Anglo-Saxon Monastic Education

I’ve been reading a lot of material on early medieval monastic education to prepare for writing chapter 2. It’s interesting stuff and all, but I keep getting the sense that many of the scholars are dropping the ball on an important point. The chief writings in view are Godden’s great article on glossed texts, the big book on Priscian’s Excerptiones, the Colloquies of Ælfric and Ælfric Bata (the shorter, rowdier, and generally more drunken student of the first), and Gretch’s work on the intellectual inheritance of the Benedictine Reform which goes a long way to suggest that Æðelwold was the author of the Vespasian Psalter glosses.

Conventional wisdom is that little Anglo-Saxon oblates and novices learned Latin by means of memorizing colloquies (a process that involves being beaten on a regular basis it seems) and working through a text like Ælfric’s Grammar which is essentially an English edition of the Priscian abridgement. The problem is that these things—the colloquies and Grammar—seem far more like intermediate studies than basic ones. They didn’t start with these works. Clear evidence for this is in the preface to Æflric’s Grammar where it is assumed that the students have read Donatus (unless I’m translating that wrong—which is possible). The other issue here is that nobody seems to be mentioning the elephant in the middle of the room. Or, because they’re scholars, they’re so busy checking out the floorboards they completely missed the elephant: the Psalms.

These little monklings are singing all 150 every week. This is how basic language acquisition is happening. Because of the Divine Offices they’re committing huge amounts of Latin to memory. They have no idea what it means, of course, but it puts huge swathes of vocabulary and grammar examples into their heads to be mined at a basic level of education. Am I missing something here? Surely this has been mentioned somewhere in this literature…

Other thing: Three of the standard texts used as school books (pace Godden) are Arator, Juvencus, and Sedilius. That is, a paraphrase of Acts and two of the Gospels/story of Jesus. I wonder what practical effect this had on hermeneutics? I’m guessing essentially none; these served more to reinforce the narratives that should already have been in their heads and to give them a better sense of Latin styling. Exegetically I don’t think they gave them anything hermeneutically more than reinforcing the notion of the story of Christ and the Early Church as an epic.

Update: Wanna hear something off the hook? I just tallied it up–with the additions from the Regularis Concordia–the monastic customary written by Bishops Æðelwold and Dunstan to supplement and guide the impementation of Benedict’s Rule–there were 35 psalms that were read at least once a day. Add further that each of the 7 penetential psalms were sung at least four times a day with Psalm 51 being sung 8 times! That’s 28% of the Psalter that was sung every single day. How’s that for repetition!?!

13 thoughts on “Anglo-Saxon Monastic Education

  1. Annie

    I dunno. Are you talking about learning to read Latin, initially? Lewis speaks of learning to read Greek this way, not understanding a word of it at first in his book, “Surprised by Joy.” (That isn’t the joy he is speaking of, of course.

    Your studies sound fascinating. Wish I could read them … I suppose you are reading the old, old English? (Annie asks, assuming she couldn’t do what Lewis did.)


  2. *Christopher


    You’re not missing something. This is vital to how we understand both liturgy and language. Something too much disembodied scholarship has failed to take notice of.

    It would seem to me that this would have a huge effect on acquisition of Latin. I first acquired Latin by praying it, and only later took it in courses.

    The same goes for German…and my reading and writing of German are all the better for first having learned to speak it. The best way in my opinion because the sounds and all get into your body even if you don’t understand it yet.

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    Yes, Annie, the young oblates would only speak Old English–their mother tongue–and would have to learn Latin and to read at the same time. Hence literacy *was* learning Latin. Many of these things have been translated in Modern English but not all…and some of them are just plain hard to find.

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    *Christopher, I often try to do parts of the Office in Latin for just that reason. M and I use to sing evening prayer from the Liber together before Lil’ G came along… It’s a bit hard with a wee ne running around. :-)

  5. Annie

    You know what I want, don’t you? I want to read your work in progress. ;) I’m intrigued. You’re just dangling these bits and pieces and I’m getting curiouser and curiouser.


  6. Derek the Ænglican

    Well, Annie, it’s a dissertation. That means you take a potentially interesting topic then figure out how to overanalyze it to death to drain it of all excitment, vitality, and possible interest.

    Send me an email at the haligweorc address if you feel like some torture… :-)

  7. bls

    It’s true about the repetition of Psalms. You just say – or sing – those things over and over and over again. Prayer without ceasing.

    What’s really interesting about Psalms, too, is that no matter how many times you say them, there’s always something new and surprising in there. I keep running across passages that I’m surprised I’ve never noticed before. Perhaps because you see them in different ways at different times? And then when you’re in the choir, you need to sing them in a certain way, and the phrasing itself changes or intensifies the meaning.

    Psalms are really comprehensive – they just cover everything. No wonder Benedict (or whoever) decided they should be used this way.

    BTW, you might get an email from me, too.


    (Anglo-Saxon is my ancestral heritage – and from multiple directions! – so I’m interested in just the history itself, too.)

  8. Derek the Ænglican

    Context always changes Scripture…what’s going on the world, what’s going on in your life, etc. That’s why I’m never willing to close of Scripture or to say that some parts of it are inspired and others aren’t. I’ve had God speak to me in amazing ways through some of what I thought were the most un-inpired sections ever.

    It’s interesting…somehow we got the notion that white-bread folk aren’t allowed to have any cultural heritage. It may be politically incorrect to say, but there’s a sense that only hypen Americans can have or celebrate their heritage and yet any American sense of our English heritage has essentially evaporated. One of the reasons that I like studying the Old English and Anglo-Saxon culutre is because it gives me a sense of my own cultural roots. Of course being part English, part Scandanavian, and part German, I do have to admit that a large portion of my cultural heritage has to do with invading and sacking various continents… ;-)

  9. Anastasia

    the only think worse than reading someone else’s diss is reading your own :)

    funny that about english culture because so many people claim irish heritage in this country and are quite proud of it.

    i would guess this has been overlooked by so many because it involves praying and because it is not the way we learn languages.

  10. Derek the Ænglican

    Yeah, but they get to be Irish-Americans, don’t they… Ever heard anyone refer to themself as an English-American?

  11. Derek the Ænglican

    btw, didn’t you do some stuff with the Centos on Christ at one point or am I thinking of someone else…?

  12. Caelius

    I do have to admit that a large portion of my cultural heritage has to do with invading and sacking various continents… ;-)

    My mother and I once were walking by the Seine in Paris and pointed out to her that the story of her surname (as far as we could know) started in that river with Rollo and his thugs sailing to Paris to extort a duchy. She wasn’t as amused by that as I thought she’d be.

    Anastasia, I think the pride of the Irish and other self-identifying ethnic groups comes from a history of being and feeling undesirable in the eyes of the American establishment. In that sense, the closest thing we have to an English ethnic group are the “mountain people” of the Appalachians, some of whom indeed do preserve a quirky English culture in America.

  13. Anastasia

    yah, not so much on the english-american thing. english american is just plain american. I think Caelius is right about the reason (history of being undesirable).

    centos of christ was me. proba.

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