Walk around London or indeed any large British city or town and you might come across round circular blue plaques on the side of buildings. They are a way of honouring a person from history who has made a positive contribution to British culture in any number of fields. Normally one has to wait about 20 years after death to receive a blue plaque though few perhaps have to wait as long as the recipient of an unveiling in Eynsham (Oxfordshire) of a ‘blue plaque’ commemorating Ælfric the Grammarian, first abbot of Eynsham in 1005.
Ælfric has been described as the most educated, prolific and influential writer in English before Chaucer. A Benedictine monk and teacher, he wrote: “I have seen and heard great error in many English books which unlearned men, in their ignorance, have esteemed as great wisdom”.
Ælfric addressed this intellectual deficit and he did it in English rather than Latin and in so doing demonstrated the language was already supple enough to frame complex ideas.
These days it’s an unfortunate fact that Ælfric is barely known today though that isn’t always the case. Ælfric’s theological works were seized upon in Elizabethan times, by Protestant churchmen eager to put the new Church of England on an intellectual footing that was also undeniably English following the break with the Roman Catholic tradition of Christianity.
Ælfric of Eynsham [Ælfric Grammaticus, Ælfric the Homilist] (c. 950–c. 1010), Benedictine abbot of Eynsham and scholar, is of unknown origins, though his language suggests he came from Wessex. He was educated under Æthelwold in the monastic school at Winchester, and after becoming a monk and priest was sent about 987 to the abbey of Cerne Abbas, Dorset, newly founded (or refounded) by the thegn Æthelmær, son of Ealdorman Æthelweard, where he was probably in charge of the school. There he apparently remained, producing a stream of books, until 1005, when Æthelmær, now an ealdorman, founded the abbey of Eynsham and Ælfric became the first abbot: Æthelmær himself lived for a time with the new community, possibly under compulsion after falling out of favour at court, but was back in an active role a few years later. Internal allusions suggest that Ælfric had at some stage in his life travelled in the north of England and in Italy, and that he may have been taught by Dunstan as well as by Æthelwold.
As well as writing on issues relating to the Church and Christianity, Ælfric also wrote on the doctrine of the just war, royal and military saints, the history of English monasticism, the problem of the vikings, the interpretation of dreams, the careers and fates of Old Testament kings, and the gods of classical and Danish paganism.
I can’t let this post pass of course without mentioning an old post on the old character Æ. https://stephenliddell.co.uk/2017/03/03/aedifying-use-of-ae/ or perhaps another relatively early English Christian scholar Paying homage at the tomb of the Venerable Bede