Old English Prose with special reference to Alfred and Aelfric

The amount of surviving Old English prose is much greater than the amount of poetry. Of the surviving prose, the majority consists of sermons and translations of religious works that were composed in Latin, for literacy in Anglo-Saxon England was largely the province of monks, nuns, and ecclesiastics (or of those lay people to whom they had taught the skills of reading and writing Latin and/or Old English). Old English prose first appears in the 9th century, and continues to be recorded through the 12th century as the last generation of scribes, trained as boys in the standardised West Saxon before the Conquest, died as old men.

Christian prose

The most widely known secular author of Old English was King Alfred the Great, who translated several books, many of them religious, from Latin into Old English. These translations include: Pope Gregory the Great's The Pastoral Care, a manual for priests on how to conduct their duties; The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius; and The Soliloquies of Saint Augustine. Alfred the Great was also responsible for a translation of fifty Psalms into Old English. These works are his contribution to our literature. Sometimes he translated word for word, at others more freely, but those passages which have greatest value both for an understanding of the character of the king and also for their literary qualities are originals freely introduced by way of explanation or expansion.

Other important Old English translations include: Historiae adversum paganos by Orosius, a companion piece for St. Augustine's The City of God; the Dialogues of Gregory the Great; and Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People.

 Aelfric, abbot of Eynsham, wrote in the second half of the 10th early 11th century. He was the greatest and most prolific writer of Anglo-Saxon sermons, which were copied and adapted for use well into the 13th century. He translated the first six books of the Bible, and glossed and translated other parts of the Bible including Proverbs, Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus. His Lives of Saints contains Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Eustace, and Saint Euphrosyne. He also made an Old English translation of the Rule of Saint Benedict.

In the same category as Aelfric, and a contemporary, was Wulfstan II, archbishop of York. His sermons were highly stylistic. His best known work is Sermo Lupi ad Anglos in which he blames the sins of the English for the Viking invasions. He wrote a number of clerical legal texts in Institutes of Polity and Canons of Edgar.

One of the earliest Old English texts in prose is the Martyrology, information about saints and martyrs according to their anniversaries and feasts in the church calendar. It has survived in six fragments. It is believed to date from the 9th century by an anonymous Mercian author.


The oldest collection of church sermons are the Blickling homilies in the Vercelli Book and dates from the 10th century.


There are a number of saint's lives prose works. Beyond those written by Aelfric are the prose life of Saint Guthlac (Vercelli Book), the life of Saint Margaret and the life of Saint Chad. There are four lives in the Julius manuscript: Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, Saint Mary of Egypt, Saint Eustace and Saint Euphrosyne.


There are translations of the Gospels. The most popular was the Gospel of Nicodemus, others included "..the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Vindicta salvatoris, Vision of Saint Paul and the Apocalypse of Thomas".

Anglo-Saxon Secular prose

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was probably started in the time of King Alfred and continued for over 300 years as a historical record of Anglo-Saxon history.


A single example of a Classical romance has survived, it is a fragment of a Latin translation of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus (220 AD), from the 11th century.


A monk who was writing in Old English at the same time as Aelfric and Wulfstan was Byrhtferth of Ramsey, whose books Handboc and Manual were studies of mathematics and rhetoric.


Aelfric wrote two neo-scientific works, Hexameron and Interrogationes Sigewulfi, dealing with the stories of Creation. He also wrote a grammar and glossary in Old English called Latin, later used by students interested in learning Old French because it had been glossed in Old French.

There are many surviving rules and calculations for finding feast days, and tables on calculating the tides and the season of the moon.


In the Nowell Codex is the text of The Wonders of the East which includes a remarkable map of the world, and other illustrations. Also contained in Nowell is Alexander's Letter to Aristotle. Because this is the same manuscript that contains Beowulf, some scholars speculate it may have been a collection of materials on exotic places and creatures.


There are a number of interesting medical works. There is a translation of Apuleius's Herbarium with striking illustrations, found together with Medicina de Quadrupedibus. A second collection of texts is Bald's Leechbook, a 10th century book containing herbal and even some surgical cures. A third collections is known as the Lacnunga, which relies of charms, incantations, and white magic.


One of the largest bodies of Old English text is found in the legal texts collected and saved by the religious houses. Anglo-Saxon legal texts are a large and important part of the overall corpus. These include many kinds of texts: records of donations by nobles; wills; documents of emancipation; lists of books and relics; court cases; guild rules. . There is also a large volume of legal documents related to religious houses. All of these texts provide valuable insights into the social history of Anglo-Saxon times, but are also of literary value. For example, some of the court case narratives are interesting for their use of rhetoric.


The amount of surviving Old English prose is much greater than the amount of poetry. Of the surviving prose, sermons and Lain translations of religious works is the majority. Old English prose first appears in the 9th century, and continues to be recorded through the 12th century.

Last modified: Wednesday, 5 July 2017, 1:51 AM