Ælfric of Eynsham

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Ælfric of Eynsham (/ˈælfrɪʧ əv ˈɛnʃəm/; c. 955 – c. 1010)[1] was an English Benedictine monk, priest, and abbot, and a student of Æthelwold of Winchester. [2] He is also known as Ælfric of Cerne, Ælfric the Grammarian (Alfricus Grammaticus), and Ælfric the Homilist.

Ælfric of Eynsham
Bornc. 955
Diedc. 1010 (aged c. 55)

Ælfric was one of the most important authors of Anglo-Saxon literature.[3] He produced many religious and educational texts in Old English and several texts in Latin. He wrote over 160 homilies (biblical commentaries) and hagiographies (biographies of saints). Later he translated the Book of Genesis and other parts of the Bible from Latin. He also wrote three books to help young monks learn Latin: the bilingual Grammar and Glossary, and the Latin Colloquy.[1]

Ælfric’s homilies and lives of saints describe Christian events, beliefs, and history in simple, clear language so that common Englishmen could understand. Compared to the homilies of Wulfstan (Archbishop of York), Ælfric’s texts focus more on the ideas of humility, compassion, and God’s mercy.[2] His works also inform us of the Christian practices and the lives of monks after the English Benedictine Reform.[1]

In the past, some historians confused Ælfric with two other Christian leaders of the time: Ælfric Puttoc (Archbishop of York) and Ælfric of Abingdon (Archbishop of Canterbury).[4]

Life[change | change source]

Little is known about Ælfric’s early life. He was born around the year 955, most likely in the region of Wessex.[2] He was educated from a young age in the monastery of Winchester by Æthelwold, who at the time was Bishop of Winchester.[2] Æthelwold was also one of the leading figures of the English Benedictine Reform, which aimed to replace secular priests in England with monks.[5] This was at the time of the unified Kingdom of England, before it became a part of the North Sea Empire.

In 987, Ælfric was sent from Winchester to the newly established Cerne Abbey – located in Cerne Abbas (sometimes referred to as Cernel) in the county of Dorset.[1] Cerne Abbey was founded by Ælfric’s patron, Æthelmær. He was also the same person who asked the bishop of Winchester to send Ælfric there to serve as a monk and mass-priest.[1] At Cerne Abbey, Ælfric came up with the idea of writing his homilies to make the word of God easier to understand for ordinary people. He also wanted to write in the language spoken by them (Old English). He decided to rewrite many biblical commentaries by some older cleric scholars from Latin to Old English, using less complex language as well. Over time, Æthelmær and his father Æthelweard became Ælfric’s good friends.[2] Ælfric likely left Cerne Abbey in 989 and returned to Winchester.[2] It is not clear if he spent the following years there, but they were the most productive time of his life.[2]

In 1005, Æthelmær founded the monastery of Eynsham near Oxford and chose Ælfric to be its abbot.[1] In Eynsham, Ælfric continued writing and revising his earlier works and he stayed there until his death.[1] The year of his death is not certain, with some sources claiming it happened around 1010[1] and others saying he died around 1025.[2]

Works[change | change source]

At Cerne Ælfric started working on his two series of homilies, Sermones catholici. It is uncertain how many entries were of his own creation, but it is agreed that they were mostly a compilation from various Latin sources.[6] Mostly, Ælfric only played the role of the translator, because most of his works were written in Old English. In the Preface to his Homilies, he stresses that most religious texts of the time were written in Latin, which made them inaccessible to common people.[6] He also points out that the existing translations into Old English contain errors: “I would turn this book from the Latin language into the English tongue … because I have seen and heard of much error in many English books, which unlearned men, through their simplicity, have esteemed as great wisdom”.[6] His Homilies deal with gospels, doctrine of the church, as well as major events of the Christian year.

Later, he wrote a collection of three works designed to help students learn Latin, in which he translated the Latin grammar into Old English: The Grammar, the Glossary, and the conversation practice Colloquy.

Ælfric’s Grammar is the earliest surviving textbook written in English. As noted by Melinda J. Menzer, it was also one of the most popular books in 11th- and 12th-century England. This is based on the number of surviving copies in fourteen different manuscripts.[7] Quite surprisingly, in the preface to Grammar Ælfric explains to his students that the book is intended to teach both Latin and English. This, however, has become a dispute among scholars, who generally agree that the text does not, in fact, teach any English.[7] The idea of studying vernacular (the local language) instead of Latin was unusual for Ælfric’s time.

The Glossary was used to study vocabulary. Although the Grammar included some Latin and Old English vocabulary, those words were chosen to portray specific grammatical points. The Glossary, on the other hand, included around 1250 words grouped together into categories, such as parts of the body, occupations, birds etc.[8]

The Colloquy, meaning ‘conversation’, was written in the form of a dialogue between a teacher and his students who occupied different professions, such as a hunter, a ploughman, or a merchant. It was written for schoolchildren aged seven and above.[9] The characters describe their jobs and lives, thus offering a glimpse into the activities of “the middle and lower classes of Anglo-Saxon society – a picture which is rarely found in Old English literature."[10] It is also a valuable document in terms of language - although it was intended for Latin practice, one manuscript also included continuous Old English translations and glosses.[10] For example:

Interrogo uos cur tam diligenter discitis?

Ic ahsige eoþ forhƿi sƿa geornlice leorni ȝe?

[I ask you, why are you so keen to learn?][10]

Ælfric later worked on another series of homilies called Lives of the Saints, written as a collection of hagiographies. This work was intended for reading rather than preaching, and its purpose was clearly instructional.[11]

Old English Hexateuch (the first six books of the Bible), created in the 11th century, is the earliest example of an English translation of these texts. Ælfric wrote the preface and translated a part of Genesis. [12] It is not clear who Ælfric collaborated with for this translation. Peter Clemoes proposed that the rest of the manuscript was compiled by Byrhtferth of Ramsey, while Peter Baker claims that it was done by an anonymous author.[13] The work contained over 400 illustrations of important biblical events. Notable is the use of Old English as opposed to Latin, for this translation, suggesting that intended recipients of this translation were not only the highly educated, but also the common people. This translation includes two accounts of the granting of the Ten Commandments, which, together with the law codes, provided a framework for the early English law.[12]

Ælfric has been often praised for the uniformity of his Old English language and vocabulary. His writings have become the “model for modern analysis of the language”, in which he rejected the complicated style of his contemporary Old English writings.[14] Instead, he created “an elegant and balanced prose, using simpler vocabulary and structures."[14] In the words of Benjamin Thorpe, Ælfric’s works were expressed in “language which may be pronounced a pure specimen of our noble, old, Germanic mother-tongue”.[6]

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Scheil, Andrew (2013). Oxford Handbook Topics in Literature. Oxford University Press.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 Gem, Samuel Harvey (1912). An Anglo-Saxon Abbot: Ælfric of Eynsham. T. & T. Clark. pp. 45-48, 60.
  3. Hogg, Richard. An Introduction to Old English. Edinburgh University Press. p. 7.
  4. Cousin, John. W (2004). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. J.M. Dent & Song. Ltd.
  5. Lapidge, Michael; Blair, John; Keynes, Simon; Scragg, Donald, eds. (2013). The Wiley-Blackwell encyclopedia of Anglo-Saxon England (2nd ed.). Chichester, West Sussex, UK. p. 21. doi:10.1002/9781118316061. hdl:11693/51269. ISBN 978-1-118-31610-8. OCLC 841187618.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 "The Homilies of the Anglo-Saxon Church". www.gutenberg.org. Translated by Benjamin Thorpe, F.S.A. Retrieved 2023-01-20.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  7. 7.0 7.1 Menzer, Melinda J. (2004). "Ælfric's English "Grammar"". The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. 103 (1): 106–124. ISSN 0363-6941. JSTOR 27712404.
  8. BUCKALEW, RONALD E. (1978). "Leland's transcript of Ælfric's "Glossary"". Anglo-Saxon England. 7: 149–164. doi:10.1017/S026367510000291X. ISSN 0263-6751. JSTOR 44510706.
  9. Harris, Stephen J. (2003). "Elfric's Colloquy". Medieval literature for children (PDF). New York.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 "Ælfric's Colloquy". www.bl.uk. Archived from the original on 2023-01-21. Retrieved 2023-01-20.
  11. "Ælfric's Lives of the Saints". www.bl.uk. Archived from the original on 2023-01-21. Retrieved 2023-01-20.
  12. 12.0 12.1 "Old English Hexateuch". www.bl.uk. Archived from the original on 2023-03-29. Retrieved 2023-01-20.
  13. Withers, Benjamin C. (1999). "Unfulfilled promise: the rubrics of the Old English prose Genesis". Anglo-Saxon England. 28: 111–139. doi:10.1017/S0263675100002283. ISSN 0263-6751.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Godden, Malcolm (2004). "Ælfric of Eynsham [Ælfric Grammaticus, Ælfric the Homilist] (c. 950–c. 1010), Benedictine abbot of Eynsham and scholar". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/187. Retrieved 2023-01-20. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)