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Weird Writers of History

If the English language had taken a different path, historians might not exist.

A scribe, probably Bede, from the Life and Miracles of St Cuthbert, English, 12th century.Are historians particularly ‘weird’? It is not as insulting a question as it sounds and some linguistic history will explain why.

There is a widespread myth about the history of the English language, which goes like this: it began as the sturdy, rugged Germanic tongue of the Anglo-Saxons – good for writing about battles, but not much else – and was refined into a decent level of sophistication by the influence of Norman French, which shaped it into a language fit for discussing elegant and cultured topics. This trajectory – from earthy to elegant, coarse to cultured – is a story regularly repeated in popular narratives of English history, usually by those who have not read much Anglo-Saxon literature; the stereotype of Old English as unsophisticated or ‘rude’ (in every sense of that word) falters in the face of contact with the intricate poetry or thoughtful prose written in that language.

In the late Anglo-Saxon period, Old English was developing a sophisticated technical vocabulary, with which to discuss scholarly, scientific and theological subjects. Many of these terms have not survived to the present day, but they are evidence of how carefully some Anglo-Saxon writers thought about their own language and how much consideration went into the production of new words and compounds.

One example is an intriguing word that brings us back to my opening question: wyrdwritere, meaning ‘historian’. This word was coined towards the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, probably in the tenth century, as an English equivalent for the Latin word historiographus. It was then adopted by some Anglo-Saxon scholars to refer to writers of various works of history, including the authors of the historical books of the Old Testament and Roman historians.

It is a wonderful word. The second element of the compound is straightforward – it means ‘writer’ – but wyrd is not at all easy to translate. It sometimes simply means ‘event’ or ‘happening’ and in that case a wyrdwritere would just be a chronicler of incidents. Very often, however, wyrd refers not to single or random events but to the course of events unfolding over time; perhaps a chain of happenings linked by causality, or controlled by some force, to some particular end.

Wyrd can also mean ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’, a sequence of events governed by a power beyond human control. In different Old English texts, that power may be understood as fate, or divine providence, or simply the irresistible operation of time, depending on the writer’s perspective; wyrd is used to refer to all those concepts. For the translator of the Old English version of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, wyrd is ‘God’s work, which he works every day’; for the poet of Beowulf, it is the force which assigns warriors victory or failure in battle.

So what does that make the historian, the ‘writer of wyrd’? Perhaps not quite (as one dictionary translates the word) ‘one who chronicles the unfolding of destiny’, pleasing as that conception of a historian’s role might be. Perhaps the sense is that a wyrdwritere is someone who attempts not just to describe or record events but to understand them, to trace patterns, explore cause and effect, or attempt to discern meaning. It suggests something about what these Anglo-Saxon writers perceived the task of a historian to be: a carefully chosen word for a complex idea.

Although the word appears in a handful of manuscript sources written between the tenth and 13th centuries, it never caught on in common use and was never really set to become the standard English word for ‘historian’. Its chances were not helped by the strange fate of the word ‘weird’, which in Middle English became even more closely associated with concepts of destiny and fortune. From this we get the appearance of the word in a phrase such as ‘Weird Sisters’ – in Middle English originally used to refer to the Fates of classical mythology, and then, of course, popularised by Shakespeare for the witches of Macbeth. The modern sense of the word, meaning ‘strange’ or ‘bizarre’, perhaps the most common meaning today, is an even more recent development.

This changing usage would have made the connotations of ‘weird’ in the context of history writing remarkable indeed, if wyrdwritere had survived. If things had gone differently, the pages of History Today might even now have been full of contributions from ‘weird-writers’. But it was not to be. In the 15th century, English adopted the word ‘historian’ instead, a term which proved more tenacious, though compared with wyrdwritere it does lack a certain flair.

Eleanor Parker is Lecturer in Medieval English Literature at Brasenose College, Oxford and writes a blog at aclerkofoxford.blogspot.co.uk.

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