03.12.27, Godden, ed., Aelfric's Catholic Homilies

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Andrew P. Scheil

The Medieval Review baj9928.0312.027


Godden, Malcolm, ed.. Aelfric's Catholic Homilies: Introduction, Commentary and Glossary. Early English Text Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Pp. v, 780. ISBN: 0-197-22419-9.

Reviewed by:
Andrew P. Scheil
Harvard University

As is well known to the community of Anglo-Saxon scholars, this edition of Aelfric of Eynsham's (c. 955-c. 1010) Catholic Homilies has stretched over many years. The late Peter Clemoes's Ph.D. thesis on Aelfric, submitted to Cambridge University in 1955, began the process. Formerly the Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge, Clemoes made his mark in the field in an important article defining and dating the corpus of Aelfric's writings in 1959: P. Clemoes, "The Chronology of Aelfric's Works," in The Anglo-Saxons: Studies in Some Aspects of their History and Culture Presented to Bruce Dickins, ed. P. Clemoes (London, 1959), 212-47; reprinted as Old English Newsletter Subsidia, vol. 5. An edition of the large Catholic Homilies, comprising the so-called "First Series" and "Second Series," was promised. Dr. Godden, currently the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, published an edition of the Second Series, texts only, sans commentary (Aelfric's Catholic Homilies: The Second Series, EETS, SS 5 [Oxford, 1979], based on his doctoral thesis completed at Cambridge under the direction of Professor Clemoes in the late 1960s. As Godden details in the preface to the volume under review (hereafter Introduction), the project was conceived in the early 1970s as a collaboration between Clemoes and Godden. Clemoes revised and worked on his edition of the First Series over the years until his death in 1996, at which point Godden saw the almost-completed volume through the press to posthumous publication (Aelfric's Catholic Homilies: The First Series, ed. Peter Clemoes, EETS, SS 17 [Oxford, 1997]). This third and final volume of the edition, consisting of full introduction, commentary and glossary to both series, brings the project to a close. The critical reception of the Introduction has given the edition the praise and plaudits it deserves. It has received at least one award to my knowledge, the biennial Sir Israel Gollancz prize of The British Academy (jointly to Clemoes and Godden for the full 3 vol. edition).

The "Introduction" (xxi-lxii) of the Introduction gives us very brief sub-sections as follows: a short biographical paragraph ("Aelfric of Eynsham"), an excellent compact discussion of the complex issues of genre, reception and audience of the Catholic Homilies ("The Nature of the Catholic Homilies"); "The Date and Origin of the Catholic Homilies"; "Alliterative Style in the Catholic Homilies"; "Aelfric's Sources"; "Biblical Sources"; "Aelfric's Working Methods." Each of these brief essays stands for the main areas of modern scholarship on Aelfric; Godden presents these vast fields in readable, succinct ways. Anyone wishing to gain a quick overview of the state of Aelfric scholarship would be advised to put this "Introduction" on a short, essential reading list. These sections are followed by a "Summary List of Sources Used by Aelfric in the Catholic Homilies." This prosaic title does not quite do justice to this 17-page list, which includes not just the standard editions of the works used by Godden in assembling his Commentary, but also brief annotated thumbnail explanations of the uses of the particular source-text in question. By way of example, the entry for Amalarius of Metz runs as follows (from p. (xlvii):

Amalarius of Metz (780-850)

Liber officialis (ed. J. Hanssens, in Amalarius Episcopi Opera Liturgica Omnia, 3vols., Studi e Testi 138-40, Vatican City, 1948-50, vol. 2). Mentioned as source on the significance of Septuagesima at II.5.237, and probably used for comments on other feast-days at I.18.5-11, I.22.1-3, 27-9, and II.13.1-10. Cf too II.3.262-72 and II.16.208-25. Aelfric probably knew the work in abridged and adapted form; see M. McC. Gatch, 'The Office in late Anglo-Saxon Monasticism', in Lapidge and Gneuss 1985, pp. 341-62, and Jones 1998, pp. 62-5.

This is one of the many ways the entire Introduction presents its vast amount of information in as many reader/researcher-friendly ways as possible. One will find this information about Amalarius in the appropriate notes of the commentary on the homilies in question, but it is very useful to have the information available in summary form, at a glance in this list.

The Commentary itself then stretches for 669 pages, covering the First Series (preface and forty homilies), the Second Series (preface and forty homilies), and the concluding explicit and oratorio to the entire 2-volume "set." The format for each homily includes: a summary discussion of the homily (perhaps averaging a page and a half or two pages in length), a summary list of sources for that particular homily, with once again full bibliographic information for the source texts (thus no need to hunt up the edition of the source somewhere else in the 3-volume set), and the commentary keyed to the text of the homily. The commentary "deals primarily with the processes by which Aelfric created the homilies and the sources which he used to create them, together with occasional difficulties of meaning" (1). In the commentary Godden reproduces a generous contextual amount of the relevant sources "in recognition of their importance for scholarly work on the Old English language, the transmission of texts and the history of ideas" (1). Prosaic understatement once again. As I will detail below, these modest descriptions of the Commentary do not come close to describing the riches poured into these notes. In essence Godden has taken the amount of insight and learning that could easily have generated one or more monographs on Aelfric, and instead presented it as a commentary.

This fine edition will no doubt serve the needs of the Anglo- Saxonist community in various important ways, and for those who work on Aelfric in particular, this edition will fill a long- standing need. It might be useful, however, to detail some of the ways that the depth of learning in this commentary might speak to those interested in the early Middle Ages in general, or any medievalist perhaps not familiar with Aelfric of Eynsham. Much of the value of this edition is in the way Godden provides a dossier of Aelfric's creative habits, to the extent that researchers engaged in any number of contiguous issues might find Aelfric's place in an broader conversation.

For example, Godden helpfully calls attention throughout the Commentary to Aelfric's abiding interest in certain doctrinal issues: e.g. fall and redemption; free will, predestination and grace; the Trinity; the human/divine nature of Christ; resurrection of the body; false gods/idolatry vs. the true God, and so forth. Godden also signals other recurrent themes or topics in Aelfric's thinking: that animals do not have souls (10); the origin of the soul (12, 458); Christ's designation as the "Son of Man" (24); the physical condition of the resurrected at final judgment (43); "man's separation from the beasts by virtue of his reason and his soul" (50); sexual abstinence during Lent (93). It is at these points that Aelfric often diverges from his source materials, to a greater or lesser degree. As Godden discusses Aelfric's uses of sources, he casts quite a bit of incidental light on the interpretation of figures such as Haymo, Bede, and Augustine, and explains much about such subjects as early medieval theology, the church calendar, the liturgy, monastic culture, etc. (See, e.g., the 2-page note on Lazarus and leprosy (pp. 190-191), and the headnote to CH II.10 (St. Cuthbert).

Further in this respect, Godden also carefully guides the reader through those moments when Aelfric seems to be diverging from his sources in an original fashion: added metaphors, analogies, images, points of emphasis, rhetorical expansions. Godden even tracks the way a key phrase in the Old English may subtly render a different valence from the original source, often in quite microscopic ways, such as tense changes, omission or addition of words and phrases, etc. For example, in the commentary on lines 2-22 of the tenth homily of the First Series (Dominica in Quinquagessima), Godden notes that Aelfric's passage is a "free paraphrase of Luke 18.31-43" and then reprints the Biblical passage. Our editor then adds: "Significant differences [i.e. in Aelfric's rendition] are the shift from third person (the son of man) to first in verses 31- 3; the curtailment of verse 34; the omission of mendicans in verse 35 (line 11), and the addition of mid micelre onbryrdnysse at line 22" (78). The level of detail in this and in literally hundreds of other examples is quite astounding.

Godden is so immersed in Aelfric's corpus that he is able to tell us if we run across a favorite topic, favorite method(s) of composition, even favorite sayings and topoi (e.g. pp. 153, 164, 397, 561, 644). In general, Godden is very sensitive to the complex way Aelfric works through direct translation, paraphrase, and the recasting and merging of materials in various modes. In many ways, upon reading through the Commentary one feels that the Introduction is a powerful summary testament to the significant scholarship on the Latin sources of Anglo-Saxon literary culture conducted over the past thirty years.

The Commentary, however, extends beyond the negotiation of source texts. Important manuscript variants are examined (where applicable), as well as evidence for, and results of, textual revision in the tortuous compositional history of the Catholic Homilies (e.g. pp. 329, 526). Godden also notes contemporary references or valences (e.g., p. 519), and provides a lucid lexical commentary. In this respect, fascinating subjects that struck this reader included: the difference between costnian ("to tempt, assail") and fandian ("to test, try") (86); comments on Aelfric's use of etymology (e.g., the wonderful analysis of Aelfric's etymology of Satan's name (89-90); the discussion of unusual words (especially from the Old English poetic lexicon) when they occur: see, e.g., the note (298) on the use of OE poetic metod ("God, fate?" [as rendered by Godden's Glossary) and the rare OE port for civitas (rather than the usual OE burh) on p. 586. Godden displays a sensitive awareness of the tendency of glossaries of authoritative editions to "fix" the meaning of medieval words in ways that might obscure particular nuances: see, e.g., his note on Aelfric's translation of scandilizare and scandalum (286), and his headnote to the Glossary, (672). In the Glossary, at least four examples are given under each headword, two from each series (where applicable), with a useful array of glossarial cross-referencing. As one might expect, full reference to seemingly all the secondary literature on Aelfric is on display throughout the text.

Yet, for all his erudition, Godden is admirably honest when his research is inconclusive: e.g., p. 334, on CH I.39.83-5. (Are there also perhaps moments of humor tucked away on p. 444, on CH II.11.434-42, and on p. 626, on CH II.34.45-58?). One would now want to add Ananya Kabir's fine book, Paradise, Death and Doomsday in Anglo-Saxon Literature (Cambridge, 2001) to the discussion of Aelfric's understanding of "limbo" and "Abraham's bosom" in the headnote to I.23 (Second Sunday after Pentecost; perhaps also to p. 385, on CH II.5.143-9). Drew Jones's article, "Old English fant and Its Compounds in the Anglo-Saxon Vocabulary of Baptism" Mediaeval Studies 63 (2001): 143-192, should complement the discussion of baptism on pp. 369-370.

No doubt this commentary will enable a clearer picture of Aelfric as this superlative edition works its way into general use in the field of Anglo-Saxon studies. Beyond this, with Godden as a guide, it might be nice to see Aelfric, as a prose artisan and thinker in his own right, afforded the serious attention that has been the exclusive province of an Augustine or Bacon or Montaigne.

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Andrew P. Scheil

Harvard University