Daily Archives: January 7, 2008

History Meme

Both Jonathan and Michelle tapped me for this one so here goes…


  1. Link to the person who tagged you.
  2. List 7 random/weird things about your favorite historical figure.
  3. Tag seven more people at the end of your blog and link to theirs.
  4. Let the person know they have been tagged by leaving a note on their blog.

Of course, I wouldn’t be up to my usual pedantic standards if I didn’t preface something interesting with a whole pile of boring verbiage.

Let’s think for a second about the Benedictine Revival! In the mid-tenth century, King Edgar decided that England was in need of a religious revival. There a number of reasons in back of this–one was the decimation of monasteries and monastic life by the past several centuries of viking depradations, a concomitant loss of learning, bad morale (and maybe morals too), and there was probably something in there too about transferring land-ownership to grateful clergy rather than scheming eorls. While monks can cause problems they rarely raise up armies to overthow you… In any case, he kicked of the reform on the secular side of things. On the sacred side it was begun by the work of three great now-sainted monastic bishops: St. Dunstand, St. Æthelwold, and St. Oswald. This was the first generation of the reform. The second generation is characterized by two men with extant writings, Archbishop Wulfstan of York and Abbott Ælfric of Eynsham. Ælfric was the greatest catechist of his day who embraced the notion that religious reform and revival would occur by promoting sound religious teaching in the vernacular—including a host of sermons and sermon-like materials in Old English, over 150. And yes, he’s the hero of my dissertation. But I’m not writing about him today! (Well—any more today…) No, I’m writing about the author of one of the few surviving documents we have from the third generation of the reform, one of Ælfric of Eynsham’s students, Ælfric Bata.

And yes, the similarity between the names has confused an awful lot of people over the years.

Ælfric Bata’s surviving work is the Colloquies. When you studied foreign languages, did you ever have to stand up in front of the class and act out lame dialogues about buying cheese or whatever in that language? Well, that’s what ÆB’s Colloquies is. Remember, the goal here was to get Germanic-speaking yokels to be able to converse fluently in Latin. ÆB’s Colloquies take us from intermediate level to truly advanced-level conversational Latin. Ok—enough pedantry: onto the good stuff, seven wierd or random facts.

  1. Bata isn’t a last name—it’s a descriptor that probably refers to a barrel of beer. Scholars are split as to why this was applied to him but the leading suggestions were either that he was overly fond of emptying said barrels—or that he was shaped like one. Of course, I see no reason why they can’t both be right.
  2. ÆB’s teacher, my Ælfric, was a serious, pious kind of guy. Not ÆB. The conduct recorded in his Colloquies has been used by historians as evidence of the state of moral decay in English monasteries in the time before and at the Norman Conquest.
  3. For example—one of the dialogues (#3) takes place in a classroom before the teacher arrives. In it, students learn how to ask how to cheat off another’s homework.
  4. In another (#6), the students get beaten for not being able to recite their homework. (Which does give the previous point a bit more urgency…)
  5. Several of them contain an interesting insights into liturgical life, especially the part played by the adolescents who would have been learning these dialogues. In one (#5) a student describes for the master a quick sketch of what the boys have been up to that day—primarily liturgical duties. Another (#18) teaches students how to rent out their services copying liturgical books. According to this colloquy, a well-written missal could fetch up to two pounds of pure silver. The final selling price, though, is twelve mancuses. (If only I knew how that compares to two pounds of silver… What’re the odds that an expert on medieval numismatics might wander along shortly…?)
  6. The point of one of the colloquies (#25) is (apparently) to learn how to insult someone in Latin.
  7. This treatise (still #25) is partly agricultural in nature, going through a variety of plants and trees. However, it seems as if a far greater weight is given to learning the various specialized names for the kinds of manure. If it comes out of the rear of a domestic animal you’ll find it listed here! And yes, I suspect this connects far more to the abuse topos than the agriculture one…

So, if you ever wanted to read some fascinating vignettes of tenth-century monastic life—or how to call somebody cow-poop in Latin—Ælfric Bata’s your man.

[The Colloquies in both Latin and Modern English can be found in a great edition edited by Scott Gwara, translated by David W. Porter called Anglo-Saxon Conversations: The Colloquies of Ælfric Bata (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 1997).]

I’ll tag bls, Anastasia, the Postulant (now that GOEs are over), Christopher, LutherPunk, the Lutheran Zephyr, Caelius (are you still alive?) and anyone else with a hankering to do it.