Why edit the First Series?

The Sermones were composed in the period 989 to 994 and issued in two series dedicated to Sigeric, Archbishop of Canterbury; in them, Ælfric sought to meet the national need for education by providing clergy with orthodox preaching material in the vernacular. The scope of his aim was extraordinary: to convey the whole of Church doctrine, from creation to judgment, in a way faithful to his patristic sources and understandable to his unlearned audience. The First Series of Sermones inaugurated and formed a central part of this lifetime ambition, and its influence may be judged by the geographic breadth and number of copies extant (thirty-five compared to the unique copy of Beowulf). Indeed, Ælfric’s works continued to be copied for two centuries following his death, despite the subordination of Old English following the Norman Conquest of 1066. Recent scholarship on the First Series, moreover, has increased dramatically, focusing on such subjects as Ælfric’s audience, use of hagiography, attitude toward apocrypha, construction of an authorial persona, and teaching on penance, kingship, and divine foreknowledge (see Kleist, “Bibliography” 528-36).

Part of the surging interest in Ælfric and in the First Series in particular is due to the release in 1997 of Peter Clemoes’ long-awaited edition of the First Series, comprising a revision of his 1956 Cambridge doctoral dissertation and published posthumously by Professor Malcolm Godden of Oxford University. Clemoes prints the text based on London, British Museum, Royal 7 C. xii [Ker §257], with passages supplied from Cambridge, University Library, Gg. 3. 28 [Ker §15]—the source for the previous, nineteenth-century edition by Benjamin Thorpe—and variants collated from some thirty-three other manuscripts.

As a printed edition, Clemoes’ work is an admirable piece of scholarship. Royal 7 C. xii, moreover, being probably the earliest extant manuscript and containing alterations in Ælfric’s own hand, is a logical copy on which to base such an edition. In his discussion of the development and dissemination of the First Series, however, Clemoes traces six phases during which Ælfric revised, supplemented, and reorganized his work1. As Andy Orchard has argued regarding the homilies of Ælfric’s contemporary, Wulfstan of Worcester, such adaptation of material results not in a single, “authoritative” text with variants, but in a series of interrelated texts designed for different audiences at different points in the author’s career. Despite Clemoes’ conscientious efforts to describe this creative progression and to reproduce divergent readings in appendices and scholarly apparati, by nature a static, printed edition is hard put to capture such a fluid compositional process. Electronic media, by contrast, employing dynamic links and customizable windows, may better enable scholars to identify changes (authorial or otherwise) to this material and to explore the significance of such changes.

One final reason why the interrelationship of these manuscripts should be revisited is the crucial issue of the chronology of Ælfric’s work. In 1959, three years after completing his dissertation, Clemoes published an article that has become foundational for Old English studies: “The Chronology of Ælfric’s works.” In it, drawing on his study of the First Series, Clemoes assigned a date to each of Ælfric’s writings based on his understanding of the interrelationship of Ælfrician manuscripts. While various scholars have questioned Clemoes’ dating of individual texts, and despite the importance of such dates for localizing other events and works from this period, in the main Clemoes’ theory remains unchallenged for this simple reason: reassessing Clemoes’ conclusions entails reassessing his evidence, the manuscripts that witness to the development of the Sermones catholici.

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