Report: Accessing English Humour in Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Texts I

On Wednesday 17 September Sam and I attended a joint seminar organised by the Medieval and Early Modern Centre and the Australasian Humour Studies Network at the University of Sydney. The title of the seminar was Accessing English Humour in Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Texts: Sources, Contexts, Intentions, Reception. Anna Wallace, Chenoa Hunter and Sabina Rahman presented papers, followed by the two discussants Emeritus Professor Conal Condren and Associate Professor Daniel Anlezark. April Bertels-Garnsey was also scheduled to give a paper, but sadly she was very ill.

Here I will provide a summary of Anna’s paper, and a following post will cover Chenoa’s and Sabina’s papers. I must say that while trying to write a coherent summary of each paper, I realised that I am a very poor note-taker (and I even had Sam’s notes to supplement mine). I apologise in advance for the quality of these summaries, and assure you that they really were very good papers.

Anna Wallace: Classroom Insults and Humour in Byrhtferth’s Enchiridion
Anna is an Anglo-Saxonist interested in early medieval literature, science, and education. Her PhD thesis ‘As if it never were’: the construct and poetics of time in Anglo-Saxon literature has recently been accepted at the University of Sydney. She is a member of the editorial board of the journal Cerae and a freelance copy-editor for Brepols publishers.

Byrhtferth was an Anglo-Saxon Benedictine monk at Ramsey Abbey. His Enchiridion is a commentary on a computus and is in both Latin and Old English. Anna states that the humour in the text stems from his “classroom insults”: his comments on lazy students and the difficult nature of learning. The commentary reads almost verbatim as if it were being spoken.

Bryhtferth thinks little of the clerics in his classroom and puts them down in comparison to the monks. Byrhtferth comments that a passage is translated from Latin for the sake of the “ignorant clerics.” Anna points out that we don’t know much about the clerics, but from what Byrhtferth says, clerics came to learn with and/or from the monks at the abbey.  For the clerics, learning was done so that they could to recite information back to their bishop whereas the monks lived a life of contemplation and learning.

In the Enchridion very flowery and poetic language (if I recall correctly, Latin) was used. In one instance Byrhtferth offers a mnemonic poem to aid learning – but he does so in Latin. When he translates this into what he calls the “plain language,” or Old English, it loses its poetic poetry and ceases to work as a memory device – which demonstrates Byrhtferth’s disdain for those uneducated in Latin. Anna claimed that he had some appreciation for Old English, even though he calls clerics lazy and stupid for not knowing Latin, but I didn’t make a note of her evidence.

Byrhtferth’s descriptions in the Enchridion provide some insights into the Anglo-Saxon classroom. One example that Sam made a note of was I 4 7-15, an image of alcohol and gambling in the classroom. The clerics are characterised as gamblers and rustics, which I think could stem from Byrhtferth’s seeming elitism. Byrhtferth quotes Bede in such a way that it gives a sense of a dialogue happening through the ages, from Bede to Byrhtferth centuries later. Anna mentions that there is also an image which possibly depicts how the class was set up, with the teacher up the front.

The text flows just as a lesson would in real time, as such Anna suggests that it could either have been a teaching aid for himself or as a guide for others to teach his class. If it was for himself, was it a coping mechanism for bad students? Byrhtferth seems to be a very impatient teacher, and says things like “I find this too tedious to explain in English.” He makes it clear that he prefers a contemplative life and we are presented with a beautiful image of him contemplating the computus in a “suitable place.” Byrhtferth would clearly like someone else to teach the class, and says “let him teach who wishes.” Anna claims that he offers teaching as incentive to learn, is he perhaps a frustrated teacher? Byrhtferth has a very definite idea about what teaching involves, and in his work he has an idea of an intellectual community. I guess the reality of students who were not interested in learning clashed with his ideal intellectual community within the abbey.

Anna believes that there is humour in Byrhtferth’s phrases and idiosyncrasy, and that his digressions are odd and funny. The most intriguing part of the humour in the Enchridion, however, is that it is there at all. The extant MS is a later copy, so the scribe who copied it did not edit the humour out. Anna points out that this is interesting, as either the scribe recognised it as funny and kept it in or possibly just copied it all without reading. Anna thinks that the text is funny to an extent. But she wonders about Byrhtferth’s classroom: are people insulting? Is there a divide between the clergy and the monks? In other circumstances would Byrhtferth be a bully? She suggests that the humour in the Enchridion was evidence of a burnt-out, frustrated teacher. She finished on the note that some things in education have not changed, as earlier she drew parallels between our own experiences as teachers with Byrhtferth’s difficulties.

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