Ælfric Critical Essays

Introduction

(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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.”