Monthly Archives: October 2014
Ælfrici Vita Beati Edmundi
Ælfric’s Life of St. Edmund
Ælfric’s Life of St. Edmund is a saint’s life, a popular genre in the medieval period, written in the late tenth century by an Anglo-Saxon monk and scholar named Ælfric of Eynsham. His account of the East Anglian king’s martyrdom in 869 is a translation of an earlier Latin version by a monk called Abbo into Old English prose. Ælfric wrote in alliterative prose, a style close to Old English poetry, which I have attempted to imitate in this verse translation.
Modern readers may not be used to the alliterative metre, which consists of four stressed syllables per line of which some must alliterate, e.g. “From Danish shores ships came harrowing”. There are further rules governing the rhythm and alliteration patters which I will not go into in this note.
I have followed my medieval predecessors in taking many liberties in translating, but the prose introduction and some lines and phrases are almost literal translations. The scribe’s postscript at the end is purely my invention, but Bury St. Edmunds does take its name from the St. Edmund of this story. It was the largest pilgrimage site in Britain for a time, and St. Edmund was England’s patron saint until the mid-fourteenth century. I have also left out the account of what happens after St. Edmund’s death, which takes up almost as much space in Ælfric’s account as the part leading up to it. When Ælfric sat down to translate Abbo’s Life of St. Edmund it was already a third hand account; and this is a translation of a translation, but some stories, especially the marvellous and miraculous, as with stories about fish, lose nothing in the retelling.