1. Evidence of Ælfric's Style in Judith, Esther, and the Maccabees

In the previous section linguistic evidence was used to support the assumption of Ælfric's authorship. Yet even more evidence can be found in a brief stylistic analysis. All three texts show strong signs of Ælfric's later style of writing, known commonly as ‘rhythmical prose’, a form of writing that can be seen to develop throughout Ælfric's writings(1):

a) the use of 4-stress units, which can each be subdivided into two 2-stress units;

b) the linking of the units by alliteration (either on stressed or unstressed syllables, or both), using both consonantal and vocalic emphasis;

c) the use of word-play, i.e. repetition, or similar sounds;

d) a clarity and smoothness that allows the carefully structured sentences to flow.

A few examples of this style will prove illustrative. First, one can clearly see the heavy use of ornamental alliteration in the following extracts:

Ða ferde Holofernis mid ormætre fyrde, swa swa se cyning bead, 7 tobræc ælce burh,
(Judith ll. 42-43)
Se cyning bebead þam gebeorum eallum þæt hi bliþe wæron æt his gebeorscipe
(Esther ll. 17-19)
Hwæt, þa wearð gelæht sum geleafful bocere, harwencge 7 eald, se hatte Eleazarus.
(Maccabees ll. 29-30)

If these were to be formatted according to the lay-out standard in editing Old English poetry, one would notice an acceptable length in each of the resulting ‘half-lines’. However, examination of the full texts reveals that the syllabic length of these half-lines (though at an average of 6-7 syllables for each text(2)) varies considerably. Indeed, when attempting to shoe-horn Ælfric's prose into a series of verse lines, each containing balanced half-lines, one comes across some troublesome decisions as an editor. There are considerable problems in separating out lines, and there are notable examples where Assmann in his editions can be seen emending accordingly. Clearly he was confronted with the temptation (when creating a poetically-lineated text) to allow the rules of the style to alter, without other justification, the extant material to be found in the manuscripts(3).

In terms of word-play Ælfric is consistent with his developed style of writing. The lengthy digression concerning clean and unclean meats (Maccabees ll. 33-76) is tightly structured, with each development of the argument following on from a previous declaration. To heighten this sense of rhetoric the author links the various parts by similar sounds. There is the repetition of ‘-nysse’ (e.g. ll. 39, 51, 52, 58, 59) and the use of a verb that has its counterpart in an earlier noun (e.g. ‘getacnunge’ ll. 33, 36, and 56, links with ‘getacn(i)að’ in ll. 41, 45, 49, 57, etc.). There is the consistency of referring to things as ‘clæne’ and ‘unclæne’ and the rounding off of distinct sections by the use of rhyme (e.g. ‘gelaðunge’, l. 50, acts as a balance to the final word ‘smeagunge’, l. 53). Similar complexity of structure can be found in the digression on the fight against evil in the Maccabees ll. 609-24. Once again there is the repetition of sounds (‘-nysse’, ‘-an’) adding to the overall unity of the argument. Further examples of use of rhetoric can be found throughout the homily(4).

In Judith one can also see Ælfric's artistry at work. In ll. 342-43 there is the clever repetition of ‘ahefð/ahafen’ and ‘geadmet’ coupled with the direct sharpness of the following lines (ll. 344–45), emphasising the contrast between the ‘eadmod/clæne/lytel/unstrang’ and the ‘modigan/micclan’. In Esther also, characteristic word-play is also evident. For example, there is the queen's reply of ll. 154-56 where ‘gebeorscipe’ (l. 155) balances with ‘wurðscipe’ (l. 155). The whole sentence hinges on ‘þu leof’ (l. 155, mirroring ‘Leof cynehlaford’ in l. 154), with the first half retaining ‘ic wille’ and ‘minum’ (l. 154), whilst the second half reverses the structure to ‘ic’ and ‘minne willan’ (l. 156).

(1) Beginning to emerge in the Second Series of Catholic Homilies and reaching its height in the Lives of Saints series. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(2) In keeping with the accepted norm, see J. Hurt, Ælfric, Twayne's English Authors Series 131 (New York, 1972, p.129) and Pope (1967, pp. 118-19). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(3) Compare Skeat's refusal to accept certain additions in J (his base manuscript) because they would have disturbed his lineation. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(4) For example the almost gnomic statement of Maccabees l. 506 ‘Hwæl is ealra fixa mæst, 7 ylp is eallra nytena mæst’, where repetition is used in much the same way as a child's learning rhyme. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]