AElfric: quite a tricksy fellow

*Scratches head* I swear, I will never understand the ways of AElfric. In my quest to put together an essay about the importance of books in the Life of St Edmund, I happily stumbled across a synopsis of his source text, the Passio Sancti Eadmundi of Abbo of Fleury. Abbo, who had made a tactical retreat from the monastic politics of Fleury and buggered off to England to advise the Benedictines there, wrote the Passio based on the testimony of St Dunstan, who had his information from Eadmund’s sword-bearer, who either had it from the unnamed observer who saw the martyrdom, or was himself said observer.

Looking at this synopsis, I can see that AElfric made a few particular changes: he shortened Abbo’s introduction; he twiddled with the representation of Eadmund a little, presumably to make him as heroic as possible under the circumstances; he altered Bishop Theodred’s penance; and he left out a final moralising on the value of virginity.

The alteration of the penance is fortuitous for my purposes. In the passio, Theodred hangs the thieves and the next day regrets it. There is no mention of books in this synopsis, although I’ll have to chase down a proper translation. 1As penance, he begs to wash, clothe and re-coffinate the body of St Eadmund.

By the time AElfric gets his hands on the story, however, books are explicitly the catalyst for his penitence; and he asks the nation to join him in a three-day fast. I reckons I can argue that this change universalises the relevance of canon law and canon law books and invests the laity with an interest in their contents and use.

So that’s happy.

On the other hand, AELfric cuts out the passage at the end which attributes his incorrupt body to his virginity, while in the same book he insists that AEthelthyth’s incorruptibility is testament to her virginity. Abbo, a bigshot Benedictine reformer, used the end of Edmund’s life, and his apparent virginity to appeal to those who served him to follow in his chaste footsteps. Why on earth would AElfric, himself a staunch second-generation Benedictine reformer and opponent of clerical marriage, leave out this interpretation? I dinnae understand it, I don’t think it’s crucial for this essay, but it’s sitting there and niggling at me and driving me batty.

I was reading Peter Jackson (not the director)’s article ‘AElfric and the purpose of Christian marriage’ (ASE 29) the other day, in which he discussed AElfric’s addition of an exemplar from the Desert Fathers, a fellow who had three kids with his wife before embarking on thirty years of married abstention, and then buggering off into a monastery. In the first part of the article, he talks about AELfric’s habit of singling out the virtue of chastity above all other virtues attributed to a given figure, particularly when using Desert Fathers material. With St Eadmund, meanwhile, he deliberately avoids talking about virginity, even though it was in his otherwise authoritative source. Very, very strange.

My only thought here is that perhaps lifelong chastity is not something AElfric regards as conventionally appropriate for the laity. As the Jackson article- not mention AElfric himself, constantly propping up his authority by reference to Bede- shows, AElfric had terrible trouble with AEthelthryth, a ‘strong willed, sexually autonomous woman’. It’s not really the Done Thing as Queen of anywhere to refuse sexual congress (and therefore procreation) with your husband. The exemplar at the end functions as a sort of balance, an example of proper marital chastity, a co-operative effort between husband and wife. It also provides a model of chastity which enables marriage to fulfil its proper function: the creation of children, after which abstention shall commence by mutual agreement.

Maybe AElfric doesn’t want to hold up Edmund as an example of virginity, because Edmund is a member of the laity- and a king, at that. You really do want your kings to produce sons, particularly when you have Vikings swarming around trying to conquer your kingdom.

On the other hand, maybe AElfric is just frustrating and weird.


1. Anyone know if there’s a translation of Abbo’s Passio out there somewhere? It looks as though there might be one in Winterbottom’s Lives of Three English Saints, from the Fisher Catalogue, but that book has a long list of holds on it. 😦 A keyword search for ‘Abbo of Fleury’ only brings up four books, though. Does he go by another name? Anyone know the title of his collection of saint’s lives?


12 Responses to “AElfric: quite a tricksy fellow”

  1. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Well, OK, I don’t know this material but I’ll throw out some suggestions.1

    On the other hand, AELfric cuts out the passage at the end which attributes his incorrupt body to his virginity, while in the same book he insists that AEthelthyth’s incorruptibility is testament to her virginity. Abbo, a bigshot Benedictine reformer, used the end of Edmund’s life, and his apparent virginity to appeal to those who served him to follow in his chaste footsteps. Why on earth would AElfric, himself a staunch second-generation Benedictine reformer and opponent of clerical marriage, leave out this interpretation? I dinnae understand it, I don’t think it’s crucial for this essay, but it’s sitting there and niggling at me and driving me batty.

    I mean, basically I think your two suggestions are quite likely one or other to be right; either it’s different for kings, at least properly-married kings, or else Ælfric is weird. Possibly both. But if you need other possibilities, how about these?

    First, a semantic point that I’m sure you’re aware of, but, chastity is not the same as virginity. Does Ælfric ever praise male virginity per se in his Desert Fatherly commentary, or is it only chastity? It might help to tease the concepts apart.

    Second, it’s possible we don’t have all the information: perhaps some story about youthful Edmund was doing the rounds with irreverent locals that Æs;lfric knew meant that any references to virginity would start sniggers in the audience… This one fails Occam’s Razor though, and is a pretty weak suggestion. (Could still be right of course.)

    Third and most useful for an essay, in as much as I’d mark higher for it anyway, is the question: who is the audience? You touch on this already, but it’s worth drawing out. Is he pitching this one at the laity? In which case he may be being all Pauline and reckoning continence is the best they can manage, or that failure to reproduce won’t strike them as very aristocratic. Some reason or another, anyway, why this material becomes inappropriate to his purpose. I don’t know if you could go on to support this idea with manuscript transmission—does this text travel separately from his other works? What with? Are any of the codices associated with laymen? If you could show anything like that, or even hints thereof, you might have hit some way to say something genuinely new and useful about the text, and indeed by comparison the audience of the others. Maybe an hour with Codices Latini Antiquiores will make you a research proposal 🙂

    1. You see, this is how we get away with teaching stuff about which we read for the first time three hours ago. Something else will be relevant enough that you can offer interpretation of the sources that your students can’t. There’s always something.2

    2. If you hadn’t realised your younger teachers do this, then, er, of course I’m exaggerating for humorous porpoises. Dolphinately. *nods a lot*

  2. Clemens Says:

    I am not sure, if this is what you are looking for, but a modern English translation of Abbo’s text used to reside at unfortunately, it went off the net. But it can still be found at the Web Archive:
    (There is no typo here: the second “http://…” is actually part of the archive URL.)
    You probably can not quote this source, but at least you can work with it for the time being. I did not have much time, but a quick glance at the Latin text in the Migne suggests that the translation seems complete and OK.

    By the way, Abbo does mention the three days of fasting and explicitly refers to canon law, which is not surprising, as Abbo was a canonist himself. (He was the author of a small collection of canon law.) But the books of canon law themselves do not play such a prominent role.

  3. highlyeccentric Says:

    Jonathan- I’ve only ever *had* one young teacher, and she Knows Everything. Honest. Promise. 😉

    Clemens- thanks for the recommendations 🙂

  4. Michelle Says:

    I think I have read somewhere that Aelfric is trying to set out a model for lay behavior. If I recall correctly, his patrons for the Lives of the Saints are two nobles (brothers?) who are looking to Aelfric for direction. So Aelfric acknowledges their need for heirs but then recommends chastity. Unlike most hagiography, Aelfric has a lay audience in mind.

    On Aethelthryth, the links between Aethelthryth and the Virgin Mary are very strong. Recall that Mary is also supposed to have remained a virgin. Aethelthryth does become a mother — of a double house of monks and nuns.

  5. Larry Swain Says:

    Aelfric is careful about “fantastic” ideas. He *MUST* take the Aethelthryth story as true because it comes from Bede. He need not take the Edmund interpretation as gospel because a) he has access to St. Dunstan as well and b) he emphasizes not virginity so much as “purity”His lichaman us cyð, þe lið unformolsnod, þæt he butan forligre her on worulde leofode, and mid clænum life to Criste siþode, and since Edmund was at least in part if not wholly meant by Aelfric to be read by laymen, it is the clean life that he wants to stress. (Note that this story is part of the Lives of Saints, the Old English preface to said work is addressed to Aethelward, and the Latin preface mentions specifically Aethelward and Aethelmar as readers of the book, among others. As with other works and letters aimed at a partially if not wholly lay audience, he stresses “good works” and the “clean life”, viriginity is not an option for a layman.

  6. highlyeccentric Says:

    Michelle/ Larry- yes, that seems to be the only explanation that makes sense… thanks for pointing out the ‘purity’ line, Larry, I’d forgotten that bit in all my running around.

  7. Larry Swain Says:

    You’re welcome, and don’t forget the analogues! He mentions the clean life a lot when he’s addressing things to laymen, I think that should help a great deal.

    Looking forward to the paper!

  8. highlyeccentric Says:


    out of curiosity, can you volunteer any further details about this ‘Migne’ (his first name, title of the work, any such thing…) Fisher library is turning up nine hundred different authors by name of Migne, but nothing for a combination of author- Migne and keyword- Abbo.

    Larry/ Michelle: thank you again, this is all coming together quite nicely. (Although I still suspect AElfric is actually just mad.)

  9. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    This one I can do, at least as long as my crock of a computer doesn’t crash during the writing of it again. The relevant Migne is Jacques-Paul Migne, fl. c. 1840-80, and he is relevant because he was the sole publisher and editor of not only 100+ quarto volumes of the Patrologia Græca but also the 221 of the Patrologia Latina, which was a thorough and amazingly complete attempt to print everything left by from the Latin Christian fathers, up to 1216 (he had been aiming for the Reformation, but even he realised that was impossible). He used existing editions wherever there were any, and where there weren’t merely edited from the first manuscript he could find. Many of the editors he used had done no more, so the quality of the text is easily bettered, but for a great many texts it is still the only print edition, and for a significant number it preserved manuscript witnesses that have since been lost. Incredible work: the few who have access to libraries witha full set can stand and be dwarfed by it, but for the rest of the world an electronic (and therefore searchable!) version is sold by ProQuest, inherited from Chadwyck-Healey in Cambridge whom they bought. Some further details here. Abbo’s works are in Vol. 139, along with Gerbert of Reims, Aimo of Fleury and Thietmar of Merseburg, to name but a few luminaries. Full cite, because I can, Abbo of Fleury, “Vita sancti Eadmundi regis anglorum et martyris”, ed. Laurent Surius in J.-P. Migne (ed.), Patrologiae Cursus Completus, sive bibliotheca universalis … omnium S. S. Patrum, Doctorum, Scriptorumque ecclesiasticorum qui ab aevo apostolico ad Innocentii III tempora floruerunt …, 2nd Series Vol. CXXXIX, cols. 507B-520B. But I should probably draw the line at extracting the whole text for you: Sydney may well have a subscription I guess, and if not, they may have either a subscription to the electronic version of or the actual printed version of the Acta Sanctorum, which is where Migne got his (Surius’s) text from; the relevant feast day is 20th November, since the Acta is ordered by liturgical calendar. If neither, mail me and we’ll sort something out, if the Latin would really be useful anyway.

    You see, it’s this kind of thing that reminds me why I was initially confused about your status. Where and what the Pat. Lat. is is something that they probably make sure all graduate students know… but you aren’t a post-grad, despite which you keep working on things that require manuscript collation, the Pat. Lat., etc., all of which definitely seem like post-grad activities to me. I forecast that you will be a post-grad. before long and then I can stop having dissonance about it all.

  10. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    Blast it. I don’t mess up tags on other people’s blogs, why is it always yours eh? Anyway.

  11. highlyeccentric Says:

    Oh, the Patrologia! *Shudders* I know it exists, but I try not to have to go near it, for sheer terror.

  12. Jonathan Jarrett Says:

    As with many things of terror, it is if approached with suitable awe also a thing of wonder. The MGH just doesn’t have the same holy bulk…

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