Friday, November 30, 2012

Dissertation Revelation: Pervasive Apocypha

When I first started writing my dissertation proposal, I knew that apocrypha were important in Anglo-Saxon England. Otherwise, why would it be suitable for a dissertation? Of course, many others have written about the subject, but I wanted to offer a larger scope, a fuller examination beyond just a few topics. So I planned a project in which I use each chapter to look at a specific apocryphal genre--extra-canonical gospels, Acts, apocalyptica--and how texts in that genre are adapted into Old English sermons. That's all been there from the beginning, and it still is.

But I recently had a revelation that pushed all of this forward for me. Apocrypha were not just important for the sermons, or for specific (mostly anonymous) authors who wrote the texts in which I am most interested. No, I realized something else. I realized an important fact about the transmission of apocryphal materials: namely, that apocrypha were pervasive.

That should have seemed obvious from the amount of scholarly discussion amassed on the subject. The collaborative SASLC volume on The Apocrypha, ed. Biggs is around 100 pages summarizing and condensing all of this scholarship, ranging across the range of Jewish and Christian apocrypha and pseudepigrapha that possibly influenced Anglo-Saxons. But, for my own topic--focused just on Christian apocrypha--the mass of media hadn't quite hit me until recently. I was writing about Ælfric and the apocryphal Acts of the apostles when it happened. The following is what I wrote.
Ælfric would have had access to apocryphal apostolic Acts all around him, in a variety of forms. Further confirmation of this notion is found in the extensive list of Latin works that Ælfric directly cites, as reconstructed by Michael Lapidge.[1] Including works by forty-two named authors, as well as several more anonymous titles, “These writings in sum,” Lapidge writes, “reveal him [Ælfric] as an author of very wide reading, particularly in patristic sources, and imply that he had access to a substantial library.”[2] Of the anonymous works, nine are apocryphal apostolic Acts. Since apostolic apocrypha comprise just one part of this array of materials, Ælfric (like the anonymous authors of the Vercelli and Blickling sermons) would have had little reason to regard them with suspicion; indeed, the inclusion of these texts in the same libraries--and, in some cases, in the same codices--as authoritative works by authors such as the Church Fathers would have likely encouraged his use of them.
That, in a nutshell, is the whole argument of my dissertation, and I've explored many more of the details in the few individual chapters I've written so far. But thinking about Ælfric finally put it all in perspective. Admittedly, that's the argument I've been making all along. That last point is the clincher for me, the idea that I've suspected along, but hadn't quite clicked the way it needed to for me to push the implications even further, closer to the polemical argument I want to make in my project. No matter how modern scholars have classified apocryphal materials, and no matter what bias they bring to these so-called "heterodox" texts, apocrypha were rampant in Anglo-Saxon England, and they were considered orthodox to Anglo-Saxons because they were just as pervasive as any number of other authoritative texts. Even for Ælfric--though some scholarship has not acknowledged it.

[1] The Anglo-Saxon Library (Oxford, 2006), 250-66.
[2] Ibid., 250.

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