Preaching Apocrypha: Beginnings

My book Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England will be out from the University of Toronto Press in July (pre-order at that link for 25% off!), so lately I’ve been thinking about the project as it’s developed over the years. Over the next several weeks before the release of the book, I’ll be posting some reflections about it.

In this post, I want to focus on the inception of the project. First, there’s a little background to fill in.

When I started my master’s degree in Medieval Studies at the University of Connecticut, I knew I wanted to focus on Anglo-Saxon literature, especially Old English. I was also interested in religion, but at that point I didn’t know how it would play out. My first semester, I took a seminar with Tom Jambeck (who co-authored Reading Old English: A Primer and First Reader) learning the Old English language, and I wrote a seminar paper on a few of Wulfstan’s homilies.

I fell in love with Old English preaching.

I found pleasure in the style, the ways of expression, the imagery, the connections to other Anglo-Saxon literature and cultural contexts. I discovered the web of Old English texts, versions, and manuscripts that survived with sermons in them. I started to think about and read works by Ælfric of Eynsham, Wulfstan of York, and the anonymous authors so often juxtaposed against them. While my grad school friends found these sermons and my interests in them odd, and veered toward things like Old English poetry, I became that guy who loved Old English preaching.

About a year and a half later, in my last semester of MA coursework in spring 2009, Bob Hasenfratz (Tom’s co-author on Reading Old English) offered an advanced Old English seminar on the Vercelli Book. For me, this was the perfect seminar. I loved the Vercelli Book poetry before (especially The Dream of the Rood), fell in love with the sermons during the seminar, and still love the codex to this day. I continue to believe that the Vercelli Book is the greatest Old English manuscript from Anglo-Saxon England.

While in that Vercelli Book seminar, I continued to focus on the sermons, and began to research the sources and ways they were composed. What I quickly found were the various biblical apocrypha that lay behind the Vercelli Book poems and sermons. I recently found the notebook I used when I began research for my seminar paper. Here’s the first page:


I was familiar with some apocryphal literature already, but I started to dig more deeply. I began reading works that can be found in collections like The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, edited by James H. Charlesworth, and The New Testament Apocrypha, edited by Wilhelm Schneemelcher.

I started to see apocrypha everywhere.


A page from the notebook I used for research notes for my Vercelli Book seminar paper, spring 2009.

I found echoes of apocrypha in Old English literature specifically and medieval literature more broadly. I quickly discovered the Sources of Anglo-Saxon Literary Culture volume on Apocrypha, edited by Fred Biggs, who had been my professor in a few other courses already. As I researched apocrypha in the Vercelli Book and talked more with Fred, I began to develop my ideas about the subject.

I made obsessive lists like these:


It’s teleological to think back now, in hindsight, and see it this way, but my scholarly career seems to have coalesced in that Vercelli Book seminar.

That seminar and the paper I wrote for it set my future research trajectory. I eventually revised a part of the paper into an article in Anglo-Saxon England. (You can see the start of that project in the above photo, where it says, on the left-hand page, “Cross in the Sky.”) I solidified my desire to write a dissertation about Old English sermons. My interest in apocrypha pushed me to branch out in my PhD coursework to explore Judaic studies. I started forming more of a working relationship with Fred, who would become one of my co-advisors for my dissertation. Most of all, I started to conceptualize big questions about apocrypha and Old English sermons.

Heading toward a conclusion to this post, I’ll quote part of my seminar paper on the Vercelli Book. That paper includes ideas that served as the seed that grew into my dissertation, which I later revised into my book, like this one:

[I]t is clear that apocryphal materials are woven throughout the Vercelli Book, with specific threads appearing in both the homiletic and poetic texts. What I aim to demonstrate in this paper is threefold: first, to propose apocryphal influences in the apocalyptic motifs of two of the least scrutinized homilies, II and XXI; second, to argue that the Vercelli Book compiler did not distinguish between biblical and apocryphal materials as modern scholars would, but instead used works derived from both forms in order to create a unified codex based on traditional authority; and, third, to examine the implications of these apocryphal sources used as authoritative biblical materials for our understanding of the Vercelli Book within the intellectual context of tenth-century Anglo-Saxon England.

I still stand by these assessments. Yet, as I argue in Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England, these ideas go well beyond the Vercelli Book to encompass the much wider corpus of Old English preaching texts, and the implications are even more significant for considering apocrypha in early England.


One comment

  1. […] [This post is part 2 in a series of reflections about my book, Preaching Apocrypha in Anglo-Saxon England (pre-order here); read part 1 here.] […]

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