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Purposes and patterns of the use of antique sources in old English religious texts by Ælfric and Wulfstan

Grishakova Ekaterina Sergeevna

ORCID: 0000-0003-3330-285X

PhD in Philology

Associate professor of the Department of Foreign Languages for Humanitarian Specialities, Nizhny Novgorod State University after N.I. Lobachevsky

603022, Russia, Nizhny Novgorod region, Nizhny Novgorod, Gagarin Ave., 23

Balykina Mariya Igorevna

ORCID: 0000-0001-5800-052X

PhD in History

Associate professor of the Department of Foreign Languages for Humanitarian Specialities, Nizhny Novgorod State University after N.I. Lobachevsky

603022, Russia, Nizhny Novgorod region, Nizhny Novgorod, Gagarin Ave., 23










Abstract: The article contains the results of the analysis of existing investigations into the ways how Latin religious sources were adopted and adapted in Anglo-Saxon homiletic literature. The present analysis may be of value when it is important to understand how religious contexts were borrowed and presented to a different culture, moreover the motives of adaptation of Latin texts may add to better understanding of the writers personalities and thus to a clearer insight into their works. Two eminent old English writers: Aelfric and Wulfstan worked closely with Latin texts following various strategies. While Aelfric in most cases translated the texts verbatim or slightly modified them, Wulfstan put much effort to give the text his own personality. Both writers still depended on the rhetoric traditions employed in Latin and their individual styles coincide in with usage of some stylistic features such as assonance, alliteration and repetition, but still were rather different. Aelfric himself considered the translation to be a separate rhetoric device as the text converted into a different language does not only carry the message to the target audience, but makes the process of communication easier. For Wulfstan the message itself is of importance, not the source, so he elaborated his unique style of communicating his ideas to the target audience. The practical and scientific value of the article is expressed in the need to structure the existing studies of the influence of the Latin language on Old English and opens up the perspective of further study in the field of rhetoric and pragmalinguistics.


translation, rhetoric, stylistics, pragmalinguistics, homiletics, hagiography, Old English, Latin, history of the English language, persuasion

This article is automatically translated. You can find original text of the article here.


The presence and emergence of new research on the history of the origin of Old English religious texts, their ideological sources and stylistic features of their design formed the basis of this article. The legacy of the Latin language and ancient rhetorical developments inevitably manifests itself in Anglo-Saxon literary monuments, since, both directly and indirectly, it was borrowed by the authors in the process of creating Old English texts. Thus, this article is aimed at analyzing research in this area and identifying individual patterns of the author's styles of the two most significant writers Elfric Einshemsky and Wulfstan with the involvement and interpretation of factual material.

It is known that Old English religious texts are strongly connected with texts in Latin. According to available data, a huge number of Latin sermons that have come down to us in English manuscripts of the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries were mostly intended for monastic night services (monastic Night Office), where they were read collectively [5, p. 227]. The structure and content of night services in the late Anglo-Saxon period are most clearly reflected in Elfric's Letter to the Monks of Einsham. A large number of Elfric's writings presumably also served this purpose. In his "Letter" he gives detailed recommendations on what should be read and sung during "night vigils" throughout the year and, in his opinion, these are not only excerpts from the Bible, but also from the "Lives" if the service falls during the celebration of the day of a saint [5, pp. 228-229].

This may explain the fact that in the collection of homilies of Elfric (Catholic Homilies) you can find his exposition of the legends of the lives of the saints. He often referred to the Lives of Saints in Catholic homilies/sermons and placed preaching material in the Hagiography. He made a lot of efforts to transform the legends into the preacher's speeches, before eventually distinguishing the genres of homily and the lives of saints in his later collections [8, p. 265]. There is a separate study devoted to the legend of Sisilia and Valerian in the presentation of Elfric, which explains why he turned to this particular legend, and the linguistic techniques he used to adapt it for his own purposes. These motives will be analyzed later in the article.

Another outstanding Old English author, Wulfstan, turned to Latin sources in his works, but made a lot of efforts to change them, adapt and interpret them, and put a personal vision into them. Wulfstan had a huge influence on the homiletic tradition and undoubtedly had a strong effect on his audience. His talent is evidenced by the fact that many authors for a century after his death copied, imitated and tried to "improve" his work [6, pp. 315-316].

Wulfstan, like Elfric, also has no clear boundaries between the genres with which he worked. In the study devoted to the analysis of his works, the definition of "leaking boundaries of the genres" (unstable, interpenetrable boundaries of genres) is given. Wulfstan often used the same words, themes and stylistic techniques in his codes of laws and in preaching. Patrick Wormald is quoted as saying that "the early laws of Wulfstan are extremely religious, and his later homilies are very similar to the laws" [6, p. 319]. Wulfstan paid a lot of attention to stylistics and different ways of influencing the audience. A comparison of his works with Latin sources shows that he used many rhetorical techniques from Latin [6, p. 326].

Comparing the works and personal motives of Wulfstan and Elfric, it should be noted that Wulfstan relied on a variety of texts for his speeches and sermons, but rarely referred to them, while Elfric scrupulously noted references to sources and when translated into Old English often did not deviate from the original meaning. Wulfstan was not so scrupulous and willingly retold, reworked and adapted the material used. Even when Wulfstan relied on Elfric's materials, he made efforts to "appropriate" the text using phrases inherent in it. While Elfric teaches and explains (teaches and explains), Wulfstan preaches and calls (preaches and proclaims) [6, p. 341].

The above facts reveal the obvious continuity of Old English religious works from Latin sources, and also substantiates the variety of approaches to their use, which will be the focus of the subsequent part of the article.


A lot of research is devoted to the work of Elfric of Einshem with ancient sources. He is known, among other things, as a translator of the Bible, the Lives of Saints and other religious writings. Elfric saw a lot of sense in translating Latin sources into Old English, but he treated the process ambiguously. On the one hand, Elfric did not like to translate the Bible from Latin, because he believed that Old English could not fully correspond to the Latin language, thus distortion of the meaning was inevitable. For example, in the Old English preface to the "Sermons", he asks those who will work with his collection of homilies to make the necessary corrections to the translation, if they are needed, because "Micel yfel de? se ?e leas writ" a lot of evil is done by the one who writes lies [3, p. 2].

The Latin preface to the "Life" of the authorship of Elfric contains even more doubts expressed by him about the translation.

Nec tamen plura promitto me scripturum hac lingua, quia nec conuenit huic sermocinationi plura inseri; (I do not promise to write much in this language, because it is not fitting that much be translated into our language...) [7, p. 141].

Non mihi inpetetur quod diuinam scripturam nostrae linguae infero ... (do not consider it my fault that I turn the holy exposition into our language...) [7, p. 141].

Perhaps Elfric experienced "discomfort" in relation to translation due to the fact that medieval grammar and rhetoric focused on their listener-reader, preparing his soul for the perception of truth, understandable and intelligible, which was reflected in the content of the sermon or works of other genres. It followed from this that the authors, to the detriment of excessive scholarship and science, simplified speech and material in an effort to win the hearts of their audience. In line with this trend, there was also the interest of the Benedictine Renaissance in the national language. In Winchester, where Elfric spent his adolescence and youth, there was a "school" of the Old English language under the leadership of Ethelvold. In his translation work, Elfric largely followed the traditions of this school [2, p. 40].

The fact that Elfric allowed "deviations" from the original when translating is stated in many works. For example, Albert Cook in the preface to his work "Biblical Quotations ..." notes that, following the Latin preachers, Elfric could, from time to time, depart from the original. However, it is difficult to assess the scale of these deviations due to the small number of studies, as well as due to the trends in Old English to the variability of forms when presenting the same thoughts and due to the frequent inability to determine which evangelist the translator was guided by [4, pp. vii-viii].

Finally, in the preface to Genesis Elfric opposes exact translation as nowhere else in his works. He considers a simple translation insufficient, since at the same time he loses the opportunity to add a comment, which is natural in sermons. For Elfric, the need to comment on the Old Testament is especially important because of the fear that the ignorant will not understand the difference between the Old and New Testaments, that people will be confused by individual episodes from the Old Testament or will try to follow the example of the elders. Continuing the Old English tradition of the alliterative style, and, of course, remembering the beauties of the language of Latin sources, Elfric creates his own special rhythmic prose style [2, p. 80].

Despite the fact that Elfric has doubts about the translation of holy texts, he recognizes the advantage and necessity of this process, since translation allows you to cover and convey knowledge to a larger audience, and also, as Robert Stanton summarizes, "out of difference comes unity" - unity comes from difference [7, pp. 141-145].

This leads us to consider the ways in which Elfric works with the original ancient sources. First of all, it is undoubtedly a word-by-word translation, as close as possible to the original text. Elfric writes about this in his preface to the collection of homilies.

Ic ?lfric munuc awende ?as boc of Ledenum bocum to Engliscum gereorde, ?am mannum to r?denne ?e t Leden ne cunnon. (I, Elfric the monk translated this book from Latin books into English for those who do not know Latin) [3, p. 2].

Nu bidde ic and halsige, on Godes naman, gif hwa ?as boc awritan wylle, t he hi geornlice gerihte be re bysne, ?e-l?s ?e we, urh gymeleasum writerum, geleahtrode beon. Micel yfel de? se ?e leas writ, buton he hit gerihte, swilce he gebringe ?a so?an lare to leasum gedwylde (Now I pray and conjure in the name of God, if anyone translates this book, that he carefully corrects it when copying, so that through the fault of careless scribes we would not be accused. The one who writes a lie does a lot of evil, unless he corrects it, as if he leads the true teaching to a false heresy...) [3, p. 2].

In addition, in the work of A. Cook Biblical Quotations ... more than 200 pages are devoted to the list of quotations from the Bible in the works of Elfric, which indicates the saturation of his works with direct translated quotations from primary sources.

There are examples when Elfric directly includes Latin phrases in his sermons with subsequent translation and interpretation of the meaning. As, for example, in the sermon Dominica Septuagesima".

Witodlice ?as d?g?erlican ?enunga cy?a? t fram ?isum d?ge o? Easreon is ure heofung-tid and bereowsung-tid ure synna mid sumere sti?nysse. Alleluia is Ebreise word, t is on Leden Laudate Dominum, and nan gereord nis swa healic swa Ebreise. Nu forl?te we t healice gereord on ure Septuagesima, and cwe?a? on Leden, Laus tibi, Domine, Rex aeterne gloriae; t is, Sy ?e, Drihten, lof, eces wuldres Cyning. We geswutelia? mid re eadmodan Leden spr?ce, t we sceolon us sylfe to eadmodran drohtnunge on ?yssere tide gebidan. (Truly, these daily services show that from this day until Easter is our sorrowful period and the period of atonement for our sins with a certain severity. "Hallelujah" is a Jewish word, which in Latin means "Hail, Lord," and no language is as majestic as the Jewish one. We are now leaving this majestic language in the Seventies and speaking Latin "Laus tibi, Domine, Rex aeterne gloriae", which means "May glory be with you, Lord, King of eternal glory." With a modest Latin phrase, we show that we should lean towards a more modest life during this period) [3, p. 86].

Such inclusions of phrases in Latin by the preacher are intended not only to fix it in the memory of parishioners, but also to remove possible discomfort from its use by translating and explaining the reasons for its use.

Despite the fact that Elfric insisted on the full compliance of the translation with the source, he sometimes intentionally used words close to the text, but with a slightly different meaning in the translation to achieve his goals. Of the greatest interest is Elfric's adapted translation of the legend of Saints Cecilia and Valerian and the motives of his appeal to her, since in this case not only the author's intention to give an example of a righteous life was combined, but also to reflect the translator's worldview. Here the desire merges not only to instruct on the right path, but also to influence the formation of certain canons, that is, to directly influence some aspects of spiritual life. It can also serve as proof that the target audience of Old English religious texts was not limited to parishioners, extending to the clergy.

The author of the article "Homiletic Contexts for Aelfric's Hagiography" claims that the choice of this story is made intentionally. Elfric uses the metaphor of spiritual marriage as an example for the clergy to preserve their chastity through strong faith and bodily celibacy, while figuratively acquiring offspring through the conversion of followers to the faith. Elfric made most of the changes to the text in order to attract the greatest attention to the spiritual continuation of the family [8, p. 275]. He included the legend of Cecilia and Valerian in his Life in order to support reformed priest-monks by criticizing unreformed married priests [8, p. 266].

It is in Elfric's version that the angel promises Valerian that Tiburtius will be reborn again "to ?am ecan life" - for "eternal life" as opposed to the simple "eruit" - "redeemed" in the original. Repeating the phrase "eternal life" more than once, Elfric focuses on how the promise of eternity motivates Christians to maintain the right view of temporary earthly existence and reminds the audience why the holy teachers from the legend continued to spread the faith even in captivity and torment [8, p. 278]. In the scene of Cecilia's execution, Elfric also replaces the expressionless Latin "dicit" (said) with "heo tihte" (she seduced) to characterize Cecilia's interaction with the crowd that came to mourn her death [8, p. 281].

So, Elfrik Einshemsky as a translator is a very significant figure due to the fact that, firstly, he translated a large number of texts from Latin into Old English very scrupulously. Secondly, he had the opportunity to select the information base and put it into the necessary words and in this way influence the target audience. In addition, he developed his own style with certain rhetorical techniques aimed at better conveying information to listeners/readers, at preserving the beauties and features of the Old English and Latin languages and also at forming the necessary worldview among the addressees.

Speaking about the second unique medieval author, Wulfstan, it is his author's style of presentation that should be noted, whether it is Latin sources, thoughts of other authors, including Elfric, or his own ideas. Wulfstan refers to antiquity through the use of various rhetorical techniques. Wulfstan's most famous work is the sermon "Sermo Lupi ad Anglos". It is compared rhetorically and ideologically with Gildas' work "On the Ruin of Britain". Gildas' narrative style differs from Wulfstan's style in greater colorfulness and flowery, experiencing the obvious influence of the ancient tradition, which is close to the first in time much more than the second, and also due to the different purposes of the works: it is not known whether Gildas' work was ever used for oral reading, unlike the "Sermon of the Wolf", genre intended for this purpose [1, p. 86]. Nevertheless, even if Wulfstan's style is less "flowery", it is impossible not to recognize the fact that his author's talent cannot leave anyone indifferent. According to Andy Orchard (Wulfstan as Reader, Writer, and Rewriter), "such a dramatic retelling of biblical prose... It can be called a distinctive feature of Wulfstan's style, the one that became the guarantee that Wulfstan's works were widely heard and widely read not only during his lifetime, but also until the twelfth century... no one will question that what Wulfstan wrote and said had an instant and breathtaking effect on his contemporaries"... [6, p. 316]. The essence of this style lies in the reliance on the effect of enhancing the impact on the audience through repetition at each level of discourse. At the letter level, sounds are grouped in alliteration and assonance, while words, formulations, themes and whole paragraphs are repeated, especially noticeable in different versions of the famous sermon of Sermo Lupi. [6, c. 320]. It is important to note the fact that the rhetorical strategies used in Latin closely coincide with the techniques of Wulfstan in Old English [6, p. 326].

Let's look at examples of techniques used in Wulfstan's sermon.

1) Alliteration

... st ric & st eorfa, orfcwealm & unco?u, h ol & h ete, & r ypera r eaflac ... (plague and pestilence, death and disease, malice and hatred, and criminal robbery...) [9].

2) Assonance

...& us ungylda swy?e gedrohtan, & us unwedera foroft weoldan unw?stma; ... (and excessive taxes made us desperate, and bad weather very often deprived us of the harvest ...) [9].

The repetition of the initial letters in words gives the impression that the number of listed disasters is much more than it is called.

3) Repetition of certain words

For?am mid miclan earnungan we geearnedan ?a yrm?a ?e us on sitta? & mid swy?e micelan earnungan we ?a bote motan ?t Gode ger?can, gif hit sceal heonanfor? godiende weor?an. La hw?t we witan ful georne t to miclan bryce sceal micel bot nyde, & to miclan bryne w?ter unlytel, gif man t fyr sceal to ahte acwencan. (Since we have deserved our sufferings by great sins and really great hardships, we must receive healing from God if the situation is destined to improve from now on. Listen up! We are well aware that a large violation of the law must entail a large punishment and a large fire requires a large amount of water if it is destined to extinguish this fire.) [9].

The repetition of the words micel /miclan/micelan accumulates in the mind the image of something huge, insurmountable and difficult to implement.

3) Repetition of syntactic constructions

Ac so? is t ic secge: ?earf is re bote for?am Godes gerihta wanedan to lange innan ?ysse ?eode on ?ghwylcan ?nde, & folclaga wyrsedan ealles to swy?e, syan Eadgar geendode. & halignessa syndan to gri?lease wide & Godes hus syndan to cl?ne berypte ealdra gerihta & innan bestrypte ?lcra gerisena. & wydewan syndan wide fornydde on unriht to ceorle & to m?nege foryrmde & gehynede swy?e, & earme men syndan sare beswicene & hreowlice besyrwde, & ut of ?ysan earde wide gesealde swy?e unforworhte fremdum to gesealde, & cradolcild ge?eowede ?urh w?lhreowe unlaga, forlytelre ?yf?e wide gynd ?as ?eode. & freorihtfornumene & ?r?lrihtgenyrwde & ?lm?srihtgewanode. (But verily I say to you: there is a need for this redemption, because for too long God's laws have been violated on this earth in every district, and human laws have been violated too much since Edgar died. And the inviolability of shrines is not widely respected, and churches are completely deprived of their rights and looted. And widows everywhere are forced into marriage by illegal means and many are deprived of property and subjected to bullying; and the poor are cruelly betrayed and deceived and sold to foreigners, although they are innocent, and babies are illegally given into slavery after being stolen. And the rights of free people are trampled on, and the rights of slaves are restricted, and charitable obligations are reduced.) [9].

A compound sentence is overloaded with similar constructions, which creates the illusion of infinity of disasters that have befallen the English people. In addition, the formula of passive voice is constantly repeated, which also indicates prolonged suffering and oppression of people.


Summing up the analysis of opinions and research presented in the article, it should be summarized that, of course, ancient sources are the informational and ideological base of homiletic Old English works. Whatever the approach to the adaptation of these sources, their origin, even if they were presented in a veiled manner, is transparent to researchers, as, for example, they are registered in the work of Biblical Quotations In Old English Prose Writers.

The texts were translated to form a training base (a collection of works for night vigils), collections of sermons, as well as in attempts to informatively and ideologically "format" consciousness (interpretation of the biography of Valerian and Cecilia by Elfric).

The ancient heritage is undoubtedly reflected in the stylistic techniques used by the Old English authors, and despite the fact that each significant preacher has his own unique style, many techniques, such as alliteration, repetition, a certain rhythm /rhythmicity, have their origins in Latin works.

The revealed patterns of author's styles and the presence of personal motives when adapting Latin sources by Old English writers open up great prospects for further more detailed studies of sermons and other Anglo-Saxon religious texts in a rhetorical and pragmalinguistic way.

1. Gorelov, M.M. (2012). Catastrophe of conquer in the mirror of Christian morale (after Sermo Lupi ad Anglos). Crises of turning era points in historical memory (pp. 69-86). Moskow.
2. Mohovikova, N.V. (1999). Ælfric’s Lifes of Saints as a monument of Benedictian renaissance. Cand.philol.sci. dissertation. Moscow.
3. Ælfric. (1844-46). The homilies of the Anglo-Saxon church [microform]:the first part containing the Sermones catholici, or Homilies of Ælfric in the original Anglo-Saxon. Vol. 2. London.
4. Cook, Albert S. (1898). Biblical Quotations In Old English Prose Writers: Ed. With the Vulgate And Other Latin Originals, Introduction On Old English Biblical Versions, Index of Biblical Passages, And Index of Principal Words. London: Macmillan.
5. Hall Th. N. (2007). Latin sermons for saints in early English homiliaries and legendaries. The Old English Homily: Precedent, Practice, and Appropriation, 17, 227-263. Brepols Publishers.
6. Orchard A. (2007). Wulfstan as reader, writer and rewriter. The Old English Homily: Precedent, Practice, and Appropriation, 17, 311-341. Brepols Publishers.
7. Stanton R. (1997). Rhetoric and Translation in Ælfric's Prefaces. Translation and Literature, 6/2, 135-148.Edinburgh University Press.
8. Upchurch R.K. (2007). Homiletic contexts for Aelfric’s hagiography: the legend of saints Cecilia and Valerian. The Old English Homily: Precedent, Practice, and Appropriation, 17, 265-283. Brepols Publishers
9. Wulfstan. Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. Retrieved from http://www.hs-augsburg.de/~harsch/anglica/Chronology/11thC/Wulfstan/wul_serm.html

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The article presented for consideration "Motives and patterns of reference to ancient sources in Old English religious texts by Elfric of Einsham and Wulfstan", proposed for publication in the journal "Litera", is undoubtedly relevant, due to the author's reference to the heritage of the Latin language in European languages, as well as the peculiarities of texts in the Old English language of religious content. The research is based on works in the field of the history of the origin of Old English religious texts, their ideological sources and stylistic features of their design. The purpose of this article is to analyze research in this area and identify the individual patterns of the author's styles of two of the most important writers Elfric Einshemsky and Wulfstan with the involvement and interpretation of factual material. It should be noted that there is a relatively small number of studies on this topic in Russian linguistics. The article is innovative, one of the first in Russian linguistics devoted to the study of such issues. The article presents a research methodology, the choice of which is quite adequate to the goals and objectives of the work. The author turns, among other things, to various methods to confirm the hypothesis put forward. Unfortunately, the author does not indicate the volume of the corpus selected for the practical part of the study, the principles and methods of selection. Although the names of the sources are listed in the work. This work was done professionally, in compliance with the basic canons of scientific research. The study was carried out in line with modern scientific approaches, the work consists of an introduction containing the formulation of the problem, the main part, traditionally beginning with a review of theoretical sources and scientific directions, a research and final one, which presents the conclusions obtained by the author. The author illustrates the theoretical positions with linguistic material (original passages in Old English). The bibliography of the article contains 9 sources, among which scientific works in Russian and English are presented. We believe that referring to more fundamental works of Russian researchers, such as monographs, PhD and doctoral dissertations, would undoubtedly enrich this work. In general, it should be noted that the article is written in a simple, understandable language for the reader. Typos, spelling and syntactic errors, inaccuracies in the text of the work were not found. The comments made are not significant and do not detract from the overall positive impression of the reviewed work. The work is innovative, representing the author's vision of solving the issue under consideration and may have a logical continuation in further research. The practical significance of the research lies in the possibility of using its results in the teaching of university courses on the history of language, a workshop on Old English and Latin languages, as well as courses on interdisciplinary research on the relationship between language and society. The article will undoubtedly be useful to a wide range of people, philologists, undergraduates and graduate students of specialized universities. The article "Motives and patterns of reference to ancient sources in Old English religious texts by Elfric of Eynsham and Wulfstan" can be recommended for publication in a scientific journal.
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