11.11.31, Magennis, A Companion to Ælfric

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Melanie Heyworth

The Medieval Review 11.11.31

Magennis, Hugh and Mary Swan. A Companion to Ælfric. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition. Leiden: Koninklijke Brill NV, 2009. Pp. xv, 466. ISBN: 978-90-04-17681-2.

Reviewed by:
Melanie Heyworth
University of Sidney

It was with much anticipation that many Anglo-Saxonists received news of the impending release of A Companion To Ælfric. This is the first volume of collected essays devoted to the complete range of works by the prolific Ælfric to be published, with its promise to fill a gaping lacuna not just in Ælfrician studies, but more broadly in late Anglo- Saxon religious, social,and literary studies. With fifteen chapters written by the foremost Ælfrician scholars, this lengthy tome covers the breadth of Ælfric's wide-ranging works and engages with an array of topics concerning Ælfric, from his patrons, to his purpose, his context, his reception in his own time and beyond. If readers were expecting a Companion like others in the series, they will be disappointed: as Magennis and Swan note in their "Introduction," "rather than a systematic summary and overview of the state of research on its topic, it [the volume] offers a set of fresh contributions which, though taking their starting points from the current research context, break new ground" (1). This volume, then, promises much indeed: new perspectives on Ælfric's works, and nuanced understandings of the man and his writings, dependent on a heightened awareness of the many contexts that frame our study of him. Hugh Magennis opens the volume with a comprehensive and thorough survey of "Ælfric Scholarship." He not only presents a readable synthesis of Ælfric scholarship from its beginnings in the mid-sixteenth century with the use of Ælfric's Grammar and Glossary as an introduction to Old English (by antiquarians such as Robert Talbot), through to current trends and scholarly preoccupations, but he also situates Ælfric studies within the broader context of Anglo-Saxon studies. He explains the fundamental place Ælfric has in Anglo-Saxon studies and thus why such interest in Ælfric exists. In four discrete sections, Magennis covers the early scholarship from the mid- sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, the philological preoccupation of the nineteenth century, the burgeoning breadth of studies through the twentieth century, and the current scholarly situation, including directions for further work. Magennis is such an engaging author in his own right, and he leads us from the refashioning of Ælfric into a proto-protestant by Archbishop Matthew Parker (among others) through centuries of research to a refreshing acknowledgement of the lack of theory shaping current Ælfrician studies (a lack, it might be added, that is disappointingly only properly addressed by Clare Lees in this volume). In this dense thirty-page chapter, Magennis skilfully weaves a summary of the most influential and landmark publications about, on, and editing Ælfric, whilst showing us the breadth of interest in Ælfric across the centuries.

Joyce Hill has the remarkably difficult job of introducing "Ælfric: His Life and Works." Her chapter examines the proposed corpus of Ælfrician works, the chronology of that corpus, and the evidence for what we know of Ælfric's life, including his family and background, professional network, ecclesiastical, scholarly and social contexts, and his times at Winchester, Cerne and Eynsham. Hill's chapter, however, is not a standalone "introduction" to Ælfric's life or works. Her ambitious remit is so comprehensive that it would be impossible to include all of the information and evidence necessary to explain each of her foci fully in a thirty-odd page chapter. And indeed, why, when Swan later examines Ælfric's prefaces in detail, would Hill extrapolate more than she does on Ælfric's fashioning of himself as "alumnus Æthelwoldi"; why would she engage with the detail of the lives of Ælfric's patrons, Æthelweard and Æthelmaer, when Cubitt's chapter on Ælfric's lay patrons does so in great depth; and why, when the chapter immediately following her own examines the Benedictine Reform and Ælfric's place within it, would Hill overburden her chapter with an explanation of that Reform? For scholars familiar with Ælfric, or at the very least with the political, social and religious context of Ælfric's era, Hill's introduction is more than sufficient. But for a student or scholar new to Ælfric, to his works, and especially to the contexts in which he wrote (like the Benedictine Reform), Hill's chapter would not be an adequate introduction. This is disappointing (even for a Companion that wishes to break new ground rather than to summarize what we already know) given that Hill's chapter should set up the contributions which follow it, rather than rely on them. This criticism is a relatively minor one in the face of Hill's achievement of synthesising so much information into a digestible chapter, but it is one to which I will return, since it effectively defines the target audience of the volume by assuming a level of knowledge that alienates newcomers to Ælfrician studies.

Christopher Jones's chapter, "Ælfric and the Limits of 'Benedictine Reform'" is one of the strongest in the volume. He presents a compelling case based on close analysis not only of Ælfric's works, but also of those of earlier continental and other accepted "second-generation" reformers contemporary with Ælfric (such as Byrhtferth and Wulfstan Cantor), that Ælfric is in fact not very "reformist," even while he problematizes and questions the nature of the "Benedictine Reform" itself if "it can present both Ælfric and Wulfstan Cantor (for example) as its mainstream" (104). The value and repercussions of this chapter are far-reaching since it distances Ælfric from the very Reform with which he is so often unconsciously associated, as well as contributing to the growing body of scholarship which has as its aim the re- evaluation of the Reform itself, its purposes, and its influence. Mechthild Gretsch's chapter on "Ælfric, Language and Winchester" then provides an interesting counterpoint: in her examination of Ælfric's connection with and contribution to Standard Old English and Winchester vocabulary (the origin of both which "should be sought in Bishop Æthelwold's circle" [123]), Gretsch concludes that Ælfric had a "deep commitment to his Winchester training" and that "no doubt the germ for further aspects of Ælfric's language and style can plausibly be sought at Æthelwold's school as well" (129). Gretsch goes on to argue the possibility that Ælfric's patron, Æthelweard, may have been taught Latin at Winchester, and that "we may suspect that Æthelweard will have approved of," and indeed encouraged, "the Winchester attempts, so vigorously pursued by Ælfric" (135). These conclusions are not, of course, mutually exclusive to Jones: there is no reason that Ælfric could not retain aspects of his Æthelwoldian, "Reform" education whilst moving away from others. Indeed, Gretsch ultimately argues that Ælfric's promotion of Standard Old English and Winchester vocabulary stems from his intimate understanding of the need for political unity and "high-level scholarly activity [...] in a time of national crisis and distress" (137). Nevertheless these two chapters read together portray an intriguing picture of Ælfric both forging a unique, decidedly "non-reformist" position and simultaneously committed to his Winchester education.

In "Ælfric and the Alfredian Precedents," Malcolm Godden examines Ælfric's use of Alfredian or pseudo-Alfredian translations. Given that Ælfric himself makes reference to "Alfredian Precedents," Godden asks the very pertinent questions: what works did Ælfric think were Alfred's, and how did he use those works? In a fascinating chapter, Godden reveals that Ælfric used some works now understood to be Alfredian without acknowledging their Alfredian connection, and that the one text he explicitly cites as Alfred's (the translation of Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica), is no longer accepted as Alfred's at all. The main thrust of Godden's argument, however, is to examine the profound differences between Alfred's and Ælfric's approaches to translation into the vernacular, and he concludes that it was the Alfredian project of translation that at least in part made Ælfric so aware of and concerned about the dangers of translation into the vernacular, a conclusion supported by his close reading of Ælfric's careful appropriation (and not) of the Alfredian Boethius.

Catherine Cubitt's important chapter on "Ælfric's Lay Patrons" can (and perhaps should) be read as a supplementary "introduction" to Ælfric's life. Cubitt provides an impressively detailed (but equally impressively comprehensible) overview of what we know of Ælfric's lay patrons: Æthelweard, Æthelmaer, Sigeweard, Sigefyrth, and Wulfgeat. The significance of this chapter, however, lies in the skilled way in which Cubitt weaves the stories not just of these men, but of King Æthelred, his reign, the contemporary political situation, and the development of local churches, into the narrative of Ælfric's preoccupations and works. More than simply describing Ælfric's lay patrons, Cubitt paints a picture of co-dependency, connections and contexts necessary for any scholar's understanding of Ælfric and his works.

The following two chapters--Thomas Hall's "Ælfric as Pedagogue" and Robert Upchurch's "Catechetic Homiletics: Ælfric's Preaching and Teaching During Lent"--examine aspects of Ælfric's career as a teacher and a preacher respectively. In a careful examination of Ælfric's Grammar, Glossary, Colloquy, and the De Temporibus anni, Hall convincingly argues for Ælfric as a teacher concerned with the practicality of teaching his English students and with writing pedagogical texts specifically answering their needs. Ælfric, argues Hall, builds "upon long-standing pedagogical tools and adapt[s] them afresh for English students" (215), and is as strongly motivated by tradition as by "a drive for innovation" (215). Hall's chapter, then, happily complements the seemingly contradictory conclusions drawn earlier by Jones and Gretsch of Ælfric, as simultaneously committed to tradition and innovation. Upchurch uses Ælfric's exegetical homilies for Lent to scrutinize Ælfric the preacher, his methods, and his messages for his congregation. What Upchurch reveals is an Ælfric surprisingly confident in the intellectual ability of his audience, and composing exegetical homilies which go far beyond other anonymous homilies of the time in offering "a steady diet of intellectually demanding, nuanced argumentation from the Scriptures themselves about the motives for and motivations of faithful Christian living" (246). Through close analysis of Ælfric's scriptural exegesis, Upchurch amply demonstrates what he calls Ælfric's "predilection for pairing moral instruction with rigorous theology" (246). And although it is not the focus of Upchurch's conclusions we are again struck with the image of Ælfric as deeply concerned with tradition as with innovation, and as connected to a Christianity firmly located in "sophisticated intellectual arguments based on the word of God" (226) as to a preached Christianity which "is distinctly his own" (246).

Mary Swan's "Identity and Ideology in Ælfric's Prefaces," Clare Lees's "In Ælfric's Words: Conversion, Vigilance and Nation in Ælfric's Life of Gregory the Great," Gabriella Corona's "Ælfric's Schemes and Tropes: Amplificatio and the Portrayal of Persecutors," and Kathleen Davis's "Boredom, Brevity and Last Things: Ælfric's Style and the Politics of Time," work together as a set of stylistic studies. Swan studies Ælfric's prefaces, both Latin and Old English, to reveal the meticulous care with which Ælfric positioned both himself and his addressee, a positioning "relevant to the function of the text" (268), dependent upon the identity of the addressee, and ultimately "crucial to the ideological work Ælfric intends his text to perform" (269). Lees, in a refreshingly theoretical chapter, offers both a more detailed reading of the Life of Gregory than has thus far been offered, as well as engaging in detail with a topic that a number of the authors in the volume touch on but don't explore in any depth: that of Ælfric's sense of Englishness and his "awareness of the situatedness of a people as a collectivity, a polity, a local network and a universal faith group" (294-5). In her chapter, Corona focuses on Ælfric's predilection for extending the range of epithets and modifiers pertaining to persecutors of Christians when compared to his Latin sources, and she demonstrates a clear resemblance between the use of epitheton and antonomasia in Aldhelm and Ælfric, concluding an influence of the former on the latter, despite her caution (echoed throughout the volume) that "Ælfric reserved for himself much room for originality" (320). Davis is perhaps the most successful in proposing a close reading of one of Ælfric's preoccupations across his project: she argues that his careful attention to his own brevity stems from a concern to "fill" the minds of his "unlearned" audience, which might otherwise "tune out" in boredom if presented with inappropriately long teaching. Ælfric's insistence on the imminence of the "last days," Davis argues, works together with his vision of filling the unlearned mind: "The brevity that Ælfric finds indispensable for filling the mind corresponds to the brevity of time remaining in this world. Both methods [spatial and temporal] press for unquestioning acceptance of the wisdom found in Ælfric's own texts, and both urge the necessity of deeds, rather than contemplation,for salvation" (328).

The final three chapters of the volume focus on the transmission of Ælfric's works. In "The Use of Ælfric's Homilies: MSS Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 85 and 86 in the Field," Jonathon Wilcox offers evidence for the use of Ælfric "in the field." Rather than focusing on the surviving high-status copies of Ælfric's works (those mostly associated with reformed monasteries and clearly not intended for use by local priests), Wilcox examines the evidence for the distribution of unbound booklets and convincingly argues that the Ælfric homily found in Junius 85/86 was "once free-standing and perhaps circulated on its own" as a booklet (357). Utilising new research in the development of pastoral care and late Anglo-Saxon local churches, Wilcox's argument has immense significance: it suggests a "real world," everyday use of one of Ælfric's homilies, and offers a glimpse not only of "pastoral practice in late Anglo-Saxon England" (368), but of Ælfric's works disseminated to the local priests whose job it was to provide such pastoral care. Aaron Kleist's "Assembling Ælfric: Reconstructing the Rationale Behind Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Compilations" asks the question: "what factors may have shaped the compilation of Ælfrician material in the two centuries after his death?" (397). Focusing ostensibly on Ælfric's De duodecim abusivis, De falsis diis, and the Interrogationes Sigeuulfi (although in reality using a wide range of Ælfric's works), Kleist concludes that the choice of which of Ælfric's works were recorded in particular manuscripts depended on possible variable connections between the texts: "texts composed in a similar span of time, texts with parallels in terms of content, texts popular or fortunate enough to survive in several copies, texts explicitly linked by Ælfric himself, texts drawn from one of Ælfric's Commonplace Books, texts tied to certain phases of First or Second Series distribution, or texts perhaps assembled at some point by Wulfstan" (398) all are potential connections which guide the compilation of the manuscripts which Kleist examines. Finally, in "Making their Presence Felt: Readers of Ælfric, c. 1050-1350," Elaine Treharne examines a number of manuscripts annotated or edited in the centuries following Ælfric's death in order to demonstrate "how highly regarded his [Ælfric's] vernacular writings were" from 1050 to the High Middle Ages (406). She demonstrates not only that Ælfric's works were of particular significance to readers of this post-Anglo-Saxon era, but also that a careful consideration of the editorial emendations and interventions (however small), glosses, marginal notes, and "markings up" (such as underlining) indicates a "time-consuming, deliberate involvement with the text" (410) and provides continuing evidence for a "real world use of this Ælfric material" (421) centuries after he first wrote it.

The volume's "Bibliography" deserves a brief note. At fifty pages (divided into sections on Editions, Facsimiles and Translations, Secondary Material, and Electronic Resources and Databases), it occupies a substantial portion of the volume, and in its comprehensive survey of primary and secondary works on Ælfric and related studies, it represents an important resource for Anglo-Saxonists of many disciplines.

My criticism of this volume (to which I alluded above) is, relative to its great contributions to the field, minor. In their "Introduction," Magennis and Swan state that "the book is aimed at newer and more experienced students of Ælfric alike" (1). Undoubtedly, to a scholar of Ælfric, this volume "affords a clearer view both of his own project and of its contexts, and invites much exciting future work" (3); however, I would have to question the usefulness of much of this volume to those "newer" students of Ælfric. Although some chapters would, as discrete arguments, suffice to provide an introduction to or context for Ælfric (I am thinking, in particular, of Magennis's chapter on Ælfric scholarship and Cubitt's work on Ælfric's lay patrons), the majority of the contributions are aimed at the "more experienced" students of Ælfric. Even Hill's chapter, which should in theory serve to underpin the rest of the volume for the "newer" student, provides such a cursory introduction to Ælfric that someone new to him and his works would require further reading to fully appreciate it. In many ways, this failure to speak to multiple audiences is not surprising. The explicit remit of the volume is to represent "cutting-edge research" and to "offer a stimulating engagement with some current approaches and to prompt further work" (1); almost necessarily such a remit involves targeting those scholars already engaged with Ælfrician studies. Nevertheless, A Companion to Ælfric is a Companion, and it is a pity that the volume does not more successfully negotiate the divide between those initiated and those not in the field of Ælfrician studies, to which this book does so excitingly contribute.

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Melanie Heyworth

University of Sidney