Resources for Understanding Anglo-Saxon Monasticism and Old English Poetry

As part of my continued efforts to make available more obscure resources for understanding the cultural, intellectual, and religious context of the culture in which Old English poetry was copied down, I have created a page on my website for translations of texts that are difficult to find.

The two installments (no more are planned right now, but if folks find them helpful for themselves or students and let me know, I’d be happy to do more) are both documents providing some background to the early moves of the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform. I have heard both of these texts referenced in classes once or twice throughout my studies, but never actually read them. I found out recently that at least part of why I never read them is that there aren’t readily available Present Day English translations. Hence the new page.

Both texts have to do with the refounding of monasteries in Winchester. Why Winchester? It was the seat of royal power at the time, it had a bishop’s see, there was a growing city in the period with agriculture and craftspeople, and St. Æthelwold became bishop there, establishing a school that would shape Anglo-Saxon music, manuscript illustration, and the standardizing of the Old English language for decades.

The first text is a translation of the New Minster Charter from 966. Written in the voice of King Edgar, it was almost certainly composed by Æthelwold, and it is a surprisingly elaborate charter written in gold lettering and including an illustration of King Edgar that visually situates the grandeur and limits of royal power. The charter was likely intended to sit on the New Minster’s altar for the monks and the visitors to see, and it was meant to be read aloud throughout the year (though the chapter that promises to describe that process is missing.) The text places the refounding of Winchester’s New Minster in the context of salvation history, blesses those who will help the monks, condemns those who would hinder them, and notes that the monks will be able to choose their own abbot, all in a surprisingly elaborate way.

The second text is a letter from Pope John XII (+964) that gives permission to King Edgar (+975) and St. Æthelwold (+984) to eject secular priests from the Old Minster in Winchester and to set up monks in their place. The letter is important 1) in showing the papal blessing on innovations in church governance that the Reform was pursuing, like having monastic cathedral chapters and monks electing bishops (both of which were unique at this time in the western church), and 2) it helps attenuate somewhat a picture of St. Æthelwold as a particularly harsh figure. (An excellent treatment of how this perspective came to be can be found in Alison Hudson‘s article.) Though we do not want to understand such actions naively, the letter translated here provides context for Æthelwold’s actions at Winchester’s Old Minster in 964–namely, that King Edgar had received permission for the expulsion from Pope John XII via a letter to the pope from St. Dunstan (+988), archbishop of Canterbury. Æthelwold was the agent on the ground, as it were, but it is good to keep in mind that he was acting in concert with other powerful forces.

These pieces can help interested readers and students of western monasticism and Old English literature understand a bit more of the institutional conduits through which the majority of Old English, and lots of Anglo-Latin, was copied, preserved, and passed down the centuries.