Ælfric Essay - Critical Essays



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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.”

Principal Works

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


Earl R. Anderson (essay date 1974)

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 Anglo-Saxon society; and, in our own day, Stanley B. Greenfield has called attention to its literary merits, ‘its fine organization and structure, dramatic in effect, with its pairing and contrasting, for example, of the king's bold hunter and the independent, timid fisherman … and with its lively disputation toward the end about which occupation is most essential’.4 In the present study I hope to demonstrate that it also draws on a background of ideas and that its longevity is partly due to this ingredient. After all, Ælfric's work as a whole is intellectual in character and his various writings are related to one another as parts of a plan systematically pursued, as has been suggested by Sisam5 and reiterated by Clemoes in an admirable metaphor:

Its controlling idea was universal history with Christ's redemption of man at its centre. The conception which moulded Ælfric's writings was in fact that which moulded the Gothic cathedral later. His main structure, as it were, consisted of two series of homilies combining Temporale and Sanctorale, later extended and completed with more Temporale homilies. De Temporibus Anni, the Grammar and Colloquy, and his letters for Wulfsige and Wulfstan and to the monks of Eynsham buttressed this edifice; Lives and Old Testament narratives enriched it with stained glass windows; ‘occasional’ pieces such as the Letter to Sigeweard gave it the synthesis of sculpture on the West Front.6

All the same, in a work as elementary in purpose as the Colloquy ideas in a developed form are not to be expected. They are likely to be at their simplest and, indeed, may remain no more than mere implications. What, then, are some of them?

Eric Colledge has suggested an influence from St Augustine's Enarratio in Psalmum LXX for the dialogue between the master and the merchant, in which the merchant defends his profit motive in buying goods abroad and selling them at a higher price in England (149-66). As Colledge points out, Ælfric, in allowing his merchant to justify his profit as the means of providing for himself and his wife and family, adopted Augustine's position that the merchant deserves compensation for his labour, provided that this, and not greed, is his motive.7 It may be also that, in putting into the merchant's mouth the point that mortal danger, and sometimes shipwreck and loss of goods, is involved in earning his honest profit (155-7), Ælfric was aware of the Roman satirists' position, represented in Horace, Juvenal and Persius,8 that merchants who undergo maritime perils are motivated by avarice, for his merchant's point of view is, in effect, a denial of this charge.9

It is likely that Ælfric's treatment of the baker and the cook was influenced by a tradition of using the merits of these crafts as a topic for school debate. An early example is Vespa's poem, Iudicium coci et pistoris, which belongs to the fifth century or earlier10 and, if Raby is correct in characterizing it as a ‘school piece which gives the opportunity for a rhetorical setting forth of the merits of each trade, with proper mythological allusions’,11 more than likely merely followed the conventions of an already existing tradition. As its title suggests, Vespa's Iudicium12 presents a debate between a cook and a baker as to whose occupation is the more useful. The poem proceeds along lines familiar in debate literature: there is a balanced contention on a single subject, each side of the argument is presented with equal force and the outcome is decided by a third party or iudex. The iudex in this case is Vulcanus, who, as the source of fire, is qualified to understand both sides of the question. Weighing the arguments of each contender, he concludes that flesh and bread are both necessary to sustain life, that the cook and the baker are equals and that their quarrel is neither necessary nor desirable. Direct influence of Vespa on Ælfric is unlikely, since there is no evidence that his poem was known in England,13 and, in any case, there are more differences than similarities between his treatment of the cook and the baker and Ælfric's. But the school tradition that Vespa represents is another matter. The baker and the cook are juxtaposed in the Colloquy and it is in the maser's words to the baker that the validity of a craft is called into question for the first time: ‘Quid dicis tu, pistor? Cui prodest ars tua, aut si sine te possimus uitam ducere?’ (185-6). And the note of contention increases when, instead of addressing the cook directly as he does all the others, the master asks a question about him which demands, and receives, an answer in self-defence:

Quid dicimus de coco, si indigemus in aliquo arte eius?

Dicit cocus: Si me expellitis a uestro collegio, manducabitis holera uestra uiridia, et carnes uestras crudas, et nec saltem pingue ius potestis sine arte mea habere.


But the master is not prepared to accept this as an answer and the cook has to try again:

Non curamus de arte tua, nec nobis necessaria est, quia nos ipsi possumus coquere que coquenda sunt, et assara que assanda sunt.

Dicit cocus: Si ideo me expellitis, ut sic faciatis, tunc eritis omnes coci, et nullus uestrum erit dominus; et tamen sine arte mea non manducabitis.


Argument of this sort does not enter into the master's dealings with any other craftsman.

Debate as to the usefulness of baker and cook is but a particular application of a more general tradition of school debate over the relative merits of various crafts and callings, as represented, for instance, in a fragment from Carolingian times, De navigio et agricultura.14 Influence from this wider tradition comes to the fore when the master asks the monk whether there is a wise counsellor among his companions and, on being told that there is, assigns to this counsellor the role of iudex: ‘Quid dicis tu, sapiens? Que ars tibi uidetur inter istas prior esse?’ (211-12). The counsellor's decision in favour of the ploughman as the primary secular craftsman does not go unchallenged: a smith and a carpenter each states his own claim, the smith being answered by the counsellor and the carpenter being challenged by the smith. The result of such difference of opinion is an appeal to all concerned for reconciliation, agreement and diligence in fulfilling one's calling that is similar in kind to the judgement of Vespa's Vulcan:

Consiliarius dicit: O, socii et boni operarii, dissoluamus citius has contentiones, et sit pax et concordia inter uos, et prosit unusquisque alteri arte sua, et conueniamus semper apud aratorem, ubi uictum nobis et pabula equis nostris habemus. Et hoc consilium do omnibus operariis, ut unusquisque artem suam diligenter exerceat, quia qui artem suam dimiserit, ipse dimittatur ab arte. Siue sis sacerdos, siue monachus, seu laicus, seu miles, exerce temet ipsum in hoc, et esto quod es; quia magnum dampnum et uerecundia est homini nolle esse quod est et quod esse debet.


We may safely conclude that elements of a school debate tradition concerning crafts have entered into Ælfric's handling of the colloquy form. Perhaps he was merely following precedent; perhaps he made the combination for the first time himself.

In his views on occupational specialization, Ælfric probably was influenced by the topos of the God-given ‘gifts of men’, a medieval commonplace having its loci biblici in such texts as I Corinthians XII.8-10 and Ephesians IV.8 but probably best known through Gregory's Homilia IX in Evangelia on the parable of the talents.15 Ælfric sometimes used this topos with considerable freedom. For instance he seems to echo it in a discourse on tithes when expanding a statement by Caesarius of Arles, ‘De negotio, de artificio, de qualicunque operatione vivis, redde decimas’16 … In the Colloquy the topos is not specifically formulated, but it is surely implied in the advice to each man to practise his particular profession, just quoted: ‘Et hoc consilium do omnibus operariis … nolle esse quod est et quod esse debet’ (237-43).

The ‘siue sis sacerdos, siue monachus, seu laicus, seu miles’ (240-1) depends on a view of society like that expressed in the threefold classification ‘oratores, laboratores et bellatores’, which Ælfric used in a piece appended to his Passio Sanctorum Machabeorum17 and in his Letter to Sigeweard (‘On the Old and New Testament’).18 Since both these writings were later in composition it may well be that the Colloquy lacks their specific formulation because the unidentified source on which they were based had not yet come into Ælfric's hands.19 But that his view of society was the same before he acquired this new material as it was afterwards is shown by the counsellor's verdict in the Colloquy that the primary secular occupation was the ploughman's (219): just so, in the piece appended to the Passio Machabeorumlaboratores synd þa þe urne bigleofan beswincaa’ and their type is se yrðlincg20 and in the Letter to SigeweardLaboratores sind þe us bigleofan tiliaðd, yrðdlingas 7 æhte men to þam anum betæhte’.21 Evidently the ploughman is thought to fulfil most completely the function of the laborator in the social ideal of the three mutually supporting estates. Incidentally, Ælfric's three treatments of...

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Catherine Brown Tkacz (essay date 1984)

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”...

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M. R. Godden (essay date 1985)

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...

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Joyce Hill (essay date 1985)

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


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Eugene A. Green (essay date 1989)

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...

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Susan E. Irvine (essay date 1990)

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...

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Paul E. Szarmach (essay date 1990)

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...

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Mary Clayton (essay date 1993)

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...

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John Ruffing (essay date 1994)

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...

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M. R. Godden (essay date 1996)

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...

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Hugh Magennis (essay date 1996)

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...

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M. Bradford Bedingfield (essay date 1999)

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,...

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Aideen O'Leary (essay date 1999)

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...

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Further Reading


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....

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