02.03.10, Szarmach, ed., Old English Prose: Basic Readings

Main Article Content

Michael Fox

The Medieval Review baj9928.0203.010


Szarmach, Paul, ed.. Old English Prose: Basic Readings. Basic Readings in Anglo-Saxon England, vol. 5.. New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. iv, 530. ISBN: 0-815-30305-x.

Reviewed by:
Michael Fox
University of Western Ontario

The Garland series Basic Readings in Anglo-Saxon England has a laudable aim: the editors explain that the proliferation of studies relating to Anglo-Saxon England since the 1960s means that many important essays are published in a wide range of serial publications which may be prohibitively expensive to obtain. For students and instructors and for scholars, then, the series gathers into one affordable and handy work 'classic, exemplary, or ground-breaking essays' and such new work as individual editors deem necessary to ensure that volumes are current and comprehensive.

The fifth volume in the series, Old English Prose, contains sixteen items, nine of which have previously been published in English (original dates of publication range from 1959 to 1988), two of which have been previously published in German (1980 and 1990) and are here translated into English for the first time, and five new items. The logic of the choices is explained in the introduction, but the editor's general observations on the state of Old English prose scholarship are worthy of note. Szarmach observes that the study of prose "has been inverse to the body of material," but, as Anglo-Saxon studies move away from "mere Aestheticism without a historical dimension," prose may begin to "play its rightful role in describing the historical-cultural phenomena under discussion" (ix-x). This collection, then, "means to assist the revisionary development of the study of Old English prose by offering a baseline or starting point" (x).

The volume opens with Janet M. Bately's "The Literary Prose of King Alfred's Reign: Translation or Transformation?," which focuses on the Boethius, Orosius and the first fifty Psalms of the Paris Psalter. Bately examines evidence for Alfred's authorship of these works and the criteria which have been applied in arguments for and against, and also evaluates the nature of Old English 'translations' in general, concluding that they are sophisticated works in their own right.

Peter Clemoes' essay on Aelfric follows, and, though it is now over forty years old, 'The Chronology of Aelfric's Works' is one of the most valuable essays in this collection. Clemoes covers Aelfric's life and oeuvre, setting out the Aelfrician corpus in order of composition and discussing Aelfric's aims and progress throughout his career. Here we may find a list of editions which is still largely current and an appendix of material used more than once by Aelfric.

Donald Scragg's "The Corpus of Vernacular Homilies and Prose Saints' Lives before Aelfric" aims "to survey, manuscript by manuscript, all homiletic prose [under which rubric Scragg includes homilies, sermons, lives of saints, "exhortatory pieces of a homiletic nature," and "calls to confession addressed either to a congregation or to an individual"] in Old English that has not been attributed to a named writer, to establish all textual parallels, and to conclude with an assessment of the present state of our knowledge of the early tradition" (74). Scragg provides a tabular summary of anonymous homilies, including editions and manuscript distribution, in an appendix. Scragg's survey of the manuscripts is invaluable: as Clemoes' article to Aelfric, so Scragg's survey should be one of the first works consulted by scholars turning to anonymous Old English homiletic prose. After the first three essays, which, together, outline the parameters of the prose corpus (with some notable omissions, especially Wulfstan and Byrhtferth), the following pieces address more specific issues.

Mary Clayton's "Homiliaries and Preaching in Anglo-Saxon England" offers a broad outline of the origins of homilies, locating Anglo- Saxon homily collections in the tradition of Latin homiletics, and of the uses of early homiliaries. She includes detailed treatments of Blickling, Vercelli and Aelfric, as well as a list of Latin homiliaries written in England (manuscripts up to the late eleventh century). In "King Alfred's Version of Augustine's Soliloquia: Some Suggestions on Its Rationale and Unity," Milton McC. Gatch explains "how Alfred understood the Soliloquia and what he attempted to do with the work" (204), speaking to the unity of the work, sources, translation techniques and the problems which remain in the study of the Latin and the English texts.

Klaus Grinda's "The Myth of Circe in King Alfred's Boethius" is translated from the German by Paul Battles and is, in part, an attempt to correct the readings of Karl Otten in his Konig Alfreds Boethius. The main general value of the essay lies in Grinda's exploration of Alfred's attitude toward classical myth, and the knowledge of, and attitude toward, classical myth (especially Homer and Vergil) in Anglo-Saxon England. Grinda also looks at possible routes of transmission of classical knowledge.

Bernard F. Huppe compares Alfred's preface to the Cura Pastoralis with Aelfric's Preface to Genesis in "Alfred and Aelfric: A Study of Two Prefaces." Huppe analyzes each preface in detail, including form, function and rhetorical style, noting a progression from Alfred ("the first venture in the creation of an intellectual prose style in English" [279]) to Aelfric ("the writer who has completely mastered a tradition" [284]) and a conscious awareness on Aelfric's part of belonging to a tradition of prose writing in the vernacular.

Malcolm Godden's "Aelfric's Saints' Lives and the Problem of Miracles" gives an overview of Aelfric's Lives of Saints through the particular examination of Aelfric's attitude toward legend and miracle and also touches upon AElfric's possible motivations for translating and composing saints' lives.

In "Aelfric's Use of Etymologies," Joyce Hill concludes that Aelfric's use of etymologies is "yet another symptom of Aelfric's personal intellectual position" (312), another thing setting him apart from other vernacular writers.

The volume editor, Paul E. Szarmach, includes his own "Aelfric, the Prose Vision, and the Dream of the Rood," which is useful for its coverage of the genre of the visio. Szarmach explores Aelfric's attitude toward the visio as well as his treatment of the vision of Fursa and connections to the Dream of the Rood.

Wulfstan finally makes an appearance in the volume with Hans Sauer's "The Transmission and Structure of Archbishop Wulfstan's 'Commonplace Book'", an essay translated from the German. Sauer summarizes Wulfstan's output and main thematic concerns and then turns to the manuscripts of the "Commonplace Book" and examines their content and structure, with a particular focus on Barlow 37 and CCCC 265. An appendix gives a schematic comparison of the contents of five manuscripts of the 'Book.'

Jonathan Wilcox adds a new article on Wulfstan, "The Wolf on Shepherds: Wulfstan, Bishops, and the Context of the Sermo Lupi ad Anglos," in which he follows one theme in Wulfstan's work in an effort to "open up questions of genre, textual integrity, textual stability and authorship" (397). These two pieces, by Sauer and Wilcox, offer excellent coverage of Wulfstan, both the corpus and the current state of scholarship.

The final two articles, both new in this volume, return to previous questions of hagiography and homiletics. James E. Cross's "The Notice on Marina (7 July) and Passiones S. Margaritae" examines one saint in the Old English Martyrology, confirming the necessity of examining sources (especially Latin sources) and manuscripts in the consideration of saints' lives.

In "The English Saints Remembered in Old English Anonymous Homilies," Jane Roberts looks at the specific cases of Chad and Guthlac, among others, to illustrate "a major problem presented by the anonymous Old English saints" lives. Not all need be deemed earlier than the manuscripts in which they appear" (450). Roberts offers useful advice on the dating issues for anonymous prose texts as well as, again, a summary of the current state of scholarship.

The volume concludes with two bibliographies. Nicole Guenther Discenza contributes "Alfred the Great: A Bibliography with Special Reference to Literature," a thorough bibliography of work on Alfred divided into "Primary Texts: Editions, Facsimiles, and Translations" and "Secondary Works." Aaron Kleist gives "An Annotated Bibliography of Aelfrician Studies: 1983-1996," which extends the reach of Luke Reinsma's Aelfric: An Annotated Bibliography (New York and London, 1987) and, with three new additions, assigns works to the categories devised by Reinsma. An appendix to Kleist's bibliography offers a list of Aelfric entries in the Fontes Anglo-Saxonici database.

From the point of view of content, the volume offers a fairly comprehensive look at both anonymous prose and the works of Alfred, Aelfric and Wulfstan. Many of the essays have substantial appendices, all of which function to make the volume more attractive and valuable as a reference work. The majority of the contributions are from the 1980s: anyone who was not an active scholar in this period or who did not subscribe to the major journals will find that this volume admirably achieves its stated purpose of providing important serially published essays in one accessible volume and a starting point for the study of Old English prose. The absence of any discussion of Byrhtferth is regrettable, and one could have hoped to see an essay addressing Old English rhythmical prose or the blurring lines between Old English homilies and verse (though perhaps this area of scholarship is not sufficiently established), but, given the editorial principles of the series, such a selection may not have been possible. One unfortunate choice, in my opinion, and one which makes the volume somewhat difficult to use, is the decision to use endnotes rather than footnotes. Also, a general index to the volume would have been useful. However, the text is very clean and the editor and contributors have taken the time to include addenda to correct errors and bring older articles up to date.

Overall, this is an excellent volume and both the series editors (Carl Berkhout, Paul E. Szarmach and Joseph B. Trahern, Jr.) and the volume editor (Szarmach) are to be commended for a fine series and a valuable volume on Old English prose. When the final reckoning of contemporary scholars comes, I expect none will be placed above Paul E. Szarmach for the production, promotion and dissemination of the study of Old English prose.

Article Details

Author Biography

Michael Fox

University of Western Ontario