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The Heroic Age

Issue 3

Summer 2000

From Caesarea to Eynsham:

A Consideration of the Proposed Route(s) of the

Admonition to a Spiritual Son to Anglo-Saxon England

M.A. Locherbie-Cameron
University of Wales, Bangor

 Abstract: Though Ælfric's Admonition to a Spirtual Son is not amongst his best-known works (H. W. Noeman's 1848 edition is currently the only published text) the existence of the Old English translation testifies to the currency in the mediaeval period of its Latin original. Ælfric and others attributed its authorship to St Basil, and this attribution probably accounts for the survival and transmission of its contents. I suggest two routes by which Ælfric may have learnt of the text, and demonstrate its currency by a handlist of the manuscripts in British Libraries in which it occurs. [ 3 files]

Academic studies depend as much on the transmission, retrieval and storage of information as upon its interpretation. The first is now immeasurably facilitated by electronics but, at the end of the second millennium, it is perhaps salutary to remember the survival rate of products of the scriptoria. As an example of the reliable longevity of what appears unsophisticated, I will consider the transmission and survival of one relatively unimportant text.

The Admonition to a Spirtual Son, or Admonitio ad Filium Spiritualem, attributed to St Basil (329-379) is now little known. It is printed in J.P. Migne's Patrologia Latina (Volume 103: 683-700) and in Lehmann's rather more helpful German edition (
Lehmann 1955). An incomplete Old English translation, probably by Ælfric (c.957-1010), exists in one Old English manuscript, two later copies and in one published and revised edition1. Yet even a provisional handlist of the manuscripts now in British Libraries in which the Latin text exists (printed below as Appendix) shows that such obscurity was not always so. Though the majority of these manuscripts are post-Conquest, their existence requires a firm tradition of earlier exemplars; the later survival of the material so attests to its popularity in the early mediaeval period in both Continental and English traditions that we may make reasoned assumptions about its transmission from one to the other, and thus about its history.

Though the Old English translation is anonymous, its preface contains sufficient information to suggest strongly that its author was Ælfric. The translator knows that Basil was the Bishop of Caesarea, that he wrote a monastic Rule by which eastern and Greek monks lived, and that St Benedict wrote a more moderate Rule drawing upon Basil's authority. He knows also that St Basil wrote a further treatise called Exameron, claims Basil as the author of the work to be translated, and prefaces the whole section by the statement that he has himself already written about Basil. The range of explicit information shows that the Old English author was a well-read Benedictine. Ælfric, who had already included Basil in his Lives of the Saints2, more than qualifies; the substance of the work, spiritual warfare, is one which his other writings show him to have found congenial, and the rhythmic prose in which the text is written is as characteristic of Ælfric, as is its vocabulary.

Ælfric, however, is not the only Old English author to have known and used the Latin Admonition; it appears as a source for homilies in both the Blickling and Vercelli collections. Gatch has shown the dependence of the "Ubi Sunt" passage in Blickling Homily V on the section "De saeculi amore fugiendo" from the Admonition (Gatch 1989, Morris 1880), and the author of the late tenth-century Vercelli Homily XXI also knew of the Latin Admonition, or at least of that portion of it which appears in the eleventh-century Cambridge Pembroke Ms 25 (Item 90, 82-96); Vercelli XXI (lines 57-82) makes almost verbatim use of the Pembroke listed virtues (Cross 1987:160, Scragg 1992).

That the Latin text is a source for three late tenth-century Old English homilists suggests its currency in late Anglo-Saxon England, but such currency requires explanation. A significant factor is Basil's reputation. Though Ælfric may not be correct in his attribution of authorship to Basil (and it is not my intention to investigate this authorship), he follows a long tradition in so doing, and the attribution was almost certainly the reason for his own interest in the text, as it may well have been for the authors of the Blickling and the Vercelli homilies.

In his preface, Ælfric noted that Basil's importance to early monasticism, and this status as a monastic legislator meant that Basil's reputation spread rapidly beyond the Greek-speaking world. By 397 Rufinus had adapted and translated Basil's Rules into Latin3, and Benedict of Monte Cassino acknowledged this translation as one of the main sources for his own Rule, recommending Basil's work as suitable for further study (Schroer 1885). If by this time the Admonition had already been attributed to Basil, Benedict's own authority would have added weight to the importance of Basil's authorship, as would that of Benedict of Aniane, who included the Latin Admonition in the appendix to his Codex Regularum4, there ascribing its authorship to Basil. The Codex itself included Rufinus' translation of Basil's Rules, and was widely used as a basis for subsequent reform; the appendix was a collection of exhortations to monks and nuns, mainly by European authors of the fifth and sixth centuries, though there are two by the earlier authors Athanasius and Evagrius. If, as seems probable, Benedict was using texts with the authority of age, we can assume an early date for the attribution of the Admonition to Basil.

Nevertheless, a different claim for authorship is made by Madrisi, who asserted (p. 211) that the Admonition was a plagiarised adaptation from chapters 20-45 of the eighth-century Paul of Aquileia's Liber Exhortationis (Madrisi :197-383), though the early date of the other texts in Benedict's appendix suggests otherwise. Paul's text would seem instead to draw on the Admonition, but it provides a useful illustration of the early currency of the text, as does Defensor's eighth-century collection of patristic sayings, the Liber Scintillarum5. An abbreviated version of the Admonition forms the preface to this work, and though Defensor does not directly attribute its authorship to Basil he does elsewhere note Basil by name twenty times, and eight of the sententiae resemble the material of the Admonition.

The currency of the text on the Continent may explain two of its possible routes to England and to Ælfric: monastic legislation or the penitential tradition. Monastic legislation is perhaps the easier route to chart. Part of Benedict's Codex is known to have existed in a tenth-century manuscript at Fleury (Cuissard 1885), which Cuissard describes as including part of Basil's Rule, but since the translated Rule was only one of many texts included in the Codex particular reference to it seems surprising. However, the presence of the Admonition in the appendix to the Codex suggests that Cuissard may have confused the major and the minor text, a confusion which is frequently echoed in the manuscript traditions of both the Latin and the Old English Admonition.

If the Admonition is the work by Basil included in the Fleury manuscript, its subsequent route to Ælfric could, as Mueller maintains (p. 5), well be related to the presence of Fleury monks at the Council of Winchester in 972 (Whitelock, Brett, and Brooke 1981:133-141, Symons 1941:14-36, 143-70, 264-84). The Council was held to compile a universal and obligatory Rule for English monks, and monks from the reformed Continental houses were invited to attend and to bring details of their own reformed Rules. The revised Fleury Rule had been based on Benedict of Aniane's Codex, thus the inclusion of prescriptions from Fleury in the English Regularis Concordia, issued soon after the Council by Bishop Æthelwold (Symons 1953), Ælfric's superior, suggests that the Fleury monks may have brought with them their own manuscript of the Codex and with it, the appendix containing the Admonition. Ælfric's presence in Winchester at this time provides a persuasive conclusion to this assumed route6.

It is not, however, the only means by which Ælfric may have learnt of the Admonition, and its use as a source by others would suggest a more general currency than the Fleury connection. Though the spiritual instruction contained in the text is largely directed to a monastic audience, its warning against fornication is directed equally to non-monastic clerics. A second appropriate context for the Admonition, therefore, was the penitential tradition, and the texts which belong to it. Basil's status was as important here as it was to the context of monastic legislation, and Ælfric, as monk and priest, could have learnt of him through either or both.

Systematic penances, together with exhortations to avoid sin7, exist from the early period of the Christian church; reference to Basil's authority in the penitentials known in Anglo-Saxon England is thus unsurprising, as, because of this authority, is the occasional use of the Admonition as a source for such material. Theodore of Tarsus, Archbishop of Canterbury from 668-90, quotes Basil in the Penitentiale ascribed to him, as does also the author of the tenth-century Confessionale Psuedo-Ecgberti8. I have already noted the abbreviated, unacknowledged and free form of the argument of the Admonition in Paul of Aquileia's Liber Exhortationis together with that in Defensor's Liber Scintillarum. The last text and the Confessionale Pseudo-Ecgberti were well enough known in Anglo-Saxon England to exist in both Latin and in Old English translation; furthermore Dérolez claims that the Liber Scintillarum "must have been one of the most widely read texts in monastic circles", and Godden specifies the Pseudo-Egbert Penitential among the texts that Ælfric must have known or known about (Dérolez 1970, Godden 1978:99-117).

That Ælfric chose to translate at least a portion of the text is not surprising, though it is not clear whether his translation was unfinished or whether he worked from an incomplete Latin exemplar. Equally the loss may be the responsibility of the Hatton scribe. Nevertheless, the survival of even the incomplete text in the Old English translation provides a significant stage in the history of its transmission, enabling us to chart with some confidence its progress across early mediaeval Europe.

Appendix: A provisional handlist of manuscripts of the Admonition now in British Libraries





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Copyright © M.A. Locherbie-Cameron, 2000. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright @ The Heroic Age, 2000. All rights reserved.