Thursday, June 19, 2008

Little-known literature: Aelfric's De Temporibus Anni

As she often does, New Kid has me thinking today. Thinking, specifically, about my blogidentity, to coin a term.

When I first had the idea to start this blog, my motivations were pretty simple. I read blogs regularly, especially places like Unlocked Wordhoard and Quod She, and I wanted to get in on the fun. I also liked the idea of using a blog to compensate for some of the professional isolation I experience (i.e., not only am I the only medievalist on my campus, I'm just about the only person interested in British literature). Plus, I had long wanted to use the name Caught in the Snide (taken from Dr. Seuss, for those of you who don't know), just because it's such a great turn of phrase. What I didn't know was what the blog would be about. Should the blog focus on medieval content, like, say, Heavenfield does? Should I talk about the intersections of my career and my family life, like Confessions of a Community College Dean? Should it just be about the minutiae of my academic identity, like so many blogs that I won't name?

In the end, I decide not to make the decision. I've posted about my personal life a bit, about my teaching, about life in the world of community colleges, about stuff that's just bugging me. What I haven't done much of, however, is write about strictly medieval content. Larry Swain, over at the Ruminate, has just started what he hopes to make a regular feature that focuses on little-known medieval works. I won't tread on the ground he's marked off for himself (though there's doubtless plenty of little-known medieval works to go around), but I do want to write some posts that deal with specific medieval texts. Hopefully, the posts will be somewhat interesting to readers and will serve at the same time as a space for me to think out loud about actual literature. Hell, if nothing else, maybe I'll make it into Scott Nokes's Morning Medieval Miscellany.

I want to start with a series of posts about the text that, more than anything else, is responsible for my vocation as a medievalist. No, not Beowulf, not The Canterbury Tales, and certainly not Lord of the Rings. No, the text that I hold responsible for my decision to enter the world of medieval scholarship is...[drumroll]...Aelfric's De Temporibus Anni.

No, seriously. Let me explain. I discovered this text as a student in a compulsory Introduction to Old English course that I was trying to get out of the way during my first semester in grad school, having applied to said school with the intentions of studying 19th-century American literature, specifically Thoreau and the Transcendentalists. I ran across De Temporibus Anni in the process of completing a reading notebook for the Old English class, which was already my favorite course. The title of the work, which translates as "On the Times of the Year," spoke to a long and abiding interest I had in the conception of time throughout history (in fact, my most successful paper as an undergraduate was a discussion of concepts of time and eternity in Augustine, Boethius and Aquinas). I started looking at the text and at some of the scholarship surrounding it, and by Christmas I had decided to leave the Transcendentalists to bespectacled bourbon drinkers and throw in my lot with the Anglo-Saxons. My first conference paper was on De Temporibus Anni, and it was my interest in this text that led, through a series of convolutions, to my dissertation topic, which had absolutely nothing to do with that text in the end. So I feel, in a sense, like I owe Aelfric something.

De Temporibus Anni
is among Aelfric's least-known and least-studied works. The standard edition is the one produced by Heinrich Henel for the EETS in 1942, and very little has been written about it since. That's a shame, because it's actually a very interesting work. As the title implies, the subject is ostensibly the makeup of the year, a fact which has led many scholars to characterize the text as a translation or adaptation of one or more of Bede's computistical works, which to some degree it is. The first few chapters clearly point to this aspect of the text. Early chapter titles include "De Die" ("On Day"), "De Nocte" ("On Night"), "De Anno" ("On the Year"), and "De Primo Die Saeculi, sive de Equinoctio Vernali" ("On the First Day of the Year, or the Spring Equinox") [NOTE: Good old bilingual Aelfric, who understands and exploits the relationships between Latin and the vernacular better than perhaps any other Anglo-Saxon author, leaves chapter titles in Latin, though the text is entirely in Old English]. But Aelfric soon broadens his scope (and leaves Bede's computus behund) to include basic information about the earth ("De Mundo") and heavens ("De Diversis Stellis"), as well as a number of meterological phenomena ("De Pluvia" ["On Rain"], "De Nive" ["On Snow"]). As a result, De Temporibus Anni is much more than a computistical crib; it provides an extraordinary and very accessible insight into the way Anglo-Saxons understood the physical world in which they lived.

Aelfric begins De Temporibus Anni with a very brief prologue that states his intentions:

Her æfter fyligð an lytel cwyde be gearlicum tidum þæt nis to spelle geteald ac elles to rædenne þam ðe hit licað.

[Here follows a brief discourse concerning the times of the year, that is not intended as a sermon but rather for reading by them whom it pleases.]

It is interesting that Aelfric specifically marks off this work from the sermons for which he is so well-known (and which often directly precede De Temporius Anni in the manuscripts in which it appears). The word he uses to describe his treatise is cwyde, a word that can mean "utterance," "discourse," "saying," "testament," etc., and which obviously derives from the Old English verb cweþan, meaning "to say." The noun has clearly separated from its root verb by the early eleventh century (when DTA was written), since Aelfric goes on to say that this "cwyde" is "to rædenne," for reading. Much has been made of Aelfric's awareness of the uses to which his writings were put. The Catholic Homilies, it is often argued, were intended primarily for oral delivery, while the Lives of Saints were more suited for private reading by clerics. While such a division is likely overstated, the sentence above does seem to support the idea that Aelfric saw some kind of distinction between works intended for different modes of reading.

But what has always interested me most about this prologue, what interests me most about the whole work, in fact, is Aelfric's intriguing statement about his intended audience, the idea that De Temporibus Anni is to be read "þam ðe hit licað," by whomever it pleases. I mean, I'm all for inclusiveness, but Aelfric's ambiguity here strikes me as problematic. Or, rather, it seems to me that the ambiguity in this statement highlights the unusual nature of the text as a whole. Who would have found this text useful? Aelfric provides a very quick overview of Bedan computus and the reckoning of Easter, but his treatment is hardly sufficient to stand on its own. Anyone wanting to calculate the date of Easter would still have to turn to Bede. And that person would, of course, need to know Latin, while Aelfric is presumably writing for those who could not read Latin, chapter titles notwithstanding. But whom, specifically? The secular clergy? The educated laity? Young monks in school? In my 1995 conference paper, I argued that Aelfric should be taken at his word, that he wrote De Temporibus Anni with the aim of appealing to the broadest possible audience: anyone who was interested in learning more about the world. I'm not sure I still agree with this assessment, but I'll be damned if I can figure out what kind of audience would need both a relatively lengthy chapter devoted to the astronomical explanation for leap year and a one-sentence chapter that proclaims hail to be "raindrops that are frozen in the air and then fall." Gee, thanks, Aelfric. Never coulda figured that one out on our own.

So in the next few weeks, I'll spend some time here discussing what I think are some of the more interesting parts of De Temporibus Anni. Betcha can't wait to find out what the twelve different kinds of wind are!


highlyeccentric said...

Yay, Aelfric :)

the formula 'tham the hit licath' reminds me of Wulfstan's favourite formula 'gyme se the wille'/ 'understande se the wille'. I stumbled across an Aelfrician version, 'sece se the wille', I think in the tract 'Wyrdwriteras us secgath'.

Could this be the same sort of back-handed formula, implying that *everyone* should be pleased by this, but dear ole Aelfric doubts any but the faithful will really care...?

theswain said...


So, well, I do talk a bit about this text in my diss, but only a bit, using other texts by Aelfric more.

So what are you doing with this text now? Wanna do an edition? I know a journal publisher who'd be interested in an article on the text, or an encyclopedia editor who needs an author on early medieval concepts of time.......those are broad hints, btw!

And by all means, write about all the lit you want! There's so much we don't talk about that a little help would be appreciated!

Great post, btw!

Prof. de Breeze said...

HE: It's hard to say exactly what Aelfric has in mind with this phrase. The information in the text is very general, so it may well be that he's just putting it out there for general consumption. It would be interesting to look at this kind of phrase throughout the Aelfrician corpus, though.

Larry: To be honest, I'm not doing anything specific with the text right now. It's what I keep telling myself I'll come back to once I finish X, Y, and Z. Perhaps now I'll turn back to it more seriously. I think there may be a guy in the UK working on a new edition for his dissertation, but I think there's still plenty to say about it. I've sent you an email about some of the possibilities you hinted at in your comment, BTW.

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