The Study of Latin and English at Winchester

Charles Stone

copyright 2000

The extent to which the Anglo-Saxons studied the English language and propagated its widespread use is an issue much examined by Dr. Helmut Gneuss, who seeks to identify the influence of Aetholwold and his school at the Winchester monastery. Aetholwold’s incorporation of the English language into teaching Latin, and the similar teaching method of his students whom he influenced, established, in Gneuss’s opinion, Winchester at the forefront of linguistic study and facilitated the standardization of the English language (Study 3-12).

The significance of the Winchester school may be traced back to the Benedictine Reform during the second half of the tenth century, in which land grants by King Edgar led to the construction of new English monasteries, and the influence of progressive religious leaders such as Aetholwold brought about an increased output of art and literature and expanded the role of education. In the vanguard of this reform, Aetholwold became in 963 the bishop of Winchester, where he effectively replaced the secular clerics with monks, thus creating an atmosphere that exemplified the Benedictine Reform in its concentration on both religion and education. On account of the facts that, during this period of reform and especially at Winchester, scholarship in English flourished and Anglo-Saxon became the dominant literary language, consideration of Aetholwold’s personal background benefits the study of his influence on the standardization of the English language (Szarmach, Tavormina, and Rosenthal 199-120).

Aetholwold was born in Winchester and spent much of his life there. Such attachment to Winchester, that is to say the West Saxon dialect of England, is imperative in determining his pertinence to linguistic developments in the Anglo-Saxon period, for the Benedictine Reform itself originated in this region. Aetholwold thus became a prominent figure in the monastic reform in which his own West Saxon dialect was widely spoken. His regional association with the Benedictine Reform is of particular importance to Aetholwold’s educational views, for, as his teaching methods reveal, he was, quite simply, an effective teacher who appreciated his native language, to the extent that he explained to his students complicated Latin grammatical points in English and thus inspired in them an interest in developing the language as well (Gneuss, Origin 70-74). Based on their attention to creating a standard language, and what Gneuss even identifies as a standardized handwriting, he cites these students, the next generation of English linguists, as "a circle of writers trained at, or related to, Aetholwold’s school at Winchester, who sought to standardize the use of the vocabulary, but presumably, also Old English usage in other areas" (English Language Scholarship 11).1

Of these students, Aelfric is undoubtedly the most important, in terms of developing a standard literary Old English. The influence of Aetholwold’s attention to English and his teaching of it at Winchester is evident in Aelfric’s first work, the Catholic Homilies, the spelling, vocabulary, and especially the morphology of which were so uniform that the text provides an exemplar of the Winchester school’s, that is Aetholwold’s, West Saxon dialect (Gneuss, Origin 75).2 The Catholic Homilies aptly introduce Aelfric’s determination to write in a standardized English, an attitude which characterizes his approach to teaching Latin as well, for the two-volume work each of which contains forty sermons on various theological subjects from saints’ lives to the story of Christ, was written so that a lay congregation who did not know Latin could still receive an education in Christianity (Szarmach, Tavormina, and Rosenthal 4-6).

Aelfric used, in fact, a standardized vocabulary, which was influenced by the English of Winchester, throughout his writing, and he furthered his desire to offer English to non-Latinists by writing his extremely popular grammar, which was intended as a didactic text for both Latin and English. This attitude reflects Aetholwold’s own preference for teaching in both languages, and Aelfric’s grammar, the first one written in a vernacular language, thus offers a glimpse of the evolving approach to grammatical teaching (Gneuss, Origin 74-77).3 Aelfric maintained his own bilingual approach as a result of his concern for facilitating comprehension of the complex Latin grammatical system, so that he translated the Latin passages of his grammar in to English and at times even wrote an explanation to a grammatical point only in English. He justifies this approach to his students in the preface to his grammar: "so that when you have gone through Donatus on the Parts of the Speech, you may be able to instil both languages, Latin and English, into your youthful minds, by this little book, until you reach more advanced studies" (Gneuss, Study 14). It is evident, then, that Aelfric’s main purpose in writing his grammar was to prepare his students for further, more complicated, study of Latin, but, by explaining Latin in English, he influenced the expanding role of the latter language in future grammatical study (Gneuss, Study 14).

This leads to a final point in determining the historical importance of Aelfric’s grammar, the fact that it was extremely well known and distributed in the Middle Ages. Based on the number of extant manuscripts, Gneuss claims that the book was owned by every eleventh century English library, a statement which attests to the legacy of Winchester (English Language Scholarship 11). Even after the Norman Conquest effected the gradual replacement of Old English with Anglo-Norman and Latin as the dominant literary languages in England, scribes continued to gloss Aelfric’s Catholic Homilies and his grammar with both Middle English and Latin words. N.F. Blake attributes knowledge of the standard Old English in the centuries which followed the Norman Conquest to such translations, an argument which also emphasizes Aelfric’s lasting historical importance to English language scholarship in the post-Conquest years (110-14). As Walter Hofstetter concludes of Aelfric’s literary career, "In Aelfric...Winchester produced the greatest witness to its concern for language" (161). Such concern brought not only the revolutionary technique of using English to teach Latin in grammatical texts, but a step towards the standardization of the English literary language as well, both of which began with Aetholwold’s own incorporation of English into his teaching at Winchester.

For further reading

Blake, N.F. A History of the English Language. New York: New York UP, 1996.

Gneuss, Helmut. English Language Scholarship: A Survey and Bibliography from the Beginnings to the End of the Nineteenth Century. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, vol. 125. Binghamton: SUNY-Binghamton, 1996.

-----. "The Origin of Standard Old English and Aetholwold’s School at Winchester." In Language and History in Early England, 63-83. Aldershot: Variorum, 1996.

-----. "The Study of Language in Anglo-Saxon England." In Language and History in Early England, 3-32. Aldershot: Variorum, 1996.

Hofstetter, Walter. "Winchester and the Standardization of Old English Vocabulary." Anglo-Saxon England 17 (1988): 139-61.

Szarmach, P., M. Tavormina, and J. Rosenthal. Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1998.