Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE ( (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2013. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 21 June 2018


The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature

Stephen J. Harris


Ælfric (c.950–c.1010) was the greatest vernacular prose stylist of the Anglo-Saxon period. He is known especially for his sermons, which enjoyed wide circulation. Ælfric employed a style that, he said, does “not use obscure words, just plain English, by which it may more easily reach to the heart of the readers or listeners to the benefit of the souls, because they are unable to be instructed in a language other than the one to which they were born” (Wilcox, Ælfric's Prefaces, p. 127). His aim was to keep the interest of his readers and hearers, so he sometimes encouraged listeners to weather tedious passages. In his preface to his Lives of Saints, he wrote that he “abbreviated the longer passions, not so much in the sense as in the words, in order that boredom may not be inflicted on those hard to please” (Wilcox, p. 131). Sometimes boredom was preferable: he occasionally omitted lurid spectacle—a particularly gruesome torture in a saint's life, for example—when translating his sources so as not to distract from an underlying message. Ælfric kept his clauses brief and his style plain. Contemporary Anglo-Latin writers reveled in obscure words and convoluted syntax, and contemporary Old English (OE) writers peppered their prose with tropes, but Ælfric stressed the spiritual needs of his audience rather than literary conceit. He was rewarded with patronage and an appreciative audience. His were among the most copied texts of the period, and his language has become the standard by which scholars and critics assess all Old English prose.


Ælfric was first and foremost a churchman. His works all aimed to bring Christians to a better understanding of their faith. As an author, he was highly conscious of his pastoral duty. Ælfric wrote textbooks to teach his students Latin so that they could pray and read the Bible along with its commentary tradition. He wrote sermons, homilies, and saints’ lives to teach his community about Christian doctrine and Christian history. He wrote letters to instruct English Christians (including some high-ranking ecclesiastics) in their duties. To ensure that his writings were orthodox, Ælfric had at hand an impressive library. In its shelves could be found Latin books by the fathers of the Catholic Church—Augustine of Hippo (354–430), Gregory the Great (c.540–604), Jerome (c.347–420), and Ambrose of Milan (c.339–397). Other important sources for Ælfric were his countryman Bede (c.673–735), Smaragdus of Saint-Mihiel, Haymo of Auxerre (died c.860), and Paul the Deacon (720–c.799). Paul, a monk of Monte Cassino, compiled a homiliary at the request of Charlemagne that was a major source for Ælfric's sermons. Throughout his life Ælfric also kept a commonplace book, a collection of favorite quotations from his reading. In all of Ælfric's works these orthodox sources are seamlessly integrated with local color, clear expression, and formal elegance. Ælfric was aware that Latin, not Old English, was the language of the Church. He was therefore circumspect in his program of translation, writing between 993 and 998, “I promise not to write more in this language [OE], lest, perhaps, the pearls of Christ be held in disrespect” (Wilcox, p. 131). But this he weighed against a general need for vernacular translations. As a result of their spotty education and widespread laxity in ecclesiastical government, many monks and almost all of the laity in the Britain of his day were illiterate.

The English Church in the time of Ælfric was undergoing a transformation. Norse immigration, especially in the ninth century, profoundly affected church government in the East of England. Vikings, who raided in England for generations until they were checked by King Alfred the Great (849–899), had destroyed monasteries and books throughout the eastern portions of the island. Elsewhere in England, regular monastic life deteriorated severely. In the early tenth century at Cluny in France, a reformation was under way. By the mid-tenth century, this reform was imported into England by Æthelwold of Winchester (c.904–984), Oswald of Worcester (d. 992), and Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury (c.909–988). At its heart was the Rule of Saint Benedict, a set of ideals and regulations for an orderly monastic life, which was translated into OE by Æthelwold. Ælfric was educated by Æthelwold at Winchester at the outset of the Benedictine Reform. His education was directed at monastic observance and a sound command of Latin. These aims would govern Ælfric's literary production for the rest of his life.


In 987, Ælfric was sent to Cernel (Cerne Abbey) in Dorset. His patron, Æthelmær, had founded the abbey and brought in Ælfric to teach its students, monks, and laymen. It was here that Ælfric began to write prodigiously. His major works are contained in two series: the Catholic Homilies (CH, although Ælfric called them “sermons”) and the Lives of Saints (LS). Both were composed in the closing decade of the first millennium. The CH are divided into two series of forty sermons for the ecclesiastical year. They were meant to be preached in alternating years and were intended chiefly for the edification of the laity. Each series of sermons instructs the laity in Christian history and in Christian doctrine. Typically, the day's lection, or Gospel reading, is introduced, then explained, and then applied to daily life. The LS, although similar in style, were likely written for the private devotion of monks. Ælfric included a number of English saints’ lives in this collection, including those of Alban, Swithun, and Æthelthryth. Saints’ lives are a highly conventional literary genre, meant to inspire Christian devotion and good works. They are not biographies, but tell of the common faith and suffering of virgins, martyrs, and confessors. Saints are portrayed as conduits of divine power and their lives blended together into an evocation of the eternal. Ælfric was conservative in his adoption of the form and restrained in his retelling. His homilies appear to be arranged according to the themes of the liturgical year. Liturgical time also governed the order of his sermons and provided the context in which the cyclical time of the church calendar met the linear time of history. In this complex world of repeating patterns and individual will, scripture offered a means of navigation. Ælfric reminded his audience that the normal, the everyday, was as miraculous as the unusual. To a Benedictine monk like Ælfric, it was in the constancy and repetition of an ordered life that spiritual fulfillment could be found. This love of order and simplicity carried over into his prose.

If the CH were directed at the laity and the LS at monks and nuns, then Ælfric's letters were directed at the hierarchy of church government. In his Letter for Wulfsige, Ælfric wrote as if Wulfsige himself were speaking the text. Like his sermons, this letter is a type of dramatic performance in which the identity of the work's author is subsumed under the identity of the speaker. Here we see a principle also evident in saints’ lives: an ideal monk, like a saint (and presumably an ideal monastic writer), empties himself of self and becomes a true Christian, as Bede and Ælfric both said of Saint Alban. Only through harmony between humanity and the divine can earthly peace and prosperity come. Another work that takes advantage of dramatic performance, and one of Ælfric's most famous texts, is his Colloquy. It was designed for classroom use among children (pueri) in order to introduce them to vocabulary relevant to monastic life. In it, a monk competes with a shepherd, a baker, a hunter, a fisherman, and others to determine who works hardest and who is most necessary to the life of a community. Although a highly conventional piece, it suggests some of the liveliness of the Anglo-Saxon classroom. Ælfric also dedicated a grammar and a glossary to his students. The Latin grammar is the first written in any vernacular language, and both works have become extremely useful to modern scholars learning Old English. The full extent of Ælfric's work can be discovered in James Hurt's introductory book, and its chronology from Peter Clemoes.

Critical Reception

Ælfric's works were largely ignored after the 1066 Norman Conquest of England. In 1567, John Day printed Ælfric's homily on Easter, inaugurating a revival in antique testaments of English ecclesiastical practice. It was the first Old English book to be printed. Like much Old English literature, the works of Ælfric required significant collation and editing. In succeeding centuries sound editions were produced, principally by Walter Skeat, Malcolm Godden, and Peter Clemoes. Only in the latter half of the twentieth century were scholars able to turn to the sources of Ælfric's work, and sources have proved the most compelling aspect of Ælfric studies. Most recently, Ælfric has also generated studies of his theology and of his language. Given his status as a stylist, it is strange that so few studies have been dedicated to Ælfric's so-called rhythmical style. But because his writings make up so large a percentage of surviving OE text, Ælfric provides a means to assess the transmission of Latin ideas, language, and images into the English vernacular. One can see what was added, what was excised, and what was transformed. In this way, one can come to tentative conclusions about the limits and distinctions of Old English literary culture at its apex. What is becoming clear is that Ælfric cobbled together his style not only from the verse and prose of his Anglo-Saxon antecedents but also from Latin poetry and prose. Old English prose, in other words, was as indebted to Rome as to the primeval forests of Germany.

See also Bede; Medieval Anglo-Latin Literature; Medieval Devotional Prose; Medieval Saints’ Lives; and Old English.


Clemoes, Peter, ed. Ælfric's Catholic Homilies: The First Series. Early English Text Society, Supplementary Series 17. London and New York, 1997.Find this resource:

    Godden, Malcolm, ed. Ælfric's Catholic Homilies: The Second Series. Early English Text Society, Supplementary Series 5. London and New York, 1979.Find this resource:

      Jones, Christopher A., ed. and trans. Ælfric's Letter to the Monks of Eynesham. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1999. This standard edition and translation enumerates Benedictine duties in Ælfric's monastery.Find this resource:

        Skeat, Walter W., ed. Ælfric's Lives of Saints. 2 vols. Early English Text Society, Original Series 76 and 82. Volume Two: Original Series 94 and 114. London, 1881, 1885. Repr. London and New York, 1966.Find this resource:

          Wilcox, Jonathan, ed. and trans. Ælfric's Prefaces. Durham Medieval Texts, 9. New Elvet, U.K., 1994. An English translation and edition of Ælfric's Latin and Old English prefaces, with an extremely good introduction.Find this resource:

            Zupitza, Julius, ed. Aelfrics Grammatik und Glossar: Text und Varianten. Berlin, Germany, 1880. Rev. ed. with new introduction by Helmut Gneuss, Hildesheim, 2003.Find this resource:

              Further Reading

              Clemoes, Peter. “The Chronology of Ælfric's Works.” In Old English Prose: Basic Readings, edited by Paul Szarmach, 29–72. New York, 2000.Find this resource:

                Hurt, James. Ælfric. New York, 1972. A comprehensive introduction.Find this resource:

                  Kleist, Aaron. “An Annotated Bibliography of Ælfrician Studies: 1983–1996.” In Old English Prose: Basic Readings, edited by Paul Szarmach, 503–552. New York, 2000.Find this resource:

                    Reinsma, Luke. Ælfric: An Annotated Bibliography. New York, 1987.Find this resource:

                      Stephen J. Harris