Of the makers of Anglo-Saxon prose, the name of Aelfric comes next to that of Alfred. A solid foundation for Anglo Saxon prose was laid by Alfred, and Aelfric added to it perfection and force. While Alfred gave it strength and durability, Aelfric enriched it with grace and lucidity. His contribution to the growth of English prose was really remarkable. Aelfric was a pupil of the monastic school, founded by Aethelwold at Abingdon. The exact year of his birth is not known, but, from his own account, his association with the Cathedral at Winchester is well evident. He was a scholar and had religious training.
Of the exact nature of Aelfric’s works, little is actually known. It is supposed that he wrote in the first years of the eleventh century. Of his writings, Colloquium and Catholic Homilies deserve particular mention, and they have established his name as one of the architects of Anglo-Saxon prose. Colloquium is meant for teaching Latin by conversation. This is conceived in a quite interesting way. The conversation is between the teacher, a novice, and a number of persons, representing different trades and occupations. Catholic Homilies consists of the compilations and translations, made by him, from the works of the celebrated churchmen. It comprises 120 Homilies in three groups of forty, meant for those men to read who do not know Latin. The three series of forty sermons each and the commemorations of various saints, venerated by the Catholic Church, form the whole work. These homilies exhibit Aelfric’s style in its maturity. His rhythmic and alliterative expressions, no doubt, cause monotony in their excesses, but they, closely akin to the ballad verse, were very attractive to the lay audience. To Aelfric credit may be given also for the compilation of a vocabulary, which is a crude form of Latin-English Dictionary.
Aelfric’s contribution to Anglo-Saxon prose is manifest mainly in two ways. In the first place, it is expressed through his attempt to instruct Latin to his people. His Colloquium and Latin-English Dictionary are, indeed, notable efforts in this direction. In the second place, Aelfric is found to have immensely enriched the style of Anglo-Saxon prose. In this connection, the prose style of Aelfric needs to be mentioned and assessed. Aelfric’s prose is intended for speaking. Naturally, it has a conversational style, full of impulse and sonority. Its character is different from the prose of the translation of Bede’s work. Aelfric’s prose is essentially poetic. It has a rhythm that brings it nearer to verse. His sentences are more or less balanced and frequently alliterative, giving them the swing of metrical lines.
The poetic prose of Aelfric is definitely a gem in Anglo- Saxon literature. It marks a great advance on the English prose that Alfred had brought into existence. It is remarkably clear, pointed, and lucid. There is much less awkwardness or obscurity in Aelfric’s writings which attain, to a very great extent, beauty, spontaneity, and harmony. Aelfric is generally taken as the greatest prose writer of the Anglo-Saxon period. He is also honored as the most distinguished theologian prose writer. He deserves a high admiration for his simple yet forceful mode of instructing Christian precepts. His influence on English prose is found to last long, even after his death, probably in 1020.