4 open resources to discover Old English literature

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Open Education


J. R. R. Tolkien, perhaps best known as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was, in his academic life, a scholar of Anglo-Saxon language and literature. After a delay of 90 years, his translation of Beowulf will finally be published today. Through this newly available translation, readers will have the opportunity to visit (or revisit) King Hrothgar's mead hall and experience Beowulf's battles against Grendel and Grendel's mother without having to learn to read Anglo-Saxon, or as it is also known, Old English.

Though I am sure Tolkien's translation is excellent, reading a translation is never quite the same thing as experiencing the original. Thankfully, there are many Anglo-Saxon scholarly projects that are created the open source way. From textbooks and dictionaries to digitized manuscripts, these projects make it possible to learn Old English and work with some of the original source material anywhere in the world, with nothing more than an Internet connection and a web browser.

Below, I have covered several projects that, combined, would allow someone to learn Old English and read Beowulf in the original language. The list is by no means exhaustive, but the items covered are excellent examples of open education resources in the humanities. So, even if one isn't interested in teaching themselves Old English, there is plenty to inspire those wishing to develop creative and open scholarly resources in their fields.

The electronic introduction to Old English

Originally developed as a web project in 2001, Introduction to Old English by Peter S. Baker, Professor of English at the University of Virginia, is an introductory textbook for learning Old English. The print edition is published by Wiley-Blackwell, but thanks to the many parties involved in the book's production, the electronic edition is freely available to all, and it contains almost everything that print edition does. In fact, given the interactive nature of the web version's Old English Aerobics interactive exercises, it is in many ways superior to the print edition.

The online version of Introduction to Old English makes use of modern web technologies to present readers/users with a textbook that is enhanced by the use of technology. The core of the Introduction to Old English website presents the textbook's material in an easy to read manner, while the glossary and exercises make the learning experience interactive. The Old English Aerobics site makes use of jQuery to provide a visual pleasing and easy to use interface. Granted, for modern web development, using jQuery isn't exactly special, but when it comes to academic resources it is refreshing. Some web-based academic resources out there haven't had a design change, or a technology upgrade, since the 1990s.

Introduction to Old English is what educational texts should strive to be. The electronic version is free to anyone who wishes to learn (though an free account is required to access the online exercises), while the print book is available to anyone who wishes to spend money on a physical copy. No one year of online access coupon included with the print edition, no subscription fees, just freely available knowledge. Further adding to the open education nature of the project, Peter S. Baker asks for feedback from users so that the website can become "what its readers want it to be."

Junicode: A font for Medievalists

One of the nicest things about the Introduction to Old English website is the beautiful Junicode font it uses to display Old English texts. Junicode is another one of Peter S. Baker's projects and is released under an Open Font License. Currently in beta, Junicode provides a Unicode font that includes characters that are no longer in use in modern English, such as thorn (þ) and eth (ð) and many other archaic characters.

Nowadays, many Unicode fonts include the basic characters needed to display Old English texts (eth and thorn are still used in modern Icelandic, so many Unicode fonts include them), but in the past, fonts supporting only the 256 ASCII characters couldn't display texts correctly. Junicode is a logical extension of earlier efforts to create fonts that were basically hack jobs. Fonts would have some characters replaced with the ones needed for Old English, but the replacements were not consistent across different fonts. Use the wrong font with a document and you end up with gibberish. Junicode provides a solution to the problem of incompatible fonts.

If you have a modern web browser, you won't have to install Junicode to use the Introduction to Old English site (it uses web fonts), but if you ever want to type out something in Old English, using Junicode will produce a much nicer document. Junicode is packaged for many Linux distributions, or you can download the font from the Junicode project's page on SourceForge.

Digitized Old English dictionaries

If you're going to progress beyond what you learn in Introduction to Old English, or if you want something more comprehensive than the glossary included with that book, you'll need a dictionary. Since many of the dictionaries are older, they are in the public domain.

The Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by John Clark Hall is a dictionary designed with students in mind. It is, as the title states, concise, but it is much more thorough that the glossary in Introduction to Old English. The 1916 edition is out of copyright and has been digitized as part of the Germanic Lexicon Project. The digitization effort is somewhat spartan, but it still provides usable access to the dictionary so learners can find the words they need to look up.

An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary by Joseph Bosworth, with a supplement by Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller, is the most comprehensive Old English dictionary produced to date. It has also been digitized as part of the Germanic Lexicon Project. There is also a wonderful website, bosworthtoller.com, that has taken the basic page scans and turned them into a fully functional online dictionary. You can search by word or browse the dictionary. The entries for words provide information enhanced by the web-based layout, while the scanned pages remain available for anyone who wishes to view them.

Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (the Beowulf manuscript)

Thanks to the British Library, you can actually read the original manuscript from your web browser. Once you've mastered Old English, you can attempt to read Beowulf without the aid of someone else's translation! Unfortunately, during its long history the manuscript has been damagedit was burned in a fire in 1731so the edges of some pages are missing, but the thrill of working with an original manuscript far outweighs the difficulties introduced by having to puzzle through the damaged bits. Beowulf begins here in the manuscript.

I hope you've enjoyed this brief sojourn into Anglo-Saxon England. Maybe you'll even participate in some of the projects mentioned above. Making a font like Junicode better or correcting OCRed pages for Germanic Lexicon Project are great ways for someone to keep history alive the open source way.

If you have other open source humanities projects you'd like to share, post them in the comments below, or consider submitting an article to Opensource.com.



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