• Oral Tradition and Internet Technology by John Miles Foley

The Exeter Book, called by its apparent compiler Leofric a “big English book about many things,” is by far the most diverse of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, containing everything from little-known riddles to famous elegies like The Seafarer, which Ezra Pound’s remarkable translation brought to wider attention. The riddles have roots in both Old High German and Latin enigmas, and sometimes treat the core cultural issue of the period and its verbal art—the interface of Germanic paganism and Latin-based Christianity. The Seafarer does likewise, explaining that the traditional idea of exile, in other situations a highly negative and sometimes fatal outcome, can provide a new focus on spiritual as opposed to temporal concerns. In both kinds of expositions, and in the dozens of other poems in this manuscript, the medium for poetic expression is oWords. Poets co-create their contributions by surfing through the web of the Anglo-Saxon oral tradition, often using familiar pathways to construct quite novel itineraries.

The remaining three major manuscripts that preserve textual traces of this early medieval oral tradition are known as the Junius or Caedmon Manuscript, the Vercelli Book, and the Nowell Codex. The first of these, now usually named in honor of its first publisher, Franciscus Junius, a contemporary of John Milton, houses two Biblical paraphrases (Genesis and Exodus) and two poems heavily dependent on Biblical stories (Daniel and Christ and Satan). The tAgora need for singular, textual authorship is visible in its alternate, now-outmoded designation as the “Caedmon Manuscript,” a title conferred under the positivist and entirely untenable assumption that the poet Caedmon, whom we know only by legend, must have composed all or most of its contents. Given the difference in styles, selections, and genres, as well as the evidence of other manuscripts, it becomes clear that the poetry in the Junius MS. is the product of distributed authorship. Given our lack of knowledge about its prior history, we should likely consider this document the result of distributed editorship as well.

The Vercelli Book, so named because of its curious and so far unexplained discovery as far away as Vercelli, Italy, is likewise focused on Christian works and ideas, but presents much more of a mélange than does Junius. Here we find nearly two dozen prose homilies, along with poems such as the lengthy, semi-epic Andreas, which versifies the apocryphal account of St. Andrew among the cannibalistic Mermedonians; the hagiography Elene, which portrays the unearthing of the cross; and the fascinating syncretic poem known as The Dream of the Cross. This last poem, a virtuoso navigation of the Old English oral poetic tradition, tells the story of the crucifixion from the perspective of the cross (as an eaxlgestealla, a “shoulder-companion” in battle—very much a Germanic oPathway). In doing so the poem depicts Christ not as a passive sufferer but rather as a Germanic warrior who literally “ungirds” himself and “leaps” onto the cross in a selfless but aggressive heroic act typical of celebrated leaders in non-Christian contexts throughout the surviving poetry. Once again, the power of the poetry derives from co-creation within a network, from distributed authorship.

The fourth of the major manuscripts, the Nowell Codex, is part of a composite codex known as Cotton Vitellius A. xv., a reference to its place in the personal library of Sir Robert Cotton, where it was damaged by fire in 1731. Laurence Nowell was the first known owner of this treasure, which contains, most prominently, the great epic Beowulf. Interestingly, the unique Beowulf manuscript, so singed at the edges that we require two transcriptions made by the Danish scholar G. J. Thorkelin and a hired scribe to supplement its partial record, was itself a joint project. Since the second scribe took over for the first midway through the second verse of line 1939 (in the middle of an oWord about two-thirds of the way through the story), what survives to us is doubtless a copy of a copy. We have no information whatsoever about the performance or recording of Beowulf, but its all-pervasive debt to oPathways qualifies the poem as an oral-derived Voice from the Past. Once again, distributed authorship and editorship are very much in play.