Tag Archives: political thought

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.

Seminary LIII: brain-stretching new take on late Anglo-Saxon England

Sometimes, not as often as one wants but perhaps as often as one can deal with, one gets as an academic to see research presented that you know is going to be really important. It’s like being at the first gig of a truly incredible new band, except with a rather better chance that the scholar will get a deal for his album (though neither will get paid anything for it, I have to point out). You try and soak it all up, but actually it’s stuff that will change the way you think and you can’t understand it straight away; only once you’ve been able to work out what of what you understood before remains and how much you have to re-envision will you know what you have learned. Now, I was pretty tired and spaced-out—the summer is really messing with my usual Circadian polyrhythms—but this is the state in which I left the Institute of Historical Research on 10th June after Chris Lewis had presented a paper called “The Ideology and Culture of Anglo-Saxon Government” to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar. It was too rich to summarise; I feel like the only way I could get its points over to you is to type up my notes, but there are lots. So I’ll just try and explain the set-up and then say that if you see Chris, and he appears in many places, urge him to get this written up. It could be a book, it could be an important book, and it might get us through some increasingly stagnant debate about how powerful the Anglo-Saxon royal government was and out into new thought about how to understand what it did and why.

The Shires of England in the Tenth Century, hosted at the University of Wisconsin

The Shires of England in the Tenth Century, hosted at the University of Wisconsin

Chris expressed this stagnation when he said that he thought that, for Anglo-Saxon England, there just isn’t the evidence to give a sustained political narrative: we’ll never do it, and all work on such things only advances us halfway there, like Zeno’s paradox. What we can do is explore our evidence in a modern way, looking at ritual, language and organisation, exploiting the sources (coins, documents, art, material all alike) for ethos rather than dates, and in general attempting to compile an ideological understanding of the enterprise of English government, what it was doing, why and how rather than the tiny details of when and where. He thus wound up with an approach that could be called instititutional history, political thought or social history, but was really many things at once. So, for example, there is a debate on when England was divided into shires, and who had this big idea. It has died down, mainly because it can’t be given a single answer. Chris instead described what we can know about shires: that they were linked to the centre in a uniform way, that they were not universal (Rutland is its current tiny anomaly because it was never allotted to a shire, for example) or always fully manned, they don’t match bishoprics perfectly, that they were done in stages without a big plan but apparently with a consistent ideology, that they stay more or less fixed, and that the actual borders are dictated by (and therefore a source for) local politics to an astonishing degree. Lists like this were a big feature of the paper, and kept demonstrating that really, when we step back from the detail questions it’s possible to group quite a lot of evidence together to describe these large themes (if you’ll forgive the Byzantinist pun) and we do in fact know a lot, or at least can.

Modern stained-glass depiction of the monastic founder and reformer Archbishop Oswald of York

Modern stained-glass depiction of the monastic founder and reformer Archbishop Oswald of York

Chris has another paper under work on the political unity of Anglo-Saxon England, which is an essential prerequisite to any attempt to answer what the effects, abilities and intentions of its government were, so here he confined himself to questions about that government’s ideology. The argument was thick, well-sourced and full of meat (as a Northerner, Chris will probably not mind the almost inevitable comparison to gravy I seem to be drawing). I won’t try and repeat the act, but will say that by the end we had come to a series of interesting conclusions, among which were that the ideology of late Anglo-Saxon royal government was essentially a Benedictine project (which raises questions that we’ve asked here before, apropos indeed of something to which Chris contributed, about why their project is pro-royal and not pro-papal); that this means it was restricted to areas where Benedictinism itself was powerful, and that these left short many parts of England, most obviously the North but also Kent, Essex and East Anglia; that this project was most active only over the short period 970 to 1010; that with Cnut and Edward the Confessor, first kings for a long time to have succeeded as adults and both with experience of the German Imperial court, a much more regalian and less monastic ideology was begun; and that over many other parts of England and times of its history a quite alternative royal and Christian ideology may be propagated through the minster churches that disseminated ideology where the monasteries were fewer and unreformed. He also pointed out that the Normans were able to partially adopt both of these ideological systems.

Silver `Pointed Helmet type penny of King Cnut, 1026

Silver `Pointed Helmet' type penny of King Cnut, 1026

Points of discussion arose over much of this, of course (not least the coins: Stephen Baxter and I had to agree to differ amicably over the initiative of moneyers with the royal portrait on English money, I seeing it as essentially a stereotype whose regulation was unimportant and Stephen seeing it as a vital propaganda tool that must have been controlled). One of these I raised, which was that Chris himself admitted that Cnut first continued to use the old Benedictine scheme of royal power, until the death of Archbishop Wulfstan (whereafter, as Chris pointed out, lawmaking stops; no more laws till William the Conqueror!), and that this looked a lot like the importance of Benedict of Aniane to Emperor Louis the Pious’s earlier and not dissimilar reform project, a man without whom the project simply couldn’t continue. This raises questions about why, in either case, the Benedictine project hadn’t managed to reproduce itself in a new generation of similarly able firebrands. The fact that Wulfstan didn’t, as far as we know, teach, is very interesting here. Did they not think anyone could replace them either?

Page of the only manuscript of Beowulf

Page of the only manuscript of Beowulf

Another point that is likely to interest some of my readers here is that Chris thought that though there is very little evidence which could be used to do a similar project for the `minster ideology’ of Englishness, royalty and Providence’s place for the Anglo-Saxon state, there is probably some. He noted that the Exeter Book, for example, was given to its cathedral home by a bishop who had been a canon, not a monk, and that much of its content is theologically quite irregular, and it may well tell us some of what such a person thought of in these ways. Other contenders might be the Vercelli Manuscript, and also British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A.XV, that is, the Beowulf manuscript. Chris was prompted to imagine someone reacting to the Benedictine preaching in his locality by saying to his colleagues at the minster, “look, this isn’t what I think of when I think of as the important things that make us us, this is all Roman liturgy and law. We should write something properly English” and coming up with a story harking to a distant past but full of contemporary resonance that then wound up bound with a very strange set of other things that they were interested in. It gave us pause for thought. But then, so did all the rest of the paper. The small conclusions I’ve given are only the top of the iceberg. We could really get somewhere with this kind of all-inclusive questioning that lets the sources illuminate each other. I’ve seen a manifesto like this before, in fact:

Since Aristotle, man has organized his knowledge vertically in separate and unrelated groups – Science, Religion, Sex, Relaxation, Work etc. The main emphasis in his language, his system of storing knowledge, has been on the identification of objects rather than on the relationships between objects. He is now forced to use his tools of reasoning separately and for one situation at a time. Had man been able to see past this hypnotic way of thinking, to distrust it (as did Einstein), and to resystematize his knowledge so that it would all be related horizontally, he would now enjoy the perfect sanity which comes from being able to deal with his life in its entirety.

Well, apparently, we don’t need drugs to upset Aristotle, we just need people being really clever and this was what we got. It is part of the continuing shame of the discipline that people like this can’t find jobs; what hope is there for the rest of us? But the cynic may say, the discipline can save its money here because Chris is clearly going to do it anyway, and for that we can all be thankful.

Protochronism, or, ‘we did it first and better’: a historiographical weakness

Graph of the Blogosphere

I’m sorry it’s been silent here for so long; things are extremely busy and I haven’t been reaching the bits of the blogosphere that I usually do. I’ve got eight different posts in draft if I count this one but most are just small clusters of links or only a title to remind me that, when I have time, I want to write about its topic. As I’ve observed so often before, silence doesn’t hurt my reading figures at all; if I don’t post the graph just climbs and climbs, whereas now that I’m putting this up I bet it will fall off. All the same, eight drafts! that means almost anything finished is weeks-old already and needs to go up soon as. So, here’s one I prepared earlier.

I think that perhaps all historians, once they have found their speciality, should then be forced to take a course on the period before it. It’s so often tempting to emphasise a particular phenomenon of one’s field and then say that it started with your subject population, but as with rock music (which all goes back to Chuck Berry, really, except that which he stole from the blues, which is quite a lot, and wherever the bluesmen (and blueswomen) got it from…) there’s always someone out there working on an earlier period going, “but I could point you to twenty of those from my stuff!” or similar. I’m most used to this with high medievalists claiming the discovery of the individual, or autobiography, or sovereignty, which could easily be paralleled from Carolingian or Anglo-Saxon source material if they wanted to ask anyone, but that might challenge their unique selling point…1 But it happens in my period too, and then the answer is usually “the Romans got there first”. And often the Greeks before them. And hey, if we had sources from Mesopotamia, who knows? Obviously at various times people have actually originated stuff, but not half as often as it is alleged.

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style 'miles christi', by Hraban Maur

Manuscript illumination of Emperor Louis the Pious as a Roman-style 'miles christi', by Hraban Maur

So as I make my way through Kathleen Davis’s Periodization and Sovereignty for a review I have to write, every time she raises the ‘sovereign paradox‘ I find her saying that it arose with the Enlightenment growth of absolutism.2 (The paradox is that in order to protect the law the sovereign must act outside it, defining the sphere of law but not being bound by it. The Weberian idea of the state claiming the monopoly of force helps with this, especially when you have a king who will say “I am the state”, but it’s not a whole answer, and doesn’t work for the Middle Ages at all because the king doesn’t claim a monopoly of force, but a consistent share and control of it.) This paradox, all the same, exists unresolved just as much in the works of Jonas of Orléans or Hincmar of Reims in my period, pondering what you do about God’s anointed when he goes wrong, and concluding that you have to just suck it up and wait for God to stop punishing you, not that this stops them retheorising after successful coups, and Visigothic Spain is even worse for this.3 And of course at all points we could hark back further to the Romans. Elagabalus or Caracalla were as absolutist as any Enlightenment ruler, and their actually-deific status didn’t stop people toppling them because there were no other restraints. And did I just say that about the Carolingians, why yes I more or less did! And so on.

A double-page spread from a fourteenth-century book of sermons, designed to evoke a cathedral

A double-page spread from a fourteenth-century book of sermons, designed to evoke a cathedral

Likewise, when someone says, “If we live in an image-saturated world as many argue we do today, the beginnings of that bombardment are medieval”, I smell a rat.4 Where do medieval people see images? In church, maybe; if they’re rich perhaps they have tapestries, and maybe even illustrated books. And, of course, on coins, but I often wonder how accessible the iconography of such coinage was to its everyday users.5 Did they know their king was having himself pictured as a Roman emperor? I gotta wonder. Anyway, other than coins, not often I suspect. Certainly as any reader of Got Medieval knows, medieval image culture was extremely rich and meaningful, but also confined to a fairly small group of ‘consumers’ until quite late on. Which is of course when our writer means, he’s just forgotten there were ever years with fewer than four figures in as do so many ‘medieval’ historians. But come on: what about the Romans? Inscriptions and carvings everywhere, a much more urban population thus seeing cityscapes constructed to bear imagery everywhere; and of course a much more monetised economy. That looks a lot more like ‘saturation’ than the Middle Ages, early or high, to me.

Reverse of a gold aureus of the Roman Emperor Commodus (180-92) depicting Securitas, relaxing on a throne, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.RI.1562-R

Reverse of a gold aureus of the Roman Emperor Commodus (180-92) depicting Securitas, relaxing on a throne, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.RI.1562-R

So for example this. I’ve chosen a gold one because it’s shiny but the type is issued in silver and bronze too, and reused over and over again from 69 onwards. In 69, after Rome rose against Nero, there were four emperors, and histories duly refer to it as “the year of the four emperors” (which of course meant that subsequent civil wars had to go one better) and then a moneyer of one of them, Emperor Otho (69), originated this design which Commodus was still using more than a century later, for the same purpose. The point is that Securitas, the Latin word, does not mean ‘security’ as we have come to use it, protection, defence, safety from attack. Its etymology is ‘se cura’, literally ‘without care’; so putting a very relaxed-looking Securitas with some symbols of rule on your coins is not sending a message about the staunchness of the army or anything, but telling the users, “you’ve got no worries now”.6 This is imagery any user can appreciate, since even if they don’t get the full etymological strength of the allusion, they do at least mainly speak the language, know the word and in any case can see the image, which is one about the ruling forces bringing ease to even the dullest viewer. A consideration for the defence against protochronism yer ‘onner.


1. So, for example, Colin Morris, The discovery of the individual, 1050-1200 (London 1972); Albrecht Classen, “Autobiography as a late medieval phenomenon” in Medieval Perspectives Vol. 3 (Richmond 1988), pp. 89-104; for sovereignty see n. 2 below.

2. Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty. How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia 2008), passim or at least no block of twenty pages yet discovered without a mention of it…

3. On Hincmar at least, see Janet L. Nelson, “Kingship, Law and Liturgy in the Political Theory of Hincmar of Rheims” in English Historical Review Vol. 92 (London 1977), pp. 241-279, repr. in eadem, Politics and Ritual in Early Mediæval Europe (London 1986), pp. 133-171.

4. Michael Camille, “Art History in the Past and Future of Medieval Studies” in John van Engen, The Past and Future of Medieval Studies (Notre Dame 1994), pp. 362-382, quote pp. 363-364.

5.Also wondered more thoroughly by Ildar H. Garipzanov, “Metamorphoses of the early medieval signum of a ruler in the Carolingian world” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 14 (Oxford 2006), pp. 419-464.

6. It’s only fair to admit that this was first explained to me by Professor Ted Buttrey, one of my colleagues; and while I’m confessing, I got the word `protochronism’ and indeed the awareness of blueswomen from m’colleague T’anta Wawa. I understand from her that I’m not using the term as an anthropologist would, so I guess this is the kind of interdisciplinary thinking that, like the English language, shakes its neighbours down for their cool words then disappears leaving the context behind and heads for the dictionary. Sorry, anthropologists. You can have ‘alterity’ if you like, no-one round here is using it ARE YOU etc.