The collection of texts known as the Lives of the Saints was written by Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 950–c. 1010), between 990 and 1002. These hagiographies – written lives or biographies of saints – were designed to commemorate particular saints’ feast days (days in the Christian calendar when church services were devoted to a specific saint).

What was the purpose of the Lives of the Saints?

The collection appears to have been intended for reading, rather than for preaching, and its purpose was clearly didactic and instructional. In the preface to the text Ælfric says that he embarked on the work at the request of two patrons, Æðelweard and Æthelmaer. In the second digitised image here (f. 3v), the sentence beginning with a red letter reads:

ÆLFRIC GRET EADMODLICE ÆÐELǷERD EALDORMAN & ic secge þe leof þæt Ic hæbbe nu gegaderod on þyssere bec þæra halgena þrowunga þe me to onhagode englisc to aƿendene

[Ælfric humbly greets eldorman Æðelweard, and I say to you, my beloved man, that I have now gathered into this book the passions of the saints that were fitting for me to translate into English]

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 homilies (sermons) and saints’ lives which were intended to make orthodox religious writings available to lay people. Ælfric is often praised for his clear and crisp prose style, and he simplified his sources, giving the saints’ lives a clear narrative thread. The Lives of the Saints, which dates from later in his life, uses the rhythms and alliteration of verse and often contains poetic language.

Although a few Latin works by him survive, Ælfric mainly wrote in Old English – the language of the Anglo-Saxons. The Lives of the Saints has a preface in both Latin and Old English. His work was popular and influential: some 30 manuscripts of the earlier Catholic homilies survive, and his works went on being copied until the second half of the 12th century.

The manuscript

This manuscript dates to the first third of the 11th century and therefore contains one of the earliest known copies of Ælfric's Lives of the Saints, along with two other texts associated with him and four anonymous saints' lives (Euphrosyne, Eustace, Mary of Egypt and the Seven Sleepers). It was probably made in the Benedictine Abbey of Bury St Edmunds or at Canterbury. It contains glosses and corrections which appear to have been written in the early 11th century.

View a full set of images of the digitised manuscript.