1. General Discussion
  2. A Note on Orthography

1. General Discussion

The dates of composition of the three homilies are not known. In Chapter II it was noted that Clemoes (1959), in his examination of the chronology of Ælfric's works, suggests the following dates:

Judith: 1002-5 (Assmann suggests 997-1005)

Esther: 1002-5

Maccabees: 992-1002 (along with the rest of the Lives of Saints)

Godden's observations (1980(1)), however, indicate that these dates are open to question.

There are no precise historical details in the homilies that could help in attempting to establish the dates of composition. The moral lapses in society, particularly in the clergy, which some see as being prompted by Ælfric's drive for ‘clænnysse’, do not provide a simple datable event. Similarly, the patriotic call to arms in Judith and the Maccabees may have been a response to the arrival of the Great Army in 1006, but as Ælfric was writing amidst numerous Viking attacks, this can not be maintained.

The ‘Item Alia’ in the Maccabees concerning the ‘Oratores, Bellatores, and Laboratores’ has links with Wulfstan's view of society seen in his Institutes of Polity (2), and similarly with King Æthelred's Laws of 1014(3), but discussion of how far the clergy should be involved in warfare was commonplace. Similarly, Esther fails to provide any useful dating information. With the exception of Æthelred's planned destruction of the Danes in 1002, there were no actual genocides recorded (although the Anglo-Saxons almost certainly viewed the Viking attacks as apocalyptic(4)), nor are there any notable conspiracies involving noblemen which would support a reading of the character of Aman as symbolic of a contemporary event.

Consequently there are no good reasons to move from the dating guidelines put forward by Clemoes—the Maccabees being composed earlier than the other two, at sometime between 992–1002, and Judith and Esther in 1002–1005. All three were completed before Ælfric became abbot at the monastery in Eynsham. Although it has been well documented elsewhere, it would be amiss not to mention the problem with Ælfric's Preface to his translation of Genesis. In this, written c.992–1002, Ælfric seems to declare that he would not translate any other Old Testament books by his comment: ‘Ic cweðe nu ðæt ic ne dearr ne ic nelle nane boc after ðisre Ledene on Englisc awendan’ (Crawford, 1922, p. 80). This of course questions the above dates for the three homilies edited here, clearly written after this declaration. Although it could be argued that Ælfric simply changed his mind and did undertake further translations after Genesis, it is perhaps more satisfactory to assume that this comment meant that he would no longer attempt such a strict translation of a text (probably adopted originally out of reverence for the first book of the Bible) but instead wished to free himself to conduct a more loose paraphrase of other books(5).

2. A Note on Orthography

When discussing Ælfric, we are fortunate in the sense that we know roughly where and when he lived and can thus expect him to have written in what is commonly known as Late West Saxon. This is the language of the oldest surviving manuscript copies. However, scribal interference has introduced a number of later or non-standard spellings(6).

(1) M. R. Godden, ‘Ælfric's Changing Vocabulary’, ES 61 (1980), 206–23. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(2) See, for example, section XIV in B. Thorpe, Ancient Laws and Institutions of England (London, 1840), p. 25. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(3) See section 25 and 30 of the 1014 code in D. L. Whitelock, English Historical Documents I (London, 1979), p. 448ff. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(4) See M. R. Godden, ‘Apocalypse and Invasion in Late Anglo-Saxon England’ in (eds.) M. R. Godden, D. Gray, and T. Hoad, From Anglo-Saxon to Early Middle English (Oxford, 1994), pp. 130–62. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(5) See A. E. Nichols, ‘Ælfric's Prefaces: Rhetoric and Genre’, ES 49 (1968), 215–23; J. Wilcox, ‘A Reluctant Translator in Late Anglo-Saxon England: Ælfric and Maccabees’, Proceedings of the Medieval Association of the Midwest 2 (1993), pp. 1–18. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(6) See Ker's Catalogue entries for each of the manuscripts detailed in chapter II; see Godden (1979) and Pope (1967) for overlap with their manuscript descriptions; see also Assmann, 1885, pp. 6–15 for an extensive study of Esther. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]