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 Machabeorum ‘laboratores synd þa þe urne bigleofan beswincaa’ and their type is se yrðlincg20 and in the Letter to Sigeweard ‘Laboratores 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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