The Idea of an Elephant: Ælfric of Eynsham, Epistemology, and the Absent Animals of Anglo-Saxon England

Abstract

This essay argues that the elephants appearing in the works of Ælfric of Eynsham, beyond their rhetorical purpose in containing the credulity of his unlearned audience, function as epistemological tokens. Although actual elephants were unknown in Anglo-Saxon England, a great deal of theoretical knowledge was available to Ælfric. This essay examines the Anglo-Saxon discourse on Elephants more closely than any has done, drawing on historical, literary, and hexameral sources to suggest that Ælfric followed in a tradition of using elephants as symbols of the attempt to perceive realities beyond our physical senses. The essay thus builds on and offers a differing perspective to previous essays in this area by Emily Thornbury [in Neophilologus 92 (2008)] and J.E. Cross.

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Christie, E.J. The Idea of an Elephant: Ælfric of Eynsham, Epistemology, and the Absent Animals of Anglo-Saxon England. Neophilologus 98, 465–479 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11061-013-9374-0

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Keywords

  • Anglo-Saxon
  • Epistemology
  • Hexemera
  • Old English literature
  • Aelfric of Eynsham
  • Elephants