Ælfric of Eynsham  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Ælfric of Eynsham (Template:Lang-ang; Template:Lang-la) (c. 955 – c. 1010) was an English abbot, as well as a consummate, prolific writer in Old English of hagiography, homilies, biblical commentaries, and other genres. He is also known variously as Ælfric the Grammarian (Alfricus Grammaticus), Ælfric of Cerne, and Ælfric the Homilist.

Life and works

[[File:Meister der Paraphrasen des Pentateuch 001.jpg|thumb|250px|The Tower of Babel, from an illustrated manuscript (11th century) containing an Old English translation of the Hexateuch. Ælfric was responsible for the preface to Genesis as well as some of its translations. Another copy of the text, without lavish illustrations but including a translation of the Book of Judges, is found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Laud Misc. 509. ]]

Ælfric was educated in the Benedictine Old Minster at Winchester under Saint Æthelwold, who was bishop there from 963 to 984. Æthelwold had carried on the tradition of Dunstan in his government of the abbey of Abingdon, and at Winchester he continued his strenuous efforts. He seems to have actually taken part in the teaching activities of the abbey.

Ælfric no doubt gained some reputation as a scholar at Winchester, for when, in 987, the abbey of Cerne (Cerne Abbas in Dorset) was finished, he was sent by Bishop Ælfheah (Alphege), Æthelwold's successor, at the request of the chief benefactor of the abbey, the ealdorman Æthelmær the Stout, to teach the Benedictine monks there. This date (987) is one of only two certain dates we have for Ælfric, who was then in priest's orders. Æthelmaer and his father Æthelweard were both enlightened patrons of learning, and became Ælfric's faithful friends.

It was at Cerne, and partly at the desire, it appears, of Æthelweard, that he planned the two series of his English homilies (ed. Benjamin Thorpe, 1844-1846, for the Ælfric Society and more recently by Malcolm Godden and Peter Clemoes for EETS), compiled from the Christian fathers, and dedicated to Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury (990-994). The Latin preface to the first series enumerates some of Ælfric's authorities, the chief of whom was Gregory the Great, but the short list there given by no means exhausts the authors whom he consulted. In the preface to the first volume he regrets that except for Alfred's translations, Englishmen had no means of learning the true doctrine as expounded by the Latin fathers. Professor Earle (A.S. Literature, 1884) thinks he aimed at correcting the apocryphal, and to modern ideas superstitious, teaching of the earlier Blickling Homilies.

The first series of forty homilies is devoted to plain and direct exposition of the chief events of the Christian year; the second deals more fully with church doctrine and history. Ælfric's teaching on the Eucharist in the Canons and in the Sermo de sacrificio in die pascae (ibid. ii.262 seq.) was appealed to by the Protestant Reformation writers as a proof that the early English church did not hold the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation.

After the two series of homilies, he wrote three works to help students learn Latin, the Grammar, the Glossary and the Colloquy. In is Grammar, he translated the Latin grammar into English, creating what is considered the first vernacular Latin grammar in medieval Europe. His glossary is singular in that the words are not in alphabetical order, but grouped by topics. Finally, his Colloquy was intended to help students to learn how to speak Latin through a conversation manual. It is safe to assume that the original draft of this, afterwards enlarged by his pupil, Ælfric Bata, was by Ælfric, and represents what his own scholar days were like.

A third series of homilies, the Lives of the Saints, (hagiography) dates from 996 to 997. Some of the sermons in the second series had been written in a kind of rhythmical, alliterative prose, and in the Lives of the Saints (ed. W. W. Skeat, 1881-1900, for the Early English Text Society) the practice is so regular that most of them are arranged as verse by Professor Skeat. Appended to the Lives of the Saints there are two homilies, On False Gods and The Twelve Abuses. The first one shows how the Church was still fighting against the ancient religion of Britain, but also against the religion of the Danish invaders.

By the wish of Æthelweard he also began a paraphrase of parts of the Old Testament, but under protest, for he feared that its wider dissemination might lead the uneducated to believe that the practices of the Ancient Israelites were still acceptable for Christians. There is no certain proof that he remained at Cerne. It has been suggested that this part of his life was chiefly spent at Winchester; but his writings for the patrons of Cerne, and the fact that he wrote in 998 his Canons as a pastoral letter for Wulfsige, the bishop of Sherborne, the diocese in which the abbey was situated, afford presumption of continued residence there.

1005 is the other certain date we have for Ælfric, when he left Cerne for nobleman Æthelmær’s new monastery in Eynsham, a long eighty-five-mile journey inland in the direction of Oxford. Here he lived out his life as Eynsham’s first abbot, from 1005 until his death. After his elevation, he wrote his Letter to the Monks of Eynsham, an abridgment for his own monks of Æthelwold's De consuetudine monachorum, adapted to their rudimentary ideas of monastic life; a letter to Wulfgeat of Ylmandun; an introduction to the study of the Old and New Testaments (about 1008, edited by William L'Isle in 1623); a Latin life of his master Æthelwold; a pastoral letter for Wulfstan, archbishop of York and bishop of Worcester, in Latin and English; and an English version of Bede's De Temporibus.

The last mention of Ælfric Abbot, probably the grammarian, is in a will dating from about 1010.

Ælfric was a conscientious monk who left careful instructions to future scribes to copy his works carefully because he did not want his works' scholarly, salvation-bringing words marred by the introduction of unorthodox passages and scribal errors. Through the centuries, however, Ælfric’s sermons were threatened by the terrorism of Viking axes and the dangerous banality of human neglect when — some seven hundred years after their composition — they nearly perished in London's Cotton Fire that scorched or destroyed close to 1,000 invaluable ancient works.

Ælfric was the most prolific writer in Old English. His main theme is God's mercy. He writes, for example: "The love that loves God is not idle. Instead, it is strong and works great things always. And if love isn’t willing to work, then it isn’t love. God’s love must be seen in the actions of our mouths and minds and bodies. A person must fulfil God’s word with goodness." (“For Pentecost Sunday”)

He also observes in “For the Sixth Day (Friday) in the Third Week of Lent” and in “For the First Sunday After Pentecost”: "And we ought to worship with true humility if we want our heavenly God to hear us because God is the one who lives in a high place and yet has regard for the deep down humble, and God is always near to those who sincerely call to him in their trouble. . . . Without humility no person can thrive in the Lord."

And in the "Fifth Sunday After Pentecost” he reminds us: "Bosses who cannot permit those working under them to know kindness during this life of labour should never themselves enjoy lives of luxury because they could easily be kind to their workers every day. And then they would have some kindness in their souls. God loves kindness.”

Contrast this leitmotif of God's mercy with Archbishop Wulfstan’s trenchant pulpiteering and thundering sermons. Ælfric by no means expressed the popular opinion of the time. His forward-thinking views toward women (though they were not 'modern' views, by any stretch of the imagination) and his strong stance on 'clǽnnes', or purity, were more extreme than others during that time (see for instance his homily on Judith). This was, no doubt, related to his service under the monastic reformer Saint Æthelwold in the monastery at Winchester.

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