Middle English Word of the Moment

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Well, thif if a nice meff you've goc us inco!

It isn't a typo if you meant to spell it wrong, right? But what if you're a mediaeval scribe, sitting around with his pen and treated pig skin, copying out someone else's crabbed handwriting into your own crabbed handwriting, and you make a mistake? Is that a scribo? Scribble, maybe? Middle English spelling is often said to - well, to not exist at all, really, but most scribes drew the line (as it were) at substituting one letter for a completely different one - say, a 'w' for a 't'[1].

But sometimes you're just not sure. My edition of Gawain (Anderson's) has the following line in the description of the five five-fold virtues represented by the pentangle on Gawain's shield:

Now alle these fyve sethes, for sothe, were fetled on this knyght, (656)
[Now, Gawain possessed all these five sets of virtues.]

Anderson glosses "sethes" and "fetled" in this line: the first as "sets (of five)", the second as... "settled".

I find this choice of Anderson's odd. Why write 'fetled' and not 'setled'? The scribe of the single surviving manuscript of the poem uses the long 's', the one that looks like an 'f' without a cross-stroke. In his handwriting, it's often very hard to tell the difference between the two letters, because the cross-stroke is very small. In fact, sometimes he's just careless and puts the cross-stroke on 's' or leaves it off 'f'. His 'c' and 't' are also close to indistinguishable, which means that we're still not sure whether the name of the Green Knight's alter ego is "Bertilak" or "Bercilak". So (fo?) a modern editor has to make a decision based on a) context and his/her knowledge of the English language and b) alliteration. A) is complicated by the fact that this poet is writing in a rather obscure dialect, and several forms of words - even a few words in their entirety - exist nowhere else in our surviving literature. "Runischly", for example - any editor who glosses that is just guessing what it means by the context in which it appears.

In this case, Anderson seems to have gone with b), and settled on "fetled". This would mean he reads 'f' as the alliterating letter in this line, which in turn means he thinks the main emphases of the line lie like this:

Now alle these fyve sethes, for sothe, were fetled on this knyght.

I just can't agree with that. I like to think my status as a failed singer gives me a little more appreciation for rhythm and the music of words than that. To me, it's clearly the 's' that alliterates, which means the line must be:

Now alle these fyve sethes, for sothe, were setled on this knyght.

Technically, it could be either. So far as I can make out in my facsimile of the manuscript, the cross-stroke of the 'f' is visible in this line - though, as I noted before, that isn't always a sure sign with this scribe, particularly when he's just recently written two 'f's which did require the cross-stroke and had a habit of just getting into a roll with these things. Elsewhere, he repeats whole words from earlier lines that are clearly inappropriate.

The OED does cite "fettle" as a verb at this time ("To make ready, put in order, arrange. Now only dial. to put to rights, ‘tidy up’, scour; also, to groom (a horse), attend to (cattle).") and cites this line from SGGK as one of its examples. It also cites one other example from a more or less contemporary English text, which it mysteriously calls E.E. Allit. P. B. 585: "He {th}at fetly in face fettled alle eres. Ibid. C. 38 In {th}e tyxte {th}ere {th}yse two arn on teme layde, Hit arn fettled in on forme" Clearly, in both of these examples, the alliteration demands 'f'.

Still. Just because the word exists doesn't mean the poet used it here. Perhaps its existence makes the scribe more likely to use 'f' (though this one didn't really need an excuse for his scribos), but I don't think the OED's meaning of "fettled" suits the occasion, and I find it slightly ridiculous that even Anderson thinks "settled" makes so much more sense than "fettled" that he glosses one with the other. I think I fhall fly in the face of Anderfon, Fir Ifrael Gollancz, Tolkien and Gordon, and everyone elfe who'f ever edited thif text and declared the point fettled. I lay my saith and considence in my ear, and shall hencesorth servently believe that the line should read "settled".

[1] Well. Mostly. The Gawain poet does spell both "Gawain" and "Guenevere" with an initial 'w' if he wants to alliterate on that letter instead...


Lady D. said...

Great post again! And I agree with you on the 'settled' - it makes far more sense.

I really love that other word though - runischly - that should be in use today!! I wonder what it meant?

Ceirseach said...

Well, both uses of it apply to the Green Knight (he turns his horse's head about with a "runisch" jerk and rolls his red eyes about in his head "runischly", if I remember rightly), so it could either be fierce, rough, violent, menacing or possibly contain some magical or otherworldly connotations. I think it's a great word too! Maybe we should just assign it a meaning.

And according to the OED I was wrong - it appears in one other text, roughly contemporary to Sir Gawain, but the quotes don't really help.

When even the OED says "unknown origin" you KNOW you've got a mystery word!

Lady D. said...

I definitely think that it's too good a word just to let slip into the great historical abyss.

So.... Tomorrow I am going to go out into my garden and runischly remove the slugs from my strawberry plants. So there! :-)

KateGladstone said...

You call a "scribo" that which I've heard some fellow calligraphers call a "writo."