Essays in Medieval Studies 22 (2005) 129-139
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Theory and Practice in Bede and Alfred the Great
It is standard now in accounts of late medieval English spirituality to acknowledge the debt owed to earlier Latin traditions, and just as standard, as much recent scholarship proves, to draw a line at the year 1050, in order to give pride of place to Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux and the remaining cadre of eleventh- and twelfth-century spiritual authors, rather than to earlier English writers.1 Very notable here is the influence of Sir Richard Southern, whose 1953 book The Making of the Middle Ages blazed the trail for subsequent scholarship by arguing that the century from 1050 to 1150, and the works of St. Anselm in particular, were the watershed of all later medieval spiritual writing.2 Much fine work, it is true, has built upon Southern's insights, but few if any scholars have (to my knowledge) expressed concern over the "writing off" of the Anglo-Saxon period his view implies. On the contrary, many otherwise fine studies appear content to accept it without question. Consider, as just one example, the 1997 essay collection entitled Mysticism and Spirituality in Medieval England, edited by William Pollard and Robert Boenig.3 The stated goal of the book's opening chapter is to situate late, mainly English, mystical and spiritual writing against the "rich background of Latin devotional literature."4 Reading on, however, one finds that "rich" background defined in quite narrow terms: before the twelfth century, it consists of just two writers, Augustine and Gregory the Great.
The omission of Anglo-Latin material—and the wider implication that there are no Anglo-Saxon spiritual traditions worth discussing—will no doubt bewilder scholars who work on the period. For not only did the Anglo-Saxons leave behind a sizeable corpus of vernacular texts well worth exploring for its spiritual import; they were also producers of Latin literature of various kinds, at least some of which must, it stands to reason, have affinities with what follows in the twelfth century. One could seek to validate this claim in any number of ways, but I concentrate [End Page 129] here on select texts from just two of the period's best known authors, the Venerable Bede and King Alfred the Great. My aim is to highlight some of the ways these writers anticipate the currents of thought and practice commonly said to mark later medieval devotional literature, and to argue thereby for a more integrated approach to the study of medieval English spirituality. Such an approach recognizes the achievements and contributions of Anglo-Saxon writers, who in some cases, as we shall see, were early developers of concerns that would become integral to the subsequent tradition.
To begin with Bede, let us start with an obvious affinity he shares with many spiritual authors of the post Anglo-Saxon period: like Anselm and Bernard, Bede was a monk and, accordingly, a monastic writer. Spending his whole life at the famed Northumbrian monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, he excelled in all the major genres of medieval monastic literature—hagiography, history, homily, biblical commentary, computus—and came at these, moreover, through a devotional framework of liturgy and prayer structured by the Divine Office.5 And yet, while lauded by modern scholars for his literary achievements, especially the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Bede has drawn virtually no interest as a spiritual writer, his monastic ties to later spiritual writers notwithstanding.6 Again we might turn to Southern's book for an explanation. In that work he characterized Benedictine monasticism in terms of a pre- and post-Anselmian mentalité. Anselm's achievement, we are told, involved prioritizing an acute sense of an "inner life," a "new type of ardent and effusive self-disclosure" that together pulled the monastic tradition to which Anselm belonged out of "the traditional orbit of the Benedictine life."7 Now in Southern's judgment, the "traditional orbit of the Benedictine life"—that...