Old English Orosius

  • Old English
  • prose

Old English adaptation of Orosius’ work Historiae adversus paganos.

(patronage)In scholarship, the Old English Orosius is traditionally associated with King Alfred’s programme of providing translations of books “most necessary for all men to know”. Already in the 12th century, William of Malmesbury went as far as to credit King Alfred with the translation of a number of works, including the Orosius. However, King Alfred’s authorship is no longer accepted and his involvement is uncertain. According to Godden, the arguments for associating the work with King Alfred’s patronage have lost something of their former punch.
(dictating)It has been suggested by a number of scholars, including Janet Bately, that an existing copy of the translation was dictated to the scribe, or group of scribes. Further, Bately (1966, 2017) has made the case for a “Welshman of Latin education” as having been the dictator in question. To a large extent, the argument is based on the unusual spelling of proper names. Paul Russell (2012) has argued against this view, concluding from the available evidence that the amount of orthographic variation is “statistically insignificant”.
  • Old English

Possibly, during the reign of King Alfred (871–886), or later. Godden (2012) posits 870 x 930 as a probable window for dating the Old English text.

prose (primary)
Textual relationships
(Possible) sources: Historiae adversus paganosHistoriae adversus paganosWork by the Christian author Paulus Orosius (fl. early 5th century), a student of Augustine of Hippo; it is traditionally interpreted as an apologetic work in response to the idea that the arrival of Christianity was in some way to blame for the decline of Rome and its empire. In the course of seven books, it gives a universal history from the time of Creation onwards.



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The passages relating to the geography of Britain and Ireland are relatively brief.:
Ispania land is þryscyte ⁊ eall mid fleote utan ymbhæfd, ge eac binnan ymbhæfd ofer ða land ægþer ge of þæm garsecge ge of ðam Wendelsæ. An ðæra garena lið suðwest ongean þæt igland þe Gades hatte, ⁊ oþer east ongean þæt land Narbonense, ⁊ se ðridda norðwest ongean Brigantia Gallia burh ⁊ ongean Scotland ofer ðone sæs earm, on geryhte ongean þæne muðan þe mon hæt Scene. Seo us fyrre Ispania, hyre is be westan garsecg ⁊ be norðan, Wendelsæ be suðan, ⁊ be eastan seo us nearre Ispania; be norðan þære synt Equitania, ⁊ be norðaneastan is se weald Pireni, ⁊ be eastan Narbonense, ⁊ be suðan Wendelsæ. Brittannia þæt igland, hit in norðeastlang, ⁊ hit is eahta hund mila lang ⁊ twa hund mila brad. Þonne is be suðan him on oðre healfe þæs sæs earmes Gallia Bellica, ⁊ on westhealfe on oþre healfe þæs sæs earmes is Ibærnia þæt iglnd, ⁊ on norðhealfe Orcadus þæt igland. Igbernia, þæt we Scotland hatað, hit is on ælce healfe ymbfangen mid garsecge, ⁊ for ðon þe sio sunne þær gæð near on setl þonne on oðrum lande, þær syndon lyðran wedera þonne on Brettannia. þonne be westannorðan Ibernia is þæt ytemeste land þæt man hæt Thila, ⁊ him is feawum mannum cuð for ðære offerfyrre.
Old English Orosius • Relevant sections from J. M. Bately's edition. • Source document


Primary sources Text editions and/or modern translations – in whole or in part – along with publications containing additions and corrections, if known. Diplomatic editions, facsimiles and digital image reproductions of the manuscripts are not always listed here but may be found in entries for the relevant manuscripts. For historical purposes, early editions, transcriptions and translations are not excluded, even if their reliability does not meet modern standards.

[ed.] [tr.] Godden, Malcolm, 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.
[ed.] Bately, Janet M., The Old English Orosius, Early English Text Society, London: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Secondary sources (select)

Bately, Janet M., “The spelling of the proper names in the OE Orosius: the case for dictation by a Welshman revisited”, The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 116 (2017): 45–81.  

The 2011 Cambridge Colloquium in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, “Colliding Worlds,” reopened important questions about the history of the rendering in Old English of Paulus Orosius’s Historiarum adversum Paganos Libri Septem. One set of these relates to the presence of a large number of unusual features in the spelling of place names and people names in the manuscripts that have come down to us. Are these spellings the result of dictation, whether of a copy of the Latin original, or of the Old English text? And if so, what, if anything, can be learned about the nationality of the dictator?

Russell, Paul, “Revisiting the ‘Welsh dictator’ of the Old English Orosius”, Quaestio Insularis 12 (2011, 2012): 31–62.
– PDF: <link>
Godden, Malcolm, “The Old English Orosius and its context: who wrote it, for whom, and why?”, Quaestio Insularis 12 (2011, 2012): 1–30.
– PDF: <link>
Bately, Janet M., “The Old English Orosius: the question of dictation”, Anglia 84 (1966): 254–304.
Bately, Janet M., “World history in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: its sources and its separateness from the Old English Orosius”, Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1979): 177–194.
Dennis Groenewegen
Page created
February 2023, last updated: September 2023