Anglo-Saxon Wills and the Inheritance of Tradition
By Michael Drout
Selim Vol. 10 (2000)
Introduction: In his will, which dates from between 931 and 939, near the end of the reign of King Æthelstan, a certain Wulfgar writes that he wishes to divide some of the lands he holds, with one part going “þam godes þeowum for mine sawle & for mines fæder & for mines ieldran fæder”. Expressions of such concern are rare in the corpus of wills from before Wulfgar’s time; they are also rare in the eleventh century. But between 925 and 992, ten of the twenty-four extant wills (42 %) mention ancestors and their souls. Æthelstan’s coronation was held in 925; Oswald of Worcester died in 992. These two dates mark the beginning and the end of the Anglo-Saxon Benedictine Reform of the tenth century. As Figure 1 illustrates, the dates of wills that express concern for ancestors’ souls correspond closely with these dates, and this co-incidence is not a mere artifact of interval selection. It is no surprise that Æthelwold, Dunstan and Oswald were concerned about the relationship of their political, cultural and religious project to the past, but the influence of reform ideals upon the wider, secular culture has not been previously documented.