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Recovering Unique Ælfrician Texts Using the Fiber Optic Light Cord: Pope XVII in London, BL Cotton Vitellius C. v


Carmen Acevedo Butcher, Shorter College, Georgia

[Online Note: the printed version of this essay, which originally appeared in OEN 36.3, contains complex formatting which may be more legible in the .pdf version. It was also accompanied by a reproduction of London, BL Cotton Vitellius C.v, fol. 175v, which for reasons of copyright is not included here. OEN apologizes for the omission. -ed.]

Of the twenty-eight manuscripts examined by John C. Pope for his 1967-68 edition of Ælfrician Homilies, [1] London, BL MS Cotton Vitellius C. v (Ker 220; cited as H in the standard sigla of Ælfric MSS) [2] stands out as an excellent witness to Ælfric's later work and mature style. Moreover, of the seven full and clearly genuine homilies for which it supplies readings in Pope's edition (I, IV, XIII-XVII), the first and last are preserved nowhere else, and it also contains three unique passages of sermon XIa: lines 54b-74, 81-85, and 102-27 (Pope I.31-32). Unfortunately, the manuscript was severely damaged in the Cotton fire of 1731, leaving numerous lacunae which make it "not wholly reliable" as a textual authority (Pope II.564). In 1990 and 1991, in the course of translating homilies I-XVII (for the Proper of the Season) from Pope's edition, [3] I had the opportunity to examine Cotton Vitellius C. v; comparing my transcriptions to Pope's meticulous edition gradually convinced me that a modern scholar might see somewhat more than Pope had been able to see. This was no doubt partly due to the more limited and focused nature of my project, but also to the availability of modern technology.

The burnt folios of Cotton Vitellius C. v were individually pasted into modern paper frames, probably in 1844 and 1845, [4] and the tan onionskin pasting paper obscured thousands of words in the manuscript, making them invisible to the naked eye. Pope himself notes, "I made my own examination of the physical characteristics of the manuscripts, size, gatherings, script, &c., mainly in the years 1927-33" (I.13), at a time when the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, for example, had no electric light system. [5] Therefore Pope, like Ælfric himself, may have often found himself peering at old manuscripts in ill-lighted rooms on short winter days. The Fiber Optic Light Cord (FOLC), a cold pencil-point of light, allows the viewer to see text hidden under the modern paste-downs, making visible letters, pieces of letters, and whole words that Pope could not see. [6]

A conscientious use of FOLC in reading MS Cotton Vitellius C. v confirms the vast majority of Pope's suggestions in whole or in part; Pope's edition demonstrates that careful editing is always on the cutting edge, with or without the latest technology or even the benefit of good lighting. In a few cases, however, evidence gathered with FOLC displaces earlier conjectures. The notes that follow contain a line-by-line analysis of the lacunae found in one homily (XVII) in Pope's collection, one of the Ælfrician texts for which Cotton Vitellius C. v. is the sole or primary witness; it is offered as an addendum to Pope's work, representing the text in its present condition under the best-available conditions of legibility, and as an illustration of the value of FOLC in recovering text from damaged manuscripts.

Homily XVII is a composite homily celebrating four of Christ's miracles; over half of it is devoted to an exposition of the miracle described in the pericope for the day, Mark 7:31-37 (Pope II.563). Pope suggests that homily XVII belongs with homilies XIII-XVI as a part of Ælfric's attempt to complete his series of homilies for the Sundays after Pentecost (Pope II.565). Cotton Vitellius C. v is the only witness for lines 1-202 and 277-314 (Pope II.567); lines 203-76 have been interpolated from CH II.xxiii (lines 126-97 in Godden's edition) and are found in six other manuscripts. [7] It is thus an important witness not only for Ælfric's sense of style (by virtue of its mixture of older plain prose material and later rhythmical prose) but also for his compositional technique, the weaving-together of new and old material to create a coherent work.

The collation that follows notes only the lacunae in the text, placing Pope's reading and/or conjecture alongside the author's own best judgment of the visible reading where it differs from Pope; where necessary, more detailed descriptions of the state of the MS are given below each pair of readings. The line numbers are Pope's, and I have followed his complex editorial conventions (described in I.188-90); in this homily, he indicated expanded abbreviations by italics and retained the tironian 7 for OE and. Lacunae are indicated by parentheses; letters and words within these parentheses are Pope's conjectures, supplied, as he put it, "from imperfect traces, from the parallel readings of other manuscripts, or from the implications of the context, always with consideration of the space available in the manuscript" (I.189). Conjectures Pope deemed "unduly hazardous" (I.189) were placed in the textual apparatus; here they are listed directly below the reading of Pope's text. In many cases examination of the MS under FOLC reveals more letters than Pope was able to see, or recovers completely letters which were only partly visible to him; these letters are placed outside the parentheses in the right-hand column, indicating that they are no longer conjectural but confirmed. Sometimes Pope has listed a letter or word as visible to the naked eye that is now, in fact, only visible under FOLC, and in a few rare case Pope indicates a lacuna that is in fact visible to the naked eye.

Where Pope was unable or unwilling to offer a conjecture to fill a lacuna, he indicated the approximate number of missing letters by colons (the number is supplied in square brackets after Pope's reading); examination under FOLC often suggests a different number of spaces. While care has been taken in estimating these spaces, the condition of the water- and/or fire-damaged vellum sometimes makes such estimations almost impossible, as Pope himself realized (I.189) and these numbers are at best only approximations. Tears, stitches, worm holes, and other damaged spots are also noted; in these cases, obviously, no technology can recover the lost readings.



(Pope II.563-83; Cotton Vitellius C. v, fols. 172-5)

(fol. 172r)

10 cuma(n).

The right edge of fol. 172r is torn away, and letters are lost at the end of each line through 24.

12 swiþ(e)

14 (þa)

15 misli(ce ge)swencte;

17 (::::::::::::) [12 spaces] [8]

18 þi(ss godspell ge)sette

20 MARC(VS:::::::, se þe) [7 spaces]

MARC(VS gehaten, se þe)

21 be(::::::::::::::::::) [18]

be(com to þære Galileiscan)

22 (:::::::::::::::::) [17] - þæ(:::::::::::) [10]

(þæs Tyriscan folces

23 ::::::::::)|eiscan, [10] - [end of fol. 172r]

(geond þæt Sidon)eiscan,

(fol. 172v)

24 o(:::::::::::::te)ne tyn (burhsci)ra. [13] - on(::::::::::::::::)tene tyn (::::::)yra. [16]

o(n bocum synd gehate)ne tyn (burhsci)ra.

Pope calls lines 21-24 "troublesome" (II.580), and in a long note explains the rather complicated reasons for his opinion (II.580-81). He believes part of the problem is that a whole line has been lost. Examination with FOLC confirms that there is enough space for all of the readings suggested in Pope's note.

28 mid (:::::::::::::::::)um [17] - mid his halgum handum

mid (his halwendum fingr)um

Line 28 is a burnt spot under onionskin paper on the left edge of fol. 172v, above a horizontal split of approximately 1.5 to 2 inches. Pope supplied the conjecture "his halwendum fingrum" here, comparing it with line 121. But under FOLC a different reading is visible, with a different meaning and stronger alliteration.

29 (meniu) - meniu

Noted by Pope as "partly visible" (II.568), but fully visible under FOLC.

55 (þæt)

66 mi(ne)

68 (yþ)um, - yþum

69 men(nisce)s

71 (::::::)e [6] - (:::::)ne


73 for (þan þe::::::::::), [10] - for (þan þe:::::::::::: )e, [12]

FOLC reveals approximately 19 total spaces (including Pope's conjectured þan þe; a final e is visible under FOLC, and before it part of what could be an m (though this is not certain). The remaining lacuna leaves enough room for the reading "(þan þe Crist cum)e," which I propose based on Pope's suggestion in his note at II:581.

74 Go(des bearn:::::::) [7]

Go(des bearn on anum)

76 (::::::::::::::::), [16] - (:::::::::::::::::::::), [21]

Pope reports 16 spaces here, but examination with FOLC suggests about 21. Pope offers no suggested reading; various readings such as 7 fram unstæððignesse "and from unsteadiness" or and to his gegaderung "and to his gathering/assembly" would fit the context and the physical space, and create apt alliteration with staðolfæstnesse in line 75.

77 þæra (::::::::::). [10] - þæra (:::::::::::::::). [15]

78 (:::::::::: ge)haten [10] - (::::::::::::::ge)haten [14]

(An eard wæs ge)haten

Examination of 77-78 with FOLC suggests about 29 spaces. Pope offers no suggestion for 77; taking the spacing and the case of þæra into consideration, various readings are possible (þæra worulda ealdend, þæra worulda scyppend, þæra worulda alysend, etc.).

79 (::::::::::::::), [14]

(ea Iordanen::::), [4]

80 (::::::::::::) [12] - (:::::::::::::::::) [1] > (Decapolis on) - (:::::::::::)l(:::: )n

FOLC examination of 79-80 suggests about 31 total spaces where Pope saw 26. Pope supplies "(ea Iordanen:::: / Decapolis on);" FOLC reveals traces of letters which support this reading. The remaining four spaces may be filled by placing þe is before Decapolis.

(fol. 173r)

81 (þam) … sw(a swa se)gð þiss (godspell), þam … swa (swa se)gð þiss godspell,

82 ge(hælde) … hrepung(e geh(ælde) … hrepung(e

83 þ)one … ge(dyde) - þone … ged(yde)

85 Ð(es deafa) - Ðes (deafa)

86 ad(ea)fode

The right side of fol. 173r is cut away at this point, creating the lacunae through line 134. In a few cases a letter missing at the edge of the damaged leaf is visible under FOLC.

87 deadl(ice)

89 n(olde)

90 (þonne). or (þa). - þ(onne). or þ(a).

92 (he)

96 dryme(n) - drymen

98 me(n) - men

107 Drihten(e)

111 hi(s)

117 hi(s)

121 syndo(n), - syndon,

125 mih(te)

126 Ha(l)gan

128 egesl(ican)

129 (syl)fum

130 hrep(ode his)

132 (::::::::::::::) [14] - go(::::::::::::)

(Godes mærða on)

Pope suggests in the apparatus to this line that the first two letters here could be either go or to; FOLC confirms go.

133 sceol(de,:::::::::::::) [13]

sceol(de, þa God his mod)

134 me(::::::::::::::::::). [18] - me(:::::::::::::::::::::). [21]


FOLC reveals about 21 spaces available after the e in me(nn) where Pope records 18. In the text-ual apparatus Pope notes that "the concluding word may have been an adverb ending in -lice" (II.572). With this in mind, I propose menn swiðe geornlice as a possible reading.

(fol. 173v)

135 '(He be|sea)h … geom(erunge - '(He be|se)ah … geom(erunge

136 to) … dum(ba)n … (an dyrne word): - to) … dum(ba)n … (an )dyrne word:

137 (is) … (to) … geopenigenn(e).' - is … (to) … geopenigenn(e).'

138 (he)

139 (::::::::::::) [12] - (::) æt fruman

(us æt fruman)

141 (::::::::) [8] - (::::::)n


Pope notes "(Last letter either r or n)" (II.572); FOLC confirms n.

142 (on) - on

143 (He ge)swutelode - (He g)eswutelode

144 (þære h)eofonlican - (þære )heofonlican

146 (mid) - mid

Only the right side of m is visible with FOLC.

147 (m)ot - mot

178 (dæd)um, - dædum,

Pope notes that "the lower half of each letter is visible" (II.574); they are no longer so to the naked eye, but distinct with FOLC.

182 (þ)e - þe

Only the top half of þ is visible with FOLC.

183 (þu)ss - þuss

184 mih(te: [1] [9] - mih(:::)

185 h)e - he

186 dum(ban þæt hi) - dum(ban þæt) hi

187 gefrem(man,

188 mihte)

189 (::::::::::::::::::::) [20] - (::::::::::::::::::::::) [22]

æt hi hit nanum ne sædon)

191 (:::::::::::::::::: þe w)e [18] - (:::::::::::::::::::: þe) we [20]

æt we on þam godum dædum þe w)e

(fol. 174r)

192 b(ugon - bu(gon

193 ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::) [36] - ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::) [30]

194 Se idela gylp (::::::::) h(::::::::::::, [8/12]

Se idela gylp (huru is an) h(eafodleahter,

195 :::::::::::::: )sæte, 7 we (eac) [14] - ::::::::::: ) andsæte, 7 we eac

Gode swiðe and)sæte,

Examination with FOLC suggests 9 spaces after gylp and 13 after h in line 194, ample room for Pope's suggested readings. The words idela gylp are partially covered with pasting paper, and only the bottom half of each letter is visible; not even FOLC reveals their top halves. Pope reports that "The eafo of heafod [is] almost intact though out of position" (II.574), but not even FOLC reveals it now. In 195 FOLC indicates a lacuna of 16 spaces rather than Pope's reported 14, but the vellum here is wrinkled and its original spacing is difficult to determine. After the initial h of "h(eafodleahter)" (194) there is a hole some 24 spaces long; the following and (195) is visible to the naked eye, but wrenched out of position, partly detached from the main vellum and twisted upwards, with the letters a-n-d stacked vertically directly above and to the left of the letters -sæte. Other letters are indeed visible to the naked eye here, but they are so out of position that they are impossible to decipher; the manuscript is simply too mangled. Perhaps this is where it landed with a wet thud after being tossed out a window of Ashburnham House in October 1731.

196 ascy(r)ian, - ascyrian

197 (m)ede, - mede

199 (his halgum) - his halgum

Pope indicates in a note that these words are "partially visible" (II.575). As noted above, for lines 203-276 Pope was able to rely on the evidence of six other MSS to supply gaps in the text of Cotton Vitellius C. v; evidence from FOLC helps confirm these readings.

218 g(e)sette

At this point the right side of fol. 174 is cut away; the damage affects lines through 234.

219 oferga(n).

221 gehat(en)

223 hi(ne)

224 fótcopsu(m) - fótcopsum

228 g(e)seah, - geseah,

229 þ(u)

230 tintr(egie).

231 A(nd he)

232 uncl(æna gast)

233 þ(an þe we - þan (þe we

234 her ma)nega

(fol. 174v)

235 þ|(am earde ne adræfde. Ða stod - þ|(am earde ne adræfde. )Ða s(tod

þaer onemm ða dune micel heord - þae)r (onemm ða dune micel heord

236 swyna,) … mosto(n into ðam swynum. - swy)na, … moston in(to ðam swynum.

237 [Þa geðafode se Haelend ðæt ðam deoflum.

And hí gewiton of ðam

238 men into ðam swynum] Þa swyn ða e)alle

239 s(æ, sume twa) þusend(:), [1] - sæ, sume twa þusend(:),

240 (deofel)lican scy(f)e. - deofellican scyfe.

241 (be þa)m - be þam

245 Drih(t)en - Drihten

246 Drih(t)en

247 Dri(h)tenes - Drihtenes

256 adr(æf)de - adræ(f)de

The right margin of fol. 174v is gone.

278 (7)

(Text after line 276 is preserved only in Cotton Vitellius C. v.) The left margin is gone at the bottom of fol. 174v, creating the lacunae through line 287.

279 (Luc)as

281 (Hæle)nd - (Hæl)end

282 (þær his eð)el - (þær hi)s eðel

284 (::::::::: his) [9] - (:::::::::) his

(wundredon his)

Pope notes that his is "partially visible" (II.579), but in fact it is completely so.

285 swiðli(c:::::::::: [10]

swiðli(cere mihte.

286 ::: þ)ær [3]

And þ)ær

FOLC suggests that only two characters are lost, so the abbreviation 7 would better fit the available space.

287 (:::::::::::::::::::) [19]

(fulan gaste deoflice)

(fol. 175r)

289 ge(:::::::::::::::::::::::) Crist, [23] - geang(sumod:::::::::) Crist, [9-14]

FOLC reveals -ang after ge-. Only one word in Old English is known to begin with these letters, geangsumian "vex, make anxious." The remaining space is very difficult to judge due to the damaged state of the MS at this point; Pope offers no conjectural reading, nor do I. Immediately before Crist, FOLC reveals traces of two letters, but these are not distinguishable; after Crist, FOLC reveals a medial point.

290 (::::::::::::::::::::),…u(s) gemæ(n)e? [20] - Ðu hæfst (::::::::::::::::), …us gemæ(n)e?

Examination with FOLC reveals Ðu hæfst clearly; after these words a V-shaped split runs vertically down the vellum. FOLC suggests about 16 spaces available here, but the damaged state of the MS makes any estimation hazardous.

291 (co)me… fordo(n)ne… amyrr(enne us)! - (co)me … fordonne … amyrrenne us?

A very faint, crinkled punctus interrogativus is visible after us. On the remainder of the folio, some of the readings indicated as conjectural by Pope are in fact visible to the naked eye.

292 (ic) … ge(are) … God(es) Halg(a). - (ic) … ge(are) … Gode(s) Halg(a).

293 Hæ(le)nd … s(ona) - Hælend … sona

294 Swi(ga) … hrað(e), - Swiga … hraðe,

295 gewi(t aw)eg - gewit aweg

296 adræ(fde) - adræfde

297 earm(an) - earman

298 miht(e) - mihte

300 (spræ)con, - spræcon,

303 gast(um) - gastum

305 æ(lcere) - ælcere

306 H(æ)lend - Hælend

The right side of the folio is torn away here; this damage affects lines 308 and 313.

307 t(r)ymminge,

308 sec(gan) - secg(an)

Only the bottom of the tail of g is visible with FOLC.

313 a(n)wealde



An examination of this damaged text using the enhancements of modern technology puts Pope's 1967-68 edition under equally intense scrutiny, but even while such an examination can offer corrections and revisions of Pope's textual apparatus, it demonstrates that the latest technology is, in this case, only a small improvement on the conjectures of a capable editor half a century ago. With FOLC in hand, I read all of the Ælfrician texts uniquely preserved in this damaged manuscript, and my analyses of other homilies followed the pattern seen here: nearly all of the readings I was able to recover only confirmed what Pope had already conjectured. Ælfric may be a special case because his works survive in many MSS, his style has been thoroughly studied, and his sources (at least in general terms) are usually known; where other witnesses are lacking and the meaning of a text is more puzzling, the visual advantages offered by the latest technology may be essential. But I think the analysis presented above should give us pause. It is tempting to become enamored of, even dependent on, the ability of technology to increase the legibility of damaged manuscripts, but an intelligent eye remains the best camera, and no amount of digital wizardry can replace the imagination of a diligent editor.



[1] John C. Pope, ed., Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection. Being Twenty-One Full Homilies of His Middle and Later Career for the Most Part Not Previously Edited (2 vols.; EETS o.s. 259, 260. London: OUP, 1967, 1968). Cited here as "Pope."

[2] N. R. Ker, Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon (Oxford: OUP, 1957).

[3] These eighteen translations are in my dissertation: "Eighteen Sermons by Ælfric: Translations and Commentary," Diss. University of Georgia, 1991 (DAI 52A (1991): 2137). Assistance in that work was provided by Professor R. I. Page, then of the Parker Library, the late Professor John Dodgson of University College London, and Dr. Bruce Mitchell of St. Edmund's Hall, Oxford; the research was made possible by a grant from the Fulbright Commission. Revised under the working title God of Mercy: Ælfric's Sermons and Theology, it is currently under consideration by a university press.

[4] According to Frederic Madden, "Madden Repairs to Cotton MSS," London, BL Add. 62576, fol. 42.

[5] According to R. I. Page, in a conversation with author 17 February 1990.

[6] This method was also used to recover damaged readings in MS Cotton Vitellius A. xv; see Kevin Kiernan and Andrew Prescott, et al. Electronic 'Beowulf' (London: British Library; Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1999), Kevin S. Kiernan, "Digital Preservation, Restoration, and Dissemination of Medieval Manuscripts" (online at http://arl.cni.org/symp3/kiernan.html) and "Digital Image Processing and the Beowulf Manuscript," Lit. and Ling. Computing 6 (1991): 20-27. Other new technologies such as the ultra-violet light machine and the binocular microscope give scholars even more ways to decipher damaged manuscripts, but FOLC remains one of the most powerful; in an email to the author, Mr. Laurence Pordes of the British Library's Photo Studio recently remarked that FOLC has not been superseded (9 September 2002).

[7] Cambridge, University Library Gg. 3. 28, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 303, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 342, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 198, Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 162, and Cambridge, University Library Ii. 4. 6. The location of this passage within each MS is given in Malcolm Godden, ed., Ælfric's Catholic Homilies: The Second Series Text, EETS s.s. 5 (London, 1979), p. xvi.

[8] Pope suggests fyligde micel, citing the translation of the same pericope in Pope XIa.102-27 and LS XVI.134-41 (W. W. Skeat, ed. Ælfric's Lives of Saints. 2 vols. EETS o.s. 76, 82 and 94, 114. London, 1881-85 and 1890-1900).

[9] In this rare case Pope's system of notation is ambiguous; his ":" may have been intended to represent a punctuation mark rather than an unfilled lacuna.