Historical Note

The last post got me thinking about this so I thought I’d share…

Interestingly enough, the modern study of Old English (quick note: the language is Old English, the culture is Anglo-Saxon; people don’t speak Anglo-Saxon) was kicked off by the English Reformation. One of the topoi used to justify the Reformation was the restoration of the Ecclesia Anglicana defined as the “authentic” English church before its corruption by Romish and Papistical practices. The way these apologists handled it was by looking at Ælfric’s sermons… In fact, the very first OE text ever *printed* on the printing press was Catholic Homily 2.15, one of Ælfric’s sermons for Easter where he speaks in some detail about the Eucharist. This was done to prove that the “authentic” English Church didn’t buy into “that transubstantiation crap”… That was less than the last word on the subject, though, scholars, church historians and others have been arguing ever since then about the true meaning of the sermon. (Fr. Former Priest among them, Anastasia…) Here’s the bottom line. There were two guys, Radbertus and Ratramnus, Catholics claim the first as teaching proto-transubstantiation, Calvinists claim the second as teaching a purely symbolic understanding–both wings are over-reaching in my book. Anyway, Ælfric deftly merges the two, using the arguments from Ratramnus but the illustrations from Radbertus. So does he support it or not? Well, he certainly supports a literal Real Presence but doesn’t seem much to care about precise definitions of how it happens.

My realization is these apologist who appealed to Ælfric unknowingly did something rather interesting. First, they strengthened the Benedictine character and heritage of the emerging Anglican church (always a good thing in my book). Second, in arguing from Ælfric, they lept back to a pre-scholastic period. The true, formal, and proper definition of transubstantiation comes with Scholasticism and wasn’t formalized until that great scholastic century, the 13th (4th Lateran Council, 1215). Thus, these apologists were essentially advocating an Anglicanism heartily informed by *early* medieval Catholicism rather than *high* medieval Catholicism. I’m likin’ the way they were thinkin’… ;-)

As I’ve said before on this blog, the Western Christian Tradition can’t be reduced to a single big ‘T’ Tradition. There are strands; there are periods. You learn a lot about any liturgical enthusiast by considering what century they want to model off of and why. For instance, the Ritualists and Anglo-Catholics take the 14/15th centuries as their model. They essentially want to pretend as if the Reformation didn’t happened. The most recent liturgical renewal movement prefered the 4th century. They want to go back to the earliest complete sources and wipe out the intervening 16 hundred years. This line of thought adds fuel to MY fire…maybe an early medieval, more Benedictine, less Scholastic, style hearkens most clearly to the intent of at least one section of the Anglican Reformers. Hmmm. I’m going to have to look into that a bit more…

8 thoughts on “Historical Note

  1. Annie

    When was the most recent liturgical renewal movement?

    And I like the way you think. I’ve never understood these people who like to turn mysteries into something concrete. Especially when it seems so far fetched. This is why there is one creed I can’t say.


  2. Annie

    PS- Yes, I would rather like to either know Old English or learn Gaelic (is that the right spelling?) And do you know anything about Sant Dewi?

    Annie Dewey

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    That’s wierd…I left a post at your place with some links to some resources in it and now it’s gone. Anyway, the best web-based resources I know of for OE are these two: King Alfred’s Grammar and this online class.
    As far as print books go, Mitchell and Robinson is the (much revised) standard.

    As for Gaelic–I don’t know it so I can’t say. ;-)

    Before taking the time and (great) effort to learn one of these, though, I’d recommend the helpful overviews here under “National Cultures” and “International Culture”, then turning to the actual sources here. One great taste of OE would be Seamus Heany’s translation of Beowulf which has the OE facing the ModE translation so you get to read the text and look at the original.

  4. Annie

    Thanks Derek. I would have loved to have had your comment. My blog has been acting up for a few days and I even ran a debugging program to try to fix it. I’m sorry.

    I think I would really enjoy the Beowolf translation.

    I believe that Old English would serve and I’d have more resources than I would for Gaelic. Not that I’ve ever checked or anything.

    Annie *dancing off to check the links*

  5. LutherPunk

    I picked up the Heaney translation at a church yard sale for a cool nickel a q few months ago. I hadn’t seen it since college, but decided it was worth having around again. Reading the OE was fun…for about 10 pages…then the novelty wore off and I read the Mod translation the rest of the way through.

    I also found a copy of the Canterbury Tales for a nickel as well, with facing Middle and Mod English pages, which was amusing as well.

  6. Carmen

    Hi, I’m thrilled to see this discussion of AElfric on your cogent, thought-provoking blog. Have you seen the book I did on him? It’s called God of Mercy: AElfric’s Sermons and Theology (Mercer University Press, 2006), and it has some Old English in it, along with translations of some of the very best first sermons in English ever. AElfric was one fine writer with a heart filled with God’s mercy. Best wishes, Carmen

  7. Derek the Ænglican

    Hi Carmen,
    Thanks for the note–no, I haven’t seen your book yet, thanks for bring it to my attention!

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