The Medieval Review 10.04.12

Blake, Martin. Ælfric's De Temporibus Anni. Anglo Saxon Texts 6. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer, 2009. Pp. xii, 177. $95 978-1-84384-193-7. .

Reviewed by:

Damian Fleming
Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne
flemingd@ipfw.edu

Martin Blake's new edition of Ælfric's short scientific text, De temporibus anni, is a welcome addition to Boydell and Brewer's Anglo-Saxon Texts series, which seems to have recently received a jolt of energy, publishing three new volumes in 2009 and 2010 alone. In a world where we constantly worry about the future of academic publishing, it is reassuring to see an important series like this, which publishes critical editions of Anglo-Saxon texts in Old English and Latin with translation, introductions, and commentaries, flourishing. Blake's De temporibus anni (hereafter DTA) is an exemplary addition to this series.

Ælfric's short Old English text--composed of 459 lines of prose in this edition, or 20 pages with facing-page translation--is ideally suited to this type of volume, which leaves Blake ample room for a thorough introduction and a variety of supplementary materials. Although the text is not explicitly attributed to Ælfric in any of the surviving witnesses, a number of factors make the attribution highly likely, including its inclusion in a manuscript "of the highest importance for Ælfrician studies" (17), Cambridge, University Library Gg. 3.28 ("G"); the similar wording found in DTA compared with known Ælfrican pieces; and examples of idiosyncratic views expressed in DTA which are otherwise attested in known Ælfrician works. A noteworthy example is Ælfric's insistence that fortunetelling based on the moon--or lunar prognostication--is incompatible with the Christian faith; nevertheless he claims that the moon does have a clear effect on some earthly matters, such as the tides, and "trees cut down at the full moon are more resistant to woodworm" (3). Blake makes a convincing argument that DTA, while long seen as Ælfric's first work after he completed the second series of Catholic Homilies, should be dated even earlier, having been composed between the two sets of homilies in direct response to some of the issue raised in the first series.

The treatise is ostensibly an explanation of chronology, like the texts of Bede from which Ælfric got his title: De temporibus and the later, longer De temporum ratione. However, DTA is not nearly as detailed as these Latin texts, nor as specially focused on chronology. DTA begins with an account of Creation, paraphrasing Genesis while also clarifying the scientific issues at stake, such as the date of Creation, the first vernal equinox, and the relationship among the earth, sun, moon, and planets. In the course of the text, Ælfric at least introduces the concepts essential to understanding computus, including equinoxes, solstices, leap years, the moon's leap, but also includes information on the stars and constellations and comets, the four elements, winds, and a discussion of storms. While it is not a comprehensive guide to the subject comparable to Bede's works, nor does it provide nearly enough information to actually calculate the date of Easter, for example, it likely provided enough information for the lay clergy who needed to understand the rudiments of computus. Computus--the science of reconciling the Hebrew lunar calendar with the Roman solar calendar in order to determine the date of the moveable liturgical feasts, most notably Easter--is a subject whose foreignness to modern readers and centrality to medieval ones cannot be overestimated. Early medievalists are fortunate to benefit from the scholarship of a handful of excellent current researchers on the subject. [1] The general topic of computus is the subject of untold manuscripts from the early Middle Ages. [2] Blake's new edition of DTA also adds to our collective understanding. Fitting with the conciseness and clarity found throughout this edition, Blake provides a brief, tightly focused introduction to the medieval calendar and the science of computus, complete with footnotes pointing the reader to fuller treatments.

One is naturally drawn to compare DTA with the roughly contemporaneous Enchiridion of Byrhtferth of Ramsey, another Old English text on chronology which itself seems to have borrowed from DTA. However, unlike Byrhtferth's Enchiridion, a much more detailed commentary on the computus, which is given to lengthy tangents on a variety of topics and also unabashedly insults at least part of his audience ("you stupid rustic priests!"), Ælfric's text is concise and focused. When Ælfric starts to get too far off topic, he quickly pulls himself back, as when he cuts off his own discussion of the winds: "Their names and characteristics we could describe if it did not seem tedious to write about...It seems too complex that we should speak further about this" (95). Rather than show off his erudition for its own sake, Ælfric, as in all his works, strives primarily "to correct widely held erroneous beliefs, and to discourage potentially dangerous speculation on matters beyond his audience's ability to understand" (41). Against Lapidge and Baker's characterization of DTA as "a book for the mildly curious, something like the writings of Lewis Thomas or Carl Sagan in our own time" [3], Blake argues that Ælfric seeks "to answer specific questions, to fill gaps in knowledge...in simple, prosaic terms...[making] highly selective use of its sources" (45-46). Doing all of this in English, in late tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England, where fluency in Latin skills could not be assumed even in monastic centers, likely contributed to its success: "In all likelihood, then, DTA ultimately found a new and receptive audience among those who, because of its language and selectivity, found it more accessible than its sources" (46).

Although Ælfric's work, for a number of reasons, did not "spawn a generation of descendents" (66), that is, comparable vernacular treatises, it nevertheless seems to have been appreciated and used by a wide variety of users for many centuries. Byrhtferth almost certainly used it, and the eight surviving manuscripts and their hypothetical exemplars show how widely it was copied. DTA seems to have had a long shelf life, surviving in at least one late twelfth-century manuscript the scribe of which, Blake argues, contra Henel, "understood perfectly well what he was copying" (13). Blake's full treatment of all the manuscripts reveals that it must have had a wide circulation, since none of the manuscripts are directly derived from each other. Only one other manuscript (London, BL Cotton Tiberius B. v) contains the complete text in the same order with the same section heading as G, the oldest manuscript, but even this copy contains significant differences and unique readings which make it clear that it is not derived from G or even G's exemplar. Concerning its later reception, Blake also raises the intriguing possibility that DTA was known to Philippe de Thaon, the twelfth-century author of an Anglo-Norman metrical treatise on computus, and notes marginal comments in one manuscript suggesting that DTA may have been read as late as the fourteenth century.

A tenth-century monk's description of the cosmos is, not surprisingly, discordant with standards set by modern scientific observation. Ælfric's account of the shape and position of the earth and the movement of heavenly bodies around it is almost entirely derived from his sources: primarily Bede and Isidore of Seville, who in turn draw heavily from Pliny. Nevertheless, it should come as no surprise to medievalists that Ælfric's understanding exceeds that which has been traditionally ascribed to the early medieval mind. Yes, Ælfric and his pre-Copernican sources believed that the earth was the center of the universe, but they were unequivocal concerning the spherical nature of the earth and the implications of its shape on, for example, the length of days during different seasons of the year at different latitudes. Even the most sympathetic readers, however, might be surprised at Ælfric's comparison of the shape of the earth to a pinnhnyte ("pinecone"), but this again is an image he inherited from Pliny via Bede. Ælfric even occasionally improves his sources' misconceptions, such as the number of days that "Thule" (Iceland) has perpetual daylight during the time of the summer solstice; Bede, quoting a variety of sources, leaves the reader with the impression that perpetual daylight there lasts six months, while Ælfric shortens this to the much more likely six days. Blake, however, a meticulous, cautious editor, does not extrapolate from this alteration Ælfric's personal knowledge of Iceland, but suggests Ælfric likely "is merely carrying forward this number" from his source's assertion that Thule lies six days sail from Britain (119). Blake is equally cautious concerning the one seemingly autobiographical note in the text: "In the north of [England], the nights are light in the summer, such that it remains light all night, as we ourselves have very often seen" (swa swa we sylfe foroft gesawon; 88–89). Henel had suggested that this passage might require us to reconsider Ælfric's Wessex origin [4], but given the dearth of corroborating evidence, Blake suggests even this comment by Ælfric reflects more Bede's wording than his personal experience (119). Ælfric's serious scientific mind is seen when he begins his section on the bissextile day (the extra day of leap years) by refuting the popular conception that the added day has something to with the account of God holding the sun still on behalf of Joshua at the city of Gibeon. The bissextile day, Ælfric tells us, "is never because of that, even though the unlearned have believed it so" (89). Ælfric here departs from his sources, which do not address this issue, to refute a belief which apparently had some circulation in Ælfric's world, showing up, for example, in the Leofric Missal.

Blake's volume concludes with a treasure trove of appendices, which will surely appeal to a wide variety of users. Appendix 1 is a chart of all the biblical quotations in DTA compared (where applicable) to the Old English Heptateuch (the first chunk of which was also translated by Ælfric), and the Vulgate. Examining these parallels, one notices the relative freedom Ælfric takes in translating even the same biblical quotation on two different occasions. Furthering this tight volume's usefulness, Blake provides a succinct introduction to the topic of Ælfric and biblical translation. Appendix 2 is a complete list of the 15 biblical references in DTA. Appendix 3 prints 34 excerpts from DTA next to parallel passages found in other Ælfrican texts, such as his Catholic Homilies and Hexameron. Although Blake discusses his conclusions regarding such overlap, this appendix offers his data to scholars so that they may draw conclusions for themselves. Appendix 4 meticulously lists all orthographic variants among the manuscripts. The edition also includes a short handy glossary of "Astronomical and Calendrical Terms," to remind those who need it what exactly an Embolism is ("the thirteenth lunar month added to certain years within the calendrical cycle [hence the name 'embolismic years']" 149). The edition ends with an Old English to Modern English glossary, listing "every form of every word which appears in the text set out above" (151). The conjunction of a facing-page translation and a complete glossary is a further element which reveals the usability of this edition. Scholars without Old English will be able to access the text through Blake's consciously literal translation, while language scholars will discover that even seemingly mundane function words can be revealing, such as the preposition þurh, which Ælfric apparently uses to mean "despite" (see glossary, page 166, and commentary page 112). The volume concludes with a concise bibliography and subject index.

Blake's new edition supersedes that of Henel [5]. Henel based his edition, as Blake does, on manuscript G and collated variant readings from all but one of the manuscripts included by Blake. Henel's edition lacks a translation, glossary, and even bibliography; it does however, provide extensive sources and parallels (mostly from Bede and Isidore) printed on facing pages to Ælfric's text. As Blake points out, nevertheless, Ælfric's text rarely represents anything approaching a literal translation, and the diversity of sources which seem to be used even for a single section suggests that Ælfric was working with a florilegium of extracts from the various authors. Blake does not raise the possibility that Ælfric may have simply been composing from memory. In any event, Blake is fittingly more cautious in assigning sources to Ælfric's text; he outlines these sources in his commentary following the text.

In sum, this is an excellent volume, which will be useful to all scholars of Anglo-Saxon England, the early Middle Ages, the calendar, and the history of science. Blake's scholarship is evident throughout, but so too is his successful effort to make what could be an obscure text accessible to as many potential users as possible. As I hope to have stressed throughout, Blake has written a book which by itself would serve as an excellent introduction to Ælfrican studies. Ælfric himself was famously fastidious concerning how his texts should be treated: asking that they not be broken up, or published alongside texts of dubious orthodoxy. All Anglo-Saxonists know that Ælfric's wishes were never heeded, even within his own lifetime. In Martin Blake's new edition, I think Ælfric has found an editor he would be pleased with.

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Notes:

1. See most especially the extensive introduction in Faith Wallis, Bede, The Reckoning of Time (Liverpool, 1999).

2. W.M. Steven, Cycles of Time and Scientific Learning in Medieval Europe (Aldershot, 1995), vii, estimates that over 9,000 manuscripts containing materials relating to computus survive from before the year 1600.

3. Quoting Peter S. Baker and Michael Lapidge, ed. Byrhtferth's Enchiridion, Early English Text Society ss 15 (Oxford, 1995), xc-xci.

4. H. Henel, ed., Ælfric's De temporibus anni, Early English Text Society os 213 (London, 1942), 95.

5. Ibid.