I have been deluged by a request from a Dr J. G. of Sussex to see some of the draft of my ongoing book, The Beowulf Effect: Fossils, Evolution and the Human Condition. I’m now well over 30,000 words in – so almost halfway – and the writing is proceeding apace. I’m quite pleased with this bit, which arrives hot and steaming from my iPad, written over the past couple of days on the London-Norwich line. It’s a bit rough, and some of the facts might be wrong, but, Dr J. G., you did ask nicely, and my editor at the University of Chicago Press kindly allowed me to lift my skirts a little, as it were, so …
The English language, so rich and strange, is something we take for granted. A first language for many, and a second for many more, English is among the top five most widely spoken languages in the world (along with Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Hindi and Russian.) English is so ubiquitous, that as an English speaker, even the most remote parts of the world don’t seem so far from home. Street signs in China, even in places far away from the tourist trail, are in English. English is, by default, the spoken and written language of science, irrespective of the origins of the speakers or the location of the discourse. English is now the language of international diplomacy and trade. It has largely replaced French as the default language of the European Union. Turn up almost anywhere from Finland to Fiji and you’ll probably be able to find someone who can hold a passable conversation in English.
If parents and educationalists worry that children in English-speaking countries sometimes seem poor at learning other languages, they can console themselves that people in non-Anglophone parts of the world (with the possible exception of La France Profonde) are only too eager to learn and speak English. Turn on your TV any night of the week and you can find interviews in intelligible English with Arab militiamen in Libya, refugees in Kenya and churchgoers in Zimbabwe. Next week it might be Buddhist monks in Burma, rugby players from Samoa or fishermen from Iceland. The faces change but the language remains the same. I fully expect that when aliens land their flying saucer on the White House lawn (or, perhaps, Tiananmen Square – it’s a lot bigger) they’ll address us in English, learned from the endless re-runs of I Love Lucy broadcast into the cosmos over decades.
It didn’t have to be that way. English is subtle and flexible, to be sure, but there is no particular reason, inherent in the language itself, why it should have achieved its present dominance over Latin, say, or Portuguese, or Malay, or, come to that, many of the other languages among the six or seven thousand known to be spoken today.
The current success of English can be put down to historical accident, determined by two things. First, by its spread between the seventeenth and early twentieth centuries as the language of the British Empire, the most populous and geographically the most extensive commercial concern in history. Second, by the fact that it just happened to be the language of those former British colonies which, as the United States of America, grew to eclipse its progenitor in influence and power. Neither the growth of the British Empire nor of the United States was inevitable. Had, say, Wolfe failed in Quebec in 1759, and the Royal Navy lost to the French at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in the same year, I might be writing this book in French: or Spanish, perhaps, had the Armada not been blown off course in 1588. Or German, had Hitler pressed his advantage at Dunkirk; Dutch, had New Amsterdam not been ceded to the British and was renamed New York; Chinese, had the explorations of Chinese traders not been brought abruptly to a halt in the fifteenth century; or even Greek, had Alexander the Great lived to a ripe old age rather than dying young, his conquest of the world yet incomplete. These examples might seem playful, but they are meant to be serious. Things that we take for granted, and assume to be the way they are through some inherent superiority or the inexorable machinations of destiny, might so easily have turned out differently.
Historians are now quite used to considering the might-have-beens as well as the documentary facts, and reconstructing ‘counterfactuals’, scenarios of how history might have been, had things gone slightly differently. This is not just idle fancy. For example, documents still survive showing how the Nazis planned to govern the Soviet Union, had they managed to conquer it. Pioneering Americans were brought up to believe in ‘manifest destiny’, the doctrine that the United States would spread from coast to coast. That it did so might to some extent have been self-fulfilling prophecy. However, historian A. L. Meinig has challenged this, showing that the United States might easily have been much larger than it is – or much smaller – had certain policies been followed that might have been ignored, or put aside where they might have been pursued.
History turns on a hair.
The English language itself has changed as a result of the accidents of history. The English of 1,000 years ago would be as unintelligible to an untutored modern English-speaker as, say, Swedish. Had Harold won the day at Hastings in 1066, I might have been writing this book in what King Alfred called Englisc – an older English unadulterated by Norman French; an English free from the many Latinisms to which we have become accustomed; an English that would have had sceap but not forma, and in which words now regarded as almost unprintably profane would be unremarkable particles of civilised intercourse.
Having said that, had Alfred not burned the cakes I might have been writing this in Old Norse. But Alfred won, and Harold lost, and the rest, as they say, is history. Englisc was driven to extinction as a literary language and survived only as the argot of a subject people. For almost a hundred years, between 1066 and around 1150, the languages of government in England were French and Latin. The English that emerged in the later part of the twelfth century had changed beyond all recognition from the ancient Englisc of Alfred and Harold. Shiny Norman French bodywork bolted on to a robust and rustic ancient English chassis became something entirely new – Middle English, the language of Chaucer, and in so doing demonstrated how English is that most protean of languages, adapting and changing according to its influences, accreting new words with the indiscriminate fancy of a jackdaw in a jewellery store.
Modern English is ubiquitous, whether spoken or printed. What, then, of Englisc, its distant progenitor, usually called Anglo-Saxon, or Old English? This began obscurely as the language of the Germanic tribe, or tribes, that colonized much of what is now England and parts of south-east Scotland starting in the early part of the fifth century. It was not, at first, written down – there are no records certainly known to have been written in Britain, in any language, between 410, when the last of the Roman legions left the islands, until 597, when St Augustine arrived to preach the gospel to the by-then established heathen. To set matters in perspective, this interval is equivalent to the time elapsed between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the present day. Imagine taking every single thing written in England since the days of Keats and Jane Austen, in any language – every book, every pamphlet, every newspaper, every advertisement, every hymn sheet, every shopping list – and erasing it utterly. Such is the magnitude of our ignorance of affairs in England for almost two hundred years, during the darkest part of the Dark Ages.
Still the best account of the circumstances of Britain at that period is Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed much later, around 731 – and in Latin (it’s also very, very funny, if perhaps unintentionally: one can see where the Monty Python team might have got some of their inspiration for the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.) There was, however, a small literature in Englisc, mostly of a devotional nature, after the English had been converted to Christianity. King Alfred himself is believed to have translated some of it himself, from the original Latin. This literature is almost entirely lost, however – the few fragments that come down to us from that remote period have survived thanks only to blind chance.
Perhaps the best-known example of Englisc that survives today is Beowulf. This is a long poem written in alliterative verse (a style characteristic of the period) concerning the adventures of the eponymous hero and his battles against a succession of monsters. The fact that Beowulf is a staple of the curriculum, and can be found in the proverbial All Good Bookstores, in the original Englisc and in translation, insures us against the revelation that there is only one known manuscript of the poem – and that narrowly avoided being destroyed in a fire in 1731.
We are so used to the mass dissemination of information that it’s hard for us to imagine a time before the invention of printing, when books were fabulously rare and expensive custom-made products, copied from an original (or from other copies), with great labour, and by hand. The fact that literature before the age of print could be reproduced so slowly has had an important consequence for knowledge – it was once very much more fragile than it is now, much more prone to extinction. Given the prevalence today of print and electronic data storage, it would be very difficult, nowadays, to completely expunge all traces of Hamlet, say, or Middlemarch. Before printing, however, to put just one monastery library to the torch would be to consign hundreds of unique manuscripts to total oblivion, irreparable and irretrievable. If just one manuscript of Beowulf survives, one can hardly imagine the numbers of other works in Englisc that once existed but which have been lost.
The facts of the manuscript speak for themselves. Apart from showing signs of fire damage, the Beowulf manuscript (you can see it on permanent display at the British Library in central London) is certainly a copy. It was made sometime in the twelfth or thirteenth century, presumably from another copy. The date of the composition of the original is not known – the poem might have been in existence for five hundred years before the single surviving copy was written. This suggests that the poem started as oral tradition, and also that there must have been a number of earlier written versions, all now lost.
The single copy also shows signs of having been bowdlerised. The setting of the story is pagan, and concerns pagan values, but the copy we have was written many centuries after England had been Christianised. It is possible that the many references to Christianity in the poem are later additions, either in the manuscript we have – or in earlier versions, all now lost.
That tales once existed in Englisc of which we now have no knowledge is illustrated by the use in Beowulf of words found nowhere else in the surviving corpus of medieval literature, but which are unlikely to have been neologisms created specially for the occasion: and obscure references to stories, whether of fact or fancy, that the contemporary audience would have found familiar, but which have since been lost and so mean nothing to us. Proof in the breach comes with an episode in Beowulf concerning a battle between two warlords, Finn and Hengest – an account of which same incident subsequently turned up in another fragmentary manuscript.
What would our view of the past be like had no copies of Beowulf survived? And what of the alternatives? For example, if we think that the library of Englisc is thin, of the native literature of England before the Anglo-Saxon invasion we know absolutely nothing at all. What would our ideas of history be like had the single remaining manuscript of Beowulf been destroyed in that fire in 1731, and what we had instead was an account of King Arthur preserved in a single fragment of Late Ancient British, a language otherwise preserved only in a few old place names?
The point of this is to show not only that history turns on a hair (the outcome of events is ‘contingent’, as Stephen Jay Gould put it) but also that the our present-day view of that history is sensitively conditioned by those few and arbitrarily chosen relics that have survived the ravages of time. I call this the ‘Beowulf Effect’.
As with fragile hand-written scrolls from a thousand years ago, the chances of any living creature becoming a fossil are extremely remote…