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The Tremulous Hand of Worcester: A Study of Old English in the Thirteenth Century.

In the early years of the thirteenth century a distinctive tremulous hand provided over 50,000 glosses in some twenty Anglo-Saxon manuscripts from Worcester Cathedral Priory. Traditionally this hand has been attributed to an aged monk who, concerned that knowledge of the language of his youth was dying, glossed Old English texts in an attempt to make them accessible to future generations. Dr Franzen's stimulating study radically changes our view of the scribe's activity. The shakiness of the hand was not due to old age or even Parkinson's disease but to a congenital tremor; the scribe therefore could have been a young man, since the tremble in his handwriting resulted rather from stress or tiredness. Moreover, he was not glossing from personal knowledge of Old English but learning it as he glossed, a process which reflects an interest in the language for its own sake.

In her analysis of the scribe's handwriting, Franzen identifies in addition to his book-hand six different states of glossing-hand (discussion of those features of the hand symptomatic of his medical condition is confined to an Appendix). This identification seems convincing although it depends on a scrutiny of the treatment of the letter-forms which one has to take on trust, for accompanying plates intended to illustrate her palaeographical analysis do not do so, since they are so reduced in size (no scale is given) that one cannot see the details she discusses. This is the more regrettable since she proceeds to argue that the different states of the hand correspond to different layers of glosses which in turn reveal the scribe's method of learning Old English. As his handwriting deteriorated, so his knowledge of the language improved, and the latest glosses in the |mature' or most characteristic state of the hand often correct earlier ones.

This is in some ways a demanding book to read but one that repays careful attention. Among interesting ideas raised are recent suggestions that the scribe may have copied Middle English lyrics written in the margins of London, British Library, MS Roval 8 D.xiii a twelfth-century Smaragdus with a fourteenth-century Worcester ex libris, and MS Harley 3376, a Latin glossary of c. 1000 with no evidence of Worcester provenance. Given the range of variation that can occur in an individual's handwriting this is not impossible, but Franzen is rightly cautious about accepting their identity. Although comparison is difficult (because the lyrics are so faint they are almost illegible, and the characteristics of |Tremulous' are nearly invisible in her plates), the hands do not appear the same to me. The hand of the Royal lyric, while it shares the leftward lean of |Tremulous', appears not to have his characteristic wobble in its downstrokes, writes tall s with a flattened elongated top which he seems not to, and prefers to use w rather than wynn. The hand of the Harley lyric is more compact than that of Royal or |Tremulous', with shorter ascenders lacking the clubbed serifs and occasional incipient splitting of the latter, and without any wobble in the downstrokes.
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Author:Robinson, P.R.
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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