In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Archbishop Wulfstan of York

  • Introduction
  • Editions and Translations
  • Manuscripts
  • Style
  • Life and Career
  • Context
  • Sources
  • Classic Studies
  • Wulfstanian Apocrypha

British and Irish Literature Archbishop Wulfstan of York
Andrew Rabin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0075


The writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York (d. 1023) mark an artistic and conceptual highpoint of later Old English prose. As a homilist, he composed vibrant sermons characterized by vivid language, eschatological imagery, and an uncompromising moral urgency. As a royal councilor, he produced political treatises and legislation on behalf of Kings Æthelred and Cnut that articulate the most comprehensive vision of a Christian society to survive from Anglo-Saxon England. Wulfstan’s Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (“Sermon of the Wolf to the English”) remains among the most widely read pre-Conquest texts as both a standard assignment for beginning Old English students and an ongoing subject of scrutiny for advanced scholars. Likewise, the short chapters that make up the Institutes of Polity (the title is a modern editorial invention) together comprise the most elaborate treatise of political theory to be written in England before John of Salisbury’s Policraticus (c. 1155). Nonetheless, despite his contemporary importance, little is known of Wulfstan’s biography. His date of birth remains a mystery, as do his family, education, and early career. He enters the historical record with his election as Bishop of London in 996. Over the next six years, he acquired a reputation as a dynamic homilist on apocalyptic themes. In 1002, he was named Archbishop of York and Bishop of Worcester, and by 1005 he was serving as an advisor to King Æthelred. During this period, he began producing treatises on political theory and eventually drafting the legislation that circulated in the king’s name. Wulfstan’s influence grew over the next decade as his literary and legal output increased. With the fall of Æthelred and the rise of the Danish conqueror, Cnut, Wulfstan maintained his position at court and his role as primary author of royal legislation. He died in 1023. Following his death, Wulfstan’s writings continued to circulate, though often without his name attached. It was only in the mid-20th century that scholars came to recognize the full range of his achievements. The identification of Wulfstan’s corpus and recovery of his career thus serve as one of the leading achievements of modern Anglo-Saxon studies. In Wulfstan’s work, one finds both powerful prose and a compelling political imagination. No other figure from the early English Middle Ages can claim to have exercised so much influence in so many spheres or composed such a diverse and accomplished body of texts.

Editions and Translations

Students of Wulfstan’s writings must confront two significant challenges: first, the diversity of his output means that the standard editions of his texts are scattered across a number of different volumes; second, because many of Wulfstan’s most important writings were identified as his only recently, texts edited in older volumes are often misattributed or misdated by editors unaware of their provenance. The earliest major edition of Wulfstan’s homilies is Napier 1883. Unfortunately, though, while this volume remains the standard edition for a significant percentage of Wulfstan’s works, Napier offers only transcriptions of the texts (often with significant errors) and minimal footnotes in the ponderous academic German of the late 19th century. Add to this the fact that several of Napier’s attributions are incorrect and one is forced to acknowledge the need for a new edition. This need is partially filled by Bethurum 1957, an edition of twenty-one out of the sixty-two homilies edited by Napier. Bethurum’s edition (complete with detailed notes and an extensive introduction) is far superior to Napier’s, though some scholars have quibbled with her editorial decisions and choice of texts (Lionarons 2004 and Orchard 2002 in Homilies). Wulfstan’s most important homily, the Sermo Lupi, is also edited in Whitelock 1966, notable for its extensive notes, glossary, and helpful introduction. Wulfstan’s legal writings can be found in Liebermann 1903–1916, the standard edition for all Anglo-Saxon legislation. However, monumental as Liebermann’s edition is—it remains one of the great achievements in the history of scholarly editing—it predated the “Wulfstanian Renaissance” of the mid-20th century and thus fails to acknowledge Wulfstan’s role in the composition of many of his texts. Editions of several of Wulfstan’s most significant political writings can be found in Jost 1959 and Whitelock 1981, while authoritative translations are included in Whitelock 1979 and Rabin 2015. The latter in particular is the only single volume dedicated to Wulfstan’s political writings and provides the first comprehensive annotations and commentary for a number of texts hitherto only transcribed or misattributed. Significant editions of Wulfstan’s works can also be found in Mann 2004 (cited under Manuscripts), Hall 2004, Lionarons 2004, Orchard 2002 (all cited under Homilies), Kennedy 1983 (cited under Laws of Cnut), Fowler 1972 (cited under Canons of Edgar), Clayton 2008, and Cross and Hamer 1999 (both cited under Other Legal and Political Tracts).

  • Bethurum, Dorothy. The Homilies of Wulfstan. Oxford: Clarendon, 1957.

    Standard English-language edition of Wulfstan’s homilies with extensive introduction and notes. Although some of Bethurum’s editorial choices have been criticized and the texts selected for inclusion represent only part of Wulfstan’s full homiletic corpus, this volume still remains the most authoritative available edition.

  • Jost, Karl. Die “Institutes of Polity, Civil and Ecclesiastical”: Ein Werk Erzbishof Wulfstans von York. Swiss Studies in English. Bern, Switzerland: Francke Verlag, 1959.

    Comprehensive annotated edition and German translation of the different versions of Wulfstan’s most important work of political theory. Also includes editions of other texts found alongside the Institutes in its surviving manuscripts.

  • Liebermann, Felix. Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen. 3 vols. Halle, Germany: Max Niemeyer, 1903–1916.

    Monumental edition of pre–Magna Carta English law, including a number of royal law-codes and political tracts associated with Archbishop Wulfstan. Because the Gesetze was published prior to the attribution of these texts to Wulfstan, in many cases the texts are misattributed or incorrectly dated. Nonetheless, the transcriptions and emendations are largely reliable, the notes illuminating, and the edition itself one of the great accomplishments in the history of philology.

  • Napier, Arthur. Wulfstan: Sammlung der ihm Zugeschrieben Homilien nebst Untersuchungen über ihre Echtheit. Berlin: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1883.

    The first major edition of Wulfstan’s homilies, though suffering from a number of shortcomings. First completed as Napier’s doctoral dissertation, the edition consists primarily of lightly emended transcriptions without significant notes or textual apparatus. Though partially replaced by Bethurum 1957, this edition remains standard for many of the texts left out of the latter volume.

  • Rabin, Andrew. The Political Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan of York. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2015.

    Translations of Wulfstan’s tracts and homilies on political themes along with extensive introduction, notes, and commentary. Includes a number of texts never before translated or annotated.

  • Whitelock, Dorothy. Sermo Lupi Ad Anglos. Methuen’s Old English Library. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1966.

    Edition of the most well-known version of Wulfstan’s most famous homily. In addition to the text itself, the edition is notable for its insightful introduction and commentary, both of which shed considerable light on other aspects of the archbishop’s career as well as political culture in 11th-century England as a whole.

  • Whitelock, Dorothy. English Historical Documents. Vol. 1, C. 500–1042. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

    Anthology of translations relevant to all aspects of early English culture. Contains a number of texts associated with Wulfstan accompanied by useful notes and short introductions.

  • Whitelock, Dorothy, ed. Councils and Synods with Other Documents Relating to the English Church. Vol. 1, Part 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1981.

    Extensively annotated editions and translations of texts relevant to 10th- and 11th-century English ecclesiastical culture. Particularly useful for its editions of a number of minor works and political tracts associated with Wulfstan.

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