The vernacular homilies can be frustrating, the flotsam of the ages coming down through sometimes battered manuscripts, corrected perhaps, but more often riddled with absurdities or error. Many are composite, assembled from multiple sources translated from Latin or taken from earlier vernacular works. The homilists who compiled them borrowed here and there, often without regard for internal consistency. As a result, many homilies seem confused, repetitive, even self contradictory. They wander from one topic to another. Frequently it seems as though the only thing holding them together is the compiler's piety; there is no other clear organizing principle.
The results are intriguing to modern scholars, who try to explain why what seems so obvious to readers now--a lack of inner coherence--seems to have been missed by the Anglo-Saxon homilist. The explanation varies with the particular homily. Sometimes the competence of the compiler is called into question: either his Latin was at fault, so he did not understand what he was translating, or he translated so blindly and mechanically that he did not notice the logical difficulties in what he wrote. In other cases, we look for a different kind of connection, trying to identify the special interest or agenda that led him to combine two or more incongruous or contradictory sources.
There is nothing especially wrong with searching for the logic in what seems illogical. After all, we can assume that the homilies were meant to be used, even if some controversy lingers over what, precisely, they were used for; and if they were meant to be used, they were meant to make sense. There is no value at all in a sermon that does not convey an appropriate spiritual message to its audience. But what was an appropriate spiritual message for the day? Although we may have to struggle to find coherence in them, muddled texts were copied and recopied. Clearly they were valued and thought useful, despite their deficiencies, by the Anglo-Saxons who preserved them. And if that is the case, perhaps we ought to rethink the principles underlying their compilation.
It is hard to believe that the homilists saw the problems in their texts, but could not figure out how to deal with them. In this essay, I would like to suggest another possibility: that because of their background and training, which instilled in them a veneration for the written word, they simply did not see the inconsistencies that trouble modern readers. In offering this suggestion, I do not mean to maintain that the homilists were naively credulous, dull souls compared to their intellectual descendants. Some were skilled, others less so, but what they all had in common was a starting point that differed from our own. They regarded books--not just Biblical texts but any books--as a repository of religious truth; in fact, they did not always distinguish between the canon of scripture and the Fathers or other kinds of religious texts. This then affected the way they handled their Latin materials as they rendered them into Old English. They did not follow, as we might expect, the classical rules of translation; rather they applied the rules of scriptural interpretation, which permitted a measure of contradiction or "mystery."
Let me begin by setting out a few examples of the kinds of problems I mean. Blickling 13, clumsily stitched together from two Assumption accounts (the so-called Transitus B and C) has a number of peculiar readings, including multiple and inconsistent references to Mary's reception into heaven. Rudolph Willard assumed that the defects of this piece were due to the homilist's poor Latinity--and admittedly it was poor. Mary Clayton refined this position by arguing that the issue was the physical assumption-that one account left the issue somewhat ambiguous, so the homilist appended the other, where the corporeal assumption is more explicit. …