappling with editing texts. So it works both ways and gradually one becomes more adept. However, the basic responsibility for language acquisition lies with all your universities. It is vital to preserve the teaching of Old Norse/Icelandic language in as many places as possible. And when students have progressed beyond the initial stage, it is desirable that editing projects be accepted as part of their degrees. (Svanhildur 19)

Electronic editions must not become yet another area of specialization, where we have on the one side a small band of experts who know all about how to produce them – in theory – and on the other hand a handful of ageing philologists who are supposed to be the practitioners but haven’t a clue how to orientate themselves in the unfamiliar building. Theory and practice must go hand in hand. And practical considerations must be given attention. If editorial projects are to be realistic, a balance must be struck between possibility and feasibility. There is hardly a limit to the detail one can get into when editing and commentating a text. This holds true for printed editions, and in the electronic world the possibilities have multiplied. You can tag yourself to death. Let’s not lose the will to live. (Svanhildur 21)

And she ends with this:

Every person in this auditorium knows the meaning of the word philology. It means love of words. So let’s do it – let’s fall in love. (Svanhildur 21)

Svanhildur Oskarsdottir. “To the letter: Philology as a core component of Old Norse studies.” Scripta Islandica, vol. 60, 2009, pp. 7–21.


  1. Interesting, but saying that anyone can edit a manuscript seems a bit optimistic. And I am reminded of what Drout (at Mythmoot maybe?) said about the diminishing knowledge of each generation of philologists. The author also seems to be playing with the narrower and wider definitions of philology. But I will gladly learn better. Certainly the new technologies open ways previously shut.

  2. Tom, I'm just now seeing this comment or I should have responded sooner!

    First, if that were all Svanhildur were saying, it would indeed be optimistic. Alas, this is the peril of cherry-picking a few great quotes and putting them on my blog. I'd heartily encourage you to read the original article (ping me if you like and I'll send you a copy); what Svanhildur is arguing for is not that we should pluck random people off the street and give them manuscripts to edit. She is, in fact, acknowledging the basic problem that Drout mentioned (and she goes into great detail on the history of the problem) and then suggesting a solution, which is to teach people not to just be Old Norsists, or Anglo-Saxonists, but philologists.

    Drout was right: we don't have the knowledge of the great philologists of old. But one of the main reasons for that is that, given the fact that they've done all of the work that they did, very few people are willing to go back and retrace their steps. Most of their knowledge is not anything that can be found in any textbook - it's things that can only be learned by spending a lot of time with the texts themselves. That, I think, is ultimately what Svanhildur is challenging us to do. The advent of new technology which will enable digital editions is a great opportunity to do just that.


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