1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ælfric
ÆLFRIC, called the “Grammarian” (c. 955–1020?), English abbot and author, was born about 955. He was educated in the Benedictine monastery at Winchester under Æthelwold, who was bishop there from 963 to 984. Æthelwold had carried on the tradition of Dunstan in his government of the abbey of Abingdon, and at Winchester he continued his strenuous efforts. He seems to have actually taken part in the work of teaching. Ælfric no doubt gained some reputation as a scholar at Winchester, for when, in 987, the abbey of Cernel (Cerne Abbas, Dorsetshire) was finished, he was sent by Bishop Ælfheah (Alphege), Æthelwold’s successor, at the request of the chief benefactor of the abbey, the ealdorman Æthelmaer, to teach the Benedictine monks there. He was then in priest’s orders. Æthelmaer and his father Æthelweard were both enlightened patrons of learning, and became Ælfric’s faithful friends. It was at Cernel, and partly at the desire, it appears, of Æthelweard, that he planned the two series of his English homilies (ed. Benjamin Thorpe, 1844–1846, for the Ælfric Society), come piled from the Christian fathers, and dedicated to Sigeric, archbishop of Canterbury (990–994). The Latin preface to the first series enumerates some of Ælfric’s authorities, the chief of whom was Gregory the Great, but the short list there given by no means exhausts the authors whom he consulted. In the preface to the first volume he regrets that except for Alfred’s translations Englishmen had no means of learning the true doctrine as expounded by the Latin fathers. Professor Earle (A.S. Literature, 1884) thinks he aimed at correcting the apocryphal, and to modern ideas superstitious, teaching of the earlier Blickling Homilies. The first series of forty homilies is devoted to plain and direct exposition of the chief events of the Christian year; the second deals more fully with church doctrine and history, Ælfric denied the immaculate birth of the Virgin (Homilies, ed. Thorpe, ii. 466), and his teaching on the Eucharist in the Canons and in the Sermo de sacrificio in die pascae (ibid. ii. 262 seq.) was appealed to by the Reformation writers as a proof that the early English church did not hold the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. His Latin Grammar and Glossary were written for his pupils after the two books of homilies. A third series of homilies, the Lives of the Saints, dates from 906 to 997. Some of the sermons in the second series had been written in a kind of rhythmical, alliterative prose, and in the Lives of the Saints (ed. W. W. Skeat, 1881–1900, for the Early English Text Society) the practice is so regular that most of them are arranged as verse by Professor Skeat. By the wish of Æthelweard he also began a paraphrase of parts of the Old Testament, but under protest, for the stories related in it were not, he thought, suitable for simple minds. There is no certain proof that he remained at Cernel. It has been suggested that this part of his life was chiefly spent at Winchester; but his writings for the patrons of Cernel, and the fact that he wrote in 998 his Canons as a pastoral letter for Wulfsige, the bishop of Sherborne, the diocese in which the abbey was situated, afford presumption of continued residence there. He became in 1005 the first abbot of Eynsham or Ensham, near Oxford, another foundation of Æthelmaer’s. After his elevation he wrote an abridgment for his monks of Æthelwold’s De consuetudine monachorum, adapted to their rudimentary ideas of monastic life; a letter to Wulfgeat of Ylmandun; an introduction to the study of the Old and New Testaments (about 1008, edited by William L'Isle in 1623); a Latin life of his master Æthelwold; a pastoral letter for Wulfstan, archbishop of York and bishop of Worcester, in Latin and English; and an English version of Bede’s De Temporibus. The Colloquium, a Latin dialogue designed to serve his scholars as a manual of Latin conversation, may date from his life at Cernel. It is safe to assume that the original draft of this, afterwards enlarged by his pupil, Ælfric Bata, was by Ælfric, and represents what his own scholar days were like. The last mention of Ælfric Abbot, probably the grammarian, is in a will dating from about 1020.
There have been three suppositions about Ælfric. (1) He was identified with Ælfric (995–1005), archbishop of Canterbury. This view was upheld by John Bale (III. Maj. Bril. Scriptorum 2nd ed., Basel, 1557–1559; vol. i. p. 149, s.v, Alfric); by Humphrey Wanley (Catalogus librorum septentrionalium, &c., Oxford, 1705, forming vol. ii. of George Hickes’s Antiquae literaturae septemtrionalis); by Elizabeth Elstob, The English Saxon Homily on the Birthday of St Gregory (1709; new edition, 1839); and by Edward Rowe Mores, Ælfrico, Dorobernensi, archiepiscopo, Commentarius (ed. G. J. Thorkelin, 1789), in which the conclusions of earlier writers on Ælfric are reviewed. Mores made him abbot of St Augustine’s at Dover, and finally archbishop of Canterbury. (2) Sir Henry Spelman, in his Concilia . . . (1639, vol. i. p. 583), printed the Canones ad Wulsinum episcopum, and suggested Ælfric Putta or Putto, archbishop of York, as the author, adding some note of others bearing the name. The identity of Ælfric the grammarian with Ælfric archbishop of York was also discussed by Henry Wharton, in Anglia Sacra (1691, vol. i. pp. 125-134), in a dissertation reprinted in J. P. Migne’s Patrologia (vol. 139, pp. 1459-70, Paris, 1853). (3) William of Malmesbuty (De gestis pontificum Anglorum, ed. N. E. S. A. Hamilton, Rolls Series, 1870, p. 406) suggested that he was abbot of Malmesbury and bishop of Crediton. The main facts of his career were finally elucidated by Eduard Dietrich in a series of articles contributed to C. W. Niedner’s Zeitschrift fur historische Theologie (vols. for 1855 and 1856, Gotha), which have formed the basis of all subsequent writings on the subject.
Sketches of Ælfric’s career are in B. Ten Brink’s Early English Literature (to Wiclif) (trans. H. M. Kennedy, New York, 1883, pp. 105-112), and by J. S. Westlake in The Cambridge History of English Literature (vol. i., 1907, pp. 116-129). An excellent bibliography and account of the critical apparatus is given in Dr R. Wulker’s Grundriss zur Geschichte der angelsächsischen Litteratur (Leipzig, 1885; pp. 452-480). See also the account by Professor Skeat in Pt. iv. pp. 8-61 of his edition of the Lives of the Saints, already cited, which gives a full account of the MSS., and a discussion of Ælfric’s sources, with further bibliographical references; and Ælfric, a New Study of his Life and Writings, by Miss C. L. White (Boston, New York and London, 1898) in the “Yale Studies in English.” Alcuini Interrogationes Sigewulfi Presebyteri in Genesin (ed. G. E. McLean, Halle, 1883) is attributed to Ælfric by its editor. There are other isolated sermons and treatises by Ælfric, printed in vol. iii. of Grein’s Bibl. v. A.S. Prosa.
- A Testimonie of Antiquitie, shewing the auncient fayth in the Church of England touching the sacrament of the body and bloude of the Lord here publikely preached, printed by John Day (1567). It was quoted in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (ed. 1610)).
- Ed. J. Zupitza in Sammlung englischer Denkmäler (vol. i., Berlin, 1880).
- Edited by Edward Thwaites as Heptateuchus (Oxford 1698); modern edition in Grein’s Bibliothek der A. S. Prosa (vol. i. Cassel and Göttingen, 1872). See also B. Assmann, Abt Ælfric’s . . . Esther (Halle, 1885), and Abt Ælfric’s Judith (in Anglia, vol. x.).
- Printed by Benjamin Thorpe in Ancient Laws and Institutes of England (1840), with the later pastoral for Wulfstan
- See E. Breck, A Fragment of Ælfric; translation of Æthelwold’s De Consuetudine Monachorum and its relation to other MSS. (Leipzig 1887).
- Ilmington, on the borders of Warwickshire and Gloucestershire.
- Included by J. Stevenson in the Chron. Monast. de Abingdon (vol. ii. pp. 253-266, Rolls Series, 1858).
- See Oswald Cockayne, Leechdoms, Wortcunning and Starcraft (vol. iii., 1866, pp. xiv.-xix. and pp. 233 et. seq.) in the Rolls Series.
- See an article by J. Zupitza in the Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum (vol. xix., new series, 1887).