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VII. From Alfred to the Conquest

§ 5. Wulfstan

Aelfric’s last important work was a pastoral letter written for Wulfstan, who, from 1002 to 1023, was archbishop of York, and, till 1016, held also the see of Worcester, being thus a neighbour of the abbot of Eynsham. It falls into two parts, of which the first speaks of the three periods of the law, and goes on to the theme already treated in the letters to Wulfsige and Sigferth. The subject of the marriage of the clergy is reviewed from a historical standpoint, and the letter further admonishes the clergy on the celebration of the Eucharist, as their great function, and treats of the seven grades of holy orders. The second part deals with the use of the holy oils and the administration of the last sacraments to the dying. Mass was not to be said in laymen’s houses, nor churches used for worldly purposes. The work must have been composed after 1014, since it contains a quotation from Aethelred’s laws of that date; and, probably, before 1016, when Wulfstan’s connection with Worcester came to an end. The epistles were written in Latin and translated into English by Aelfric himself, at Wulfstan’s request, in the following year.

Aelfric’s life was now drawing to a close. The exact date of his death is not known, but he died, probably, soon after 1020. His last years were passed in times not favourable for literary work. They were eventful years for England, for they witnessed the Danish sack of Canterbury in 1011, the murder of St. Alphege by the Danes at Greenwich, the flight of Aethelred before Sweyn, the strife of Edmund Ironside and Canute and Canute’s final triumph.

Aelfric was not only the greatest prose writer, he was also the most distinguished English-writing theologian, in his own time, and for five centuries afterwards. Yet he was in no sense an original thinker; his homilies, as he frankly states, are borrowed from others, and in them he reflects the thought of the west, especially the teachings of St. Augustine its great Father. His chief object was to convey to the simple and unlearned the teaching of the Fathers; and in this he was pre-eminently successful. If Dunstan and Aethelwold first kindled the flame, it was Aelfric who, through dark years of strife and warfare, when men’s thoughts were absorbed by the pressing anxieties of their daily life, kept the lamp alight and reminded them of spiritual ideals. His influence lasted long after his death, as is shown by the many late manuscripts of his writings, some of which date from the twelfth century; and if it had not been for his faithful, modest labour, the difficulties of Lanfranc and Anselm would have been even greater than they were.

As he himself tells us, he took Alfred for his model, but, in ease and grace, his style far surpasses that of his great predecessor. Both Aelfric and Wulfstan write and translate in a free style, but it is not longer the gossiping colloquialism of Alfred. English had become a literary language, polished in the cloisters with long use as a vehicle for translation and original works. In the cloisters Latin was still a living language, and hence Latin constructions became common. The necessity of having to express difficult ideas in a form intelligible to ignorant men helped Aelfric in his choice of words and in his effort after lucidity, while, with the instinct of a true teacher, he refused to be led astray by the example of Latin syntax and preferred simple constructions. Unfortunately, as time went on, he deferred more and more to the preferences of his audience, and debased his prose by throwing it into the rhythmical alliterative form so popular with the vulgar. Perhaps it was felt that a more pompous, rhetorical style than that of ordinary speech should be used in treating of solemn themes. However that may be, the later, florid manner which Aelfric affected in the Saints’ Lives, and in some of his other treatises, is distinctly inferior to that of the first two series of homilies. His prose is seen at its best in simple narrative, and, to appreciate the difficulties under which he laboured, the homilies on the Eucharist and on the Creation (both philosophic subjects) should be read together. The first is confused and complex, compared with the flowing ease of the great Father upon whose work it was based and, obviously, the language was not, at this time, equal to abstruse metaphysical speculation. The second, which deals with a simpler subject, is clear and comprehensive. Aelfric shows power in his treatment of pathos as well as of philosophy, when both are simple; as may be seen in the homilies on the Holy Innocents and on the Creation. But, whatever his theme, he is always logical and persuasive, and the “sweet reasonableness” of his methods especially distinguishes his sermons from the fiery denunciations, and the direct, strenuous language, of his contemporary and friend archbishop Wulfstan, who goes to the point without any of the abstract moralising to be found in Aelfric. Wulfstan delivers his Christian doctrine as a statement of facts, and his phrases have a legal smack about them; while Aelfric loves what has some philosophy in it, for even his simplicity is often profound. In a word, Wulfstan is a judge and legalist, Aelfric a contemplative student.

This difference in tone is explained partly by temperament, partly by the circumstances of their lives. Aelfric, following the quiet industrious routine of duty behind the shelter of the abbey walls, heard only the rumours of the strife that raged without; Wulfstan, absorbed in practical, political life, was brought face to face with the anguish and the practical needs of the time. He was already bishop of Worcester when, in 1002, he was appointed, also, to the see of York. In 1014 he assisted in the compilation of the laws of Aethelred, drawn up at the synod of Eynsham; he died on 28 May, 1023. Thus, his period of office coincided with that of the most disastrous and devastating invasions of the country.

It is extremely difficult to determine exactly which of the homilies in the Bodleian are really Wulfstan’s. Owing to the superscription at the beginning of the first, Hic incipiunt sermones Lupi, all were ascribed to him by Wanley. Napier has pointed out, however, that this heading was, probably, taken from another manuscript of the archbishop’s sermons, which were copied into a miscellaneous collection containing many others, of which the authorship is uncertain, or certainly not his. Of the fifty-three homilies in the Bodleian MS. only five are indisputably by Wulfstan. There are two immediately following the superscription, dealing with the Bible story, and with the catholic faith; next follows a sermon of which only parts are by Wulfstan, and which Napier, rejecting the passages he considers unauthentic, has divided into four portions: on the Christian life, on Christ’s death, on Christ as the true friend and on the duties of Christians. Then comes the famous Address to the English, and last of all a short exhortation with the superscription Sermo Lupi, on the duty of Christians, full of metrical fragments, which can be separated from the context and show signs of sung verse united by alliteration or assonance. Of the remaining homilies, some, which occur in the same order in various manuscripts, are, possibly, by Wulfstan; many, such as the paraphrase of the poem called Be Domes Daege, and The Address of the Soul to the Body, must be entirely rejected; while others appear also among the Blickling Homilies or the works of Aelfric. It is noteworthy that the homilies referred to above as possibly by Wulfstan are very similar in phraseology to the Old English laws drawn up at the council of Eynsham in 1014; and, as we know from his own statement that Wulfstan was responsible for the Latin paraphrase of these statutes, it is probable the English version was his also.

Of the five homilies which certainly can be ascribed to Wulfstan, the most powerful is the one entitled in the Bodleian MS. Sermo Lupi ad Anglos quando Dani maxime persecuti sunt eos, quod fuit in die Aethelredi regis, to which another MS. adds more explicitly that this was in anno millesimo xiiii ab incarnatione Domini nostri Jesus Christi, and another, in anno millesimo viii. But it is, indeed, applicable to any year in the ill-fated reign of Aethelred. The vices, evil deeds and cowardice of the English are scourged with a heavy hand; the English are likened to the Britons whom they have turned out, and are threatened with the same fate. The archbishop’s passionate patriotism breaks forth in the burning words with which he describes the desolation and demoralisation of the people, scattered like frightened sheep before the onset of the heathen, without a single leader to rally them to resistance. Villages are destroyed by fire, the new ministers are stripped of their holy things; father is turned against son and brother against brother; even the ancient bond of thane and thrall becomes loosened in this time of universal disintegration. And, like some Hebrew prophet, Wulfstan refuses to believe that the Almighty would have laid so heavy an affliction upon an innocent people; he sees in the crimes of the nation the cause, rather than the effect, of the long strife; this evil has come upon them for their sins; they have provoked the wrath of Heaven, and unless they repent and reform, a worse evil shall befall them. But there is still room for penitence, and the sermon ends on a gentler note:

  • “Let us creep to Christ,” says the preacher, “and call upon Him unceasingly with trembling hearts, and deserve His mercy; let us love God and His laws, and faithfully perform what our sponsors promised for us at our baptism. Let us order rightly our words and our deeds, and keep faith with one another without guile, and frequently think upon the great judgement that awaits us all; and protect ourselves against the flaming fire of hell; and let us earn for ourselves the glory and the joy which God has prepared for those who do His will on earth. So God help us. Amen.”
  • Here and there are traces of metrical character, sometimes assonant, sometimes alliterative, which may have been part of some pessimistic folk-ballads on England’s downfall.

    Wulfstan’s style is much more vehement than that of Aelfric. He is preacher rather than teacher, appealing more to the emotions than to the reason of his hearers, fertile in concrete illustrations, and avoiding the subtle symbolism in which Aelfric delighted. His sentences, though not deficient in lucidity, are very long; synonym is heaped on synonym and clause upon clause; yet the chanting sense of rhythm is always present; epithets are balanced, and the effect is often heightened by the use of antithesis. But, as might be expected from one whose life was so much absorbed by the administration of public affairs, his style is that of the rhetorician rather than of the philosopher.

    In addition to the homilies already mentioned, several isolated tracts of the same nature by unknown authors survive. Among these may be noted the Life of St. Guthlac and of St. Swithun, the former translated from the Latin of Felix of Croyland, and, on the ground that one MS. is in the same handwriting as Aelfric’s Pentateuch, often attributed to him; the latter a mere fragment, which is also supposed by some scholars to be his. There are also the Life of St. Neot, and of St. Mary of Egypt, which may, possibly, be his.