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Ælfric of Eynsham [Ælfric Grammaticus, Ælfric the Homilist]free

(c. 950–c. 1010)
  • Malcolm Godden

Ælfric of Eynsham [Ælfric Grammaticus, Ælfric the Homilist] (c. 950–c. 1010), Benedictine abbot of Eynsham and scholar, is of unknown origins, though his language suggests he came from Wessex. He was educated under Æthelwold in the monastic school at Winchester, and after becoming a monk and priest was sent about 987 to the abbey of Cerne Abbas, Dorset, newly founded (or refounded) by the thegn Æthelmær, son of Ealdorman Æthelweard, where he was probably in charge of the school. There he apparently remained, producing a stream of books, until 1005, when Æthelmær, now an ealdorman, founded the abbey of Eynsham and Ælfric became the first abbot: Æthelmær himself lived for a time with the new community, possibly under compulsion after falling out of favour at court, but was back in an active role a few years later. Internal allusions suggest that Ælfric had at some stage in his life travelled in the north of England and in Italy, and that he may have been taught by Dunstan as well as by Æthelwold.

It is because of his writings that Ælfric of Eynsham is also known as Ælfric Grammaticus and Ælfric the Homilist. His earliest known works are the Sermones Catholici produced between 990 and 995, comprising two series of forty homilies on the gospels, the saints, and doctrinal themes, arranged according to the church year. Although he presented them primarily as preaching texts for the unlearned, the prefaces and incidental notes show that Ælfric anticipated readers as well as listeners, including learned laity and clergy. The project was evidently encouraged, if not commissioned, by Sigeric, archbishop of Canterbury, and by Ealdorman Æthelweard and the homilies were widely circulated, probably through the resources of Canterbury: some thirty manuscripts drawing on the collection are still extant, ranging from the late tenth century to the early thirteenth; the earliest is a copy of the first series with annotations in Ælfric's own hand (BL, Royal MS 7 C.xii). Over the next decade or so Ælfric built on this project, revising the collection, adding about forty new homilies and organizing them into different collections and selections. The original impetus for his work, which Ælfric identified in his first preface, was the coming reign of Antichrist, and the consequent need for orthodox teaching in the vernacular to replace erroneous teachings which were circulating widely in England. While the idea of the approaching millennium came to figure less in his writings as time went by, to be replaced in part by the new crisis posed by the vikings, the importance of knowledge and orthodoxy remained central. He made extensive use of Augustine, Gregory the Great, Jerome, Bede, and the Carolingians Haimo of Auxerre and Smaragdus of St Mihiel (as well as a range of anonymous saints' lives), and frequently cited them as authorities; but although he presented his work as translation it was rather a process of selection, adaptation, and independent argument. He also showed a detailed knowledge of the vernacular translations associated with King Alfred and wrote of them approvingly. The erroneous or heretical teachings which he aimed to supplant seem to have included apocryphal legends of the saints, aspects of doctrine, and superstitious practices such as prognostics. His homilies mostly take the form of either close interpretation of the Bible, often using allegory, or narratives of saints; but they also discuss a range of topics such as fatalism and free will, auguries, the Trinity, the resurrection of the body, the origin of the soul, clerical marriage, medicinal magic, and the belief in the devil as a creator.

These two collections were closely followed by a third, devoted mainly to the lives and passions of saints. Although the saints are mainly those honoured by the monks rather than the laity, the collection was made at the request of Ealdorman Æthelweard and his son Æthelmær, and was apparently designed for reading rather than preaching. Ælfric generally abridged and simplified his sources to concentrate on narrative, but the choice of subjects and appended discussions show a particular interest in such topics as the doctrine of the just war, royal and military saints, the history of English monasticism, the problem of the vikings, the interpretation of dreams, the careers and fates of Old Testament kings, and the gods of classical and Danish paganism. At about the same time (c.998) Ælfric produced a grammar of Latin (written in English and partially designed to explain the vernacular too), a Latin colloquy on trades and occupations, and the first of a succession of Old Testament translations and paraphrases, written in part for the use of the more learned laity: these were subsequently combined with the work of another translator to produce an illustrated copy of the Hexateuch. His role as an authority on church practice and canon law is evident in the pastoral letters commissioned from him by Wulfsige, bishop of Sherborne, and Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York, for circulation to their clergy; and his importance as an adviser to the king and his counsellors is suggested by a text, perhaps part of a letter, in which he cites the biblical and classical precedents for a king delegating leadership of the army to others.

Ælfric probably died about 1010 (no date is recorded and the name is so common in the period that he is hard to identify in the records). As a scholar, he was the leading product of the tenth-century monastic reform, reflecting that movement's characteristic concerns with learning and monastic ideals, and also its close relations with the leading laity. If he surpassed most of his contemporaries in the range of his reading, he may also have differed from them in the rigour of his views: his conservative position on the cult of the Virgin was evidently not shared even at Winchester; his resistance to apocryphal and unorthodox teachings did not prevent his own work being mingled with such texts in contemporary manuscripts; and his strict views on clerical celibacy seem not to have been widely shared—in one letter to a landowner he bitterly remarks that 'you told me that your anchorite at home advised you' that celibacy was unnecessary (Assmann, 13). His works were in great demand and copied and read for the next two centuries and more, but often heavily adapted and selected by others. That process continued in early modern times. His works were prominent among the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts collected by Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury from 1559 to 1575, and his associates, and were cited in support of protestant doctrines and vernacular versions of the scriptures. His discussion of eucharistic theory became the first Old English text to be printed when it was issued by Parker in 1566 and it was cited repeatedly in religious controversy down to the nineteenth century; but Parker rejected as an interpolation the two miracle stories with which Ælfric had carefully balanced his more figurative view of the eucharist.

As a writer Ælfric perfected a form of Old English which has become the model for modern analysis of the language and the manuscripts testify to his care in the use of grammar and vocabulary. He was a conscious stylist, but explicitly rejected the obscure vocabulary and convoluted syntax which was fashionable in contemporary Anglo-Saxon Latin writings and even in the vernacular, and created instead an elegant and balanced prose, using simpler vocabulary and structures. In his later writings he developed a style of writing modelled in part on verse, using rhythm and alliteration and occasional poetic language, though in a form that remained firmly prose and preserved the balance and lucidity of the earlier style. He left a few works in Latin and was a very competent Latinist, but chose to devote his energies almost entirely to writing in English.

Ælfric Bata (fl. c. 1010), Benedictine monk and author, was a pupil of Ælfric of Eynsham. He is known only for a set of Latin colloquies in Oxford, St John's College, MS 154, one of which is an expansion of that by his teacher.

Sources

  • B. Thorpe, ed., The homilies of the Anglo-Saxon church: the first part, containing the ‘Sermones Catholici’, or, Homilies of Ælfric, 2 vols. (1844–6)
  • Ælfric's Catholic homilies: the second series, text, ed. M. Godden, EETS, supplementary ser., 5 (1979)
  • Homilies of Ælfric: a supplementary collection, ed. J. A. Pope, EETS, original ser., 259, 260 (1967–8)
  • Ælfric's prefaces, ed. J. Wilcox (1994)
  • Ælfric's colloquy, ed. G. N. Garmonsway (1939)
  • B. Assmann, ed., Angelsächsische Homilien und Heiligenleben (Göttingen, 1889)
  • K. Barker, ed., The Cerne Abbey millennium lectures (1988)
  • M. McC. Gatch, Preaching and theology in Anglo-Saxon England (1977)
  • P. Szarmach and B. Huppe, eds., The Old English homily and its backgrounds (1968)

Archives

  • BL, Royal MS 7 C.xii
  • St John's College, Oxford, MS 154 [Ælfric Bata]
Early English Text Society