Daily Archives: May 18, 2011

Perspectives on Ælfric

I’m reading through the LME again for a project I’m working on. Once again, I find myself baffled concerning the place of Ælfric in the modern academy.

There’s a folktale with wide circulation—I first encountered it in its Turkish form where the Hojja (a classic wise fool figure) is staring at the ground under a street-lamp. A passer-by asks him what he’s doing and he replies “Looking for a ring I lost.” The passer-by stops to help and they search without result for a while. Finally the passer-by asks, “Where exactly did you lose it?” The Hojja replies, “Inside my house.” “Well—why are we looking for it out here then?” “Because the light is so much better here…”

This, truly, is a core story for anyone who studies medieval materials—especially early medieval liturgical materials. So often we can’t look where we want to, we have to look where the light is good. We are thoroughly restricted by the materials we have.

Ælfric is like a gem sitting under a street-lamp that keeps getting walked over and stepped upon. The LME is such an unusual document: it lays out the monastic cursus of a pre-Conquest English monastery complete with local adaptions and a clear and definite section on the Night Office—one of the thornier items to reconstruct. Put this in relation to both the pastoral letters and Ælfric’s massive homiletical output and you have a wonderful window into Pre-Conquest church life. Yet I can count on the fingers of my hands the Church Historians who know him or do anything with him. Likewise, the number of Old English readers—virtually all in English departments—who appreciate his liturgical materials is likewise minuscule.

One obvious issue is language. The majority of Ælfric’s work is in Old English—a language inaccessible to most Church Historians. By the same token the LME isn’t really in Latin, it’s in liturgicalese which is a foreign tongue to your average medievalist no matter how good their Latin.

Another is publicity. Look in church histories and you’re not likely to find Ælfric. He’s too much of a regular guy. He wasn’t a great pope, prince, or even a ground-breaking interpreter. Indeed, one of the reasons I’m so interested in him is precisely because he offers an example of a what a regular well-schooled pious abbot would write and think. But—I stumbled across him by chance and followed the lead into the English Department. I sure didn’t hear about him in the theology school.

There’s a lot of work that remains to be done on his work and that of others like him. I’m working on it as are others, but we could use some more help!