The Master’s Voice

  • Mary Hayes
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The texts written for a clerical audience by King Alfred (849–99) and the homilist Ælfric (ca. 955–ca. 1010) exhibit a sustained investment in describing the priest’s voice as the seat of his power and the most important tool for carrying out pastoral care. This chapter studies how the priest channeled the divine voice in two contexts: preaching, in which the priest spoke de ore Domini, and confession, in which he served as God’s proxy.1 Indeed, Anglo-Saxon texts frequently refer to priests as “Godes bydelas,” God’s messengers. As C. M. Woolgar points out, “[t]he transcendental power [of speech] was commonly understood in the Middle Ages. Speech, like other sounds, could effect direct changes in listener and speaker. It was thus extremely powerful, nowhere more so than when dealing with the Word of God or his agents.”2 In this culture, the power of the priest’s voice was enhanced by particular types of vernacular instruction, namely, one-on-one education in the form of private auricular confession and preaching to unlearned lay people.


Pastoral Care Private Model Vocal Performance Public Penance Parish Church 
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  1. 6.
    Mary Clayton, “Homilaries and Preaching in Anglo-Saxon England,” Peritia 4 (1985): 207–42, repr. in Old English Prose: Basic Readings, ed. Paul E. Szarmach, 151–198, 177.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 9.
    Kenneth Sisam, “MSS Bodley 340 and 342: Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies.” Review of English Studies 7 (1931): 7–22, 8 (1932): 51–68, 9 (1933): 1–12, repr. in Studies in the History of Old English Literature (1953), 1998. 148–98, 164.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Brad Bedingfield, “Public Penance in Anglo-Saxon England,” AngloSaxon England 31 (2002): 223–55, 234.Google Scholar
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    For the manuscript history of Gregory’s original text and Alfred’s method of translating it, see Richard W. Clement, “King Alfred and the Latin Manuscripts of Gregory’s Regula Pastoralis,” Journal of the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association 6 (1985): 1–13. On Alfred’s role as translator and his constituent authority, see Kathleen Davis, “The Performance of Translation Theory in King Alfred’s National Literary Program,”, Manuscript, Narrative, Lexicon: Essays on Literary and Cultural Transmission in Honor of Whitney F. Bolton, ed. Robert Boenig and Kathleen Davis, 149–170.Google Scholar
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    Joyce Hill, “Ælfric’s Silent Days,” Leeds Studies in English 16 (1985): 118–31, 122.Google Scholar
  7. 63.
    Exodus 28:34–5. “Ita ut tintinnabulum sit aureum et malum punicum: rur- sumque tintinnabulum aliud aureum et malum punicum. Et vestietur ea Aaron in officio ministerii, ut audiatur sonitus quando ingreditur et egred- itur sanctuarium in conspectus Domini et non moriatur.” The Vulgate is taken from Biblia Sacra Iuxta Vulgatam Clementiam, 5th ed., (Matriti, 1977).Google Scholar
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    Altman, “Moving Lips: Cinema as Ventriloquism,” Yale French Studies 60 (1980): 67–79, 74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    On modern technology’s depersonalization of the voice, see Patrick J. O’Donnell, “His Master’s Voice: on William Gaddis’ JR,” Postmodern Culture vol. 1 no. 2 (1991), accessed 20 July 2008, <>.Google Scholar

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© Mary Hayes 2011

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  • Mary Hayes

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