05.07.09, Townend, ed., Wulfstan

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John Hines

The Medieval Review baj9928.0507.009


Townend., Matthew, ed.. Wulfstan, Archbishop of York: The Proceedings of the Second Alcuin Conference. Series: Studies in the Early Middle Ages, vol. 10. Turnhout:Brepols, 2004. Pp. xiii, 553. ISBN: 2-503-52224-6.

Reviewed by:

John Hines
Cardiff University

This is a substantial book, and a major contribution to Anglo-Saxon literary and historical scholarship. The proceedings of a conference held in 2002 to mark the thousandth anniversary of Wulfstan's election as Archbishop of York are represented here by nineteen papers, covering 516 pages. Some of them have significant factual appendices in the form of editions and translations of previously unpublished texts, or tabulations of cartulary and liturgical documents; several more contain a wealth of newly compiled and sorted primary material of this kind. This is evidence of the surprisingly inchoate state of the basis for studies of Wulfstan. Matthew Townend's editorial introduction proves a particularly useful guide to the contents of such a large volume, not least for providing a sensible critique of its range and impact at the same time. He emphasizes the difficulty of compartmentalizing Wulfstan's various activities into discrete areas of study; he notes the necessary primacy of a textual approach to Wulfstan's career, but also that those sources themselves repeatedly and insistently carry us far beyond the world of scriptoria and libraries; and he concludes by drawing attention to the wide range of further work on Wulfstan and his circumstances that we can now see is waiting to be undertaken.

The late Patrick Wormald had been a keynote speaker at the conference, and his is the first paper in the volume. It is poignant to read a paper that in so many ways represents Patrick at his best, and in which he refers to his own plans for future work: here the self-consciousness that was always a feature of his style flows into a genuinely authoritative but modest confidence in his ability emphatically to recapitulate an informed and sympathetic understanding of what Wulfstan, so very public a figure, was most concerned to do--and how that should then be measured in the absolute perspective of the history of England. This paper on its own provides an articulate portrayal of the essential Wulfstan: a complex figure of ecclesiastical and secular authority, pursuing his special (but distinctly Frankish) strategy of exercising political influence through the medium of legislation. The preacher and the legist were the same man: "The simple truth is that his earlier laws are heavily homiletic, and his later homilies are very like laws." Few of Wulfstan's compositions lie still in firm and definite form because, to paraphrase Wormald slightly, what Wulfstan had to say in homily or law-code was always too important to be pinned down to any one specific context, occasion or formulation.

While other scholars of more distant generations, Arthur Napier, Karl Jost, Dorothy Whitelock and Dorothy Bethurum, to whose efforts current knowledge and understanding of Wulfstan owe so much, are treated with due respect throughout this book, it is also clear that their expectations and presuppositions are in the process of being thoroughly superseded. Something that perhaps we would still like to pin down, but cannot because the material defies such tidy control, is a definite authorial attitude to the relative importance of medium and message in Wulfstan's compositions. As detailed discussions of his diction, and of the punctuation of his homilies, of the style and probable context of Sermo Lupi, and of his eschatalogical sermon known as Napier L, show, he explored and exploited presentational options with remarkable breadth and creativity--but ultimately all to the purpose of making the points he wished to be heard, considered and acted upon. Thomas N. Hall endorses, in a much fuller manner, Bethurum's suggestion that Wulfstan's Latin "homilies" were often preliminary sketches for texts to be written up in the vernacular--although not in the case of Admonitio episcoporum utilis, which he argues was aimed at an episcopal gathering and therefore appropriately written for delivery in Latin. Studies of the York Gospelbook and Wulfstan's "Alcuin manuscript" (Cotton Vespasian A.xiv) reveal Wulfstan's pragmatic involvement in the commissioning, production and annotation of manuscripts.

Wulfstan's practical responsibilities as a bishop and archbishop are duly attended to in this collection, although there seems to be very little information about his period as Bishop of London from 996 to 1002--which is disappointing, as that was a period in which London is likely to have been undergoing dramatic development, with a vitality that is graphically represented in the apparently immediately pre-Wulfstanian set of mercantile regulations for London known as IV Æthelræd. Julia Barrow disarmingly concludes her discussion of Wulfstan at Worcester with the view that "Wulfstan's period in office in Worcester was an unexciting one in terms of ecclesiastical administration." I suppose it depends on what you find exciting; actually, for me, Stephen Baxter's immediately following analysis of the various documents revealing Wulfstan's careful control of properties for both Worcester and York proved both interesting and informative in showing exactly how these worldly concerns of the Church were managed.

Rather more of the papers in his volume use the contemporary and familiar figure of Ælfric as an almost normative starting point from which to approach Wulfstan, either in their titles, or from the outset of the discussion, than properly reflects the relative historical importance of the two men, and their markedly different careers. This, however, is an inevitable reflex of the inherited state of Old English studies; encouragingly, these essays are for the most part quite free of a distortingly Wessex-centred, Æthelwold-and-Ælfric paradigm against which Wulfstan and his work might be interpreted and evaluated. Malcolm Godden's presentation of the limited evidence there is of direct contacts between the two men and discussion of their cool relationship is particularly lively.

It is anything but an adverse reflection upon this book, to note finally how it leaves the reviewer with a powerful sense of the amount that could yet be done with Wulfstan as the focus of study and research. Given the scattered and incomplete publication of the textual material, it is far from easy to obtain a satisfactory overview of the evidence directly representing his career. Plans are reportedly well in hand to remedy this problem, and in view of the intensity of rewriting and variation of these sources this looks like a body of material for which digital editions and facsimiles will prove particularly efficient. There is clearly also room for something like a "Companion" volume that includes wider discussion of Wulfstan's historical contexts--such as the situation in London, referred to just above, or in the city and suburbs of York beyond the Minster precinct, about which we know a great deal, to say nothing of the dramatic national political events. This point was brought home forcefully towards the end of this volume, where Audrey Meaney's discussion of Wulfstan and "heathenism" suddenly took flight with a sparkling and extensive review of the evidence for superstitious practices in late Anglo-Saxon England. As a point of information, in response to her comment on page 489: "...so far as I know, no Anglo-Saxon coins (or datable votive artefacts) have been found associated with any springs or other bodies of water," such finds have been made in the bed of the pool at the spring of the River Hogsmill at Ewell (Surrey), the location of a significant Roman-period civilian and early Anglo-Saxon settlement, while weapons, very probably ritually deposited, are often found in rivers and wetlands, not least from the Viking Period.

This volume demonstrates that a broad range of effective work on Wulfstan is in hand, which should issue in a new and thriving wave of studies on and around him, not just as a literary figure, an interesting writer though less elegant and self-consciously authorial than Ælfric, but above all as a key historical figure within a dramatic period of English history. The book will itself form a major foundation stone for that future work. It is an expensive book, but one that offers real value for money to anyone seeking to maintain a library of the highest quality on Anglo-Saxon topics. Congratulations and thanks, then, to all who have been involved in its production.

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John Hines

Cardiff University