Ælfric's Impact & Importance

“‘Our forefathers, who watched over this land before us, loved wisdom… One can see their footprints still, but we cannot follow after.’” King Alfred, Preface to the Translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care (ca 890 A.D.)
“I have seen and heard great error in many English books, which unlearned men in their ignorance have esteemed as great wisdom.” Ælfric of Eynsham, Old English Preface to the First Series of Catholic Homilies (ca 990 A.D.)

Towards the end of the ninth century in Anglo-Saxon England, a king known as Alfred surveyed his land in the aftermath of war. It was a war that had taken the lives of his father and four older brothers and had brought his realm to the brink of extinction; for Alfred, however, brought up with expectations of a clerical life of study, few harms seemed as deleterious to the nation as the effect of the Vikings’ invasions on literacy and learning. Drawn by the promise of precious objects used in worship and costly materials used to bind manuscripts, Vikings had plundered monasteries far and wide, decimating in the process centers of literate culture and living links to the world of Latin literature. As part of rebuilding his kingdom, therefore, Alfred encouraged both the study of Latin and the translation of key Latin works into Old English. In so doing, he set a precedent for the critical century to come, a hundred-year resurgence of literature that would end with the return (and ultimate victory) of the Vikings but that found its high-water mark in the writings of Ælfric of Eynsham.

The most educated, prolific, and influential writer in English before Chaucer, Ælfric was a product and a leader of the movement that transformed the Anglo-Saxon church in the tenth century: the Benedictine Reform.1 Inspired by sweeping changes at continental centers such as Cluny and Fleury, the Reformers reestablished monastic houses, built up libraries, organized schools, and otherwise addressed themselves to the problem of illiteracy—ignorance, that is, not simply of reading but of the intellectual wealth to which literacy was the key. For Ælfric in particular, the heart of this wealth was the writings of the Church Fathers, men like Augustine or Jerome or Gregory the Great who had set forth the orthodox teachings of the Church. In the absence of such teachings, Ælfric believed, the alternative was unregulated error—error that would lead to corruption and then to judgment, perhaps meted out (as his colleague Wulfstan of Worcester would poignantly posit) by the return of the Viking sword. Distressed at his contemporaries’ ignorance of basic theology, therefore, and recognizing that few had knowledge of Latin, through a complex process of editing and translation Ælfric sought to make the writings of Church Fathers accessible not only to clergy but, remarkably, to laity as well.

Ælfric’s work is of scholarly interest for a number of reasons. On the one hand, in sharp contrast to most of Old English literature, where we do well to know the author’s name, Ælfric is a self-conscious writer who provides insight into his concerns and struggles as an author. He agonizes over the extent to which he should convey complex material to his unlearned audience, worries about their attention span, is sensitive to cultural differences that may prove confusing, considers how they may react to expositions of the Old Testament, and ponders the implications of translating Scripture into the vernacular.2 Second, Ælfric’s work stands in sharp contrast to that of his contemporaries in its discriminating approach to source material. Peter Clemoes notes that the anonymous Blickling and Vercelli homilies, for example, are “texts in which the distinction between orthodox dogma and popular theology is lost sight of behind a dazzling display of rhetoric”; as Malcolm Godden observes, moreover, they often rely on “narratives which were clearly fictitious and in some cases of dubious morality.”3 Ælfric, by contrast, condemns the uncritical acceptance of apocrypha, relying instead on authoritative patristic authors. As he states regarding the Assumption of the Virgin Mary:

Gif we mare secgað . . . þonne we on ðam halgum bocum rædað þe ðurh godes dihte gesette wæron. ðonne beo we ðam dwolmannum gelice. þe be heora agenum dihte oððe be swefnum fela lease gesetnyssa awriton. ac ða geleaffullan lareowas Augustinus. Hieronimus. Gregorius. and gehwilce oðre þurh heora wisdom hi towurpon (Catholic Homilies II.29.119-25).
If we say more . . . than we read in holy books which were composed by God’s direction, then we shall be like those heretics who by their own direction or dreams have written many false narratives. Orthodox teachers, however—Augustine, Jerome, Gregory and many others—in their wisdom have thrown them out.

Third, Ælfric’s work is remarkable for the sheer scope of its endeavor. Paul the Deacon, fulfilling Charlemagne’s wish for an authoritative homiletic compendium in the eighth century, may have brought together a number of patristic works; even he, however, did not weave them together to compose homilies of his own. Ælfric, however, composes multiple series of such homilies for alternating years, covering some sixty-two Sundays and feast days in his first two volumes alone.4 He does so, moreover, without any immediate precedent. As Milton Gatch observes, both in England and on the Continent, “No one before Ælfric or in the century after him produced or attempted to assemble in the vernaculars a coherent set of exegetical commentaries on the pericopes [Scriptural readings] for the Christian year.”5 Fourth, there is Ælfric’s exegetical and theological content itself. Exegesis, the methodological interpretation of Scripture, is rare in Anglo-Saxon addresses to the laity; far more common is catechesis, or general moral instruction. Marcia Dalbey notes that while the Blickling homilies occasionally reveal “disjointed and unclear” attempts at exegesis, they are primarily concerned with “the immediate practical problem of convincing their hearers to live moral lives in this world . . . the homilists seem uninterested or unable to explain points of dogma . . . and to develop intricate exegetical arguments.”6 Similarly, in his study of the Vercelli homilies, Lewis Nicholson affirms that only three sermons reflect the “elaborate reasoning” of patristic exegesis.7 The same trend is found among Ælfric’s colleagues. Speaking of Wulfstan of Worcester, the eleventh-century archbishop of York, Dorothy Bethurum suggests that some of Wulfstan’s sermons are carefully developed to “constitute a central core of Christian teaching designed to instruct priest and laity alike in the essentials of their religion’; the rest are “directed to a call to repentance on the part of a sinning people.” In neither case are the sermons exegetical.8 In short, Gatch concludes: “Most . . . early medieval English and Latin writers of sermons for the laity contented themselves with general, catechetical addresses.”9 Such an approach, however, contented Ælfric not at all: to be inspired sincerely to live out their faith, he thought, believers needed not sweeping exhortations to virtue but exposure to the theological riches of the Bible.

To this end, the main collections of Ælfric’s work, the Catholic Homilies, are specifically concerned with expositing the Gospel readings of the liturgical year. As Cyril Smetana’s study of the Homilies’ immediate sources has shown, of the eighty-five selections in Ælfric’s first two volumes, while some recount saints’ lives, and some simply expand a scriptural narrative, fifty-six are commentaries on the pericopes that “are indebted either for matter or at least for inspiration to the homiletic and exegetical works of the Church Fathers.”10 In the process, Ælfric grapples directly with issues that had occupied the greatest minds of the Church—predestination, the Trinity, the dual nature of Christ, and so on—and tries to make them intelligible to a largely illiterate audience. The process by which he does this, and the doctrine which results, are central to our understanding of Ælfric’s work.

Fifth, there is the remarkable, lasting influence of Ælfric’s linguistic style. Adapting the features of Old English verse, he created a fluid combination of alliteration and rhythm that made his language both memorable and attractive to later writers. Though Old English was displaced among the ruling class by Anglo-Norman after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and became unreadable over the next three centuries as the vernacular changed, antiquarian writers seeking to recapture “authentically English” literary traditions repeatedly looked to Ælfric as a model. In the late twelfth century, Layamon’s Brut draws directly on Ælfric for its style, and to Ælfric may be indebted the Alliterative Revival of the fourteenth and fifteenth century, when writings such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight consciously hearkened back to Old English poetic forms. Indeed, though Ælfric’s innovative style has traditionally been labeled “rhythmical prose,” a recent ground-breaking study has cogently redefined him as “Anglo-Saxon England’s most prolific poet.”11

Finally, Ælfric’s theology plays a key role in a period of intense interest to scholars of the Renaissance: Elizabethan England. One of the first serious scholars of Old English was Matthew Parker, Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I.12 Charged with preserving what he could of the works scattered by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries,13 Parker was far more than a collector of books: rather, he was a firm believer in the importance of historic English texts. Parker had a clear reason for this study: he sought to justify the theological positions of the new English Church by means of historical precedent, showing that in departing from Rome the Church was actually remaining true to traditional English belief.14 One of the central figures Parker found to substantiate his views was Ælfric of Eynsham—a man whose views Parker simultaneously respected, used, distrusted, and denied. Though Parker was aware that Ælfric’s position on certain matters was diametrically opposed to his own, and though he even acknowledged such differences in print, Parker cited Ælfric as an authority in a way both scrupulously accurate and strikingly out of context.

One blatant case in point was Parker’s treatment of priestly marriage. For Parker, the right of priests to marry was one he had advocated at personal cost: along with other married priests, he had been stripped of his clerical offices and forced into hiding by the Catholic Mary I, and met with opposition on the issue even from Elizabeth, who had made him her archbishop. Ælfric, by contrast, while acknowledging the importance of marriage for the propagation of the race, as a Benedictine monk staunchly affirmed the importance of clerical celibacy. Ironically, while acknowledging Ælfric’s views, Parker used Ælfric to show that the Anglo-Saxons did not force married clergy to abandon their wives.

On another issue, however, Parker’s relation to Ælfric’s views is by no means as clear: that of transubstantiation. Around 1566, Parker published a number of Ælfrician texts in a work called A Testimonie of Antiquitie, using for the first time Anglo-Saxon type specifically commissioned for the purpose. Here, praising Ælfric as a man of great learning, Parker argues that the Ælfrician texts he prints and translates support the Protestant view that the Eucharistic elements are spiritually rather than physically turned into the body and blood of Christ. In fact, Ælfric’s teaching on the issue is far from transparent, and there has been considerable scholarly controversy as to whether in his treatise Parker represents Ælfric accurately.15 What has not hitherto been recognized, however, is that on this and other issues there is more than one “Ælfric” against which to measure Parker’s views. While the primary text to which Parker points is an Easter sermon from the Second Series of Ælfric’s Homilies, Ælfric actually includes two sermons for the occasion in that series, both of which follow a First Series Easter sermon which survives in six different versions—this sermon being one of those to be edited by the Digital Ælfric Project. Particularly on an issue such as transubstantiation, where minor shifts in language may have major theological implications, analysis of the development of Ælfric’s early thought surrounding Easter may be of considerable consequence for students both of early England and the Renaissance. Only when the whole of Ælfric’s corpus is in print, however, can scholars effectively evaluate not only this connection between the Anglo-Saxon and Elizabethan worlds, but the impact of this crucial author on the Old English period.

  1. Substantial work has been done on Ælfric’s career and the corpus of his writings. For overviews of his life, see Clemoes, “Ælfric,” Hurt, Ælfric, and Wilcox’s introduction to his Ælfric’s Prefaces; on the Ælfrician corpus, see Clemoes, “Chronology,” and Pope, “Introduction,” pp. 136-45. For general studies of the Benedictine Reform, see Gretsch, The Intellectual Foundations, Parsons, Tenth-Century Studies, Yorke, Bishop Æthelwold, Ramsay, St Dunstan, and Brooks and Cubitt, St Oswald. For the insular background to the Reform, see Grandsen, “Traditionalism and Continuity,” and Dumville, “King Alfred.” On the continental roots of the Reform, see Bullough, “The Continental Background,” Wormald, “Æthelwold,” and Leclercq, “The Tenth Century.” On scholarship in the Reform, see Lapidge, “Schools, Learning and Literature.”
  2. On which, see, for example, Ælfric’s Lives of Saints [LS] I.praef.13 and Catholic Homilies [CH] II.30.4-6; CH II.34.pt2.2-4; CH I.6.49 and II.11.413-15; Preface to Genesis, p. 76; and LS I.praef.9-12, respectively.
  3. “Ælfric,” p. 184; “Ælfric and the Vernacular,” p. 102.
  4. On Ælfric’s subsequent reworking of and additions to this material, see Clemoes, “Chronology’ and “Introduction,” and Godden, “Introduction.”
  5. “The Achievement of Ælfric,” p. 60.
  6. “Themes and Techniques,” p. 221.
  7. Namely, Vercelli V, XVI, and XVII; see The Vercelli Book, pp. 2, 5, and 9.
  8. “Wulfstan,” p. 216.
  9. “The Achievement of Ælfric,” p. 44.
  10. 1“Early Medieval Homiliary,” p. 181.
  11. Thomas A. Bredehoft, “Ælfric and Late Old English Verse,” Anglo-Saxon England 33 (2005), pp. 77-107.
  12. Key studies of the work by Parker and his associates on Anglo-Saxon manuscripts include Timothy Graham, “The Beginnings of Old English Studies: Evidence from the Manuscripts of Matthew Parker,” in Back to the Manuscripts: Papers from the Symposium “The Integrated Approach to Manuscript Studies: A New Horizon” Held at the Eighth General Meeting of the Japan Society for Medieval English Studies, Tokyo, December 1992, ed. Shuji Sato (Toyko, 1997), pp. 29-50, and R. I. Page, Matthew Parker and his Books: Sandars Lectures in Bibliography Delivered on 14, 16, and 18 May 1990 at the University of Cambridge (Kalamazoo, 1993).
  13. On which, see for example David Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, III: The Tudor Age (Cambridge, 1959) Joyce Youings, The Dissolution of the Monasteries (London, 1971), and C. E. Wright, “The Dispersal of the Monastic Libraries and the Beginnings of Anglo-Saxon Studies. Matthew Parker and His Circle: A Preliminary Study,” Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society 1 (1949-1953), 208-37.
  14. Peter J. Lucas notes, for example, that Parker “was much concerned to establish older precedents for the liturgy and doctrine being adopted in association with the new Book of Common Prayer and the establishment of the Ecclesia Anglicana” (“A testimonye of verye ancient tyme? Some Manuscript Models for the Parkerian Anglo-Saxon Type-Designs,” in Of the Making of Books: Medieval Manuscripts, their Scribes and Readers; Essays Presented to M. B. Parkes, ed. P. R. Robinson and Rivkah Zim [Aldershot, 1997], 147-88, at p. 148).
  15. An overview of the debate on Ælfric’s interpretation of transubstantiation in his Sermo de sacrificio in die pascae (SC II.15), with an appendix of authors writing on either side, may be found in Theodore H. Leinbaugh, “The Sources for Ælfric’s Easter Sermon: the History of the Controversy and a New Source,” N&Q, ns 33 (1986), 294-311. Also see Leinbaugh, “Ælfric’s Sermo de Sacrificio in Die Pascae: Anglican Polemic in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” in Anglo-Saxon Scholarship: The First Three Centuries, ed. Milton McC. Gatch and Carl Berkhout (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982), pp. 51-68, and the sensitive treatment of the subject in Lynne Grundy, “Ælfric’s Sermo de Sacrificio in Die Pascae: Figura and Veritas,” N&Q, ns 37 (1990), 265-69.