1. Introduction
  2. Ælfric's Treatment of Source Material
  3. Go to Source Tables

1. Introduction

The impression that Ælfric gives in his writings is of a deliberating man, familiar with the needs of his audience. Recent scholarship has attested to his role as mediator and transmitter of the teachings of the Church Fathers. In his preface to the first series of Catholic Homilies he clearly notes his indebtedness to earlier authorities, for example Augustine, Jerome, Bede, Gregory, Smaragdus(1), and Haymo(2), either at first or secondhand.

Discussion of the source materials for Ælfric's Judith, Esther, and the Maccabees has generally been limited to the assumption that Ælfric used the Vulgate and that any discrepancies between the homilies and the Latin simply reflect his stylistic alterations(3). This interpretation still appears likely, except for a few minor exceptions.

With the Maccabees it is clear that Ælfric extended his attention beyond the Vulgate(4). Skeat(5) and Loomis(6) provide initial attempts at source analyses, but, as Micheline-Maurice Larès points out, these need fuller explanation (p. 269(7)). In particular, because the martyrs detailed at the beginning of the Maccabees are generally recognised as saints in the Christian calendar (they have their own feast say on the 1st August), the possibility that Ælfric drew the section at least from some legendary, perhaps even the ‘Cotton-Corpus’ collection identified by Zettel, must be considered. Yet, under further examination the correlation is simply not there(8). In addition, the ‘Item Alia’ which closes the homily is clearly not taken from the Vulgate(9).

The identification of the sources for Ælfric's homilies on Judith and Esther is more straightforward. In both cases the narrative structure reflects the Vulgate, the only questions arising with the closing section of Judith, which includes the incomplete Life of St Malchus. The digression on Judith as an example of ‘clænnysse’ (Judith ll. 331–75) appears to be Ælfric's own, and due to the fragmentary nature of Malchus (most of the text of which can only be drawn from the ‘explicit’ in Wanley's Catalogue) no identifiable source for these lines can be found(10).

Appendix I provides a series of tables which summarize the source material for each homily. Any section which deserves further comment is detailed in the Notes.

2. Ælfric's Treatment of Source Material

It is clear that Ælfric approached the Vulgate with respect, but also with a recognition of the needs of his audience. His treatment of the biblical material therefore deserves attention. Primarily, the homilies cannot be viewed as pure translations, for examination of them reveals a highly personalised ‘paraphrase’. Conversely, there is always a feeling of respect for the Latin evident in the homilies, indicating Ælfric's recognition of the importance of the material that he was dealing with (perhaps also the importance to him of being able to refer to ‘books’ as sources)(11).

There are four categories under which substantive differences between the Old English and the Vulgate can be presented. These are: (i) expansion of the Latin (including the addition of extra material not found elsewhere, e.g. personal comments); (ii) omission of large passages of the Vulgate; (iii) loose paraphrase of the Vulgate; (iv) direct translation. The most common reason for any of these must stem from Ælfric's desire to produce a text that could be understood by explaining, where necessary, unfamiliar material (e.g. the whole episode concerning the elephants, Maccabees ll. 499-507). Biggs (1991(12)) draws attention to this by noting Ælfric's ‘willingness to abridge his translations of the Bible either to sharpen the narrative, or to avoid morally sensitive issues’ (pp. 286–87).

(i) Although his Old Testament source provided Ælfric with substantial information, it contained much that was unfamiliar to the Anglo-Saxons. In order to make the material more accessible to his audience Ælfric often turns to other writers when framing his explanations (e.g. Jerome, Bede, and Isidore(13)), and occasionally adds a striking allusion, as, for example, in his reference to the Vikings (Maccabees ll. 628-29).

Other examples of expansion can be found in Judith. Some passages may reflect his wish to emphasize or clarify particular elements of the story. For example, the ‘scene-setting’ details of ll. 2-18 of Judith do not occur in the preliminary sections of the story as found in the Vulgate, but can in fact be traced to the writings contained in ff. 25r-25v of MS. Boulogne-sur-Mer 63. Further examples of this are in l. 242 of Judith (Ælfric inserts the phrase ‘for nanre galnysse’, emphasizing the heroine's chastity), and in ll. 213-16 of Esther (where the Vulgate 7:6 is expanded to heighten the queen's loyalty to Mordecai).

(ii) Ælfric often condenses or omits major parts of the Latin, sometimes substituting one Old English sentence for several Latin ones(14). The effect is to speed the progress of the narrative, with cumbersome, often repetitious material discarded. Among sections altogether omitted are genealogies(15) and the naming of characters superfluous to Ælfric's working of the tales(16). From such omissions it can be argued that Ælfric disliked loading the narrative with details of little relevance to his audience that would have taken far too much explaining. Thus, the date of Purim in Esther 3:6 is ignored, probably because it would have been meaningless to a Christian audience. Again, where the Latin repeats or elaborates, Ælfric tends to move quickly on to new areas of the plot. The clearest example of this is the almost total omission of Chapters 9-16 of Esther in the Old English, which largely repeats the material of Chapters 1-8.(iii) With so much expansion and omission evident in Ælfric's use of the Vulgate, clearly his mode of work is best described as loose paraphrase. However, the general impression is of clearly defined sections of the Latin which Ælfric has chosen to re-write, but always in keeping with the important details. In all cases the objective must have been to enhance the clarity of the story. In certain instances, Ælfric can be seen to alter the order of the material as presented in the Vulgate(17) without changing any of the facts of the plot (with the notable, and rather curious alterations of the figures in the Maccabees, ll. 326, 494, 497, and 554).

Ælfric's treatment of the Maccabees is particularly interesting. In sections II-XI, he moves freely between the two books of the Old Testament, although mostly he uses the more detailed, and better structured I Maccabees. Where a historical event appears in both books, he can be seen collating the two sets of material and constructing his own account (most notably in Maccabees ll. 470-90).

(iv) Finally, there are some sentences in the Old English versions which can be identified as direct translations from the Latin. These occur very rarely, and there are fewer ‘close translations’ in the Maccabees than in Esther and Judith. The line between translation and paraphrase must always be a subjective one. However, examination of the sections that would come under the category of translation does not suggest any respect on Ælfric's part for particular themes or details. Instead, it seems far more likely that Ælfric found the chosen sections of the Latin to be clear and succinct, and therefore supplied a fairly close translation. The implication of this is important. Ælfric does not alter the source material just to appear ‘different’; but instead where he feels it is necessary to further his audience's understanding.

(1) See J. Hill, ‘Ælfric and Smaragdus’, ASE 21 (1992), 203–38. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(2) See C. L. Smetana, ‘Ælfric and the Homiliary of Haymo of Halberstadt’, Traditio 17 (1961), pp. 451–69; and J. E. Cross, Ælfric and the Medieval Homiliary—Objection and Contribution, Scripta Minora Regiae Societatis Humaniorum Litterarum Lundensis (Lund, 1963), pp. 3-34. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(3) See Assmann's ‘Verfasserschaft’, notably the section entitled ‘Verhältness zur quelle’ (1888, pp. 80-82). It has also been suggested that it is impossible to define the exact text of the Bible that Ælfric had access to, which could well have been corrupt, i.e. including glosses and having been heavily emended; see A. E. Nichols, ‘A Syntactical Study of Ælfric's Translation of Genesis’ (Diss., University of Washington, 1964, p. 36). This would explain differences between the Vulgate text accepted today and Ælfric's homilies in respect to certain numbers. However, the general assumption today is that the version of the Bible Ælfric had accesss to would have been uncorrupted. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(4) For example ll. 499–507 are taken from Isidore's Etymologiae XII. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(5) See LS, vol. II, p. 449. Skeat treats the study of source material in a cursory fashion, noting no possibility other than the Vulgate. Furthermore, he separates off the final ‘Item Alia’ on the grounds that there is no corresponding passage in the Old Testament. He summarizes his discussion by saying: ‘Thus the whole of Book I is sufficiently represented, together with portions of chapters III, VI, VII, IX, X and XII of Book II.’ [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(6) G. Loomis, ‘Further Studies of Ælfric's Saints’ Lives’, Harvard Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature 13 (1931), pp. 1–8. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(7) M-M. Larès, Bible et Civilisation Anglaise, Études Anglaises 54 (1974). For a full analysis of the sources for the Maccabees see S. D. Lee, ‘Ælfric's Treatment of Source Material in his Homily on the Books of the Maccabees', Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester 77.3 (Autumn, 1995), pp. 165-76. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(8) P. H. Zettel, ‘Ælfric's Hagiographic Sources and the Latin Legendary Preserved in BL, MS Cotton Nero E.i and CCCC, MS 9 and Other Manuscripts’ (Diss., University of Oxford, 1979). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(9) Powell suggests a Latin source for this (probably Frankish), now lost. See T. E. Powell, ‘The ‘Three Orders’ of Society in Anglo-Saxon England’, ASE 23 (1994), pp. 103-32. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(10) Pringle tentatively suggests that the source may be St Jerome's version of the saint's life; see I. Pringle, ‘Judith: The Homily and the Poem’, Traditio 31 (1975), pp. 83-97. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(11) For a recent discussion of Ælfric's method of translation for the Maccabees see Wilcox (1994), and Wilcox, Ælfric's Prefaces (Durham, 1994), p. 44. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(12) F. M. Biggs, ‘Biblical Glosses in Ælfric's Translation of Genesis’, N&Q 38 (September, 1991), pp. 286–92. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(13) This occurs often in the lengthy Maccabees (e.g. ll. 624-33 where he relies on Isidore). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(14) For example the discovery of Holofernes's corpse in 14:9-14 of Judith is condensed into ll. 301-5 of the homily, and the details of the letters between the Romans and Judas from I Macc 8 are virtually omitted by Ælfric (Maccabees ll. 567–70). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(15) Aman's in Esther 3:1 (Esther ll. 105–14), and Judith's in Judith 8:1 (Judith ll. 163–69). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(16) For example the eunuchs in Esther 6:2 (Esther l.178). [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]

(17) E.g. ll. 264-7 of Judith alternate between 13:15 and 13:16 of the Latin. [To return to the appropriate part of the text click here.]