Deintellectualising King Alfred

The largest of my responsibilities in this job I have (for which some day there will be institutional web evidence) is coordinating the lecture series that serves the British early medieval survey course, British History I (300-1087). Partly out of wanting to hear what the students were getting, and partly out of wanting to be sure they ran all right, I attended all but one of these lectures in the term just gone, which means that I’ve heard some very notable people lecturing on their best subjects, which is almost always good. And of course, since these are not my best subjects, it’s not just the students who have been learning things…

The Alfred Jewel, believed to be the topper for a wooden bookmark

The Alfred Jewel, believed to be the topper for a wooden bookmark whose inscription proclaims, "Alfred had me made"

King Alfred, as George Molyneaux told ‘my’ students, has been blamed for an awful lot that can’t really be substantiated, single-handedly defeating the Vikings (his son and daughter deserve quite a lot of credit too), building towns all over England and shiring it (again, more credit due to his successors) and founding the royal navy (actually just ordered some new ships that in the end didn’t work out), but one thing for which he does stand out in the scholarship is his interest in matters intellectual, which is supposed to have extended to getting translated a set of ‘certain books that are the most needful for men to know’, which were, as it’s usually counted, the first fifty Psalms, the Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great (where this preface is to be found), the Soliloquies of St Augustine, On the Consolation of Philosophy by Bœthius, Orosius’s Seven Books of Histories against the Pagans and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Asser, Alfred’s biographer, mentions Alfred as having worked with a team of scholars to translate Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, and somewhere out there this court probably produced the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle too; it’s all fairly impressive.1 But, George warned the students, an article by Malcolm Godden has recently called all this into question. “Your tutors probably haven’t read this article yet,” he added, “so if you use it in an essay you’ll need to explain it, not just reference it”, which was a little close to the bone perhaps but, I have to admit for myself, true. George however wins prizes for being conspicuously clever, and is better-informed than almost anyone. So I patched my lack of knowledge in this respect at least, and have now seen what the argument is.2

Basically, Godden puts the evidence that all supposedly relates to this supposed phenomenon together and finds it seriously inconsistent. Asser mentions none of the rest of the works, only the Dialogues, and since Asser stopped writing a scant six years before the king’s death in 899, that really doesn’t leave a lot of time for a man who’d only recently learnt Latin to do all the rest, especially given the Viking army in the country between 892 and 896. Some might say, of course, that Asser is a forgery in which case ‘his’ estimate of the king’s Latinity isn’t to be taken literally, but the years don’t get much longer even then due to other factors. The prefaces to the other works refer to their other versions in ways that show that they are posterior to the translation dates and there is a severe shortage of known scholars writing in the West Saxon dialect in which most of these texts (and the Chronicle) now exist (as opposed to the Mercian one that colours the Dialogues). Several of the works also offer frank criticisms of bad kingship that seem implausible coming out of a court project. It all makes the traditional picture hard to sustain. You’ll have to assess it yourself—the paper seems to be online for free through FindArticles though who knows how long that will last?—but I think at least the Consolation of Philosophy and the Soliloquies probably have to be accepted as later translations identified as Alfred’s to bring them attention. Godden concludes that Alfred didn’t actually translate any of these texts, and it’s possibly easier to agree with him than to say why one shouldn’t.

A heavily-glossed page of the earliest manuscript of the Alfredian English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms Hatton 20

A heavily-glossed page of the earliest manuscript of the Alfredian English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Ms Hatton 20 but here reproduced from Wikimedia Commons

This is not completely to demolish the idea of Alfred’s court as a centre of intellectual renewal and the headquarters of a battle for the incipient nation’s mind, however: Asser, if we accept him, testifies to the Dialogues (and to Alfred’s own interest in them even if the others in the team did the actual word-work); we can still securely date the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s compilation to 892; and the Pastoral Care is preserved early enough that it too must be from Alfred’s reign.3 So something was going on, even if the king wasn’t himself penning them. Given the which, does this actually matter very much?

The principal reason that it matters to me is that the example of Alfred as historian-king has often been used as a parallel to an almost-contemporary one, King Alfonso III of Asturias, who has been claimed as author of the Chronicle that bears his name.4 Alfonso clearly also had the court full of scholars, and also a far better library, but the same arguments of how busy warrior kings surely were have been raised against the idea.5 What may have made Alfred slightly more plausible is that he was aiming for work in the vernacular, which is at first take easier to imagine for us who have to learn to write Latin specially, but in Alfred’s day of course literacy would have been Latin first and vernacular second, and in any case translating into English from (extremely sophisticated) Latin requires a mastery of both tongues so that doesn’t help.6 For everyone other than the Hispanists, however, the importance is that these works are some of the principal evidence for Alfred as architect of an idea of English political unity, for which some of these texts seem well-suited, most obviously Orosius and Bede. The Pastoral Care seems more like a text for governors, which fits with other things that Asser says about encouraging a literate nobility, and might fit into other views of the court but what I think of as the ‘Angelcynn’ hypothesis is at least partly supported on these texts being part of a bigger Alfredian plan.7 Now we have to consider that, possibly, we can’t show Alfred had any such plan after all. Worried, evidently, that the lid on the coffin of this thesis wasn’t yet firmly fixed in place, George last year added a piece of his own (I now discover) looking specifically at the Old English Bede, and pointing out that much of the one-people-one-country stuff that Bede’s original contains (among other more plural takes on the island’s Anglo-Saxon population) is omitted from the Old English version, which seems instead to concentrate on the stories to encourage good behaviour at the expense of the history and national framework.8 This seems to make it part of the how-to-behave school of texts such as the Dialogues, Pastoral Care and Consolation now seem, as opposed to a bigger project of nationality-building. Fair enough! I don’t mind rethinking Alfred to this extent; he’s still always going to be remarkable in terms of quantity and quality of information (at least as long as we can maintain our faith in Asser).

[Edit: image changed to match caption!]

Page from the Parker ('A') manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Page from the Parker ('A') manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, now in the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

The only thing that still bugs me, and about which I must ask George when next I see him, is that somewhere out there someone around that court was still building the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and while its agenda may well be more West Saxon (as the most successful and surviving of a number of accepted and equally-old royal dynasties it cheerfully mentions9) than pan-English, it’s definitely a bit more than a self-help text. While we still have someone (and who, for heavens’ sake?) doing that, the size and scope of the political picture at Alfred’s court can’t be too completely underestimated, I think.


1. This is all set out most accessibly in Simon Keynes & Michael Lapidge (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), pp. 25-35 where the Pastoral Care, the Consolation of Philosophy, the Soliloquies and the first fifty Psalms are reckoned Alfred’s own work on the basis of stylistic similarities to the Pastoral Care‘s text.

2. Malcolm Godden, “Did King Alfred Write Anything?” in Medium Ævum Vol. 76 (Oxford 2007), pp. 1-23, on which all this paragraph is based.

3. Ibid., p. 15.

4. Edited and translated into Castilian in J. Gil Fernández (ed.), J. L. Moralejo (transl.) & J. I. Ruiz de la Peña, Crónicas Asturianas: Crónica de Alfonso III (Rotense y «A Sebastián»), Crónica Albeldense (y «Profética») (Oviedo 1985) and French in Yves Bonnaz (ed./transl.), Chroniques Asturiennes (fin IXe siècle). Avec édition critique, traduction et commentaire (Paris 1987). There is an English translation, in Kenneth Baxter Wolf (transl.), Conquerors and Chroniclers of Early Medieval Spain, Translated Texts for Historians (Liverpool 1990, 2nd edn. 1999 without visible changes) but I hesitate to recommend it as it freely selects between the two quite different versions of the Chronicle according to an agenda I think belongs to only one of them. The most strident assertion of royal authorship inevitably came from Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz, in his “Alfonso III y el particularismo castellano” in Cuadernos de Historia de España Vol. 13 (Buenos Aires 1950), pp. 19-100 at pp. 90-100, that section, “Apéndice 2″, repr. with addenda as “Otra vez sobre la crónica de Alfonso III” in idem, Investigaciones sobre Historiografía Hispana Medieval (siglos VIII al XII) (Buenos Aires 1979), pp. 97-108.

5. Compare Bonnaz, Chroniques, pp. LIII-LVII with J. I. Ruiz de la Peña, “La cultura en la corte ovetense del siglo IX” in Gil et al., Crónicas Asturianas, pp. 11-42 at pp. 38-41.

6. For more on this theme see Susan E Kelly, “Anglo-Saxon Lay Society and the Written Word” in Rosamond McKitterick (ed.), The Uses of Literacy in Early Medieval Europe (Cambridge 1990), pp. 36-62.

7. Named after Sarah Foot, “The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity before the Norman Conquest” in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series Vol. 9 (Cambridge 1999), pp. 25-49 but most eminently espoused in Patrick Wormald, “Engla Lond: the making of an allegiance” in Journal of Historical Sociology Vol. 7 (Oxford 1994), pp. 1-24, repr. in idem, Legal Culture in the Early Medieval West: law as text, image and experience (Oxford 2003), pp. 359-382.

8. George Molyneaux, “The Old English Bede: English Ideology or Christian Instruction?” in English Historical Review Vol. 124 (Oxford 2009), pp. 1289-1323.

9. The fact that it arguably manages the equally-old bit by bodging the landing of the West Saxon royal ancestors Cerdic and Cynric back about fifty years to me reinforces this idea that the editors were involved in a competition that took in more than just Wessex, though as discussed here before the material they were using may not have served that purpose in its original form. For the fifty-year bump see Barbara Yorke, “The Jutes of Hampshire and Wight and the Origins of Wessex” in Stephen Bassett (ed.), Origins of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms (London 1986), pp. 84-96.

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18 responses to “Deintellectualising King Alfred

  1. heptarchyherald

    Interesting. I did an undergrad paper on the Old English Orosius, arguing against Alfred’s participation. I read the Godden article, as I am also a part time RA for Dr. Philip Phillips (yes, real name), who is currently working with Noel Kayler and Paul Szarmach on an encyclopedia of vernaculer translations of the Consolation. To say these ideas are new is a little short of the mark. They have been fringe, yes, but around for several years. I’m not just talking the Smythe book either. Whitelock faced some of this, specifically defending Asser’s authorship of Life of Alfred, but underneath that claim, made, I believe, by V.H. Galbraith, that Asser did not write the Life, is the implicit charge that Alfred really did not have all that much to do with “his” translation program. Neat stuff, but, as you know, Jonathan, a little out of my time period now. I do enjoy the academic debate, though.

    • Oh yeah, the Asser forgery argument is I think dead, but it does hinge some of Godden’s argument that Asser is real so it has to be mentioned. And obviously, this is a 2007 article so I ought really to have known about it, but since I didn’t, I thought the same might be true of others. And you know, in academic press ‘recently’ seems to mean, “within my students’ lifetimes”…

  2. Ah yes, the Godden thesis. I think it will take some time for the dust to settle on this, but you might want to note that there has already been an important response: J. Bately, ‘Did King Alfred Actually Translate Anything: the Integrity of the Alfredian Canon Revisited’, Medium Aevum 78 (2009), 189–215. I must say for my part that whilst I think you can wrest at least some of the texts from Alfred himself, his court still looks like a likely place of origin for many of the ideas. Indeed, David Pratt’s book – which Godden tends to refer to obliquely, but not directly repond to (cf. his ‘The Alfredian Project and its Aftermath: Rethinking the Literary History of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries’, Proceedings of the British Academy 162 (2009), 93–122) – has made the argument for a court context more convincing than ever.

    • Thankyou Levi! I am amazed by how much literature you manage to keep abreast of. I only wish I were able to mention that in lectures addressed to George’s students! but circumstances mean that we won’t overlap in that way.

      Those happening by this may, meanwhile, be interested to know that the Godden British Academy lecture Levi refers to above is online for free here. Also, Levi, in Googling for the Bately article (which appears not to be out there because FindArticles are weird) I find this one-page correction by Godden to some of what Bately says, which may be of use to you if you’re using this stuff.

      • Yes, I’d also seen that Godden correction and have been sure to take note. To be honest, though, I’m mostly an interested observer on this debate. For my present purposes all I need to be confident is that any of the ‘Alfredian’ works I cite can be dated with reasonable plausibility to the years covered by my PhD (871-978), which thankfully is fairly safe!

  3. Cool — now that Break has officially begun, I clearly have a lot of blogging and blog reading to catch up on. Also, will have to forward this link to LDW, as he really should read your blog :-)

  4. But even if you spread the honors around, extend the chronology and deemphasize A’s personal role, isn’t this body of work fairly amazing, especially given the unsettled political and military situation?

    • Well, I would think so, but of course if we extend the chronology so far it may well stop being one body of work. Maybe we should be blaming Æthelred’s and Æthelflæd’s court instead of Edward’s, for example.

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  6. Not sure which Chronicle manuscript you have found, but it isn’t CCCC 173.

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