Rachel Burns (UCL) - 2014-15 Students

The visual craft of Anglo-Saxon verse

I am investigating the manner in which the mise-en-page of Old English verse reflects on one hand the material and scribal practices of its encoding, and on the other the semantic and structural forces at work in the texts themselves. Old English verse is not generally considered in this way, with its prose-like layout leading commentators to assume that Anglo-Saxon scribes either did not appreciate the possibilities of complex layouts, or did not wish to waste resources on vernacular texts. My thesis will reconsider this position by looking at the suitability of Old English verse layout to its metrical form in comparison to contemporary Latin texts. It will furthermore explore a series of visually intriguing texts, proposing ways in which scribes have utilised mise-en-page elements to support the literature.

TITLE: The visual craft of Old English verse: mise-en-page in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts


It is standard editorial practice to abstract Old English verse lines from the unlineated layout of their manuscript witnesses, and rearrange them as discrete metrical lines arranged vertically, broken by a medial space at the caesura. The ubiquity of this practice, and its correspondence with the graphic conventions of modern print editions more generally, may account for the widespread scholarly assumption that the unlineated mise-en-page of Old English verse in situ arises from its status as low-grade vernacular, with scribes lacking either the resources or the sophistication to apply Latinate standards of lineation to Old English texts. This thesis challenges such assumptions, proposing instead that an unlineated format was the preferred arrangement for Old English verse, and that vernacular mise-en-page is capable of conveying important structural, prosodic and semantic information about its texts.

Chapter Two surveys the development of lineation in Anglo-Latin manuscripts, establishing a context for the subsequent writing of Old English verse. The chapter hypothesises that the different mise-en-page conventions for Latin and Old English reflects their distinct metrical structures. A study of inter-word spacing in Chapter Three suggests that scribes may have been cognisant of metrical structures as they wrote, and that these structures influenced the process of writing.

Chapters Four and Five move away from structural resonance between text and mise-en-page, towards aesthetic and semantic resonances. Chapter Four argues that a preference for dense, unlineated mise-en-page is grounded in the traditions of surface-design in vernacular art. Chapter Five shows a scribe arranging and ornamenting the elements of mise-en-page to highlight the narrative structure, textual allusiveness and Orientalist theme of his text.

The thesis concludes by reviewing the state of play in Old English textual editing with regards to manuscript features, giving some thoughts on how the findings of this thesis might speak to future editorial work.

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