Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter November 13, 2020

Tamar, Widowhood, and the Old English Prose Translation of Genesis

  • A. Joseph McMullen EMAIL logo and Chelsea Shields-Más
From the journal Anglia


Recently, more attention has been paid to the conscious translation efforts that produced the Old English Hexateuch/Heptateuch, examining how a number of revisions must be analyzed as an effort to control readerly interpretation. This study contributes to that discussion by considering the translation of Genesis 38, which greatly changes the biblical narrative by removing Tamar’s second marriage and any rationale for the death of her first husband. Previously, this omission has been read as a way to streamline the story or avoid unsavory (sexual) topics. We argue, instead, for another, concurrent possibility: to revise the text in light of pre-Conquest views on widowhood. The turn of the millennium saw early English widows gain much more attention in various legal and ecclesiastical sources. These sources, we believe, speak to the concerns of the translator in some of the alterations found in the chapter (including forced remarriage, multiple marriages, the amount of time in between marriages, and the Levirate custom as an institution).

Works Cited

Alamichel, Marie-Françoise. 2008. Widows in Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Britain. Oxford/Bern: Lang. Search in Google Scholar

Arnold, Bill T. 2008. Genesis: New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Attenborough, Frederick L. (ed. and trans.). 1922. The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Search in Google Scholar

Barnhouse, Rebecca. 2000. “Shaping the Hexateuch Text for an Anglo-Saxon Audience”. In: Barnhouse and Withers, 91–108.Search in Google Scholar

Barnhouse, Rebecca and Benjamin C. Withers (eds.). 2000. The Old English Hexateuch: Aspects and Approaches. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications.Search in Google Scholar

Bethurum, Dorothy (ed.). 1957. The Homilies of Wulfstan. Oxford: Clarendon. Search in Google Scholar

Bremmer, Rolf. 1995. “Widows in Anglo-Saxon England”. In: Jan Bremmer and Lourens van den Bosch (eds.). Between Poverty and the Pyre: Moments in the History of Widowhood. London: Routledge. 58–88. Search in Google Scholar

Burrows, Millar. 1940. “Levirate Marriage in Israel”. Journal of Biblical Literature 59: 23–33.10.2307/3262301Search in Google Scholar

Carella, Bryan. 2005. “The Source of the Prologue to the Laws of Alfred”. Peritia 19: 91–118. [Author now publishes under the name Kristen Carella.]10.1484/J.Peri.3.571Search in Google Scholar

Coats, George W. 1972 “Widow’s Rights: A Crux in the Structure of Genesis 38”. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 34: 461–466.Search in Google Scholar

Colgrave, Bertram and R. A. B. Mynors (eds. and trans.). 1969. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Oxford: Clarendon.Search in Google Scholar

Cramer, Thomas. 2009. “Containing Virginity: Sex and Society in Early Medieval England”. Haskins Society Journal 21: 47–66. Search in Google Scholar

Cubbin, G. P. (ed.). 1996. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition. Volume 6: MS. D. Cambridge: Brewer.Search in Google Scholar

Cubitt, Catherine. 2000. “Virginity and Misogyny in Tenth- and Eleventh-Century England”. Gender and History 12: 1–32. 10.1111/1468-0424.00170Search in Google Scholar

Davies, Eryl W. 1981 a. “Inheritance Law and the Hebrew Levirate Marriage: Part 1”. Vetus Testamentum 31: 138–144.10.2307/1517677Search in Google Scholar

Davies, Eryl W. 1981 b. “Inheritance Rights and the Hebrew Levirate Marriage: Part 2”. Vetus Testamentum 31: 257–268.10.2307/1517898Search in Google Scholar

Dodwell, C. R. and Peter Clemoes (eds.). 1974. The Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: British Museum Cotton Claudius B.IV. Early English Manuscripts in Facsimile 18. Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger.Search in Google Scholar

DOE = Dictionary of Old English online, A to I. 2018. Ed. Angus Cameron, Ashley Crandell Amos, Antonette dePaolo Healey et al. Toronto: Dictionary of Old English Project. <>.Search in Google Scholar

Douay-Rheims Bible = The Challoner Revision of the Douay-Rheims Bible. 1899. Ed. Rev. Richard Challoner. Baltimore, MD: John Murphy. < ENG0011/_INDEX.HTM>.Search in Google Scholar

Fehr, Bernhard. (ed.). 1914/1966. Die Hirtenbriefe Ælfrics in altenglischer und lateinischer Fassung. Hamburg: Grand. [Repr. with supplementary introduction by Peter Clemoes. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1966.] Search in Google Scholar

Frantzen, Allen (ed. and trans.). 2003–2020. “Anglo-Saxon Penitentials: A Cultural Database”. <> [last accessed 4 August 2019].Search in Google Scholar

Gittos, Helen. 2014. “The Audience for Old English Texts: Ælfric, Rhetoric and ‘the Edification of the Simple’”. Anglo-Saxon England 43: 231–266.Search in Google Scholar

Godden, Malcolm R. 1995. “The Trouble with Sodom: Literary Responses to Biblical Sexuality”. Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 77: 97–119.10.7227/BJRL.77.3.9Search in Google Scholar

Greenfield, Stanley B. and Daniel G. Calder. 1986. A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Griffith, Mark. 2000 a. “Ælfric’s Preface to Genesis: Genre, Rhetoric and the Origins of the ars dictaminis”. Anglo-Saxon England 29: 215–234.Search in Google Scholar

Griffith, Mark. 2000 b. “Ælfric’s Use of his Sources in the Preface to Genesis, Together with a Conspectus of Biblical and Patristic Sources and Analogues”. Florilegium 17: 127–154. Search in Google Scholar

Haddan, Arthur W. and William Stubbs (eds.). 1871. Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents Relating to Great Britain and Ireland. Volume III. Oxford: Clarendon. Search in Google Scholar

Hawk, Brandon W. 2014. “Isidorian Influences in Ælfric’s Preface to Genesis”. English Studies 95: 357–366.10.1080/0013838X.2014.908021Search in Google Scholar

Hill, Joyce. 2003. “Translating the Tradition: Manuscripts, Models and Methodologies in the Composition of Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies”. In: Donald Scragg (ed.). Textual and Material Culture in Anglo-Saxon England: Thomas Northcote Toller and the Toller Memorial Lectures. Cambridge: Brewer. 241–259.Search in Google Scholar

Hollis, Stephanie. 2004. “‘The Protection of God and the King’: Wulfstan’s Legislation on Widows”. In: Matthew Townend (ed.). Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: The Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference. Turnhout: Brepols. 443–460.Search in Google Scholar

Huppé, Bernard F. 1978. “Alfred and Ælfric: A Study of Two Prefaces”. In: Paul E. Szarmach and Bernard F. Huppé (eds.). The Old English Homily and its Backgrounds. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. 119–137.Search in Google Scholar

Irvine, Susan. (ed.). 2004. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition. Volume 7: MS. E. Cambridge: Brewer. Search in Google Scholar

Johnson, David F. 2000. “A Program of Illumination in the Old English Illustrated Hexateuch: ‘Visual Typology’?”. In: Barnhouse and Withers, 165–200. Search in Google Scholar

Jost, Karl (ed.). 1959. Die “Institutes of Polity, Civil and Ecclesiastical”: Ein Werk Erzbischof Wulfstans von York. Bern: Francke. Search in Google Scholar

Jussen, Bernhard. 2002. “‘Virgins-Widows-Spouses’: On the Language of Moral Distinction as Applied to Women and Men in the Middle Ages”. History of the Family 7: 13–32. 10.1016/S1081-602X(01)00094-XSearch in Google Scholar

Keynes, Simon. 2007. “An Abbot, an Archbishop, and the Viking Raids of 1006-7 and 1009–12”. Anglo-Saxon England 36: 151–220. Search in Google Scholar

Keynes, Simon and Michael Lapidge (eds. and trans.). 1983. Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. London: Penguin.Search in Google Scholar

Kleist, Aaron J. 2019. The Chronology and Canon of Ælfric of Eynsham. Cambridge: Brewer.10.1017/9781787445383Search in Google Scholar

Klinck, Anne. 1982. “Anglo-Saxon Women and the Law”. Journal of Medieval History 8: 107–121.10.1016/0304-4181(82)90043-4Search in Google Scholar

Lees, Clare. 1999. Tradition and Belief: Religious Writing in Late Anglo-Saxon England. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.Search in Google Scholar

Liebermann, Felix (ed.). 1903–1916. Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen. 3 vols. Halle a.d.S.: Niemeyer.Search in Google Scholar

Magennis, Hugh. 1995. “‘No Sex Please, We’re Anglo-Saxons?’: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Old English Prose and Poetry”. Leeds Studies in English 26: 1–27.Search in Google Scholar

Marsden, Richard. 1991. “Ælfric as Translator: The Old English Prose Genesis”. Anglia 109: 319–358.10.1515/angl.1991.1991.109.319Search in Google Scholar

Marsden, Richard. 1995. The Text of the Old Testament in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Marsden, Richard. 2000. “Translation by Committee?: The ‘Anonymous’ Text of the Old English Hexateuch”. In: Barnhouse and Withers, 41–90.Search in Google Scholar

Marsden, Richard (ed.). 2008. The Old English Heptateuch and Ælfric’s Libellus de Veteri Testamento et Novo. Volume 1: Introduction and Text. EETS OS 330. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

McCarthy, Conor. 2004. Marriage in Medieval England: Law, Literature and Practice. Woodbridge: Boydell. Search in Google Scholar

McNamara, Jo Ann and Suzanne Wemple (eds.). 1973. “The Power of Women through the Family in Medieval Europe: 500–1100”. Feminist Studies 1: 126–141. Search in Google Scholar

McNeill, John T. and Helena M. Gamer (eds. and trans.). 1938. Medieval Handbooks of Penance: A Translation of the Principal “Libri poenitentiales” and Selections from Related Documents. New York: Columbia University Press. Search in Google Scholar

Menzer, Melinda J. 2000. “The Preface as Admonition: Ælfric’s Preface to Genesis”. In: Barnhouse and Withers, 15–39.Search in Google Scholar

Meyer, Marc A. 1979. “Land Charters and the Legal Position of Anglo-Saxon Women”. In: Barbara Kanner (ed.). The Women of England: From Anglo-Saxon Times to the Present. Interpretive Bibliographical Essays. Hamden, CT: Archon. 57–82. Search in Google Scholar

Meyer, Marc A. 1990. “Early Anglo-Saxon Penitentials and the Position of Women”. The Haskins Society Journal 2: 47–61. Search in Google Scholar

Minkoff, Harvey. 1976. “Some Stylistic Consequences of Ælfric’s Theory of Translation”. Studies in Philology 73: 29–41.Search in Google Scholar

Nelson, Janet. 1995. “The Wary Widow”. In: Wendy Davies and Paul Fouracre (eds.). Property and Power in the Early Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 82–113. 10.1017/CBO9780511628665.006Search in Google Scholar

Olson, Mary C. 1998. “Genesis and Narratology: The Challenge of Medieval Illustrated Texts”. Mosaic 31: 1–24.Search in Google Scholar

Pasternack, Carol Braun. 2003. “Negotiating Gender in Anglo-Saxon England”. In: Sharon Farmer and Carol Braun Pasternack (eds.). Gender and Difference in the Middle Ages. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 107–142. Search in Google Scholar

Quentin, D. Henri (ed.). 1926. Biblia Sacra iuxta Latinam uulgatam uersionem ad codicum fidem, cura et studio monachorum Abbatiae pontificiae Sancti Hieronymi in Urbe O. S. B. edita. Volume 1: Liber Genesis. Rome: Typis polyglottis Vaticanis.Search in Google Scholar

Rabin, Andrew (ed. and trans.). 2015. The Political Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York. Manchester: Manchester University Press.10.7765/9781847799678.00006Search in Google Scholar

Raith, Josef. 1933/1964. Die altenglische Version des Halitgar’schen Bussbuches (sog. Poenitentiale pseudo-Ecgberti). Hamburg: Grand. [Repr. with a new preface. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1964.]Search in Google Scholar

Riedel, Christopher. 2020. “Reformed Monastic Celibacy and Secular Sexuality in Tenth-Century England”. Paper presented at the Virtual International Medieval Congress, University of Leeds, 6 July 2020. Search in Google Scholar

Rivers, Theodore John. 1975. “Widows’ Rights in Anglo-Saxon Law”. The American Journal of Legal History 19: 208–215. 10.2307/844882Search in Google Scholar

Rivers, Theodore John. 1997. “The Legal Status of Widows in Late Anglo-Saxon England”. Medievalia et Humanistica 24: 1–16. Search in Google Scholar

Robertson, A. J. (ed. and trans.). 1925. The Laws of the Kings of England from Edmund to Henry I. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Search in Google Scholar

Robertson, A. J. (ed. and trans.). 1956. Anglo-Saxon Charters. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Seidler, Ayelet. 2018. “The Law of Levirate and Forced Marriage – Widow vs. Levir in Deuteronomy 25.5–10”. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 42: 435–456.10.1177/0309089216692180Search in Google Scholar

Stafford, Pauline. 1982. “The Laws of Cnut and the History of Anglo-Saxon Royal Promises”. Anglo-Saxon England 10: 173–190.10.1017/S0263675100003252Search in Google Scholar

Stanley, Eric. 2004. “Wulfstan and Ælfric: ‘The True Difference between the Law and the Gospel’”. In: Matthew Townend (ed.). Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: The Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference. Turnhout: Brepols. 429–441. Search in Google Scholar

Stanton, Robert 2002. The Culture of Translation in Anglo-Saxon England. Cambridge: Brewer.Search in Google Scholar

Swanton, Michael (ed. and trans.). 1993. Anglo-Saxon Prose. London: Dent. Search in Google Scholar

Thompson, Thomas and Dorothy Thompson. 1968. “Some Legal Problems in the Book of Ruth”. Vetus Testamentum 18: 79–99.10.1163/156853368X00069Search in Google Scholar

Tollerton, Linda. 2011. Wills and Will-Making in Anglo-Saxon England. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press. Search in Google Scholar

Treschow, Michael. 1994. “The Prologue to Alfred’s Law Code: Instruction in the Spirit of Mercy”. Florilegium 13: 79–110.10.3138/flor.13.006Search in Google Scholar

Weisberg, Dvora E. 2004. “The Widow of Our Discontent: Levirate Marriage in the Bible and Ancient Israel”. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 28: 403–430.10.1177/030908920402800402Search in Google Scholar

Westbrook, Raymond. 1991. Property and the Family in Biblical Law. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.Search in Google Scholar

Whitelock, Dorothy (ed.). 1939. Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. London: Methuen. Search in Google Scholar

Whitelock, Dorothy, David C. Douglas and Susie I. Tucker (eds. and trans.). 1961. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode. Search in Google Scholar

Whitelock, Dorothy, M. Brett and Christopher Brooke (eds. and trans.). 1981. Councils and Synods, with Other Documents Relating to the English Church. Volume I: AD 871–1204, Part I: 871–1066. Oxford: Clarendon. Search in Google Scholar

Wilcox, Jonathan (ed.). 1994. Ælfric’s Prefaces. Durham: Durham Medieval Texts.Search in Google Scholar

Wilcox, Jonathan. 2012. “A Place to Weep: Joseph in the Beer-Room and Anglo-Saxon Gestures of Emotion”. In: Stuart McWilliams (ed.). Saints and Scholars: New Perspectives on Anglo-Saxon Literature and Culture in Honour of Hugh Magennis. Woodbridge: Brewer. 14–32.Search in Google Scholar

Willis, Timothy M. 2001. The Elders of the City: A Study of the Elders-Laws in Deuteronomy. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature. Search in Google Scholar

Withers, Benjamin C. 2007. The Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, Cotton Claudius B.iv: The Frontier of Seeing and Reading in Anglo-Saxon England. London/Toronto: British Library/Toronto University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Wormald, Patrick. 1999. The Making of English Law: King Alfred to the Twelfth Century. Volume I: Legislation and its Limits. Oxford/Malden, MA: Blackwell. Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2020-11-13
Published in Print: 2020-11-11

© 2020 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 29.9.2023 from
Scroll to top button