Latin & Old English in Anglo-Saxon England
King Alfred is famous for requiring that the books “most needful” to know be translated from Latin into Old English during his ninth-century reign so that, the story goes, the Anglo-Saxons’ decreasing knowledge of Latin would not entail an inestimable loss of learning. Beginning in the tenth century, Anglo-Saxon England did indeed witness the flourishing of a robust vernacular culture alongside a native tradition of Latin learning, and much of this is credited to King Alfred’s initiative. Learned works of history, poetry, law, science, history, and scripture were written in Old English through the eleventh century and were re-copied in Old English well into the twelfth. (By contrast, Latin was used for such subjects on the Continent during this period.) Latin also enjoyed an essential place in Anglo-Saxon England, where it was used in works of poetry, history, science and, most importantly, as the official language of the Church. Deserving of special mention is the sophisticated pursuit of Anglo-Latin written in the hermeneutic style, which is marked by complex syntax and the use of an obscure, polysyllabic vocabulary that often borrows from Greek.
Takamiya MS 21 is a fragment of the Book of Deuteronomy from an Anglo- Saxon Bible that dates to around 800, making it one of the earliest surviving examples of Anglo-Saxon minuscule script. The fragment may owe its survival to having been repurposed as another manuscript’s end leaves, a casual use for this now-priceless material.
Beinecke MS 578 contains a fragment from the West Saxon Gospel of St. Mark that continues to be preserved as an end leaf in a later psalter-hymnal that remains in its fourteenth-century binding. At the end of the first line of fully visible text, we can see, written in the same script as the Old English, the start of a Latin translation. Latin cues would have helped a reader (or scribe), who may not have known Latin well, find the Latin passage in the Gospel that corresponds to the Old English written out here.