115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Visions of Future Past in Anglo-Saxon England

Aaron J Kleist, Biola University

Pairing a Messianic vision from Isaiah with a patristic vision of a soul’s damnation, the Old English account Be ðam seofanfealdan ungifa (“About the Sevenfold Evil Gifts”) offers not just eschatological warnings for the believer, but epistemological cautions for the editor: are medieval texts fixed, or are they fluid?


The Old English account Be ðam seofanfealdan ungifa (“About the Sevenfold Evil Gifts”) preserves, in its short pages, a cautionary vision from a soul about to be damned. Gazing from his deathbed on the spiritual battle over his fate, with fleeting moments of free will still in his hands, he speaks of Judgment as a fait accompli—of his imminent and ultimate future, that is, as something almost past. In this, the text says, he was demonically deceived, led to a flawed interpretation of an otherwise valid vision. In peering through the past to this forward-facing narrative, however, our own interpretation may be judged equally problematic. Tempted by editorial habit to view the text as something fixed, we may need to recognize the reality as far more fluid.


Surviving only in a single twelfth-century copy, Be ðam seofanfealdan ungifa is an amalgamation of extracts from a tenth-century monk: Ælfric of Eynsham, the most prolific, erudite, and influential author writing in English before Chaucer. The first part derives from a homiletic treatment of Isaiah 11.2–3, a prophetic vision of the Sevenfold Spirit resting on the Messianic Branch, who will usher in the beatific age. By contrast, Ælfric says, the devil seeks to impart seven evil “gifts” or temperaments—distinct from the Seven Deadly Sins—that can keep humans from eternal bliss. The second part, the cautionary tale of a soul’s damnation, offers a visual bodying forth of the dangers of such “gifts” and the need to follow the Messiah to eternal life.


If the roots of the first section are found in the Hebrew Bible, those of the second are patristic, deriving from the eighth-century Historia Ecclesiastica by the Venerable Bede. This text, in turn, references Gregory the Great, whose sixth-century vision for evangelizing England led to the Benedictine mission that produced Bede and Ælfric. Over this span, the account morphs before our eyes. Translation and textual transmission distort the original vision, until the final product is one whose very authorship comes in question. Certain scholars argue that the compilation is by Ælfric himself; others view the piece-weaving as too crude for Ælfric’s hand. New developments in editorial theory, however, may make the matter moot. On the one hand, as I have shown in The Digital Ælfric, new literary and socio-historical insights may be gleaned by treating copies not as pinned entomological specimens but as part of dynamic narratives that changed over time. Whether or not Ælfric produced the version of the text at hand, its association with the monk’s corpus means that it may constructively be discussed as “Ælfrician”—a view that would have horrified Ælfric, who famously insisted that his works be copied verbatim to ensure their theological purity. On the other hand, this instantiation of the older account may also be judged on its own merits, as a work read in a particular time and place as part of a specific manuscript: context and contents, that is, which may well have colored how readers saw the story.


Whether we regard the text fluid or fixed, Bede, Ælfric, and Be ðam seofanfealdan ungifa itself insist that the clarity of our vision matters. In all three versions, the dying man, with sight supernatural that pierces through the centuries, locks gazes with us: “He did not see these things for his own sake,” the texts affirm; rather, his vision is “for the instruction of others.”