Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > From Alfred to the Conquest > The Works of Aelfric
  Blickling Homilies Wulfstan  

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

VII. From Alfred to the Conquest.

§ 4. The Works of Aelfric.


During these years Aelfric was growing up in the monastery school at Winchester. The exact year of his birth is not known, but, as he himself tells us that he spent many years as a pupil of Aethelwold, who died in 984, we may, perhaps, put the date at about 955. It is worth noticing that, in his Life of St. Swithun, Aelfric describes with some detail the translation of the relics of that saint to the restored cathedral at Winchester, and, as this took place in 971, he was probably then a postulant. We know that he was a priest, and over thirty years of age, when, in 987, he was sent to the abbey of Cerne in Dorsetshire to instruct the brethren in the Benedictine rule, that is to say, when he was novice-master of Cerne abbey.   21
  It was soon after this that Aelfric composed his first homilies, in two series, each of which has a Latin preface addressed to Sigeric, archbishop of Canterbury. As Sigeric’s years of office extended only from 989 to 995, and as he was absent in Rome during the first two or three of these years, the homilies were probably composed between the years 990 and 995. The second series is more exactly dated by a reference in the Latin preface to the Danish attack on Southampton in 994, so that we may assign the first collection to the years 990 to 993.   22
  In addition to the Latin prefaces, there is prefixed to each series a statement in English composed much later, probably after 1016, recounting the reasons which had induced the author to turn them from Latin into the vernacular. In the first, he explains that he has done it for the sake of unlearned men, who, especially at this time, when the end of the world is approaching, need to be fortified against tribulation and hardship; and, remembering the injunctions of Christ, Aelfric believed it to be his duty also to teach the ignorant. The English preface to the second series is much shorter, simply stating the author’s reasons for dividing the homilies into two books, and giving the sources in general terms.   23
  According to the original plan each collection was to consist of forty sermons, and each was to cover the whole of the church year, the second treating of such Sundays and feast-days as were not mentioned in the first. But neither in the manuscripts nor in Thorpe’s edition does the number of homilies correspond with this scheme; for, while the first series contains forty, the second has forty-five, of which the last six do not belong to the original collection. This gives only thirty-nine; but if the two sermons for mid-Lent Sunday are counted separately we arrive at the proper number. The two series were designed to give alternate sermons for the greater feast-days, the first series being simple, doctrinal and instructive, the second discursive, historical and more elaborate, with much narrative.  14    24
  Although the subjects of the sermons are appropriate to the days for which they were intended, there is also an attempt to give a large survey of biblical and ecclesiastical history. Thus, the first homily of the first series, De Initio Creaturae, treats not only of creation, but relates the stories of the fall, the flood, the dispersal of tongues, the patriarchs and the Mosaic law. Then follows another, De Natale Domini, which gives the life of Christ from His birth to His ascension. The second series treats more particularly of the history of the apostles, the origin of monastic life, the foundation of the English church under Gregory the Great and its expansion in the days of St. Cuthbert. The didactic element is less pronounced in the second part than in the first, and, while the first part seems to have been intended for the instruction of the ignorant in the primary facts of their belief, the second is devoted mainly to the exposition of the teaching of the church. It is in this second series that we find the famous sermon on the Eucharist which, owing to the difficulty of expressing in the unaccustomed English tongue the undeveloped and indefinite standpoint of the period, has led to much controversy, based on the mistake of reading into the tenth century the ideas of modern times. The reformers gave us our first editions of this sermon in the form of controversial pamphlets.   25
  The chief sources of these sermons were, as the homilist himself tells us, the works of St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Gregory, Bede, Smaragdus and Haymo. Förster regards the homilies of St. Gregory as the groundwork. Additional sources are Alcuin, Gregory of Tours and Rufinus, the Vitae Patrum of Ratramnus, and many others. The English song on St. Thomas he did not use, and he rejected St. Paul’s vision in favour of English works on St. Peter and St. Paul. But all these are treated very freely, and, although Aelfric was often hampered by the inadequacy of the language to express abstract ideas, his skill as a teacher is especially visible in the lucidity with which he explains the mysteries of their religion to his ignorant audience.   26
  The treatment, throughout, is highly poetical; alliteration abounds, and ten of the homilies are in a rhythm identified by Einenkel and Trautmann as the four-beat verse of the Old High German poet Otfried, though the reality of this identification is doubtful. These are the homilies on the Passion, the invention of the cross, Joshua’s victories, St. James the Just, Clement, Alexander, St. Martin, St. Cuthbert, Irenaeus and that on love. Of the three senses of Scripture, the mystical is most delighted in, and symbolism is prominent. Similar feeling and outlook is reflected in most Middle English homilies. Thus, the dead skins in which our first parents were clad after the fall betokened that “they were then mortal who might have been immortal, if they had kept that easy commandment of God.” Such a use, in the lengths to which it was then carried, although faithfully reflecting the ideas of the early and subsequent centuries of the Middle Ages, is strained to the modern mind and to the modern reader. Aelfric’s imagination is better seen in the tender and pathetic passages describing the slaughter of the Innocents or the solitary sojourn of St. Cuthbert on the island of Lindisfarne.   27
  Aelfric’s next works, though equally significant of his zeal as a teacher, were much less ambitious. They consisted of a Latin grammar, a Latin-English vocabulary and a Latin colloquy or dialogue, intended to instruct the novices at Winchester in the daily speech of the monastery. The Grammar, like so many of Aelfric’s works, has two prefaces, one in English and one in Latin, the former explaining that the book is based on the greater and lesser Priscian, to the end that, when “tender boys” have mastered the eight parts of speech in the grammars of Donatus (the shorter of which was the general medieval text-book), they may proceed to perfect their studies both in Latin and English; while the latter tells how the grammar was undertaken after the two books of eighty sermons, because grammar is the key to the understanding of those books. He insists, also, on the fact that the maintenance of religion depends on the encouragement of learning, and reminds his readers of the evil years before Dunstan and Aethelwold, when there was scarcely an English priest who could write or even read a Latin letter.   28
  In many of the MSS. which contain the grammar it is followed by a Latin-English Vocabulary, the earliest of its kind extant, arranged according to subjects, not alphabetically, and largely derived from the etymologies of St. Isidore. That it is Aelfric’s is proved not only by its inclusion in the manuscript containing the grammar, without any pause between them, but also by the presence of many words characteristic of his vocabulary.   29
  The Colloquy, of which only two MSS. exist, is exceedingly interesting both in method and in theme. It is in the form of a conversation between the teacher, a novice and a number of other persons representing the various occupations of the day. The ploughman tells how he leads his oxen to the field, while the neatherd, like Caedmon in Bede’s famous story, takes them at night to the stable and stands watching over them for fear of thieves. The shepherd guards his sheep against the wolf and makes butter and cheese. The hunter captures harts and hares and is rewarded by the king with horses and collars, while the merchant trades in palls and silks, gold and precious stones, strange garments, perfumes, wine and oil, ivory, brass, tin, glass and silver. Last of all, the novice describes the division of his day, and how, if he sleeps through the bell for nocturnes, his comrades awaken him with rods. The authorship is proved by a note in one of the MSS.: Hanc sententiam latini sermonis olim Aelfricus Abbas composuit, qui meus fuit magister, sed tamen ego Aelfricus Bata multas postea huic addidi appendices. The colloquy has an Old English gloss, which is certainly not the work of Aelfric. The additions made by Aelfric’s disciple to the text, with the object of providing more matter for practice, in every way destroy the simplicity and neatness of the original.   30
  In one MS. of Aelfric’s Grammar we meet the famous version of the Distichs of Cato. Hence, there has been a certain tendency to ascribe these also to Aelfric. They are marked by clearness of expression and show great sense of adaptability. They seem to be a combination of two translations, one to distich 68, the other to the end. Two of the distichs are taken from Aelfric’s Deuteronomy, and the fact that one of the three MSS. in which these distichs are contained also includes the Grammar, both works being written in one hand, places them, at any rate, in close connection with Aelfric’s school.  15  It is, perhaps, best to regard them as the result of Aelfric’s influence.   31
  These school-books were followed in 996 or 997 by a third series of homilies, The Lives, or Passions of the Saints. These homilies, also, are introduced by two prefaces, one in Latin explaining the origin and occasion of the work, while the other is an English letter addressed to the ealdorman Aethelweard, the father of the founder of Cerne abbey.
Thou knowest, beloved [says Aelfric in the letter] that we translated in two former books the passions and lives of the saints whom the English nation honours with festivals: now, it has seemed good to us that we should write this book concerning the sufferings and lives of the saints whom monks in their offices  16  honour among themselves.
  32
  The Latin preface further states that only such lives have been chosen from the Vitae Patrum as are suitable for narration to the lay attendants at monastic services.   33
  The best manuscript of this work  17  contains thirty-three lives, six general homilies and a narrative without title on the legend of Abgarus, thus, like the two previous series, comprising forty sermons in all. They are arranged in the order of the church year, beginning with an address on the nativity of Christ, ending with the life of St. Thomas (21 December) and including an interesting Rogation Sunday homily on auguries, witchcraft, etc., and one (25 August) in which we have an early appearance of the devil of the later mysteries.   34
  Besides the Vitae Patrum, which is the only source mentioned by Aelfric in his preface, other authorities cited are Ambrosius, Augustine, Jerome, Terentian, Abbo of Fleury, Bede and St. Oswald. The story of St. Swithun is partly based on a letter of Lanferth, but owes still more to local tradition.   35
  These homilies exhibit the style of Aelfric in its maturity; only one, that on the Nativity, is in prose; the others are in the loose alliterative rhythm which he had already used in some of his previous sermons. In the long run, this excessive recourse to alliteration became an obstacle to clear expression and was alien to the true development of prose; but the monotonous rhythm, so closely akin to the ballad verse of the common people was, no doubt, very attractive to lay audiences. The Lives, since they deal with fact and not theory, throw less light on Aelfric’s doctrine than the earlier homilies; but, on the other hand, they provide many valuable side-lights on contemporary manners, and on the life of the homilist himself. The most interesting of all are those of the English saints, St. Oswald, St. Edmund and St. Swithun. In the first two we see portrayed the ideal king of the Old English, protector and benefactor of his people. Oswald breaks in pieces the silver dish on which his meat is served, and commands Aidan to distribute the pieces among the suppliants for his charity; St. Edmund after his subjects have been slaughtered by the Danes no longer desires life. “This I wish in my mind, that I should not be left alone after my dear thanes, who in their very beds, with their wives and children, have, by these sea-goers, suddenly been slain.” In the life of St. Swithun we have reminiscences of the happy time under king Edgar, “when the kingdom still continued in peace, so that no fleet was heard of save that of the folk themselves who held this land.”   36
  The date of these Lives is known almost to the very year. They are not dedicated, like the others, to archbishop Sigeric, because he had died in 995; and they cannot have been written earlier than 996, because in the sermon on Ash Wednesday Aethelwold, who was canonised in that year, is spoken of as “the holy bishop who now worketh miracles.” But, as Aelfric says that he borrowed his homily on St. Edmund from Abbo of Fleury’s life of that saint (986), which came into his hands a few years after it was written, they cannot well be much later than 997.   37
  Appended to the best MSS. of the Lives of the Saints is an English version of Alcuin’s Interrogationes Sigewulfi Presbyteri in Genesin. It begins with a preface and introduction on Alcuin and the Latin text, which consisted of a series of catechetical answers to questions on Genesis, asked by Alcuin’s friend, Sigewulf. Then follow the translated interrogationes, abridged from a hundred and seventy-eight to forty-eight essentials. The first fifteen are on the moral law of the Creator and His creatures; the next five, relating to the material creation, contain an insertion on the planets, derived from Bede by Aelfric, who was devoted to the study of astronomy; then come four on the manifestations of the Trinity in nature. These are succeeded by a series on man’s creation in the divine image and his end, followed by others on the origin of evil. Last of all are questions on the ages of the world, and the whole is concluded by a creed and the doxology. Aelfric is nowhere stated to be the author, but the similarity of the translation to his acknowledged work in style, structure and rhythm enables us to ascribe it to him with some confidence.   38
  Two other works, closely connected in style and theme, also unsigned, but attributed to Aelfric on the ground of style and diction, were probably composed soon after the Lives of the Saints. These are a translation of the Hexameron of St. Basil, and a version of the De Temporibus of Bede. The former, which is a sermon on the six days of creation, the fall of the angels, the day of rest, the expulsion from Paradise and the atonement of Christ, is by no means a literal translation, but is partly original, and partly derived from Bede’s Commentary on Genesis. It is found in the best MSS., refers to former sermons and has Aelfric’s loose alliterative rhythm. It shows a close resemblance to the version of De Temporibus, which, as the compiler distinctly states, is not to be considered a homily. It is, indeed, a scientific treatise, adapted from Bede, but showing much independent learning in the matter of astronomy, the entry on the feast of the circumcision telling how the ancient year-systems began and were reckoned. It is almost certainly Aelfric’s, and was, probably, written between 991 and 995.   39
  So far, all Aelfric’s works had been either of a homiletic or an educational character; but now, at the request of the ealdorman Aethelweard, he embarked somewhat reluctantly on the task of rendering the scriptures into the vernacular. For Aelfric had now spent the best years of his life in the service of the church and education, bringing nearer to his people the truths and sources of their religion and morality. He was now in advanced middle life, and felt keenly that these labours withdrew him from further study and from the contemplation of the supernatural, towards which his age, profession and, above all, the grievous state of earthly affairs, that seemed indeed to foretoken the end of the world, now drew him. At the same time, he had a mass of homiletic material ready, and, at a time when scarce anyone could read, he felt that the living voice of the preacher should be mainly used with the people. Hence, we find his version of the Bible esentially meant to be preached rather than read; he wrote for those who should teach the as yet unlettered people. The version was intended to be of the nature of a homily, and was not meant to be an accurate version of Holy Writ. Name lists, genealogies and difficult passages were left out.   40
  Aelfric’s principal achievement in this department was editing the paraphrase of the first seven books of the Bible. It is certain, however, that his hand is not to be traced throughout. In the prefatory letter, which he addressed to Aethelweard, he reminds his friend how he had said that he need not labour any further in the book of Genesis than the story of Isaac, since another had translated it from that point to the end. In the MS. in the Cambridge University Library only chapters i–xxiv of Genesis are given, and Dietrich has observed that the style thenceforward to the end of Leviticus is essentially different. In the fourth book of Moses Aelfric’s style is once more recognisable, and alliteration again occurs. It is possible that Aelfric may have worked over another translation of the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy; but he himself tells us, in De Veteri et de Novo Testamento, that he had translated Joshua and Judges at the request of Aethelweard. The book of Judges was added afterward; it was probably intended originally to be included, like the homily on the Maccabees, in the series of Saints’ Lives. It is composed entirely in Aelfric’s usual rhythm, and ends with a short notice of the good kings Alfred, Aethelstan and Edgar, who put to flight the Danes and fostered religion and learning. With the exception of Daniel the work consists merely of extracts. Since the Lives were written in 996, and other homiletic work had followed, these paraphrases seem to date from 997, and, in their completed state, from 998. It is important to note in them that Aelfric merely signs himself as monk. They were, probably, the last work done for Aethelweard, who is not heard of after 999. But Aelfric’s close friendship with his son continued and bore important fruit in later years.   41
  Three other biblical paraphrases or homilies may be traced to Aelfric. In his tractate on the Old Testament he observes that he formerly made in English a discourse or short exposition of Job, and also that he had turned into English the book of Esther. The MS. of Job is lost, but a copy printed by L’Isle in 1638 shows unmistakable signs of Aelfric’s workmanship, and the theme resembles that of his other works; thus, a passage on Antichrist is strongly reminiscent of some sentences in the preface to the first series of homilies, and the whole treatment corresponds to that of the thirty-fifth homily of the second series. Esther, which also exists only in L’Isle’s transcript, seems originally to have belonged to the Saints’ Lives. It is a series of extracts in Aelfric’s customary alliterative rhythm.   42
  Aelfric also mentions, in the same place, a work on the apocryphal book of Judith, but without claiming the authorship. “It is also,” he says, “arranged in English in our manner, as an example to you men, that you should defend your land with weapons against the hostile host.” These words were formerly supposed to refer to the beautiful poem Judith, which is found in a fragmentary state in the Beowulf MS.; but Assmann has shown that an Old English version of the story contained in two MSS.  18  has all the characteristics of Aelfric’s style. Moreover, it contains many passages parallel with others in his preface to the Old Testatment.   43
  About the year 998, Aelfric was asked by bishop Wulfsige of Sherborne to compose a pastoral for him. It was written in the bishop’s name, and, after a short preface addressed to Wulfsige, adomonishing him to reprove his clergy more frequently for their neglect of the ecclesiastical canons, it treats of celibacy, clerical duties, synods and the Benedictine rule, ending with a warning against clerical attendance at lykewakes. This concludes the first part. The second is entirely concerned with the rite of the presanctified and the proper length of time for the reservation of the sacrament, and expresses the same views that Aelfric had already advanced in the homilies, based upon St. Augustine (probably the Enarratio in Psalm Xcviii), through the famous Ratramnus, opponent of Paschasius Radbertus, abbot of Corby. It thus shows Aelfric as a keen follower of contemporary “science” abroad. Aelfricsided, seemingly, against Radbertus; his opinions are nowhere exactly reflected to-day, though the obscure Augustinian “spiritual,” rendered in English “g[char]stlice,” did the good service of giving us editions of him in the sixteenth century, when he was quoted by Foxe and others. It is an anachronism to impute any fully developed modern opinion to the tenth century.   44
  About the same time must be dated Aelfric’s Advice to a Spiritual Son, translated from St. Basil’s work with the same title. The author is not expressly named, but, from internal evidence, we know that he was a Benedictine monk, and that he had already written about Basil. It speaks of St. Basil’s Hexameron in almost the very words Aelfric used earlier; it contains passages on St. Basil closely resembling some in the Interrogationes Sigewulfl Presbyteri; and, inclusive of the preface, it is composed in Aelfric’s loose rhythm. The subject is the admonition of a spiritual father to his son to lead a righteous life.   45
  In a manuscript in the Bodleian,  19  under the general heading Sermones Lupi, occurs a homily On the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Ghost, which, owing to its presence in that manuscript, was formerly ascribed to Wulfstan. But that Aelfric composed a homily on this subject we know from his own statement:  20 : “Sevenfold gifts he giveth yet to mankind, concerning which I wrote formerly in a certain other writing in the English speech.” This homily is seventh from the superscription, which only seems to apply to those immediately following it (two in number). We are, therefore, as Napier in his work on Wulfstan pointed out, justified in rejecting the ascription of the seventh homily to Wulfstan, and it may be by Aelfric.   46
  In 1005 Aelfric was called from Wessex to Mercia. The thane Aethelmaer, who had formerly invited him to Cerne, and for whom so many of his works had been composed, had recently acquired two estates in Oxfordshire, which he, in turn, presented to his newly founded abbey of Eynsham. These are interesting on account of their connection with the hero of Maldon, himself a patron of learning, who had fallen some fourteen years before, fighting against the Danes.  21  Hither Aethelmaer retired for the rest of his life, and hither he summoned Aelfric as first abbot. The monastery followed the Benendictine rule, and it was for the instruction of its inmated that Aelfric wrote, soon after his instalment there, the Latin Letter to the Monks of Eynsham, to which reference has already been made. His object was to give an account of the rule as practised at Winchester, and he says that the source of his information is bishop Aethelwold’s De Consuetudine Monachorum, by which title, as we have already seen, he refers, in all probability, to Aethelwold’s Regularis Concordia.   47
  It is in the preface to this letter that Aelfric speaks of the years spent by him in the school of Aethelwold, and, as a further acknowledgement of the debt he owed his great master, he composed soon afterwards, in Latin, his Vita Aethelwoldi.. In the preface to this Life, Aelfric calls himself abbot and alumnus of Winchester, and, greeting Kenulph, bishop of Winchester, and the brethren of the monastery there, he says that it now seems right to him to recall to men’s memory some of the deeds of their father and great teacher, St. Aethelwold (d. 984), who had been dead for twenty years. Since Kenulph was not appointed to the see till 1006, and died either the same year or the next, the Life must have been finished about this time. Of the two recensions of the Life, one, by Aelfric alone, shows his usual characteristics; the other is apparently Aelfric’s life “written over” by Wulfstan, precentor of Winchester, with additional matter concerning posthumous miracles.   48
  Besides these Latin works, in the first year of his office as abbot, Aelfric wrote an English letter addressed to a thane called Wulfgeat, “at Ylmandun,” a place which has been identified with Ilmington, about thirty miles from Eynsham. It begins with a six-line address to Wulfgeat, in which Aelfric refers to former English writings, lent to the thane, and to his promise to lend him more. Since he calls himself abbot, and since in 1006 Wulfgreat fell into disgrace and lost all his possessions, being supplanted by Eadric the famous traitor, the letter was evidently written in 1005 or 1006.   49
  It was probably two or three years after this that Aelfric composed his treatise on the Old and the New Testaments— De Veteri et de Novo Testamento.. It begins with a long address to Sigferth or Sigweard, a thane living at Easthealon, the modern Asthall, which is only twelve miles distant from Eynsham. Aelfric begins by saying that Sigferth had very often asked him for English books, but that he would not grant his request till the thane had proved his sincerity by good deeds. But since he had complained to Aelfric that he could not obtain his works, the abbot had written this especially for him. The tractate, which is based on St. Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, is, in substance, a popular introduction to the contents of the Bible. and falls into two parts. The first, on the Old Testament, is especially valuable because, in the course of his summary of the various books, Aelfric gives the particulars to which we have already referred, concerning his translations from the Bible. The second part, on the New Testament, begins with the story of John the Baptist, treats of the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the epistles and the book of Revelation, and, after certain allegories, some words on the duties of the three stations of life—workers, praying folk and fighters—and a description of the capture of Jerusalem by Titus, ends with an admonition against the Teutonic habit of setting folk to drink beyond their measure—a native pleasantry which, it seems, Sigferth had endeavoured to impose upon Aelfric when visited by him.   50
  It was to the same nobleman that Aelfric, about the same time, addressed his letter on the celibacy of the clergy, for Sigferth entertained among his household an anchorite who affirmed that the marriage of mass priests (i.e. full priests as distinguished from “preostas,” a generic name including deacons and minor orders as well) was permissible. But Aelfric, though loth to differ from this “good friend,” if he were a God-fearing man, could not refrain from pointing out that the earlier usage of the church required celibacy from all the clergy, and the letter is a prolonged argument on this theme.   51

Note 14. The manuscripts of these homilies vary much in arrangement of matter, and it has been supposed that three recensions existed. The first answers to Thorpe’s edition of the Cambridge MS., in which the two parts are kept asunder and all the prefaces are retained, although other matter is also found. The second is represented by such MSS. as C.C.C.C. 188, which has only the first set of sermons, no prefaces, some sermons divided and the homily on the nativity of Our Lady following that on the birth of St. John. It has also a new sermon for a confessor’s feast, with the statement that, although the author had written it for another (Aethelwold, bishop of Winchester, 1987–1993), yet he was to have a copy of it himself. Hence this recension dates after 1997. Thirdly, there are several MSS. in which both parts are recast together in the order of the church year, with additional sermons. [ back ]
Note 15. The MS. is Trin. Coll. Camb. R. 9 [ back ]
Note 16i.e. the customary Divine Hours, daily chanted by the monks in choir, a public service which the secular clergy could not, of course, maintain. The office-books for the two, probably, also differed. [ back ]
Note 17. Cott. Jul. E. VII. [ back ]
Note 18. Corpus Christi Coll. 303 and Cott. Oth. B. 10. [ back ]
Note 19. Junius 99. [ back ]
Note 20De Veteri et de Novo Testamento, Preface. [ back ]
Note 21. See p. 144. [ back ]

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