Book Review–The Homiletic Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan: A Critical Study

Joyce Tally Lionarons, The Homiletic Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan: A Critical Study. Anglo-Saxon Studies 14. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2010. Pp. viii, 194. (HB) ISBN: 1843842564. $99.00.


Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York (1002-1023), is one of the few Anglo-Saxon figures whom we know both by name and by the vernacular writings left behind. Indeed, one of only three Old English sermon authors known by name, and one of the first vernacular preachers and legalists mentioned in Western European sources, Wulfstan is a significant figure for students of medieval history, languages, law, and religion. He is most well known for his Old English Sermo Lupi ad Anglos (Sermon of the Wolf to the English), but his corpus reveals a much more prolific career. Among his works in both Latin and Old English, he composed numerous sermons, law codes for Kings Æthelred (r.978-1013, 1014-1016) and Cnut (r.1016-1035), religious canons, and one work of political theory. In The Homiletic Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan, Joyce Tally Lionarons offers a sustained analysis of Wulfstan’s preaching texts—weaving in necessary connections with his entire corpus—and, with the first English language monograph solely focused on this subject, she provides a welcome addition to the field.

Lionarons organizes her study around thematic approaches to Wulfstan’s corpus, systematically moving through several issues that are key to a critical examination of the sermons. In the first two chapters following the general introduction, she provides an overview of manuscripts containing Wulfstan’s works, as well as a reassessment of the accepted canon based on recent scholarship. Within these first chapters Lionarons establishes the foundations for the rest of the book, since the following chapters are predicated on their conclusions. In chapters 3 through 8 she offers fresh readings of thematic sequences in Wulfstan’s preaching career—working in many ways as an extension of studies by Milton McC. Gatch and Malcolm Godden, but offering new analyses—especially in light of an expanded Wulfstanian canon. Thus, Lionarons provides case studies of sermon series on the Antichrist (chapter 3), catechetical instruction (chapter 4), ecclesiastical instruction (chapter 5), the sacraments (chapter 6), national sins and punishment (chapter 7), and legal exhortations (chapter 8). Wulfstan’s impulse toward eschatology remains a constant theme throughout, aptly demonstrating Lionarons’s claim that “Wulfstan remained convinced that the world he lived in was still in haste and nearing its end” (175). In particular, chapter 3 explicates the development of the bishop’s views on the Antichrist across his career.

In addition, Lionarons provides helpful historiographic overviews and assessments of past scholarship on Wulfstan’s preaching corpus. Most scholarship on Wulfstan, since the work of Dorothy Whitelock and Dorothy Bethurum, has been based on editions now in need of revision due to relatively recent developments in textual editing. Lionarons is both insightful and fair regarding the editorial work of her predecessors, balancing indebted admiration with careful critiques based on more recent scholarship. Lionarons is also clear about the implications of her own work. In seeking to revise the canon of Wulfstan’s sermons, she directly addresses the need for a re-evaluation of medieval authorship, genre, textual fluidity, and compositional processes. The fresh perspectives that she proposes are explicated in the introduction and chapters 1 and 2, and then aptly demonstrated through the case studies of the following chapters.

As a key to considering Wulfstan’s preaching canon, Lionarons adopts the label “homiletic” to encompass all Wulfstanian writings intended for preaching purposes. On the one hand, as a descriptive term, this is the most appropriate category (especially given Lionarons’s approach to Wulfstan’s literary genres); but, on the other hand, there is a deeper issue of definition here that is not explicitly addressed. Lionarons herself acknowledges the interchangeable vocabulary of “sermon” and “homily” in Bethurum’s work, but also does not draw a demarcation between the two in her own definitions and applications (28). Such distinctions were not, of course, hard and fast in the early medieval period, but Lionarons’s vocabulary does suggest that more attention to these categories is warranted in modern scholarship. Useful routes for scholars, for example, include examining the applications of these terms in Wulfstan’s own works—either by the author himself or as received in later manuscripts. There is surely more to gain from exploring how authors and scribes viewed sermons and homilies through generic distinctions, how authors and readers related these texts to previous works (e.g. patristic sermons and homilies), and even how we might use such ideas to reevaluate modern conceptions of these texts. This matter is just one way in which Lionarons’s study both contributes to and points toward further possible work in the field.

Minor editorial errors sometimes distract from the content, but this is a relatively minor quibble given the overall excellence of the study. In addition to the analytical content, the front and back matter of this book are also noteworthy, including a useful list of manuscript sigla (viii), a bibliography of primary and secondary sources (177-87), and a detailed subject index (189-94). It is hoped that this book heralds renewed interest in Wulfstan studies, and that future students of this subject will take their cues from Lionarons.

Brandon W. Hawk


Brandon W. Hawk is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Medieval Studies Program at the University of Connecticut, writing a dissertation titled “Apocryphal Narratives in Old English Sermon Collections.” His research interests include Old English and Old Norse literature; intellectual history and transmissions; the Bible in/as literature; apocrypha and pseudepigrapha; apocalyptica; and vernacular sermons.

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Book Review–The Homiletic Writings of Archbishop Wulfstan: A Critical Study by Brandon W. Hawk is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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