Preaching Apocrypha in Early England: Historiographic Currents

I’ve been thinking for a while about posting my talk from Kalamazoo 2019, and I’ve finally gotten around to doing that. I was invited to present about my work on apocrypha for a session titled “Old English Homilies I: New Discoveries, New Insight,” sponsored by the Dictionary of Old English (DOE) and Electronic Corpus of Anonymous Homilies in Old English (ECHOE). What follows is a slightly edited version of the written form of the presentation, with images of my slides. (Note: Due to recent discussions in the medieval studies about the racial underpinnings of the term “Anglo-Saxon,” I have altered the title and some of the details to eliminate the phrase, instead adopting the term “early England” or “early English” in most cases.)


I begin with a premise that I hope is now well acknowledged: biblical apocrypha were everywhere in early England. This is especially true with early English preaching, which is permeated with apocrypha, including stories about the Israelite patriarchs, Jesus and his disciples, apocalyptica, and other subjects related to the Bible but outside of its boundaries. In this paper, I will focus specifically on intersections between preaching texts and apocrypha across the history of the field.

The subject of this paper allows me to emphasize the interconnectedness of source studies in apocrypha for poetic and prose works alike. Indeed, in the narrative I present, I want to demonstrate the intertwining of source studies about apocryphal influences on sermons with the range of other genres in early English literary culture. While there has been such a strong tendency to separate and distinguish between poetry and sermons, I want to emphasize how we should put them in conversation much more than we do–even in historiographic terms.

My aim is first to chart some of the major currents in historiography about apocrypha and early English preaching, particularly in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After charting some of this historiography, I will step back to assess some theoretical issues concerning our field, in order to highlight another intertwining of threads in this narrative: namely, the underlying connections between philology, nationalism, Orientalism, whiteness, and androcentrism in this narrative.

At the outset, I want to acknowledge that I do all of this as a cis-gender white man on an all white, all male panel; and I want to acknowledge the implications of that privileged perspective just as I seek to critically interrogate the field of apocrypha and studies of early English literature.

Early References to Apocrypha and Old English Literature

Early references to biblical apocrypha as sources of Old English literature emerged in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The first explicit mention that I have found of an apocryphon as a source for Old English literature appears in Jacob Grimm’s 1840 edition of the poems Andreas and Elene, in which Grimm made it clear that Andreas was based on an apocryphal story about Andrew and Matthias (1840, esp. xiv-xix). For examples of parallels to some aspects of Andreas, Grimm quoted part of the Martyrdom of Andrew included in the Virtutes apostolorum published by Johann Fabricius in 1703, in his Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti. Fabricius’ collection was, at the time, the only major collection of Latin apocrypha, and was widely popular–especially since Voltaire had published translations into French in 1769. Grimm’s observations about Andreas sparked a turn toward apocryphal sources that fed flame to many studies over the next several decades. In the first collective edition of the poetry in the Vercelli Book, 16 years later, J. M. Kemble clarified Grimm’s assessment with further information about the Acts of Andrew and Matthias (1856, xiii-xv), which has been acknowledged as the basis for Andreas ever since. From the same basis, we have learned much about the same source and its relationship to Old English sermons like Blickling 18.

In 1853, Franz Dietrich cited the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew for general parallels between apocryphal infancy gospels and a dialogue between Mary and Joseph in the Advent Lyrics (1853, 197-200). This reference became an important touchstone for later scholars tracing influences between this Old English poem, sermons, and apocryphal gospels like the Protevangelium of James and Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew. For example, in 1869, Oscar Schade published a version of Pseudo-Matthew from a Stuttgart manuscript and referred to the same associations between the Old English Advent Lyrics and the Protevangelium and Pseudo-Matthew (Schade 1869, 6). Such notices of parallels laid the groundwork for later studies of sources in anonymous Old English sermons, such as Max Förster’s identification of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew as the source for Vercelli 6.

Beowulf, Blickling, and Beyond

Given the monumental role of the Old English poem Beowulf in the study of medieval English literature, it is not surprising that some of the earliest citations of apocrypha in reference to English literary culture are associated with this work. After all, the poem Beowulf rests at the heart of Old English studies from an early moment in the shaping of the field. The first reference to apocryphal literature related to Beowulf that I can find is A. Diedrich Wackerbarth’s mention, in 1849, of the “Book of Enoch the Prophet” as a source for information about giants related to the biblical story of Cain and his descendants (1849, 127). In making this reference, Wackerbarth launched a quest for connections to Jewish pseudepigrapha, much like Grimm had launched a quest for connections to Christian apocrypha. Following Wackerbarth were studies by Karl W. Bouterwek and Oliver F. Emerson about Enoch traditions and Beowulf.

The implications of scholarship focusing on apocryphal traditions in Beowulf went further than just Old English verse. Other parallels between Beowulf and apocrypha appeared because of rising interest in Old English sermons as such in the late nineteenth century, when scholars turned their attention to preaching collections like the Vercelli and Blickling sermons.

In the 1880 preface to his edition of The Blickling Homilies, Richard Morris famously quoted a description of hell in the sermon known as Blickling 16 and pointed out parallels to Grendel’s mere in Beowulf (1874-80, vi-vii); at the time, Morris stated that the homiletic passage “is evidently borrowed from an older source” (vi). Friedrich Klaeber, the most famous editor of Beowulf, published a substantial examination of many Christian elements in the poem, in 1911-12 (trans. 1996), citing previously recognized parallels in 1 Enoch (25-26), as well as other references to traditions like the Harrowing of Hell (17, 22, 24, 65, 68), and further noting that the hellscapes in Beowulf and Blickling 16 echo the Apocalypse of Paul (63-64). Later, Theodore Silverstein took up the issue in his study of the recensions of the Apocalypse of Paul, suggesting that a version of this apocryphon stood behind both works as a common source (1935, 9). By the first decades of the twentieth century, apocrypha were firmly embedded in studies of Beowulf that take serious account of the Christian, Latinate sources behind the poem.

A “Golden Age

Such early assessments of apocryphal sources for Old English literature appeared at a time of intense growth in editions and translations of extra-biblical works. Publications of newly identified, edited, and translated apocrypha flourished throughout the later nineteenth century and the first few decades of the twentieth century, which Lorenzo DiTommaso has called the “Golden Age” of studies in the field of extra-biblical literature, ranging from the 1850s to 1914.

It is significant that the time between Grimm’s edition of the poems Andreas and Elene in 1840 and Klaeber’s study of Beowulf in 1911-12 was a period that saw many publications of apocryphal texts in original languages and translations. Indeed, Dietrich’s reference to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew as a parallel for the Advent Lyrics in 1853 was printed the same year as Constantin Tischendorf’s first edition of Evangelia Apocrypha (1853), which contained what would become the standard text of Pseudo-Matthew and many other apocryphal gospels. All of this was within only a few years of other major collections like:
Richard Clemens’s collection of Apokryphen Evangelien (1850)
Tischendorf’s Acta apostolorum apocrypha (1851), and
John Allen Giles’s Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti (1852); we might also note that Giles is well known for his work on Old English literature.

It is also worth mentioning that, just a few decades later, Richard Adalbert Lipsius discussed the Old English Andreas in his landmark study of apocryphal acts of apostles (1883-90, 1:547-48), less than a decade before his monumental edition of Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha (1891-1903).

With the increased publication of such milestones in the study of apocrypha, we turn to a new era in the study of apocrypha in the British Isles. Some significant publications that point toward scholarly trajectories may be mentioned to give a general picture of these developments.

Within this “Golden Age” are many publications by Montague Rhodes James. He contributed to not only the discovery and printing of previously unknown or obscure texts but also the massive undertaking of cataloging major manuscript collections in England. His publications alerted scholars to the contents of hundreds of late antique and medieval manuscripts in an age when descriptions and facsimiles were not readily available otherwise. Especially notable are his two series of Apocrypha Anecdota, and, later, The Apocryphal New Testament and Latin Infancy Gospels. James’s work is not to be overlooked by any serious scholar of apocrypha. His collections included previously unknown texts and versions, some discovered in his research in libraries of the British Isles. For example, James published a study about passages concerning the figures Jannes and Jambres in Latin and Old English in an eleventh-century manuscript, while he also mentioned a Latin fragment of 1 Enoch in another (1901; see also James 1893, 146-50). In the conclusion to that study, James stated, “Anglo-Saxon and Irish scholars seem to have been in possession of a good deal of rather rare apocryphal literature” (1901, 577), thus summing up much of the evidence that has accumulated before and since.

Between about 1890 and 1915, Max Förster brought increased attention to Old English prose like the Blickling and Vercelli collections, as well as other vernacular works rooted in translations of Latinate texts like biblical, late antique, and early medieval Christian literature, including apocrypha. The sources that Förster identified and made known range across genres, including texts like De plasmatione Adam, Jannes and Jambres, Revelation of Ezra, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the “Descensus ad Inferos,” Virtutes apostolorum, and Apocalypse of Thomas. The breadth of these titles alone should indicate the vast significance of Förster’s contributions.

During the same time period, other scholars offered more focused examinations, but no less substantial for the foundations they laid for future studies:
Gregor Sarrazin on Cynewulf’s Fates of the Apostles
A. S. Napier on the Holy Rood Tree and Sunday Letter 
Robert Priebsch on the Sunday Letter 
Richard P. Wülker and William H. Hulme on the Harrowing of Hell and Gospel of Nicodemus

Still others made in-roads on extra-biblical motifs as they appear throughout Old English literature, looking beyond specific texts as sources. For example, Louise Dudley’s studies of the soul and body motif in 1909 and 1911 posited a case for considering the cumulative effects of a longstanding theme across literature in Latin and vernacular languages as well as poetic and prose genres (1909 and 1911). She also demonstrated the deeply cross-cultural nature of apocrypha, as she traced so-called “Egyptian elements” in literature containing the soul and body motif from late antiquity into the medieval period.

Albert S. Cook’s extensive commentary on Christ I-III, in 1909, may be seen in a similar vein, as he was not concerned with studying singular sources of these poems but a whole host of potential influences.

Philology, Nationalism, Orientalism, Whiteness, & Androcentrism

In the rest of my time, I want to highlight another intertwining of threads that lie behind some of those currents I’ve already discussed: philology, nationalism, Orientalism, whiteness, and androcentrism.

The nineteenth century not only gave rise to studies of apocrypha in early English literary culture but also saw the blossoming of philology and source study alongside nationalism and colonialist expansion (see studies by O’Brien O’Keeffe; Momma; Borsa et al.; Zakai; Buschmeier). Hal Momma has charted the roots of philology in this period, and her work demonstrates various connections to nationalism. As scholars like Edward Said and a host of postcolonial critics have discussed, Orientalism fed much into major linguistic discoveries by philologists like Jacob Grimm, with whom I began this study.

Said reminds us that “The great philological discoveries in comparative grammar… were originally indebted to manuscripts brought from the East to Paris and London. Almost without exception, every Orientalist began his career as a philologist…” (Orientalism 98). It’s not difficult to connect this line of thinking to the nationalism infused in nineteenth-century philological endeavors by Grimm and others in the survey I have presented.

We might add to these considerations the further fact that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were pivotal for the rise of not only nationalism, philology, and source study but also the modern study of biblical apocrypha based on Westerners’ increased contact with the Near and Middle East because of imperialism. It is hardly possible to separate the emergence of Orientalism from the development of biblical studies–and, by extension, apocryphal studies–as an academic enterprise by Western scholars. This point is made by Said and a range of other scholars who have studied Orientalism, including even Said’s critics. The study of apocrypha was directly linked to Western scholars colonizing Eastern libraries.

Indeed, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we see dedicated study of extra-biblical literature throughout what might be called a “Republic of Apocryphal Letters,” which I intend to examine in my next book project. This foundational work has deeply influenced nineteenth- and twentieth-century studies of apocrypha, including work by those who study Old English literature. The network of this “Republic of Apocryphal Letters” includes works by the various men on this slide–all scholars who helped to shape the field of apocrypha studies that has, in turn, shaped a major part of early English studies.

Considering connections between philology, nationalism, and Orientalism, we might add to these names many of the previously discussed scholars of apocrypha who studied, edited, and translated apocrypha in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Tischendorf, Giles, Lipsius, Dudley, and James.

All of the scholars based their work on sources collected in the East during the age of European imperialism and knowledge built on Orientalist studies. In turn, the work of scholars seeking to understand the role of apocrypha in early England also would not have been possible without resting on philology, nationalism, colonialism, and Orientalism.

At this point, I want to highlight the whiteness of the historiographical narrative I’ve traced. I also want to highlight the androcentrism of this historiography. Throughout this narrative, white, male voices dominate scholarship.

As you might have noticed, Louise Dudley is the only woman mentioned in this historiography, as she is one of the only women to study apocrypha in early England until the 1970s. Since then, we fortunately have studies by women like (in roughly chronological order of their studies) Antonette di Paolo Healey, Joyce Bazire, Mary Clayton, Aideen M. O’Leary, Els Rose, Dorothy Haines, Jordan Zweck, Mary Rambaran-Olm, and Amity Reading.

But even this list is small, and not racially representative. Voices of women and scholars of color have largely been excluded. This should prompt us to reflect on who is included in or excluded from our field.

Dudley presents a case for us to dwell on in order to bring together some of the various threads I’ve discussed.

In 1909, Dudley published an article on the body and soul theme in Old English preaching and, in 1911, she published her dissertation, The Egyptian Elements in the Legend of the Body and Soul. In that study, she traced body and soul literature from ancient Egypt to early medieval England. Her book is a sweeping literary history, bringing greater attention to apocrypha like the Three Utterances and the Apocalypse of Paul. Unfortunately, Dudley’s work has been largely dismissed and effaced in subsequent scholarship.

For example, we might look at a few early reviews. First, this non-review by H. H. Spoer, in which he has very little to say other than mansplaining his own views. 

Second, we might note how Dudley’s subject as a woman in a man’s world is hard to miss. We see this in Spoer’s review, and just about all other subsequent contemporary mentions of her, as “Miss Dudley.” Perhaps the worst example is this anonymous reviewer’s use of the term “authoress” to address her:

Later scholarship is similarly frustrating.

In 1925, Louis Ginsberg dismisses Dudley’s claims and instead foregrounds Jewish and Christian connections:

His mention of Dudley’s inability to explain things that should seem rather obvious is damning, but it’s also only possible from the perspective of effacing her work on Egyptian sources in favor of Jewish and Christian literature instead.

In his own examination of the Three Utterances, Rudolph Willard also effaces Dudley’s work in a number of ways:

For one, while he mentions Dudley’s studies and cites them in a footnote, Willard does not mention her by name in his text. He also mentions how he has reprinted her text, effectively appropriating Dudley’s work so that later scholars only have to consult his publications, not hers. And that has been the case, as scholars have often cited Willard but not Dudley.

The reality, however, is that Dudley’s book is foundational and still a work of major importance–it remains one of only two comprehensive works on the soul and body theme across literary history. Yet it has been relegated to the background of scholarship on apocrypha.

Finally, I want to pause to emphasize some of the critical implications of Dudley’s work and its cold reception. Yes, Dudley relied on Orientalism in her approach to Egyptian sources–like other scholars who looked beyond Western Europe in a time of imperialism. But she also anticipated the current turn in our field toward the Global Middle Ages that has brought useful inroads for those of us studying apocrypha beyond just Western Europe. In seeking connections across cultures and time periods, Dudley was decades ahead of current trends in the field of medieval studies. Yet her work was dismissed, her methodologies chided, and her voice effectively silenced.

The historiography I’ve discussed, then, should give us pause to consider what the long history of the study of apocrypha in early England looks like, and why. We should reconsider the roots of our field and the implications of our field’s past, the texts we’ve used, the scholars we’ve dismissed, the voices who have flourished, and those who have not.


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