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21.04.22 Clayton/Mullins, Old English Lives of Saints: Ælfric

The Medieval Review

21.04.22 Clayton/Mullins, Old English Lives of Saints: Ælfric


Ælfric of Eynsham was one of the most prolific and politically engaged prose writers in early medieval England. His alliterative prose Lives of Saints (ca. 994-998 CE), composed during a turbulent era of Viking attack and church reform, has generated extensive scholarship on a range of topics, including lay piety, medieval gender relations, and the boundaries between Old English poetry and prose. Ælfric dedicated his vernacular legendary to his pious aristocratic lay patron, Æthelweard, and intended it as a complement to his earlier two collections (now known as Catholic Homilies I and II), which were written for preaching and monastic audiences. Although Ælfric's writings have long been recognized for their centrality within early English literature and culture, the main scholarly edition of his Lives of Saints--W. W. Skeat's edition and translation, published by the Early English Text Society in 1881-1900 and reprinted in 1966 with no significant revisions--is over a century old. Clayton and Mullins' three-volume edition of the Lives of Saints with facing-page translation is thus a much-awaited and most welcome addition to the field.

The new edition is part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) series. Founded in 2010 and modeled on the Loeb Classical Library, the series publishes medieval literature in Byzantine Greek, Latin, and Old English. Although the series is aimed at a broad, non-specialist audience with little knowledge of the original languages, Clayton and Mullins' edition has much to offer students and scholars at a range of levels, including advanced undergraduates, MA students, and professional scholars. Perhaps most notable is the consistently high quality of the translations, which successfully tread the fine line between literality and elegance.

The edition follows the only near-complete witness to the Lives of Saints--London, British Library, Cotton Julius E. vii (W)--drawing on other manuscripts where the editors consider W in error and also for the Life of Saint Vincent, which does not survive in W. Although W is a near-contemporary manuscript, it does not preserve the collection as Ælfric had originally planned it. In spite of his fervent pleas that scribes should copy his book accurately and include only those texts that he had selected, Ælfric's collection was augmented and changed significantly even during own lifetime. W contains four anonymous additions, which we are able to distinguish on stylistic and linguistic grounds, namely the lives of the Seven Sleepers, Mary of Egypt, Eustace, and Euphrosyne. These have been omitted from the present edition but are edited and translated in the 2020 DOML volume, Anonymous Old English Lives of Saints, eds. Johanna Kramer, Hugh Magennis, and Robin Norris. Likewise, we know from the original table of contents that the Lives of Saints concluded with three more texts by Ælfric not assigned to any liturgical date that are now generally referred to as tracts: Interrogationes Sigewulfi; De falsis diis; and De duodecim abusivis, which is not contained in Julius E. vii as it survives. These texts are not included in the present edition.

Clayton and Mullins have produced an accurate and readable set of texts. They follow the same layout that appears in both Skeat's Lives of Saints and Pope's edition of Ælfric's homilies. The layout is designed to foreground the structural principles of the distinctive alliterative prose that Ælfric developed while writingCatholic Homilies II and subsequently adopted as his preferred form. Each Old English text is accompanied by a facing-page translation. The editors impose minimal punctuation on the text and provide fairly literal translations so that non-specialists can home in on distinctive or recurring vocabulary or simply follow along with the Old English text. For quite some time, hagiography has been caught between (but never completely embraced by) a variety of different fields, including history, theology, literature and classics. The careful and accessible translations provided in this new edition will enable scholars whose expertise lies outside of Old English to undertake research on, or simply to enjoy, Ælfric's writing with greater accuracy and ease.

Individual texts are preceded by a concise introduction that provides key historical, political, and cultural contexts, as well as formal and stylistic background. Particularly useful here is the editors' synopsis of prior efforts to parse the thorny issue of Ælfric's intended audience for his Lives of Saints and the possible contexts for its reception. Drawing on scholarship by Peter Clemoes, Gordon Whatley, Mechthild Gretsch, and Jonathan Wilcox, the editors highlight central aspects of Ælfric's collection, such as its emphasis on royal and soldier saints rather than contemplatives, and, more generally, its inception in a narrow vision of the Christian past intent on replicating the hierarchical society of the aristocratic patrons who commissioned Ælfric's writing.

The end matter in each of the three volumes includes a list of manuscript sigla, a statement of editorial procedures, and a preface to each text that reviews the material conditions of its survival as well as emendations to the Old English. The "Notes to the Translation" are brief but surprisingly thorough. Clayton and Mullins point to important scholarship on individual texts and call attention to images, symbols, narratives, and distinctive vocabulary that recur across the Lives, thus suggesting rich areas for further inquiry. Even seemingly minor translation choices, such as the editors' decision to translate words such as sona consistently as "immediately" or mæden as "virgin" (rather than pursuing a wider variety of word choices) quietly highlight notable features of Ælfric's writing, such as his habitual quest for narrative urgency or his deep interest, as a leader in the tenth-century Benedictine reforms, in sexual purity.

The editors have largely followed the dictates of the DOML series. Following series practice, hyphens have been added to compound nouns and adjectives, a convention that at times feels a bit dated or even awkward, most notably when one of the elements is no longer recognizable as a free-standing morpheme, such as in the word wim-man. The brevity of the annotations also means that there will inevitably be times when readers may wish for additional references or for a deeper consideration of the complexities of particular texts. When reading the Life of Edmund, for example, I longed for some discussion of the vexed question of clerical violence in relation to the bishop Theodred, who condemns eight criminals to death only to repent his decision immediately. Similarly, Ælfric's Exaltation of the Holy Cross felt a bit bare without mention of Cynewulf's account of theInventio of the Holy Cross in his Old English poem, Elene.

These are, however, minor quibbles that ought not to obscure the larger picture. Clayton and Mullins have produced an accessible, and yet remarkably thorough, edition that is filled with deep learning, energy, and good sense. Although the editors wear their learning lightly, these three volumes are the product of extensive knowledge and erudition. Scholars of all levels, as well as generalists interested in the early medieval past, will find much to admire in this accomplished and elegant edition.