Old English Prose: Passio and Vita

Two Concepts of a Saint’s Life in Anglo-Saxon England

Term Paper, 2009

35 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Historical Situation: England in the 10th Century
2.1 The Way to Christianity
2.2 The Beginning of Monastic Life
2.3 Anglo-Saxon Society
2.4 The Venerable Bede
2.5 The Vikings
2.6 King Alfred
2.7 The Benedictine Reform

3. The Author: Ælfric of Eynsham

4. The Genre
4.1 The Importance of Saints
4.2 Saints’ Lives - a Typical Christian Genre

5. Linguistic Analysis
5.1 General observations
5.1.1 The Sources
5.1.2 Overall Structures of the Texts
5.1.3 Syntactic Structure
5.1.4 Alliterative Elements
5.1.5 Discourse
5.1.6 Forms of Address, Interjections
5.2 Passive Constructions
5.2.1 Passive Clauses: Two Definitions
5.2.2 General Considerations
5.2.3 The Use of Passive in Old English
5.2.4 Examples from the Texts

6. Conclusion

7. References

8. Appendix
8.1 Translation of the Life of St Edmund into Present-Day German
8.2 Translation of the Life of St Æthelthryth into Present-Day German

1. Introduction

Lives of saints were a very popular genre in Christian Europe throughout the entire Middle Ages, and their popularity did not cease until the Reformation in the 16th century. Since Late Antiquity two basic concepts of saints’ lives had evolved, the passio (‘passion’) and the vita (‘life’). “The passio was the literary form appropriate for a saint who had been martyred for his / her faith, whereas the vita properly pertained to a confessor (that is, a saint whose impec- cable service to God constituted a metaphorical, not real, martyrdom).” (Lapidge 1991: 252)

Saints’ lives circulated widely in Anglo-Saxon England, most of which were composed in Latin. At the end of the 10th century the monk and author Ælfric of Eynsham translated a col- lection of forty lives of saints into the Old English vernacular. Together with his Catholic Homi- lies, they represent the heyday of Old English prose in the late 10th and early 11th century. The overall intention of his Lives of Saints is the same, namely to commemorate a saint on his or her feast day, and to instruct and edify the reader or hearer. The particular lives, however, are treated individually according to the different concepts, the passio and the vita. Two of Ælfric’s Lives of Saints, St Edmund’s and St Ætheldryth‘s, represent these two concepts. The former de- scribes a man’s life of active participation with a Christian impetus culminating in martyrdom and death, whereas the latter represents a woman’s life remote from worldly affairs, which can also be described as a passive life.

Ælfric was not just a learned monk and translator but a formidable writer and stylist in his mother tongue. The fact that he had written a book for teaching Latin in Old English leads to the assumption that he must have been familiar with the peculiarities of grammatical construc- tions in both languages. A comparison between The Life of St Edmund (passio) and the Life of St Æthelthryth (vita), will show that--despite many parallels--he strengthens the individual concepts, male and active vs. female and passive, not only by purely stylistic but also grammati- cal means.

2. Historical Situation: England in the 10th Century

2.1 The Way to Christianity

At the beginning of the 10th century, Anglo-Saxon rule over England had been lasting for almost half a millennium. A decisive incident in the Anglo-Saxon period was the arrival of Christian missionaries in Kent in the year 597 AD, which by that time was a local and prosper- ous kingdom ruled by King Æthelberht. Pope Gregory the Great had sent Augustine, a prior from a monastery in Rome, together with some 40 brethren to England in order to gain the country for the Roman Church. However, King Æthelberht was not unfamiliar with the Chris- tian religion. He was married to a Frankish Princess, Bertha, who was Christian and who had not only brought a Frankish bishop with her, but was also given a church building and the right to worship as she had been used to. Augustine and his men were successful and a year later Pope Gregory could report to the Patriarch of Alexandria, “At the feast of Christmas last more than 10,000 English are reported to have been baptized.” (Campbell 1982: 45) As a con- sequence and in acknowledgement of his missionary success, Augustine was later canonized and bestowed the title “Apostle of the English”.

Forty years before St. Augustine began his mission in the very south of England, the Irish monk Columba had debarked at the west coast of Scotland, together with eleven brethren. Ireland had been converted to Christianity in the fifth century by St. Patrick and subsequently developed its own Churches, in which monasticism played an important role. The Irish Chur- ches acknowledged the pope’s authority and there is evidence for an intensive transfer of Christian writings from the Continent (Prinz 2000: 338), but the island was probably too re- mote to be regarded as a possible vital member of the Church by Rome.

This changed when Columba and his men started their missionary work. They founded a monastery on Iona, an island belonging to the Hebrides, which should become influential for the whole north of Britain within the next decades. Columba and his brethren founded a series of monasteries and dioceses and some of the Anglo-Saxon kings in the north converted to Christianity as a result of their missionary work.

Most Irish Churches differed from the Roman Church in two important aspects: the method of calculating the date of Easter, and the mode of cutting a monk’s tonsure. To modern reader this might seem petty, but for people of the early Middle Ages it was crucial. “Some have been inclined to see Easter as a mere casus belli, in a conflict between Churches with opposed prin- ciples and systems; the Celtic, holy, humble but ill-organized, and the Roman, conventional, proud but efficient. Reality was simpler. They did care about Easter.” (Campbell 1982: 47) A synod was held at Whitby in 664 to arrange the quarrel and the majority voted for the Roman method. This decision cleared the way for a considerable religious and cultural impetus.

2.2 The Beginning of Monastic Life

The missionaries, both the Irish and the Romans, did a good job and their work soon bore fruit: they founded new monasteries and dioceses all over England and a little more than a century later Bede could state, “that paganism was extinct by his day” (Campbell 1982: 51). Especially monasteries had various tasks in the early Middle Ages. First and above all they were centres of the Christian cult. The monks usually followed a rule which told them how often to pray, sing psalms or celebrate Mass. But beside their liturgical tasks the monks did a lot more. All realms of life were strictly regulated within the monastic community. A church with a choir had to be built, usually of worked stone. Land had to be cultivated, which usually meant that the peasants who worked on that land had to be instructed and supervised. The monks were to provide themselves with everything they needed in order to celebrate Mass: silver or gilt plates, chalices, candle holders, and, above all, books of the holy texts: Jerome’s Vulgate, Psal- ters, Gospels and books of the church fathers. These books were not only read, but also copied (by hand) and compiled in richly decorated books made of parchment. Some monasteries soon became centres of scholarship and of the production of illuminated manuscripts.

In the early Middle Ages monasticism was nothing for the common man. Monasteries

recruited their monks and nuns mainly from the upper-class. “The milieu of early Anglo-Saxon Christianity was aristocratic (…)” (Campbell 1982: 90) Many nobles and wealthy freemen felt attracted to the Christian ideal of a vita contemplativa, an escape from worldly things and the devotion of one’s life to God, and sent their sons and daughters to monasteries. There the children received a profound education and usually remained in the monastery for the rest of their lives. A large number of abbeys was founded by noblemen and the abbot or abbess was normally supplied by the same family. In return the abbeys were endowed with land and peas- ants and some of them grew very wealthy in the course of their history. (Prinz 2000, 96 ff.)

As the Christianization of England--like other parts of Europe of that time-- took place in accordance with the ruling classes, it was also a matter of politics. Many kings adopted the new faith because they felt that is was an opportune moment. A]nd also many monasteries were not only founded for the sake of salvation. “Most of the new monasteries were monas- teries only in name: noblemen were receiving chartered endowments on the pretext of found- ing monasteries, but living there like secular lords, with their families and retainers.” (Campbell 1982: 78) And the episcopal situation was not any different. From the beginning bishops were not only clerical but also secular lords.

However, in the seventh century the number of monasteries grew rapidly. “By the end of the pre-Viking period, it is possible to count over 200 monastic communities in England as a whole; given the patchy nature of evidence, this is probably an under-estimate.” (Campbell 1982: 72-3). Some of them became famous for the production of manuscripts, like Lindisfarne on the north-east coast of England. An illuminated manuscript from the eighth century, the famous Lindisfarne Gospel, has come down to us and is today regarded as one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon art. Other monasteries like Monkwearmouth and Jarrow, where Bede spent his monastic life, were long renowned for their learning.

2.3 Anglo-Saxon Society

In the first centuries after their arrival in England, the Anglo-Saxons founded a series of kingdoms which were in a state of almost permanent warfare. Anglo-Saxon society was a warrior society and the loyalty between a lord and his retainers was crucial, and this did not change with Christianization. The famous poem Beowulf clearly gives an impression of what a royal court of the seventh or eighth century might have looked like. “A king lives surrounded by noble warriors, who feast with him, sleep in his hall by night, fight for him and are ready, or anyway sincerely hoped to be ready, to die for him. Their number and loyalty are crucial to royal power.” (Campbell 1982: 54) A special phenomenon of that time were feuds. Most of them were fought to death and retainers were expected to follow and support their lords. Many Anglo- Saxon noblemen and even kings, who had lost battles, were driven into exile because of feuds.

The early kingdoms were permanently aspiring to enlarge their spheres of control. They are often referred to as a heptarchy consisting of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. “Although it has long been convenient to think of a heptarchy of seven kingdoms (…), reality was richer. For example, we hear of kings of Wight, of the West Midland kingdoms of the Hwicce and the Magonsaete, and of Lindsey. There were probably others of whom we know nothing.” (Campbell 1982: 53) Occasionally, a king of one of the larger three kingdoms, Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria, gained hegemony over the others. The Anglo- Saxon Chronicle calls these kings bretwaldas which is ‘Ruler of Britain’ in modern terms.

Even though Anglo-Saxon society often seems brutal and archaic, it was far from primi- tive. When the first Germanic tribes arrived in England, they found Roman cities, a Roman infrastructure and hangovers of Roman administration which was apparently upheld by the remaining Britons. We do not know to which extent the conquerors took over governmental structures from the Britons, but there must have remained some sort of administration. Other- wise it cannot be explained how they erected monumental fortification works like, for exam- ple, Offa’s Dyke in Wales. “There is good reason to suppose that here, and in other areas in the north, the system of local organization and government was one not so much created by the Anglo-Saxons as taken over by them from the Britons.” (Campbell 1982: 58)

Anglo-Saxon rule over Britain lasted more than five centuries, a period as long as from Reformation time until the present day. It is evident that significant changes in society and administration must have taken place during this period. In the course of the Viking Wars in the ninth and tenth century the country was united under the supremacy of the West Saxon kings and considerable progress was made as to the efficiency of administration and national defence. However, the term ‘administration’ should not be seen from the perspective of a present-day nation state. Anglo-Saxon England had written laws but no such thing like a con- stitution. Loyalty was always linked to real persons, not to the abstract concept of a nation--a term which was coined much later in history. “This society was held together by the bonds of lordship, or perhaps better the bonds and the privileges of lordship. The great magnates were the vassals of their lord the king; they would, in turn, have a number of ordinary warriors sub- ordinate to them.” (Campbell 1982: 168)

2.4 The Venerable Bede

One of the most outstanding personalities of the Anglo-Saxon period was a monk named Bede. Being sent to the twin monastery of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow as a young boy, he spent almost all his life (673-735) in this monastery in North East England which at that time was the prospering kingdom of Northumbria. Monkwearmouth-Jarrow was founded in 674 by Benedict Biscop, a Northumbrian nobleman, who had renounced the world and travelled for many years throughout Europe before returning to Northumbria. He brought not only craftsmen from the Continent but also new ideas from the most distinguished monasteries in Gaul and Italy and, above all, a large number of Christian books, manuscripts and pictures.

Bede received an excellent education which, at that time, meant a classical education based on Latin grammarians and other Latin authors including the fathers of church, Pliny the Elder, Virgil, Ovid and Horace. It is thus not surprising that Bede wrote almost only in Latin. It must have been hard though for a young Anglo-Saxon coming from an illiterate background to cope with both learning a foreign language astonishing it is what he achieved in his lifetime: he wrote commentaries on the Old and the New Testament, works on science and chronology, and the dating of Easter, educational works and poems. What he is most renowned for today is a monumental work in five books called Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or An Ecclesiastical History of the English People. This work con- tains most of the information we have today about English history before the Norman Con- quest and it also formed the basis of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which was initiated by king Alfred 150 years later. Most popular among his contemporaries were several Lives of Saints, the Live of St Æthelthryth being one of them. In his Old English translation, which is one of the two texts being discussed here, Ælfric directly refers to Bede as the author of this work: ìNˆ cw„- se h·lga BÈda, e s bÚc gesette...î (Now says the holy Bede, who wrote this book...).

“In the first place, Bede’s life and work constitute the most important monument, and the most striking symbol, of the highly dramatic cultural changes that followed the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons. The new faith brought with it the book, both as a means of communication and as an object of devoted decoration. It also brought building and carving in stone. Though the analogy should not be pressed, an age which has seen the advent of the microchip and prestressed concrete can appreciate what such changes can mean.” (Campbell 1982: 70) Due to his numerous intellectual merits Bede was soon known as the Venerable Bede all across Europe.

2.5 The Vikings

Since the late eighth century Viking marauders from Scandinavia had terrorized the coas- tal regions of all western Europe, especially England and the north coast of France. At the be- ginning their aim was not to conquer new territories, but to plunder and devastate rich cities and especially monasteries. In contemporary chronicles the Vikings (‘viking’ is the Old Norse word for ‘pirate’) were also called ‘Northmen’ or ‘Danes’.

After a century of spontaneous raids, the Vikings sought to find land where they could settle. As England was lacking a strong central power in the middle of the ninth century, the Anglo-Saxon kings were unable to defeat the Vikings. In the following decades they settled in large numbers in East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria. Their settlement was so numerous and overwhelming that the Anglo-Saxons could not but accept it. A line was drawn from Chester in the North downward to the mouth of the river Thames, and the realm north-east of it was given to the Danes. (Burrow and Turville-Petre 2005: 14) Later this area was called the Danelaw meaning that the Danes were not subject to Anglo-Saxon law. For a period of almost a hun- dred years parts of Mercia, Essex and Northumbria and all of Anglia fell under Danish rule and Danish law.

“Modern views of the Vikings tend, nevertheless, to play down the size and ferocity of Vi- king attacks even in this later stage. It is argued that medieval chroniclers were always prone to exaggerate numbers and the extent of any disaster. Ocean-going Viking ships could not carry more than 30 men, and fewer if horses, camp followers and prisoners were also on board (as we know they were in the 890s). The numerous Scandinavian place-names of the Danelaw

(…), and the considerable impact of Scandinavian languages on English, give an impression of dense settlement, but such effects could be achieved by a relatively small number of Danish landlords and governors.” (Campbell 1982: 147)

2.6 King Alfred

In the ninth century the House of Wessex gained hegemony in England. When King Alfred ascended the throne in 871, he was faced with huge problems. The Vikings were about to bring the whole country under their control. Alfred managed not only to stop the Vikings’ advance but also to roll them back. He started a series of reforms in England which “(…) amounted to the most sustained programme of military, administrative, diplomatic and cultural change in the West since Charlemagne.” (Campbell 1982: 149) After his death in 899, his successors, his son and grandsons, accomplished what he had begun and reconquered and united all England.

King Alfred was not only a political and military genius, he was also a learned man. Unlike most medieval kings, Alfred was able to read and write both English and Latin. He was fully aware of the advantages of literacy, and he realized that the Viking Wars had not just brought about physical devastation but also mental and cultural deterioration. Among the clergy the level of Latin had declined dramatically since the days of Bede, and Alfred feared for Christian learning in England. He started a programme to revive education promoting primarily the vernacular. “For Alfred the major function of writing in English is the transmission and preser- vation of knowledge, and he points to the general ignorance of Latin as a reason for learning English.” (Godden 1992: 520)

Ælfric’s efforts bore fruit: During his reign and after his death the production of Old Eng- lish manuscripts increased considerably. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a work which had been initiated by Alfred, was continued as far as the 12th century.

2.7 The Benedictine Reform

About half a century after King Alfred’s death new ideas about a reform of the Church and of monasticism emerged. The movement started on the continent and quickly spread over Lotharingia, Burgundy and the lower Rhineland. The main objective of the reformers was to give the Church more independence and discipline, and to bring monasticism back to the strict rule of St Benedict. English monks, who had travelled throughout the Continent and visited some of the recently reformed monasteries, brought the new ideas to England, the most prominent of whom were Æthelwold, Dunstan and Oswald.

Wessex was the centre of the reform movement and the reformers had the support of the king. “Æthelwold‘s abbey at Abbingdon was the source from which new reforming abbots and, later, monastic bishops were recruited.” (Campbell 1982: 185) The result was a genuine revival of monasticism in England and the refounding of destroyed or deserted abbeys.


Excerpt out of 35 pages


Old English Prose: Passio and Vita
Two Concepts of a Saint’s Life in Anglo-Saxon England
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
Hauptseminar Old English Prose
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
558 KB
Kommentar des Professors: „Zwar ist der historische Teil sehr umfangreich, dennoch überzeugt die Arbeit in Darstellung, Textanalyse und Argumentation. Sprachlich auf hohem Niveau.“ Der Text enthält u.a. Zitate in deutscher Sprache sowie als Anhang die Übersetzung der diskutierten Texte ins Deutsche. Although written in English, the paper contains quotations in German, and, as an appendix, a translation of the Old English texts discussed into Modern German.
Old English, Prose, Anglo-Saxon, Diachronic Linguistics, Live of Saints, Heiligenlegende, Ælfric of Eynsham, Passive Voice, Passive Constructions, Alliterations
Quote paper
Michael Pieck (Author), 2009, Old English Prose: Passio and Vita, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/150971


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Old English Prose: Passio and Vita

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free