Ælfric of Eynsham on Ash Wednesday

Ælfric of Eynsham (Old English: Ælfrīc; Latin: Alfricus, Elphricus; c. 955 – c. 1010) was an English abbot, as well as a consummate, prolific writer in Old English of hagiography, homilies, biblical commentaries, and other genres. Aelfric wrote two series of homiles as well as a work on the lives of the saints, in Anglo Saxon. He is also credited with authoring the Old English Hexateuch, was revolutionary, for it was the first time that the Bible was translated from Latin into the vernacular, that is, into Old English. To his translation of Genesis, he wrote a preface. This preface was to ensure that the uneducated who might read this translation of the Old Testament would understand that they ought not believe that the practices of the ancient Israelites were still acceptable for Christians. In his preface, Ælfric employs the same writing techniques that King Alfred used in his preface to a translation of the Cura Pastoralis. Also notable is that in his translation of Genesis Ælfric did not just translate it word for word from the Latin, which was common due to the belief that the word order of sacred Scripture was itself sacred. Rather, he translated much of it by its meaning; he recognized that the meaning of what the Bible said was the most important thing to be conveyed, not the word order.

Below is an excerpt from his homily for Ash Wednesday – still relevant today


Anglo- Saxon

On þone wodnesdæg wide geond eorðan sacerdas bletsiað swa swa hit geset ís clæne axan on cyrcan and þa siððan lecgað  uppa manna hæfda þæt hi habban on gemynde þæt hi of eorðan comon and eft to duste gewendað swa swa se ælmihtiga god to adame cwæð siððan he agylt hæfde ongean godes bebod:

‘On geswincum þu leofast and on swate þu etst þinne hlaf on eorðan oðþæt þu eft gewende to þære ylcan eorðan þe þu of come forðan þe þu eart dust and to duste gewendst.’

Nis þis na gesæd be manna sawlum ac be manna lichaman þe formolsniað to duste and eft sceolan on domes dæg ðurh ures drihtnes mihte ealle of eorðan arisan þe æfre cuce wæron swa swa ealle treowa cuciað æfre on lenctenes timan þe ær þurh wyntres cyle wurdon adydde.


English Translation

On that Wednesday, throughout the world, as it is appointed, priests bless clean ashes in church, and then lay them on people’s heads, so that they may remember that they came from earth and will return again to dust, just as Almighty God said to Adam, after he had sinned against God’s command:

‘In labour you shall live and in sweat you shall eat your bread upon the earth, until you return again to the same earth from which you came, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’

This is not said about the souls of mankind, but about their bodies, which moulder to dust, and shall again on Judgement Day, through the power of our Lord, rise from the earth, all who ever lived, just as all trees quicken again in the season of spring which were deadened by the winter’s chill.