Ælfric’s Colloquy is a dialogue between a schoolteacher and his pupils. ‘Colloquy’ simply means ‘conversation’. Dating from the 10th century, this educational text was written by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 950–c. 1010) and was intended to help novice monks learn Latin. The form of the colloquy had long been used in Western Europe in monastic schools.
Who was Ælfric?
Ælfric was the abbot of a Benedictine abbey in Eynsham, Oxfordshire. We do not know where he was from, but the form of Old English which he wrote in suggests that he was from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. Ælfric wrote a variety of works, many of which were intended to make orthodox religious writings available to lay people. He is often praised for his clear and crisp prose style.
What is the Colloquy about?
The Colloquy is a dialogue between a teacher and several pupils who each practise different trades. In it we hear from a ploughman, an oxherd, a hunter, a fisherman, a birdcatcher, a merchant, a tanner (a person who tans and prepares leather hides), a salter (a person who salts food to preserve it), a cook, a lawyer and a blacksmith. The text is significant because it presents the life and activities of the middle and lower classes of Anglo-Saxon society – a picture which is rarely found in Old English literature.
The teacher asks each of the pupils about their trades and what they do each day. In their responses, the pupils are eager to learn and master Latin:
Interrogo uos cur tam diligenter discitis?
Ic ahsige eoþ forhƿi sƿa geornlice leorni ȝe?
[I ask you, why are you so keen to learn?]
Quia nolumus esse sicut bruta animalia que nihil sciunt nisi herbam et aquam.
Forþam ƿe nellaþ ƿesan sƿa stunte nytenu þa nan þinȝ ƿitaþ buton ȝærs 7 ƿæter.
[We do not want to be as wild beasts, who know of nothing but grass and water.]
(f. 64r – digitised image 8)
There are four manuscripts of Ælfric’s Colloquy, but this is the only one which contains a continuous interlinear gloss in Old English, meaning that someone has added a translation of the Latin text in Old English – the language of the Anglo-Saxons – between the lines. It appears to have been copied in Christ Church, Canterbury in the second quarter of the 11th century.
View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.