Why Edit Ælfric Digitally?

On the one hand, Ælfric’s impact and importance is a compelling reason for creating digital editions of his works, increasing access to and knowledge of the most erudite, prolific, and influential author writing in English before Chaucer. The challenge of the materials to be edited, moreover, means that digital technology offers us the rare chance to reconstruct works that hitherto have been unknown or deemed lost. In the case of this author, however, there is a further reason why digital editions are particularly to be desired: their ability to capture texts that change over time.

Over the course of his career, Ælfric compulsively revised, supplemented, and reorganized his work. During the centuries that followed, scribes further complicated the picture by blending Ælfrician and non-Ælfrician material to create new texts. As Andy Orchard has argued regarding the homilies of Ælfric’s contemporary, Wulfstan of Worcester, such adaptation results not in a single, “authoritative” text with variants, but in a series of interrelated texts designed for different audiences at different points in time. Despite editors’ conscientious efforts to describe this literary development and to reproduce divergent readings in appendices and scholarly apparati, by nature a static, printed edition is hard put to capture such a fluid compositional process.

Digital media, by contrast, employing dynamic links and customizable windows, may better enable scholars to identify changes (authorial or otherwise) to this material and to explore the significance of such changes. How do Ælfric’s early thoughts compare to his conclusions later in life? How was his material used in major cities as opposed to rural parishes? How do notes in specific manuscripts reveal active interest in Old English hundreds of years after that language was supposedly dead? The Digital Ælfric will allow us to see as never before how these texts evolved in England and abroad over the course of centuries.