I’ve been fascinated with why readers write in books since I was an undergraduate. My PhD thesis included a whole chapter on twelfth-century annotations in early medieval manuscripts, and in 2012 I published an article that made some bold claims about the value of annotations as evidence for twelfth-century English literary history, which is otherwise very obscure. To make my point, I looked at one set of annotations from the second half of the twelfth century, found in a manuscript written in 990, almost 200 years earlier. I recently revisited these annotations in the course of preparing a seminar for my third-year course in Language Contact, and became particularly interested in three identical annotations which altered Hælend … gemiltsa min to Hælend … gemiltsa me. Both the original and emended readings translate as ‘Saviour, pity me’, so no change of meaning is involved. Why then had the annotator gone to the trouble of changing what the text said?
The answer, I felt, had to be linguistic. Min is the genitive singular form of the first-person pronoun in early English; me is its dative singular. According to the dictionaries, the verb (ge)miltsian, ‘to pity, show mercy’ could in Old English be followed by either a genitive or a dative. In Present Day English, of course, it can no longer take a genitive: *pity my is impossible. In the nearly 200 years between the production of the manuscript and its annotation, something must have happened to the way in which the verb (ge)miltsian behaved, so that the annotator felt obliged to correct (ge)miltsian + genitive. What could that be?
Some further research showed that in Old English (ge)miltsian + dative was much more common than (ge)miltsian + genitive. Furthermore, a large proportion of the examples of (ge)miltsian + genitive seemed to come from texts translated from Latin sources, usually (as far as I was able to check) translating the Latin verb misereor. This verb itself takes a genitive complement. It began to look like (ge)miltsian + genitive was based on the imitation of Latin misereor + genitive, and competing with the native pattern (ge)miltsian + dative.
That English grammar should try to ape Latin grammar was no surprise; such imitation is the cause of the still-virulent prejudice against split infinitives, for example. Translations of Latin texts into Old English did often stay close to the grammar of their source texts. What was interesting here, though, was that the manuscript I was studying contained homilies by Ælfric, widely considered one of the most competent Old English prose stylists. Ælfric was a member of the second generation of Benedictine reformers, a group of bishops and abbots who had worked to elaborate English as a language capable of sustaining vernacular religious culture. Ælfric’s use of (ge)miltsian + genitive seemed to be symptomatic of a praxis of allowing and even fostering Latin syntactic imitation in written English.
Seen in this light, the annotator’s triple alteration of (ge)miltsian + genitive to (ge)miltsian + dative became very interesting indeed. It implied that the praxis fostered by Ælfric and his associates had collapsed, and that the native preference for (ge)miltsian + dative had reasserted itself. This collapse can be seen as a kind of rupture; a disjunction between late Old English literary praxis and that of the late twelfth century. And this rupture provides evidence for one of the thorniest questions about twelfth-century literary history; was it a period of continuity or did the Norman Conquest cause a dramatic break with the Anglo-Saxon past? This is a question that has divided scholars for generations, a question on which I’m generally continuity-minded, but here was some small evidence for a significant rupture in literary praxis. (Since languages are constantly changing, language change can’t in itself be considered good evidence of cultural rupture; what makes this evidence important is that it seems to concern a change in the conventions of language use). And we have the evidence only because an annotator wrote in a library book. So next time you think you see a solecism, correct it; you may be supplying valuable evidence to a historical linguist a hundred and eighty years hence!