Fore them neidfaerae   naenig uuiurthit
thoncsnottura   than him tharf sie,
to ymbhycggannae,   aer his hiniongae,
huaet his gastae   godaes aeththa yflaes
aefter deothdaege   doemid uueorthae.

15thC (?) Depiction of Death; the struggle for the dying man’s soul

Before that needful-journey no-one becomes
wiser than it is necessary for him
to consider, before his going-hence,
what his soul by way of good or evil
may be deemed, after the death-day.

These are the lines spoken by Bede in his last hours, according to a letter written by his pupil Cuthbert. The original letter only gave a Latin paraphrase, but there is an English tradition from the 9thC onwards that includes the lines in Old Englisc. A good percentage of these are in the Northumbrian dialect (as is the version above); others are in the almost-standard West Saxon.

I decided to try and translate the Northumbrian version as a challenge- the orthography is horribly different from the West Saxon to which I am used. Quite a lot of the OE corpus is in WS, and textbooks for OE tend to normalise the differences when they arise. I can see why! Aside from none of the pretty thorns (Þ, þ) and eths (Ð, ð) to which I am used, replaced with ‘th’, it uses ‘uu’ for ‘w’ or the OE wynn character (Ƿ ƿ). More significantly, the spelling is like some sort of hideous bizzaro-land. It required a bit of detective work to determine that uueorthae was the subjunctive mood of weorþe or that doemid was, in fact a form of ‘to judge/deem’ (deman). Admittedly, it felt pretty obvious, and I pretty silly, when I did figure it out.

I have used the fifteenth edition from Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader (ed. Dorothy Whitelock), pp. 182-183, and the only change I have made was to drop Sweet’s accent markers… mostly because the make the text look untidy, but also because I sincerely doubt the original MS (St. Gall MS. 254) had them. I also relied on The Cambridge Old English Reader, Richard Marsden (Cambridge: 2004) which has an excellent commentary on the poem as well as a West Saxon edition. You can find it on Google Books if you click this link right here.

I find it to be a beautiful little poem, and one I can certainly imagine the Venerable Bede reciting before his death. Themes of death and one’s consideration of what waits beyond it are regular themes in Bede’s work (and, naturally, a lot of poetry in the period). There are some who claim that Bede composed the poem on his deathbed, but the evidence for that is spurious.

For more reading on the poem, I’d advise following that link to The Cambridge Old English Reader, where Marsden offers a few lines of quite spot-on analysis. I think for next week, I shall offer something a little more chirpy.

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