Aelfric and the Cult of Saints in Late Anglo-Saxon England

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The literature of Anglo-Saxon England is unique among contemporary European literatures in that it features a vast amount of saints' lives in the vernacular. This study analyzes the most important author Aelfric's lives of five important saints in the light of their cults in Anglo-Saxon England, providing the reader fascinating glimpses of 'Aelfric at work'. He adapts the cults and rewrites the received Latin hagiography so that each of their lives conveys a distinct message to the contemporary political elite as well as to a lay audience at large.
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"This is a masterly review of these five selected vitae by a scholar who has immersed herself deeply in the literature of the tenth-century Winchester reform movement. Its greatest achievements are the unfolding, through patient analysis of sources that were or could have been available to Aelfric..., of the varying strategies employed by Aelfric to commemorate his subjects and...the reinforcement of our appreciation of the importance of Aelfric of upholding the principles of the monastic reform of Aethelwold and of pastoral response to current events. Gretsch's facility in contemporary English is superb."
-Milton McC. Gatch, Union Theological Seminary, Journal of Medieval Studies
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Meet the Author

Mechthild Gretsch is Professor in the Department of English at Gottingen University. Her previous books include The Intellectual Foundations of the English Benedictine Reform (also in the Cambridge Studies in Anglo-Saxon England series, 1999), and she has published articles in various English and German journals, including Anglo-Saxon England.
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Cambridge University Press
0521855411 - Ælfric And The Cult Of Saints In Late Anglo-Saxon England - by Mechthild Gretsch


Ælfric's sanctorale and the Benedictional of Æthelwold

The first book ever to be printed in Old English was Ælfric's Easter homily, edited by Archbishop Matthew Parker and his circle, and Ælfric played a paramount role in the formative period of Anglo-Saxon studies from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth century.1 It was through his Latin Grammar written in Old English and the Latin paradigms provided with English translations that the early 'antiquaries' gained a first glimpse of the grammatical structure of Old English, and, above all, it was through his vast corpus of homilies and saints' Lives that scholars such as Matthew Parker, William L'Isle, George Hickes and Elizabeth Elstob sought to demonstrate that the Church of England had its venerable roots in pre-Conquest times. Scholarly interest in Ælfric has not abated since the days of these pioneers, and consequently Ælfric is one of the best researched authors in Old English literature.2 Surprisingly, perhaps, in spite of this wealth of secondary literature, there remain aspects of his oeuvre on which so far scarcely any work has been done. In a recent article Michael Lapidge has pointed out one such aspect when he suggested that the structure of Ælfric's sanctorale and the principles according to which Ælfric selected the saints and feasts for commemoration in his homilies and Lives would deserve close attention.3 As Lapidge pointed out, there are obvious peculiarities with regard to the saints and feasts chosen by Ælfric for commemoration in his sanctorale, when, for example, he commemorates the deposition of St Swithun (2 July), not the feast of the translatio (15 July), or when, as a Benedictine monk, he celebrates only one of the two feasts of St Benedict (again the less important depositio), or when, though Winchester-trained, he seems to depart from Winchester's liturgical practice in commemorating the feast of Quadraginta milites (9 March), while omitting from his sanctorale all the Northern French and Flemish saints such as SS Vedastus, Iudoc or Bertin, who were especially culted at Winchester.4

No doubt Ælfric had an intimate knowledge of the full range of saints included in liturgical calendars or the martyrology, but it is equally clear that only a limited number of those saints could be honoured by providing their uitae in the vernacular. As is confirmed by their respective prefaces, the two sets of the Catholic Homilies, containing forty pieces each, preserve fairly accurately Ælfric's original compilation,5 and the Lives of Saints, though preserved less intact, probably also closely approximated forty in Ælfric's original scheme for the collection.6 Within the three collections, in the Catholic Homilies the items pertaining to the sanctorale occur side by side with those for the temporale, and in the Lives of Saints they are mixed with homilies treating incidents from the Old Testament.7 This leaves us with a total of fifty-four feasts of the sanctorale, nineteen occurring in the first series of the Catholic Homilies, sixteen in the second series and twenty-nine in the Lives of Saints.8 By comparison, the four Winchester calendars printed by Francis Wormald commemorate some 209 (nos. 9 and 10), 213 (no. 11) and 226 (no. 12) feasts respectively.9 Ælfric's awareness of having to pick for inclusion in his three collections of homilies and uitae a relatively small selection from the feasts of the sanctorale (but also from those of the temporale) emerges clearly from his prefaces to these collections: in the English preface to the Lives of Saints he remarks with regard to the saints of the sanctorale that God has so many saints for his service that it is impossible to commemorate them all.10 Similarly, concerning the feasts of the temporale, Ælfric explains that in his two sets of Catholic Homilies he has not expounded all the gospel pericopes read in the course of a year but only a selection of these, which should be sufficient for edifying and rectifying the souls of the simple-minded.11 Although he does not say so explicitly, we may be certain that the principle which governed Ælfric's choice of the temporale items - the moral and spiritual improvement of the laity - may also be sought behind the selection of saints for his sanctorale. The one statement we get from Ælfric with regard to the presence of a particular saint in one of the three collections is that the Catholic Homilies commemorate those saints culted by the laity nationwide, whereas the Lives of Saints contain uitae of saints commemorated in monasteries only.12 But this broad distinction does not give a rationale for inclusion of one saint and omission of another in cases where both would qualify for treatment in one of the three collections. Is it possible to get somewhat nearer to the rationale of Ælfric's selection?

It has been pointed out that a political and ethical motivation occasionally seems to have determined Ælfric's choice, especially with regard to the uitae and Old Testament pieces in the Lives of Saints, and that he decided to include pieces such as The Forty Soldiers (no. ⅸ), The Prayer of Moses (no. ⅹⅲ), Kings (no. ⅹⅷ), Achitophel and Absalom (no. ⅹⅸ), Maccabees (no. ⅹⅹⅴ), St Maurice and his Companions (no. xxviii) and St Martin (no. ⅹⅹⅺ) because of the parallels to contemporary political conditions which they provided, and because of their potential for serving as a vehicle for the political and ethical instruction of a lay audience.13 In the case of the Forty Soldiers of Sebaste in Armenia (Quadraginta milites) such parallels and potential may also serve as an explanation why, in commemorating them, Ælfric departs radically from Winchester's liturgical practice, as we have seen. The Forty Soldiers provide an excellent example of collective resistance towards a cruel and arrogant enemy. By the same token, Ælfric's penchant for this type of narrative may help to explain why he omitted from his sanctorale saints that were widely venerated in late Anglo-Saxon England and/or Winchester such as SS Vedastus, Amandus, Audoenus, Bertinus, Audomarus, Iudoc and Grimbald,14 all of whom led exemplary lives as bishops or monks but could not serve as models for heroic resistance, and why he included instead two saints from Francia who fitted this pattern: St Maurice and the Theban Legion, and St Dionysius and his Companions.15 Another determining factor for Ælfric's selection of his saints may have been a wish to comply with the predilections of his patrons. In the case of one saint, St Thomas, we have clear proof of such compliance. Towards the end of the Second Series of the Catholic Homilies Ælfric has a note saying that he has not written a Life of St Thomas for two reasons: because a translation of his passio into Old English verse has been in existence for a long time, and because St Augustine rejected as incredible (ungeleaflic) a certain episode in the passio.16 Ælfric includes, however, a Life of St Thomas in his Lives of Saints collection (no. ⅹⅹⅹⅵ). Interestingly, this is provided with a brief Latin introduction, where Ælfric reiterates St Augustine's (and his own) doubts about that specific episode but concludes that he will translate the passio of St Thomas nevertheless, since the venerable Ealdorman Æthelweard urgently requested him to do so.17 Æthelweard, ealdorman of the western provinces (975-c. 998), who together with his son Æthelmær commissioned the Lives of Saints,18 may quite possibly also have influenced Ælfric's choice of feasts for the Catholic Homilies. In any case, he seems to have obtained a special edition of the First Series which contained forty-four pieces instead of the usual forty.19 With these examples in mind, one might ask what influence may have made Ælfric relent and provide a homily for the Nativity of the Virgin Mary (8 September) after he had expressly declined to do so on grounds of the dubious and difficult nature of the source material.20 Was it again some sort of pressure from one or several of his patrons or was it in deference to the important role which the cult of the Virgin played in reformed monastic circles, and especially in Æthelwoldian Winchester, or was it a combination of both?21 Or, to give a last example: by what influence was St Vincent admitted to Ælfric's sanctorale? From the manuscript transmission of this passio it is not clear whether Ælfric intended it to be included in his Lives of Saints,22 or whether it was a piece written by him on commission for some monastery which possessed a relic of the saint and where, consequently, he was held in especial veneration. Glastonbury, the New Minster, Winchester, and especially Abingdon would be obvious candidates for such a commission.23 In this case, St Vincent would not be part of Ælfric's sanctorale as it is defined in his prefaces to the Catholic Homilies and the Lives of Saints. But given the wide dissemination of his cult all over England and given the indubitable Winchester base for his cult, it cannot be ruled out that St Vincent either obtained his vernacular Life through the intervention of one of Ælfric's lay patrons, or that his uita was composed by Ælfric as an afterthought while he was recollecting his Winchester roots and the veneration in which the saint was held in two further important monastic centres, Glastonbury and Abingdon.

In addition to the factors I have touched on so far, there were no doubt other forces at work in the shaping of Ælfric's sanctorale - literary and liturgical forces, for example. The so-called Cotton-Corpus legendary has been identified as one such shaping force of paramount importance, especially for the Lives of Saints. The Cotton-Corpus legendary is a collection of 165 saints' uitae and passiones written at Worcester in the third quarter of the eleventh century, and now preserved as London, BL, Cotton Nero E. i and Cambridge, Corpus Christi College 9.24 Although obviously the Cotton-Corpus manuscript itself cannot have been the manuscript which was consulted by Ælfric, it has been shown that in many cases where a number of variant redactions of a saint's Life have survived it is the form as transmitted in Cotton-Corpus which is closest to Ælfric.25 Furthermore, some eccentricities in Ælfric's sanctorale can plausibly be explained at a stroke on the assumption that he had regular recourse to a predecessor of the Cotton-Corpus manuscript, as Michael Lapidge has shown. For example, Ælfric seems to have taken not only the text of the Vita S. Eugeniae from the Cotton-Corpus legendary but also the date against which she is commemorated. This date is peculiar indeed, inasmuch as it is 25 December, Christ's Nativity, and no Anglo-Saxon calendar has her feast against that date; in Winchester especially she does not seem to have been culted extensively, since none of the Winchester calendars commemorates her at all.26 In what follows, I want to suggest a further literary and liturgical, but also art-historical, source which, in my view, influenced the structure of Ælfric's sanctorale: the famous Benedictional of Æthelwold (London, BL, Add. 49598), a lavishly produced manuscript made for Æthelwold's personal use as bishop of Winchester and very possibly for the occasion of King Edgar's coronation at Bath in 973.27 There are some striking parallels, as I hope to show, between the commemoration of saints in Æthelwold's Benedictional and Ælfric's sanctorale, parallels which can plausibly and economically be explained on the assumption that the teacher's most valuable book, in the production of which he seems to have taken an active interest,28 was a major shaping influence for the sanctorale which the pupil devised for the instruction and edification of a lay audience. We may begin by looking at some figures. Ælfric's sanctorale contains, as we have seen, fifty-four feasts; the Benedictional of Æthelwold has blessings for thirty-eight feasts of the sanctorale. Thirty-six of these thirty-eight feasts are provided with a homily by Ælfric. The two feasts which have blessings in the Benedictional but no homily by Ælfric are St Vedastus (6 February; Æ 41, CBP 704)29 and St Ambrose (4 April; Æ 45, CBP 1254).30 The parallels between the blessings in the Benedictional and the homilies in Ælfric's sanctorale are distributed over Ælfric's three collections as follows: twenty in Catholic Homilies Ⅰ, nine in Catholic Homilies Ⅱ (five of these are duplicates for feasts already commemorated in Catholic Homilies Ⅰ), ten in Lives of Saints (two of these being duplicates), and two (St Vincent and the Nativity of the Virgin) are extra-cyclic pieces.31 It is noteworthy that the bulk of the parallels is found in Catholic Homilies Ⅰ (recall that the Catholic Homilies commemorate saints and feasts established in the entire kingdom). Of the feasts commemorated by Ælfric but not in the Benedictional the following are in question: St Basilius (1 January), SS Julian and Basilissa (13 January), St Maurus (15 January), SS Quadraginta milites (9 March), St Cuthbert (20 March), St George (23 April), St Mark the Evangelist (25 March), SS Philip and James (1 May), St Alban (22 June), St Apollinaris (23 July), St James (25 July), SS septem dormientes (27 July), SS Abdon and Sennen (30 July), SS Maccabees (1 August), St Oswald (5 August), St Mauricius (22 September), St Dionysius (9 October), SS Simon and Jude (28 October), St Edmund (20 November), SS Crisanthus and Daria (29 November), and St Eugenia (25 December).32 Several points emerge from these comparative statistics. It is obvious that there is a striking agreement in the saints commemorated in the Benedictional and Ælfric's sanctorale. Such agreement is all the more striking when we consider that the Benedictional and Ælfric commemorate a rather limited number of saints in comparison with (say) a liturgical calendar.33 Four of the twenty-one feasts found in Ælfric but not in the Benedictional (Quadraginta milites, SS Maccabees, St Mauricius and his companions and St Dionysius and his companions) are celebrated by uitae of the type favoured by Ælfric, namely that of a group of associates offering stout collective resistance towards tyrants and persecution.34 Four again of the twenty-one additions (SS Cuthbert, Alban, Oswald and Edmund) commemorate English or British saints. Two of the twenty-one commemorate a virgin couple suffering persecution and death (SS Julian and Basilissa, and Crisanthus and Daria). The choice of SS Julian and Basilissa is certainly an eccentric one. The pair is commemorated in three calendars only; their cult, therefore, cannot have been widespread. The date (13 January) against which Ælfric placed their uitae is given in none of these calendars for their feast, and may have been taken from the Cotton-Corpus legendary;35 in any case, the version in Cotton-Corpus seems to have provided the source for Ælfric's Life.36 The version closest to Ælfric's Life of SS Crisanthus and Daria also seems to have been the one preserved in Cotton-Corpus.37 The Lives of SS Crisanthus and Daria and Julian and Basilissa are also told in two longish and memorable episodes in successive chapters in Aldhelm's prose De uirginitate.38 One may ask, therefore, whether the inclusion of their Lives and Ælfric's apparent penchant for this type of Life in general may owe something to his Winchester training, where Aldhelm will have been the most closely studied author in the curriculum.39 Other saints commemorated by Ælfric but without special blessings in the Benedictional include St Mark the Evangelist, the apostles SS Philip and James the Less, and St James, as well as St Benedict's (alleged) principal alumnus St Maur. In other words, the additional items in Ælfric's sanctorale do not appear to have been included haphazardly: there is clearly an emphasis on saints celebrated throughout England and on types of saints' uitae for which Ælfric seems to have had a predilection or which he may have considered relevant to contemporary political conditions. In evaluating Ælfric's additions to Æthelwold's Benedictional we also have to bear in mind that the Benedictional has a number of generalized blessings, applicable, for example, to the feast of 'One Apostle', 'One Martyr' or 'Many Confessors'.40 It is at least conceivable, therefore, that some of the feasts which were provided with a Life by Ælfric were already commemorated bysuch generalized blessings while Ælfric was still under Æthelwold's tutelage.

The overall orthodoxy of Ælfric's additions to the Benedictional is further revealed by the fact that most of them are represented with mass sets in eleventh-century English sacramentaries. We may take as a base for comparison three such mass books: the Winchcombe Sacramentary,41 the Sacramentary of Robert of Jumièges,42 and the New Minster Missal.43 Here we find that with a very few exceptions Ælfric's additional saints are provided with mass sets in at least two, but mostly all three of these mass books.44 Interestingly, the exceptions are: SS Julian and Basilissa, SS Quadraginta milites and St Eugenia which are omitted from all three books. In the case of St Eugenia we have seen (above, p. 7) that Ælfric's choice was influenced by his adherence to the Cotton-Corpus legendary, while for SS Julian and Basilissa and Quadraginta milites the negative evidence from the mass books confirms the suspicion that Ælfric had a special predilection for these types of saints' uitae.

© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

1. Ælfric's Sanctorale and the Benedictional of Æthelwold; 2. Gregory: the Apostle of the English; 3. Cuthbert: from Northumbrian Saint to Saint of All England; 4. Benedict: Father of Monks - and what else?; 5. Swithun and Æthelthryth: Two 'Saints of our Days'; 6. Epilogue.
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