An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

November 5, 2013

Brackmann: The Elizabethan Invention of Anglo-Saxon England

Brackmann, Rebecca. The Elizabethan Invention of Anglo-Saxon England: Laurence Nowell, William Lambarde, and the Study of Old English. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2012.

Reviewed by:  Sharon Rhodes (  

Those who have read Allen Frantzen’s Desire for Origins are familiar with the idea that the earliest students of Old English studied the language with specific political (i.e. nationalistic) aims. However, although these politically motivated figures wrote in the early modern period, Frantzen’s work is written for modern scholars of Old English, not scholars of the 16th-century. That is, in Frantzen’s book and many other treatments of the roots of Old English scholarship we look at later periods only as a means of approaching the Anglo-Saxon period and not as a means of studying the periods in which Old English scholarship began. Rebecca Brackmann’s work on the other hand, is written for early modern and Old English scholars and, as such, it in part seeks to rectify the superficial notion that the lines we have drawn between various periods of literary history are an accurate reflection of reality. In The Elizabethan Invention of Anglo-Saxon England, Brackmann explores the work of two early figures, Laurence Nowell and William Lambarde, both early students of Old English connected with one of Queen Elizabeth's chief advisors, William Cecil.  By studying the work and lives of these early modern scholars of Old English, Brackmann demarcates some of the flaws of our periodization and allows scholars of both Old English and early modern English to engage with her work. As she astutely points out in the beginning, “[t]he very act of separating ‘medieval’ and ‘early modern’ (or, especially, ‘Renaissance’) is agreeing to the terms of use laid down by sixteenth-century scholars” (1). Looking at these “terms of use” can tell us, as Brackmann shows, a lot about a country or nation’s relationship to languages not simply as means of communication, but as symbols in their own right.

In her introduction, Brackmann outlines the complexities of the lenses through which we view different periods and sets up her book’s overarching argument that there is not “a clear and defensible break between ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ and ‘early modern England’” (2). Brackmann argues that we take for granted the validity of the periodization laid out in our textbooks and institutional frameworks when what is more true is that even in the world of the humanities simply by looking at something – like Schrödinger’s cat – we are shaping what that thing is. In studying these divisions and their flaws, Brackmann points out another assumption that has limited past studies: that after the advent of print, works only in manuscript were no longer important. Even though “[p]rinted works had the potential to circulate widely,” Brackmann asserts that we are wrong to read manuscript works as necessarily private when in fact they did circulate. Moreover, notebooks and marginalia in printed works blur “the divisions between print and manuscript” (6). Brackmann argues that we must look past our 21st century use of Early English Books Online, which offers “nearly every book printed in England” without regard for what was sometimes a quite “limited circulation” and keep in mind that texts only in manuscript form could have as great or, sometimes, greater circulation and influence than their printed counterparts (7).  Here, it might be useful to keep in mind the changing values of our own culture. For instance, how do we weigh the importance and value of online journals like this one against printed academic journals?

Brackmann sets out to study a very specific selection of early modern writings on Old English, among them Laurence Nowell’s Abcedarium, an example of that very phenomenon of texts that blur the line between print and manuscript. Nowell’s Abcedarium is actually a hand-annotated copy of a printed English-Latin dictionary made by Richard Howlet. Nowell turns this bilingual dictionary into a trilingual dictionary by inserting “Old English equivalents next to the Modern English-Latin entries” (18). This, Brackmann points out, makes Nowell’s defacto glossary unique among Old English glossaries of the 16th-century because it translates Old English into Early Modern English rather than Latin (30). Nowell likewise translates King Alfred’s laws into Early Modern English and chooses Early Modern English for his Vocabularium Anglo-Saxonicum, a more extensive glossary that uses only Early Modern and Old English. By choosing to translate from an earlier form of English into his own English, Nowell highlights the similarities between the two languages so as to “explore the ‘heritage’ that Early Modern English had from its ancestor” (31).

As Brackmann notes, Nowell is probably best known for the Nowell Codex, aka MS Cotton Vitellius A. xv and the ‘Beowulf manuscript’ of which he was the first known owner [1]. However, his contemporary, William Lambarde, despite his work on Old English, is poorly known in part because when he translated Old English he translated into Latin and did not make dictionaries as Nowell did. However, like Nowell, Lambarde was an avid student of Old English and an influential figure in the circle of William Cecil, one of Elizabeth I’s chief advisors.

Although Brackmann does not see her work as a “narrow study of a single codex,” The Elizabethan Invention of Anglo-Saxon England would serve as a valuable reference work for anyone interested in studying Nowell’s Abcedarium.  In Part I, Brackmann breaks down what makes Nowell’s annotations unique and interesting. Brackmann also investigates possible sources (Brackmann asserts that many of Nowell’s entries are derived from Aelfric of Eynsham’s works) and deconstructs his methodology (he seems to have used a, ae, and e interchangeably and attempts to record all verbs in the infinitive).

Once she has familiarized the reader with Nowell's early work, Brackmann discusses the Inkhorn Controversy, related to both Laurence Nowell and William Lambarde through their connection to William Cecil. Previous scholars, says Brackmann, have described “three camps” of thought on word formation: Neologizers created ‘inkhorn terms’ from Latin roots, Purists coined new words only from English roots and Archaizers tried to “revive obsolete English words” (56-57). This debate, the Inkhorn Controversy, was in some ways related to religious issues, but it was also, according to Brackmann, deeply tied to the foundations of nationalism. William Cecil, Laurence Nowell and William Lambarde, among others, were concerned that Latinate and other non-native terms would corrupt or disenfranchise English as a language of power. By embracing the native language, and strengthening its vocabulary with new words coined from native roots, ‘Purists’ and ‘Archaizers’ felt they would strengthen their nation as a whole. Later in this chapter Brackmann puts forward her theory of how Nowell’s glossaries might have been used by Archaizers to create new ‘native’ words for application in law and the emerging scientific fields. Here she also traces how William Lambarde’s annotations of his copy of De Recta Scriptione suggest his own feelings on the Inkhorn Controversy; namely that, as the author Sir Thomas Smith wrote, “our ancestors, the original Anglo-Saxons looked much more closely into the nature of letters, and wrote more correctly than we do today” (75). Lambarde’s thoughts on the English language, if his heavily marked copy of De Recta Scriptione is any indication, exhibit a sort of linguistic fundamentalism.

Part II returns to Nowell’s Abcedarium to look at further modifications he made. In addition to the Old English entries, Nowell inserted pages of alphabetically arranged place-names. And here, as well, Brackmann finds a multilingual method that shows the evolution of English from before the Norman Conquest to Nowell’s own time. The modern name or Latin name is followed by Old English or Welsh as well as “historical information about the places: where the name came from, who built a town there, who fortified it, when it was sacked, what battles have happened there, what kings are buried in the site” (92). Like the glossary as a whole, Brackmann examines Nowell’s “Place-Name Index” as a part of William Cecil’s nationalizing project. The onomastic exploration of place names and the histories of those places, Brackmann argues, were meant to show the deep “English” roots as well as continuities from the past to Nowell’s present. As with her examination of the glossary, Brackmann gives a brief source study of the “Place-Name Index” after her description.

After dissecting Nowell's “Place-Name Index,” Brackmann looks at William Lambarde’s own, fairly extensive, chorographic works: his Alphabetical Description of the Chief Places in England and Wales and his Perambulation of Kent. Like Nowell’s “Index” (on which Lambarde seems to have drawn), Lambarde’s works are not merely geographical but historical in their descriptions. There are also some choice commentaries on the practice of Catholicism which he associates with non-Englishness, particularly in post-Conquest England. In the earlier Alphabetical Description, Lambarde’s scope is, as its full title suggests, broad. In the later Perambulation, he narrows to a single county although he still “set[s] his county history in a national framework” (137). However, in both, Brackmann argues that Lambarde uses geography to map the negative effects of Catholicism on England by lamenting Catholic rituals he thought smacked of paganism under entries for former monastic houses.

In Part III, Brackmann returns to the issues of law brought up in her study of Nowell and Lambarde’s work. Here she attempts to suss out the meaning and importance ascribed to law by the early Anglo-Saxonists and their patrons which is, namely, “law’s role as a focal point for English national identity” (190). Here she returns to justify and expand on what may be one of the most interesting observations made in the introduction: “[t]he English language, the English countryside, and the English legal system could serve as focal points for English identity by claiming to have deep roots in the past, and Cecil wanted exactly such identity fostered” (20).

Brackmann’s work in The Elizabethan Invention of Anglo-Saxon England is an excellent place to begin for background information on the earliest Anglo-Saxonists and the role of Anglo-Saxon studies in early modern England. However, the broad scope of the study makes cohesiveness challenging if not impossible, as Brackmann moves from multiple manuscript studies, source studies, lexicography, legal studies, humanistic cartography and how they all tie into the nationalizing projects of the 16th century. This criticism is not meant to denigrate Brackmann’s work, but to warn that it does traverse a great deal of territory. Nevertheless, the meandering nature of her work supports her first stated argument that our periodizations and divisions, however useful, are arbitrary and possibly misleading. The benefits of dividing English literature into periods—Old, Middle, Early Modern, and Modern—should not be underestimated; such divisions allow us to become experts by drastically narrowing the amount of material to be mastered. However, our work can benefit from a more explicit recognition that, far from being fundamental truths, these periods are a framework we have created and imposed upon history. Brackmann's work is an excellent case study of how early modern as well as modern students of literature have made boundaries where none existed before. She does not seem to argue that we abandon these boundaries, and I agree, but that scholars should approach them with a greater awareness of their arbitrary and artificial nature thereby opening their work to studies that might bridge periods we generally see as distinct. The book is clearly well researched, has an impressive bibliography and any given chapter or part could prove useful to students of many different disciplines.

Sharon Rhodes
University of Rochester

[1] He wrote his name on this manuscript.