Ælfric’s Genesis and Bede’s Commentarius in Genesim

My article “Ælfric’s Genesis and Bede’s Commentarius in Genesim” has been accepted for publication in Medium Ævum, forthcoming within the next year. In this article, I suggest that one contributing factor to Ælfric’s decision to stop translating Genesis halfway through (at chapter 22) is his knowledge of and use of Bede’s Commentarius in Genesim, which also concludes after the story of Isaac. With this basis in mind, I trace connections between Ælfric’s Preface to Genesis and Bede’s commentary, the tradition of Genesis exegesis, and a textual crux in the manuscript texts of the Old English Heptateuch. The implications suggest a more nuanced understanding of Ælfric’s reasons for concluding his project where he did, his fusing together of translation and exegesis, and problems that later scribes faced in reconciling Ælfric’s Genesis with various other Old English versions of the Heptateuch as a whole.

Below are the introduction and a few brief excerpts (minus some footnote references) to tantalize readers:

Sometime between 992 and 1002, the Anglo-Saxon monk Ælfric (c.955-c.1010) translated part of the Latin Vulgate version of Genesis into Old English and wrote a vernacular Preface to his work. During this same time period, he also translated the Quaestiones in Genesim by Alcuin of York (c.735-804) and composed an Old English Hexameron on the six days of Creation. With such concerted interest in Genesis, Ælfric became one of the earliest translators of the Bible into the English language and joined the legacy of patristic and medieval scholars who had previously written about the biblical book. Prominent figures in this legacy who wrote works on Genesis influential for Ælfric include Basil of Caesarea (329/30-379), Ambrose of Milan (c.340-397), Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Bede of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow (672/3-735), and Alcuin—authors whom Ælfric judiciously echoes at the same time that he supplements them with his own contributions, synthesizing biblical exegesis up to his own time. This article examines one aspect of Ælfric’s engagement with sources, arguing for his use of Bede’s work on Genesis as a model for his own exegesis and translation.

In his Preface to Genesis, Ælfric gives a clear statement about his reason for translating only the first part of the biblical book. According to his claims, the practical reason is that his patron Æthelweard already had possession of a translation for the latter part of the book. Yet there is good reason to believe that Ælfric’s assertions in such instances have more complicated explanations behind them. […] I propose that another suitable explanation for Ælfric’s translation stopping point is found in reference to Bede’s Commentarius in Genesim and the author’s note about this text at the end of his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. The implications of this proposed source allow for exploring two related aspects of Ælfric’s work on Genesis: first, a set of relationships between Ælfric’s work on Genesis and previous exegesis on the biblical book; and, second, a textual crux in the manuscripts containing the longer and later (eleventh-century) translation project known as the Old English Heptateuch.


As evidence for Ælfric’s thinking on the topic of Bede and where to end his translation of Genesis, a number of other related texts may be brought together. Bede and Ælfric, in fact, stand in a long line of those who worked on Genesis but never addressed the whole book. For all of their popularity and influences on later authors, Basil’s Hexameron (translated into Latin by Eustathius) and Ambrose’s work by the same title constitute commentaries only on the first six days of Creation. Augustine famously wrote multiple commentaries on Genesis (De Genesi contra Manichaeos, De Genesi ad litteram imperfectus liber, and De Genesi ad litteram), none of them explicating the latter part of the book. Bede used all of these works throughout his corpus. In the preface to his own Commentarius in Genesim (a letter to Acca, Bishop of Hexham [c.660-740/2]), Bede cites Basil, Ambrose, and Augustine by name, referring to their commentaries on Genesis as chief among his sources, and including further references to Augustine’s Confessiones and Contra aduersarium legis et prophetarum. As already noted, Ælfric’s sources for work on Genesis include Alcuin’s Quaestiones in Genesim, which he knew directly since he translated it into an Old English text now known as Alcuini Interrogationes Sigewulfi. Alcuin’s treatise has a complicated relationship of reliance on Augustine’s De Genesi ad litteram and Bede’s In Genesim, since Alcuin echoes both authors but thoughtfully reworks their exegesis in ways that make it difficult to distinguish his dependence on one or the other. Even before Ælfric’s time, exegesis on Genesis that he would have read and relied on is already a complicated network of scholarly interplay.


The correlations I have proposed so far may be further considered to explore the implications of the present argument by turning to a crux in manuscripts of the Old English Heptateuch. Whereas Ælfric translated only part of Genesis, other, anonymous Anglo-Saxon translators also worked to render the first seven books of the Bible into Old English. The collective, cumulative work of Ælfric and other translators is represented in a combined text now known as the Old English Heptateuch. […]

The conventional view is that Ælfric’s translation of Genesis as it survives in the Old English Heptateuch ends at xxiv.22 or xxiv.26, based on the text ending at this point in Cambridge Ii.1.33. Yet there are reasons for reassessing the end-point of Ælfric’s translation, particularly regarding the suggestions I have posed. […]


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