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Ælfric of Eynsham (c. 950–c. 1010):
Colloquy, c 990


A Colloquy, For Exercising Boys In Speaking Latin

First compiled by Aelfric, and added to by Aelfric Bata, his disciple.

We boys beg you, Master, to teach us to speak Latin correctly, for we are ignorant, and we speak badly.
Master What do you wish to talk about?
Scholar We do not care what we talk about, as long as our speech is correct, and useful, and not foolish, or base.
Master Are you willing to be flogged while learning?
Scholar We would rather be flogged that we may learn, than remain ignorant, but we know that you are kindly, and that you will not lay strokes upon us, unless we oblige you to do so.
Master I ask you what you are to talk about? What work have you?
Scholar I am preparing to be a monk, and every day I sing seven times with the brethren, and I am busy with reading and singing ; yet in the meantime I wish to learn to converse in the Latin language.
Master What do these companions of yours know?
Scholar Some are ploughboys, some shepherds, some oxherds, some also are huntsmen, some fishermen, some fowlers, some chapmen, some tailors, some salters, some bakers in the place.
Master What do you say, Ploughboy, how do you carry on your work?


Master, I have to work far too much; I go out at dawn, driving the oxen to the field, and I yoke them to the plough ; I dare not in the severest weather lie hid at home, for fear of my lord ; and when I have yoked the oxen together, and fastened the ploughshare to the plough, I have to plough a whole acre every day, or more.
Master Have you any companion?
Ploughboy I have a boy who threatens the oxen with a goad, and he is also hoarse with the cold and his shouting.
Master What more do you perform in the day?
Ploughboy Certainly I do more besides that. I have to supply the mangers of the oxen with hay, and give them water, and carry their dung outside.
Master O indeed ! This is a great labour.
Ploughboy Yes, it is a great labour that I have to fulfil, for I am not free.


What do you say, Shepherd, have you any work?
Shepherd Indeed, I have. In early morning I drive my sheep to the pastures, and I stand by them, in heat and cold, with dogs, lest the wolves should devour them, and I bring them back to their folds, and milk them twice a day, and I move their folds besides. I also make butter and cheese, and I am faithful to my lord.


Oxherd, what do you work at?
Oxherd Master, I labour much. When the ploughman unyokes the oxen, I lead them to the pastures, and all night I stand by them watching against thieves, and then, early in the morning, I give them over to the ploughman, well fed and watered.
Master Is that boy one of your companions?
Oxherd He is.


Can you do anything?
Huntsman One craft I know.
Master Which is that?
Huntsman I am a huntsman.
Master Whose?
Huntsman The King's.
Master In what way do you practise your art?
Huntsman I make myself nets, and set them in a fitting spot, and I urge on my dogs, to chase the wild animals, till unawares they get into the nets, and so they are entangled, and I cut their throats when in the nets.
Master Don't you know how to hunt without nets?
Huntsman Yes, I am able to hunt without nets.
Master How do you manage that?
Huntsman I hunt the wild animals with swift dogs. I take stags, and boars, and fallow deer, and goats, and sometimes hares.
Master Were you hunting to-day?
Huntsman I was not, because it is the Lord's Day, but yesterday I was hunting.
Master What did you catch?
Huntsman I took the stags in nets, and I cut the throat of the boar.
Master How was it that you were daring enough to cut the throat of the boar?
Huntsman The dogs drove him towards me, and I, standing towards him, suddenly cut his throat.
Master You were very daring then.
Huntsman A huntsman must not be fearful, for a number of various beasts haunt the woods.
Master How do you dispose of what you have caught?
Huntsman I give whatever I catch to the King, as I am his huntsman.
Master And what does he give you?
Huntsman He clothes and feeds me well, and sometimes he gives me a horse, or a bracelet, that I may the more willingly practise my art. (Anglo-Saxon men were fond of wearing bracelets.)


What craft do you know?
Fisherman I am a fisherman.
Master And what do you gain by your craft?
Fisherman Food, and clothing, and money.
Master How do you catch the fish?
Fisherman I get into a boat, and place my nets in the river, and I throw in a hook, and baskets, and whatever they catch I take.
Master What if your fishes are not clean?
Fisherman I throw the unclean away, and take the clean ones for food.
Master Where do you sell your fish?
Fisherman In the city.
Master Who are your purchasers?
Fisherman The citizens. I cannot catch as many as I could sell.
Master What kinds of fish do you catch?
Fisherman Eels and pike, minnows and joltheads, trout and lampreys, and any fish that swim in the river.
Master Why don't you fish in the sea?
Fisherman I do sometimes, but it is a long way to the sea, so I seldom go thither.
Master What do you catch in the sea?
Fisherman Herrings and salmon, dolphins and sturgeons, oysters and crabs, mussels and winkles, cockles, plaice, soles and lobsters, and the like.
Master Are you desirous of catching a whale?
Fisherman I am not.
Master Why is that?
Fisherman Because catching a whale is a dangerous business. I prefer to go on the river in my own boat rather than to accompany a number of boats for hunting a whale.
Master How is that?
Fisherman Because I like better to catch a fish that I can kill, than a fish that by one blow can drown or put to death both myself and my companions.
Master Yet there are many, who catch whales, and escape the dangers and make great gain thereby.
Fisherman You speak the truth, but I dare not, for my mind is slothful.


Fowler, what have you to say? How do you deceive the birds?
Fowler I have many ways of deceiving the birds; sometimes by nets, sometimes by snares, sometimes by lime, sometimes by whistling, sometimes by a hawk, sometimes by a trap.
Master Have you a hawk?
Fowler I have one.
Master Do you know how to tame them?
Fowler Yes, I know how. What use would they be to me, unless I knew how to tame them?
Master Pray give me a hawk.
Fowler Willingly, if you will give me in return a swift dog. What sort of hawk do you want, a large one, or of the smaller kind?
Master Give me a large one. How do you feed your hawks?
Fowler They feed themselves, and me in the winter, and in the spring I let them fly away to the wood, and I catch young ones in the autumn and tame them.
Master And why do you allow those whom you have tamed to fly away from you?
Foider Because I do not like feeding them in the summer, for they eat too much.
Master Yet many persons keep the hawks which they have tamed through the summer, that they may have them ready again.
Fowler Yes, they do, but I am not inclined to bestow so much labour on them, as I know how to catch others, and many of them.


What have you to say, Merchant?
Merchant I maintain that I am useful to the King, and to the nobles, and to the wealthy, and to the whole people.
Master How so?
Merchant I go on board ship, with my merchandise. I sail to regions beyond the sea, and sell my goods, and buy valuable produce that is not made in this country, and I bring it you here. I face great dangers in crossing the ocean and sometimes I suffer shipwreck, with the loss of all my goods, hardly escaping with my life.
Master What kinds of things do you bring us?
Merchant Purple and silk, precious stones and gold, various sorts of clothing, pigments, wine and oil, ivory, copper, brass and tin, sulphur and glass, and the like.
Master Are you willing to sell your things just as you bought them there?
Merchant By no means. If I did so, what good would my labour be to me? I wish to sell dearer here, than I bought there, that I may gain some profit, to keep myself, and my wife and son.


You, Shoemaker, what do you produce ?
Shoemaker My craft is indeed very useful and necessary for you.
Master How is that?
Shoemaker I buy skins and hides, and prepare them, and make various kinds of sandals, slippers, shoes, and high boots, besides bridles, harness, and other horse trappings, halters and spurs; and also leather bottles, flasks, purses, and bags. (The order of some of these names has been transposed in the translation so as to bring together those that appear to have the same meaning. It is by no means easy to identify the signification of these names.)


Oh, Salter, of what value is your craft to us?
Salter My craft is of great value to all of you; none of you would enjoy his dinner or supper unless my craft were his entertainer.
Master How is that?
Salter What man would enjoy pleasant meats, without the savour of salt? Who could fill his pantry, or his storeroom without my craft? Behold, all your butter and cheese would perish, unless I were near to be their keeper, and you could not use your herbs without me.


What have you to say, Baker? What is the use of your craft, or can we live our life without you?
Baker You might indeed, for a while, live your life without me, but not for long, nor well; for without my craft, every table would seem empty, and without bread all food would be distasteful. I stablish the heart of man, I am the strength of men, and even the little ones cannot pass me by.


What shall we say of the Cook? Do we in any way need his craft?
Cook If you drive me out of your society, you will have to eat your vegetables and your meat raw, and anyhow you cannot have good gravy without my craft.
Master We do not care about your craft, nor is it necessary for us, for we can ourselves cook the things that need to be cooked, and roast what has to be roasted.
Cook If therefore you drive me out, to do as you say, then you will all be servants, and none of you will be master, and yet without my craft you will not be able to bite your food.


Monk, who hast spoken to me already, behold I find that you have good companions, and very necessary ones, who are they?
Scholar I have smiths, iron smiths, goldsmithssilver smithsbrass smiths, carpenters, and many other workmen skilled in various arts.


Have you any wise councillor?
Scholar Certainly we have. How could our society be ruled if we had no councillor?

(Here the Councillor comes forward.)
Master What say you, Wise one? What art seems to you to hold the first place amongst all these?
Councillor I say to thee, that the service of God holds the primary place among these arts, as we read in the Gospel "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you."
Master And which do you think among secular crafts holds the first place?
Councillor Agriculture; because the ploughman feeds us all.

(The Blacksmith now speaks.)
Blacksmith How does the ploughman get his plough or his ploughshare, or his goad, but by my craft? How does the fisherman obtain his hook, or the shoemaker his awl, or the tailor his needle, but by my work?
Councillor What you say is indeed true; but we all prefer to be guests of the ploughman, rather than yours; for the ploughman gives us bread and drink, and what do you give us in your workshop but sparks of iron, and the noise of hammers striking, and bellows blowing?

(The Woodman speaks.)
Woodman Which of you does not avail himself of my craft, when I make houses, and various utensils and boats for you all?
Blacksmith O Woodman, why do you talk like that, when you could not pierce a single aperture without my craft?
Councillor O friends, and good workmen! Let us quickly cease from these contentions, and let there be peace and concord between us, and let each of us help the other by his art, and let us always meet at the ploughman's, where we find food for ourselves, and fodder for our horses, and this advice I give to workmen, that each should diligently practise his craft; for every one who forsakes his art is forsaken by his art; whether thou art a priest, or a monk, or a layman, or a scholar, practise thyself in this, be what thou art, for it is a great loss and shame to a man to be unwilling to be what he is, and what he ought to be.


O boys, how does this conversation please you?
Scholar We are indeed well pleased with it, but your words are deep, and your speech goes beyond our age; pray speak to us as remembering our youthful minds, that we may understand what you are talking about. (The critics consider that Alfric Bata did not improve upon his master's work by his additions. The above remark seems reasonable, as the speech is plain enough.)
Master I will ask you why you are so diligent in learning?
Scholar It is because we do not wish to be like brute animals, that know nothing but grass and water.
Master And what then is your wish?
Scholar We wish to be wise.
Master "With what kind of wisdom? Do you wish to be clever turncoats, taking many shapes, cunning in lies, acute in speech; talking fairly, and thinking evil, given to using pleasant words, while cherishing guile within, like a sepulchre, painted outside, but full of foulness inside?
Scholar We do not wish to be wise in this way, for he is not wise who deceives his own self by pretences.
Master Then how do you desire to be wise?
Scholar We wish to be simple, without hypocrisy, and wise in avoiding the evil, and in doing what is good, but up to now your discussion with us is more profound than our years can take in; pray speak to us in our way, and not so profoundly.
Master I will do as you ask. You, my boy, what have you done to-day?
Scholar I have done many things. This night, when I heard the call, I rose from my bed, and went out to the church, and sang nocturns with the brethren; then we sang of all the saints, and the matin song of praise; after that prime, and the seven psalms, with litanies, and the first mass, then terce, and we performed the mass of the day, after that we sang sext; then we ate and drank, and had our sleep, and rose up again, and sang nones, and now we are here before you, prepared to hear what you may say to us.
Master When do you mean to sing vespers and compline?
Scholar fgbfgn is the time for them.
Master Have you been flogged to-day?
Scholar I have not, for I behaved with caution.
Master And how was it with your companions?
Scholar Why do you ask me about that? I dare not reveal our secrets to you. Each one knows whether he has been flogged, or not.
Master What do you eat in the day?
Scholar I am allowed meat, because I am still a boy, living under the rod.
Master What do you eat besides?
Scholar Vegetables and eggs, fish and cheese, butter and beans, and all clean things I eat, with giving of thanks.
Master You are very voracious, to eat everything that is put before you.
Scholar I am not such a glutton as to be able to eat all these kinds of food at the same meal.
Master Then how do you manage?
Scholar I eat sometimes this food, and sometimes that, with moderation, as befits a monk; I do not eat voraciously, for I am not a glutton.
Master And what do you drink?
Scholar Beer, if I have any, or water, if I have no beer.
Master Don't you drink wine?
Scholar I am not rich enough to buy myself wine; and wine is not a drink for boys, or foolish persons, but for elders, and wise men.
Master Where do you sleep?
Scholar In the dormitory with the brethren.
Master Who rouses you up for nocturns?
Scholar Sometimes I hear the call, and rise, sometimes the master rouses me up sharply with a rod.
Master O good boys, and pleasant scholars, your instructor exhorts you to be obedient to the rules of divine discipline, and to behave yourselves decorously, wherever you may be. Walk with steadiness when you hear the bells of the church, enter into the house of prayer, and bend reverently before the holy altars. Stand in good order, and sing together, ask forgiveness for your faults, and go out again, without playing the fool, into the cloister or the schoolroom.


Source. S. Harvey Gem, AN ANGLO-SAXON ABBOT AELFRIC OF EYNSHAM: A Study (Edinburgh T&T Clark, 1912), 183-195.


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