Dramatic ritual and preaching in late Anglo-Saxon England

Dramatic ritual and preaching in late Anglo-Saxon England

By Marvin Bradford Bedingfield

DPhil, University of Oxford, 1999

Abstract: My thesis involves an examination of the dramatic liturgical ritual of the late Anglo-Saxon period and its relationship to other aspects of Christian worship, especially vernacular preaching. One particular ritual, the Visitatio Sepulchri, has received a tremendous amount of attention by critics of early Western drama, who see in it an emergence of the representational mode of drama that characterizes later medieval drama. Because the rest of the Anglo-Saxon liturgy is less ‘representational,’ it has been largely ignored when discussing dramatic ritual, so that the Visitatio appears singularly brilliant. The Visitatio, however, is driven by the same forces that drive equally dramatic liturgical commemorations year-round, climaxing in but not exclusive to the period around Easter. Beginning with an account of late Anglo-Saxon baptism, I examine the liturgy for the high festivals from Christmas to Ascension Day. For each chapter, I describe the liturgical forms for the day and their intended relationships with the participants, focussing on the establishment of dramatic associations between the celebrants and certain figures in the commemorated events. I then compare the liturgical forms with vernacular treatments of a particular festival, looking both for overt instruction and more subtle influence of the liturgy on the preaching texts. Anglo-Saxon preachers and homilists openly assumed the themes and symbolic images of the dramatic ritual in their attempts to make their congregations understand and take on Christian imperatives. Recursively, vernacular preaching helped solidify the meanings of the symbolic elements of the dramatic ritual and their significance to the lives of Christians. Anglo-Saxon appreciation of the dramatic potential of the liturgy was realized both in creative expansion of the liturgy and in the vernacular preaching texts that identified and enhanced this dramatic dynamic.

Introduction: The study of the Anglo-Saxon liturgy is just coming into its own. The closing decade of the millennium has boasted a string of new tools and resources for dealing with liturgical materials as well as more sophisticated and particular explorations of the relevant witnesses. In particular, a recent collaborative delineation of the liturgical books of Anglo-Saxon England will provide the groundwork for a wide range of liturgical research. The liturgy of the Anglo-Saxon church certainly warrants the attention. Although not much can be said about the liturgy before the tenth century, enough (mostly second-hand) evidence exists to paint the picture of a liturgy that reflects the influence of the Irish, Gallican, Roman, and possibly British churches. Before Augustine arrived in Canterbury in 597, he was given a mandate by Gregory to marry the best of local traditions with the practice of Rome, and this approach remained a dynamic in subsequent reforms. This sort of philosophy surely encouraged a diverse liturgy, but the lack of any substantive liturgical witnesses before the tenth century stunts our appreciation of it. We can develop a much clearer picture of the liturgy in the later Anglo-Saxon church, as the Benedictine Revival spurred the production of a plethora of liturgical books and other documentary witnesses to what has been recently referred to as a “period of national liturgical experiment and innovation.” Perhaps the most important of these witnesses, the Regularis Concordia drawn up by Aethelwold in the early 970’s, echoes Gregory’s instruction to Augustine as part of its own mandate, to join the best of the liturgy of the Prankish churches with local English traditions. The liturgy reflected in the Concordia and extant in liturgical books of the tenth and eleventh centuries reveals an interest in creative elaboration, often visual elaboration, and in the translation of the significance of liturgical practice for the laity.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Oxford

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