14.12.03, Clayton, ed. and trans., Two Ælfric Texts

Main Article Content

Stefan Jurasinski

The Medieval Review 14.12.03

Clayton, Mary, ed. and trans.. Two Ælfric Texts: The Twelve Abuses and The Vices and Virtues. Anglo-Saxon Texts, 11. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2013. Pp. 212. ISBN: 9781843843603 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Stefan Jurasinski
State University of New York at Brockport

The texts edited here are significant witnesses to late Anglo-Saxon pastoral thought that have not seen adequate editorial treatment until now. De duodecim abusiuis, the basis for the first Old English tract in Clayton's edition, stands some chance of being familiar to readers outside of Anglo-Saxon studies as it was "one of the most influential ethical treatises of the Middle Ages" (34), even "le[aving] a mark on early medieval coronation rites" (54). As Clayton shows, it was also employed in other Ælfrician texts, namely his Lives of Saints (xiii) and Grammar (55). Manuscripts assign the text variously to Cyprian and Augustine of Hippo. But a connection to either was shown by J.B. Bury to have been impossible given its use of the Vulgate. Its quotation by the Collectio canonum Hibernensis, wherein the text is ascribed to St. Patrick, offers a clue to its real origins. Further grounds for Irish provenance were established by subsequent commentators (37-38). In particular, De duodecim abusiuis seems to have been associated with the Romani, a faction of the Irish church favoring the Roman method for determining the date of Easter and other practices urged on the Irish in the seventh century. Clayton's overview of published commentary on this text is highly detailed and will place future investigators on solid ground. Her edition also includes, as an Appendix, the version of De duodecim abusiuis found in Oxford, Jesus College MS 3, ff. 120v-128r. Though a twelfth-century manuscript, it is to be preferred to the (also post-Conquest) text in Salisbury, Cathedral Library, MS 168 given that the latter is an example of the Augustine recension, whereas a text attributing the treatise to Cyprian underlies Ælfric's translation. No English manuscript of the Latin text predates the Conquest, and the version given here is a witness to the sort of exemplar the abbot is likely to have employed. Little has been said in print about Ælfric's translation practice with respect to this text, a matter receiving exhaustive treatment in Clayton's Introduction (56-71).

Things get more complicated as discussion turns to the second text edited in this volume, De octo vitiis et de duodecim abusiuis. Effectively, the text is a version of the Old English tract described above to which has been added a treatise on the eight vices (in three witnesses, Ælfric's version of De duodecim abusiuis appears independently). Prior commentators have doubted Ælfric's authorship of De octo vitiis, largely because it seems to lack his characteristic "rhythmic prose" (23). Clayton is right to point out that the absence of this style does not make Ælfric's authorship impossible. Moreover, De octo vitiis has features in common with other texts that are tied more securely to Ælfric (26-30). Clayton contends that Ælfric combined the texts himself "towards the very end of his career" (34). Sourcing De octo vitiis is a more challenging prospect than is the case for Ælfric's De duodecim abusiuis since the former relies either on Cassian's Conlationes or Alcuin's De virtutibus or both (the order of vices follows Cassian). The confusion affords an opportunity for Clayton to offer a more searching exploration of Ælfric's use of sources than is evident in prior work, one revealing much about his aims in preparing the text. She concludes quite persuasively that the struggles of earlier commentators to associate Ælfric's text with either Cassian or Alcuin's tracts (Clayton prefers the latter as his base text) are an effect of his having conflated this earlier material with notions drawn from the pastoral writings of his own time: chiefly "penitentials and penitential prayers" (106). The text essentially furthers the prior efforts of Alcuin to discuss Christian ethics in ways that would suit the needs of lay audiences, a project entailing for Ælfric significant departures from the Latin that disguise the nature of his influences.

As is well known, Ælfric's texts are not well suited to the more traditional practices of textual editing. Manuscript witnesses vary widely, and the long transmission of his texts resulted in their being in some cases rewritten and adapted to the grammar of Middle English. The texts presented here were subject to these same vicissitudes, and Clayton's edition is necessarily selective in cataloguing variants so as to avoid an unnecessarily cumbersome apparatus. The basis of her edition of De duodecim abusiuis is a manuscript of the second half of the eleventh century: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton MS 115 (Ker 69), one of whose leaves (separated from the manuscript after 1200) is now Kansas University Library MS Y 104. It is the earliest to contain De duodecim abusiuis as a stand-alone text and its language, judged "extremely conservative" by Pope, is "close to that of the late West-Saxon of the earliest Ælfric manuscripts" (110). The base text of De octo vitiis is also the earliest witness: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 178 and Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 162 (Ker 41).

Clayton's inclusion of De octo vitiis in its entirety means that "The Twelve Abuses" are presented twice in this edition. Certainly its omission from De octo vitiis would have been unfaithful to Ælfric's purpose in joining them. Yet I wonder what might have been gained by presenting the two versions in a way that facilitates comparison, perhaps in side-by-side columns, rather than consecutively. In the introduction, we are told that remarks about the stand-alone version of the Old English De duodecim abusiuis may be understood to apply to the composite version as well given the "minimal...differences" between them (56). "Minimal" implies to my mind that there are some differences between the versions, yet I can discern nothing beyond orthographic discrepancies.

Though fairly brief, the texts edited here offer valuable insights into Ælfric's interactions with the range of texts available in the aftermath of the monastic reform. They also make available some further evidence--beyond what may be gleaned from more frequently consulted sources--of Ælfric's thinking on the nature of kingship and other political institutions. Clayton's introductory remarks are certainly some of the most detailed I can think of on how the "vices and virtues" genre developed in early England. Its backgrounds in late antique and early medieval Latin prose are explored as thoroughly as might be hoped for, and with many discoveries about Anglo-Saxon thought met with along the way. This is a valuable book, not only for its presentation and reanalysis of an overlooked pair of texts, but for its exceptionally careful consideration of the Latin texts on which Ælfric relied, which are discussed here in almost as much depth as the vernacular texts themselves. Two Ælfric Texts is an excellent addition to the growing body of work on this important figure.

Article Details

Author Biography

Stefan Jurasinski

State University of New York at Brockport