Long ago, before stealing another’s work for your own was blighted with the poisonous multisyllabic Latinate word plagiarism, Anglo-Saxon writers were streamlining their historical documents by pasting paragraphs from previous writers into their own work. Later historians would exchange silent, shocked glances when they learned that their ancestors participated freely in this scandalous art. But the Anglo-Saxons did not call it plagiarism, they called it reusing—which is still a multisyllabic Latinate word, but lacks the poison and smacks instead of efficiency.
Consider this introductory paragraph from Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation:
Britain, an island in the ocean, formerly called Albion, is situated between the north and west, facing, though at a considerable distance, the coasts of Germany, France, and Spain, which form the greatest part of Europe. It extends 800 miles in length towards the north, and is 200 miles in breadth, except where several promontories extend further in breadth, by which its compass is made to be 3675 miles.1
And compare it with the opening sentence of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, begun about 160 years after Bede’s History:
The island Britain is 800 miles long, and 200 miles broad. And there are in the island five nations; English, Welsh (or British), Scottish, Pictish, and Latin.2
Before you begin criticizing the cocky young scribe who penned the opening lines of the Chronicle, it is important to remember that the Anglo-Saxons had a very different perspective on writing and copying than we do now.3 Their culture was an oral one, not a written one, and in the oral tradition story-tellers always took elements from others and added their own twist to make the story uniquely their own. When Anglo-Saxon scribes began writing down their stories, it was only natural that they applied this principle to that situation as well.
Today, when we copy a piece of writing, it would never occur to us to write down anything but what was on the page before us. But the Anglo-Saxons edited with abandon. They added parts in and took parts out freely. And because of the manner in which manuscripts were written down,4 one can only imagine how different a story could look after a few copies.
This practice of substantially editing texts means that our versions of Beowulf, of The Battle of Maldon, of The Wanderer, etc., are not the only versions. They are one version that was written down, and the only versions that have survived, but they are by no means the only versions that were told. There were as many versions as there were tellers, and as many more as there were scribes who wrote them down.
This is both exciting and depressing. Exciting because it is an example of the vibrancy of Anglo-Saxon literature, always changing and shifting, like the skin of a trout. Depressing because it means that there are many copies of the tales that we will never see. I tend to fall into the depressing category more often than not. It is challenging to be content with the “ruins of Pompeii” as a fellow Oxford student put it. The works we have are the literary “ruins,” so to speak, of the Anglo-Saxon nation. These ruins, like the ruins of Pompeii, are remarkably intact, but easily forgotten when we let ourselves dwell on how complete it used to be.
1Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, Book I, Chapter I
3Also, it is not unlikely that Bede himself copied “800 miles in length…and is 200 miles in breadth” from a scribe who came before him. This practice of copying and pasting did mean that mistakes were inevitably repeated all the way through—from the scribe before Bede to the writer of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
4One main copy was written out by the scribe. Then this copy was sent to a different monastery where the monks there made a few copies of the copy. These were then sent out to various other monasteries and copied again.