Professor Margaret Miles-Cadman’s black academic gown created a soft breeze as she entered the class and addressed students in her Introduction to Old English class in a hypnotizing, sibilant voice. Her page-boy cut hair was grey with brown shadows and her skin as pale as the pages of our textbook, An Anglo-Saxon Primer written by Henry Sweet and first published in 1887. Prof. Miles-Cadman looked like she may have known Mr. Sweet. I took her class in 1977.
She stood behind a wooden podium, scarcely tall enough to rest her arms on it, and spoke to the ceiling chanting words spoken by folks who lived in England roughly 1100 years ago. “Declining” she called it. She offered no explanation of the structure of the language, its origins, or how to approach the study of a long forgotten tongue. Nonetheless, she transported us to the 9th century whispering like a Saxon abbess.
We opened our textbooks and together we chanted noun cases – nominative, accusative, genitive, dative – first in singular, then in plural – like Benedictine monks. The only word I remember was “awyrtwalige” which means “uprooted” in Anglo-Saxon. When Professor Margaret Miles-Cadman said it the wind blew through my roots somewhere between wyrt –
say: weert with a soft roll on the r like the arrival of a wave and a stealthy Viking long ship
and walige –
say: whaaleejsh, a kind of breathless anticipation as you cower in your thatched hut awaiting a bearded red headed man wearing a two horned hat and a bear cape.
The tail of her black robe dusted the floor as she left the room, gathering dropped vowels and lost consonants for her next class.