A Large Lacuna in Old English Scholarship

Unless I am wrong, and it would not be the first time, I do not know that anyone has ever studied, analyzed, and presented the influence on Ælfric of The Rule of St. Benedict. If I am correct in this, then here is large lacuna in Old English scholarship that deserves close attention.

The tenth-century Ælfric of Eynsham was an amazingly gifted, beautiful writer of English, that is, of OLD English. He wrote some of the earliest and certainly finest sermons in English, he was the first translator of the Bible, and he was a Benedictine monk and (later) abbot living in England.

Ælfric’s sermons are therefore shaped by the wisdom of Benedict’s “little rule,” and it is interesting that this Anglo-Saxon monk describes the first command Eden-rich Adam and Eve broke as “þæt lytle bebod” (“that little rule / commandment”), an Old English phrase echoing “this little rule” of Benedict’s Epilogue. In sermon XXI, “De Falsis Diis” Ælfric writes:

Ne hungor ne þurst, ne hefigtyme cyle, / ne nan swidhlic hæte, ne seocnyss ne mihton / Adam geswencan on þam earde, / þa hwile þe he þæt lytle bebod mid geleafan geheold. (Neither hunger nor thirst nor bitter cold / nor overwhelming heat nor sickness could / torment Adam on this earth, / so long as he faithfully kept that little commandment [author’s italics].)

(This material is adapted from my introduction to God of Mercy: Ælfric’s Sermons and Theology (Mercer University Press, 2006).

In this striking Old English echo of the Rule’s Epilogue, Ælfric is laying bare his entire theological argument. As Benedict’s Prologue points out, the child of God finds following submission’s path simple; the only “hard” thing is stubborn self-will: “The work of obedience is the way to return to Christ when the carelessness of disobedience has made you stray.” Ælfric viewed obedience as a comfort, not as a daunting divine request, and his framing the Fall of Man as Adam and Eve’s breaking “þæt lytle bebod” (“that little commandment”) shows the core of his mercy-focused Benedictine theology.

Ælfric understood the Ur-bebod that God gave Adam and Eve as being related to the reassuring words spoken by God’s Son: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. . . . For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11.28-30). In Ælfric’s Benedictine mind, God’s first “little commandment” and the later “little rule” of Benedict were separated only by time, not by spirit because Ælfric understood and taught that God the Father did (through Christ) and will do (through the Holy Spirit) most of the work for his children who desire spiritual growth; all that is left is humility through repentance and kindness by doing good.

I would love to see a fully realized study of the influence on Ælfric of The Rule of St. Benedict.

Thoughts anyone?

About Carmen

I teach English at Shorter College in beautiful Rome, Georgia.
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2 Responses to A Large Lacuna in Old English Scholarship

  1. Derek says:

    I do discuss this a little bit in my dissertation. I’m more focused on the impact of the monastic tradition in general and the monastic liturgy in particular but the Rule and its emphasis on obedience and humility (i.e., chs. 5 & 7) show up quite a bit.

  2. site admin says:

    Hi, Derek, thanks for this comment. Are (or were) you at Talbot? Best wishes, Carmen

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