Wulfstan Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Wulfstan c. mid-late 10th century-1023

English homilist, legislator, and political theorist.

Wulfstan, who occasionally wrote under the pseudonym “Lupus,” is, along with Ælfric, one of the two outstanding Old English writers of the late Anglo-Saxon period. His best-known work, the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (c. 1014) is an impassioned exhortation to the people of England to repent for their sins or face the ever-deepening wrath of God. Principally studied as an orator and homilist, Wulfstan occupied the position of spiritual leader in England during the latter portions of the calamitous reign of King Ethelred. These years were full of civil unrest sparked in part by Viking invasions and tensions among Danish settlers in the so-called Danelaw—the subsequently English regions of East Anglia, Essex, and Northumbria. Wulfstan's formulation of legal and ecclesiastical codes for Kings Ethelred and Cnut indicates the degree to which Wulfstan helped mold political life during the period, and his Institutes of Polity (c. 1023) is considered a singular contribution to the development of political theory in the late Anglo-Saxon era. Additionally, Wulfstan is frequently cited for his zealous work as a church reformer focused on the northern English sees of Worcester and York, where he sought to instruct the laity in the fundamentals of Christian faith and to stem the abuse or disregard of ecclesiastical law.

Biographical Information

Relatively little is known of Wulfstan's life, particularly before he reached adulthood. The date of his birth is open to speculation, although it can be assumed that he was born sometime in the mid to late tenth century. While the Book of Ely, a twelfth-century manuscript from the monastery of the same name, contains information of his life and stories of the minor miracles he performed, few of its claims can be substantiated and scholars generally view this near-hagiographic work with skepticism. Beyond the likely supposition that Wulfstan came from a prominent family, facts about his parents and other relations are sketchy. It is believed that his mother died during his birth by caesarean section, and some legal records related to his brothers and sisters are extant. The first documented event in Wulfstan's life marks his appointment to the post of Bishop of London in 996. He may have served as an abbot before being named bishop, and would certainly have received a formal education and oratorical training prior to his selection by the church, but no solid details are known. Likewise, contradictory evidence exists as to whether he was ever a monk, although he was clearly a member of the Benedictine Order. A few scholars suggest that King Ethelred may have employed Wulfstan during his first term as Bishop in London. This period was marked by an increase in Danish (Viking) raids of the English and Welsh coasts. Seeking to curtail aggressions in 1002, the Anglo-Saxon English made a third payment of Danegeld, a land tax of some 24,000 pounds used as tribute to buy off the invaders. King Ethelred's order of the notorious St. Brice's Day massacre of Danes living in England that same year, however, renewed hostilities. Meanwhile, the death of Archbishop Ealdulf of Worcester and York in 1002 opened a path to advancement for Wulfstan, who was named Bishop of Worcester from 1002 to 1016, and Archbishop of York from 1002 to 1023. In Worcester Wulfstan gained control of a substantial library of Latin texts, and made considerable efforts to expand this collection of patristic and canonical literature. It is also during this early period at Worcester that Wulfstan began to devote himself to his most notable literary endeavors on both sacred and secular matters, writing his Christian homilies, the Canons of Edgar, and Laws of Edward and Guthrum (the two latter works were probably composed sometime between 1002 and 1008, while dates for the homilies are less precise). Incontrovertible evidence that Wulfstan served as a personal advisor to Kings Ethelred and Cnut is lacking, but many scholars suggest that the Bishop's close personal and public relationship to these men can be safely assumed. Wulfstan almost certainly played a major role in the political life of England near the end of Ethelred's reign and drafted portions of his late legal codes (designated as V-X Ethelred) between 1008 and 1012. Records also indicate that in 1020 he consecrated a church at Ashingdon for Cnut, the Danish invader who had become the undisputed king of England by 1016. Other evidence suggests that Wulfstan probably counseled the new king as well. He appears to have had a strong professional affiliation with Ælfric, the renowned Archbishop of Canterbury and outstanding Anglo-Saxon writer of the day. The date of Wulfstan's death is recorded as 28 May 1023. He was buried at Ely.

Major Works

Wulfstan's sermons, consisting of twenty-two Old English homilies and four Latin homilies, are generally considered his most significant texts and are the principal subject of scholarly interest in his writings. Specifically designed to move audiences with their rhetorical intensity, many of the sermons also exhibit a plainer style better suited to instruction. Repetition is a key element in these prose works, which demonstrate a varied use of such poetic elements as rhythm, rhyme, assonance, and alliteration. Sometimes characterized by intermittent irony, their thrust is principally moral, either in the form of catechistic instruction or as eschatological pieces detailing the imminent end of the world. Principal among the sermons, Wulfstan's renowned Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (“Sermon of Lupus to the English”), composed in the West Saxon literary dialect, features an expanding list of catastrophes from the reign of Ethelred, and interprets these disasters as the result of divine retribution for the accumulated sins and moral transgressions of the English people in the early eleventh century. It constitutes a dire call for repentance, faith, and supplication to God that He might suspend His punishment and vengeance. Wulfstan's earliest sermons (categorized as Homilies I-V by scholar Dorothy Bethurum and probably written near the beginning of his public career) conform to the eschatological pattern of the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos by prophesying the coming of the Last Days. Among these, “De Anticristo” (Homily 1b) warns of the impending approach of the Devil who seeks to ensnare and destroy humankind. Others include free translations of biblical passages, such as Homily VI, a summary of Christian history that draws from the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, and is representative of Wulfstan's didactic works. The following group (VII to Xc) includes sermons on baptism, the Creed, the commandments, and the sins, virtues, and duties of man. Still others, such as “De godcundre warnunge” (Homily XIX) and “De falsis deis” (Homily XII) are more properly adaptations; the former is comprised of portions from Leviticus, the latter a paraphrase of Ælfric's sermon against the worship of false gods. The remaining homilies variously deal with the duties of an archbishop, detailing such topics as the performance of penance during Lent or the consecration of a church. Exceptional in Old English literature as the only known text principally focused on political theory, Wulfstan's unfinished Institutes of Polity sets out the roles played by diverse classes in society, from the king, to members of the clergy, to the common man. It additionally defines power relationships between the church and secular authorities. Beginning with an analysis of kingship, the Institutes of Polity identifies the monarch's status as a worldly substitute for God whose chief concern should be the defense and welfare of his people. Wulfstan also elucidates the king's responsibilities to the church in his role of shepherding civil prosperity in the Institutes. Wulfstan's other political writings, a series of legal and ecclesiastical codes, are less systematic, but nonetheless seek to strengthen the association between secular and religious authority while defining legal minutiae (such as specific penalties for lesser crimes) within the overarching context of a Christian notion of justice. Wulfstan's abiding interest in the delineation of the proper modes of church authority seems apparent in the Canons of Edgar, a work generally attributed to him, although scholars insist that his sole authorship is not beyond question. A complementary text, the Laws of Edward and Guthrum, is likely one of Wulfstan's early legislative works and defines legal regulations concerning Danish settlement in England as well as the responsibilities of the church in regard to the Christian instruction of the predominately heathen Danes. Among the most notable of Wulfstan's collections of Old English and Latin manuscripts is the assortment commonly referred to as Wulfstan's “commonplace book.” While only a few of the writings included in this compilation are actually attributed to the Archbishop's hand, many feature his marginal annotations and provide insight into the texts that he found to be of particular interest or interpolated in some fashion in his homiletic or legal works.

Critical Reception

Wulfstan's reputation after his death appears to have suffered from accusations of corruption in Worcester and claims that he had poorly directed its holdings in favor of the northern see of York. Other records contrast sharply, including the eulogistic Book of Ely, which offers unalloyed praise for the man and his wisdom, treating him as a saint. Wulfstan's homilies were broadly influential in the eleventh century, but his impact waned after the Norman Conquest of England. There is evidence that his sermons, or portions thereof, were read or possibly delivered sporadically into the twelfth century, but interest in the works declined sharply thereafter. The writer attracted little scholarly curiosity until the late 1800s, when many of his homilies were rediscovered and indexed by A. S. Napier. By the beginning of the twentieth century nothing substantial was known about Wulfstan aside from his authorship of the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. In 1932 the scholar Karl Jost initiated a thorough study of Wulfstan and attributed a number of works to him. What followed was a period of extensive linguistic analysis of Wulfstan's homilies, including Angus McIntosh's 1949 identification of Wulfstan's two-stress mode of prose composition in a lecture focused principally on the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. McIntosh's work remained one of the most influential studies of the Archbishop's homiletic style in the mid-twentieth century; but many of his conclusions have since been reinterpreted or expanded upon by subsequent scholars. Interest in the so-called Wulfstan style, both as means of attributing authorship and for the purpose of textual analysis, has since become a significant sub-discipline within Old English studies. As part of this process, critics have frequently compared Wulfstan with his contemporary, the great prose-writer and theologian Ælfric, whose literary output was considerably larger than Wulfstan's. The writers appear to have had a mutual influence on one another, and some controversy persists as to the proper attribution of several disputed works. Wulfstan's frequent borrowing of texts has made the process of authorial designation difficult, particularly for works potentially written by either author. Generally, judgments have been made using stylistic criteria, usually by distinguishing between Wulfstan's direct, unsubtle, and frequently strident or legalistic tone, and the more reflective manner of Ælfric. In cases where Wulfstan's authorship is generally undisputed, as in regard to the homilies, commentators have remarked on the significance of his works to the development of the Old English vernacular in the eleventh century.