On Early Medieval Catechetical Narratives

Here are a relatively random assembly of thoughts on early medieval catechesis that are floating around in my mind as I consider revising chapter 2 of my dissertation…

Within the patristic period, I see two general kinds of catechism occurring, each linked to different situations.

The first type contain the catechetical lectures/sermons/addresses connected directly with baptism at the Easter Vigil and is centered temporally in the 4th century Mediterranean world. In this model, those who wished to enter the church would begin a rigorous period of preparation that started at the beginning of Lent. The catechumens, who were only allowed in church for the first part of the service—no Gospel reading or Eucharist for the unbaptized—would be instructed in some of the basics of the Christian faith. Certain core teachings like the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, etc. were given to them and their meaning expounded upon. Then–the Vigil happened to them. In the weeks after, the meaning of everything that had experienced at the Vigil–preeminently their Baptism and first Eucharist–was explained. So, the catechesis was centered around ritual acts. The two great examples of this category would be the Catechetical Lectures/Mystagogical Catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem and On the Mysteries by Ambrose.

The second proceeds from Augustine. As many know, Augustine is often seen as the father of western homiletics as his On Christian Teaching is the first “homiletical textbook”. As far as the title goes it is correct—but less for On Christian Teaching than is commonly supposed. There’s not much hard evidence for the use of On Christian Teaching that I’m aware of for quite some time; what did have a clear impact is his On the Catechizing of the Uninstructed. In this work, Augustine offers quite a bit of advice to a Carthaginian deacon on how to teach new and/or would-be Christians. (Among his nuggets of wisdom in this work, he tells the deacon not to be tedious—then goes on to disregard his own advice…) The key thing here is that he gives two sample sermons which were to prove very influential. Augustine’s major goal here is to convey a worldview by sketching the span history from creation to the final judgment by means of a theological perspective.

Ok–that’s enough patristic stuff for now—on to the medievals and especially Ælfric…

Reading through Ælfric’s corpus, an attentive reader notices that he continually returns to certain themes grounded in an overarching narrative that holds together the Scriptures, world history, and the eschatological fulfillment. The numerous bits and pieces scattered throughout his writings point towards several texts that lay out a narrative of this kind. Virginia Day’s 1974 article “The influence of the catechetical narratio on Old English and some other medieval literature” correctly identified the place of Ælfric’s core narrative within its patristic and early medieval trajectory.

Day begins by defining the identifying characteristics of what she refers to as the “catechetical narratio”:

In medieval literature there are a number of examples of a type of writing which provides an outline of Christian cosmology and Christian history. These works deal, usually briefly, with the following: [1] God and his creative powers, [2] the creation, [3] the fall of the angels, [4] the creation and fall of man, [5] biblical history, [6] the redemption, [7] Christ’s life, [8] the crucifixion, [9] the descent into hell, [10] the resurrection, [11] the ascension, [12] the second coming and last judgement. The subjects vary somewhat; the fall of man and his redemption are of central importance, and some outline versions are reduced to these essentials.[1]

Day identifies the originating source of this outline—particularly taking creation as a starting point and emphasizing redemption—as Augustine’s De Catechizandis Rudibus. While correct in highlighting the importance of this patristic work, she misses a yet more basic source, indeed, Augustine’s own: the creeds. Of her twelve common elements only three—elements 3, 4, and 5—are not contained within the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.

Day helpfully identifies a number of works that implement Augustine’s catechetical pattern: Avitus of Vienne’s Libelli de Spiritalis Historiae Gestis, Hrabanus Maurus’s De Fide Catholica—a reorganization of the Hiberno-Latin Altus Prosator, Odo of Cluny’s Occupatio, the Old Irish Voyage of Snegdus and MacRiagla, the poem Saltair na Rann, the prose version of the same in the Lebar Bec,[2] (Ps.-)Boethius’s De Fide Catholica, and a handful of sermons—both freestanding and incorporated into martyrologies.[3] The two most important early medieval adaptations of Augustine’s work are Martin of Braga’s De Correctione Rusticorum and Pirmin’s Scarapsus.[4]

Turning to the narratio’s effect on OE literature, Day mentions Cædmon’s hymn, the Junius Manuscript’s “Genesis” and “Christ and Satan”[5] but focuses upon three OE sermons: the anonymous Vercelli XIX, Ælfric’s De Initio Creaturae (CH I.1), and Wulfstan’s Bethurum VI—a reworking of Ælfric’s piece. All three bear the imprint of Martin of Braga’s work; the first and last show clear signs of Pirmin’s as well. Ælfric’s, though, is more independent from its sources.[6]

Ælfric presents his own particular version of the narratio in a number of his writings:

Ælfric produced other versions of the Christian cycle. There is one at the beginning of his Letter to Sigeweard[7] and another at the beginning of his Letter to Wulfgeat. His Hexameron also contains similar material; although its structure is that of the six days’ work [of creation], it closes with a reference to the redemption and eternal life and a passage of exhortation… There is also evidence that the Letter to Sigeweard, the Letter to Wulfgeat and the Hexameron all lean on the De Initio [CH I.1] in diction and phraseology. The De Initio was Ælfric’s most complete version; it is as if all the latter accounts presuppose the existence of this basic one.[8]

Day also mentions Ælfric’s works De Creatore et Creatura and De Sex Etatibus huius Seculi.[9] Furthermore, verbal and thematic parallels may be found throughout Ælfric’s sermons such as CH I.13, CH II.1, and LS 16. Truly grasping this narrative and its contours is essential to apprehending Ælfric’s program.

Day touches on the crucial importance of this narratio. Since her intention, is to place Ælfric’s appropriation within a larger trajectory she does not explore the idea further but states:

The catechetical background explains why he chose the De Initio to open his Catholic Homilies: the catechetical sermon is the traditional introduction to Christianity. In the Letter to Sigeweard the narratio serves as an introduction to a discussion of the bible and Ælfric’s various translations from it. The Augustinian background makes clear how apt this is. Augustine considered that the catechetical narratio should provide the essential narrative and message of the scriptures interpreted for the ignorant: the narratio is to lay down the guidelines for the understanding of scripture. Accordingly, before allowing his reader to proceed to what he conceived of as the dangerous terrain of the bible itself, Ælfric took the opportunity to clarify the correct message to be derived from it. In the Letter to Wulfgeat also the context of the narratio is clearly ‘catechetical’: Ælfric prefaces his advice on how to live the moral life with a brief outline of the Christian cycle, exactly as Augustine had recommended that the narratio be followed by exhortation. In general Ælfric’s production of several versions of the narratio—as well as his use of some similar material in the Hexameron—has the aim of providing a framework for the unlettered, of placing each particular point of Christian doctrine in relation to the pattern of the whole.[10]

Day rightly identifies the function of this narratio: to fix the framework of the Christian story in the minds of its hearers. Her point may be extended—especially given the verbal reminiscences and allusions in Ælfric’s other writings—that it securely embeds itself within the worldview of the preacher and interpreter as well.

[1] Virginia Day, “The influence of the catechetical narratio on Old English and some other medieval literature”, ASE 3 (1974): 51-61, 51. The numeration of the elements is my own for ease of reference.

[2] Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 54.

[3] Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 53

[4] Ibid.

[5] Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 54-55.

[6] Both Day and Godden—citing Day—emphasize the freedoms that Ælfric takes with his sources. While they both acknowledge his significant debt to Augustine and Martin of Braga, close verbal parallels are few and tentative. Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 57; Godden, Commentary, 8.

[7] Actually, the letter as a whole is largely structured by this narrative—certainly by the logic of the narrative.

[8] Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 57, 58.

[9] Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 57 n.9.

[10] Day, “catechetical ‘narratio’”, 59.


7 comments so far

  1. swain on

    Oi, You know, I feel like I’m an expert now in the catechetical narratio…..at least Aelfric’s version. But I have a long section in one my chapters about this as well: perhaps we should compare at some point. IN the next few weeks I’ll be revising mine as well, so when complete, we’ll both post…deal?

  2. swain on

    btw….meant to say, very nice post!

  3. derekolsen on

    If anyone’s an expert on this you certainly ought to be by now! 😉 Sounds good—in truth, I’m still not sure if my full version of Aelfric’s narratio is going to make it into the final form of the dissertation or not… We’ll see how it goes.

  4. Shanna Baker on

    Very awesome read! Honestly.

  5. Rosendo Maloney on

    If only I had a penny for every time I came here… Superb writing.

  6. Anna Dodson on

    If only I had a quarter for each time I came here… Amazing writing!

  7. Sue Castaneda on

    Haha I am honestly the first comment to your great read.

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