Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Medieval Literature I Didn't Know II

Its time now for the continuation of the series. In fact probably past time. I thought that perhaps what I would do is introduce you to the subject of my dissertation. The Letter to Sigeweard is one of those texts that I few people check and may refer to from time to time, but so far there is only one single article on it, written by my adviser as a matter of fact. So not a lot of scholarly attention has been paid to it.

It's a letter written to an Anglo-Saxon nobleman about 1005. The occasion seems to be that Sigeweard, the nobleman, has been pestering Abbot Aelfric of Eynsham, already a well-known vernacular writer, for copies of his works or an original work. Aelfric says that he was at first relunctant, but Sigeweard's good works convinced him, and so Aelfric writes this letter.

Nothing is known of Sigeweard. He may have signed the foundation charter for Eynsham, but the orthography of his name in the charter and in the letter are different, and neither contains any further identifying information, so the charter signer may be a different man.

The Letter is interesting. In my edition it runs about 750 lines. It seems to be an almost off the cuff production as if Aelfric didn't know quite what he wanted to do or talk about. So he begins homiletically talking about the necessity of doing good works and what happens to those who do evil works, and by the way, that reminds him of a verse about how God did a good work at creation....which leads into a treatment of the creation of the heavens, the fall of the angels, the creation and fall of humanity and the results of said event and the typological meaning of Adam and Eve. At this point Aelfric seems to have settled on his approach in the letter and mentions that he will discuss the books of the Bible beginning with those Moses wrote. He picks up with the Noah cycle, then Abraham....and after 150 lines on Genesis through chapter 22's sacrifice of Isaac, he spends 8 lines talking about Isaac, Jacob, and the 12. He then moves on to Exodus, focusing entirely on the deliverance aspect, barely mentions Leviticus and Numbers, chats a little about Deuteronomy. And so on throughout the Bible to the book of Revelation.

After this, he's reminded that the author of Revelation is John, and it just so happens he can tell Sigeweard a bit of something about that apostle, and so gives a translation of Eusebius's Ecclesiastical History, III.25, a story about John and a young thief. While Aelfric knows this work in its Latin translation by Rufinus, in this case he is translating from Paul the Deacon's homiliary, compiled under Charlemagne and highly influential (thanks Derek!), where we find 3 homilies on John for Dec 27, inclusive of this one. After the story on John, Aelfric turns to other matters: he reflects on the structure of society: 3 legs on which the king's throne stands (laborers, those who pray, and those who fight) and he intimates that those whose job it is to reflect on these things ought to. He further translates and adapts directly from Eusebius via Rufinus "about the Jews", that is, Eusebius quotes long passages from Josephus' Jewish War on the fall of Jerusalem that Aelfric shortens but nonetheless paints a less than pretty picture. He concludes by warning Sigeweard about drinking too much.

Such a summary, though accurate, does little justice to the letter, and I won't be able to do so here either since I've written 400 pages on it! But in addition to those matters, there is some discussion of typology, some discussion of the ages of the world, some discussion on catechetical information, some discussion on current politics c. 1005. The letter is in many ways a microcosm of all Aelfric's works: a little homiletic and catechetical, a little hagiography, a little about other theological concerns on which he has written.

Turning to my own work on the Letter, I try to make a case for:

1) Aelfric's canon of the Bible is influenced by the 3 pandects produced at Wearmouth-Jarrow in 716

2) Aelfric is influenced by several Old English poems

3) Aelfric makes multiple, implicit anti-Aethelred comments in the Letter

4) He is NOT saying different things in his Judith homily and in the Letter

5) Aelfric's career must have begun earlier than is usually supposed and probably at Glastonbury

I know before I walked into my adviser's office in 2002, I hadn't heard of the Letter and didn't know that much about Aelfric, having spent my MA career looking at Bede and the age of Alfred. Now I know quite a bit.

Its an interesting work. It not only tells us a lot about Aelfric and his beliefs and concerns, but would be a useful teaching text for beginning Medieval students, and fairly easy to read as a beginning Old English piece. In fact, Skeat included it in the first 6 editions of his Anglo-Saxon Reader with such an aim in mind.

I hope I've sparked a little interest in the Letter to Sigeweard, but not too much so I can get a few publications out of it before your articles do!


BTW: I should mention a few things:

1) My thanks to Derek Olsen of Homilaria and Haligweorc for mentioning to me that the section on John was listed in Smetana (bib forthcoming).

2) Stephen Carlson, if you're reading, I managed to work Papias into it a couple of times, thought you'd find that of interest.


Brandon H. said...

This sounds like a great text. Could you provide a reference for an (or the) edition besides Skeat's--if there is another--of this letter?

theswain said...

It is a surprisingly great text! Thanks for stopping by, Brandon, always glad to know that you're reading.

The standard edition at the moment is S. J. Crawford for the Early English Text Society. He includes the Letter as a preamble to his edition of Aelfric's Heptateuch. EETS O. S. 160, The Heptateuch. Sometime in the near future Richard Marsden has updated Crawford. He told it'd be out in Dec. 2006, finally Boydell and Brewer were advertising it at Congress in May as forthcoming in Oct.

But you can save the money, though the Heptateuch will be worth having, if you can wait a few weeks. Then you'll be able to download my edition, translation, commentary, and introductory chapters for FREE, while supplies last, or until I submit it to a publisher who says I can't have the original electronic version on a website anymore.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Excellent! I'm always interested in Papias.

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