Article

Ælfric

Joyce Hill

in Medieval Studies

ISBN: 9780195396584
Published online August 2014 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0157
Ælfric

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)
  • Literary Studies (Early and Medieval)
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  • Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400)
  • Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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The homilist Ælfric (c. 950–1010), monk, masspriest, and abbot of Eynsham, is the most significant vernacular prose writer from Anglo-Saxon England by virtue of the quantity and quality of his writings. These are datable with degree of precision that is unusual for the early Middle Ages, and so it is possible to study Ælfric in a way that is in some respects akin to authors of later periods. His habit of reworking and supplementing his texts and of providing personal information in prefaces, concluding admonitions and other passing comments, means that we can, for example, appreciate the trajectory of his output, understand the context that prompted him to write many of his individual works, and identify his network of lay and ecclesiastical patrons. Additionally, because he gives us clues to his circumstances and attitudes, we are able to gain some sense of his motives and programmatic purpose in fostering the aims of the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform, of which he was a second-generation product. Most of his work is in Old English, with homilies and saints’ lives predominating, although he also produced biblical translations, commentary material, pastoral letters on behalf of the episcopal hierarchy, and other forms of instruction. In addition he wrote some works in Latin, his professional language as a cleric, and provided teaching materials for those who were learning this language. However, it was his production of reliably orthodox vernacular material that was markedly distinctive: his aim was in part to counteract what he saw as the “error” of other material that was in circulation. At the same time, although he was driven to promote a particular intellectual tradition, he worried about making certain texts available in Old English for a lay audience in case they should be misunderstood, and he carefully avoided the apocryphal and sensational, even when such material was accepted within Benedictine Reform circles. It was not until the 19th century that Æfric’s work began to be systematically published, leading to vigorous and productive research into its content, sources, style, language, and manuscript transmission. But he gained fame as early as the Reformation when his Easter homily was seized upon in support of protestant doctrine regarding the Eucharist. Its publication in 1566 or 1567, together with his pastoral letters for Wulfsige and Wulfstan, were the first Old English texts to appear in print.

Article.  13617 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500) ; Literary Studies (Early and Medieval) ; Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy ; Byzantine and Medieval Art (500 CE to 1400) ; Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Archaeology

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