E-Eglsh-Prose-art - 12/27/13
"Echoes of Oral Tradition in the Dialogues of Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis" by Detlef von Marburg. (Master's thesis)
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Echoes of Oral Tradition
in the Dialogues of Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis
Detlef von Marburg
(From a Thesis Submitted for a Master of Arts Degree in English,
Sam Houston State University, December 2004)
Although prose writings account for approximately nine-tenths of the surviving corpus of Old English literature, much less critical and scholarly attention has been given to prose than to the poetry of the period. Elaine Treharne states that more scholarship has been published on Beowulf than on the total body of prose, and Beowulf’s 3,182 lines form only one tenth of the approximately thirty thousand lines of surviving Old English poetry (157). Another illustration of the disparity between the interest in prose and poetry comes from such anthologies as J.B. Trapp’s Medieval English Literature, in which he states in his introduction “it is no accident that the entire Old English section of this anthology is in verse” (8). Elaine Treharne’s anthology (2000) shows how the situation has changed since 1973: fifteen prose texts in Old English appear in Old and Middle English: an Anthology. Collections of essays such as Paul Szarmach’s Holy Men and Holy Women: Old English Prose Saints’ Lives and Their Context also give evidence of the growing scholarly and critical interest in Old English prose.
Prose writings span the Old English period from the time of Æthelberht of Kent’s law code, written between 597 and 616, to the last entry of the Peterborough manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written in 1154 (Grose and McKenna 30; Treharne 254). Old English prose treats a wide variety of subjects. Legal texts such as Æthelberht’s law code, religious texts such as King Alfred’s translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, histories such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, medical treatises including the Leechbook of Bald, writings on scientific subjects such as Byrhtferth’s Manual, and educational works such as Ælfric’s Colloquium demonstrate the breadth of subject matter that writers explored in Old English (Grose and McKenna 30-32). The Benedictine Revival of the late tenth century resulted in the height of prose text production in Old English, and it is to this period of revival that the abbot Ælfric of Eynsham belongs. Ælfric compiled two volumes of homilies between 985 and 995 (Treharne 116). A third volume, titled Lives of Saints, was created between the years 990 and 1002 (130). W.W. Skeat’s edition of Ælfric’s Lives of Saints lists thirty-nine translations from Latin texts that celebrate the lives of saints whose feast days were observed in English monasteries (4-11).
Ælfric’s Lives of Saints combines different literary traditions into one body of texts. By translating these Latin texts into Old English, Ælfric undertook to integrate texts from outside the Old English tradition into a body of work that would appeal to audiences who were familiar with the conventions of writing and storytelling in that language. The source texts that Ælfric translated are of a genre known as hagiography (from the Greek for “holy writing”), which developed in the early centuries of Christianity in the Greek- and Latin-speaking communities of the Mediterranean. Christian hagiography had developed its own conventions from the time that stories and legends about the saints first circulated as early as the first century A.D. Stories from oral tradition were combined with hymns, sermons, court documents, and existing scriptural and hagiographical texts to create fully-developed and formalized lives to honor the memory of individual saints. All of these conventions were available to Ælfric through his source texts, the Latin lives that he translated into Old English. The religious beliefs of the saints to whom these lives pay tribute, as well as the explicit assertions of those beliefs that permeate the texts and give them their ultimate purpose (namely, to teach the tenets of the Christian faith), borrow heavily on the scriptural and creedal traditions of the Christian Church, including lectionary texts that were appointed for the feast days of individual saints. Ælfric’s primary task was to create saints’ lives that appealed to his English-speaking audiences for the edification of their souls. His sources provided him with links to the traditions of hagiography as well as to Scripture and creedal texts, but they also provided him with a textual style that represents the use of spoken language by using devices already familiar in Old English poetry.
This study will focus on Natale Sancte Agnetis, Ælfric’s homily appointed for the feast of Saint Agnes on January 21. Agnes was martyred in Rome in the earliest years of the fourth century. Her tomb became an object of pilgrimage, and the Emperor Constantine’s daughter Constantia ordered a church built over the tomb. By the end of the fourth century, Saint Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, had written a sermon in commemoration of Agnes’ feast, and at least one hymn had been composed in her honor, together with an inscription that has been attributed to Pope Damasus. Ælfric’s source text, the Latin Vita Sanctae Agnetis, was written in the fifth century and had been traditionally attributed to Ambrose. This Latin text forms a synthesis of Ambrose’s sermon and the hymn, the stories about Agnes that were composed and transmitted orally, and the lectionary texts appointed for her feast day. Ælfric adds these elements to the tradition and conventions of Old English literature while translating the fifth-century text into his native language.
In addition to drawing on existing texts and legends about Agnes, the author of the fifth-century Vita Sanctae Agnetis incorporated dialogue into his own text. Through this use of dialogue, the characters become active participants in the telling of Agnes’ story. The author also gives Agnes the opportunity to interact with her persecutors and with members of her family. Instead of merely relating the story to his audience, the author stages the story and allows his audience to assume the role of witness to the course of events in the text. The characters present themselves to the audience and speak for themselves, developing their own characters with the words the author ascribes to them instead of relying exclusively on narrative description. The use of multiple voices also adds variety to the text by creating shifts in tone among the characters, depending on their attitudes towards one another and their perceptions of reality. These voices build a rhythm that runs through the text, whether through short, rapid exchanges between characters or through long, expressive phrases that probe the characters’ thoughts and emotions. Dialogue adds variety, complexity, and rhythm to Vita Sanctae Agnetis, features that narrative description alone could not supply. Ælfric retained the fifth-century author’s use of dialogue and carried its functions into his own Natale Sancte Agnetis. Although he did propose to translate meaning for meaning rather than word for word so that his own text would bear the characteristics of the language into which he translated, Ælfric preserved the structure of the dialogues and the tone expressed in the exchanges. Thus, the Old English translation preserves the richness of its Latin source while making Agnes’ story accessible to Ælfric’s audience.
In addition to preserving the dialogues as found in the Latin text, Ælfric’s use of dialogue echoes the oral traditions that merge in his saints’ lives. Old English literature originated in the pre-literate oral tradition of heroic poetry that the Anglo-Saxons carried with them in their migrations to Britain in the fifth century. Even after writing had taken the place of oral tradition in the composition and transmission of Old English poetry, that tradition continued to influence the style in which such heroic poems as Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon were written. Christian hagiography, too, emerged from an oral tradition. Saints’ lives grew out of the stories and legends that members of the saints’ families and local communities shared first among themselves, then with pilgrims who traveled to the saints’ shrines. Even the sermons and hymns composed to celebrate the memory of the saints were written to be performed orally. Along with the use of Old English and the conventions of Latin hagiography, Ælfric’s translation draws on the teachings of Christianity that were ultimately formalized in creeds and the writings of the Church fathers. Those texts also derive from an oral tradition of their own, the sayings attributed to Christ and the sermons of his apostles that were later written in the New Testament. Ælfric’s saints’ lives form a synthesis of these three textual traditions that originated in oral tradition. Although Ælfric’s work is a translation of written, not oral, Latin texts, the emphasis on dialogue recalls the importance of speech in the earliest stages of all three traditions that come together in that work. Through the extensive use of dialogue and multiple references to the use of spoken language, Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis establishes a strong connection among literary works composed in Old English, early Christian hagiography, and the scriptures and formal creeds of Christianity by evoking the oral traditions that lie behind all three traditions.
The following three chapters of this study explore the connections between the use of dialogue in Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis and the three earlier oral traditions behind his work. Chapter Two examines the place Ælfric’s translation occupies in a period in Old English literature when the role of oral tradition had long given way to writing in the composition, transmission, and preservation of individual works. As writing had taken the place of oral tradition in the creation and maintenance of Old English texts, the dialogues in Natale Sancte Agnetis parallel what Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe calls the “residual orality” of literature in the period (8). Chapter Three discusses how, in Ælfric’s fifth-century Latin source, dialogue also assumes the functions that speech performs in Christian hagiography at a time when oral legends were being incorporated into written saints’ lives. The dialogues echo not only the oral legends but also the sermons and hymns that were composed to be performed orally, and through the saints’ assertions of their Christian faith, dialogue invites the audience to draw parallels between the saints and Christ as Logos, the human embodiment of God’s Word. Finally, the examination in Chapter Four of the dialogues as individual speech acts—drawing on the theories of John Austin and John Searle—reveals how Ælfric’s translation of the story of Agnes’ martyrdom is a speech act itself, an assertion of the faith for which Agnes gave her life. Natale Sancte Agnetis thus becomes a profession of faith much like the formal creeds of the Church that drew on the teachings of the Apostles. In addition to its effects on the rhythm and intricacies of each individual text, the use of dialogue creates a connection between Ælfric’s saints’ lives and the oral traditions that lie at the root of Old English literature, Christian hagiography, and even the formal teachings of the Church.
Echoes of Old English Oral Tradition in the Dialogues
Ælfric’s (ca. 955-1020) Natale Sancte Agnetis appears in the late tenth century, near the end of the Old English period. That period had begun when Germanic tribes migrated from north-central Europe to Britain and brought the myths and legends of their ancestors with them. The arrival of Christian missionaries in Britain in the year 597 made possible the introduction of the Roman alphabet to the English language, and English became the first vernacular language of Western Europe to have a written literature of its quantity and variety. Danish invasions of the eighth and ninth centuries slowed down the progress in learning encouraged by such leaders as King Alfred of Wessex (reigned 871-899). The decline that resulted from those invasions was reversed in the second half of the tenth century thanks to a revival of Benedictine monasticism in England that encouraged the copying of existing texts and creation of new texts that continued until the Norman Conquest of 1066. These events in the development of Anglo-Saxon society shaped the cultural context within which the Benedictine abbot Ælfric of Eynsham created his works. Ælfric’s writings on such saints as Agnes of Rome reflect the influence of the Germanic dialects that became Old English, the Christian religion that facilitated both the introduction of literacy and the cult of saints, and the Benedictine Reform that allowed for the creation and preservation of the majority of surviving Old English texts.
Ælfric belongs to the period of the Benedictine Reform that began in the second half of the tenth century. Encouraged by King Edgar and driven for the most part by three bishops, Dunstan, Oswald, and Æthelwold, the Benedictine Reform re-established the Rule of Saint Benedict in English monasteries and fostered both the copying of existing texts and the creation of a substantial prose corpus of surviving Old English texts in the late-tenth and early-eleventh centuries (Treharne xv-xvi). Authors such as Ælfric and Wulfstan wrote prose homilies and educational texts that added to the genres of prose, which also included legal, historical, and scientific works (Grose and McKenna 30-32). Although oral compositions had long given way to written compositions, written texts continued to echo the traditions from which Old English literature emerged, including the language through which the poems refer to themselves as spoken acts. In the opening lines of many Old English poems, such as The Wanderer and The Seafarer, the speakers refer to the poems as spoken acts; they also represent acts of speaking throughout the texts with verbs like cwæđ, wrecan, and secgan. Ælfric’s saints’ lives, such as Natale Sancte Agnetis, are rich with language that represents spoken actions, including the verbal exchanges among characters as well as singing (singađ) and crying out (clypode). Like that of Old English poetry, the language of his saints’ lives includes verbs and noun phrases representing such oral action, as well as speeches that the author ascribes to characters in the text other than the narrator. 38.69% of all action verbs in the text of Natale Sancte Agnetis appear in the dialogues, which account for 130 of 295 lines. Even though it is a translation from a Latin text, oral motifs from Ælfric’s source represent acts of speaking in a language whose tradition of oral composition and transmission had completely run its course and left its influence only on the poetic style. The dialogues take the place of oral tradition in emphasizing the role that acts of speaking play in Old English literature.
From Oral Tradition to Written Text
The conversion of the English beginning in A.D. 597 restored the Christian faith that had been largely lost to the territories occupied by Germanic invaders. Sponsored by Saint Gregory the Great, who was Pope at the time, Saint Augustine and “several other God-fearing monks” landed in the kingdom of Kent, where they first experienced success with the conversion of King Æthelberht (Bede 66-71). Once Gregory had received word of Augustine’s success, he sent several more clergymen to England, as well as “everything necessary for the worship and service of the Church,” including books for the service (84-5). The functions of the Church required not only service books but also theological and pedagogical materials for teaching and propagating the faith, and scribes in England assumed the task of producing and copying Latin manuscripts in order to fill that need (Treharne xv). In addition, the ability to speak, read, and write Latin was essential to performing the rites and ceremonies of the church as well as to understand the Bible, the Church Fathers, and other Christian texts, and so the Church established schools in England for the training of its clergy (Fulk and Cain 13-17). Thus Augustine’s mission to the English returned literacy to Britain along with the Christian faith.
The literary activity of Christian scribes in England was not limited to the production and copying of Latin texts. The creation of manuscripts in Old English followed Augustine’s arrival almost immediately. The Germanic system of runes that the Anglo-Saxons had brought with them from the Continent allowed for the carving of such implements as coins and weapons, so Old English was not a purely pre-literate culture even before the arrival of Christian missionaries at the end of the sixth century. The earliest Old English prose text, the law code of King Æthelbert of Kent, was produced in the years between 597 and the king’s death in 616 (Grose and McKenna 30). By establishing schools and introducing programs of producing and copying manuscripts to England, the Church provided the English language with a means for recording and preserving more extensive texts than runes would allow, such as Æthelbert’s law code, using the Roman alphabet with which the Christian scribes were familiar (Fulk and Cain 11). The production of Old English manuscripts was not limited to original compositions. The situation King Alfred of Wessex describes in his preface to the Old English translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, in which few priests of his time could read and write Latin, provided the impetus also of translating texts from Latin into Old English, such as Pastoral Care and Alfred’s own translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. The production of Old English texts reached its climax as a result of the Benedictine Revival of the late-tenth century, during which time such writers as Ælfric, Wulfstan, and Byrhtferth added to the Old English corpus (Fulk and Cain 23-24). The need for books in Latin and clergymen who could read them that accompanied the Christian missions to England allowed for the transformation of English into a fully-developed literary language.
Once applied to the creation of Old English texts, the Church’s program of writing and copying manuscripts ended the near monopoly that oral tradition exercised over the composition and preservation of Old English poetry. The Anglo-Saxons inherited that tradition from their ancestors on the Continent, but the growth of literacy in England allowed for the composition and preservation of poetic works in writing, as well as a blending of the Germanic poetic style with literary and rhetorical paradigms borrowed from Latin (Greenfield and Calder 1-2). Even after works of poetry could be composed as written texts, Old English poets continued to create their texts in formulaic style that oral tradition had bequeathed to them, using such devices as alliteration, repeated half-lines, and rhythmic patterns that aided earlier poets in committing their pieces to memory (Greenfield and Calder 125). Although the poems bear the marks of oral style, those that survive as written texts were not composed and transmitted orally.
The formulaic nature of Old English poetry led scholars in the 1950s and 1960s to assume that even the texts that have survived in writing were initially composed and transmitted orally, drawing on Parry and Lord’s study of repeated formulas in Homer’s epics and the works of illiterate Serbian poets of the twentieth century. Francis P. Magoun applied the theory of oral-formulaic composition to Beowulf in 1953, identifying formulaic repetitions both within the poem itself and in other poems such as Genesis A and Exodus to demonstrate that Beowulf must have been composed orally. Unfortunately, Magoun based his conclusions on the assumption that “lettered poetry is never formulaic” (447). That assumption—as well as Magoun’s conclusion—was already contradicted a half century before by Gregor Sarrazin, who between 1886 and 1887 published studies of Beowulf and the poems of Cynewulf that led him to the conclusion that the former was written by the latter. In fact, Sarrazin’s study reveals that the repetition and refashioning of stock phrases in Beowulf also occur in the poems of Cynewulf, a poet who is not only known by name but is also known to have been literate. Cynewulf’s poem Christ II contains an address to a single reader in line 441 (mon se mæra, “illustrious man”), suggesting that this poem was indeed composed as a written text (Orchard 103-6). If, then, a poet as clearly literate as Cynewulf could make use of formulaic patterns in the crafting of his poetry, surely the possibility exists for the Beowulf poet to have composed his text in writing as well. Orchard also points, as an illustration that formulaic does not necessarily indicate oral composition, to the sermons of Wulfstan of York, an archbishop who, by virtue of his occupation, certainly was literate. Wulfstan, too, uses the device of repeating and refashioning stock phrases in his sermons, which he wrote for audiences who would much more likely hear than read his texts (109). Since a preacher who composes his sermons in writing need not depend on such oral devices to create works that he can commit to memory, one may wonder if Wulfstan did not actually make use of those devices for the sake of his audience, in order to keep their attention much as a poet reciting orally would be obliged to keep his audience’s attention.
It seems, then, that the use of oral devices is determined less by the concerns of the composer than by those of the audience. In any event, poets such as Cynewulf and preachers such as Wulfstan demonstrate that the presence of repeated stock phrases in a text does not identify that text as an oral composition. Even if a poem like Beowulf could have been composed orally—a possibility of which we have no evidence whatsoever—we have no experience of that poem outside of the written text, nor do we have any evidence that any audience either during or since the Old English period had any such experience. The poems that survive do so as written texts, even if they were composed using stylistic devices that recall oral tradition.
With the loss of oral composition also comes the loss of the poet’s physical voice. Whereas a poem created and delivered orally is pure spoken language, a written poem can only represent spoken language. The speaker no longer speaks directly from his mouth but only indirectly from the written text. It is the reader who reproduces the poet’s voice in reading the poem. Written language must compensate for this loss of voice as it attempts to represent speech. Writing must not only replicate the words of speech, it must make use of what O’Keeffe calls “graphic cues” to the phrasing and articulation of passages (5). These cues include the use of capital letters, line divisions, and points that function much like modern punctuation. While these cues were used much more in the copying of Latin than of Old English texts, Old English poetic texts relied more on the readers’ familiarity with the formulaic nature of the poetry in interpreting the phrasing and articulation of verses than on the spatial arrangement of words on the page (23; 46). These devices aid in the recreation of texts by reading or recitation, and they also assist the reader in replicating the poet’s voice as closely as possible, but outside of performance the devices alone do not communicate to the reader that the written words represent spoken language. It is the language itself that performs that task. Use of the pronoun Ic (“I”) in poems reminds the readers and audiences that the poet assumes the voice of a speaker, and thus the written text imitates spoken language. That pronoun appears in the first lines of The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament, The Husband’s Message, and The Dream of the Rood, as well as in the opening line of the inner monologue of The Wanderer in line 8. By this device, the poet directs the reader to give voice to the poem’s speaker and thus re-present his act of speaking. Other references to acts of speaking in the text include the use of verbs like cwiþan and secgan (both meaning “to say”) and expressions like wordum (“with words”) and miccle laþre spell (“a much more hateful message”) remind the audience that, even in a written text, language is primarily spoken. The use of monologue and dialogue—attributing words to speakers other than the composer of the poem—also recalls that the text represents spoken action as they take advantage of voice in developing characters. The following sections examine how devices in the language evoke orality even in such written texts as The Wanderer, The Seafarer, The Wife’s Lament, The Husband’s Message, The Dream of the Rood, and The Battle of Maldon, before moving on to Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis to show how his translation of the fifth-century Latin text imports the same language devices from outside the Old English tradition.
Oral Motifs in Old English Poetry
An analysis of oral motifs in Old English poetry within a study of Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis serves two purposes. First, the analysis will establish a frame of reference for studying the same motifs in literature as in Ælfric’s text. It will also establish the connections that exist between the poems and Ælfric’s text, and thus the connections between the literary heritage of the language into which Ælfric translated his work on Saint Agnes and that of his Latin source. This analysis will examine verbs in the texts that represent the use of spoken language, their frequency in the texts, nouns that represent the same kinds of action, and monologues or dialogues that the composer ascribes to a figure or figures other than the narrator of the poem. The verbs that represent actions such as speaking, singing, and lamenting that rely on spoken language are known as “oral verbs,” while the term excludes oral actions that do not involve the use of spoken language.
The Old English poems examined in this section include four elegies from the Exeter Book, as well as The Dream of the Rood and The Battle of Maldon. The dates of composition for the four elegies and The Dream of the Rood are unknown, but they survive in manuscripts written in the tenth century, and some lines from The Dream of the Rood have been found inscribed in runes on the eighth-century Ruthwell cross. The Battle of Maldon was composed sometime between 991 and the end of the eleventh century and only survives from a transcription of the manuscript London, British Library, Cotton Otho A. xii, that was destroyed in 1731 (Treharne 141).
The Exeter Book
The four poems in this section are elegies taken from a manuscript that is commonly known as the Exeter Book, which was copied around the year 970 and given to the cathedral at Exeter by Bishop Leofric (Treharne 35). These poems reveal how written texts represent spoken language through such devices as the use of Ic (“I”) in their first lines to identify the speaker of the poem and verbs that reflect the speech. The Wanderer, in which the speaker describes the hardships he has suffered after losing his lord, consists of 115 lines of text. The monologue that is the main body of the poem consists of 102 lines, while seven lines introduce and six lines conclude the monologue. A total of four verbs representing the use of spoken language appear in the text. These verbs remind the audience that the poem imitates the act of speaking. The two lines immediately preceding the monologue, and the line immediately following the monologue, both use the word cwæđ (“spoke”) as the main verb (6; 111). Within the monologue itself, the two remaining verbs representing vocal action appear in the three and a half lines with which the speaker introduces his own speech:
‘Oft Ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
mine ceare cwiþan. Nis nu cwicra nan
þe Ic him modsefan mine durre
sweotule asecgan.’ (8-11)
‘Often, at every dawn, I alone must
lament my sorrows. There is now no one living
to whom I might dare to reveal clearly
my heart.’ (Treharne 43)
The verbs cwiþan (“bewail”; “lament”) and asecgan (“say”; “tell”) set the tone for the monologue and highlight its nature as an act of speaking. Through the speaker’s words, the author of the poem develops the speaker’s voice and character as he reminds his audience that these lines represent spoken language.
Another elegy in the Exeter Book, The Seafarer takes the form of a monologue as well but, unlike The Wanderer, dispenses with any framework text to introduce and conclude it. This poem addresses two themes, the joys and sorrows of life at sea and the fleeting nature of life. All 124 lines of the poem incorporate the speaker’s monologue. A total of seven verbs representing spoken action appear in the text. The three lines introducing the poem call attention to the text as a spoken action with the use of two such verbs, wrecan (“utter;” “deliver”) and secgan (“say”):
Mæg Ic be me sylfum sođgied wrecan,
siþas secgan, hu Ic geswincdagum
earfođhwile oft þrowade. (1-3)
I can narrate a true story about myself,
speak of the journey, how, in days of toil, I
often suffered a time of hardship. (Treharne 49).
The remaining five verbs of this kind appear within the text and refer to oral actions other than the act of delivering the poem itself. The speaker’s reflections on life at sea conclude with mention of the cuckoo’s sorrowful song and the watchman’s words that draw a man to such a life:
Swylce geac monađ geomran reorde,
singeđ sumeres weard, sorge beodeđ
bitter in breosthord (53-55).
Likewise the cuckoo urges him with a melancholy voice,
the watchman of summer sings, announces sorrow
bitter in his heart (Treharne 51).
These lines contain three of the verbs in question: monađ (“exhorts;” “admonishes”), singeđ (“sings;” “narrates”), and beodeđ (“announces;” “proclaims”). Together with the adverbial phrase geomran reorde (“with a melancholy voice”), these verbs draw the audience’s attention to the vocal nature of the actions to which the speaker refers. The verbs æftercweþendra (“speak after;” “repeat”) in line 72 and hergen (“praise;” “command”) in line 77 that refer to the praise that men must seek in order to gain immortality complete the list of verbs representing vocal actions in the poem. Unlike the speaker of the central monologue of The Wanderer, the speaker in The Seafarer uses verbs that refer to the use of spoken language other than merely his own in delivering his speech.
The Wife’s Lament is considerably shorter than The Wanderer and The Seafarer, consisting of 53 lines of monologue that discuss the hardships the speaker endures on separation from her husband. The five verbs representing oral action in this poem demonstrate that such references highlight a greater importance of such action here than in The Wanderer, a poem twice as long that has only four such verbs. As in the previous two poems, The Wife’s Lament opens with lines that stress the poem’s oral nature:
Ic þis giedd wrece bi me ful geomorre,
minre sylfre siđ. Ic þæt secgan mæg,
hwæt Ic yrmþa gebad siþþan Ic up weox,
niwes oþþe ealdes, no ma þonne nu. (1-4)
I relate this very mournful riddle about myself,
about my own journey. I am able to relate
those miseries that I endured since I grew up,
of new and old ones, never more than now. (Treharne 77)
The first four words of the poem, “Ic þis giedd wrece” (“I relate this…riddle”; “I relate this…speech”), emphasize at the very beginning that the audience is, in fact, listening to a spoken action. The main verb of the next sentence, secgan (“utter”; “declare”), reinforces that emphasis. Of the three remaining verbs in this poem that represent oral actions, two of them represent such actions that the speaker’s husband performs:
Het mec hlaford min her heard niman. (15)
My cruel lord commanded me to be taken there. (Treharne 77)
Heht mec non wunian on wuda bearwe (27)
He commanded me to dwell in the wood’s grove (Treharne 79).
The verbs het and heht (“commanded;” “ordered”) reveal the domineering character of the speaker’s husband. The last of these verbs, beotedan (“vowed”), refers to an action that the speaker and her husband performed together before their separation:
Ful oft wit beotedan
þæt unc ne gedælde namne deađ ana,
owiht elles; eft is þæt onhworfen. (21-23)
Very often, we two vowed
that nothing would part the two of us
except death alone; afterwards, that has turned around (77).
As in The Seafarer, the composer of The Wife’s Lament uses verbs to represent spoken language other than just that of delivering the poem. Like both The Wanderer and The Seafarer, the speaker highlights the poem’s nature as an act of speaking through the use of such verbs in the first few lines of the monologue.
The fourth elegy from the Exeter Book, The Husband’s Message, is an incomplete text as a result of damage to the manuscript (Treharne 80). Only 53 lines survive of this poem (line 40 is an ellipsis), in which the speaker informs a woman that her husband has been forced to leave his homeland as the result of a feud. Ten verbs in the surviving text represent oral actions. The first lines do not appear to introduce the content of the poem to the extent that corresponding lines do in the other three elegies, but the verb secgan (“utter”; “declare”) identifies an oral action at the poem’s beginning:
Nu Ic onsundran þe secgan wille
…treocyn Ic tudre aweox. (1-2)
No, in private, I will reveal
the kind of wood I grew up as from a young offspring. (Treharne 81).
The next line in which an oral verb appears also refers to an act of the speakers:
Ic gehatan dear
þæt þu þær tirfæste treowe findest. (11-12)
I dare promise
that you will find there a gloriously assured commitment. (Treharne 81)
Six of the remaining eight verbs appear in the text from lines 13 through 24. These refer to actions of the speaker and of the woman’s husband, as well as to vows that the woman and her husband made to each other and to the mournful cuckoo.
Hwæt, þec þonne biddan het se þisne beam agrof (13)
Indeed, he who engraved this wood instructed me to ask (Treharne 81)
The verb het (“instructed;” “commanded”) represents the husband’s act of instruction, biddan (“ask”) the action he instructs the speaker to perform.
þe git on ærdagum oft gespræcon (15-16)
the spoken vows
that you two often spoke in former days (Treharne 81)
The verb gespræcon (“spoke”) refers to the husband’s and wife’s act of speaking their vows.
Heht nu sylfa þe
lustum læran (20-21)
He himself has asked me to instruct you (Treharne 81)
The husband does the asking (heht), and the speaker is to perform the act of instruction (læran).
siþþan þu gehyrde on hliþes oran
galan geomorne geac on bearwe. (22-23)
after you have heard on the edge of the cliff
the mournful cuckoo sing in the wood. (Treharne 83)
The verb galan (“sing”; “cry”) refers to the cuckoo’s act of singing. Finally, the words behemnan (“declare”) in line 51 and gespræcon (“said”; “uttered”) in line 54 refer to the act of declaring an oath between husband and wife. Whereas the speaker in The Wife’s Lament mentions acts of speaking that she and her husband perform, The Husband’s Message represents the same kinds of actions performed by the speaker, the husband who gave him the message, his wife, and even the mournful cuckoo. In spite of the damage to the manuscript that rendered parts of the poem illegible, The Husband’s Message surpasses the other three elegies in demonstrating the capacity for language to represent spoken language. The oral motifs in the poem’s surviving lines reveal how the author’s work represents spoken language. He creates within his piece layers of speech: his own spoken action of composition and performance, the words of his narrator, the husband’s words which the narrator represents to the wife, and the words spoken between husband and wife of which the narrator reminds the wife. The use of words and phrases to refer to spoken language reinforces the manner in which these layers interact with each other to create a poem that is thoroughly grounded in speech.
The Dream of the Rood
Well over three thousand lines of Old English poetry survive in a manuscript known as the Vercelli Book, so called because of its location in the chapter library of Vercelli in northern Italy (Treharne 89). One of the poems in this manuscript, The Dream of the Rood, describes the speaker’s vision of the Cross upon which Christ was crucified. Some lines in the poem are as old as the eighth-century Northumbrian Ruthwell Cross, upon which those lines are carved in runes (Treharne 108). Of the 156 lines of the poem, 93 lines incorporate a speech that the Cross itself addresses to the speaker concerning its experience of the crucifixion (28-121). As in The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Wife’s Lament, this poem opens with a line that calls the audience’s attention to the poem as a spoken action:
Hwæt, Ic swefna cyst secgan wylle
hwæme gemætte to midre nihte,
syđþan reordberend reste wunedon. (1-3)
Listen, I will tell the best of visions,
what came to me in the middle of the night,
when voice-bearers dwelled in rest. (Treharne 109).
The verb secgan (“say;” “tell”) marks the poem as an act of speaking. Immediately following the Cross’s speech, the speaker says
Gebæd Ic me þa to þan beame bliđe mode (122)
I prayed to the tree with a happy spirit then (Treharne 115)
The verb gebæd (“prayed”) refers to the speaker’s act of praying. These two verbs complete the speaker’s references to himself as performing spoken actions. The speaker’s introduction of the Cross’s speech contains the only two other verbs of this variety that he ascribes to himself. As the narrator in The Wanderer, he introduces the central speech with words that underline the speech as an oral action:
þæt hit hleođrode;
ongan þa word sprecan wudu selesta: (26-27)
I heard it utter a sound;
it began to speak words, the best of wood: (Treharne 111)
The verbs hleođrode (“sounded;” “spoke”) and sprecan (“speak”) remind the audience that what follows is a spoken act. The remaining ten verbs representing oral action are ascribed to the Cross itself. It speaks of the “eager ones come from afar” (“fuse feorran cwoman”, 57) who take the Saviour down from the cross singing for him:
Ongunnon him þa sorhleođ galan (65)
They began to sing the sorrow-song for him (Treharne 113)
In addition to the verb galan (“sing;” “sound”), the noun sorhleođ (“song of sorrow;” “dirge”) draws attention to the act of singing. It then speaks of the honor that men give to it for its role in the salvation of humankind:
Me weorđiađ wide ond side…
gibiddaþ him to þyssum beacne. (81, 84)
I will be honoured far and wide…
they will pray to this beacon. (Treharne 113)
The actions of men in giving the Cross honor are captured in the verbs weorđiađ (“will be exalted;” “will be praised”) and gibiddaþ (“will pray”). It then reflects on the honor it has received from Christ himself:
Hwæt, me þa geweorđode wuldres Ealdor
ofer holmwudu, heofonriches Weard,
swylce swa he his modor eac, Marian sylfe,
ælmihtig God, for ealle menn
geweorđode over eal wifa cynn. (90-94)
Listen, the Lord of glory, the Guardian of the kingdom of heaven,
then honoured me over the forest trees,
just as he, almighty God, also honoured
his mother, Mary herself, for all men,
over all womankind. (Treharne 113).
Appearing twice in this sentence, the verb geweorđode (“gave honor”) refers to Christ’s actions of honoring both the Cross and his own mother. After relating its own experience in the Crucifixion, the Cross issues a command to the speaker of the poem:
Nu Ic þe hate, hæleđ min se leofa,
þæt đu þas gesyhđe secge mannum: (95-96)
Now I urge you, my beloved man,
that you tell men about this vision: (Treharne 113)
The Cross’s words refer to its own act of commanding (hate, “order”; “command”) and to the act of telling (secge, “say”; “tell”) that it expects the speaker of the poem to carry out. Two more verbs in the Cross’s speech represent oral actions performed by Christ again:
Ne mæg þær ænig unforht wesan
for þam worde þe se Wealdend cwyđ:
frineđ he for þære mænige hwær se man sie, (110-112)
Nor may any of them be unafraid there
because of the words which the Saviour will speak:
he will ask in front of the multitude where the person might be (Treharne
Verbs representing oral actions, then, refer to the actions of the speaker, the Cross, the disciples who take Jesus down from the Cross, the people who honor and pray to the Cross, and Jesus himself. In addition, such words as sorhleođ (“song of sorrow”; “dirge,” 67), stefn (“voice,” 71), and wordum (“with words,” 97) draw attention to the roles that oral actions play in the poem. As in the elegies from the Exeter Book, The Dream of the Rood opens with lines that identify the poem as a spoken act and describes the oral activities of the speaker of the poem. Like The Husband’s Message, it handles the same kinds of activities as they are performed by more than one speaker.
The Battle of Maldon
Treharne calls the final poem in this section, The Battle of Maldon, “the best example of a short heroic poem to survive from Anglo-Saxon England” (141). The poem describes a battle that took place in the year 991 between an English army and Danish raiders, and it addresses issues of faithfulness to one’s lord and the importance of revenge in Anglo-Saxon culture. The events described in the poem date its composition to the late-tenth or early-eleventh centuries.
325 lines survive of the incomplete text, and the first lines are missing. Like the other five poems in this section, this poem makes use of verbs that represent oral actions. 39 of the 53 verbs of this kind are found in the narrative of the poem, and of those 39, 15 introduce speeches given by figures within the narrative. An additional 14 verbs appear in the speeches themselves. Like The Husband’s Message and The Dream of the Rood, the oral actions represented in The Battle of Maldon are attributed not only to the narrator, but to a wide variety of characters in the poem.
In addition to verbs that represent oral action, The Battle of Maldon also incorporates a number of words reflecting such action as in The Dream of the Rood. These words include beot (“vow”; “boast”; “threat,” 14, 27), andsware (“answer,” 44), miccle laþre spell (“a much more hateful message,” 50), hream (“outcry,” 106), cyrm (“uproar,” 107), þanc (“thanks,” 120, 147), þæt word (“these words,” 168), mæla (“words,” 212), and gylpwordum (“determined words,” 274). These nouns echo the verbs that represent oral action throughout the text of the poem.
Unlike the elegies from the Exeter Book and The Dream of the Rood, The Battle of Maldon incorporates nine discourses, attributed to a variety of figures into the poem, that account for eighty-four and a half lines of The Battle of Maldon. The first speech is attributed to a Viking messenger who demands tribute from the English army on behalf of his Danish lord (29-41). Byrthnoth refuses to give tribute in lines 45 through 61, telling the Viking messenger “hi willađ eow to gafole garas syllan” (“they will give you spears as a tribute,” 46). The earl then issues a challenge to the Danish raiders (93-95). After the battle in which he is wounded, Byrthnoth prays to God for the protection of his corpse (173-80). After Byrthnoth’s death, the warrior Ælfwine reveals his noble lineage and gives honor to the fallen earl who was “ægđer min…and min hlaford” (“my kinsman and my lord,” 212-24). Inspired by Ælfwine’s words, Offa curses the traitor Godric, and Leofsunu answers with a pledge to avenge Byrthnoth in battle while Dunnere echoes Leofsunu’s words (230-43; 246-53; 258-59). They return to the battle, in which the Danish raiders decimate the English army, and then Byrhtwold continues to encourage the warriors and vows himself to continue fighting as well (312-19). The first speech is ascribed to a Danish messenger; the remaining eight speeches come from English warriors, in which they either respond to the demands of the Danes or vow among themselves to continue fighting for the honor of the fallen earl Byrthnoth. Together with the fifty-three verbs and fourteen nouns representing oral actions throughout the poem, these eighty-four and a half lines ascribed to seven characters other than the speaker of the poem call attention not only to the importance of speech within the action of the poem, but also to the poem itself as an act of speaking.
The ratio of lines of poetry to verbs representing oral action reveals a progression in use of such verbs from the elegies in the Exeter Book to The Battle of Maldon. Four verbs of this kind in 115 lines of poetry in The Wanderer create a ratio of 28.75 lines per oral verb. The ratio of lines to oral verbs in The Seafarer, with its seven verbs in 124 lines of poetry, is 17.71 lines per oral verb. Five oral verbs in the 53 lines of The Wife’s Lament create a ratio of 10.8 lines per oral verb. The 10 oral verbs in the 53 surviving lines of The Husband’s Message bring the ratio in that poem to 5.3 lines per oral verb. The ratio in The Dream of the Rood is 11.14 lines per oral verb in a 156-line poem with 14 oral verbs. Finally, the 325 surviving lines of The Battle of Maldon contain 53 oral verbs, for a ratio of 6.13 lines per oral verb. Only The Husband’s Message has a lower ratio than The Battle of Maldon. The Dream of the Rood and The Battle of Maldon are the only two among these poems that use nouns as well as verbs to represent oral action, and only The Battle of Maldon makes use of speeches attributed to a number of characters in the poem, although The Wayfarer and The Dream of the Rood both attribute monologues to figures other than the speaker of the external text. The distribution of oral verbs and lines of dialogue within each text represents spoken language in the poetry at a time when the poems were no longer composed orally but in writing.
This rich complex of oral motifs in Old English poetry establishes a context within which Ælfric translated a fifth-century Latin text into his own Natale Sancte Agnetis. As an English writer, Ælfric inherited the Old English literary tradition that is embodied in these poems, but in the case of Natale Sancte Agnetis, he is not composing an original text but translating from an existing text outside the tradition. In doing so, he combines two literary traditions into his own work, those of Old English poetry and Latin hagiography. Ælfric borrows the use of dialogue and verbiage reflecting the use of spoken language from his Latin source, and he integrates those devices through his act of translation into the existing corpus of Old English literature in which these devices also appear in original compositions. An examination of the same oral motifs in Natale Sancte Agnetis as appear in Old English poetry will demonstrate the degree to which the Latin tradition of Ælfric’s original text intersects with the literary heritage of his native language. Ælfric’s text incorporates a higher concentration of oral verbs than any of the six poems previously discussed, and the use of dialogue in the Latin original and his translation is much more extensive and complex as well.
Oral Motifs in Natale Sancte Agnetis
The preceding analysis of oral motifs in Old English poetry provides a basis for examining the same motifs in Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis and a means of comparing Ælfric’s text with the poems in that analysis. Unlike the six poems, which were composed in Old English and bear the stylistic remnants of oral tradition, Natale Sancte Agnetis is a translation into Old English from a fifth-century Latin text (Donovan 45). The translation is one of a series of sermons known in Skeat’s edition as Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, which Skeat dates to 996 or 997 (xxvii). In his Latin preface to the work, Ælfric explains his reason for translating the lives; namely, for the edification of those who read the work (2). Concerning his method of translation, Ælfric writes that he has not attempted to translate everything word for word but sense for sense, and that he has edited the language of the passions to make them less tedious while preserving the sense of the texts (5). Vocabulary and grammar do not constitute a language on their own; individual languages possess their own qualities such as rhythm, melody, pitch, and tone. More importantly, each language is intimately connected with the experiences of its speakers. Language exists to share experiences and attitudes, and their speakers have their own experiences and attitudes that speakers of other languages may not have. In other words, a culture’s language is a part of that culture. To translate a text such as Natale Sancte Agnetis without taking the cultural differences that exist between the speakers of Latin and the speakers of English risks creating a text that sounds artificial and alien to the translator’s audience. In his endeavors to translate from sense to sense as opposed to creating a literal translation, Ælfric demonstrates his recognition of the connections between language and culture. As a result, his fifth-century Latin source becomes a work of Old English literature, not only by virtue of the language into which he translates but also by virtue of the culture to whose sensibilities he appeals in his approach to translation. That culture included a literary tradition which before Ælfric’s time had experienced a shift from oral to written composition and preservation of texts, after which shift the texts acknowledged the role of speech in literature with a growing presence of oral motifs. The presence of the same oral motifs in Natale Sancte Agnetis illustrates how Ælfric takes a Latin text to create a literary bridge between his original and the tradition of the language in which he writes. Ælfric’s text incorporates verbs that represent oral actions, as well as noun and prepositional phrases that echo those actions, from the Latin original into the Old English tradition. As in The Battle of Maldon, Natale Sancte Agnetis includes speeches that the author attributes to personalities other than the narrator of the text. Ælfric’s original, however, makes greater use of these motifs in a work that, in contrast to the poems composed in Old English, he translated from a written text. Thus, he takes the same oral motifs that are present in Old English poetry from the Latin hagiographical tradition of his source in order to represent spoken language in his writing. These motifs are not Ælfric’s invention; they come from his Latin source. With two exceptions, the dialogues in Ælfric’s translation follow the structure of those in his source, and the difference in frequency between oral verbs in the original and those in the translation are minimal enough to suggest that Ælfric is not imposing the convention on his text but borrowing the devices from outside the tradition of Old English literature.
Echoing the Old English poems whose opening lines survive, Ælfric introduces his text as an action, but whereas the poems are identified as spoken acts, Ælfric calls attention to the fact that he translates from a written text, and thus labels it an act of writing with the line “Đa awrát ambrosius be þam mædene đus” (“Thus wrote Ambrose about the maiden,” 5). Even though he presents his translation as an act of writing, Ælfric refers to such oral activities as speaking, singing, and shouting through the use of 86 verbs that represent such actions. 67 of these verbs appear in the narrative portion of the text. 48 of those appearances are 11 verbs that Ælfric uses more than once, such as behet (“promised”), biddende (“praying”), blyssodon (“rejoiced”), clypian (“cry out”), cyddan (“made known”), gehaten (“called”), het (“commanded”), sæde (“said”), and tealde (“reckoned”). In 18 cases, oral verbs in the narrative introduce lines of dialogue. Two of these—gebiddende (“praying”) and secgende (“saying”)—appear once each. Andwyrde (“answered”) introduces lines of dialogue in four places, and cwæđ (“said”) in eight. In the lines of dialogue themselves, 19 verbs representing oral action appear, of which 14 appear one time each. The remaining 5 are two verbs that appear more than once: bletsige (“bless”) appears twice, and gebiddan (“prayed”) three times in three different forms. Ælfric’s Latin source uses 60 verbs to represent the use of spoken language. Of the 43 verbs of this type that appear in narrative, 18 introduce dialogue as in Ælfric’s translation.
The Latin text uses 17 oral verbs in dialogue, as opposed to 19 in Ælfric’s translation. Examples of these verbs in the Latin include promittere (“promise”), recusata (“refused”), repromisit (“promised in return”), cantant (“sing”), aperitur (“was disclosed”), inquirere (“to inquire into”), jussit (“commanded”), clamare (“to cry out”), orabat (“prayed”). The verbs clamabant (“cried out”), dixit (“said”), proferentem (“revealing”), orationem fudit (“poured out in prayer”), and responsum (“answered”) introduce the lines of dialogue, with a form of dixit appearing 12 times in the text. In all, 18 oral verbs introduce dialogue in the Latin text, as in Ælfric’s translation. With the remaining 26 oral verbs throughout the narrative, these verbs total 61, short of Ælfric’s 86. Although the frequency of verbs representing spoken language occur less frequently in Ælfric’s source than in his translation, the presence of these verbs in the Latin indicates that Ælfric’s use of this device was not his own invention, but that he incorporated it into his Old English text from the Latin.
Not counting auxiliaries, verbs that represent oral action in Ælfric’s translation account for 25.59% of all action verbs and 23.76% of all verbs in the text. In the narrative, oral verbs account for 32.52% of all action verbs and 31.30% of all verbs. In the lines of dialogue, oral verbs account for 14.61% of all action verbs and 12.84% of all verbs. Oral action, therefore, accounts for one-fourth of the action represented in the whole text. In addition, 38.69% of all action verbs and 40.88% of all verbs in the text appear in lines of dialogue. Roughly two-fifths of the action in Natale Sancte Agnetis, then, is represented in words spoken by personalities other than the narrator. These numbers show the significance that oral action bears in Ælfric’s text.
The ratio of lines to verbs representing oral action in Natale Sancte Agnetis also shows a significant increase over the Old English poems discussed previously. Of the six poems, The Husband’s Message has the lowest ratio, with six lines per oral verb. The Battle of Maldon is a close second with 6.11 lines per oral verb. Natale Sancte Agnetis has a ratio of 3.43 lines per oral verb, between half and two-thirds the ratio in The Husband’s Message. Although Ælfric’s piece is a translation of a fifth-century Latin text, his source supplies him with the opportunity to represent spoken language in a written composition that reflects and even surpasses the same representations in Old English poems.
The composers of The Dream of the Rood and The Battle of Maldon made use not only of verbs, but also of nouns to represent oral actions in their poems. Ælfric does not use as many of these nouns as the poet who wrote The Battle of Maldon, but he does include six instances of noun phrases and prepositional phrases to supplement the oral verbs in Natale Sancte Agnetis. Agnes refers to the melodious voices (“geswegum stemnum,” 44) of Christ’s maidens who sing to her and Christ’s own mouth from which she receives milk and honey (“Of his muđe ic under-feng meoluc and hunig,” 45). The narrator mentions “the maiden’s speech” (“þæs mædenes spræce,” 64) by which she rejects the prefect’s son “with words” (“mid wordum,” 64) and to Simpronius’s “persuasive words” (“geswæsum wordum,” 83). Simpronius himself speaks of Agnes’ report of his son’s death as “þin saga” (“your saying,” 193). These five phrases add to the representation of oral action that the 86 verbs perform in the work. Although these phrases do not appear as frequently as in an Old English poem such as The Battle of Maldon, they manage to locate common ground between the original Latin and the language into which Ælfric translates his text.
The Wanderer and The Dream of the Rood both contain monologues within themselves that account for more than half of the lines of text, and nine speeches take up 84.5 lines of The Battle of Maldon, more than a quarter of the text. The dialogues in Natale Sancte Agnetis account for 120 lines, two-fifths of the 295 lines of text. These lines are distributed among seventeen speeches in which characters reveal their values and make promises, offers, and threats to each other. Nine of these speeches are ascribed to Agnes, of which she addresses five to Simpronius and one each to his son, to God, to her parents, and to Constantia, the last two in visions after her death. Simpronius addresses all five of his speeches to Agnes. The prefect’s son speaks to a crowd of Romans in one speech, as do his companions in another, and the crowd addresses Simpronius in a speech as well, demanding Agnes be taken away. These dialogues represent almost half of the action in Natale Sancte Agnetis, and they are faithful to the use of dialogue in the Latin that also attributes 17 speeches to the characters in the text. By translating a text from Latin to Old English in which half of the action of the text is in dialogue, Ælfric acknowledges in a written work that language is primarily a spoken medium.
The action verbs in the dialogues and the verbs referring to spoken language in the whole text total 197, or 58.63% of all of the action verbs in the whole text. Thus almost three-fifths of the action in Natale Sancte Agnetis either refers to or directly involves the use of spoken language. Almost twice as many action verbs appear in dialogue as oral verbs in the narrative (130 to 67). Even though only 19 oral verbs occur in dialogue, those lines account for roughly two thirds of the action in Ælfric’s text that bears some relation to speech. As with the role that dialogue performs in the work, Ælfric’s use of verbs to represent speech even outside of dialogue recognizes the importance of spoken language even in writing.
The text of Natale Sancte Agnetis is saturated with references to the use of spoken language. The plot begins with overtures the prefect’s son makes to Agnes and her rejection of those overtures, and it ends with Constantia’s ordering of the shrine to be erected over Agnes’ tomb. Even though Natale Sancte Agnetis is a translation, Ælfric creates in his text a point of contact between oral motifs in Old English poetry and the same motifs in early Christian hagiography. Such devices as verbs representing the use of spoken language, noun phrases that also reflect the same kinds of language use, and lines of dialogue occur in literary texts outside of the Old English and Latin hagiographical traditions, but Ælfric joins these two by preserving the use of dialogue and verbs referring to the use of spoken language that appear in the Latin text in creating his Old English translation. Twice as many action verbs occur in lines of dialogue as verbs representing the use of spoken language occur in the narrative outside of dialogue Natale Sancte Agnetis. The action verbs in dialogue outnumber the noun phrases that reflect oral action (two of which appear in dialogue) by over twenty to one. Of all the oral motifs Ælfric uses in his text, dialogue performs the dominant role in representing spoken language.
Ælfric created his saints’ lives near the end of the Old English period. The oral tradition in which Old English poetry had once been composed and transferred had given way to literacy and the composition of texts in writing. Unlike the poetry that was composed in Old English, Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis is a translation of a fifth-century Latin text that drew on both oral tradition and extant writings honoring Saint Agnes. Ælfric represents a complete departure from the oral origins of Old English literature in taking his material from outside that literary tradition altogether, but his translation replicates the same methods that Old English poets used to identify the written text as representative of spoken language by preserving the use of oral diction that appears in his source. One cannot imagine that it was Ælfric’s intention, but 86 verbs and 6 noun phrases that represent oral actions and 120 lines of dialogue in a text of 295 lines take the place of oral composition and performance from memory in this text that Ælfric’s act of translation brought within the scope of Old English literature. Ælfric’s use of language imported a means of representing spoken language from the context of Latin hagiography into the literary tradition of his own native language.
The following chapter demonstrates how the author of Ælfric’s Latin source drew on a hagiographical tradition that, like Old English literature, has its roots in orality. The process that results in the writing of a saint’s life begins with gatherings at the tombs of martyrs, first by the local community and then by pilgrims from other parts of the world. Those gatherings inspire the telling of stories by witnesses to the martyrs’ passions and confessors’ lives, which stories in turn influence the writing of sermons, hymns, and ultimately fully developed accounts of how the saints demonstrated their sanctity. The dialogues that, in Ælfric’s translation, recall the oral stylistics of Old English poetry, also recall the act of telling stories in commemoration of a saint such as Agnes.
Dialogue, Oral Tradition, and the Origins of Hagiography
The dialogues in Natale Sancte Agnetis do not reflect an oral tradition from which only Old English literature originates. They also reflect a similar tradition fundamental to the origins of hagiography itself. The development of saints’ legends in the late-classical and early-medieval periods began and ended in orality. These legends began as eyewitness reports and anecdotes of miracles shared among members of a particular martyr’s community, and they end as fully-developed written stories that are nonetheless meant to be read aloud on a saint’s feast day. These written stories—of which the fifth-century Vita Sanctae Agnetis and Ælfric’s translation Natale Sancte Agnetis are examples—make extensive use of dialogue to convey the sense of orality so important to the development of the legends; moreover, they point to the saint’s role as an imitator of Christ as Logos.
The origins of the cult of saints show how hagiography emerged from the telling of stories, the singing of hymns, and the preaching of sermons to honor the saints. The early development of Latin saints’ lives reveals how their authors made use of orally transmitted legends and made them available to audiences far beyond saints’ local communities. The conventions that writers employed to compose saints’ lives emphasized the holiness that all saints share in communion with God while they downplayed those details that make each saint unique. The tradition of Christian hagiography formed part of the religious tradition that the English adopted from Christian missionaries to the island. From the time of England’s conversion to Christianity until the Norman Conquest, hagiographers wrote Latin lives of English saints to identify the Church in England—and assert her spiritual communion—with the Church in Rome. In addition to lives of English saints written in Latin, Latin texts from the Continent were translated into Old English. These translations made the lives of saints from the early centuries of the Church accessible to English audiences who did not speak or read Latin, and they allowed for a creativity that blended elements of Old English literature with the conventions of Latin hagiography. Finally, the use of dialogue in saints’ lives identifies their subjects with Christ as Logos, for whose sake the heroes of these lives lived and died. The martyrdom of Saint Agnes and the tradition that celebrates her memory provide an example of how saints’ lives developed from oral tradition to written texts and how those written lives continued to demonstrate the importance of spoken language to their creation. The origins and development of the cult of Saint Agnes throughout this discussion connects Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis with the events that led through many centuries to its composition.
The Cult of Saints
Originally, the Christian Church applied the name “saint” in a generic fashion to all believers in Christ. The English word itself derives from the Latin sanctus, meaning “holy,” a concept expressed in Koine Greek as ‘agioV. In time, the term came to designate those Christians who had lived lives of holiness on earth and were believed to perform miracles after death. The community interpreted these miracles as signs that the saints were surely with God in heaven, as opposed to those souls who waited in purgatory for their ultimate reward (Noble and Head xv). The first saints who were honored in this fashion were those who had suffered to the point of execution in order to preserve the integrity of their faith. From the Greek word martoV “witness,” these men and women who bore witness to Christ’s name in the face of death came to be known as martyrs (Noble and Head xix). The miracles which these saints performed led to their patronage by those Christians who most benefited from those miracles, such as those cured of serious illnesses or those spared of some kind of disaster (Noble and Head xv). Because they were believed to be with God in heaven, these saints had particular powers of intercession to God on behalf of the faithful (Anderson 87).
The earliest venerations of saints took place in the context of an individual saint’s family gathering at his grave on the anniversary of his death. This custom derived from the pagan Roman practice of visiting the tombs of family members, but in time that gathering included not only the saint’s biological family but also his family in Christ, the Church community. The circulation of stories about the saint’s life and power of intercession reached beyond the local community, and by the second century A.D. saints’ tombs attracted enough attention from outside individual saints’ families to justify a transformation from private celebrations to public observances (Donovan 7). The faithful who gathered at these tombs saw them as numinous places where the physical and temporal met the spiritual and eternal. Eventually, Christians erected shrines over these places, which became the sites of not only annual commemoration but also year-round pilgrimages (Anderson 87). The pilgrims who visited these sites believed that the saints had the power to intercede on their behalf for such benefits as the curing of diseases, material prosperity, and the assurance of salvation.
The cult of martyrs originated during persecutions that were scattered over a period of three hundred years. These persecutions ended when the Roman Empire granted official recognition to the Christian faith in the early-fourth century. This recognition had a two-fold effect on the practice of venerating saints. It allowed for greater ease in travel and communication among the local communities, and the stories of local saints more readily gained regional or even global attention than in the first three centuries of Christianity. Since Rome was the center of the Empire, the saints of the church in that city received particular prominence in the Church throughout the Empire (Noble and Head xxii). Recognition also meant the end of persecution, and the number of names added to the lists of martyrs dropped significantly (Noble and Head xxiii). As a result, the title of “saint” came to be applied not only to those Christians who had witnessed to their faith in the manner of their deaths; the Church extended the honor to those Christians who had survived persecution while maintaining the integrity of the faith, as well as to those who witnessed to their faith in the manner of their lives after the periods of persecution. These new saints included virgins and men and women who were known as “confessors,” having lived their lives as a confession of their faith in Christ (Attwater 2-3; Donovan 7). Saint Agnes of Rome is venerated as a martyr and a virgin by the Church, since tradition holds that she was executed for her beliefs at the age of twelve years. Still, her martyrdom provided the earliest impetus for her cult, as she was martyred before the Church allowed the cult of virgins who had not died for their faith.
Saint Agnes was martyred in the early years of the fourth century. Attwater gives the year 304 as the approximate date of her martyrdom (29). Almost nothing is known about her for certain, except that she was a virgin and martyr, executed in Rome and buried in a cemetery on the Via Nomentana (Attwater 29). In 350, Constantine’s daughter Constantia directed the building of a basilica over Agnes’ burial place, and the martyr’s name and feast day were included in a calendar of martyrs in 354 (Butler 137-38). These events inspired the developing legend of Saint Agnes that, in turn, influenced writings that celebrated her life. The first of these, a sermon delivered by Saint Ambrose in commemoration of her feast day, appeared in 377, more than seventy years after Agnes’ martyrdom.
The Origins of Saints’ Legends and the Development of Latin Lives
The writing of saints’ lives emerged naturally from the oral traditions surrounding cults of individual saints. When the faithful gathered at the tombs of these saints, they told stories about the holiness of their lives, the ways in which they suffered for the Christian faith, and the miracles they performed from beyond the grave. As a locally venerated saint gained regional and even universal renown, so too did stories about that saint reach far beyond the scope of the local community, and those stories, in turn, increased the saints’ popularity. Saints’ legends originated with the association of names with places, particularly with the graves of the holy and the loci of their martyrdoms and the performance of miracles (Delehaye 42). Immediate familiarity with the saint in question rendered the recording of details of that saint’s life redundant, since most of the people who celebrated the memory of that saint were first- or second-hand witnesses to his life and martyrdom. The absence of specific details also served the efforts of later hagiographers to diminish the saint’s individuality and emphasize his identity with all the saints in heaven. The legends of a particular saint celebrated the saint’s holiness and emphasized that the source of that holiness was not the saint’s own personality but his identity with Christ.
From their original purpose to preserve and celebrate the memory of the saints, the earliest lives developed to serve a purpose of encouragement and exhortation during times of persecution. In later centuries, these texts were directed towards inspiring Christians to renewed faith (Brinegar 279). Stories about the saints did not just support the veneration of individual holy men and women. They also encouraged Christians to remain steadfast in their faith and resist the customs of the pagan world around them in the earliest centuries of the Church (Donovan 8). Once most of Western Europe had converted to Christianity, threats to the faith from without in the guise of paganism gave way to threats from within in the form of indifference and laxity. In the Middle Ages, the tradition of saints’ lives helped combat the decline in religious fervor among Christians. Saints’ lives gave testimony to the faith of martyrs and confessors of the earliest centuries of the Church, thus revealing God’s glory in his saints. They also encouraged, if not the imitation, then at least the admiration of these soldiers of Christ, and they did much to foster the growing popularity of the cult of saints in Europe (Donovan 10). The stories of saints provided the Christian community with models for holy living and a host of mediators between Christians on earth and their God in heaven.
Much of the earliest material that documented the lives of saints was drawn from secular court records, but these were often written from a pagan perspective, and they were not written to record details of individuals’ lives but to document the circumstances surrounding the court’s actions. Hagiographers found it necessary to add details to the stories that highlighted the individual martyr’s holiness. Such details included accounts of temptations and miracles (Brinegar 278-79). Court records show no more than the names of the defendant and his accusers, the evidence presented to demonstrate guilt or innocence, the court’s ruling, and the manner in which that ruling was carried out. The records made no reference to the defendant’s life before the proceedings, unless such a reference were made in the presentation of evidence. Still, the pagan Roman court would hardly be interested in including details in its records of an accused Christian’s holiness and ability to perform miracles (unless, of course, those miracles were attributed to sorcery). The court also had no interest in recording the miracles that were attributed to the martyr after his death. For this reason, little written evidence survives contemporary to the death of individual martyrs that confirms more than their name and the fact of their trial and martyrdom.
The earliest stories that celebrated the memories of individual saints were shared among the Christian communities not through writing, but through oral tradition. Telling stories was sufficient for celebrating a saint’s memory when the community did not concern itself with sharing that memory with Christians who had not known him. Although the term “hagiography” (from Greek ‘agioV “holy” and grafίa “writing”) refers strictly to the written stories that celebrate saints, the tradition of hagiography blends oral and written elements. Writing completes the development of saints’ legends begun in oral tradition, and the texts bear witness to those origins. The orality of hagiography lies in its rhetorical character, its reliance on anecdote for the development of narrative, and in the emphasis on prayer (Vitz 97). Because the stories were first told and then later written down, the residue of orality survives into the written lives of saints. Oral tradition in the form of witness accounts and spoken narratives in circulation among local Christians embellished court documents in supplying details that hagiographers could use in creating a saint’s life (Delehaye 74). The stories told orally often included details that would not appear in court records, notably, the Christian perspective of a saint’s trial and martyrdom. The people who commissioned saints’ lives supplied the original material from which these lives developed through stories that were considered reliable, although they emerged, not from written records, but from oral testimony (Heffernan 22). As stories were told and retold, the communities reinterpreted them to suit their present experience and circumstances. The oral nature of the saints’ legends allowed for the kinds of adaptation that made the individual saint present in the life of the community at the time of the telling (Heffernan 23). As a result, the origins of saints’ lives in oral tradition afforded those lives a more universal appeal—both across time and space—that would not have been possible had their stories been written down at the very beginning. In other words, writing the stories down first would have given the author familiarity with details of his individual subject’s life, including details peculiar to the subject’s time and place. Fixing those details into the text would diminish the possibility for adaptation to the cultural sensibilities of people beyond that particular setting, whereas allowing the stories to develop orally at first allows for that possibility.
Time and space both conspired to intervene between the individual saint and his followers. As the years went by, those Christians who had known the saint first-hand died, and the cult was continued by members of the community whose familiarity with the saint was limited to the stories they had heard. The expanding popularity of many cults beyond the scope of the local community also brought an awareness of particular saints to people who had not known them or their families. They too relied on second- and third-hand accounts of the saints’ lives. In order to maintain a degree of reliability of those accounts, the people in these communities began to write them down. Writing the stories of saints’ lives serves a different purpose than oral narration. As the art of hagiography shifted from the creation of oral texts to that of written texts, the composition of saints’ lives ran the risk of becoming less a matter of exhortation and more a matter of documentation, of providing evidence that proved the individual saint’s existence and holiness (Vitz 97-98). While telling the stories served as a way to celebrate the memories of individual saints, writing them down served to preserve those memories for future generations and distant devotees. Once written down, though, the stories of saints slowed down in their development. Writing committed the writer and the sponsoring community to a relatively definitive listing of the details surrounding an individual saint’s life. Writing also allowed an expansion of an individual saint’s appeal. While the telling of saints’ legends kept the experience of each individual saint present in the community, writing threatened to freeze that experience and distance it from the communities who would read those stories in later years, because the written text cannot adapt to the sensibilities of future audiences without being edited, rewritten, or even translated, as Ælfric did in making Latin saints’ lives accessible to his English-speaking audience. Writing allowed for a wider audience but put the text between the audience and the saint (Heffernan 33). While an orally delivered account belongs to the moment of its performance, a written text is frozen in the moment of its composition. The written text lacks the capacity for adaptation and revision, and thus for spontaneity and animation, that an orally delivered story enjoys, and so hagiographers were obliged to seek other means of making their works that could engage their audiences in ways similar to the legends that relied on oral performance and transmission.
Writings about the saints were not limited to narratives of the trials and sufferings of martyrs or the exemplary lives of confessors. Writings about saints also included a variety of genres. The earliest writings on martyrs consist of little more than lists of names for the sake of commemoration on the martyrs’ anniversaries, lists that evolved into martyrologies with the inclusion of each saint’s locality (Brinegar 278). One example of such a list, the Deposito Martyrum of 354, is the earliest surviving written text that mentions Agnes’ name and feast day (Butler 137). These lists mark the beginnings of a transition from orally transmitted legends to written records of the saints. Much of the writing surrounding the cult of saints served a liturgical purpose. With the development of shrines and rituals surrounding the memory of saints, writings of various sorts appeared that celebrated the holiness of these men and women. Sermons, hymns, and legends gave strength to those institutions by promoting the cults and attracting followers (Anderson 87). The growing popularity of certain saints led to their inclusion in the public liturgies of the Church. Part of that inclusion involved the composition of written texts to be read during those liturgies. Unlike stories that are shared in an informal setting within an intimate community, these texts were developed with the conventions of liturgical texts in mind for the sake of appropriateness within the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, or chapter readings (Vitz 98-99). The development of liturgies to celebrate the lives of Christian martyrs gave rise to the custom of reading written accounts of the ways in which they suffered for the faith (Brinegar 278). Inclusion of the celebration of saints’ lives in the public worship of the Christian church provided much of the demand for writings on these saints and lent these writings a formal character that was more appropriate to the public setting of church services than the oral stories which were shared in intimate groups at the shrines of saints.
The legend of Saint Agnes illustrates this transition from oral tradition to written documentation. Outside of the Deposito Martyrum, the earliest written record of Saint Agnes’s martyrdom comes from a sermon given by Saint Ambrose on her feast day in A.D. 377. This sermon later was included in the collection of Ambrose’s works entitled De Virginibus. Aside from Agnes’s age and the fact that she was tried and martyred, the bishop’s text gives no concrete information about her family or the nature of her arrest, trial (other than the usual attempts to force the martyr to sacrifice to the gods of Rome), and martyrdom; however, Ambrose does suggest that Agnes had promised her virginity to God and had struggled to preserve it (Denomy 4-6). The next surviving text focusing on Saint Agnes is the anonymous hymn Agnes beatae virginis. Tradition attributes it to Ambrose as well, dating the hymn as well to the last decades of the fourth century but certainly after his sermon for the feast of Saint Agnes. While Florian Jubaru contends that the consistency in details between the hymn and Ambrose’s sermon suggests the same author, Pio Franchi points to the discrepancies between the two texts (the manner of execution, the expression of the saint’s modesty in the hymn, and the introduction of her parents in the hymn) to support his claim that one author could not have written both texts (Denomy 7-11). On one hand, the sermon and the hymn agree in Agnes’ age, nature of her court appearance, her persecutor’s attempts to coerce her into making ritual sacrifices. Jubaru claims that both texts also agree in the manner of her death, but Franchi points out that Ambrose understood transfixion to refer both to death by sword in general and to the more specific means of decapitation. The correlation of details in the sermon and in the hymn appears inconclusive in determining whether Agnes beatae virginis was, in fact, composed by Saint Ambrose.
In addition to Saint Ambrose’s sermon for the feast of Saint Agnes and the hymn written in her honor, an inscription attributed to Saint Damasus—who was Pope from 366 to 384—provides further documentation for the martyrdom of Agnes. Apart from the martyr’s youth and virginity, Damasus’ inscription does not corroborate any details in De Virginibus. As in the hymn, however, the inscription mentions Agnes’s parents and makes references to her modesty (Denomy 11-12). These three textual monuments—Ambrose’s sermon to commemorate the feast of Saint Agnes, the hymn Agnes beatae virginis, and Pope Damasus’ inscription—form the earliest known written documentation of the saint, and all appear within a century of her martyrdom. More than seventy years intervened between her martyrdom and these texts. Even then, Saint Ambrose’s sermon and the hymn provide few details about Agnes. It is possible that the details of her life had been forgotten, but it is also possible that those details were transmitted in the purely oral tradition while her virginity and martyrdom, the very reasons the Church celebrated her memory, were the only details committed to writing at the time.
Conventions of Hagiography
The legends and documents from which the hagiographer draws his material already demonstrate the accepted fact of his subject’s existence. His role is not to give evidence of the saint’s life but to celebrate the holiness that made that life remarkable. Saints’ lives form an intersection between reality and fiction, the sacred and the profane, and mystery and sense (Donovan 5). They are a bridge between the Church on earth and the hosts of heaven, where the saints are believed to intercede to God for the living and the dead. Saints’ lives predominantly serve a catechetical purpose, to teach the tenets of the faith by using individual saints as examples of how that faith is lived (Heffernan 19). In other words, a saint’s life gives a model for living according to the faith and a means to articulate the faith by which that saint lived. The writer does not concern himself with creating a record of events in a saint’s life but with manipulating that life to encourage greater devotion to the saint and, more importantly, to God (Heffernan 35). The cult of saints rests not on the saint’s existence but on the holiness that he represents, which is believed to come ultimately from God. By focusing more on the saint’s holiness than on the facts that document his life, the hagiographer allows his subject to become an abstraction, an image of the divine, a vehicle by which the spiritual intermingles with the temporal. In this way, the hagiographer’s subject is less the saint himself than God who works through him. The quality of universality that hagiographer infuses in his work also acknowledges a distinction between objective reality of historical fact and the transcendent reality of spiritual truth. The sacred exists beyond the scope of human understanding, and the writers of saints’ lives demonstrate their awareness of that reality in their texts.
A number of conventions create uniformity among lives early on in the development of the genre, including the imitation of Christ in the saint’s character, an abundance of virtue and discipline paired with a complete absence of vice, miracles and visions that verge on the fantastic, and an account of the saint’s death that consolidates his holiness (Bjork 3). The literary motifs, speeches, and accounts of torture and miracles that helped develop one saint’s life translate easily into the life of another saint, because the conventions belonged not to one individual saint but to the common quality of saintliness (Donovan 11). Through the process of stylization, saints’ lives lose the marks of individuality that make them realistic. In other words, the saints lose their concrete identities and become abstractions of holiness. The realism their lives take on exists beyond that of the lives they actually lived (Delehaye 23-25). Beyond identifying the locality of a saint’s life and martyrdom, these lives achieve a notable degree of universality in breaking free from the more particular aspects of each saint’s life. Every saint, then, becomes a kind of holy “Everyman.”
Because the saint’s life celebrates the holiness that binds its subject with God and all the saints, the hagiographer includes whatever supernatural signs corroborated that holiness. Miracles permeate the life of a saint. Portents precede and accompany the saint’s birth that point to his future holiness. Heaven and earth suspend their natural order to announce God’s presence in his life (Delehaye 50). The performance of miracles proves the saint’s holiness and shows how heaven and earth unite in the person of the saint.
The earliest saints’ lives were written as histories as their authors understood the term. In the Middle Ages, historia as a genre included not only factual history but also stories based on myths and legends, and authors of saints’ lives wrote with that understanding of history in mind. The medieval hagiographer and historiographer’s jobs lie not in testing what had already been said and written, but in preserving what had been said and written (Delehaye 65-66). The use of fictional embellishments does not make a history untrue because medieval writers did not make the same claims about history or understand it in the same way that contemporary scholars do. Saints’ lives do not serve to document the historical facts surrounding each saint’s particular earthly existence; rather, they serve the community within which they are created by providing portraits of faith to which members of that community can relate. These lives are not “transparent windows” through which the community sees the exact details of each saint’s experience (Donovan 5). Neither are they opaque barriers between the community and that experience. Instead, they are translucent; that is, they admit to the community an apprehension of the “light” of holiness that is common to all the saints.
The Vita and the Passio
Although all saints’ lives share many elements, there are some aspects of hagiography that are not universal. The lives take different forms according to the reasons for which their subjects were venerated. These subgenres would adjust to the patterns of the saints’ lives, the manifestation of their holiness and their ability to act as intermediaries between God and humanity. Some saints would perform miracles during the course of their lives. Some would demonstrate their holiness through a profound conversion experience. Some would be associated with important events in the history of the Church and in the development of doctrine. As the church came to acknowledge that sanctity could be revealed in a diversity of ways, the lives written about the saints responded to that diversity in order to comprehend each saint’s holiness.
Saints’ legends normally take one of two forms, either the vita or the passio. Subjects of a vita are normally confessors who demonstrated holiness within the course of their lifetimes. These legends include stories of a saint’s noble birth and signs during his youth that point to an adult life of holiness. The vita also provides accounts of miracles the saint performs during his lifetime as the saint demonstrates a pervasive preference for a spiritual over a secular way of life. A deathbed message to the saint’s followers and miracles attributed to the saint after his death complete this kind of legend (Anderson 87). The life of a confessor does not offer the author the opportunity to demonstrate the saint’s holiness through scenes of prosecution and execution, but rather the whole life lends itself as a testimony of the saint’s character. Portents of greatness that precede the saint’s birth, notable events in his childhood and adult life, and miracles and the development of his cult after death, all identify the subject of this kind of life as a holy man in communion with God (Delehaye 97-98).
Unlike the vita, the passio does not treat subjects who demonstrated their holiness during the course of their lifetimes. The passio reveals its subject’s holiness through relating his suffering of death for the sake of his beliefs. The author of the passio presents his subject at the end of his or her life, recounting a repudiation of paganism that leads to an interrogation at the hands of secular authorities. The saint’s preference for martyrdom over abandoning the faith and consequent tortures and execution bear witness to the saint’s holiness, as do posthumous miracles and visions at his shrine (Anderson 87-88). Because the martyr demonstrated his holiness most remarkably at the end of his life, this moment received the exclusive attention of the hagiographer in creating the image of his subject as a saint of God.
The hagiographers who wrote in the passio subgenre muted a number of elements of their subjects’ lives for the sake of universality. In the passio, the details of judicial proceedings and the men who carried out judgments against the saints, as well as the local peculiarities of each individual persecution, did not serve to illustrate the holiness of the saint. Indeed, the writers of saints’ lives often minimized these details in an effort to stylize the circumstances of the various lives so that they all seem to face the same opponent. Also, the name of the emperor under whom a particular persecution took place bore no significance because all persecutions took place under the rule of a Roman emperor (Delehaye 22-23). The fact that the subject of a saint’s life was martyred brings him into communion with all the martyrs who suffered for their faith, and the details on which the hagiographer focused the most attention emphasize that communion over the saint’s individual identity.
Another characteristic particular to passio hagiography that identifies the martyr with all martyrs is the presence of a persecutor; the hagiographer included him in the passio because this figure is necessary to the account of the subject’s ordeal. One way in which the hagiographer illustrated his subject’s holiness is through the development of his persecutors in terms that underscore their brutality. Their only motivation seems to be the total elimination of Christianity (Delehaye 4). Beyond that description of brutality, hagiographers minimized any details about the persecutors that would distinguish them, suggesting the persecutors’ identity with each other and with Satan, the enemy of Christ and his church. The presence of evil in the character of the persecutor stands in contrast with the presence of good in the character of the martyr.
In addition to the development of the persecutor as a personification of the evil forces that threaten the Church, the writer of the passio includes an account of the prosecution of the martyr at the hands of a civil magistrate. The prosecution provides the author an opportunity to develop his material to the fullest. Accusations, interrogations, and testimonies given in the martyr’s trial create a gulf between the saint’s holiness and the utter profanity of the pagan court. Here the author turns the saint’s life from a mere story of one particular subject to an exhortation on the virtues of Christianity through the eloquent testimony of the saint and the futility of paganism through the judge’s ignorance and vulgarity (Delehaye 93-94). The martyr’s rhetorical sophistication is not necessarily a quality peculiar to that martyr. All martyrs share that eloquence because they all speak under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. As with the presence of persecutors, the prosecution of the martyr displays his communion with all of the martyrs of the faith.
Since all of the saints whom the Church venerates as martyrs were necessarily executed for the sake of their beliefs, this moment in the saint’s life is critical to his identity as a martyr. The author follows the martyr’s trial with his torture and execution, another occasion that allows the writer to illustrate the saint’s holiness and heroism in the face of persecution and death (Delehaye 95). These three elements—the presence of a persecutor who represents the forces of evil, the account of the civil authority’s prosecution of the saint, and the saint’s execution—connect the lives of all martyrs who are celebrated for the manner in which they died to preserve the integrity of their faith in the passio.
Ælfric’s source for his own Natale Sancte Agnetis provides an example of an early Latin passio. The Vita Sanctae Agnetis appeared in the fifth century with an attribution to Saint Ambrose, although he could not possibly have been its author because it first appeared after his lifetime (Denomy 24-27). The Vita Sanctae Agnetis synthesizes the works of Ambrose, Damasus, and Prudentius into one life that eliminates the vagueness of its antecedents by developing the circumstances of Agnes’ martyrdom in order to make her ordeal a vivid experience to the author’s audience while strengthening her identity with Christ and all the saints. In its presentation of those qualities that illustrate Agnes’ sanctity, the Vita Sanctae Agnetis fulfills the conventions of early Latin saints’ lives. As a passio, it relates a martyr’s ordeal before her death by execution for the sake of her faith. It also bears the marks of universality: the text does not specify the time and place of the action, it does not give details about Agnes’ family or community, and it does not name the emperor in power at the time of her martyrdom. The text does, however, name the official in charge of Agnes’ trial. The prefect Simpronius is named as Agnes’ persecutor, and the writer of the Vita Sanctae Agnetis develops him as fully as he does his protagonist. Simpronius represents the civil authority of pagan Rome, which authority attempted to eliminate Christianity during the first three centuries of the Church’s history. During the course of proceedings against her, Agnes is ordered to renounce first her virginity and then her faith. She is forced into a brothel to face humiliation because she would not willingly renounce her virginity, and then she is thrown into a fire. Finally, the prefect’s vicar Aspasius dispatches her by ordering a sword thrust through her throat. This is the central act of the text, for it is by her death that Agnes most fully demonstrates her sanctity. A number of miracles also illuminate Agnes’ holiness, such as her hair growing to cover her when she is sent naked to the brothel, the prayers that bring the prefect’s dead son back to life, and the flames that spare Agnes while devouring the bystanders. The character of the prefect, the ordeals that Agnes is obliged to endure, and the miracles surrounding her all point to her holiness and her communion with God. The author omits any details of Agnes’ life before her confrontation with the prefect, focusing on the trial and execution through which she bears witness to her faith in God.
Latin Lives of English Saints
The cult of saints was part of the Christian tradition that missionaries took with them wherever they went to convert the heathen to Christianity. In England, the new converts honored the saints in their own country by identifying them with those saints on the continent who had become the subjects of lives written in Latin. Within a century of Saint Augustine’s mission to Kent in 597, English-speaking Christians began adopting the Latin tradition of hagiography to document the lives of holy men and women in their own country. These Latin lives of English saints established a connection between their subjects and the saints of the early Church as well as between the Church in England and the Church Universal (Anderson 88-89). Through the use of the Latin language, the writers of these lives made their subjects heroes of the Church throughout the world much as the saints of Rome had become.
Literacy was almost exclusively the province of the Church in Anglo-Saxon England, and so the writers and scholars of the eighth century were usually attached to the Church and thus predisposed to write the earliest lives of English saints. The Venerable Bede, who is primarily known for his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, drew from an anonymous Latin source originating in Lindisfarne to create his own Vita Sancti Cuthberti sometime around the year 721 (Greenfield and Calder 19-20). The Mercian Felix composed a vita of Saint Guthlac in the middle of the eighth century. This same Guthlac later became the subject of two verse lives in Old English (Greenfield and Calder 13). Texts such as these incorporated the Latin hagiographical tradition into Anglo-Saxon culture within two centuries of the English conversion to Christianity.
Not all of the Latin lives of English saints were composed in England itself. The missions that Saint Boniface led provided material for Latin lives of English saints in Germany. Boniface’s follower Willibald composed the Vita Sancti Bonifatii in the middle of the eighth century, and an English nun living in Heidenheim commemorated Saints Willibald and Wynnebald in one vita (Greenfield and Calder 14). Wherever English missionaries went, they carried the tradition of celebrating their native heroes in the faith with Latin compositions.
The composition of Latin lives whose subjects were English continued throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. Byrhtferth’s lives of Saint Oswald and Saint Ecgwine carried the tradition as far as the late-tenth and early-eleventh centuries (Greenfield and Calder 30). The commemoration of English saints in text did not stop with the end of the Anglo-Saxon period. The Norman Conquest significantly altered the history of the Church in England, and the French-speaking clerics who assumed positions of authority in the English Church brought their attitudes toward English saints of the Anglo-Saxon period across the English Channel with them. The new regime did not, however, bring an end to the production of written lives of English saints. On the contrary, the Norman aristocracy and hierarchy harbored suspicions concerning the validity of many local cults. Their attitudes demanded carefully written documentation by Anglo-Norman clerks to justify those cults, thus ensuring the continued production of lives written about Anglo-Saxon saints until the end of the twelfth century (Farmer ix-x). By this point, Latin lives of English saints did not serve to identify the English Church with the Church in Rome as they did in the seventh and eighth centuries. The later lives justified the cult of native saints at a time when England was under the control of a foreign regime.
Just as the lives of English saints were not produced exclusively in England, not all saints’ lives written in the early Anglo-Saxon period treated English subjects. The Venerable Bede based his prose Vita Sancti Felicis on material he had taken from the Italian writer Paulinus. An unknown monk at Whitby created a vita celebrating Saint Gregory the Great. This life has little basis in existing source materials on Gregory but devotes itself predominantly to extravagant praise of the pope through whose efforts Christianity came to the English (Anderson 90). Gregory enjoyed such a strong connection with the people to whom he had sent missionaries in the sixth century that the Church in England considered him as much one of their own as any number of saints who lived on the island or spoke the language. The fact that Anglo-Saxon writers composed lives of such Roman saints as Felix and Gregory in addition to those of saints in their own country underscores the connection that the English Church felt with Rome.
These Latin lives seem to make the English church over in the image of the Church of Rome through the imitation of saints’ lives written about the celebrated martyrs, confessors, and virgins of the Church on the continent, particularly those of Rome whose significance and influence followed that of the city in which they lived and died. In time, however, the custom of using the language of Rome to celebrate English saints became inverted to one of using the English language to celebrate the saints of the universal Church. Both customs identified the English church with the universal Church.
Saints’ Lives in Old English
Not all saints’ lives written in England during the Anglo-Saxon period were written in Latin. Many lives were written in Old English as well. While some of these lives treated English subjects—Ælfric includes four English saints in his Lives of the Saints (8-11)—most celebrated saints of the universal Church from the first centuries of Christianity through the early Middle Ages. The composition of vernacular saints’ lives suggests that the intended audience did not necessarily read or understand Latin (Vitz 99). Without knowledge of Latin, most Christians in England did not have access to the stories of the saints from the early centuries of the Church’s history. Old English adaptations of these lives made the stories accessible to the English laity and clerks who did not know Latin. Ælfric states in his preface that he created his translation of Latin saints’ lives for the purpose of being read aloud (siue legendo, seu Audiendo, “either by reading or hearing it read” 3), thus making his work accessible not only to those who knew no Latin but also to those who could not read.
The best known saints’ lives written in Old English come from Ælfric’s Lives of Saints. The third of a series of homilies, Lives of Saints includes thirty-three homilies, most of which provide stories about saints to commemorate their feast days (Brinegar 281). The two volumes of Catholic Homilies contain a number of saints’ lives as well, and Lives of Saints includes homilies that are not related to specific saints (Grose and McKenna 42). While Ælfric treats saints whose feasts were kept in English parish churches in his Catholic Homilies, he focuses in Lives of Saints on those saints who were honored in the monastic communities of England (Wrenn 234). Through all three volumes, Ælfric gives examples of how writers adapted Latin saints’ lives into their own English texts.
Although the writers of Old English saints’ lives had access to Latin sources, they did not simply translate them literally from Latin to English. The composers of vernacular lives often claim to translate from Latin sources, but the medieval concept of translation involves much more than the goal of carrying content from one language to another. Vernacular writers translated ideas from one audience, one experience, one whole culture, to another (Vitz 100). In the preface to his Lives of Saints, Ælfric indicates a method of translation that favors significance over literalness (5). Since the purpose of translation was to make the works accessible to people without knowledge of Latin, an exact translation was secondary to the need for creating texts which engage the audience much in the same way that the writers of the Latin originals engaged their audiences.
Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis exemplifies how Old English saints’ lives in general fulfill these conventions. First, the text treats a subject who was martyred in Rome in the early-fourth century. Ælfric uses the fifth-century Vita Sanctae Agnetis as his source, but he does not include every detail from the source in his own account of Agnes’ martyrdom. Ælfric’s Simpronius appeals not to Agnes’ parents, but to her friends, to persuade the girl to renounce her faith (88-90, Denomy 25). The temple priests in the Latin text (“templorum Pontifices” 716) become mere idol-worshippers (“hæđen-gyldan” 215). Ælfric also abbreviates sections of the Latin text, including lines of dialogue, such as in Simpronius’ first words to Agnes:
Superstitio Christianorum, de quorum te magicis artibus jactas, nisi a te
fuerit segregate, non poeteris insaniam abjicere pectoris, neque
æquissimus consiliis præbere consensum. Unde te ad venerandam Deam
Vestam properare necesse est, ut si tibi perseverantia virginitatis placet,
ejus die noctuque sacrificiis venerandis insistas(715).
which, in Ælfric’s translation, becomes
Hlyst minum ræde, gif đu lufast megđ-had,
þæt đu gebuge mid biggengum hrađe
to þære gydenan uesta, þe galnysse onscunađ (98-100)
Listen to my advice. Quickly, if you love maidenhood, submit to the
practices of the goddess Vesta, who shuns wantonness (Donovan 48).
Ælfric also simplifies the language that describes Agnes’ martyrdom. The Latin text explicitly states that Aspasius ordered a sword thrust into Agnes’ throat
Tunc Aspasius, Urbis Romæ Vicarius, populi seditionem non ferens, in
guttur eus gladium mergi præcepit (717),
while Ælfric simply indicates that Agnes is put to death with a sword
Đa ne mihte Aspasius þa micclan ceaste acumen,
Ac hét hí acwellan mid cwealm-bærum swurde (243-44)
Since Aspasius could not stand the great uproar, he commanded that she
be killed with a deadly sword (Donovan 51).
Ælfric’s source indicates that Agnes was buried “in via quae dicitur Numentana” (“in the street that is called Nomentana” 717), yet Ælfric simply writes that Agnes’ parents took her body “to heora agenum, and hi đær bebyrigdon” (“to their property, and buried her there,” 247-48; Donovan 51). These details are not of major importance to the story, but the variations indicate the degree of freedom that Ælfric exercised in rendering his Latin source into Old English. His reduction of more elaborate details in the Latin creates a less ornamental text in Old English. One might imagine that Ælfric allowed for differences in rhetorical sophistication between fifth-century Latin-speaking audiences and his own Anglo-Saxon audience, or he simply eliminated details that would not affect his audiences’ understanding of his text. Still, he takes advantage of the dialogues in his Latin source between Agnes and Simpronius to create a verbal contest between the two characters that bears striking similarities to the flyting of such figures of Old English heroic poetry as Beowulf and Unferth, and the dialogues throughout Ælfric’s source give the characters voice that Ælfric faithfully preserves in his translation. Through his Old English adaptations of such Latin lives as Vita Sanctae Agnetis, Ælfric recognized the sensibilities of his audience while at the same time addressing the need he perceived for these Latin saints’ lives to be made accessible to speakers of English who did not know Latin.
Dialogue, Orality, and Logos in Saints’ Lives
Dialogue in Old English saints’ lives forms an intersection between the oral traditions of Old English poetry and early Latin hagiography. The exchanges between characters in these saints’ lives echo those exchanges that characterize such Old English heroic poems as Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon, works that were composed in a style reminiscent of oral tradition. These dialogues also recall the origins of saints’ legends that were recited at the graves of the saints, as well as sermons, hymns, and stories that were composed to be delivered, sung, and told in a formal liturgical setting. The subject matter of saints’ lives suggests another significance that dialogue bears in these texts, and that significance relates to the saints’ identity with Christ. John’s Gospel opens with an identification of Christ as the Logos or Word of God, which becomes God’s creative Word through which the world comes into existence, as the evangelist articulates in John 1:3-4. The notion of Christ as Logos adds significance to the connection between words and deeds in Christian thought, particularly in the casting of a saint as an imitator of Christ (Bjork 18). Because the writers of saints’ lives celebrate their subjects’ intimate relationship with Christ through his work, the words spoken by those saints emulate those spoken by Christ because their words—indeed, their identities—are inseparable from their faith in Christ, who is the Word “through whom all things were made” in the words of the Nicene Creed. The dialogues in saints’ lives allow their writers a means to develop that connection between their subjects and Christ as Logos (19). At the same time the saints identify with Christ in their spoken words, the dialogues allow the persecutors to become the voice of Satan. Like the dialogues in Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon that allow the poet to develop his hero’s identity with the archetypal Germanic hero, those in saints’ lives favor uniformity over individuality in developing the identity with Christ (20). The stylization of dialogue in saints’ lives represents the saints’ identities as members of the body of Christ, thus acquiring a degree of formality and symmetry that transcends the nature of dialogue in secular works (26). Dialogue, therefore, performs a function in such saints’ lives as Ælfric’s in addition to the functions that it performs in secular poetry. Not only does dialogue echo the importance of spoken language in the oral tradition in which the composition of saints’ lives originated, it reveals the importance of spoken words in relation to the Word made flesh.
The composition of Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis follows a tradition that began at an early stage in the history of the Christian Church. From the stories, hymns, and sermons that celebrated the heroes of the early Church, through the composition of formal lives in Latin and the spread of the hagiographical tradition along with the Gospel into new territories, the story of Agnes follows the development of the lives of countless saints who, with her, dwell in heaven and intercede with God on behalf of the Church on earth. By translating a Latin text that uses dialogue such as Vita Sanctae Agnetis, Ælfric connects the oral tradition with which the lives of the saints originated and developed to the same tradition that influenced the literature of his own country. That oral tradition also binds the subjects of saints’ lives with Christ as Logos, and it also reflects a connection between these stories and the confession of the Christian faith, as the next chapter examining the illocutionary acts in Ælfric’s dialogues and in the whole of Natale Sancte Agnetis will demonstrate.
In addition to echoing the origins of hagiography in oral tradition, the dialogues of Natale Sancte Agnetis and Ælfric’s Latin source illustrate how speech performs actions. The following chapter draws on the theory of speech acts to demonstrate what kinds of actions the characters perform in the lines of dialogue in Ælfric’s source and translation on the martyrdom of Saint Agnes. Speech acts in the dialogues illuminate the Latin text and Ælfric’s translation as speech acts in their own right, and they identify Natale Sancte Agnetis with the doctrine of the Church, a complex speech act that ultimately originates in the third echo of orality in Ælfric’s text: the kerygmatic preaching that is represented in the Acts of the Apostles.
Illocutionary Acts in the Dialogues
In Skeat’s edition of Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis, direct discourse—in which the author represents the words spoken by his characters as their exact words—accounts for 120 of 295 lines of text, with the first 37 of those lines incorporated into Agnes’ first speech. Ælfric adapted these exchanges between characters from his fifth-century Latin source. The language in these lines of dialogue lends itself readily to an application of the speech acts theory that originated with John Austin, a theory expanded upon by such scholars as John Searle and Daniel Vanderveken. Speech acts theory facilitates the analysis of spoken language as that language performs a variety of actions. These actions—performed in the forms of statements, questions, and imperatives—include making assertions about states of affairs, directing hearers to carry out certain actions, committing speakers to carry out actions, formulating expressions of emotional states and attitudes, and shaping reality through the use of declarations. Applying Searle’s analysis of illocutionary acts to the dialogues of Natale Sancte Agnetis demonstrates how Ælfric uses individual speech acts to develop his own text as a single speech act, namely, as an assertion of Agnes’ faith. By acknowledging the oral nature of religious doctrine and performing speech acts himself in his translation of Latin Vita Sanctae Agnetis, Ælfric creates a striking parallel between his Old English text and Richard Heyduck’s notion of doctrine as a complex speech act. Ælfric’s source and his own translation form part of a body of work—including the Scriptures and writings of the Church fathers that Gregory had sent to England—that develops the teachings of the Church, which teachings originated—as did Old English literature and Latin hagiography—in oral tradition. Evidence of that tradition can be seen in the words attributed to Christ in the gospels and in the kerygmatic preaching of Peter, Stephen, and Paul in the Acts of the Apostles.
The Origins and Development of Speech Act Theory
In 1955, Austin delivered a series of lectures at Harvard University that were published in 1962 under the title How to Do Things With Words. Austin’s lectures revolved around two distinctions in spoken language: that between the constative and the performative, and that between locutionary acts and illocutionary acts. The first distinction, between constatives and performatives, asserts that constatives make statements that can be proven true or false, while speakers who utter performatives actually carry out an action, rather than merely describe it, through their words (1-11). In distinguishing locutions from illocutions, Austin proposes that a locution is the act of saying the words of an utterance, and that illocution is the action which the speaker carries out, “such as informing, ordering, warning, undertaking” (108). Austin identifies five categories of illocutionary acts in the twelfth lecture of the series. The verdictive performs the action of making a judgment. Judges, juries, and umpires are identified by the verdictives they perform, but any utterance that offers an evaluation also falls under this category. Through the exercitive the speaker exercises a right or power. Austin lists the acts of appointing, voting, and ordering among examples of the exercitive. He also identifies the commissive, through which the speaker undertakes to carry out an action in the future. Behabitives perform the kinds of actions associated with social behavior, such as congratulating or apologizing. The fifth category, the expositive, approximates the constative in exposing to the hearer some statement of fact that can be verified as true or false (150-151). In the same lecture, Austin offers lists of verbs that perform the actions respective to each category (152-153). In the lectures that became How to Do Things With Words, Austin does not appear to present a definitive theory on how language performs actions; indeed, the development and reworking of ideas that run through the lectures suggest that his thought at the time was a work in progress. Unfortunately, Austin did not live to witness the impact his ideas would bear on philosophy, language, and literature. The development of speech acts theory fell into the hands of such scholars as John Searle and Daniel Vanderveken, who expanded on Austin’s ideas in an attempt to formulate a more comprehensive exploration into the use of spoken language to perform action.
In developing his own approach to speech acts, Searle builds on Austin’s taxonomy that groups utterances as verdictives, exercitives, commissives, expositives, and behabitives. He points out that Austin’s categories do not label “illocutionary acts but English illocutionary verbs” (9). Beyond this observation, Searle briefly mentions six problems with Austin’s taxonomy. Austin confuses illocutionary verbs with illocutionary acts throughout his categories. Also, not all of the verbs that Austin lists necessarily function as illocutionary verbs. The categories overlap, leading to uncertainty in determining what category a specific act fits. Inconsistencies also exist within the categories. Many verbs are unable to meet the criteria for their respective categories. Finally, Austin demonstrates a general inconsistency through his classifications (11-12). In labeling the different types of illocutionary acts as an alternative to Austin’s taxonomy, Searle identifies the illocutionary point, the direction of fit, the psychological state or sincerity condition, and the type of propositional content in each act (12-20). The following discussion applies Searle’s taxonomy first to the dialogues of Natale Sancte Agnetis, and then to Ælfric’s text as a whole, in order to examine how dialogue allows the characters to reveal their attitudes about the world around them.
Assertives in Ælfric’s Text
Of 69 sentences representing direct discourse in Natale Sancte Agnetis, 51 perform a variety of illocutionary acts which Searle labels assertives. In these acts, speakers commit themselves to the truth of a proposition articulated within an expression. Assertives manipulate words to fit the world as the speaker perceives it, and they imply a psychological state of belief on the speaker’s part that the proposition is true. The propositional content of an assertive is simply the truth of what is expressed. This class of speech act encompasses the majority of those acts that Austin labels expositives, as well as several of Austin’s verdictives (Searle 12-13).
Ælfric ascribes 48 of the 51 sentences representing assertive speech acts to Agnes herself, two to Simpronius, and one to a companion of his son’s. Of these sentences, 47 either involve a profession of faith on Agnes’ part or at least include her beliefs within their propositional content. An analysis of all 51 assertive speech acts in Natale Sancte Agnetis would give disproportionate attention to the assertive as one of five types of speech acts, considering that only 29 sentences of direct discourse represent the remaining four types. A detailed discussion of four assertive acts, with a more general discussion of the remaining 47, should suffice for the purposes of looking at the different kinds of illocutionary points made in the text. Two examples attributed to Agnes will show how assertive acts function. In one example, Agnes addresses to the Roman prefect Simpronius:
Þine godas syndon agotene of áre,
of þam đe man wyrcđ synsume fate,
ođđe hí synd stæne, mid þam þe man stræta wyrcđ. (132-134)
Your gods are melted from ore, from which a person builds pleasing vessels, or they are stone, with which a person builds streets. (Donovan 49)
As with any assertive statement, Agnes could easily begin this one with something along the lines of “I believe that…” or “I assert that….” In any declarative sentence, however, such a prefixing would not be essential to the act of making an assertion; a verb in the indicative mood fulfills the same function. Agnes’ statement makes the illocutionary point of committing her to the proposition that the gods of Rome are man-made, with the implication that her God is not. She chooses her words to reflect her understanding of the world, specifically, of the nature of the Roman gods. As with all assertive acts, her psychological state here is one of belief; she believes that what she says is true. The sentence immediately following in Agnes’ speech to Simpronius functions in the same way:
Nis na godes wunung on đam grægum stanum,
ne on ærenum wecgum, ac he wunađ on heofonum. (135-136)
There is no dwelling of God in the gray stones, nor in the brass wedges;
instead, He dwells in Heaven. (Donovan 49)
Here, Agnes makes the point of committing herself to the proposition that her God inhabits Heaven, and not the physical matter of stones or brass such as the gods of Rome inhabit. Again, she manipulates her words to fit the world as she sees it, and she speaks in the psychological state of belief in the proposition embedded in her act of assertion.
Ælfric revisits the contrast between Agnes’ God and the gods of Rome in an assertive from Simpronius’ son on his revival in the prostitute’s house:
An god is on heofonum, and eac on earđan,
seđ is þæra cristenra god, and eower godas ne synd nahtes. (204-205)
There is one God in heaven and also on earth, who is the God of the
Christians, and your gods are nothing! (Donovan 50)
In this sentence, not Agnes but the prefect’s son commits himself to the belief in the Christian God—he whose interaction with Agnes begins Ælfric’s text and results in the saint’s being called into Simpronius’ court. The fact that Agnes’ first antagonist now professes the same faith as she adds to her credibility, because her faith and actions lead to Simpronius’ son’s conversion before the prefect can persuade her to abandon her faith. Agnes’ reality has become his reality, and so he shapes his words to fit the world as it appears to him after his conversion.
Not all of the assertive acts in Natale Sancte Agnetis represent an affirmation of the Christian faith. In his initial interview with Agnes, the prefect makes the following statement concerning her words and their relation to his own religious beliefs:
Ic forbær þe ođ þis, forđan þe đu gyd cild eart.
Þu tælst ure godas, swa þeah ne græma þu hí. (108-109)
I have tolerated you until this because you are still a child, but you insult
our gods, even though you have not yet angered them. (Donovan 48)
In the second half of this assertion, Simpronius makes the illocutionary point of committing himself to the reality that Agnes’ words come as an insult to his gods, the gods of Rome. He bends his words to fit, not the world as Agnes sees it, but to the world as he himself sees it, a world in which the gods of Rome have power, a world in which insulting these gods would result in unfortunate consequences. Still, the prefect presents a psychological state of belief in the proposition that his gods are capable of being insulted, and that Agnes’ words are capable of delivering such an insult.
Four of the sentences that represent assertive acts in spoken dialogue form self-contained speeches, while the remaining 47 sentences form parts of 8 speeches consisting of at least two sentences each. Ælfric ascribes 7 of these speeches to Agnes, and the eighth to the prefect’s son, in which the third example given above appears. The fact that 7 of Agnes’ speeches contain more than one assertive speech act reveals a complex development on Ælfric’s part of her profession of faith. Her eloquence in asserting her faith in the Christian God uncovers the belief on her part—or, more properly, on the author’s part who ascribes those assertions to her—that that faith cannot be expressed in a single statement. The number of assertions in the spoken dialogues of Natale Sancte Agnetis in relation to that of the remaining four types of speech acts makes the representation of the faith for which Agnes gives her life an oral act. The author does not content himself with simply telling his audience that Agnes was martyred for her beliefs; he vocalizes those beliefs in the direct discourse embedded in his text.
Directives in Ælfric’s Text
In the dialogues of Natale Sancte Agnetis, 13 sentences fall under Searle’s category of directives, which corresponds to Austin’s category of the same name. Directives make the illocutionary point of attempts by the speaker to get the hearer to perform some action. Here, the speaker attempts to manipulate the world to fit his or her words through the hearer’s actions. Rather than a psychological state such as belief in assertives, directives imply a specific sincerity condition: a wish or desire that the hearer carry out the action in question. These acts bear the propositional content that the hearer does some future action (Searle 13-14).
As with assertive speech acts, Agnes bears responsibility for the majority of the directives that are spoken in the text. Ælfric ascribes 7 of these sentences to her, 4 to Simpronius, and one each to one of the his son’s companions and to the crowd of idol worshippers who witness Agnes’ ordeal at the prostitute’s house. The very first line of direct discourse, spoken by Agnes to Simpronius’ son, falls under this category:
Gewít đu fram me synne ontendnys
leahtras foda, and deađes bigleafa. (25-26)
Leave me, you burning sin, fuel of vices, and food of death! (Donovan 47)
The directive in this sentence is limited to the first four words (“Gewít đu fram me” “Leave me”), while with the remaining phrases Agnes directs abusive epithets that have something of an assertive quality towards her suitor. The sentence is easily identifiable as a directive through the use of the imperative form of the verb gewítan. The illocutionary point here is an attempt on Agnes’ part to get her hearer, Simpronius’ son, to perform an action; namely, to leave her and, in the context of their encounter, to put an end to his suit. The direction of fit of a directive, world to words, reveals itself here in Agnes’ attempts to create a change in the world that will reflect her words; specifically, that her suitor’s departure will become reality. In terms of sincerity condition, the reader assumes that Agnes does, indeed, desire that the prefect’s son will carry out the act of departure. Finally, the sentence bears the propositional content that Agnes’ hearer will, indeed, perform the action that she specifies.
The next example of a directive speech act Agnes address to Simpronius:
Læt þine godas geyrsian, gif hi aht hagon. (113)
Let your gods be enraged, if they can do anything. (Donovan 48)
This imperative does not suggest an action as strongly as the first example, in which Agnes truly desires the prefect’s son to leave her. Here she suggests that the prefect’s gods are powerless, and dares them to act on their anger if they have the power to do so. As with Agnes’ words to his son, this exchange with Simpronius uses the imperative form of the main verb in the sentence, lætan, in this case. The illocutionary point in this case is somewhat misleading; Agnes does not attempt to make Simpronius let his gods do anything. Instead, she wants him to admit that they are powerless to do anything, but she expresses that desire in the words of a challenge to the prefect’s gods that she knows they cannot meet. The direction of fit—world to words—manifests itself in Agnes’ attempt to make Simpronius realize the impotency of his gods. The propositional content in Agnes’ literal words—that the gods could be angry—implies a deeper content that challenges Simpronius to admit the powerlessness of those gods.
Ælfric ascribes four of the sentences representing directive speech acts to the prefect, all of which he addresses to Agnes. Three of these sentences are phrased in the imperative mood, while the fourth presents the directive as a condition that must be fulfilled in order for Agnes’ story to gain credibility among the pagans:
Þin saga biđ ge-swutelot, gif þu þone sylfan engel bitst,
þæt hé minne ancennedan sunu, nu ansundne araere. (193-194)
Your story will be made clear, if now you will pray to the same angel to
raise up sound my only son. (Donovan 50)
The verb bitst in the subjunctive mood identifies the prefect’s command as a condition for the resulting credibility of Agnes’ words. The illocutionary point here is that the prefect attempts to get Agnes to pray for his son’s recovery. Agnes’ prayer will alter the world to fit Simpronius’ words, and he fulfills the directive’s sincerity condition of desire for the saint to carry out the action in question. Unlike the first two examples of directive speech acts, in which imperative verb forms suggest the nature of a command or dare, Simpronius’ speech here softens the imperative nature with the use of a conditional clause couched in subjunctive terms.
The last example of a directive speech act that this discussion will examine comes from a vision in which Agnes appears, after her death, to her family. As they keep watch by her tomb, Agnes appears in the company of virgins and says to the living:
Warniađ þæt ge ne wepon me swa swa deade,
ac blyssiađ mid me. (255-256)
Take heed that you do not weep for me as dead, but rejoice with me.
The verbs warniađ (“take heed” or “beware”) and blyssiađ (“rejoice”) in the imperative form identify this sentence as a directive speech act. Agnes attempts in this sentence to get her hearers—in this case, her family—to carry out a specific action, that they do not weep for her but rejoice with her. The direction of fit reveals itself in Agnes’ desire that her words result in her family’s joy in her triumph over persecution. The propositional content of this particular directive is the rejoicing that Agnes longs when she appears to her family.
Directive speech acts, which often are commands and requests, imply a position of power on the part of the speaker. Ælfric’s use of directives articulates the notions of power at play in Natale Sancte Agnetis. Obviously the prefect Simpronius is in a position of power to issue commands. But he makes only four of the thirteen directive speech acts in this text. Agnes makes seven, almost twice as many as Simpronius. Is Ælfric suggesting that Agnes’ power is greater than Simpronius’? He does imply that Agnes’ power comes from God, while Simpronius’ power comes from the secular Roman authority; therefore, God’s power is greater than man’s.
Commissives in Ælfric’s Text
Of all of the sentences in the dialogues of Natale Sancte Agnetis, only one performs the kind of action that Searle, following Austin, names commissives. The illocutionary point of the commissive is to commit the speaker to some future course of action. As with directives, the speaker proposes to manipulate the world to fit his or her words. The sincerity condition is one of intention, while the content of the commissive proposes that the speaker performs some future action (Searle 14).
Agnes performs the only commissive act in Ælfric’s text. This sentence appears in the first speech that Agnes addresses to the prefect’s son in rejecting his suit:
Þam anum ic healde minne truwan æfre,
þam ic me fefæste mid ealre estfulnysse. (56-57)
With all devotion, I will always keep my promise to the one to whom I
have committed myself. (Donovan 47)
Donovan’s translation makes use of the auxiliary “will” to indicate that the action will take place in the future since English has no future tense, but Ælfric’s original uses the present tense of healdan (“hold,” “maintain,” or “preserve”) without any auxiliary, expressing Agnes’ intention to continue keeping her promise through the adverb æfre (“forever”). The commissive act here makes the illocutionary point to commit the speaker—Agnes—to the course of action of keeping a promise she has made to Christ, to remain faithful to him as a Christian and as a virgin. Agnes intends to make a reality that fits the words she speaks. Her intention to keep her promise provides the sincerity condition of what she says, and the propositional content in these lines is that she will keep that promise. The fact that Agnes utters only one commissive speech act in Ælfric’s text should not suggest that she is at a loss for words when voicing her intention to remain faithful to Christ. Indeed, her sincerity here is such that more words would be of little use to her in this case. Commitment to the Lord is not a matter of degree for Agnes as Ælfric creates her; she is completely committed to keeping her promises to God.
Expressives in Ælfric’s Text
The dialogues of Natale Sancte Agnetis yield three sentences that represent the type of speech act Searle labels expressives. These acts express the psychological state specified in the sincerity condition about a state of affairs in the propositional content. Because the speaker neither attempts to manipulate the world to match his words nor words to the world, a direction of fit is absent from the expressive. The psychological state is variable, as the performance of this type of act can express any psychological state. The content of an expressive proposes an ascription of some property or quality to the speaker or hearer (Searle 15-16).
Ælfric makes his heroine responsible for all three of the expressive acts generated in his text. All three occur in the same context: a prayer Agnes addresses to God near the end of her ordeal:
Eala đu ælmihtiga god, ana to ge-biddene,
ondrædend-lic scyppend, soþlic to wurđigenne,
mines drihtnes fæder, đe ich bletsige,
forđan þe Ic æt-wand þurh þinne wynsuman sunu,
þæra arleasra þeowracan, and eac þæs deofles fylđe. (225-229)
Oh You Almighty God, I pray only to the terrible Creator, who is
worshipped truly as the father of my Lord, whom I bless, because I
escaped those cruelthreats and also the filth of the Devil. (Donovan 51)
The verbs ge-biddene (“pray”) and bletsige (“bless”; literally, “say blessing”) actually label the actions that Agnes performs in making this statement, identifying these illocutionary acts as expressives. The illocutionary point of her words expresses a psychological state of prayer and blessing. In terms of propositional content, Agnes ascribes to God the properties of divine sovereignty, such as ælmihtiga (“almighty”), ondrædend-lic scyppend (“terrible Creator”), and mines drihtnes fæder (“my Lord’s father”), and the power to deliver her from þæra arleasra þeowracan (“those cruel threats”) and þæs deofles fylđe (“the devil’s filth”). Agnes continues her emotional response to God in the same prayer:
Ic bletsige đe fæder bodigendlic god,
þæt ic þurh fyr unforht to đe faran mót. (232-233)
I bless You, famous Father God, that unafraid I could travel through the
fire to You. (Donovan 51)
Again, bletsige is the operative verb in this sentence, which by saying actually performs the act of blessing. Agnes ascribes the qualities of fatherhood (fæder) and fame (bodigendlic) to God for preserving her against the fire.
Þe Ic andette mit muđe, and mid minre heortan,
and mid eallum innođe. (236-237)
With my mouth, my heart, and everything within, I praise You! (Donovan
The performative verb andette is perhaps more accurately rendered “confess” than “praise” in modern English, in the sense of “acclaim” or “acknowledge.” Unlike the first two sentences, Agnes does not here ascribe any qualities to God, but in the clause immediately following she makes reference to “ænne sođne god, þe mid þinum suna rixast, and mid þam halgan gaste, and ælmihtig god æfre” (238-239), “the true God, who rules always with Your Son and the Holy Ghost, the one Almighty God” (Donovan 51). Where assertives allow Agnes to profess her faith in God, expressives allow her to act on that faith in prayer to God. Agnes is the only figure in Natale Sancte Agnetis who makes acts of this kind, perhaps because her God is the only God worthy of prayer in the author’s mind.
Declarations in Ælfric’s Text
The fifth type of illocutionary act—the declaration—finds representation in one sentence from the dialogues of Natale Sancte Agnetis. In a declaration, the speaker alters the status or condition of whatever object or objects is referred to in the utterance. The declaration does not depend on any specific sincerity condition or psychological state in order to be considered successful or felicitous. The propositional content inherent in a declaration is that some status or condition is altered. Searle’s label of declaration corresponds to Austin’s categories of declarative (Searle 16-19).
Agnes’ one declaration in Ælfric’s text takes the form of a rejection of Simpronius’ threats:
Orsorhliche ic forseo þine þeow-racan,
forþan þe ic geare cann mines drihtnes mihte. (124-125)
I reject your threats completely and without concern, because I know the
power of my Lord. (Donovan 49)
The verb forseo (“reject,” “despise”) performs the action of rejection in this sentence. The object in question is the prefect’s threats to degrade Agnes by sending her into a prostitute’s house, and the change in status inherent in the illocutionary point results in those threats being rejected by the words Agnes speaks. Through this act of rejection, Agnes manipulates both world and words to fit each other. The declaration requires no sincerity condition because the words themselves, and not the speaker’s intention or the hearer’s interpretation, perform the action.
Effects of Illocutionary Acts in Natale Sancte Agnetis
Ælfric writes 69 sentences containing dialogues in Natale Sancte Agnetis. Of these sentences, 51 represent assertives, 13 represent directives, one represents commissives, three represent expressives, and one represents declarations. The overwhelming majority of sentences given over to assertives suggests that Ælfric emphasizes the profession of the Christian faith as an oral act, since Agnes asserts her faith in God in 48 of those sentences. The 13 directives reveal the tension between secular power—represented by the directives that Simpronius delivers—and spiritual power, represented by those Ælfric ascribes to Agnes. The saint’s vow to remain faithful to the Christian God gives another example of the oral nature of professing faith, as do the three expressives, in which Agnes acts on her faith through her words. Her declaration does little more than advance the plot, since she would not have endured martyrdom had she taken the prefect’s threats to heart. The distribution of illocutionary points within the dialogues of Natale Sancte Agnetis, then, underscores the importance of orality to the Christian faith.
Austin would object to such an analysis of the dialogues of a literary work, for in order for a speech act to be successful on Austin’s terms, the speaker must be serious in speaking, and the hearer must be serious in hearing. “I must not be joking, for example,” he says, “nor writing a poem” (9). To tell a joke or write a poem obliges the teller or the writer to assume a false identity, one which compromises the sincerity of the spoken word. “A performative utterance will be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on the stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy” (22). Within the framework of Austin’s theory, the dialogues in Natale Sancte Agnetis are inauthentic because they are not the actual spoken words of the people to whom Ælfric ascribes them; they are Ælfric’s written words, albeit words that he represents as coming from their mouths. Because the dialogues are not the products of recording but of creative invention, Ælfric falls into a trap of insincerity when he writes the words and expects his readers to believe that the characters who he claims spoke the words did, in fact, speak them.
Unlike Austin, Searle does not rule out completely the potential for reading speech acts in literature. In examining the problems that a work of fiction presents as a speech act, Searle makes four observations concerning what the author is doing in the text. First, the author does not actually perform but pretends to perform a number of illocutionary acts, most often assertives. The author’s illocutionary intentions determine if a written work is fiction or not. The writing of fiction necessitates a suspension of rules that govern illocutionary acts and the world. Finally, the author pretends to perform illocutionary acts in a work of fiction by actually writing sentences that imitate the performance of those acts (65-66). Apparently, a writer of fiction creates his work by imitating the processes of performing illocutionary acts. When he writes Simpronius’ assertion that Agnes’ words anger his gods, Ælfric surely does not commit himself in sincerity to that proposition; he only commits his fictive Simpronius to it. A work like Natale Sancte Agnetis presents a problem in its position at the intersection of creative fiction and Christian tradition. On one hand, Ælfric uses material that is grounded in history. Agnes is not purely his creation. Still, he translates from a Latin text that creatively manipulates the events surrounding Agnes’ martyrdom. It is, after all, a matter of artistic interpretation on the author’s part to determine how faithful he will be to his source material. By interpreting his Latin source of an event in history for his English audience, Ælfric crosses back and forth over the boundary between fiction and nonfiction.
Natale Sancte Agnetis as an Assertive Illocutionary Act
Even if the readers could interpret Natale Sancte Agnetis as a pure work of fiction, they would have to admit that the author performs illocutionary acts on his own behalf in creating the text. They may ascribe assertions about the nature of the Christian God and the gods of Rome to Agnes, but Ælfric himself, even in the act of translating, makes the assertion that Agnes’ faith is the true faith, and he also asserts through her sparring with Simpronius the primacy of spiritual power over secular power. He makes assertions about his subject matter in considering it worthy of creating a text to deliver to his audience. The problems that Austin and Searle encounter when considering a creative text as a speech act do not exclude literature from the possibility of performing illocutionary acts without hope for appeal. If anything, they open up the complex nature of how words perform deeds in language as well as in literature.
In ascribing to Agnes assertions about and expressions of her faith in the face of her ordeal, Ælfric himself makes assertions about the credibility of that faith. He also asserts that Agnes’ martyrdom is a matter of historical fact. Bearing witness to the commitment she makes to her beliefs, Ælfric is joining his heroine in professing the tenets of Christianity.
In his book The Recovery of Doctrine in the Contemporary Church, Richard Heyduck makes some revealing observations about doctrine as a complex speech act of the church. Creating an analogy between Christianity and a play, Heyduck suggests that like actors who perform in a play, Christians who profess the tenets of the faith and act on that faith are performers of sorts in the context of Christian history (52-53). He visits the ideas that Austin delivered in his Harvard lectures to show how the profession of faith is action: “The invitation offered through preaching the gospel is not merely, ‘Come and be saved,’ but is also, ‘Come and become a willing participant in what God is doing in history’” (53). Preaching, witnessing, sharing the faith—all of these involve participation. Christians do these things. Speech as action has a biblical foundation as well. Regardless of the reasons for his arrest, Jesus was not condemned because of what he did but because of what he said to the temple priests (Matthew 26:64, Mark 16:62, Luke 22:70). Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ was an act of saying (Matthew 16:15-16). Jesus was not the Christ because Peter said so, but Peter’s vocal commitment to that assertion determined the apostle’s place in history. The teachings of the Church which were later formalized in such statements as the Nicene Creed originated in the kerygmatic preaching of the first Christians. This style of preaching focused on the Apostles’ proclamation of who they believed Christ to be, and it is recalled in the Acts of the Apostles (2:14-36; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 7:2-53; 10:34-43; 13:16-41; 17:22-31). From the words of Christ and the Apostles that are represented in the Bible to the words of such formalized statements of faith as the Nicene Creed, the act of saying is critical to the development of the Christian faith, and the dialogues in both Ælfric’s Natale Sancte Agnetis and his Latin source acknowledge the function that spoken language performs in that development by giving the characters in those texts voices with which to articulate their attitudes toward Christianity.
An examination of the dialogues in Natale Sancte Agnetis as speech acts reveals to the reader how Ælfric’s characters perform actions in the text through their words. By giving the bulk of direct discourse over to assertive and directive acts, Ælfric’s translation takes advantage of the written text’s capacity to represent spoken language in order to articulate Christian teachings concerning the nature of God and primacy of spiritual over secular power to his audience. The speech acts embedded within these dialogues form a microcosm of the whole text as a speech act in its own right. Ælfric’s text, in turn, stands as a microcosm for the whole of Christian teaching as a complex speech act. The oral tradition that ultimately resulted in the creation of Ælfric’s account of Agnes’ martyrdom follows the same tradition that led to the development of the New Testament and the creeds of the Church in earlier centuries. Ælfric’s account of the martyrdom of Saint Agnes says a great deal about the power of words in creating and proclaiming the faith to which he had dedicated his life.
The reader of Natale Sancte Agnetis cannot imagine that either Ælfric or the author of his Latin source intended for dialogue to take the place of oral tradition in his composition. Ælfric incorporated the verbal exchanges among the figures into his translation of the Agnes story simply because those exchanges already existed in his source. Speculation about the inclusion of dialogue in the fifth-century Vita Sanctae Agnetis is sufficiently broad to justify its own study, and no amount of scholarship will fully comprehend the author’s intentions. The author of Ælfric’s source made use of dialogue in his text for one or more of a number of reasons that dialogue functions in a written work; for example, to take advantage of the shifts in tone through the use of multiple voices. In creating these shifts in tone, the author integrates a variety of manners of speaking and attitudes into one written work. Such shifts in tone and style of speech as dialogue affords break apart the stretches of narration that otherwise would dominate the text. These breaks and variations create a rhythm throughout the piece that engages the audience in the same manner as the rhythms of a musical composition. The use of dialogue also complements the role of narrative description in describing characters. Rather than listen to or read what the author says about his characters, the reader becomes a witness to that process by which the characters reveal their own identities through the words the author ascribes to them. In other words, the writer removes himself as an intermediary between audience and character to allow the former become familiar with the latter through a more direct, albeit artificial, encounter. Dialogue presents the author the opportunity to do more than tell his reader about the nature of his characters; the characters speak for themselves and thus enable the reader to reach his own conclusion about the quality of those characters. Like such Old English devices as alliteration, line rhythm, and the formulaic repetition of stock phrases, the use of dialogue is designed with the audience in mind, in order to engage them in the text. Ælfric writes in his Preface that “martyrum passiones nimium fidem erigant languentem” (“the Passions of the Martyrs greatly revive a failing faith” 2; Skeat 3), and both the author of Ælfric’s Latin source and Ælfric himself use dialogue to bring the stories of those passions to life for their audiences in order to revive that faith.
However incidental the use of dialogue may be to its connection with the oral traditions that form the origins of each of the literary contexts of Natale Sancte Agnetis, those verbal exchanges between Agnes and the people involved in the story of her martyrdom make a significant statement about the nature of language. Whatever other purposes Ælfric or the author of his source may have had, the writer who integrates dialogue into his text consciously decides to represent spoken language. The creator of the text thus acknowledges the reality that all writing represents spoken language, not only the words he ascribes to his characters, but also narration that he interposes between those verbal exchanges. The oral tradition of Old English poetry reached Britain at least a century and a half before the Anglo-Saxon peoples first came in contact with the Christian Church’s program of committing texts to writing, and although literacy replaced oral tradition in the creation and preservation of Old English poetry, that tradition continued to influence the style in which that poetry was written. The written lives of Christian saints in the Greek- and Latin-speaking world of the Mediterranean have their origins in stories that were shared orally, in court documents that were written to record what was said in the courts, in sermons which were preached from the pulpits and hymns that were sung at the tombs of the saints. The statements of faith which the authors of saints’ lives ascribe to their subjects echo the written testimony of the Church throughout the centuries that originated in the kerygmatic preaching of the Apostles during the first decades of the Church’s history. Even Ælfric states in his preface to his volume of saints’ lives that he had created his Old English lives for the purpose of being read aloud to his audiences, suggesting that many among those audiences were unable to read themselves. In the dialogues of Natale Sancte Agnetis and his other saints’ lives, Ælfric acknowledges that language is primarily spoken and that written language of any kind represents speech, not only the speeches of his characters but also the speech of his narrator and the reader who reads his work aloud to an audience.
The dialogues of Natale Sancte Agnetis establish a connection among the literary contexts of Ælfric’s work by echoing the oral traditions from which those contexts originated. They also enrich his account of Agnes’ martyrdom with a variety of voices representing different values and attitudes concerning religious beliefs and political power. Offering his characters the opportunities to speak for themselves makes the text vivid, dramatic, and multi-dimensional in order to engage the imagination of his audience. By staging the story rather than merely narrating the events in monologic description, Ælfric gives his audience the opportunity to create the text in their own minds as they visualize his characters in the settings into which he places them.
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