Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Towards a definitive history of the 2nd Barons' War

In 1266 the Isle of Ely was occupied by a band of disinherited rebel barons who proceeded to go on a looting spree in the surrounding area.  What happened to the local bishop, Hugh Balsham, who was supposed to be guarding the place?  Well, according to whoever succeeded John Taxter as the chronicler of Bury St Edmunds, he
casu accidente sic inde recessit et insulam suspendit.
Antonia Gransden (1964) translates this as ‘had by a coincidence gone away and abandoned it’.  Her choice of the past-past (‘had … gone’) instead of the past (‘went’) is unwarranted and misleading – there being no suggestion in the Latin that he had already upped sticks by the time the rebels arrived – and it is not obvious that ‘casu accidente sic’ means ‘by a coincidence’ rather than e.g. ‘misfortune happening thus’.  But it's the underlined part that I'm interested in.

In a footnote, she explains: ‘For the meaning of 'suspendit' see J. H. Baxter and C. Johnson, Medieval Latin Word-List (1934)’.  And indeed if we turn to this primitive work we find ‘suspendere’ defined as ‘to abandon, put aside’, with putative attestation dates of 1200 and c1300.  Hot on the heels of Gransden's book, however, came the Revised Medieval Latin Word-List (1965), which removed the first attestation date and added a note of caution: ‘(?) to leave c1300’.  Unsurprisingly, the remaining attestation turns out to be familiar:

Now, it is just conceivable that ‘suspendere’ might have been used to mean ‘abandon’ – think of leaving someone hanging, for instance – but this would be our only attestation for that sense.  Meanwhile, we have one other quotation (from an anxious letter written to Anselm in 1104) where the object of the verb is a geographical region:
si Angliam … suspendere vel excommunicare volueris …
The context makes it clear that to ‘suspend’ England would involve somehow withdrawing its religious privileges.  And if the exiled Archbishop of Canterbury was thought to have wanted to do this to England, couldn't the displaced Bishop Hugh have done it to Ely?  Pending further investigation, therefore, I have provisionally united these two quotations under the following sense: ‘to place (region) under temporary interdict’.  If that's right, then the story about him having simply abandoned the Isle of Ely needs to be rewritten.

I should stress (again) that the Word-List is not a dictionary whose definitions are the product of lexicography.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that this fact – and with it the difference between the Word-List and the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources – is underappreciated among those who might be expected to know better, so please forgive me if I continue to bang this drum.


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