Wulfstan, Ælfric and the Exeter Book

Wulfstan, Ælfric and the Exeter Book

Welcome to day three of the promotional extravaganza! Today’s post will introduce you to the three primary medieval voices that inform Old English Ecotheology: Wulfstan, archbishop of York (?-1023), Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 955-1010, and the Exeter Book itself.

The introduction to my book offers an in-depth explanation of my reliance on Wulfstan and Ælfric as representatives of early medieval English theology; if you want a preview, you can check that out here. For now, I wanted to share a bit about why I find these two thinkers so fascinating. Like many medievalists, I was first introduced to Wulfstan through his fire-and-brimstone homily Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. During the course of my research for this book, I was delighted to learn that Sermo Lupi was among his more subdued homilies. Sometimes, the frenzy of Wulfstan’s sermons alleviated my own anxiety; sometimes, he exacerbated it. On those occasions, I could reliably depend on Ælfric to calm me down: in contrast to Wulfstan’s relentless pace, Ælfric’s homilies felt more contemplative, returning to pause on certain key ideas. Together, these two voices fleshed out my understanding of the experience of Christian living in early medieval England. As I suggest in my introduction,

the theology of Ælfric and Wulfstan could have reached all ranges of early medieval English society, from laypeople attending church on Sunday to meetings of the Witan in London. Indeed, it is precisely their broad audience and didactic intent that makes this body of work such a useful representation of English theology…these homilies reveal the folk-traditions and social practices the Church sought to reform, the orthodoxy it sought to institute, and the ways in which these ideologies intermingled.

The most important “voice” in Old English Ecotheology is, of course, the Exeter Book. On Monday, I shared a bit about how my interest in this incredible manuscript began during my final year of college. I certainly didn’t expect to spend a decade writing about a single manuscript, but the Exeter Book is an incredibly inviting space to explore Old English poetry. A thousand years ago, when the manuscript was added to the library at Exeter Cathedral, it was described as a mycel Englisc boc be gehwilcum þingum on leoðwisum geworht: “a great English book about various things written in verse.” This early medieval description perfectly summarizes the value of the book as a microcosm of Old English poetry. As I argue in the introduction, the Exeter Book

is mycel (“great”) not only in the number of texts it contains, but also in the wide variety of generic forms and thematic concerns those texts engage, from devotional verse and hagiography to enigmatic wisdom poetry, elegies, and riddles.

As my subtitle suggests, Old English Ecotheology focuses primarily on the poetry of the Exeter Book: however, my hope is that the readings I propose in this book may usefully be applied to other early medieval texts.

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