The new page containing the “Old English Homily Project” is already underway. Herein will be contained, in the fullness of time, a full collection of modern English translations of all the extant Old English homilies, however they are collected. I am your host, Dr. Aaron Hostetter, the proprietor of the associated “Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry Project” and I wish to conduct this set of pages according to very similar principles as its gesibbe. The fundamental rule of these translations — of texts very different than the poetry I am used to working with — is to respect them as performance texts, as texts to be performed orally in sermons or as parts of sermons. Therefore, they need to sizzle with their own energy, speaking their own language and purpose. This language, though related to our own and playing a vital role in the development of prose styling in our literature, cannot be substituted with what we would say or think or believe. If concepts seems kindred, that’s to be expected. But to see more than an ancestral relationship with our ideology or beliefs is reaching back too strongly.
Though most Old English speakers were fervent Christians, pervasively so, in ways secular societies would have trouble understanding, it would not be accurate to describe them as existing in a theocracy, or exhausting their imaginations in religious explanations. Their experience of Christianity was different — their rituals and practices were different, there were more odd syncretic survivals, their Bible was different (mostly encountered as individual pieces, such as the Gospels only, and some of its books were known only to scholars and theologians), the language of their religious experience was different (still mostly Latin).
The homilies are therefore an attempt to create a religious pedagogy in English, the language of the laity’s everyday (but even then, firm boundaries between language as sociolect are hard to draw — any churchgoer probably knew some smattering of Latin, and native clerics and monks spoke English of course). Any translation of these texts ought to feel its linguistic identity uncomfortably, to sound strange just as a reason for being. They are transitions and innovations, even if their ideological message feels conservative. This religious seriousness appealed to nineteenth-century Anglo-Saxonists, many of them trained as theologians if not practicing ministers themselves, and the homilies are among the first Old English texts translated in bulk way back then. These translations tend to impose a voice straight out of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer onto the homilies that matches the archaeological project of these serious scholars (Substantiating the convolutions of the English Reformation has been the role of Old English texts for much of the history of its study). Modern English translation since the nineteenth century has not been systematic, mostly for reasons regarding disciplinary identity and its desperation. A volume exists here or three, but leaving much of Old English prose alone in the edited texts seems to have been deliberate effort, in order to preserve a need for continued study of Old English, creating a rigid disciplinary rationale for the existence of Anglo-Saxonists. In the contemporary academy, we need to reject this exclusionary thinking, and bring our texts of study to the larger scholarly public.
As for the ASNPP, the primary goal of the Old English Homily Project: to release ancient texts into the scholarly world outside of our field, bringing them to the attention of legal scholars, theologians, political scientists, as well as literary critics of later periods. People not skilled in Old English. They must be released in new voices, speaking their newness and innovation, free of archaism and fustiness. They must be openly accessible to all and able to be found on search engines. I want to liberate our texts to the world, so the world can see the relevance of the medieval for themselves, and we can get beyond this constant skirmishing for our right to exist in the academy. Humble tasks, like translating these texts, can help contribute to this huge goal, and I hope I am playing a constructive part for the health of all medievalists.