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!

9 Replies to “Perspectives on Ælfric”

  1. Well, you are breaking new ground, that’s all.

    I would think, from a complete outsider’s point of view, that the major problem would have been his “ordinary Joe” status; it seems to me that it’s only been recently that much interest has been shown in the life of ordinary people in history. It’s always been told from the perspective of “great men (and a few women)” and “great events.” If Aelfric had been one of those “greats,” there would be no language issue; he’d have been translated a million times.

    Or so it seems to me, anyway; of course I could be wrong. But in any case, you’re doing something quite cool, I think!

  2. A couple years ago I did some research on “Ancrene Wisse” – everything available on that front is also exclusively in English departments. Alas! :-(

  3. Ælfric who? ;-)

    Or rather which one? I don’t think Bishop Æthelwold is much better known (or even Bede outside of the History).

    I just came back from Kalamazoo where no one else is working on the Late Antique plague. Sigh. So I know what its like to occupy your niche all alone.

  4. I don’t recall every having heard of Ælfric either, but Wikipedia lists FIFTEEN Ælfrics!
    Which one did you have in mind?

  5. It’s the first in the line-up, Ælfric of Eynsham.

    There are at least a good number of people writing on him but what I always find amusing is the number of English professors who talk about sermon construction without ever having written cycles of sermons before. Or, to say it another way, clergy appreciate the genre of kompilationspredigt a whole lot more than English professors do!

  6. I’ve given Ælfric’s letter a quick second look. I’m not sure what the take-away lesson is for someone who is not a historian, unless it is a negative lesson: what not to do. It’s clear from the Regularis Concordia and from Ælfric’s adaptation of it that the monks’ superiors were piling on votive psalms, votive antiphons, and votive masses. This seems like a trap to avoid if we want the office to become a truly congregational liturgy, not something that can only be done by trained singers.

    Ælfric’s notes are consistent with the view (though I don’t read them as clearly proving it) that the practice, well attested in the later middle ages, of doing offices by aggregation into two or three blocks was already in use in his time.

  7. I just had a very similar conversation about John of St Sampson, a Carmelite in France from about the same period as Teresa of Jesus. While his work is seminal to the development of the Ancient Observance, and had a large impact upon lay spirituality, both Carmelite and other, almost none of it is in English. I can read about him, but nobody seems interested in translating his work. Music departments seem to have a good deal of material because he was an organist though.

  8. There’s no question that the Cluniac influence was very strong in the Benedictine Revival especially traced through Fleury and refugees from Brittany. All of these liturgical add-ins that you mention, Mockingbird, are very much Cluniac practices. It’s these sorts of things that the Cistercians were reacting against by simplifying the liturgy closer to what Benedict had originally laid down (plus the Offices of the Dead).

  9. It is a bit weird, actually. Here’s a recent big volume on Ælfric by a variety of top-name scholars and there’s nothing that looks like it’s about liturgy in there, and a volume of Leeds Studies in Old English was devoted to him in 2006 with the same omission. The fact that there’s no modern translation of his work has puzzled me for a long time (though there’s such a lot of it!), but all the same I wonder if it isn’t medieval liturgy that is the minority interest, rather than Ælfric. I did search this article out which you probably already know about, though.

Comments are closed.