One of the challenges of studying history is the varied levels of documentation that survives today. Major events are better-documented than minor events. Leaders and famous men and women are better attested than ordinary folk in the annals of history. The further back in time you look, the more pronounced this difficulty becomes. For many key historical figures we only have one or two contemporary documents that tell us everything we know about them. For the Greek and Roman Empires, and the Apostolic Fathers (the first century of Christianity) this is almost universally the case.
Sometimes these limited resources even make it difficult to reconstruct who was whom. In the New Testament, for example, there are several people named Mary, James/Jacob, Simon/Simeon, and Jude/Judas. Opinions vary on precisely who each of these key figures are. We celebrate and remember them all… we just don’t always know for sure if we’ve split one person into two, or combined two into one.
This sort of challenge exists through other phases of Church History also. An English Saint by the name of Aelfric (pronounced Alf-rich) is celebrated this week. Traditionally he has been identified as the first abbot of a minster in the village of Eynsham, an abbot at Abingdon, and the Archbishop of Canterbury. He lived in the 900’s and early 1000’s, during what is sometimes called the Anglo-Saxon Renaissance – a time of relative peace from Viking invasion, consolidation of the newly-united Anglaland (England), and significant flourishing of Old English writings, along with political and ecclesial reform, traceable to the efforts of King Alfred the Great nearly a century before.
In the 19th century, scholars divided this man into two: Aelfric of Abingdon, an abbot who became the Archbishop of Canterbury, and was involved in the improvement of clergy discipline and education across England, was a model of peaceful cooperation with the King (even serving as a judge for when some thegns, or nobles, had disputes), and staffed Canterbury Cathedral with monks instead of secular clergy. Aelfric of Eynsham, meanwhile, was only the (first) abbot of Eynsham, and said to have lived slightly later than the other Aelfric. This man was also known as the Grammarian because he wrote a Latin grammar book in Old English (the first of its kind in all of Europe!), or as the Homilist because he was a prolific writer of homilies and other religious works.
These writings in particular are what make Aelfric such an important figure in retrospect, if not especially famous in his own day. A large body of Anglo-Saxon poetry and literature that survives today is credited to his hand. Not only has he gifted us with remarkable insight into the grammar of form of the Old English language, but his works preserve an unusually wide snapshot of Anglo-Saxon religion and theology. The English Reformers even appealed to his writings to attack the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation by showing that what Rome claimed as dogmatic was clearly refuted centuries beforehand without controversy.
Aelfric of Abingdon died on the 16th of November, 1005, which has served as his commemoration date ever since. Aelfric of Eynsham’s death date is unknown, apart from the estimation of the year 1010. Therefore, whether this is one man or two, we remember “Saint Aelfric” on November 16th.
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On a personal note, Aelfric is a very special person to me. I studied Anglo-Saxon English in both semesters of my last year of undergraduate studies. Aelfric (the grammarian) was a major feature of that class, as we learned about 10th century English culture through his Colloquies (grammar book). Our professor was also a Christian and well-versed in history though he was an English professor, so he brought all the more cultural, linguistic, and religious insights to our study.
I went on to draw from this introductory knowledge and study throughout my years in seminary, dedicating at least two final papers to the writings of the Anglo-Saxon church. One of Aelfric’s Easter homilies featured heavily in my work, and I went on to re-translate, shorten, and preach it for Easter Day in 2015.
He has become, in a sense, my “patron saint” – a mentor from a thousand years ago whose work continues to intrigue and inspire me. His love of learning and teaching, his use of the local language and respect for tradition, and study of the Scriptures, model many of my own passions for ministry. He is also, fittingly, the namesake of my liturgical Customary project.