The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Issue 11 (May 2008)  |   Issue Editors: Larry Swain & Linda Malcor

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

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Forum—State of the Field in Anglo-Saxon Studies

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babelisms—Absent Beowulf


Forum—The Ælfric of Eynsham Project: An Introduction

Aaron J. Kleist
Biola University

©2007 by Aaron J. Kleist. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2007 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

Abstract:  This project will provide printed and electronic editions of key works by the Anglo-Saxon monk Ælfric of Eynsham that remain unpublished, partially published, or scattered throughout out-of-print texts, making them accessible to non-specialists as well as to scholars, and promoting a heightened appreciation for this pivotal figure of early English literature.

§1.  Now scarcely known, ironically, to most students of literature, the tenth-century monk Ælfric of Eynsham was the most erudite, prolific, and influential author in English before Chaucer. Though he would rise no higher than the rank of abbot, even at the onset of his career his works were in demand: laymen and monks alike filled his audience, powerful lay-patrons commissioned him to write, and archbishops called upon him to instruct clergymen in their names. Though Old English as a language came into disfavor after the Norman Conquest of 1066, and became unreadable over the next three centuries as the vernacular changed into what we call Middle English, the popularity of Ælfric's writings remained remarkably steadfast: reproduced widely in England through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, his works continued to be translated on the Continent thereafter and copied in Old English even in fifteenth-century Romania.

§2.  Stylistically, Ælfric's influence was profound. 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. 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 ground-breaking study this year has cogently redefined him as "Anglo-Saxon England's most prolific poet." Such a perspective poses an innate challenge to a longstanding scholarly and pedagogical bias that has focused primarily on heroic poems copied or written during this period, such as Beowulf, and viewed the Anglo-Saxon world as a closed tradition ending with the Norman Conquest rather than a dynamic part of larger literary and intellectual developments in Western Europe.

§3.  It is the content of Ælfric's works, however, that best explains and justifies their far-reaching impact, for he was a man with a pedagogical mission. Ælfric was a leading figure of the tenth-century Benedictine Reform, one of the most pivotal movements of English literary and intellectual history, in which a small group of ecclesiastical reformers engineered a resurgence of literacy in a land decimated by Viking invasion. Distressed at his contemporaries' ignorance of basic theology, and recognizing that few had knowledge of Latin, Ælfric sought to make the writings of Church Fathers such as Augustine accessible not only to clergy but to laity as well through a complex process of synthesis and translation. (Simply consider the storm surrounding Luther's translation of the Bible to understand the potentially controversial nature of this endeavor.) Remarkably, Ælfric is transparent about the challenge and danger of his enterprise: in sharp contrast to the majority of Old English texts, where we do well to know the author's name, Ælfric's writings reveal a self-conscious author who provides insight into his pedagogical concerns and struggles. Such misgivings, however, do not prevent Ælfric from grappling directly with issues that had occupied the greatest minds of the Church—free will, predestination, the dual nature of Christ, and so on—and trying to make them intelligible to a largely illiterate audience. In the process, he not only affirms the suitability of the English language as a vehicle for complex theological exposition, but manifests the Anglo-Saxons' ability to digest, transform, and export intellectual traditions originally inherited from abroad—a fundamental characteristic of English literature throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Indeed, some of Ælfric's own works became the subject of such transformation 550 years on, when Elizabeth's Archbishop of Canterbury translated and published them (verbatim but out of context) to justify various doctrinal positions of the Anglican Church. Ælfric's theology, therefore, serves as a crucial bridge not only between the early Church and the Old English period, but between the tenth century Reform and the sixteenth century Renaissance.

§4.  While promising work has been done on Ælfric's complex corpus, with the majority of his homilies now published in volumes by the Early English Text Society, at least twenty-one remain unpublished or scattered throughout incomplete nineteenth or early twentieth-century editions. Employing both traditional and cutting-edge techniques, this project will result in (1) A Word for All Seasons, an edition and translation of four unpublished, ten partially published, and six out-of-print texts by Ælfric from some thirty four manuscripts, and (2) The Electronic Ælfric, an edition and translation published online and on CD-ROM of a core section of perhaps Ælfric's most influential work: his First Series of Old English homilies—a text addressing such issues as the distinction between spirit, mind, and will, sexuality and martyrdom for laypersons and monks, and the relationship between human merit and divine election. The Electronic Ælfric will examine a crucial set of eight homilies for the period from Easter to Pentecost, tracing their development through six phases of authorial revision and then through nearly 200 years of transmission following Ælfric's death: twenty-four sets of readings or strands of textual tradition found in twenty-eight manuscripts produced in at least five scriptoria between 990 and 1200. Accompanied by introductions, commentary, and translations, these editions will make Ælfric's work accessible to non-specialists while providing detailed analysis for scholars—promoting in the process a heightened appreciation for this pivotal figure of early English literature.

Ælfric's Impact and 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 Sermones catholici (ca 990 A.D.)

§5.  Towards the end of the ninth century in Anglo-Saxon England, King 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.

§6.  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.

§7.  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 rarely 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" (1966b, 184); as Malcolm Godden observes, moreover, they often rely on "narratives which were clearly fictitious and in some cases of dubious morality" (1978, 102). 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 (Sermones catholici 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.3 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" (1978, 60).

§8.  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" (1978, 221). Similarly, in his study of the Vercelli homilies, Lewis Nicholson affirms that only three sermons, V, XVI, and XVII, reflect the "elaborate reasoning" of patristic exegesis (Nicholson 1991, 2, 5, 9). 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 (Bethurum 1966, 216). In short, Gatch concludes: "Most . . . early medieval English and Latin writers of sermons for the laity contented themselves with general, catechetical addresses" (1978, 44). 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.

§9.  To this end, the main collections of Ælfric's work, the Sermones catholici, are specifically concerned with expositing the Gospel readings of the liturgical year. As Cyril Smetana's study of the Sermones' 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" (1959, 181). 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.

§10.  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 ground-breaking study this year has cogently redefined him as Anglo-Saxon England's most prolific (and arguably influential) poet (Bredehoft 2005).

§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 (Graham 1997; Page 1993). Charged with preserving what he could of the works scattered by Henry VII's dissolution of the monasteries,4 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 (Lucas 1997, 148). 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.

§12.  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.

§13.  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.5 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 Sermones, 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 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.

Challenge of Materials to be Edited

§14.  As any seasoned manuscript-scholar will attest, each repository of manuscripts has its own idiosyncratic conditions for accessing its holdings; each manuscript collection, moreover, confronts the reader with its own set of problems. Merely obtaining permission to employ digital images for The Electronic Ælfric, therefore, represents a major challenge overcome, for it involves the unprecedented cooperation of eight manuscript libraries. The condition of the manuscripts themselves, however, will pose the editor with a considerable additional challenge. One collection in which such difficulties may be seen is a body of manuscripts of critical importance to Anglo-Saxon studies: the Cotton collection, amassed by Sir Robert Cotton prior to his death in 1631. The Cotton collection, which includes among other works the only surviving copy of Beowulf, poses a particular challenge to scholars due to the state of its manuscripts, many of which were badly damaged by fire in 1731. One unpublished work by Ælfric, De creatore et creatura ("On the Creator and Creation"), may serve to illustrate the difficulties involved in editing these texts.

§15.  Compiled around 1006, De creatore is a treatise on the Trinity and the created order that survives in a single, ill-fated copy. The text forms part of London, British Library, Cotton Otho C. i, vol. 2, a manuscript copied in Worcester in the early- to mid-eleventh century. As the opening of De creatore on folio 149 recto attests, more than fire has taken its toll on Ælfric's text. Riddled with holes, rubbed in patches to the point of illegibility, the page appears to have experienced wear as the front-leaf of an unbound set of texts. This damage began early: by the twelfth century, the state of 149 recto was such that one scribe was prompted to "freshen up" the page. As this scribe's reading of the text at points was incorrect, however, his efforts only served further to obscure the original. Theodore Leinbaugh aptly states: "Even when the text of De creatore appears to be legible, it is not necessarily reliable" (Leinbaugh 1986b, 105). Five centuries later, moreover, what dubious legibility remained was nearly lost when in 1731 the manuscript fell victim to the Cotton fire. Surprisingly, while the manuscript was shriveled into a contracted mass by the heat, little writing was destroyed save at certain edges and in the folios immediately preceding De creatore.6 Nonetheless, the fire rendered the remainder of the work inaccessible, enmeshed in a twisted gathering of vellum.7

§16.  Inaccessible the work nearly remained. After the transfer of the Cotton collection to the new British Museum in 1756, the fragments were kept in boxes in garrets at the top of the building. When in the early 1790s the Trustees instructed the Keeper of Manuscripts to restore all those manuscripts capable of repair, he dismissed many as "obscure tracts and fragments of little importance"; Cotton Otho C. i was among those categorized as being "either lost or unusable" (Prescott 1997, 403). Some thirty years later, another Keeper of Manuscripts affirmed that the Cotton fragments were "perfectly useless to the Museum in every sense of the word" (Prescott 1997, 403).

§17.  From about 1825, however, librarians such as Josiah Forshall began to experiment with various techniques of restoring the manuscripts. To separate leaves, they immersed manuscripts in solutions possibly of zinc and water, applying hot water sparingly to problematic areas. Thereafter, to help shriveled and contracted areas to expand, they made incisions to the edge of leaves between lines of writing, applying gentle pressure to the leaves until the moisture evaporated (Prescott 1997, 404–405). Such incisions were subsequently found to be unnecessary and indeed a hindrance to further repair on the leaves, but they account for the serrated appearance of Cotton Otho C. i (Prescott 1997, 406). The result was a series of loose leaves that often retained evidence of their uneven shrinking. In the 1840s, the leaves were inlaid in pages individually tailored to hold them, but even here the last pages of the Ælfric section were inserted out of order. Thus stands De creatore et creatura: worn, discolored, acephalous, inaccurately retouched, burnt, immersed, steamed, slit, dismembered, and rearranged, but once again open for scholarly examination.

§18.  The challenges posed by Cotton Otho C. i and other manuscripts like it may be seen, for example, in the transcript of De creatore included in the standard electronic edition of the Old English corpus, that produced by the University of Toronto's Dictionary of Old English project (Figure 1 below). A casual reader of the DOE transcript might assume, despite the numerous emendations noted in the text, that the version presented is more-or-less complete; such, however, is not the case. The light-grey shading in the excerpt below indicates text included in the DOE transcript; passages highlighted in yellow are those judged illegible by the DOE and omitted from the transcript. This is not to suggest that the transcriber was careless in his or her work; indeed, when viewing the manuscript in person, we consulted the transcript on difficult points and found its readings perceptive. The transcript does, however, provide an apt indication of the potential limits of eyesight alone in reconstructing the text of De creatore. It is with deep gratitude, therefore, both to the NEH seminar led by Paul Szarmach and Tim Graham and to the British Library conservator David French, that for this edition of De creatore we have been able to experiment with high-quality digitized images of this manuscript.

Figure 1: The Dictionary of Old English transcript of Ælfric, De creatore et creatura (London, British Library, Cotton Otho C. i, vol. 2, 149r–51v), fol. 149r

[oðer hw]a wyrc[æð ænig] þ[i]ng buton [he ær wære, and wun]u[n]ge hæf[de þæt he]
wyrcean m[ihte. Þe ðe furðo]r smeað [þæt he fa]ndige Godes, se bið ge[lic]
þam men þe þonne hla[ddr]e arerð and astihð þonne upp [þa] þære hlad[dre]
stæpum oðþæt he upp cymð
[to þære læddre end]e and wyle [þonne stigan]
buton stapum ufer, [þ]onne [fællæð he stedeleas fo]r his st[untesse mid]
mycclan [wy]rs[a]n fylle swa h[e forðor stop. Ne] ongan næff[re þe almih]
tiga Fæder, ac he wæs
[æfre God, and his ancennedæ] Sunu æfre of hi[m] a[cen]
nedd eal[l]
swa mihtig swa he; [he is miht and wisdom] of þam wisan Fæder.
[And þe] Halg[a Gast], he[or]a begra lufe, nes nefre [ongan], ac wærond æfre hi
[þry] an God, æfre wunige[n]de on anre godendnesse [untod]æledlice on anum
[mæ]genþrym[me and on] anre godcunnysse gelice [mi]htige nan lasse þonne
[oðer.] Swa hwit swa læsse bið þonne God þæt ne bið na God; Þæt þæt later bið
[þon]e God þæt hæfð [an]gin and
ne bið ne [G]od. [G]od nefð nan anginn, ac [he
wæs] æfre and wun[a]ð a on ec[ne]ss[e.] Nu synd[o]n sume gesceafta sw[a] gesc
[eape]ne þurh God. [He] hæ[bbæ]ð ang[in and eac g]eendiað and [to nohte gewurðæþ
for]þam ðe hi habb[æð] nane [sawle. Hi] syndon hwiwendli[ce swa þæt heo]
[beoð] sume hwile; þæt [beo]ð [nytene and fi]sces and fugeles. Hi wæron ge
[scapen]e þurh God and hi [iwurðæþ to na]hte. Nu synd oþre gesceaftæ
[swa gesc]apene þurh God þ[æt heo habb]að anginn and nabbað nanne ende
and syndon ece on þam eftram [d]æle; þæt syndon englas and eac menna
[sawle.] Hi ne geendiað næfre þeah ðe hi ær ongunnon. Ne meg þes
mannesawul þeah ðe se [l]ichama swelte, oðþe he on wæter ad[ryn]ce,
oððe he wurþe forbærned, nefre geendian, ac heo bið æfre e[? : ???]
yfel beo [h]eo god, swa swa englas beoð æfre þurhwuniende on ec[e] >< worulde.
[N]u is se ælmihtiga Scyppend, þe ealle þing gesceop, ana swa ece þæt he
nan angin næfð, ac he sylf is egðer ordfruma and end, eallwealdend
God. Ne ondræ d he nenne, forþan ðe nan oðer nis mihtigre þonne
he, ne
furþon him gelic. Æfre he bið gifende his gifa þam ðe he wyle,
ac [he h]is þing ne waniað, ne he nanes ne behofað. Æfre he bið æl
mihtig, and efre he wyle wel. Nele he
nefre na[n] ifell, ac he hat]að soð
lice þa ðe unriht
wy[rcea]ð and e[a]c þa foredeð þe lea[sungæ specæð] mid

[ ] = text invisible or lost to MS damage uerba = editorial emendation
>< = editorial deletion uerba = text included in DOE transcript of De creatore
: = letter or space rendered invisible by MS damage uerba = text emended in DOE transcript
? = partially-visible letter uerba = text judged illegible and thus omitted from the DOE transcript

§19.  While nothing can ultimately replace personal examination of a manuscript, digitized images do offer certain advantages. Like microfilms, they enable scholars to do much of the grunt work at home before investing in a trip to verify certain particulars. Like microfilms, they enable scholars to magnify text considerably for closer examination. In addition, however, digitization enables scholars to enhance text to make it more legible. We plan to use Adobe Photoshop, a fairly standard image-processing tool, and apply a variety of techniques to challenges we will face in completing this edition: abraded or otherwise faded text, text obscured by slits in edges of the manuscript, text obscured by adhesive securing manuscript edges, corrections or glosses in different hands, and so forth. Some images that we enhanced were taken in normal light; in other cases, ultraviolet light proved invaluable in recovering faint characters. Recognizing the danger of radiation, however, both to scholar and (more importantly) manuscript, the British Library limits ultraviolet examination of its manuscripts to ten minute intervals twice a day. Having spent no few sessions in such study, we can attest to the difficulty of making substantive progress in that amount of time. Over digital images made in such light, however, scholars may pore at length.

§20.  Again, digital technology is by no means the cure-all for paleographical conundrums. All too often, one's best efforts may ultimately fail to see through adhesive, reconstruct text lost to fire, identify marginal glosses, or decipher the impenetrable entry of a corrector. As with any manipulation of an image, moreover, there is the danger that vital information will be lost: in attempting to accentuate the bulk of a word, key minims or accents or punctuation may be overlooked. What may appear clearly as a hole to the naked eye, furthermore, may through digitization take on the appearance of some important pen-stroke. Nevertheless, used in conjunction with traditional paleographic techniques, scholars may benefit greatly through accurate editions of otherwise-inaccessible material.

Overview of Materials to be Edited

A Word for All Seasons

§21.  While recent years have seen promising work done on Ælfric's complex corpus, a number of key texts remain unpublished, partially published, or scattered throughout out-of-print nineteenth or early twentieth-century editions. Thanks to a NEH Fellowship in 2004, the project director was able to complete the groundwork for an edition of twenty-one such texts—texts not included by Clemoes, Godden, and Pope, the main editors of Ælfrician homilies—from some thirty four manuscripts. The volume, however, is not complete: one objective of the proposed endeavor is to provide introductions to and commentary on the texts, situating them in the context of Ælfric's other work and analyzing their contents in relation to Ælfric's sources and contemporaries; another objective is to provide accurate, fluid translations of these works for a wider modern audience. The result will be a staple reference in traditional format for scholars of the Anglo-Saxon and Elizabethan periods, as well as for non-specialists in these fields.

CD-ROM Edition: The Electronic Ælfric

§22.  The Sermones were composed in the period 989 to 994 and issued in two series dedicated to Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury; in them, Ælfric sought to meet the national need for education by providing clergy with orthodox preaching material in the vernacular. The scope of his aim was extraordinary: to convey the whole of Church doctrine, from creation to judgment, in a way faithful to his patristic sources and understandable to his unlearned audience. The First Series of Sermones inaugurated and formed a central part of this lifetime ambition, and its influence may be judged by the geographic breadth and number of copies extant (thirty-five compared to the unique copy of Beowulf). Indeed, Ælfric's works continued to be copied for two centuries following his death, despite the subordination of Old English following the Norman Conquest of 1066. Recent scholarship on the First Series, moreover, has increased dramatically, focusing on such subjects as Ælfric's audience, use of hagiography, attitude toward apocrypha, construction of an authorial persona, and teaching on penance, kingship, and divine foreknowledge.

§23.  Part of the surging interest in Ælfric and in the First Series in particular is due to the release in 1997 of Peter Clemoes' long-awaited edition of the First Series, comprising a revision of his 1956 Cambridge doctoral dissertation and published posthumously by Professor Malcolm Godden of Oxford University. Clemoes prints the text based on London, British Museum, Royal 7 C. xii [Ker §257], with passages supplied from Cambridge, University Library, Gg. 3. 28 [Ker §15]—the source for the previous, nineteenth-century edition by Benjamin Thorpe—and variants collated from some thirty-three other manuscripts.

§24.  As a printed edition, Clemoes' work is an admirable piece of scholarship. Royal 7 C. xii, moreover, being probably the earliest extant manuscript and containing alterations in Ælfric's own hand, is a logical copy on which to base such an edition. In his discussion of the development and dissemination of the First Series, however, Clemoes traces six phases during which Ælfric revised, supplemented, and reorganized his work.8 As Andy Orchard has argued regarding the homilies of Ælfric's contemporary, Wulfstan of Worcester, such adaptation of material results not in a single, "authoritative" text with variants, but in a series of interrelated texts designed for different audiences at different points in the author's career. Despite Clemoes' conscientious efforts to describe this creative progression and to reproduce divergent readings in appendices and scholarly apparati, by nature a static, printed edition is hard put to capture such a fluid compositional process. Electronic media, by contrast, employing dynamic links and customizable windows, may better enable scholars to identify changes (authorial or otherwise) to this material and to explore the significance of such changes.

§25.  One final reason why the interrelationship of these manuscripts should be revisited is the crucial issue of the chronology of Ælfric's work. In 1959, three years after completing his dissertation, Clemoes published an article that has become foundational for Old English studies: "The Chronology of Ælfric's works." In it, drawing on his study of the First Series, Clemoes assigned a date to each of Ælfric's writings based on his understanding of the interrelationship of Ælfrician manuscripts. While various scholars have questioned Clemoes' dating of individual texts, and despite the importance of such dates for localizing other events and works from this period, in the main Clemoes' theory remains unchallenged for this simple reason: reassessing Clemoes' conclusions entails reassessing his evidence, the manuscripts that witness to the development of the Sermones catholici.

Why not edit the whole of the First Series?

§26.  One feature shared by successful electronic editions of Old English texts is their carefully limited scope. Kiernan's Electronic Beowulf examines one text from a single manuscript; his Electronic Boethius reproduces one text from three manuscripts; Muir's MS. Junius 11 deals with one manuscript as a whole. Having been warned by several Old English scholars that editing all forty homilies in the First Series, though valuable, might be too great a challenge for a two-year project, we have chosen to focus on only eight of these homilies. The choice, however, is a strategic one: this set of homilies covers a key period in the liturgical year, Easter to Pentecost; their importance is attested by the fact that they are reproduced both individually and as a block in twenty-eight manuscripts produced in multiple scriptoria for over two centuries following their composition. They provide unique insight into the development and re-use of the First Series, moreover, as they are the only homilies with copies to survive from each of Clemoes' six posited phases of First Series production. Even with this focus, the organizational and editorial challenge will be significant: the project represents the unprecedented cooperation of eight manuscript libraries—five from Cambridge, two from London, and one from Oxford—in providing high-quality digital images for publication on CD-ROM. Even five years ago, such a project likely could not have been envisioned. Moreover, the manuscripts themselves present challenges both in terms of physical damage (see section 4. above) and multiple variations of Ælfric's texts. The result should be a cutting-edge benchmark for editors and resource for scholars interested in Old English literature and its re-use through the Middle Ages.

Table 1: The Development of Ælfric's Sermones catholici I.15–22 from ca 990 – 1300: Manuscripts & Distribution

Sigla Manuscript(s) Sermones catholici, First Series
I.15 I.16 I.17 I.18 I.19 I.20 I.21 I.22
A London, British Library, Royal 7 c. xii, ff. 4–218 A imp A A A A A imp A A α
B Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 343 Be Be Be
C Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 303 Ca
I.15 I.16 I.17 I.18 I.19 I.20 I.21 I.22
B Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 343 [see above] Bd1 Phase β
C Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 303 [see above] Cd
D Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 340 and Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 342 Da1 Da1 Da1 Da2 Da2 Da2 Da1 Da1
E Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 198 Ea Ea Ea Ea Ea
F Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 162, pp. 1–138 and 161–564 F F F F F
G London, British Library, Cotton Vespasian D. xiv, ff. 4–169 G extr G extr G extrs
fm Cambridge, Magdalene College, Pepys 2981, no. 16 fm frag
I.15 I.16 I.17 I.18 I.19 I.20 I.21 I.22
B Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 343 [see above] Ba imp Phase γ
H London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C. v Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha Ha
J London, British Library, Cotton Cleopatra B. xiii and London, Lambeth Palace 489 Jb Ja Ja extrs
V Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 421 Vb
K Cambridge, University Library Gg.3.28 K K K K K K K K
fc Oxford, Bodleian Library, fc end fc beg
I.15 I.16 I.17 I.18 I.19 I.20 I.21 I.22
M Cambridge, University Library Ii.4.6 M M M M M imp M M Phase δ
N London, British Library, Cotton Faustina A. ix N N N imp N imp N N
O Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 302 O O O O imp
fab Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 367, pt. II, fols. 3–6, 11–29 fab imp fab imp
I.15 I.16 I.17 I.18 I.19 I.20 I.21 I.22
B Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 343 [see above] Be1 Be1 Phase ε
J London, British Library, Cotton Cleopatra B. xiii and London, Lambeth Palace 489 [see above] Jc omis
P Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 115 Pa Pa
Q Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 188 Q Q Q Q Q Q frag Q imp
R Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 178, pp. 1–270 R R R R R imp
T Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 113, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 114, and Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 121 Tc1 Tc1 Tc4 extr Tb Tc1 Tc1
Xi London, Lambeth Palace 487 Xi
I.15 I.16 I.17 I.18 I.19 I.20 I.21 I.22
H London, British Library, Cotton Vitellius C. v [see above] Hc Hc wrds Phase ζ
U Cambridge, Trinity College B.15.34 U U U U U U U U
V Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 421 [see above] Va Va Va Va imp
(MSS not assigned by Clemoes to any phase) I.15 I.16 I.17 I.18 I.19 I.20 I.21 I.22
fb Cambridge, Jesus College 15, ff. i–x and 1–10 fb end fb beg ?

KEY: imp = imperfect [part of homily lost]; extr(s) = extract(s) from homily; frag = fragment; omis = omissions noted by Clemoes; wrds = includes only a few words


1.   Substantial work has been done on Ælfric's career and the corpus of his writings. For overviews of his life, see Wilcox 1994, 1–65; Hurt 1972; Clemoes 1966b, 176–209; on the Ælfrician corpus, see Clemoes 2000, 29-72 and Pope 1967-68, 136–45. For general studies of the Benedictine Reform, see Gretsch 1999; Parsons 1975; Yorke 1988; Ramsay, et al. 1992; and Brooks and Cubitt 1996. For the insular background to the Reform, see Gransden 1992, 31–79; and Dumville 1992, 185–205. On the continental roots of the Reform, see Bullough 1975, 20-36; Wormald 1988, 13–42; and Leclercq 1980. On scholarship in the Reform, see Lapidge 1991.  [Back]

2.   On which, see, for example, Ælfric's Lives of Saints [LS] I.praef.13 and Sermones catholici [SC] II.30.4–6; SC II.34.pt2.2–4; SC I.6.49 and II.11.413–15; Preface to Genesis, p. 76; and LS I.praef.9–12, respectively.  [Back]

3.   On Ælfric's subsequent reworking of and additions to this material, see Clemoes 1997, 1–171 and Godden 1979, xix–xcvi.  [Back]

4.   On which, see for example Knowles 1971, Youings 1971, and Wright 1949-53.  [Back]

5.   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 Leinbaugh 1986a. Also see Leinbaugh 1982 and the sensitive treatment of the subject in Grundy 1990.  [Back]

6.   Fols 147 and 148. While it might be tempting to ascribe the missing opening of De creatore to the conflagration, Humphrey Wanley's catalogue of 1705 (Librorum Veterum Septentrionalium) indicates that the folios were already lost, for he describes De creatore as being capite mutila—having a damaged beginning.  [Back]

7.   Andrew Prescott notes that one manuscript "deliberately left unconserved, preserves some idea of the appearance of these extraordinary objects. It looks like an irradiated armadillo" (1997, 305).  [Back]

8.   For Ælfric's later collections of homilies for the Temporale (referred to by Clemoes as TH I and II), which integrate material from SC I and II with homilies for Sundays not covered by the Sermones, see Clemoes 1959, 42–47 and 56–57 and Godden 1979, lxiv, lxxv, and lxxxvi–xc.  [Back]

Works Cited

Ælfric. 1967-68. Homilies of Ælfric: A supplementary collection. Ed. John C. Pope. Early English Text Society 259 and 260. London: Oxford UP.  [Back]

———. 1979. Ælfric's Catholic homilies. The second series: text. Ed. Malcolm Godden. London: Published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press.  [Back]

———. 1983. Sermones catholici. Ed. and trans. Benjamin Thorpe. Hildesheim: G. Olms. Repr. of The homilies of the Anglo-Saxon church: The first part, containing the sermones catholici, or homilies of Ælfric. 2 vols. London: Ælfric Society, 1844–46.  [Back]

Ælfric. 1994. Ælfric's Prefaces. Edited by Jonathan Wilcox. Durham: Durham Medieval Texts.  [Back]

———. 1997. Ælfric's Catholic homilies. The first series: text. Ed. Peter Clemoes. London: Published for the Early English Text Society by the Oxford University Press.  [Back]

Bethurum, Dorothy. 1966. Wulfstan. In Continuations and beginnings: Studies in Old English literature, ed. Eric Gerald Stanley. London: Nelson.  [Back]

Bredehoft, Thomas A. 2005. Ælfric and late Old English verse. Anglo-Saxon England 33:77–107.  [Back]

Brooks, Nicholas, and Catherine Cubitt. 1996. St. Oswald of Worcester: life and influence. Studies in the early history of Britain, 2. London: Leicester University Press.  [Back]

Bullough, D. A. 1975. The continental background of the reform. In Tenth-century studies: essays in commemoration of the millennium of the Council of Winchester and Regularis Concordia, ed. D. Parsons. London, Phillimore.  [Back]

Clemoes, Peter. 1960. The Old English Benedictine Office, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 190, and the relationship between Ælfric and Wulfstan: A reconsideration. Anglia 78: 265–83.  [Back]

–––. 1966. Supplement to the introduction. Die Hirtenbriefe Ælfrics in altenglischer und lateinischer Fassung. Ed. Bernhard Fehr. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.  [Back]

———. 1966b. Ælfric. In Continuations and beginnings: Studies in Old English literature, ed. Eric Gerald Stanley. London: Nelson.  [Back]

———. 2000. The chronology of Ælfric's works. In Old English prose: Basic readings, ed. Paul Szarmach and Deborah Oosterhouse. New York: Garland. Repr. from Clemoes, Peter. 1959. The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in aspects of their history and culture presented to Bruce Dickins.  [Back]

Dalbey, Marcia. 1978. Themes and techniques in the Blickling Lenten Homilies. In The Old English Homily and its backgrounds, ed. Bernard F. Huppé and Paul E. Szarmach. Albany NY: State University of New York Press.  [Back]

Dumville, D. N. 1992. Wessex and England from Alfred to Edgar: six essays on political, cultural, and ecclesiastical revival. Studies in Anglo-Saxon history, 3. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press.  [Back]

Gatch, M. McC. 1978. The achievement of Ælfric and his colleagues in European perspective. In The Old English Homily and its backgrounds, ed. Bernard F. Huppé and Paul E. Szarmach. Albany NY: State University of New York Press.  [Back]

Godden, Malcolm. 1978. Ælfric and the vernacular prose tradition. In The Old English Homily and its backgrounds, ed. Bernard F. Huppé and Paul E. Szarmach. Albany NY: State University of New York Press.  [Back]

———. 1985. Anglo-Saxons on the mind. Learning and Literature in Anglo-Saxon England. Ed. Michael Lapidge and Helmut Gneuss. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.  [Back]

Graham, Timothy. 1997. 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: Centre for Medieval English Studies.  [Back]

Gransden, Antonia. 1992. Legends, traditions, and history in medieval England. London: Hambledon Press.  [Back]

Gretsch, Mechthild. 1999. The intellectual foundations of the English Benedictine reform. Cambridge studies in Anglo-Saxon England, 25. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.  [Back]

Grundy, Lynne. 1990. Ælfric's Sermo de Sacrificio in Die Pascae: Figura and Veritas. N&Q, 37:265–69.  [Back]

Hurt, James. 1972. Ælfric. New York: Twayne Publishers.  [Back]

Ker, N. R. 1990. Catalogue of manuscripts containing Anglo-Saxon. Oxford: Clarendon.  [Back]

Knowles, David. 1971. The religious orders in England. Vol. 3: The Tudor age. Cambridge: University Press.  [Back]

Lapidge, Michael. 1991. Schools, learning and literature in tenth-century England. Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull'Alto Medioevo 38:951–1005.  [Back]

Leclercq, J. 1980. The tenth century English Benedictine reform as seen from the continent. Ampleforth Review 84:8–23.  [Back]

Leinbaugh, T. H. 1982. 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.  [Back]

———. 1986a. The sources for Ælfric's Easter sermon: The history of the controversy and a new source. N&Q 33:294–311.  [Back]

———. 1986b. A damaged passage in Ælfric's De Creatore et Creatura: Methods of recovery. Anglia 104:104–111.  [Back]

Lucas, Peter J. 1997. 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.  [Back]

Nicholson, Lewis E. 1991. The Vercelli book homilies: Translations from the Anglo-Saxon. Lanham, Md: University Press of America.  [Back]

Page, R. I. 1993. Matthew Parker and his books: Sandars lectures in bibliography delivered on 14, 16, and 18 May 1990 at the University of Cambridge. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications.  [Back]

Parker, Matthew. 1566. A testimonie of antiquitie. London: John Day.  [Back]

Parsons, David. 1975. Tenth-century studies: essays in commemoration of the millennium of the Council of Winchester and Regularis concordia. London: Phillimore.  [Back]

Prescott, Andrew. 1997. 'Their present miserable state of cremation': The restoration of the Cotton Library. In Sir Robert Cotton as collector: Essays on an early Stuart courtier and his legacy, ed. C. J. Wright. London: British Library.  [Back]

Ramsay, Nigel, Margaret Sparks, and T. W. T. Tatton-Brown. 1992. St Dunstan: His life, times, and cult. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press.  [Back]

Smetana, Cyril. 1959. Ælfric and the early medieval homiliary. Traditio 15:163–204.  [Back]

Wormald, Patrick. 1988. Æthelwold and his continental counterparts: Contact, comparison, contrast. In Bishop Aethelwold: His career and influence, ed. Barbara Yorke. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press.  [Back]

Wright, C. E. 1949–53. 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 1:208–37.  [Back]

Yorke, Barbara, ed. 1988. Bishop Aethelwold: His career and influence. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press.  [Back]

Youings, Joyce A. 1971. The dissolution of the monasteries. London: Allen and Unwin.  [Back]