Monday, August 22, 2011

"Shakespeare" the East Anglian: Hawks, Handsaws & Hamlet

In 2006 Greg Hancock, a reader from Coburg, Ontario, sent an email to the "Shakespeare" By Another Name Bulletin sharing his revelation that Hamlet's enigmatic line "When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw" actually derives from hawking lingo popular in East Anglia -- where Edward de Vere was born and spent part of his childhood.

Today, Mr. Hancock sent an update on this fine little nugget. Thanks to Google Books, he uncovered a fuller explanation of what Hamlet is talking about.

"Harnsa" (phonetic spelling) was East Anglian slang for a heron. When a hawk chases a "harnsa," the heron often flies with the wind to escape its predator. When the wind is from the south, the sun is at the hunter's back, so he can easily differentiate between his bird and his bird's prey. (By contrast, when the wind is from the north, the hunter might have to squint into the sun -- and would have a harder time telling the difference between the two birds.)  

What the commentator (from H.H. Furness's 1877 edition of Hamlet) doesn't say, however, is that the gloss only holds if the author of Hamlet's line knows East Anglian regional dialect -- and, presumably, has some experience hawking in that part of the country. De Vere, yes. Will of Stratford? Another misfit. 

In Mr. Hancock's words:

Basically the important point is that a heron or hernsew is pronounced "harnsa" in Norfolk and Suffolk, which together constitute East Anglia.  East Anglia is only about 150 miles from Stratford on Avon, but even in 2011 it is culturally and linguistically in a different country. ... It was presumably the same in the 16th century.

The Earl of Oxford was of course brought up in Suffolk, so he would have understood.  It is very unlikely Stratford Shakespeare would have been familiar with Suffolk dialect, or would have [understood] written references to it.

It is pleasing to me that the reference to a handsaw had been correctly identified as being a "harnsa" or heron before 1877 by a Fellow of Trinity Hall Cambridge, and as such gives a little more academic credibility to the theory.

His original email to the SBAN Bulletin is below, after the jump. 
"I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw."

I have just completed my first reading of "Shakespeare" By Another Name. I have long believed that the works of Shakespeare were not written by the actor from Stratford. Your book is so well researched that it is hard not to believe Edward de Vere to have been the author, and this enhances our understanding of Shakespeare's works.

My father was born in 1913 in Norfolk in East Anglia, and he spent his youth in boats on the Norfolk Broads. He then went to grammar school in Norwich where he studied Shakespeare.

Years later, in the 1970s, I was canoeing with my father in Canada when we passed a heron in the lake. He observed that it was quite clear how to tell a hawk from a heron. I was somewhat bemused until he explained that "hanser" is the East Anglian word for a heron and that the phrase from the mad scene in Hamlet erroneously transcribed "handsaw" for "hanser," thus leading to centuries of needless academic debate about the meaning of the phrase.

I have subsequently confirmed from a dictionary of Middle English that “hanser” was indeed an East Anglian word for a heron in earlier times.

When I read your book I was therefore very interested to lear that Edward de Vere also spent his youth in East Anglia. Taken together with de Vere's knowledge of hawking it is clear to see that de Vere would also have known a hawk from a hanser.

(Creative Commons image by ahisgett)

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**Sept. 12, 2011 EDIT to share some back-and-forth between correspondents Greg Hancock (who was the original source of the above material) and another SBAN reader, Michael Marcus, who is more skeptical of the Suffolk/East Anglia connection.

Here's Mr. Marcus first:
There's more (and less) to Mr Hancock's discovery than he thinks. According to Wright's ENGLISH DIALECT DICTIONARY the most common version is 'heronsew'. Wright's contributors then supply about two dozen other local versions/corruptions such as: heronsue, hahnser, hearingsew, hernsue, heronsyueff (!!), etc. As far as East Anglia goes (or went), there are heronsew, hanser, harnsey and hernsey. However, there is only one part of the British Isles where it was actually spelled in the form found in HAMLET, i.e. handsaw, and Wright identifies that as "N. Cy", which is the North Country, nowhere near East Anglia of course. But the broader point is that it can't be pinned down to Vere country. (FYI, in Warwicks it was either heronsew or hernshaw). 
Here's a bit of speculation from the 19th century found (via google books) in "Hardwicke's science-gossip: an illustrated medium of interchange and gossip for students and lovers of nature," (Volume 9):
Herneshaw.—Spenser himself, in his spirited description, furnishes the key to the mystery; the bird meant is the heron, which is often (I might say always) called by the country people in the Eastern counties a "hamsaw," or "harnsey." Shakspeare makes Hamlet speak of " knowing a hawk from a hernshaw," stupidly corrupted into " handsaw." [Presumably Mr Kilton was unaware of the N. Cy. rendering - MM] Chaucer in his "Squire's Tale " has "heronsewes":—

"I wol not tellen of hir strange sewes (dishes),
Ne of hir swannes, ne hir heronsewes."

In a Latin glossary, circa 1559, Ardeola (Ardea) is translated a hearnesew; in MS. Gloss. Line, we have hernsue; in Reliq. Antiq. it is spelt herunsew; in our modern lexicons hernshaw is explained as meaning a heronry; in Grieb's German Dictionary Keiherstand is translated hernshaw, heronry; Dansk Ordbog, heireiede is translated herons' nests, hernshaw. Tyrwhitt, in his glossary to Chaucer, explains heronsewes to mean young herons, no doubt deriving it from the French heronneau, a young heron. I am not quite sure that hernshaw and heronsew were not formerly distinct words; the former being compounded of hern (heron), and shaw a small wood or coppice, and heronsew,a corruption of heronneau; the two words were no doubt soon confounded, and heronsew, hernsew, harnsaw, and hornshato were applied to the bird itself, as, for instance, the word "eelfare" is a provincialism for a young eel (in some counties corrupted to Elver). The word eel-fare" was originally applied to the migration of the young eels, from the Anglo-Saxon verb faren, to go.—-F. Kilton.

"I wol not tellen of hir strange sewes (dishes),Ne of hir swannes, ne hir heronsewes."
In a Latin glossary, circa 1559, Ardeola (Ardea) is translated a hearnesew; in MS. Gloss. Line, we have hernsue; in Reliq. Antiq. it is spelt herunsew; in our modern lexicons hernshaw is explained as meaning a heronry; in Grieb's German Dictionary Keiherstand is translated hernshaw, heronry; Dansk Ordbog, heireiede is translated herons' nests, hernshaw. Tyrwhitt, in his glossary to Chaucer, explains heronsewes to mean young herons, no doubt deriving it from the French heronneau, a young heron. I am not quite sure that hernshaw and heronsew were not formerly distinct words; the former being compounded of hern (heron), and shaw a small wood or coppice, and heronsew,a corruption of heronneau; the two words were no doubt soon confounded, and heronsew, hernsew, harnsaw, and hornshato were applied to the bird itself, as, for instance, the word "eelfare" is a provincialism for a young eel (in some counties corrupted to Elver). The word eel-fare" was originally applied to the migration of the young eels, from the Anglo-Saxon verb faren, to go.—-F. Kilton. 
I'm pretty sure that Tyrwhitt was wrong, and as another contributor wrote, "the bird and its abode got confounded into a single name". That seems as likely as anything, though it's peripheral to the source of the dialectal word. At any rate, there are enough local dialectal variants similar enough to handsaw that to tie it to East Anglia is rather precipitate. I suppose it's a point for the Derbyites, supposing any exist.



And Mr. Hancock's reply:



Michael  Marcus advances the opinion that herons were also called heronsew and hernsaw in Warwick, and suggests it is therefore unreasonable to ascribe  an East Anglian or Suffolk connection to the lines in Hamlet.

Ascribing a Suffolk  connection is basically what has been done by various commentators on this subject since the 18th century .  I will detail some of these attributions:

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
The OED devotes approximately three columns to Heron, Heronsew and variations of these words. These can be found on pages 247 and 248 of volume V of the dictionary ( this section was completed in 1898) , and also on page 1296 of volume 1 of the micrographic version of this dictionary published in 1971.  According to the OED the first recorded use of heronsew was by Chaucer c.1385.

Quotes from the OED:
“ c. Phrase. To know hawk from a heronshaw. Conjectural emendation of the Shakespearian ‘ I know a Hawk  from a Handsaw’, proposed by  Hammer (1744), who being a Suffolk man, founded this on the East Anglian dialectal harnsey, harnsa harnser.”
and
1835 Forby Voc E. Anglia, Harnsey, a heron 1885 Swainson Names Birds 144 Harnser (Suffolk)..Hernsew, Heronseugh (Yorkshire)”
There are no mentions of Warwickshire in the OED on this topic.

Shakespeare, edited by Horace Howard Furness Vol III Hamlet Vol I, Philadelphia, Lippincott & Co 1877
“CLARENDON: In Suffolk and Norfolk ‘hernsew’ is pronounced ‘harnsa’, from which to ‘handsaw’ is but a single step”


A Middle English Dictionary, Words used by English Writers from the Twelfth to Fifteenth Centuries, by Francis Henry Stratmann, revised by Henry Bradley, Oxford University Press
“Hairounsew, sb., O.Fr. herounceu, herouncel:  young heron: heironsew B.B.165: herunsew REL .I. 88; heronsewe ‘ardiola’ CATH 184 heronsewes (pl) CH.C.T.F 68


These show there is  significant  historical opinion ascribing  a  Suffolk connection to the use of “harnsa” in the Shakespearian phrase.  Respected texts and their quotations by a variety of commentators mention Suffolk.
None of the dictionaries or texts ascribe any Warwick connection to usage of  the word “harnsa”.

Although  Michael Marcus’s comments are interesting  I do not believe they provide significant reasons to alter acceptance of the historic Suffolk connection.




5 comments:

Tom Goff said...

Magnificent find! The Anglia angle makes perfect sense with the De Vere connection.

John Mucci said...

I'd always heard that handsaw was a corruption of "Hernshaw" (see http://www.birdnature.com/jul1897/heron.html) and the proverb was that "I know the predator from the prey"

Peter Tonkin said...

I've just come across this writing a novel in which Shakespeare & Hamlet feature. The discussion is fascinating but may lack another interesting point/thought. Even if Shakespeare knew little about East Anglian dialect (unlike De Vere), it may be that whoever wrote the urHamlet that inspired the play knew the dialect and gave Shakespeare the later line. (Notice how much of Enobarbus' famous speech in Antony and Cleopatra is taken almost word-for-word from North's Plutarch).

Unknown said...

Has it occurred to anyone a hawk or hauke is a masons tool? And Shakespeare wrote exactly what is in print. Also the wind is used as a metaphor in the eariest print but the "bird" reference is missing.

Michael McCall said...

Has it occurred to anyone a hawk or hauke is a masons tool? And Shakespeare wrote exactly what is in print. Also the wind is used as a metaphor in the eariest print but the "bird" reference is missing.