Ælfric c. 955-c. 1010
(Also called Grammaticus or Grammarian) Anglo-Saxon writer.
Widely considered the greatest Anglo-Saxon prose writer of his time, Ælfric composed sermons based on the writings of the Church Fathers, translated the first seven books of the Bible from Latin, and wrote a series of biographical sketches narrating the lives and deeds of saints both popular and not so well known. His work offers historians valuable insight into the practices of the English Church in the tenth and eleventh centuries and comprises a thorough collection of Christian thought, expressed in the vernacular to promote wide religious education. Enormously popular, Ælfric's sermons were copied and used for at least one hundred and fifty years.
Nothing is known of Ælfric's life except what may be gleaned from his writings. He was taught as a boy by a priest with an incomplete knowledge of Latin. Later Ælfric attended the Old Monastery at Winchester, where he was taught by St. Æthelwold. About 987, and after he had become a priest, Ælfric was sent to Cerne Abbas, in Dorset. In 1005, Ælfric moved to a new monastery at Eynsham, Oxfordshire, where he was elected abbot. He continued writing and revising his works while fulfilling his religious duties for the remainder of his life.
Ælfric's first important works were two sets of sermons for Sundays and holy days entitled Catholic Homilies (c. 990-95). Demonstrating that Ælfric rarely repeated himself, Lives of Saints (c. 993-96) consists of a series of narratives covering important saints who were not celebrated in church. Lives of Saints was intended primarily for reading outside of church. Ælfric's Grammar (c. 992-1002) is the first Latin grammar book written in English; this work in later centuries earned Ælfric the nickname Grammaticus. Grammar is praised by critics for making the subject much more palatable to students than any other known similar work. Another primer written for his students is Colloquy (c. 992-1002), which consists of a dialogue between a teacher and his students, and was used for practicing conversational Latin. The Colloquy is of great interest to historians because in it Ælfric also discusses the functions and relative value of various craftsmen (cobblers, smiths, carpenters, and others) and illustrates their daily lives, at least as they were perceived by monks. Ælfric clarified or enlarged his views on certain church matters in occasional letters, the most well known of which is the Letter to Sigeweard (c. 1005). Ælfric continues to interest scholars, as is evidenced by the many modern translations of his works.
Ælfric's homilies filled a need in the Christian world for texts comprehensible to laymen. They were immediately embraced and achieved considerable dispersion. Ælfric receives the highest of praise from modern critics for his clarity of thought, economy of words, and the fine organization of his material. He is also credited with having a thorough grasp of his sources, rarely making errors, and having a complete command of both Latin and English. Scholars have commended his understanding of the needs of his audience and utilizing the proper sources in educating them in the Christian doctrine. Peter Clemoes writes that Ælfric drew from two sources: “belonging to the first generation after the revival of monasticism, he was representative of a movement that had confidence in its intellectual and artistic standards as well as in its religious life. … On the other hand, he was heir to a tradition of vernacular prose which King Alfred had stamped with his royal authority.” The influences on Ælfric's thought continue to be studied; his debt to the saints Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory is well known. A great amount of work remains to be done in fully analyzing the many different manuscripts of Ælfric, some of which show that he made revisions to his printed works. Scholars believe that few, if any, of Ælfric's writings remain undiscovered; many of his manuscripts are well-preserved. Because his writing style is so clear and the condition of his writings so good, there is little controversy in Ælfric studies beyond narrowing dates of composition and interpreting some of the finer points of his religious thought, for example his position on miracles or transubstantiation. Ælfric's style is universally praised and his importance to church historians can scarcely be overestimated. Eugene A. Green writes that “Aelfric's homilies have left an unparalleled record of Christian education during the tenth and eleventh centuries.”
Catholic Homilies I (sermons) c. 990-94
Catholic Homilies II (sermons) c. 991-95
De Temporibus Anni (treatise) c. 992
Colloquy (primer) c. 992-1002
Grammar (primer) c. 992-1002
Lives of Saints (biography) c. 993-96
Letter to Sigeweard (letter) c. 1005
Ælfric's Lives of Saints 2 vols. (translated by W. W. Skeat) 1966
Homilies of Ælfric: A Supplementary Collection (edited by John C. Pope) 1967
Ælfric's Catholic Homilies: The Second Series-Text (edited by Malcolm Godden) 1979
Ælfric's Catholic Homilies: The First Series-Text (edited by Peter Clemoes) 1997
Ælfric's Letter to the Monks of Eynsham (translated by Christopher A. Jones) 1999
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SOURCE: “Social Idealism in Ælfric's Colloquy,” in Anglo Saxon England, Vol. 3, 1974, pp. 153-62.
[In the following essay, Anderson examines Ælfric's use of Benedictine ideas in the Colloquy regarding self-sufficiency and the need for order.]
Ælfric's Colloquy1 is, of course, first and foremost, a dialogue between a master and his pupils to give practice in the use of Latin at a conversational level. The pedagogic intention of the work is evident from the interlocutors' habit of lingering over commonly used words in various grammatical forms: for example, in a few opening lines (2-11) the deponent loqui appears as loqui, loquimur, loquamur and loqueris, together with the noun locutio, and within a little more than fifty lines (66-119) we find seven forms of the verb capere, two of them occurring four times each and one twice. Yet, equally certainly, this colloquy has more to it than just schoolboy exercises in declensions and conjugations. It has escaped the oblivion that has been the lot of its more humdrum fellows who—to use Garmonsway's personification—were assigned the rôle of literary Cinderellas, labouring ‘in obscurity in monastic classrooms to help boys learn their lessons’.2 It has long been acclaimed for its realism and for its ‘sociological picture of the occupational strata’3 of...
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SOURCE: “The Topos of the Tormentor Tormented in Ælfric's Passio Sancti Vincentii Martyris,” in Ball State University Forum, Vol. 25, No. 2, 1984, pp. 3-13.
[In the following essay, Tkacz examines Ælfric's treatment of the traditional theme of the tormentor tormented and contrasts it with the ways several other writers have handled the same subject.]
The topos of the “tormentor tormented” by the same punishments he sought to inflict on an innocent hero was popular in Judeo-Christian culture long before Hamlet, foreshadowing the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, first gloated that “'tis the sport to have the engineer / Hoist with his own petar” (III.iv.210-11).2 Such poetic justice derives much of its popularity from the dictum of the Mosaic Law:
Qui percusserit, et occiderit hominem, morte moriatur. …
Qui irrogaverit maculam cuilibet civium suorum: sicut fecit, sic fiet ei:
Fracturam pro fractura, oculum pro oculo, dentem pro dente, restituet:
Qualem inflixerit maculam, talem sustinere cogetur.
Leviticus 24:17, 19-203
In the New Testament, impetus for such recompense is found in the Sermon on the Mount:...
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SOURCE: “Ælfric's Saints' Lives and the Problem of Miracles,” in Leeds Studies in English, Vol. 16, 1985, pp. 83-100.
[In the following essay, Godden explains apparent contradictions and inconsistencies in Ælfric's statements concerning miracles.]
In his homily for Ascension Day Ælfric states firmly that the age of physical, visible miracles has ended, and he goes on to draw a contrast between those older miracles, which affected only the body and were no necessary sign of virtue in the miracle-worker, and the superior spiritual transformations of the present, which affect the moral self:
The Lord said, “These signs will follow those who believe. In my name they will drive out devils; they will speak with new languages; they will drive away snakes; and although they drink poison, it will not harm them; they will set their hands on sick men, and it will be well with them”.
These miracles were necessary at the beginning of Christianity because through these signs the heathen folk were turned to the faith. The man who plants trees or herbs waters them until they are firmly rooted, and when they are growing he stops the watering. Similarly, Almighty God showed his miracles to the heathen folk until they believed; after the faith spread over the whole world, the miracles ceased. But God's Church still daily...
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SOURCE: “Ælfric's ‘Silent Days’,” in Leeds Studies in English, Vol. 16, 1985, pp. 118-31.
[In the following essay, Hill investigates Ælfric's unusual insistence that there be no preaching during the “Silent Days”—the three days preceeding Easter Sunday.]
In both series of Catholic Homilies, between the homilies for Palm Sunday and Easter Day, Ælfric included a notice to the effect that church custom forbade preaching on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the last three days of Holy Week, which he calls ‘silent days’. In the First Series, issued in 989 or a little later, we read:1
… (Church customs forbid any homily to be delivered on the three silent days.)
In the Second Series, two or three years later, he states more briefly:2
… (No one may deliver a homily on the three silent days.)
Ælfric's belief that no homilies should be preached on these three days is borne out by his practice: neither here nor at any subsequent stage in his career did Ælfric provide homilies for the last three days of Holy Week, even though, in writing some of his later homilies, he made provision for days not covered in the First and Second Series of the Catholic Homilies.
Ælfric derived his...
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SOURCE: “Aelfric the Catechist,” in De Ore Domini: Preacher and Word in the Middle Ages, Medieval Institute Publications, 1989, pp. 61-74.
[In the following excerpt, Green examines Ælfric's pre-Lenten and Lenten sermons, praising his organization, sensitivity to his audience, and use of common speech.]
Aelfric's homilies left a record of Christian education during the tenth and eleventh centuries that outdistances the efforts of anyone else for centuries on either side of his life.1 In order that a congregation might listen to a homily twice monthly, he wrote a homily for approximately every second Sunday in a two-year cycle. To teach gospel truth or evangelical doctrine is the chief concern and motive force behind all of Aelfric's preaching and the chief explanation for its strong catechetical character. Aelfric's educational, catechetical goals and his orthodoxy are signalled strongly by his returning literally hundreds of times to the word lare (teaching); to preach on the scriptures is to teach divine doctrine. Within Aelfric's larger religious, educational plan, there exist subsets of sermons with a stronger than usual catechetical thrust. Such are the sermons for Rogationtide and the Lenten sermons. In this essay we will deal with the pre-Lenten sermons and the sermons for Lenten Sundays. We will consider how and why they can be studied as a unit, briefly survey the tradition...
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SOURCE: “Bones of Contention: The Context of Ælfric's Homily on St. Vincent,” in Anglo Saxon England, Vol. 19, 1990, pp. 117-32.
[In the following essay, Irvine explores the circumstances of the creation of Ælfric's sermon on Saint Vincent.]
The Old English account of the passion of St Vincent of Saragossa survives only in one late manuscript, Cambridge, University Library, Ii. 1. 33, written in the second half of the twelfth century.1 This manuscript contains a large proportion of saints' lives by Ælfric, belonging mainly to his two series of Catholic Homilies and his later collection known as the Lives of Saints.2 The passion of St Vincent, from its alliterative style, reveals itself also to be the work of Ælfric. Since it was appended by W. W. Skeat to his edition of the Lives of Saints, it has generally been treated as part of the Lives of Saints collection, although there is no evidence that Ælfric himself ever added it to that set.3
A reference to St Vincent also appears in another Old English text written in Ælfric's alliterative prose style, a short exposition of the gospel passage John XII.24-6.4 This similarly survives in only one twelfth-century manuscript, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 343, a substantial collection of homilies and other religious texts mainly by Ælfric.5 The...
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SOURCE: “Ælfric's Women Saints: Eugenia,” in New Readings on Women in Old English Literature, edited by Helen Damico and Alexandra Hennessey Olsen, Indiana University Press, 1990, pp. 146-57.
[In the following essay, Szarmach analyzes Ælfric's treatment of sexuality and transvestism in his Life of Eugenia.]
In the last few years three major books in Old English studies have looked at women and the literary image of women in Anglo-Saxon England, while at the same time several articles and conference papers have also sought to bring new perspectives to bear on similar themes.1 Yet this new movement continues this century's characteristic disregard of Old English prose—not to mention its major figure, Ælfric—and at best downplays the vast corpus of prose and its potential contribution to the field. With this paper I begin a study of women saints in Ælfric's Lives of the Saints, offering a reading of Ælfric's views on women. The focus here will be on sexuality in the Life of Eugenia, and the depiction of transvestism will also be a major theme. How Ælfric treats sexual or erotic details found in his sources is a necessary issue. Known for the “sobriety” of his doctrinal views and for a style that is “less strained” than that of his contemporaries, does Ælfric react with comparable “sanity” to the excesses of Latin hagiography?2 Thus, by treating...
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SOURCE: “Of Mice and Men: Ælfric's Second Homily for the Feast of a Confessor,” in Leeds Studies in English, Vol. 24, 1993, pp. 1-26.
[In the following essay, Clayton surveys Ælfric's sources for his second sermon for the feast of a Confessor and explains how it demonstrates Ælfric's reaction to political circumstances of his day.]
Ælfric's second homily for the Common of a Confessor (Assmann IV) is a work which has received little attention since it was published in 1889.1 This two-part text is, however, a most interesting witness to two common Ælfrician practices: his freedom in combining points from very different authorities to produce a thematically coherent exegesis, and his willingness to disrupt this careful cohesion to introduce a theme which testifies to that increasing concern with addressing issues of contemporary relevance which is so characteristic of his later career. In this article I should like to examine the homily from both these points of view, offering a study of the sources and of the political background which may have inspired the second, and only tenuously connected, part of the text.
The homily can be fairly closely dated by the note which is prefixed to it in one of the manuscripts and by its relationship to other texts by Ælfric. The note, which is found in CCCC 188 and which must have been copied from the source of that manuscript,...
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SOURCE: “The Labor Structure of Ælfric's Colloquy,” in The Work of Work: Servitude, Slavery, and Labor in Medieval England, edited by Allen J. Frantzen and Douglas Moffat, Cruithne Press, 1994, pp. 55-70.
[In the following essay, Ruffing discusses Ælfric's writings on primary workers and secondary providers, as well as on the relationship between the secular and the religious worlds.]
As a cohesive and finely-wrought dialogue on various occupations, Ælfric's Colloquy must have been an effective exercise for teaching quotidian Latin to monastic oblates. Mitchell and Robinson also find it “of particular value to modern readers because it offers an informal glimpse of Anglo-Saxon social structure, with representatives of various occupations explaining their function in the society in which they lived.”1 But for either group of readers, I would argue that social structure, and in particular the structure of its labor, to be no less formal and no less communicated than the grammar taught through the text. Granted, the labor structure is embedded in and thereby somewhat obscured by pleasant dialogue, the digestive aid designed to ease consumption of grammatical items, vocabulary and inflections; but in the content and arrangement of its portraits, the Colloquy shows a constructed balance reminiscent of more sophisticated literary catalogues like the General...
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SOURCE: “Experiments in Genre: The Saints' Lives in Ælfric's Catholic Homilies,” in Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints' Lives and Their Contexts, edited by Paul E. Szarmach, State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 261-87.
[In the following essay, Godden contends that Ælfric's emphasis on narrative in Lives of Saints was a deliberate choice on his part, made in order to resolve exegetical and hagiographical problems.]
Medieval hagiography was a highly varied genre, serving several different functions and drawing on a variety of traditions. As Rosemary Woolf puts it, describing the literary saint's life, “in origins it is part panegyric, part epic, part romance, part sermon, and historical fact dissolves within the conventions of these forms.”1 Thomas Hill's chapter in this volume has already shown the complexity of the genre, its variety of functions, and its relation to other genres. Such complexities were probably as evident to medieval writers as they are to us, and one of the major interests in examining Ælfric's writing of hagiography is the opportunity to watch a writer responding to the questions of genre and mode.
In considering his treatment of hagiography it would seem natural to concentrate on the collection traditionally known as Ælfric's Lives of Saints.2 The title is editorial and in various ways...
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SOURCE: “Ælfric and the Legend of the Seven Sleepers,” in Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints' Lives and Their Contexts, edited by Paul E. Szarmach, State University of New York Press, 1996, pp. 317-31.
[In the following essay, Magennis explains that Ælfric practiced severe excising in his retelling of the Legend of the Seven Sleepers in order to rid it of anything that might interfere with its hagiographical aspect.]
The version of the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus that appears in the Second Series of Ælfric's Catholic Homilies under the title Sanctorum Septem Dormientium is extremely brief even by Ælfric's standards. This version amounts to not much more than a page in Godden's edition1 and could be described as a summary rather than a developed narrative. The very fact that the text is so short, however, and that its abbreviation of source is so pronounced makes it a particularly revealing illustration of Ælfric's approach to hagiography and of the kinds of interests he extracts from his hagiographical sources. In his treatment of the Seven Sleepers Ælfric focuses on what he sees as the essential significance of the legend and disregards everything else. As explained here, some of these essential interests are reflected again in a later passage on the Seven Sleepers written by Ælfric, in an addition he made to a homily in the First Series of...
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SOURCE: “Reinventing the Gospel: Ælfric and the Liturgy,” in Medium Ævum, Vol. 68, No. 1, 1999, pp. 13-31.
[In the following essay, Bedingfield traces ways in which Ælfric strayed from strict interpretation of biblical texts in order to clarify and sharpen the message of his writings.]
Tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England boasts what for many is regarded as the cornerstone of medieval dramatic ritual, the Regularis concordia's Visitatio sepulchri, often dubbed by critics of liturgical drama the first ‘quasi-play’. Because of the dearth of corollary evidence and the scattered nature of liturgical books pertinent to Anglo-Saxon observance, however, the Visitatio, with its ‘Quem quaeritis’ dialogue between the angel and the women at the tomb, is generally treated as singular, and the highly dramatic nature of the liturgy for the other major festivals has been largely dismissed. However, the vernacular preaching that accompanied these rituals, in particular that of Ælfric, reveals the remarkably pervasive influence of this dramatic liturgy on Anglo-Saxon perceptions of Christian history. Besides a few overt passages of liturgical instruction provided by Ælfric, this influence is evident more subtly throughout Ælfric's treatment of biblical figures and events re-enacted in the liturgy. In particular, Ælfric's translations of the pericopes for the major festivals of the...
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SOURCE: “An Orthodox Old English Homiliary?: Ælfric's Views on the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles,” in Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, Vol. 100, No. 1, 1999, pp. 15-26.
[In the following essay, O'Leary examines Ælfric's use of apocryphal material.]
Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham, who died in the early eleventh century, has been described as ‘the most prolific … vernacular author of the Anglo-Saxon period’.1 His known works consist mainly of didactic and hagiographical material—sermons, Lives of saints, and a grammar are the best known of these. Ælfric had access, as a pupil of Æthelwold's school at Winchester Cathedral, to a broad range of theological works.2 Much scholarly debate has taken place concerning his attitude towards the sources with which he worked, and, in particular, the criteria used by him in choosing material for his sermons, which date from the last two decades of the tenth century.3 The predominant view among scholars of Ælfric's writings has been that, particularly in the compilation of his Catholic Homilies, he strongly disapproved of, and therefore rejected, sources not supported by the authority of the Bible, by Church-teaching or earlier Fathers or writers; that is, sources such as New Testament apocrypha—texts outside, but connected with, the New Testament—, which he is thought to have seen as theologically suspect. For...
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Clemoes, P. A. M. “The Chronology of Ælfric's Works.” In The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in Some Aspects of Their History and Culture, edited by Peter Clemoes, pp. 212-47. London: Bowes & Bowes, 1959.
Attempts to chronologically order Ælfric's texts.
Garmonsway, G. N. An introduction to Ælfric's “Colloquy,” edited by G. N. Garmonsway, pp. 1-17. London: Methuen & Co., 1939.
Discusses different manuscript versions of the Colloquy.
Godden, Malcolm. An introduction to Ælfric's “Catholic Homilies”: The Second Series-Text, edited by Malcolm Godden, pp. xix-xcvi. London: Oxford University Press, 1979.
Analyzes textual variances among the many different manuscripts.
Clayton, Mary. “Ælfric and the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” Anglia 104, No. 3-4 (1986): 286-315.
Analyzes Ælfric's homily for the Nativity of the Virgin Mary and considers its significance to Ælfric scholars.
———. “Ælfric's Judith: Manipulative or Manipulated?” Anglo-Saxon England 23 (1994): 215-27.
Considers how best to rectify incongruities in Ælfric's exegesis concerning Judith.
Clemoes, Peter. “Ælfric.” In...
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