For those who study early Western cultures, thinking about the past is sometimes described as an exercise in nostalgia or melancholy— a way of dealing with a lost object. Faced with the daunting project of thinking through the relation between culture, society, and literature, Raymond Williams (1977, 128) argues, however, that “[i]n most description and analysis, culture and society are expressed in an habitual past tense. The strongest barrier to the recognition of human cultural activity is this immediate and regular conversion of experience into finished products.” The conversion of cultural activity—of subjects—into the pastness of finished products—of objects—is inevitably a great barrier to the analysis of human experience from the distant past. It is only too easy to forget that history is a process, an engagement with the past by those in the present. Williams continues, “Perhaps the dead can be reduced to fixed forms, though their surviving records are against it” (129). Right in his argument that the difficulties of studying historical cultural processes are considerable, Williams is also right that they are not insuperable. Tradition and Belief: Religious Writing in Late Anglo-Saxon England is written in the same spirit.
Tradition and Belief takes as its object of study English vernacular religious prose—sermons, homilies, and saints' lives in Old English—from the tenth and eleventh centuries, preeminent among which are the works of Ælfric of Eynsham. These institutional, ecclesiastical genres are the main evidence for the preaching mission of the later Anglo-Saxon church and thus for how it was both constructed and received. I view this mission as evidence for a specific cultural process in which the traditional structures of the early medieval church—its institutional knowledge, its genres, and its beliefs—combine to produce a new Anglo-Saxon formation: preaching in English. This formation presents guidelines for practical belief—for the practice of belief—intended for the overlapping ecclesiastical and secular worlds of late Anglo-Saxon England. English preaching thus offers evidence for an idea of a Christian society that, however much it is developed within the monastery, minster, or cathedral, extends beyond those walls.
In writing this book, I have three interrelated theoretical concerns. First, by recontextualizing preaching texts as evidence for cultural work, I analyze preaching in Anglo-Saxon England as a powerful rhetorical, social . . .