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date: 15 July 2019

Ælfric of Eynsham

Abstract and Keywords

This article introduces and surveys the life and writings of the Anglo-Saxon monk, Ælfric of Eynsham (c.955–c.1010). It provides a summary of the main scholarly work that has been done on Ælfric, specifically in areas of editing, source study, historical context, translation, style, and reception, and gives suggestions for further research, particularly advocating the possibilities of comparative analysis and the adoption of Religious Studies methodologies. Ælfric is one of the most well-known authors of Old English prose, and has been seen as a representative of the late Benedictine Reform in England; however, recent scholarship points toward a rather more idiosyncratic figure with a more complex relationship to his historical moment and to his literary context.

Keywords: Ælfric, Benedictine Reform, Anglo-Saxon, Old English prose, homilies, translation

Introduction: The New Ælfric

Ælfric of Eynsham (c.955–c.1010), monk, priest, and abbot, occupies a somewhat indeterminate place in medieval literary studies, in the study of Anglo-Saxon literature, and in popular perceptions of Anglo-Saxon England more broadly.1 Author of a few Latin works and a very large corpus of surviving Old English writings—by far the largest we have of any single author in Anglo-Saxon England at about 15% of the entire surviving Old English corpus (Wilcox 2005: 53n3)—Ælfric and his work have nevertheless always fallen beneath the shadow of more well-known Anglo-Saxon compositions, such as Beowulf and the Old English elegiac poems, or Bede’s Historia eccelsiastica gentis Anglorum. Nevertheless, it is also very common for students to encounter one or more of Ælfric’s works in the course of learning to read Old English. Yet, all the same, few monographs have taken Ælfric as their sole subject.2 The study of Ælfric is certainly thriving, with the appearance of scholarly works such as the impressive A Companion to Ælfric (Magennis and Swan 2009); yet this scholarship has centered on relatively few areas of inquiry, rendering the field perhaps rather homogenous to the external observer. Thus Ælfric is arguably both a central and a neglected author.

The traditional image of Ælfric in scholarship has been that of a stalwart representative of the Benedictine Reform in England, a symbol of firm orthodoxy and sensibly restrained and modest monastic learning, a respectable (but perhaps not terribly exciting) emblem of late Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical culture. Recent research, however, has begun to paint a somewhat different picture of Ælfric, and I would argue that, as a result, a rather more singular figure and voice has begun to emerge (e.g., Wilcox 2005; Jones 2009; Cubitt 2009). Some of the best current scholarship sees Ælfric as somewhat more idiosyncratic, not quite so “representative” of his age as once thought.3 Ælfric’s oft-cited, cutting comments on the multitude of doctrinal errors or heresies (gedwyld) he detected in previous English books had helped construct a scholarly evolutionary teleology in which pre-Ælfrician vernacular religious writings, such as those represented in the Blicking and Vercelli homily collections, gave way during the tenth-century “Age of Ælfric” to a firmer, more orthodox Benedictine discourse propelled and symbolized by Ælfric’s own work. However, it is now apparent that even fundamental terms such as “the Benedictine Reform” need reexamination and qualification (see Jones 2009 and the references therein). Ælfric did not lead an orthodox triumph and eradication of a prior theologically heterodox culture; rather, Ælfric’s voice now seems to be only one strain in a continuous babel of varied religious writings (both Latin and vernacular) from the late ninth through the eleventh century.

So a more complex, idiosyncratic picture of our author is emerging: not, to be sure, of a countercultural radical, yet also not simply of an unproblematic voice of orthodoxy and the Establishment, a simple “representative of the Benedictine Reform.” I do not pretend to advance any final judgments here about what exactly this “new Ælfric” looks like. Nevertheless, I hope to keep this newly emergent picture of our Eynsham abbot in mind as I traverse the field of Ælfric scholarship and suggest some new directions for the field. I do think fresh approaches and a continuing new appraisal of Ælfric can build on previous fundamental work, and I suspect there is an even more interesting character to be revealed than we have suspected. This article therefore has several aims: to provide a guide to the basic facts about Ælfric (his life, works, and historical context), to describe summarily the main areas of scholarship to date on this prolific author, and to suggest some new avenues of research.4

Ælfric’s Life

Based upon relatively sparse extant evidence, Ælfric’s life is usually divided into three phases: his birth, early years, and education at Winchester; his life as monk and mass-priest at the abbey of Cerne; and his final years as the abbot of Eynsham. Almost nothing specific is known for certain about Ælfric’s birth and life prior to his arrival at Winchester. He was probably born sometime between 955 and 957 in Wessex; between 964 and 970 he joined the monastic community at Winchester and was educated at the Old Minster in the famed monastic cathedral school of Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester from 963 to 984. Throughout his life Ælfric was connected to two powerful lay patrons: Æthelweard and his son Æthelmær, noble ealdormen governing the southwestern provinces of England. Both men were literate and patrons of learning: Æthelweard translated the Anglo-Saxon chronicle into Latin; Æthelmær (re)founded both the abbey of Cerne and of Eynsham. Recent work tentatively suggests that Ælfric may have been born on Æthelweard’s or Æthelmær’s land and then received some early (and inadequate) education before entering the monastic school at Winchester. There is also a possibility he may have entered minor nonmonastic religious orders and received a rather shaky start to his education before Winchester (Jones 2009:104–107; Cubitt 2009:177–178; these admittedly speculative conjectures judged “plausible” by Hill 2009:45–47). Regardless of any possible early educational deficiencies, in later years Ælfric would wax nostalgic about the wonders of Æthelwold’s school at Winchester and his education there. Based on our knowledge of Æthelwold’s school, the Anglo-Saxon monastic curriculum in general, and Ælfric’s own writings, we can deduce with fair certainty the type of education he probably received (see Lapidge 1988 and 2002; Hill 2009:47–49).

The next phase of his life began around the year 987, when he was sent by Æthelwold’s successor Ælfheah to Cerne in Dorset as a “monk and mass-priest”5; he composed most of his works in Old English and in Latin during these years at Cerne. And finally, around 1005, Ælfric’s lay patron Æthelmær fell out of favor at King Æthelræd’s court and “retired” to a small monastery, the newly endowed and reformed community at Eynsham (Oxfordshire), presumably taking Ælfric along with him to serve as the new abbot. Ælfric continued his writing at Eynsham, composing a few new works and continually revising earlier writings, and throughout his Cerne and Eynsham years perhaps making occasional return trips to Winchester to use their library resources (Gneuss 2009:6). He probably died around 1010, but the exact date is unknown.


Ælfric was a prolific author, writing in both Old English and Latin.6 His works were all composed for traditional pastoral and educational purposes, and they are all thoroughly monastic in character. Old English homilies and saints’ lives comprise his largest body of writings. In total, more than 160 extant homilies and saints’ lives in Old English are attributable to Ælfric.7 Ælfric produced two great cycles of Old English homilies as an innovative comprehensive preaching resource organized according to the church year: the so-called First Series and Second Series of the Catholic Homilies (CH I and CH II). Broadly characterized, the Catholic Homilies are rather free English translations from Latin source authors, chiefly Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Bede. Ælfric accessed these and other sources most often not directly but rather through intermediary Carolingian compilations of Latin homilies by Paul the Deacon, Smaragdus, and Haymo of Auxerre (Hill 1997, 2005, 2007).

In any given Old English homily, Ælfric usually weaves more than one Latin source together, translating at different levels of literalism, paraphrasing, condensing and amplifying, inserting explanations and expansions, and otherwise adapting the varied Latin source materials in an original fashion. His own occasional comments and compositions are not uncommon. In fact, it would be better to call his homilies “adaptations” or “re-creations” (Gneuss 2009:9), rather than “translations”; such terms highlight the originality in Ælfric’s compositional methods and help steer clear of the unproductive, outdated notion that he was a mechanical, unimaginative, and unoriginal translator (see also Hill 2005).

The Catholic Homilies collection was designed as a vernacular preaching resource. In their original scheme, CH I and CH II each contained forty homilies to be preached on Sundays and other important feast days of the Church liturgical year; the two series were designed to be read in two consecutive years or merged across one year. Such a comprehensive and systematic resource for public preaching in the vernacular was unprecedented and without parallel in England or on the Continent (Gatch 1977, 1978; Gneuss 2009:14). In later revisions, Ælfric added some further homilies to each cycle to cover other important areas of church doctrine and history. About two-thirds of the resulting Catholic Homilies are classic exegetical expositions of a short scriptural text or pericope; the remaining one-third are more discursive in nature—for example, an expansion of a moral or catechetical topic, or of a narrative such as a saint’s life. Ælfric’s third great cohesive homiletic collection was the Lives of Saints (LS), written after CH I and CH II and completed by 998. As Ælfric explicitly states in his preface to the collection, dedicated to Æthelweard, LS moves beyond the occasional vita found in the Catholic Homilies to the saints venerated especially by the monastic community (Skeat 1881–1900, vol. 1:2–5; Wilcox 1994:119–121). The LS consists of a little under forty items, most of them traditional vitae, but a few focused on Old Testament figures (e.g., an adaptation of the book of Maccabees), and other miscellaneous items. The Catholic Homilies were designed probably as preaching aids for the mass, to be used by secular priests with little Latin; the specific liturgical use of the LS (if any) is less clear. In addition to these three great cycles, Ælfric wrote a large number of other homilies of a miscellaneous character.

In their eleventh- and twelfth-century afterlives, Ælfric’s homilies (in part and in whole) were reused, redacted, rewritten, linguistically updated, and merged into other later manuscripts. Most of Ælfric’s works survive in multiple manuscripts dating from the late tenth through the thirteenth centuries (twenty-four whole or fragmentary manuscripts of the Catholic Homilies alone). At their initial inception, and certainly in their later copied versions dispersed throughout the manuscript record of the next few centuries, the homilies probably fulfilled multiple uses for diverse audiences: read aloud in public (inside our outside the liturgy); read silently in private; and read or heard by the laity (common and noble), secular priests and bishops, and monks (see Clayton 1985 on audiences). Given the flexibility of the vernacular homiletic form, it is difficult to exclude almost any audience for these works.

Aside from his prodigious output in homilies and saints’ lives, another substantial portion of Ælfric’s writings dealt with the book of Genesis. In his early work, Ælfric had been very hesitant to translate any sacred Latin scripture into English, but he appears to have softened in this regard as time went on (and perhaps in response to pressure from his lay patrons) and eventually participated in a collaborative project to translate Genesis into Old English. This project resulted in the so-called Old English Heptateuch (Marsden 2008), with Ælfric’s own contribution being a translation of Genesis as far as the story of Isaac. Ælfric therefore has an important place in the history of vernacular bible translation. In addition to his work for the Old English Heptateuch, he also wrote an Old English summary and exposition of Genesis for the neophyte (probably a lay audience), formerly known as the Letter to Sigeweard but now in the recent authoritative edition of Richard Marsden (2008) titled the Libellus de veteri testamento et novo. Ælfric also composed a partial translation of Alcuin’s Interrogationes Sigewulfi in Genesin (MacLean 1883–1884; Stoneman 1983).

In addition to his homiletic projects and Genesis works, Ælfric also composed some innovative pedagogical tools (see Hall 2009 for an overview). His Latin Colloquy is a series of fictive semidramatic dialogues between a teacher and students, designed to teach novice monks Latin (Garmonsway 1978). Rooted partially in the everyday life of tenth-century England (yet also refracted through the artificiality of a traditional classroom rhetorical exercise), the Colloquy features questions and responses from a cross-section of Anglo-Saxon social roles and professions: ploughmen, shepherds, fisherman, shoemakers, and so forth. An early manuscript of the Colloquy was provided with an anonymous Old English gloss; this Old English “version” of the Colloquy is now a common text in modern Old English introductory textbooks. Ælfric also wrote a remarkable Grammar, the first Latin “textbook” in English or in any other vernacular (Gneuss 2009:22); appended to the Grammar was the Glossary, an extensive register of common Latin words and phrases with Ælfric’s preferred Old English equivalents (Zupitza 1880). No doubt related to his educational mission was also his short “scientific” treatise in Old English, De temporibus anni (Henel 1942), an explication of varied subjects: chronology, creation and world history, time and natural phenomena such as astronomy and the seasons. This work is mainly derived from Bede’s Latin De temporum ratione. Ælfric also wrote letters of pastoral instruction and guides to ecclesiastical life and liturgical practice, in English and Latin, including the Letter to the Monk at Eynsham, a monastic customary expounding upon the finer points of the liturgy (Fehr 1914; Jones 1998a).

The Scholarly Map

Such is Ælfric’s oeuvre. In the following pages I give an overview of the main areas of Ælfric research to date, with some running commentary on areas fruitful for further work.


Editing Ælfric’s works has been a central preoccupation of the field. After the pioneering study of Clemoes (1969) establishing Ælfric’s canon and chronology, the field long awaited adequate editions of his major works. The comprehensive three-volume edition of the Catholic Homilies has only recently been completed (Godden 1979; Clemoes 1997 [with the assistance of Godden]; Godden 2000). The installments of this edition were preceded by the important standard-establishing edition of homilies and other pieces by Pope (1967–1968). The LS is still only available in the nineteenth-century edition by W.W. Skeat; a new edition is a major desideratum in the field. The edition of miscellaneous homilies by Assmann is also of nineteenth-century vintage and needs reediting, as does the Grammar and Glossary. The “Electronic Ælfric Project” directed by Aaron Kleist et al. ( seeks to edit the remaining unedited homilies. Certainly, editorial work still needs to be done in order to provide basic professional access to these texts with full scholarly apparatus, but interesting hermeneutic issues concerning authorship and textuality have also arisen out of the editorial process (e.g., Lees 1994; Hill 1994).

Source Study

Along with editing has been work to identify Ælfric’s precise sources and, by natural extension, how he transformed them. This focus has paralleled a broader focus on source study in Anglo-Saxon studies from the 1970s to the present.8 This has resulted in a remarkable range of excellent scholarship, improving our understanding of Ælfric in all sorts of ways. The focus on source study has also, at times, perhaps led to an unintended diminution of Ælfric as an original voice; in any study of sources, the center of gravity seems to naturally pull back to the source-text, with the translator or adapter often seen as little more than a conduit for the original (Lees 1991; Frantzen 1990:62–95). Much remains to be done to source Ælfric’s texts, but it seems that now, with the publication of the Clemoes/Godden edition of the Catholic Homilies and other tools, the way is clear to generate some synthesizing studies about Ælfric.

Historical Context

A large body of scholarly work has also explicated Ælfric’s historical context, both Ælfric’s place in the broader context of late tenth- and early-eleventh-century culture and also in a more specific sense, Ælfric’s local English context.9 Scholarship has teased out Ælfric’s relationship to his secular patrons and other networks,10 has worked on his place within the Benedictine Reform (e.g., Clayton 1990:210–266; Jones 2009), and has parsed those occasional moments when his works seem to respond to broader political and social situations in England.11 All of this work has fit comfortably with the ongoing historicist emphasis of literary studies since the early 1980s. Although work on Ælfric is certainly not exclusive to literary scholars, nevertheless as the field of literary scholarship responds to changing currents in historicist methodology, and indeed, to challenges to that orthodoxy, historicist study of Ælfric should keep abreast of these developments and negotiate both the strengths and weaknesses of traditional historical contextualization.

Translation, Lexis, Style

Another large area of research in the field focuses more closely on the quality and nature of Ælfric’s textual compositions in Old English and, to a lesser extent, in Latin. Ælfric’s Latin works—the Colloquy, the bilingual Grammar and Glossary, three pastoral letters, the monastic customary known as the Letter to the Monks of Eynsham, a Life of Æthelwold (abbreviated from an earlier vita), and a few other epitomes of uncertain attribution (for a detailed list of these works see Jones 1998b:18)—exhibit a relatively simple, restrained, understated style, particularly when compared to the more sophisticated, effuse, and baroque fashion for Anglo-Latin composition in the period known as the “hermenutic style.”12 Ælfric’s Latin works—certainly dwarfed by his Old English corpus—have received some attention, but more research on his Latin works would be welcome.

Ælfric’s predilection for English over Latin was unusual and distinctive, and, as attested by the fascinating prefaces to his works, he exhibits a high degree of linguistic self-consciousness. All in all, Ælfric is best known as a translator of Latin texts into Old English, and the nature of his translations are a pervasive concern in almost all the scholarship—source study, for instance, certainly deals with translation at every turn, even if only indirectly. However, aside from Robert Stanton’s excellent study (Stanton 2002:144–171), Ælfric’s works have not received much formal attention from the field of Translation Studies.13 Translation Studies is a vibrant, increasingly interdisciplinary and global field of study and raises the possibility of placing Ælfric in an exciting new comparative, cross-cultural context.

Ælfric’s works have been of prime importance in the scholarly discovery of “Standard Old English” and the “Winchester vocabulary.” In Mechtild Gretsch’s (2001:41–42) concise explanation, Standard Old English “refers to phonological and morphological forms of the late West Saxon dialect being used in a regularized orthography in manuscripts dating from the late tenth to the early twelfth century, and originating in all parts of England, not only in the West Saxon dialect area.” The related term “Winchester Vocabulary,” a subset of Standard Old English, refers to “the preferential employment of a specific vocabulary in a number of texts which would appear to have some connection with Winchester in the late tenth and the early eleventh century” (Gretsch 2001:41–42).14 In other words, Ælfric’s works were both the result of a monastic push to standardize vernacular production in the late tenth century and a key participant in the construction and promulgation of that very standard, as the number of extant Ælfrician manuscripts attests. Much of the work on Standard Old English has been focused, rightly so, on defining the basic linguistic and historical parameters of the phenomenon; recently, Gretsch (2006) has contributed to our picture of the idiosyncratic new Ælfric by highlighting his own particular linguistic register within Standard Old English. Both Gneuss and Gretsch have illuminated much of the basic technical research still to be done on Standard Old English, the Winchester Vocabulary, and Ælfric’s place within those phenomena. But it also strikes me that very few scholars have put these findings to other uses; attention to regional writing, for example, is a growth industry in medieval English literary studies (“London literature,” “Cheshire literature,” and so forth.) Using the phenomenon of Standard Old English, can we not begin to see Ælfric as a regional writer of a sort, responding to the collaborative, ideological group dynamics such a label entails?

Ælfric’s most remarkable innovation as a vernacular author was to cultivate an ornamental prose style inspired by Old English poetry. Ælfric’s so-called “rhythmic style” consists of a pattern “in which two consecutive syntactical units, or phrases, each having two principal accents, are linked to each other by means of alliteration; several pairs of units linked in this way go to make up the superior syntactic unit, the sentence” (Gneuss 2009:19–20). It is clear that Ælfric began slowly experimenting with this style in his homilies during his Cerne Abbas years but soon used it more confidently as his own distinctive voice, particularly in narrative. There has been debate over whether Ælfric’s rhythmic prose is an ornamental prose or whether it is a “loose” form of late Old English verse; the latter view most strongly championed recently by Thomas Bredehoft, who sees Ælfric as Anglo-Saxon England’s most prolific poet and all his rhythmical homilies as poems.15 The scholarly consensus is nevertheless still that Ælfric wrote a “mildly ornamental, rhythmically ordered prose” rather than a form of late Old English verse’ (Pope 1967–1968, vol. 1:105). I also tend to see Ælfric as writing ornamental prose rather than poetry for a variety of reasons, perhaps most important the lack of external evidence: neither Ælfric himself, nor anyone else in the period, refers to his alliterative works as “poetry” or “poems” or to Ælfric as a “poet,” in Latin or Old English. As his Prefaces show us, Ælfric is highly self-conscious about his writing, famously so; if he truly thought he was writing poetry and that he was a poet, one would expect him to mention this somewhere, at some point.16

But I also think that the “Is it prose or poetry?” question here is not very fruitful for future scholarship. (Anglo-Saxon scholarship tends to get caught in such binary traps: e.g., is Beowulf a late or an early poem? oral or written? pagan or Christian?) Whether we technically call Ælfric’s vernacular writing in this mode “prose” or “poetry” is, in one sense, a moot point; what is certain is that, no matter what we call it, Ælfric’s experimentation in the vernacular here establishes him as a singular, innovative voice; and I believe that we have not really begun to explore the implications of this stylistic innovation as an experimental expression of religious belief, caught up, as we are, in the debate about whether or not to add his works to the count of surviving lines of poetry from Anglo-Saxon England. The term “vernacular theology,” so familiar in Middle English studies and useful for the exploration of texts as diverse as Pearl, the Book of Margery Kemp, and varied Lollard writings, would seem to be quite applicable here. Yet, to my knowledge, no one has analyzed Ælfric’s aesthetic adventures/experiments in the vernacular as “vernacular theology.”17

Reception History and Cultural Studies

A great deal of fascinating and fruitful work has been done recently on the reception history of Ælfric, from the adaptation of his work by his contemporary the homilist Wulfstan, through the copying, circulation, reuse, and adaptation of his works in the later eleventh through thirteenth centuries, to his “rediscovery” in the sixteenth century: Ælfric’s writings were used by Matthew Parker and his circle in the context of Protestant political and doctrinal disputes to argue that Ælfric’s works were a form of “proto-Protestantism,” evidence for the ancient existence of a pure, native English Church, untainted by later “popery.”18

Saints lives, particularly the lives of female saints, are ripe for gender analysis, and there have been a number of examinations of individual Ælfrician lives from a gender studies perspective (e.g., Szarmach 1990, 2000; Lees 1999:133–153; Klein 2006163–189; Treharne 2006) but no monograph solely devoted to Ælfric and gender. And due to the size and variety of Ælfric’s corpus and his near-comprehensive treatment of so many issues fundamental to early medieval Christianity, a wide variety of monographs treating other Anglo-Saxon thematic / ideological / cultural topics have included substantial discussion of Ælfric and could be missed by the usual bibliographic controls: recent examples of such monograph-length topics (all including some discussion of Ælfric) include the understanding of Jews and Judaism (Scheil 2004), the myth of the Flood (Anlezark 2006), nostalgia and the sense of the past (Trilling 2009), psychology and theories of the mind (Lockett 2011), obedience and identity (O’Brien O’Keeffe 2012). No doubt Ælfric will continue to figure importantly in such thematic studies; however, there is perhaps a tendency to use Ælfric’s works as a vast database of Anglo-Saxon (monastic/Christian) commonplaces—find an Ælfric quotation to illustrate this or that “typical” early medieval cultural topic.

New Directions—A Religious Studies Turn

So far, I have delineated the main avenues that currently cut through the world of Ælfric scholarship, along with some suggestions about how to extend those paths. By way of an extended conclusion, I would like to suggest a more radical terra incognita for the field. My sense is that Ælfric scholarship has traditionally broken two ways: first, into relatively discrete studies that center exclusively on Ælfric; second, into synchronic topical studies that incorporate Ælfric at some point as a representative Anglo-Saxon Christian cultural voice (see previous discussion). My suggestion for new directions in Ælfric studies concerns the importation of two related perspectives: the comparative approach and the disciplinary methods of Religious Studies.19

I believe Ælfric could benefit from a comparative approach in all sorts of ways. By “comparative” here I do not mean comparing Ælfric to his sources; instead, I mean taking a more comprehensive, holistic view of Ælfric or some dimension of his work and then aligning that focus with other likely comparanda. Some of these potential comparisons could operate within the Anglo-Saxon period: how does Ælfric, as a thinker, a writer, a cultural nexus, compare to Bede or to Alcuin or to Byrhtferth of Ramsey? Ælfric is often paired with Wulfstan (e.g., Gatch 1977), but I see no reason not to push comparisons further. Occasionally we also get comparisons of Ælfric’s texts to other types of literature, but more could be done along these lines: How does Ælfric’s understanding and representation of the Crucifixion compare to the Dream of the Rood? How does his understanding of the Christian past compare to the Beowulf-poet’s or the Exodus-poet’s?

I also think a comparative approach should dilate beyond Anglo-Saxon England, both geographically and temporally. How does Ælfric compare to someone like St. Patrick? to Anselm? to Bonaventure or Guibert of Nogent? The glue holding the comparison together would be that all are Christian writers deeply involved with their faith and possessed by a desire to communicate that faith in writing—how do they compare in this regard? It is my sense that removing Ælfric from his relative isolation and placing him in dialogue with other analogous medieval Christian (English and beyond) translators, educators, reformers, and people of faith could reveal new dimensions to his character, rendering some things familiar to the field strange and some strange things more recognizable in a broader context.

A comparative turn could also incorporate the field of Religious Studies. Religious Studies can be loosely characterized as an anthropological / sociological approach to the vast category of “religion / the religious” in a cross-cultural, comparative context. An oft-cited aphorism in Religious Studies by the nineteenth-century Sanskrit scholar Max Müller (channeling Goethe’s comments on comparative literature/linguistics) avers that “He who knows one knows none” (e.g., Hinnells 2010:14, 229). Correspondingly, the discipline of Religious Studies as currently constituted is inherently cross-cultural in its comparative methods. The field derives great intellectual energy from examining, in all the world’s religions—past and present—issues such as the problem of “the holy” or “the sacred”; the lived reality of religious experience; belief; mysticism; religious authority and the formation of traditions; ritual practices and performance; writing, translation, and textuality; religion and violence; sacrifice, transgression, and scapegoating; images and materiality; the body and gender, and much more.

The “new Ælfric” I have been tracing here is an interesting liminal figure. He was probably a man of relatively indeterminate social class—not an unlettered peasant but also not a nobleman. He was intelligent and educated but perhaps not quite educated to the fullest potential for his period’s cultural resources. He was connected to the nobility, both personally and through the connections of his order to royal authority; yet he was never truly a member of the Anglo-Saxon elite and apparently felt a strong bond with common people—his vernacular works were certainly designed to reach out to a broad heterogeneous audience. His concerns—educational, theological, and pastoral—were simultaneously local, national, and international. He was part of a religious order that inherently rejected participation in the world at large, yet also in his local monastic context there was a considerable focus on outreach and pastoral care. He sits right at the intersection of an official/classical/traditional language (Latin) and an innovative, mutable vernacular (Old English), mediating between both. Through his works and their broad circulation during and after his life, he exerted a considerable degree of influence.

Sketched in this abstract way, it is certain that religious writers intriguingly analogous to Ælfric can be found in the premodern Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions (among others) and set in productive dialogue with Ælfric using the methods of Religious Studies. Viewed from a comparative perspective, Ælfric’s main concerns—such as orthodoxy and heresy; living a upright religious life in the world; understanding the afterlife; mediating between authority and dissent; understanding the role and power of written expression—all find analogues in other world religious traditions and their practitioners. Such a comparative exercise would not merely be a case of assembling analogs; in the comparative moment itself, as one element speaks to the other in a heuristic dialogue, new surfaces and contours appear as the objects are joined together. Perhaps researchers in other fields of religious studies have wrestled with fascinating figures just like Ælfric; we might learn from them, and, no doubt, they learn from us.


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(1) Ælfric is generally known as “Ælfric of Eynsham” to distinguish him from the many other men named “Ælfric” in the tenth- and eleventh-century historical record. For overviews of Ælfric’s life and works see Clemoes 1966 and 1969; Pope 1967–1968, vol. 1:136–145; Hurt 1972; Wilcox 1994:2–56 and 2005; Kleist 2001; Gneuss 2009; Hill 2009, and the essays in Magennis and Swan 2009.

(2) E.g., Gatch 1977 (Ælfric and Wulfstan); Grundy 1991; Gretsch 2005. I do not include doctoral dissertations here, but there have only been a few that have focused exclusively on Ælfric (e.g., Waterhouse 1980). Much of Lees 1999 is devoted to Ælfric.

(3) Even in the use of the “Winchester vocabulary” (see below), Ælfric’s particular use of that linguistic register seems to have a distinctive personal stamp (Gretsch 2006).

(4) Scholarship on Ælfric can be well controlled by the following: Reinsma’s 1987 annotated bibliography provides coverage from the beginnings of Ælfric scholarship up through 1982; Aaron Kleist’s selective 2000 annotated supplement continues coverage from 1983 through 1996; scholarship from 1996 to the present is listed in the annual bibliographies of Anglo-Saxon England and Old English Newsletter. Magennis 2009 provides an excellent summary of work in the field (essential reading for anyone new to Ælfric), and I have drawn freely on his essay throughout.

(5) Clemoes 1997, ed. CH I, Old English Preface, lines 44–47 (p. 174); see Wilcox 2005 for this phase of Ælfric’s life/career.

(6) For the canon and chronology of Ælfric’s Old English writings see note 1; for a survey of the Latin writings see Jones 1998b.

(7) The two series of Catholic Homilies are edited in the three-volume edition by Peter Clemoes and Malcolm Godden (Clemoes 1997, Godden 1979, 2000), the LS in the edition by Skeat (1881–1900). Most of the remaining miscellaneous homilies are edited by Assmann (1889), Pope (1967–1968), and four by Irvine (1993: I–IV). Upchurch 2007 edits some texts from LS.

(8) The early researches of Max Förster (1892, 1894) were important for sourcing the Catholic Homilies; see now Godden 2000 (both the overview on xxxviii–xliv and the commentary throughout); for the LS, see Zettel 1979, 1982, and Jackson and Lapidge 1996. Joyce Hill has been the most prominent and prolific expositor of Ælfric’s sources and their implication for our understanding of his work: see, e.g., Hill 1997, 2005. The major source projects in Anglo-Saxon Studies have been the Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture (SASLC) project ( and the Fontes Anglo-Saxonici project (

(9) See, e.g., Wilcox 2005 on Ælfric’s local Dorset context. For the broader historical context see Hurt 1972:11–41; Stafford 1978; Wilcox 1994:2–6.

(10) On the local network of Ælfric’s secular patrons, including King Æthelræd and the ealdormen Æthelweard and Æthelmær, see Yorke 1988; Wilcox 1994:6–15; Jones 1998a:6–16; Clayton 2000; Gneuss 2009:27–29; Cubitt 2009.

(11) For an overview see Gneuss 2009:27–32. Representative studies include Godden 1994:131–142; Clayton 1999; Klein 2006:163–189; Keynes 2007.

(12) On Ælfric’s Latin style, start with Jones 1998a:51–58; Jones 1998b; Stephenson 2006. Jones and Stephenson have very different views of Ælfric’s facility in Latin. The classic study of the hermeneutic style of Anglo-Latin literature is Lapidge 1975.

(13) For an introduction to Translation Studies see Venuti 2012. For sample studies focusing on Ælfric as a translator, see Clemoes 1966; Marsden 1991; Wilcox 1993; Anderson 2009.

(14) The scholarship on Standard Old English and the Winchester vocabulary is large: Gretsch 2001, 2006, and 2009 are excellent starting points.

(15) On Ælfric’s “rhythmic prose” and the question of whether it is indeed prose or verse, begin with the overviews by Pope 1967–1968, vol. 1:105–136; Gneuss 2009:19–21; Wilcox 1994:58–60; and then proceed to Momma 2003; Mitchell 2005; Bredehoft 2004, 2005:70–90. The work of Gabriela Corona (2008, 2009) is also a good starting point for a general investigation of Ælfric’s style and use of rhetoric.

(16) Roberta Frank notes that in Ælfric’s discussion of St. Cuthbert’s prose and verse vitae, he calls Bede’s prose version an anfeald gereccednys (“straightforward narrative”) and the verse life a leoðlic gyddung (“poetic recitation:) (Frank 1994: 88, citing CH II.x.81, Godden 1979). So Ælfric clearly could make a distinction between prose and verse and was moved to do so. One would therefore expect the word leoð, or some equivalent, to appear in Ælfric’s discussions of his own rhythmic translations.

(17) On “vernacular theology” see Gillespie 2007 and the references therein. Donoghue 2006 calls for an engagement of Anglo-Saxon studies with vernacular theology; see also Scheil 2013. I would classify the earlier studies of Lees (1999) and Stanton (2002) as essentially studies of “vernacular theology”, even if they do not use that specific term.

(18) For overviews of Ælfric’s reception see Godden 1978:110–114; Gneuss 2009:37–40; Treharne 2009. Sample in-depth reception studies include Abram 2007:436–437 (twelfth-century Old Norse reception, a virtually untapped field); Franzen 1991; Swan 2000; Kleist 2009; Treharne 2009 (all on post-Conquest English medieval reception); Leinbaugh 1982; Frantzen 1990:35–45; Graham 2001 (all on early modern reception).

(19) For introductions to religious studies see Taylor 1998; Connolly 1999; Braun and McCutcheon 2000; Hinnells 2010; Orsi 2012.