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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

VII. From Alfred to the Conquest

§ 2. The Monastic Reform

From this brief description of the manuscripts of the Chronicle we must turn to the homilists, who showed especial vigour between 960 and 1020. The development reached in style and in literary tradition is at once apparent; it had its origin, doubtless, in the religious revival of the tenth century, which emanated from Fleury, and was identified in England with the names of Dunstan, Aethelwold and Oswald, the “three torches” of the church.

At the beginning of the tenth century, English monasticism and, therefore, the state of learning in England, were in a deplorable condition, from which all the efforts of king Alfred had been unable to lift them. There were religious houses, of course, but most of these seem to have been in the condition of Abingdon when Aethelwold was appointed abbot—“a place in which a little monastery had been kept up from ancient days, but then desolate and neglected, consisting of mean buildings and possessing only a few hides.” To the influence of the Benedictine reformers we owe much of the prose literature of the tenth and eleventh centuries. The great bond thus knit once more between English literature and the literature of the continent ensured our share in what was then living of classical and pseudo-classical lore.

With the accession of Edgar (959) better times dawned. On the death of Odo, Dunstan became archbishop, and, in 961 Oswald, Odo’s nephew, was consecrated to the see of Worcester. His appointment was followed in 963 by that of Aethelwold, abbot of Abingdon, to the see of Winchester, and the three bishops set about a vigorous ecclesiastical reform. During the reigns of Edgar and his sons no fewer than forty monasteries for men were founded or restored, and these were peopled chiefly by monks trained at Abingdon or Winchester.

The most famous school of all was that founded at Winchester by Aethelwold, one of the most distiguished of the pupils of Dunstan, and himself an enthusiastic teacher, who did not scorn to explain the difficulties of Donatus and Priscian to the postulants and other youthful frequenters of the Benedictine school. The most important of his scholars was Aelfric, the greatest prose writer in the vernacular before the Conquest.

The inhabitants of the newly restored monasteries naturally required instruction in the Benedictine rule, and to this necessity is due the version of the rule which Aethelwold drew up under the title Regularis Concordia Anglicae Nations Monachorum Sanctimonialiumque. In the beginning of this he stated that the work had the sanction of the king, and that it was framed at a council at Winchester. The name of the writer is nowhere given, and, were it not that Aelfric, in his Letter to the Monks of Eynsham, says that the source of his information is bishop Aethelwold’s De Consuetudine, and quotes long passages from the Regularis (evidently the same work), we should be ignorant of the authorship.

But it was not enough to multiply copies and commentaries of the Rule in Latin. Many of the newly admitted postulants and novices were quite ignorant of that language, and, therefore, king Edgar further entrusted Aethelwold with the task of translating the Rule into English, giving him in acknowledgement the manor of Southborne, which he assigned to the newly restored monastery at Ely. There are several MSS. containing an Old English version of the Rule, and in one of them it is followed by a historical sketch of the monastic revival of the tenth century, which recounts Edgar’s share in the movement, his refounding of Abingdon and his command to translate into English the Rule. Schrüer thinks that this tractate is by the author of the foregoing version of the Rule; but, since the writer calls himself everywhere “abbot,” and not “bishop,” if it is by Aethelwold he must have made it between 959, the year of Edgar’s accession, and 963, when he became bishop of Winchester.