BMCR 2017.08.16

The Old English History of the World: An Anglo-Saxon Rewriting of Orosius. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 44

, The Old English History of the World: An Anglo-Saxon Rewriting of Orosius. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 44. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2016. xii, 472. ISBN 9780674971066. $29.95.

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The work under review is an edition and facing-page translation (into modern English) of a medieval translation of Paulus Orosius’s early fifth century Seven Books of History Against the Pagans ( Historiarum contra paganos libri VII). Composed as a sort of companion to Augustine’s City of God, this late antique Latin universal history narrated the history of the world from the beginnings down to 410, synthesizing classical and Christian historiographic traditions. Although the original compositional context of Orosius’s work was polemic—he was writing a form of ideological world history that defended the Christian religion in the face of its early fifth-century detractors—the work became, in subsequent centuries, a canonical work of basic history, creatively used by a great many authors in the early medieval west and beyond, and inspiring a number of translations into medieval vernacular languages, including Old English and Arabic. Orosius’s history was popular. As Godden’s excellent concise introduction (vii-xxi) tells us: “Some fifty manuscripts survive from the period before 1100, and a further two hundred from the period up to 1500” (x). The Latin text of Orosius has recently been well translated by A.T. Fear, with excellent introduction and notes.1

In the late ninth or early tenth century, an Old English translation and adaptation of the Latin history was produced in Anglo-Saxon England. Surviving in two manuscript copies (from the tenth and eleventh centuries), this text has traditionally been categorized and studied as one of the famed translations produced by the court of King Alfred (reigned 871-899). The medieval tradition that the translation was composed by King Alfred himself has been long debunked, and indeed the entire tradition of Alfredian translation has been dramatically transformed in recent years, with attribution of many texts to Alfred’s direct authorship now rejected.2 Godden tells us that this particular Old English text was probably composed in Wessex between roughly 862 and 930. The author is firmly anonymous, though Godden playfully gives our translator the name “Osric” to avoid clumsy circumlocutions.

So this important text belongs to the history of the Nachleben of classical texts, and the medieval afterlife of late antiquity in particular. The vast and influential reception of Orosius in the Middle Ages is arguably more important than his place in his original cultural context. Or at the very least, it is worthy of serious study by a wider range of students and scholars and this volume will help facilitate such study. “The Old English Orosius” (as the text is commonly spoken of in scholarly circles) is more an adaptation than a slavish translation, and all the more interesting for that fact. The Old English gives us six books, not seven (book five of the Old English text condenses books five and six of the Latin source); and there are numerous changes large and small throughout, allowing us to see how a fifth-century Mediterranean cultural text is adapted to a new ninth-century Northern European cultural environment. One of the striking changes in this regard is the interpolation of a long Anglo-Saxon account of two voyages into northern lands. This digression is the so-called “Voyage of Ohthere and Wulfstan,” providing what are apparently eye-witness ninth-century accounts of voyages around Scandinavian and Baltic territories, including accounts of the local flora, fauna, and inhabitants. All this is spliced into the first book of Orosius’s history, itself a classical geographical description of the world enormously popular in the Middle Ages. The Old English translator felt free to update this traditional account of classical world geography by inserting an expansive description of native northern lands; in this example we can see how the occasion of translating Latin universal history into a latter-day vernacular serves as a moment of cultural self-definition.

Aside from the inevitable scholarship this book will provoke, one can imagine many creative uses of this book in courses. It can form part of a course on the Anglo-Saxon Alfredian translation program (along with, for example, the DOML volume on Boethius).3 It would also be useful in courses on medieval translation, historiography, ethnography, medieval reception of the classics, the afterlife of classical culture, and more. The Old English Orosius could also be used in a standard medieval literature or history survey course in order to provide a primer on the background basics of classical and biblical history for medieval students.

The standard edition of the Old English text is Janet Bately’s fine edition of 1980, which uses as its base manuscript British Library Additional MS 47967.4 Godden chooses instead to use the other extant manuscript (British Library, Cotton Tiberius B 1) as his base text for the edition here. This does not produce a dramatically different text, but has the advantage of now giving us good editions of both manuscripts (each edition, of course, records important textual variants). As is standard for the series, the editor provides a short discussion of textual matters and a small number of textual endnotes (pp. 419-429); a modest number of explanatory endnotes for the translation (pp. 431-449); a short bibliography (pp. 451-452); and a good, accurate index, important for this text with its avalanche of names of people and places (pp. 453-472). Godden’s translation is fluent, understated, and accurate throughout.

A recurrent trope in the reviews of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) volumes is to praise their quality and design, and I will herby deploy that motif now: this is a beautiful and affordable book, priced for the individual reader, scholar and student, and a pleasure to hold, to read, and (like all the volumes) to collect. The Old English Orosius has not been fully translated into English since the nineteenth century, and this fascinating important text will find new readers in this excellent edition and translation.


1. Orosius, Seven Books of History against the Pagans, trans. A.T. Fear, Translated Texts for Historians, 54 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010).

2. See, e.g., Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything? Medium Aevum 76 (2007): 1-23.

3. Susan Irvine and Malcolm R. Godden, ed. and trans., The Old English Boethius, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 19 (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2012).

4. Janet Bately, ed. The Old English Orosius, Early English Text Society, ss., 6, (London: Oxford University Press, 1980).