Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ælfric (fl.1006)

1904 Errata appended.

579688Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 01 — Ælfric (fl.1006)1885William Hunt

ÆLFRIC, abbot, called Grammaticus (fl. 1006), was a celebrated author and translator. As no name seems to have been more common at the close of the tenth century than that of Ælfric, and as it was borne by several ecclesiastics of whom some record exists, there has been much controversy about this writer's identity. By Mores (De Ælfrico, &c., ed. Thorkelin, 1789), who is followed by Wright (Biog. Brit. Lit. i. 480), Dean Hook (Abps. of Cant. i. 439), and Mr. Freeman (Norman Conquest, i. c. 5), he has been identified with Ælfric, archbishop of Canterbury [q. v.] This theory is impossible, for in the second preface to the ‘Homilies’ he speaks of the days of Æthelred as already past; and though in the earlier preface he offers his work to Archbishop Sigeric (d. 994), who approved it, yet the second preface was probably written at a later time, and after the death of Æthelred in 1016. Besides, we find him describing himself as abbot when writing the ‘Life of Æthelwold,’ bishop of Winchester, in 1005, in which year Ælfric, archbishop of Canterbury, died. By Wharton (Anglia Sacra, i. 125) he is held to be one with Ælfric, archbishop of York, and this opinion is adopted by Thorpe in his preface to the ‘Homilies.’ Although this is not impossible, yet, as Canon Stubbs (Mosheim's Eccl. Hist. ed. Stubbs, ii. 86, n.) has pointed out, on this theory ‘the archbishop would have lived to nearly ninety years of age, a fact that would have most likely been recorded if it were so.’ All we know of Ælfric, archbishop of York, makes it highly improbable that he was the author of abbot Ælfric's works. Ælfric the writer never speaks of himself by any higher title than that of abbot, and there is no reason to doubt that Dr. Lingard (Hist. and Antiq. ii 453) is right in deciding that he was never raised to the episcopate. The tradition that he was archbishop of Canterbury probably arose from the use which has been made of his writings in theological controversy. It pleased those who insisted on his opinions being accepted as the doctrine of the church of England in early days to entertain the belief that he was its chief pastor. All that can be certainly known about Ælfric must be gleaned from his writings. In his early days he was taught by a secular priest, who could scarcely understand Latin. Ælfric despised the ignorance of the secular clergy. ‘There was no one,’ he says, ‘who could write or understand Latin letters until Dunstan and Æthelwold revived learning.’ Ælfric found a more capable teacher, for he became a pupil of Æthelwold. It is therefore probable that he was a monk of Abingdon, where Æthelwold was abbot. When Æthelwold was made bishop of Winchester (963), he expelled the secular clergy from the old minster, and sent to Abingdon for monks to fill their place (Vita S. Æthel. 12, in Chron. de Abingdon, ed. Stevenson, R. S.). Ælfric was most probably among those who came, for the next thing we know about him connects him with Winchester. Ethelmær, the ealdorman of Devonshire, the great patron of monasticism in the west, finished the monastery he was building at Cerne. At his request Ælfheah, who succeeded Æthelwold at Winchester (984–1005), sent Ælfric to rule over the new foundation. Ælfric was, he tells us, at that time ‘a monk and a mass-priest.’ He afterwards became abbot of Ensham, which was also founded by Æthelmær, and was completed, it is said, in 1005 (Dugdale, Monas. ed. 1817 &c. iii. 1). A letter to an Ælfric who was evidently a monk is attached to Ælfric's ‘Glossary.’ It describes the person addressed as high in favour with Cnut, and begs him to use his influence with the king to obtain his assent to a request. It is possible that this Ælfric may have been the abbot of Ensham; but it is more likely that the person addressed was the abbot of St. Albans of the same name [q.v.]. Ælfric remained on intimate terms with his patron Æthelmær and his son Æthelweard, and did much of his work in translating to please them. In the preface to his translation of Genesis he tells Æthelweard that he will not translate anything more, and says: ‘I pray thee, dear ealdorman, that thou bid it me no more, lest I be disobedient to you or a liar if I do it.’

The name of Ælfric has become famous from the vigour with which he opposed the doctrine of transubstantiation, and parts of his writings which treat this subject have been republished from time to time whenever any special agitation has arisen on the sacramental question in England. His school books, and especially the preface to his Grammar, show that he took a warm interest in education, which was fully in accord with the spirit of the monastic revival of his time. The employment of his talents by ealdormen and bishops is an evidence that his learning was recognised by his contemporaries. He was for the most part engaged in translation and compilation. His writings are: 1. Two books of ‘Homilies,’ each containing forty sermons. These he compiled and translated into English from the sermons of various Latin writers which were used in the church. He says that he undertook this work because there was little gospel light for any except such as could read Latin, save what was contained in the books translated by King Ælfred. These homilies are mostly appropriated to the different Sundays and saints days throughout the year. They are short and vigorous, and are usually filled with narrative. One of them, the sermon ‘on the sacrifice,’ for Easter Sunday, contains strong statements against the teaching of the Romish church on the subject of the eucharist. In this matter he probably owed much to Ratramn of Corbie (cir. 860), the opponent of Paschasius Radbert. In a sermon for St. Peter's day he also puts forth doctrine which is not in accord with the tenets of the church of Rome concerning that apostle. As the homilies were accepted by Archbishop Sigeric, and Ælfric was employed by other bishops, they may be held to express the teaching of the church of England at that time, even though the writer was never a bishop himself. For this reason the Paschal homily has been frequently used in controversy. It was published with other smaller translations in 1566. An interesting introduction on the state of the Anglo-Saxon church, and a recommendation signed by Matthew Parker, archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Young, archbishop of York, and thirteen other bishops, are appended to it. The title is ‘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, and also concerning the Saxons time 800 years ago. Imprinted at London by John Day, dwelling ouer Aldersgate beneath S. Martyns.’ Extracts from Ælfric's writings concerning the sacrament were printed in Foxe's Martyrology, ed. 1610. The ‘Testimonie’ has frequently been reprinted, e.g. by W. L'Isle in 1623. It was re-edited by Mr. Copinger, and published by Pickering, London, 1877. In 1715 Elizabeth Elstob, niece of the great Anglo-Saxon scholar Hickes, made two attempts to publish the ‘Homilies.’ She did not accomplish more than a few pages in either case. The homily for the Nativity of St. George was published by her in 1709, and was reprinted in 1839. The two books of homilies, the second containing five additional discourses in the original Anglo-Saxon, with a modern English version, were edited by Thorpe and printed for the Ælfric Society, London, 1844–46. The sermons for saints' days have been edited by Mr. Skeat for the Early English Text Society 1881. 2. ‘A Treatise on the Old and New Testaments’ (ed. W. L'Isle, 1623). This work has also afforded food for controversy. Mr. H. Soames in his ‘Bampton Lectures’ (No. 96), and in his ‘Latin Church in the Anglo-Saxon Times,’ declares that Ælfric followed Jerome in his opinions on the subject of canonicity; while Dr. Lingard, in his ‘History and Antiquities,’ maintains that he is in accord with the Tridentine dogma. 3. The ‘Heptateuchus,’ an abridgment and translation of the first seven books of the Old Testament, with the Book of Job, &c., edited by E. Thwaites, Oxford, 1699. 4. The Life of St. Æthelwold in ‘Chron. Monasterii de Abingdon,’ ii. 255, ed. Stevenson, R. S., beginning ‘Alfricus Abbas, Wintoniensis alumnus.’ 5. ‘Excerpts from St. Æthelwold's Rule of St. Benedict,’ for the monks of Ensham. A proposal for publication under the editorship of W. E. Buckley, of Brasenose College, Oxford, was put forth by the Ælfric Society. 6. ‘Canons,’ written for Wulfsy, bishop of Sherborn (991–1001). These canons relate to the duties of priests. They magnify the priestly office, saying that there is no difference in order between a priest and a bishop, though the bishops have distinct duties and precedence. They refer to the universal habit of the marriage of the clergy and to their worldly lives. Canon 36 contains the same teaching concerning the ‘Holy Housel’ as the Paschal homily. 7. A ‘Pastoral Letter,’ written for Wulfstan, archbishop of York (1003–1023), in which he makes the archbishop declare that he will not forcibly compel his clergy to chastity, but admonishes them to observe that rule. 8. A letter entitled ‘Quando dividis Chrisma,’ on the use of the holy oil. These three, 6, 7, 8, are printed in Thorpe's ‘Ancient Laws and Institutes,’ published under the direction of the Commissioners of Public Records, 1840. The Corpus Christi College MS. of the ‘Canons’ ends with the 35th; cetera desunt. From this Spelman printed in the ‘Concilia,’ vol. i., and Migne in the ‘Patrologia,’ vol. cxxxix. This is all that Migne publishes of Ælfric's works, on account, he says, of their anti-catholic tendency. 9. A ‘Latin Grammar and Glossary,’ printed by W. Somner in the ‘Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum,’ Oxford, 1659. This grammar gained Ælfric the title of Grammaticus. It is founded on the grammars of Donatus and Priscian. It was written for, and is dedicated to, the boys of England. A twelfth-century fragment of the grammar was found by Sir T. Phillipps at Worcester, and published by him under the signature T. P., London, 1838. The grammar is included in the ‘Sammlung englischer Denkmäler,’ Berlin, 1880. 10. The ‘Colloquium,’ a dialogue written by Ælfric and enlarged by Ælfric Bata, his disciple. This is an amusing reading-book, designed to help young scholars to speak Latin correctly. It contains descriptions of the daily life of men of various occupations—e.g. of the ploughman, the king's huntsman, and the monastic scholar. It is published in Thorpe's ‘Analecta Anglo-Saxonica,’ 1834, and in ‘Altsächsische und angelsächsische Sprachproben,’ Halle, 1838. 11. A treatise ‘De Temporibus Anni,’ published by the Historical Society of Science in ‘Popular Treatises on Science during the Middle Ages,’ ed. T. Wright, 1841; and one or two short letters.

[Authorities quoted above, and notices in Ælfric's own works. For fuller list of editions see Wright's Biog. Brit. Lit.]

W. H.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.3
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line
164 ii 13 sqq. f.e. Ælfric, Grammaticus: The suggested identification of Ælfric the grammarian with Ælfric, archbishop of York, is confuted in Dr. E. Dietrich's elaborate account of the former in Niedner's 'Zeitschrift für Historische Theologie,' 1855, xxv., pp. 487-594, and 1856, xxvi., pp. 163-256. Cf. Ælfric's 'Lives of Saints,' ed. by Prof. Skeat, Early Engl. Text Soc., 1881-1900
166 i 9 for St. George read St. Gregory