Aelfric and Me
Michael Seuffert and Dan Remein

Edited by Danielle Sams


            The Passion of St. Edmund is a wonderful story, telling of the sacrifice and miracles of an English saint, as written by Aelfric in a style that has been called “alliterative prose” (Mitchell and Robinson 196) and has been argued to be infused with a sort of “constructed orality” (Stanton 209). While most scholars do assert that despite the alliteration, the lines of St. Edmund are those of prose, Walter Skeat still contends that "If it be urged that Aelfric's lines can hardly be called poetry, it is easy to reply that they constitute excellent and flowing prose (lii).

In spite of this appreciation of Aelfric’s rhetorical style, however, I think, scholars have largely overlooked The Passion of St. Edmund as an individual story with its own literary merit.  Some articles are devoted almost entirely to reconstructing Aelfric’s liturgical calendar and its schedule of readings, in which Edmund is mentioned only briefly. This is because Edmund is part of a larger book of saints’ lives written by Aelfric, which is itself, in turn, part of a larger collection of Aelfric’s writing that includes Catholic Homilies and translations of the Bible (Lapidge 116). 

Other scholars have denied its stylistic qualities.  Despite the alliterative lines, John C. Pope has decidedly labeled the work as prose, denying its alliterative, poetic, and oral qualities (ctd. in Benskin 11-12).  Michael Benskin, who points out Pope’s claims, admits thinking of The Passion of St. Edmund for quite a long time as “unbalanced and extraordinarily ill structured” (1), and useful only for teaching the Old English language.  Yet, in the face of these claims, Milton McC. Gatch notes, “it is curious that the Old English vernacular preaching texts have never achieved an international reputation” (43), implying that perhaps they deserve such a reputation. Malcolm Godden adds to this suggestion by claiming disappointment that Aelfric has been treated as a “popularizer, or at best primarily a stylist” (“Aelfric” 114).  I find suggestions such as this as evidence that perhaps The Passion of St. Edmund is not just a prosy and purely didactic saint’s life, but probably contains its own literary merit. 

In fact, I agree with some scholarship that would suggest that this story consists of a creative and skilful adaptation of a saint’s life from Latin, especially when taken within the context of its genre and purpose.  Readers must remember, as Benskin points out, that “it was for the people that Aelfric’s homily was written” (23).  A writing such as St. Edmund probably was meant, as Benskin suggests, to be “read aloud, and to a largely uneducated audience” (24), despite some scholarship that would argue in part that Saint’s lives were meant for reading and not for preaching (cf Godden, “Experiments” 281). I think we should consider that Aelfric was intentionally designing the work to be communicated as an effective story both orally and to the uneducated. 

Knowing that Aelfric’s audience included the uneducated, I easily see why a handful of critics do argue in favor of Aelfric’s skill and merit.  For instance, in his discussion of Aelfric’s “role in fostering learning” (“Aelfric” 114), Godden points out “a scholarly element…in Aelfric’s use of the Bible” (“Aelfric” 108).  Godden also notes how on many occasions Aelfric’s adaptations “reacted against the content” (“Aelfric” 106) of homilies and preaching texts that had preceded him, correcting or omitting elements he found heretical when newly adapting the homilies. However, in spite of this scholarly depth, Godden argues that Aelfric’s storytelling also makes “the scholarship of the Latin tradition available to readers who knew no Latin” (“Aelfric” 106). What Godden is demonstrating, then, is that Aelfric has mastered the art of conveying complex doctrinal ideas and skilful scholarship through the readily accessible techniques of Anglo-Saxon storytelling. 

And, as a result of this process of adaptation, it seems that Aelfric constructed some pieces to be purely stories. Benskin even puts forth an analysis of the story in terms of balance and numerology, concluding that the piece involves “a compositional technique that is numerical but perhaps only trivially so” (27), but asserting the existence of an “exact balance” (12-3) within certain elements of the text with reference to its structure. This skillfully crafted artistry leads  Benskin to note the need to conclude that the work is better considered an adaptation than a translation of its considerably longer source, written by Abbo (10).

Other scholars note how the adaptation’s construction involved literary qualities. Stanley B. Greenfield points out that “Aelfric condensed his sources to make effective narrative and to heighten dramatic potentialities as well as to remove unfamiliar elements which might cause confusion…” (106).  Also in support of St. Edmund’s literary qualities, C.L. Wrenn would contend that Aelfric “vivifies” certain scenes and adds touches in his adaptation that are “lively” (236). Finally, Robert George Stanton points out that Aelfric abbreviated Abbo’s text intentionally, and did so with “definite ideas about brevity…and the function of literary language (209). So, I see the Passion of St. Edmund as a story worthy of its own criticism, study, and as a creative and skilful adaptation from the Latin.

In considering The Passion of St. Edmund as a story worthy of study and as a work of literature. In additionally considering Aelfric’s perspective, we also get a sense of the lessons he was trying to preach to his listeners and or readers.  James Earl, in a discussion that looks at The Passion of St. Edmund, tells us much about the Anglo-Saxon culture, discusses Aelfric’s treatment of violence, and explains subsequent teaching on the matter (128-129).  Earl contends that Aelfric’s version of the story teaches that peaceful resistance is the appropriate Christian response to aggressive violence in Edmund’s refusal “to enter into the discourse of war even as it rages around him” (141, 147). Aelfric does not condone warfare for the sake of the church.  He preaches peace.  As Christ refused to let St. Peter fight for his freedom, so did King Edmund lay down his life for his faith.

  Earl’s article also points out some of the story’s literary techniques.  For example, Aelfric eliminates from the story the most violent actions in the historical reality of St. Edmund’s death—his execution by “blood eagle,” a horrible, ritual mutilation of the Vikings’ victim, de-emphasizing the violence to put the emphasis on noble Christian suffering.  He associates Edmund metaphorically with St. Sebastian, and with Christ, placing Edmund firmly in the realm of Christian saints to make his thematic point.  Understanding Aelfric’s literary strategies, Earl goes on to explain, reveals a much more complex attitude towards violence and relationship with Viking violence than other critics have note.  Therefore, this literary work allows us to see how the Anglo-Saxons viewed the Vikings and how they dealt psychologically with constant invasions and peril. In short, I think that this work has not only literary, but also cultural and historical value. 

But maybe, before Aelfric’s writings can be the subject of widespread literary criticism and scholarly attention, more good translations must be available that are, as Aelfric would have had it, accessible to the common person.  I feel that the purpose of any translation is to bring the original into the vernacular, where it can be read and understood by a new audience.  That way, even though there will be cultural differences, these differences will help bring a new understanding of the world to the everyday reader. 

To emphasize my purpose, the content of a translation should bring the work’s most insightful and illuminating themes and perspectives to the forefront of the work.  The techniques that I use also must help my readers grasp these ideas and see the world through these perspectives with ease and pleasure.  Therefore, My translation should be simple in its language and written in a modern style.  After reading my story, a reader unfamiliar with Anglo-Saxon literature or St. Edmund specifically, should be able to remember the story well enough to tell it to another person, much like the oral tradition from where most Anglo-Saxon literature comes from.

I chose St. Edmund because I wanted to work with a piece of prose that told an interesting story and could give us some insight into the Anglo-Saxon way of life.  To start, when I translate, I hope to illuminate a part of the Anglo-Saxon world for a modern audience who will read an intelligible translation and discover common cultural bonds despite the strangeness that they will confront.  In other words, as they read my translation in contemporary English, they will notice all the elements that seem strange to us, but also see that many of the same values still stand today. I have tried to achieve this goal by making translation choices that emphasizes themes and parts of the story that we easily recognize.

Though I could not find much critical writing on the work itself, I found two translations that apparently agreed with my criteria for a good translation.  One made by W.W. Skeat is written in a modern sense.  Barring third graders and below, any reader can pick up this translation and follow along with the story.  He stays true to the original text, while also taking difficult sections and making them intelligible.  The end of the piece exemplifies this idea especially.  Certain passages, such as the one where Aelfric says we will not tell of every deed attributed to Edmund can be tricky to get through.  But Skeat manages to make sense out of it and we learn that:

By this saint is it manifest and by others like him,

that Almighty God can raise man

again, in the day of judgment, incorruptible from the earth,

He who preserveth Edmund whole in his body

until the great day, though he was made of earth.

Worthy is the place for the sake of the venerable saint

that men should venerate it and well provide it

with God's pure servants, to Christ's service,

because the saint is greater than men may imagine (333, ll.253-258).

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of Skeat’s translation is his punctuation.  His sentences often drag on with many commas and clauses.  I tried to fix this flaw in my translation with shorter sentences.  If a point seemed important to me, I would even make it in its own very short sentence.  It should also be noted, however that, Skeat does translate the life into verse, a possibility I have elected not to follow, as the original I believe worth re-creating in an understandable prose, and not an ornate verse.  And, I would interpret Skeat's own assertion that Aelfric wrote in "excellent and flowing prose" (lii), as a reason to translate into excellent and flowing prose, and not a license to translate the work into excellent and flowing poetry

The other translation is attributed to K. Cutler.  I find it far more contemporary in its word choice than Skeat’s and in that way, it fits my criteria well.  For example, take this sentence describing the arrival of the Viking messenger in Edmund’s hall, clearly telling the reader how “King Edmund, against whom Ivar advanced, stood inside his hall, and mindful of the Savior, threw out his weapons” (Cutler, par.6).  I find the sentence very clear and straightforward. 

Another translation by Michael Swanton makes the story quite clear, but I think it simplifies the story too much, straying from the original text too much.  For example, where the original text reads “sciphere,” which could mean literally “naval attack force,” and bear a quite fearsome and nasty connotation as it describes a Viking raiding party, Swanton uses “pirate force” (98) which can seem rather childish in its connotations, and moreover, unfaithful to the original text.  It is more important to me to have a translation that remains more faithful to the actual Old English text while making the story clear. 

Finally, what does my translation have to offer?  I believe that my translation is easy to read and tells an interesting story.  I believe that you can discover new and exciting insights about the Anglo-Saxons, such as their ways to cope with Viking raids (flee, pay, or fight.)  But I also see how many of the ideas, especially religious ones, are familiar to us.  Edmund’s death scene becomes symbolic of Christ’s death, from his scourging with whips to being tied to a tree.  And though our churches have real security systems and do not rely on the bodies of dead saints to protect what lies inside, today’s church leaders do not condone capital punishment, just as Theodred learned he should not have. 

I actually think what I tried to do mirrors what Aelfric tried to do back in his time.  He was not completely attached to the original, but translated, then took out and put in what he thought would be appropriate.  Just as Jim Earl explained that Aelfric did not include all the nasty details of the Viking’s execution methods, I left out phrases that I thought were redundant or unnecessary (3-4).  I think my translation stays true to the author’s original intent, but without staying true word for word. Overall I think my translation can be easily understood, and I hope it will be.


Works Cited

Lapidge, Michael. “Aelfric’s Sanctorale.Holy Men and Holy Women:  Old English Prose Saints’ Lives and Their Contexts. Ed. Paul E. Szarmach. Albany:  State of New York P, 1996. 115-29.   Print.


Mitchel, Bruce and Fred. C. Robinson. “St. Edmund, King and Martyr.” A Guide to Old English. Sixth ed. Mass: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002. Print.

Skeat, Walter W.  "XXXII. Nov. 20.  St. Edmund, King and Martyr."  Aelfric's Lives of Saints.Vol. 2.  Ed. Walter Skeat.  trans. Walter Skeat.  London: Oxford UP, 1966. 314-333. Print.

Stanton, Robert George.  “Translation and Anglo-Saxon Hagiography: Abbo of Fleury’s Passion of St. Edmund and Aelfric’s Old English Translation.”  Dissertation Abstracts International Section A: The Humanities and Social Sciences 57: 8 Feb 1997, p. 34888. Web.

Swanton, Michael.  “The Passion of St. Edmund.”  Anglo-Saxon Prose.  Ed. and trans. Michael Swanton.  London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1975. 97-103. Print.

White, Caroline Louisa.  Aelfric: A New Study of His Life and Writings.  Hamden, Ct: Archen Books, 1974. Print.

Wrenn, C.L.  A Study of Old English Literature.  London: Harrap & Co. 1967. Print


Works Consulted

Hall, J.R. Clark.  A Concise Anglo Saxon Dictionary. Canada: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Print.

Mitchel, Bruce and Fred. C. Robinson.  A Guide to Old English Sixth Edition.  Mass: Blackwell Publishers Inc., 2002. Print.

Tandy, Keith, A..  “Verbal Aspect as a narrative Structure in Aelfric’s Lives of Saints.” The Old English Homily and Its Backgrounds.  Ed. Paul E. Szarmach and Bernard F. Huppé.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1978. 181-202. Print.