Archbishop Wulfstan of York

Andrew Rabin

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online February 2016 | | DOI:
Archbishop Wulfstan of York

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The writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) mark an artistic and conceptual highpoint of later Old English prose. As a homilist, he composed vibrant sermons characterized by vivid language, eschatological imagery, and an uncompromising moral urgency. As a royal councilor, he produced political treatises and legislation on behalf of Kings Æthelred and Cnut that articulate the most comprehensive vision of a Christian society to survive from Anglo-Saxon England. Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (“Sermon of the Wolf to the English”) remains among the most widely read pre-Conquest texts as both a standard assignment for beginning Old English students and an ongoing subject of scrutiny for advanced scholars. Likewise, the short chapters that make up the Institutes of Polity (the title is a modern editorial invention) together comprise the most elaborate treatise of political theory to be written in England before John of Salisbury’s Policraticus (c. 1155). Nonetheless, despite his contemporary importance, little is known of Wulfstan’s biography. His date of birth remains a mystery, as do his family, education, and early career. He enters the historical record with his election as Bishop of London in 996. Over the next six years, he acquired a reputation as a dynamic homilist on apocalyptic themes. In 1002, he was named Archbishop of York and Bishop of Worcester, and by 1005 he was serving as an advisor to King Æthelred. During this period, he began producing treatises on political theory and eventually drafting the legislation that circulated in the king’s name. Wulfstan’s influence grew over the next decade as his literary and legal output increased. With the fall of Æthelred and the rise of the Danish conqueror, Cnut, Wulfstan maintained his position at court and his role as primary author of royal legislation. He died in 1023. Following his death, Wulfstan’s writings continued to circulate, though often without his name attached. It was only in the mid-20th century that scholars came to recognize the full range of his achievements. The identification of Wulfstan’s corpus and recovery of his career thus serve as one of the leading achievements of modern Anglo-Saxon studies. In Wulfstan’s work, one finds both powerful prose and a compelling political imagination. No other figure from the early English Middle Ages can claim to have exercised so much influence in so many spheres or composed such a diverse and accomplished body of texts.

Article.  15277 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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