Medieval Studies Ælfric
Joyce Hill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0157


The homilist Ælfric (c. 950–1010), monk, masspriest, and abbot of Eynsham, is the most significant vernacular prose writer from Anglo-Saxon England by virtue of the quantity and quality of his writings. These are datable with degree of precision that is unusual for the early Middle Ages, and so it is possible to study Ælfric in a way that is in some respects akin to authors of later periods. His habit of reworking and supplementing his texts and of providing personal information in prefaces, concluding admonitions and other passing comments, means that we can, for example, appreciate the trajectory of his output, understand the context that prompted him to write many of his individual works, and identify his network of lay and ecclesiastical patrons. Additionally, because he gives us clues to his circumstances and attitudes, we are able to gain some sense of his motives and programmatic purpose in fostering the aims of the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform, of which he was a second-generation product. Most of his work is in Old English, with homilies and saints’ lives predominating, although he also produced biblical translations, commentary material, pastoral letters on behalf of the episcopal hierarchy, and other forms of instruction. In addition he wrote some works in Latin, his professional language as a cleric, and provided teaching materials for those who were learning this language. However, it was his production of reliably orthodox vernacular material that was markedly distinctive: his aim was in part to counteract what he saw as the “error” of other material that was in circulation. At the same time, although he was driven to promote a particular intellectual tradition, he worried about making certain texts available in Old English for a lay audience in case they should be misunderstood, and he carefully avoided the apocryphal and sensational, even when such material was accepted within Benedictine Reform circles. It was not until the 19th century that Æfric’s work began to be systematically published, leading to vigorous and productive research into its content, sources, style, language, and manuscript transmission. But he gained fame as early as the Reformation when his Easter homily was seized upon in support of protestant doctrine regarding the Eucharist. Its publication in 1566 or 1567, together with his pastoral letters for Wulfsige and Wulfstan, were the first Old English texts to appear in print.

General Overviews

The seminal overview of Ælfric’s life and writings was that of Dietrich 1855, a work that was also important for firmly establishing Ælfric’s identity and eliminating earlier confusion with other ecclesiastics of the same name. White 1898 relied heavily on Dietrich: but although her book-length study was reissued with an updated bibliography in 1974, it suffers from the fact that it predates major advances in Ælfrician research. The same is true of other overviews from the 20th century, although there is still some value in Hurt 1972 as a general introduction. A more focused overview is provided by Clemoes 1966 in a penetrating and authoritative article that continues to serve as a useful starting point. No book-length surveys were published in the late 20th or early 21st centuries, but the research essays commissioned for Magennis and Swan 2009 are comprehensive in their cumulative scope and are supported by a full bibliography. In addition, since it is essential to develop a sense of Ælfric’s place within the broader context of Old English prose, a number of studies that take this more general approach are relevant here. Godden 1978 examines Ælfric chiefly in relation to the vernacular prose tradition that preceded him; Greenfield and Calder 1986 has a chapter on the writings of Ælfric, his contemporary Wulfstan, and other anonymous prose writings from the 10th and 11th centuries; and Kleist 2007 brings together detailed research articles on Old English homilies, partly on Ælfric directly, and partly on other aspects of the homiletic tradition against which he needs to be viewed.

  • Clemoes, Peter. “Ælfric.” In Continuations and Beginnings: Studies in Old English Literature. Edited by Eric Gerald Stanley, 176–209. London: Thomas Nelson, 1966.

    An overview of Ælfric’s life and works, focusing on his didactic purposes, his models and intellectual resources, his abilities in working with his source materials, his modes of interpretation, and his rhetorical skills, with special attention being given to his innovative development of a rhythmical and alliterative prose style.

  • Dietrich, Eduard. “Abt Aelfrik: Zur Literatur-Geschichte der angelsächsischen Kirche.” Zeitschrift für die historische Theologie 25 (1855): 487–594.

    Establishes Ælfric’s canon and his identity and lays the groundwork for the chronology of his work. Also examines his theology, education, source texts, rhythmical prose, and methods of translation. Volume 26 published in 1856 (pp. 163–256).

  • Godden, Malcolm. “Ælfric and the Vernacular Prose Tradition.” In The Old English Homily and its Backgrounds. Edited by Paul E. Szarmach and Bernard F. Huppé, 99–117. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1978.

    An examination of Ælfric’s relationship to the Old English prose tradition that preceded him, followed by an assessment of the kind of mark his work made. It is “an attempt to see Aelfric’s place in Anglo-Saxon literary history at the period when he wrote, rather than from our present viewpoint” (p. 99).

  • Greenfield, Stanley B., and Daniel G. Calder. A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

    Chapter 3 surveys and places in context the work of Ælfric, Wulfstan (Bishop of Worcester 1002–1016 and Archbishop of York, 1002–1023) and anonymous prose from the 10th and 11th centuries.

  • Hurt, James R. Ælfric. Twayne’s English Authors Series 131. New York: Twayne, 1972.

    An overview in a respected introductory series. Surveys Ælfric’s context, intellectual heritage, life, works, and writing styles, with a discussion toward the end on Ælfric’s rhythmical prose and its purpose. Numerous illustrative quotations and a bibliography.

  • Kleist, Aaron J., ed. The Old English Homily: Precedent, Practice, and Appropriation. Studies in the Early Middle Ages 17. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2007.

    This collection of sixteen specially commissioned research studies by various authors addresses many aspects of the Anglo-Saxon homiletic tradition. Ælfric’s place in that tradition is reflected in the fact that five of the essays are specifically about him. There is an appendix providing a classified list of homiliary manuscripts.

  • Magennis, Hugh, and Mary Swan, eds. A Companion to Ælfric. Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition 18. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2009.

    This detailed one-volume study of Ælfric has fifteen chapters on different aspects of his life and work, each by leading specialists. The bibliography is comprehensive both for primary and secondary works, and there is a full index that allows for the detailed pursuit of sub-topics and cross-referencing between chapters.

  • White, Caroline L. Ælfric: A New Study of His Life and Writings. Yale Studies in English 2. Boston: Lamson Wolffe, 1898.

    Based substantially on Dietrich but also summarizes the work of several other significant early Ælfrician scholars. Some of her own suppositions are more fanciful than would be acceptable today. Provides several extracts from Ælfric’s works. Reprinted with a supplementary bibliography by Malcolm R. Godden. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1974. The extensively updated bibliography in the 1974 reprint is classified and annotated.

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