The English/Anglo-Saxon Church in the Tenth & Eleventh Centuries
In Alfred’s times the Church had fallen far below “golden days” it had enjoyed in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. Educated priests were few. Monasticism was dead. This was partly due to the inroads of the Vikings, who had drawn to the plunder of churches and monasteries by the wealth of costly robes and altar furniture, and by the fact that it was the practice of the time for laymen to place valuables in such buildings, as we do now in safe depositories. The stores of food and fodder in monastic barns also attracted them. The buildings were put to the flames by the pirates; the cups of valuable metals, the precious stones that adorned the shrines of saints, the priestly vestments were carried off, and the books were burned, except those which, like the “Lindisfarne Gospels,” were carried to safety by flying monks, or loved and preserved by Vikings for their coloured pictures.
But the decay of monastic and other church life had commenced before final ruin wrought by pirate raiders. The Benedictine Rule was too severe method of life to be followed long with the enthusiasm shown in the days of Benedict Biscop, Cuthbert and Bede. Many men and women were attracted to monasteries, not by love of the rule, but by the comparative comfort of monastic life, and by a wish to enjoy the wealth arising from the wide lands granted to monks and nuns by pious benefactors. They lived more like laymen and laywomen, going in and out of the monasteries at will, and not conforming to the rules laid down by St. Benedict as regards services, clothing, food and study. Such intruders were monks and nuns only in name. Latin became almost a dead language. The monastic schools, from which in Bede’s time flowed a supply of educated priests, ceased to exist. Alfred says-
“I remember how before the land was ravaged and burned the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books. And there was also a great multitude of God’s servants, but they had very little knowledge of the books, for they could not understand any of them, because they were not written in their own language.”
At his accession (871) very few men south of the Humber could translate a letter from Latin into English. “I cannot,” said the king, “remember one south of the Thames.” He set about a reformation in learning. He says in one of his books:-
‘He seems to me a very foolish man and inexcusable, who will not increase his knowledge while he is in this world, and wish that he may come to the everlasting life, where nothing shall be dark or unknown.”
He therefore gathered scholars who would both increase learning, and guide him and his people to the everlasting life he longed for; but his efforts met with little success. The translations of religious books from Latin into English, which he made for the benefit of those who could not read the former language, were read in England in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and have survived to this day; but his endeavours to raise the educational level of his people and clergy, and to restore monastic life, were a failure, and therefore are not recounted in this book. The permanent part of Alfred’s work lies in hid defence of Wessex against the Vikings and in the formation of a military power that enabled his successors to make England into one kingdom. When this work was done, religious reform began again in the reign of Eadred (946 to 955), Alfred’s grandson, and was continued in the reign of Edgar the Peaceful (958 to 975), Alfred’s great-grandson.
The reform began with a restoration of monastic life. Monasteries were the homes of holiness and the fosterers of civilisation. The ordered life of a well-governed monastery gave to scholars among the monks ample opportunity for complete devotion to study. Without such an opportunity the Christian Church of early mediaeval times could have neither knowledge nor life. Such books of devotion as came into the hands of village priests or of bishops or of cathedral clergy of English/Anglo-Saxon times were the products directly or indirectly of monasticism; monks wrote them and copied them. It was in monasteries that men destined for the priesthood were educated, and given that knowledge of Latin which was necessary in days when almost all literature was written in that tongue. The first object, therefore, of any religious reformers in mediaeval days was the restoration of the monasteries.
In the tenth century in England there was much to be done. The condition of the Abbey of Abingdon was typical. In King Eadred’s day (946 to 955) it was desolated and neglected, consisting of mean buildings, and possessing only forty hides. The rest of the land of the place, i.e. one hundred farms, “the king held by royal light.” The charters which originally conveyed land to monasteries usually contained dire threats as to the probable latter end of those who should filch the land away from the monks. “Whoso taketh away this land,” runs one of these threats, “may God destroy him, and may the Fiend possess him, both body and soul, in hell.” But kings and laymen laughed at such.
Where monastic communities held together in England in the tenth century the members were not monks in the proper sense of the word, but seculars, so called because, like our parish and cathedral clergy, they lived “in saeculo,” in the world, and went about among laymen. Seculars do not obey the Rule of St. Benedict, and were consequently disliked by the reformers of the tenth century. Aelfric Abbot, who wrote a life of Ethelwold, a reformer of the time, says:-
“There was at that time in the old monastery of Winchester, where the bishop’s see was placed, bad-mannered clergymen, so carried away with pride, insolence and extravagance, that some of them refused to say masses in their turn. They used to put away their wives, whom they had married secretly, and take others. They were wholly given up to gluttony and drunkenness.”
This is very strong exaggerated language.
The biography of St. Oswald, another reformer of the tenth century, says:-
“At the same there were no monks nor men of that way of life in England. But there were religious and most dignified clerks (i.e. seculars), who nevertheless were accustomed to bestow the riches, which they heaped up with greedy minds, not in honour of the church, but on their wives.”
It is clear that monastic life as St. Benedict planned it, and as Bede led it, had completely disappeared in England. Of the men who lived in the surviving monastic buildings and still performed the services in the monastic churches, we know little beyond what hostile reformers have told us. That many of them were married is certain. But this did not condemn them in every one’s eyes. In the tenth century in England there were honest men who defended clerical marriage, holding the view of the Protestant and Greek Churches of today, that a clergyman may be married and yet be a good clergyman. And it is clear from the history of the tenth century, that the seculars were popular among the lay Englishmen of all ranks.
But when all is said, it seems impossible to take an easy view of the condition of the church in the tenth century. It is quite clear that the seculars, dwelling within the monasteries, were not the type that was likely to carry out a reformation in England. Men more rigorous than these easy-going clergy were wanted, and the reformers hoped to find such pioneers by a root and branch reform of the monasteries throughout England, and by an enforcement of the Benedictine Rule.
The men who realised the needs of the time, and did most to meet them, were Dunstan, Ethelwold and Oswald. while these men were agreed as to objects, they differed somewhat on the pace and method with which they were to be pursued. Dunstan is one of the most famous of all early Englishmen, and rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury, and chief minister of the crown during the reign of Edgar the Peaceable (958 to 975). He was born near Glastonbury in 924 or 925, and about the age of twenty-one was made abbot of the monastery there.
On his appointment King Edmund (940 to 946) addressed him thus:-
“Be thou of this seat the lord and potent occupant, and whatever from thy means shall be lacking for the increase of divine service or for the completeness of the sacred rule, that I shall devoutly supply by my royal bounty.”
The rule referred to is the Benedict Regula. Under Dunstan Glastonbury became famous as a school; there is no proof, however, that he established there the Benedictine Rule in its completeness.
One of his pupils was Ethelwold, who was later sent to be abbot of the ruined monastery of Abingdon. In connection with his rule there a tale is told, which illustrates both the monastic revival and the lax standards of the time. The story goes that King Eadred (946 to 955), being interested both in the struggle for a purified monasticism and in the leaders of it, rode with some Northumbrian courtiers to Abingdon to visit Abbot Ethelwold. Throughout the morning the king assisted in marking out the foundations of new monastic buildings and in deciding the heights of the walls which were to be erected, and at midday was invited to stay to dinner by the delighted abbot. During the repast a cask of mead was sent for, and the king, being very merry, ordered the doors of the dining-hall to be shut, that no man might escape drinking his fair share of liquor. Till evening they continued their carouse, and the biographer of Ethelwold delightedly tells how, by the divine favour, the cask never needed to be replenished, and that thus the king and his courtiers rode off at last “as drunk as swine.” It would be unfair to judge the reformers of a past age by the standards of the present. By the reform and restoration of Abingdon Monastery Ethelwold re-introduced into England the Benedictine Regula. Some forty other monasteries were soon founded in imitation of Abingdon in the south and midlands of England. The monks within them began again the work of Bede; they composed, copied and translated histories, biographies and other works, to which English historians turn again and again for their knowledge of the past.
Oswald, the other member of the trio, became abbot of a monastery at Winchester, in which town secular clerks were said to heap up treasurers with greedy minds and bestow them on their wives.
To all these three men came an earnest desire to push forward vigorously the re-establishment of a real monastic life, and to improve education. A similar desire had already risen on the continent, and directly or indirectly the three Englishmen sought for inspiration from the reformed monasteries there. From 956 Dunstan lived for two years in Flanders, in the monastery of St. Peter at Ghent. In that institution the Benedictine Rule was rigorously observed. At the same time Oswald was living at another reformed monastery, that of St. Benedict on the Loire. Ethelwold of Abingdon sent a monk, Osgar, to Fleury to learn the method of the strict Rule for the benefit of his fellows. That these men had to seek abroad a knowledge of the “Rugula,” which ordained common life in church, dormitory, dining hall, cloister and garden, shows how completely a real monastic life had disappeared from England. Apparently there was not a copy of the Regula in England. Editions had to be brought from the continent.
About the beginning of Edgar’s reign ((58) Dunstan, Oswald and Osgar were back in England, and from that time onward, with the full approval of the king, reform was pushed on at the expense of the seculars. Dunstan at the end of 959, became Archbishop of Canterbury. In 961 Edgar made Oswald Bishop of Worcester, and in 963 Ethelwold became Bishop of Winchester. Through these men the influence of the reformed Benedictinism of the continent made itself strongly felt. They worked in different ways. Ethelwold was blunt. At Winchester, in 964, he found seculars living in the way described above. He sent for Osgar and some of his own monks from Abingdon to drive out “these abominable blasphemers of God from the monastery,” and to take their place. He also appealed to Edgar for help. Down came one of the king’s thanes with the word that the seculars must either dress and live as true monks should, or leave the monastery. Only three forsook their old ways for the sterner Benedictine life. The rest, “hating a monastic life,” preferred to leave their home in the monastery, and departed with their wives, loving rather beggary in their company then comfort, which could only be obtained at the cost of separation.
Having driven the seculars from Winchester, Ethelwold built a new cathedral, which was dedicated in 971. To it were transferred the bones of St. Swithun, who had been Bishop of Winchester in Alfred’s boyhood. Aelfric, a monk of Winchester, who has left us a life of Ethelwold, wrote a sermon on St. Swithun, in which he describes the miracles wrought at the saint’s new tomb; these numbered sometimes as many as twenty a day.
“The burial ground lay so filled with cripples that people could hardly get into the cathedral, and they were all so miraculously healed within a few days, that one could not find five unhealed men out of that great multitude.”
Then Ethelwold ordered that, whenever a miracle of healing took place, all the monks of the monastery should go in procession to church and sing the Te Deum.
“Then forthwith they did so, and sang the Te Deum until they all loathed to rise so often, sometimes three, sometimes four times in a night, when they wanted to sleep. And at last they all left off the singing, because the bishop was busy with the king.”
St. Swithun then appeared in a dream, and said that if the monks would not sing, then the miracles would cease. The maater came to Ethelwold’s ears, and he, blunt as ever, ordered the resumption of the singing on pain of seven days’ continuous fast for the monks who failed.
“Always after that they observed this custom, as we ourselves have very often seen, and we have often sung the hymn with them. . . . The old church was all hung from end to end on each wall with crutches and stools of cripples, whi had been healed, and not even thus could they find room for half of them.”
With the king’s help Ethelwold delivered other monasteries from secular control at Chertsey in Surrey, and Milton in Dorset, and elsewhere. Such was the hatred caused by a policy, which was held by some to be sheer robbery, that an endeavour was made one day to poison its champion as he sat at dinner in the dining-hall at Winchester. Throughout the midlands he worked unceasingly to rebuild the shattered walls of monasteries, endow them with lands, fill them with real monks, and uphold the Rule. Medeshamstede, which had been a mere heap of bush-covered ruins since Viking days, was rebuilt and re-endowed. Up and down the country Ethelwold rode, visiting all the monasteries within his reach, “terrible as a lion” to those who resisted, “gentler than a dove” to those who obeyed hos reforming orders.
He attached great importance to the education of the young, and evidently had a real teacher’s enthusiasm for his work. Aelfric, his biographer, who was an excellent teacher himself, says:-
“It was always a pleasure to him to teach children and youths, by explaining books to them in English and by encouraging them with kind words to better work. For this reason it has come about that very many of his pupils have become abbots and bishops among the English.”
Aelfric had been himself one of Ethelwold’s pupils, and wrote a school book called “The Colloquy,” which has survived to this day. It was composed to give practice in speaking Latin to boys living in a monastery school. it takes the form of a Latin dialogue. In it we can get a glimpse of the life of a boy novice in England in the tenth century.
“Master: You, my boy, what have you done to-day?
Pupil: I have done many things. In the night, when I heard the bell, I got out of bed, and went to church and sang nocturns with the monks. Then, after singing of all the saints, we sang matins, and after that prime, and seven psalms with litnaies abd first mass. Then we sang sext, and then ate, drank and slept, and rose again and sang nones, and now we are here before you, ready to hear what you have to say.
M. : When will you sing vespers or compline ?
P. : When it is time.
M. : Have you been flogged to-day ?
P. : I have not, for I have been careful.
M. : And what about your friends ?
P. : Why ask me that ? I may not tell you our secrets. Each of us knows whether he has been flogged or not.
M. : What do you eat in the day ?
P. : I still eat meat, for I am a boy living under the rod.
M. : What else do you eat ?
P. : Vegetables, eggs, fish, cheese, butter, beans and all clean food, with giving of thanks.
M. : You are very gluttonous, if you eat everything that is put in front of you.
P. : I am not so voracious as to eat everything at one meal.
M. : Then how do you manage ?
P. : I eat sometimes one kind of food and sometimes another kind, with self-restraint, as becomes a monk, not greedily, for I am not a glutton.
M. : And what di you think ?
P. : Beer, if I have it, or water, if I have no beer.
M. : Do you not drink wine ?
P. : I am not rich enough to afford it, and wine is not for boys and fools, but for the old and the wise.
M. : Where do you sleep ?
P. : In the dormitory with the monks.
M. : Who rouses you for nocturns ?
P. : Sometimes I hear the bell and get up. Sometimes the master rouses me painfully with his rod.
M. : Nice boys and pleasant pupils, your master bids you obey divine rules, and everywhere behave yourselves like gentlemen. Walk decently when you hear the bell, and go to church and bow humbly in prayer before the holy altars, and stand quietly and sing together and ask pardon for your faults, and go out again without squabbling into the cloister or schoolroom.”
St. Oswald’s methods of reforming monasteries were quieter than Ethelwold’s. His cathedral church at Worcester was at first served by seculars who refused to be reformed. Unlike Ethelwold, he called for no help from Edgar; he left his seculars in possession. He contented himself with building a new monastery, and staffing it with true monks. By 983 the monastery with its church was finished, and the monks that were brought to serve it rendered the services so well that soon the seculars in the older monastery gave way and were reformed. Henceforth they slept, ate, prayed, fasted, rested and clothed themselves according to the Benedictine Rule.
By happy chance a monk of Ramsey Abbey amongst the fens, in writing in the twelfth century a history of his house, has given us a glimpse of Oswald at his favourite work of monastic revival. The writer introduces us to the island of Ramsey, two miles/3.2km long and rather less wide, lying amidst the fens of Huntingdonshire. In the tenth century, before there was any monastery there, it could be reached by boat alone, and was covered with great woods of ash and alder. The surrounding waters teemed with fish and wild fowl. In to the story come the owner of the island, Alderman Ailwyn and Bishop Oswald. The alderman, in the course of conversation with the bishop, is advised, if he has a suitable site, to found a monastery thereon, in order that the monks there may “by their prayers make good his faults and expiate his sins.” To which the alderman replies that in return for good health restored he had already built a little chapel of wood upon the island of Ramsey, and has placed therein three men, who are longing for some one to teach them the true Benedictine Rule. Oswald with joy promises him all the assistance in his power, and both together they visit the spot.
“The holy man, seeing the place girt about on every hand with marshes, supplied with every necessity, and far removed from the world, said, ‘Here is a second Elysium provided from eternity for men destined to reach the heights of Paradise. . . . I, if it please your highness, will hastily return to my home, and send a faithful servant skilled in building, that with his help a little refectory and dormitory may be put up in the meantime for the monks who are to come. Then we at some later conference mat take counsel concerning the shape and size of the church to be erected.’ ”
And after salutation they separate.
Forthwith the bishop sent from Worcester a “venerable man, Ednoth, of proved experience,” who, having brought labourers together, enlarged the little chapel, and erected the necessary offices according to the bishop’s plan. Soon Oswald sent twelve brethren from his monastery at Westbury in Worcester, a supply of food to fill their storehouses till harvest-time, various books, and some ornaments for altar use during divine service. Thus, on August 29, A.D. 968, the little folk took possession of the new buildings. Throughout the following winter tools of wood and iron, as well as other necessaries, were prepared for the operations that were to commence in the spring. Early in 969 foundations of considerable depth were dug, for the soil all about was marshy, and a church with two towers was commenced. One tower was at the western end, and the other, the greater of the two, rose in the centre of the building. The dedication was performed on November 8, 974 A.D.
Endowments soon flowed in. Ailwyn, the founder, who gave the island and its adjacent waters, gave also certain other properties and rights in addition, and is called in consequence by many pleasant names, such as “true Israelite,” “ealderman of pious memory,” and “man devoted to God.” The writer proceeds to talk about wills and bequests for several pages. Here is the will of Countess Ethelgiva-
“I, Ethelgiva, countess, do give and bequeath to the abbey of Ramsey, to the honour of God and St. Benedict and to the eternal welfare of my soul, my land at Stowe and Brune, to be held freely and quit of dues as I held it, and also the new mill; also one mark of gold, of which half shall be spent on the needs of the abbey and half on food for the brothers; and two silver cups of twelve marks by London weight for the service of the brethren in the refectory, to the intent that while they drink out of them at meals, they may the more remember me in their hearts. Remember me, O dearest brethren, towards Him, whose grace I need. God be with you, and I shall ever be your faithful sister while I live.”
Suddenly, while all went well with the brethren in this manner, disaster came.
“It pleased God to break up their peace and quietness, for when they rose one morning, behold! a great crack in the wall of the big central tower, gaping from top to bottom, and threatening the adjacent part of the church with destruction.”
“It must have happened,” says the historian, “through the weakness of hasty work due to the carelessness of the builders.” The news was sent to their fathers and patrons, Ailwyn. The face of that “stout soldier of Christ” fell somewhat at the news, but his words were brave. “The will of God be done,” said he, “and blessed be the name of the Lord,” and off the old man started for the island with his attendants to view the ruin of his work and comfort the hearts of the brethren. But the sight of the crack and of the leaning wall struck even him with fear. The opinion of the builders was sought, and all said that the whole tower would have to be pulled down. So the news was sent to Oswald, now Archbishop of York as well as Bishop of Worcester, who advised that “the whole structure be rebuilt in a better manner of the glory of God.” So once more Ailwyn dipped into his money bags, the tower was taken down, the weakness of the foundations removed, and the whole rebuilt. The younger brethren were called to the work every day after the service of Prime. When all had been completed a second time, Ailwyn decorated the altar with silver plates and gems of various kinds and colours, and gave the sum of 30 pounds for making organ pipes. Archbishop Oswald, Bishop Aescwius of Dorchester, and all the great men of five shires and part of Lincolnshire came to the consecration in 991
Upon the vigorous reformation conducted by his friends Archbishop Dunstan looked with approval, and yet for some reason unknown he did not display an activity comparable to that of Ethelwold, or even Oswald. Perhaps his gentle nature hesitated to separate married clerks from their wives, or to drive them out together to shelterless poverty. It is said that in his youth, before he took monastic vows, he had hoped to be married, Perhaps, therefore, the misery of enforced separation of husband and wife was clearer to him than to his fellow reformers. Or, perhaps, as a statesman governing a realm he saw better than his friends the injustice involved in a confiscation of property, which seculars had enjoyed so long as to have prescriptive rights to it. Perhaps he felt that a real reformation was a matter calling rather for much educational work than for hasty action. His own cathedral at Canterbury was served by seculars, many of whom, perhaps all, were married. Perhaps he feared that if he joined the active reformers civil war might break out, for many of the great nobles of the time preferred the secular clergy to the monks. Many of the common people also liked the married clergymen. “If the low-born mob saw a monk in those days, they would hoot him.” Clearly there was much dislike among officials and people for monks. When Edgar died in 975, a struggle for power took place between rival claimants to the throne. Aelfhere, the ruler of Mercia, seized the opportunity to expel all monks from Mercian monasteries, and bring back the seculars, to the loudly expressed delight of the common folk. And yet Dunstan took his side. He thoroughly understood that many laymen disliked the policy of Oswald and Ethelwold. No doubt he believed that as an ideal St. Benedict’s Regula was excellent, but possibly, in view of English feeling, he considered that even married secular clergy, if properly trained, educated and controlled, could be faithful servants of the Church, and contribute their share to the reformation of religion.
Judging from the laws which were passed in Edgar’s reign, in framing which Dunstan must have had a share, the great archbishop thought less about evicting the married clergy from their homes and property, which they had enjoyed so long, than about such matters as the education of all children in the Lord’s Prayer and in the Creed, the payment of all church dues, the stamping out of pagan rites such as the worship of wells, trees and stones, the extinction of Sunday trading, the maitanance if decent behaviour on feasts days, cleanliness of churches and their utensils, the property of priests’ conversation, priestly avoidance of drunkenness, the proper celebration of mass, preaching of sermons every Sunday, priestly abstention from hunting, from hawking and from dicing, proper confession of penitents and administration of communion to the dying.
To the end of his life his enthusiasm for education was unbounded. He loved the company of the young, and seems in his white-haired old age, when he had retired from political life after Edgar’s death, to have been fond of telling his young scholars tales of his early days. His kindness in dealing with boys was long remembered in the school at Canterbury, so that after his death scholars in fear of a whipping at the hands of brutal masters used to appeal to him in prayer to deliver them . As Abbot of Glastonbury in his old age, he never forgot the importance of suppling the Church with educated monks and priests.
The three leaders of the reformation died within a few years of one another, Ethelwold in 984, Dunstan in 988, and Oswald in 992. In 978 the raids of the Northmen had recommenced, and the wild chaos of the next thirty-eight years went far to wipe out most of the hope that any permanent result might flow, either from the restoration of real monasticism or from the renewed enthusiasm for education.
We should like to know how far village priests came under the influence of the religious reformation of the tenth century. But on this point we have but scanty information. We cannot tell whether there was a revival of religion among village folk, whether churches were filled to overflowing and new ones built. With the help of the writings in Anglo-Saxon of Aelfric, who was Abbot of Eynsham from 1005 to 1020 A.D., we can a little penetrate the darkness. Monk though he was, his thoughts seems chiefly to have gone out to the simple unlettered Englishmen and to the priests, on whom they depended for their knowledge of the faith. It was good and right, he wrote, to minister to monks, “but it is better to speak heavenly lore to the unlearned and to feed their souls.” To help them he bent almost all his energies.
We cannot tell the number of parish churches in England in the tenth and eleventh centuries. “Domesday Book@ mentions churches and priests, but does not give a complete list of either. We can only surmise how churches grew up. The landlord of an estate probably had a priest among his retainers, as naturally as he had a steward and men-at-arms. For the priest he built a church and endowed it. Monasteries also erected churches on their estates, and sent thither priests to minister to the people. These priests probably confined their ministrations to those who lived on the estates of monastery or thane. An estate might thus become a priest’s shire or province. (The word “parish” in Anglo-Saxon/Englisc days meant a bishop’s diocese). In this way there grew up a great number of churches, some of which still stand. Undoubtedly many of the priests who ministered in them were married.
Churches were maintained by payments of many kinds. Each holder of land was supposed to give a tenth of the produce of his crops and herbs. In addition each householder paid Church dues, such as Church-scot which was a contribution of corn, Soul’s-scot which was payable on a person’s death, Plough-alms which was a penny paid on each plough-land (A plough-land is the extent of land which could be tilled by one plough and its team of eight oxen, in time a plough team was expected to plough an acre a day 4840 sq yds/0.4047 sq m) at Easter, and Light-scot a halfpenny worth of wax for lighting the church. Furthermore, each priest was supposed to have a house, and strips of land in the arable fields like other villagers; thus in 1086 the priest at Hatfield had half a hide, or 60 acres.
As to the duties of village priests we can learn something from the letter which Aelfric Abbot wrote to those of the diocese of Sherborne and to those of the archbishopric of York. Priests, he said, ought to be bachelors, but he admitted that it was impossible to enforce this rule in England in the tenth century. It was their duty to hallow the sacrament, instruct the people in the faith, and give an example of pure morals. On Sundays they were to explain in English the meaning of the Gospel, the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, that men might know the faith. They were to pray for their king and bishop. Each priest ought to have a psalter, an Epistle book, a Gospel book, a mass book, a book of hymns or canticles and one or two other books of devotion. From this small library he was to seek instruction for himself and communicate it to his people. As there were usually in Latin, book learning was a necessity, otherwise the priest was but a blind teacher. Clean mass vestments and altar cloths, and a chalice of pure metal were indispensable. Priests were forbidden to drink heavily, for they must be ready to baptise or to give Holy Communion. They ought not to force other men to drink. They must not sell things as shopkeepers do, or wear weapons, or drink in wines shops, or swear oaths, or act as reeves for landlords. They must confess and give pardon to sinners, administer Holy Communion to the dying, and anoint the sick.
To help unlearned men Aelfric abridged and translated into Anglo-Saxon/Old English the first seven books of the Old Testament. He also wrote three volumes of sermons or homilies very simply in Anglo-Saxon/Old English, so that they could be understood by village congregations. Thus in his sermon on Job he says:-
“We should speak to laymen according to the measure of their understanding, so that they be not disheartened by the deepness, nor wearied by the length.”
It appears from Aelfric’s writings that one of the great duties of village priests was to combat superstition, which still survived from pagan days. Englishmen looked for omens in the flight of birds, in sneezes, in the actions of horses and dogs. A man who does this, says Aelfric, “is no Christian, but an infamous apostate.” He condemns the superstition that regarded some days as unlucky for journeying. He says:-
“All days are equally lucky, for God made them all. . . . I am ashamed to mention all the shameful superstitions, which ye foolish men practice through the devil’s lore in such matters as marrying, travelling, or brewing. . . . Some of you bring offerings to trees and stones and wells at the bidding of witches.”
Some of us, even today, practice queer tricks to bring us luck; possibly Aelfric’s Englishmen had more faith in them than we have.
While Aelfric was writing and studying England was being ravaged by the Northmen, and Ethelred the Redeless was paying Danegeld. The dreadful history of these years can be read in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, but to bring it home to us we may finish with a quotation from a sermon written by Wulfstan, Archbishop of York (1003 to 1023), about the year 1012, when Archbishop Alphege, of Canterbury, was murdered by the Northmen at Greenwich.
“What I am about to say is true. We must make amends. God’s laws have too long despised throughout our people, and human laws, since King Edgar’s death, have very grievously deteriorated. Holy places have lost their defenders. The churches of God are robbed of their rights and completely stripped of their possessions. And even Holy Orders have long been held in evil repute. . . . The poor and needy have been betrayed, and treacherously and cruelly tricked and sold into slavery far from home in a foreign land. . . . Everywhere there are constant ravagings by the enemy and hunger and burning and bloodshed. Robbery, murder, plague, pestilence, disease and death of cattle, slander, hatred and rapine do us grievous harm. We are oppressed by our foes. Bad weather had often brought us bad harvest. Kinsman has not protected kinsman, nor father son and son father, nor brother brother. The clergy do not live according to their rule not the laity according to law. . . . Furthermore, this their mothers, and brothers have sold their sons to foreigners, sons their mothers, and brothers their brothers. Such acts are hideous and terrible. . . . For long now the English have won no victory. . . . The sea raiders (i.e. the Northmen) with the help of God have attacked with such strength that one of them has often driven ten (Englishmen) before him, sometimes more, sometimes fewer. . . . They bitterly and cruelly oppress us very day. They lay waste nd burn and plunder and rob and carry booty to their ships. And what, alas! is the cause of all these many misfortunes, but the bitter, visible and manifest wrath of God against this nation. . . . Let us therefore do what is needed; let us turn to right dealing, and let us in some way or other avoid and forsake wrong. Let us carefully make amends for our misdeeds. Let us humbly approach Christ and call frequently upon him with trembling hearts and deserve his mercy. Let us love God and follow his divine laws. . . . Let us diligently cleanse our thoughts, and carefully observe our oaths and promises and maintain good faith among ourselves. . . . and let us prepare for ourselves the glory and happiness, which God has promised to those who in this world do his will. god help us. Amen.”
If the French-Norman, beginning their Conquest/Crusade of England in 1066, found the English church and laity living below the best ideals of the continent, we may attribute this in great measure by the inroads of the Northmen of which the French-Normans are themselves the last Viking raiders on England from the behest of the Pope in Rome, the French-Normans were willing to be his henchmen to change the Christian faith from Orthodox to the Roman Catholic Church so the pope could rule over this world and the next, he never asked the Holy Roman Emperor his military support whose first Emperor Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope!, who like the English was Western Rite Orthodoxy so to had to be destroyed like the English and so great change took place in England with the introduction of feudalism and the new Roman Catholic Church, the First Crusade and last one was the crusade against Constantinople in 1204 and the destruction of the greatest Christian city by a Christian army of French- Normans under the guidance of the Doge of Venice and the Pope in Rome to destroy the Eastern Orthodox Church and bring under his control the Christian faith for his benefit not God’s, but as history was to show this was to be challenged as people fought against this in word and deed.