Ælfric of Eynsham inspired a study by students of Eynsham Primary School in 2005. This is part of the introduction; the full text includes copious extracts from the Colloquy - the very first Latin primer - with fascinating insights into the mediaeval diet and life-style too.
Ælfric probably came from a parish near Winchester where there is the Cathedral and at the time of Aelfric, a Benedictine Abbey. By the time Aelfric joined the abbey it was under the rule of Aelthelwold. Aelthelwold was a reforming clergyman who was a follower of the Benedictine Rule. When he first went to Winchester he was shocked by the behaviour of the monks. Writing 40 years later Aelfric described them as drunken and riotous with wives and children!
Aethelwold saw in Aelfric a right-thinking monk and taught him carefully so that he in turn could take on responsibilities. When he was about thirty he was sent to Cerne Abbey in Dorset to help establish the Rule of Benedict in the way Aethelwold wished. It was there that he did most of his writing as well as teaching. Aelfric saw his main purposes as writing to instruct, and teaching. It has been said that he brought to his teaching a combination of gentleness, severity and artistry.
He was very keen that his pupils should know their Latin. They came from English speaking homes and therefore had to work hard to learn a new language. Aelfric did his best to make his learning pleasant. He wrote a basic Latin Grammar on traditional lines as well as a list of Latin/English words, rather like a vocabulary/phrase book. The services the monks attended were in Latin so they needed to be able to follow.
His most famous book, the Colloquy, is written in both Latin and Anglo- Saxon English. A colloquy means a conversation and Aelfric's Colloquy consists of conversations between a master and his pupils, taking the role of different tradesmen and involving grammar, syntax and vocabulary. It also had to be learnt by heart.
Aelfric was sent to Eynsham to be its first Abbot, when it was given its foundation Charter in 1005. There had been a place of worship in Eynsham for many years but the holy men who had been there had fled from the Vikings when they came up the Thames. Aethelmaer who gave the money for the foundation of the Abbey was a relative of the royal family of the time and he bought and so that the Abbey could have an income from the rents of the lands. As part of his preparation of the monks for the new Abbey, Aelfric wrote them a letter explaining how he had come to be made Abbot over them and what he expected from them, setting out his interpretation of the Benedictine Rule. Although he was serious about the keeping of the Rule, he was not severe. He also implied in his letter that they had it easier than he had had in his day. What's new!
Aelfric died around 1010 when he was about 53 years old. The exact date is not known, but there are no more of his writings after that date.
English but not as we know it! Listen to an early English sound clip - click on any highlighted section number.
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