Alfred the Great – The King with a Pen
Alfred – A setting example for this day’s statesmen:
For the first time when I read about the great king of 9th century England, Alfred, the youngest son of King Aethelwulf of Wessex, I couldn’t take my mind off him. Being a great military strategist, statesmen, a patriot and a pioneer of English education, he has ruled England in the most troublesome of the times.
The Danes were tearing not just England but most of the Europe apart. Although Alfred has once successfully defeated them, he was accepted as the lord of all people of England apart from those who are under the direct rule of Danes. The churches were destroyed and similarly were destroyed the places of learning. By the time of him ascending the throne, England was struggling with no potential scholars for it to thrive. The Latin education which was introduced by Christian monasteries, nearly 500 years before him was decaying. At the same time, the vernacular language of England, the English, was being spoken throughout the country but was given no scholarly importance. It was time for Alfred the Great to do something no one has done before him and so, to do something which would change the world forever.
The Disoriented Dark-Ages:
To understand the change that was so vital and brought out by Alfred the Great, the history of Anglo-Saxons, at least from the time of Christ, should be considered.
The first or the major presentation or account of Anglo-Saxons or by then simply Germanic people who lived in Britain was laid down by Tacitus, a Roman traveller who talked about the ‘barbarian’ Europeans were by the time they were invaded by Romans around his period. He has given a detailed account of how these Europeans were looked at by ‘civilized’ Romans. In Tacitus’ ‘Germania’ he has talked about the obscure traditions and savage culture, and has given a brief account of their lifestyle and interests. Though these ‘barbarians’ were looked down by Romans, Tacitus has given them a strange glory of being ‘heroic’.
In 5th Century A.D. Anglo-Saxon invaders have brought the Briton land in connection to ‘Germania’ as a great number of Teutonic people migrated to these places from the Roman empire which has created a great havoc in the empire.
These Anglo-Saxons have settled down in different places of modern England which in return has given rise to different places, dialects and kingdoms as can be seen in the later times. Basically, the Anglo-Saxons were of three sects of people – According to Bede’s The Ecclesiastic History of English People – The most important historical document of Briton:
- Saxones: From South of Denmark and East of Holland.
Settled at South and South West of Britain.
- Angli: From Jutland.
Settled at East, North and Midlands.
- Iutae: From Lower Rhine and Jutland.
In such a hobble in the Roman empire, the Celtic people have started to attack Rome around 410 A.D. More dangerous than them, the people of Welsh – a common name for anyone who is not Germanic – have posed a serious threat. To secure their kingdom, the Roman troops have withdrawn themselves around that period. But the Celtic and Welsh people who came into contact with the Britons in this process have proved more fruitful to the literature and future course of England.
The Arthurian legends, which are loosely connected sometimes to Alfred the Great, the richest of all English romances have their strong roots in the Welsh legends and were later developed as independent romances by Celtic-Briton fusion. This Arthurian tradition of romances were taken up by the great Geffory of Monmouth through his Historia Regum Britanniae – a vivid source of material which kept on inspiring leagues of romancers after him – which has marked a fine detachment from the Celtic origins and development of Anglo-French sentiment.
Thus starts the advent of Anglo-Saxon literature.
These ‘Dark Ages’ in the history of Briton are thus times of gradual ways of fusion of both life and thought of these different cultures.
The Anglo-Saxon Evolution:
The early Anglo-Saxon literature is marked by heroic-poetry which can be traced down to the remarks made by Tacitus in his Germania. The old sentiments thrived for a while and a lot of widening Germanian or new European influence lied. Gradually, the pre-Christian influence can also be observed in the language.
The evolution of Anglo-Saxon language into Old English can be observed in this period when the Anglo-Saxon language has lost its inflections and has turned its poetic style into an alliterative, stressed verse with no rhyme. This kind of a verse, we can see turning as a rhymed and non-alliterative verse under the profound influence of French language after Norman conquest.
The Old English or Anglo-Saxon vocabulary has come down drastically and this day it is no where to be found in mainstream English, but can be found in altered forms in the languages of Scots and in regional dialects of the language.
Out of all Anglo-Saxon poetry only hardly 30,000 lines are surviving, out of which the all the major works are of religious flavour and most of the non-religious poems too are not without a hint of inculcated Christian themes in them. Only a few poems of personal elegiac tone are without any Christian interference.
This Anglo-Saxon poetry, basing on their surviving places is divided into four manuscripts.
- M.S. Cotton Vitellius Manuscript (Britain Museum): This piece of manuscript contains the major poetic – Epic – work, not just of Anglo-Saxons, but of all Germanic languages, BEOWULF, along with Judit and three more miscellaneous prose works.
- The Junius Manuscript (Oxford Libraries): This piece of manuscript contains all (supposedly) major works of Caedmon and Caedmon’s School of Poetry as Genesis, Exodus, Daniel and Christ and Satan. These mark the most important religious works of English ever, and also a profound impact on Bible and the translations of it in any language. Jerome, the Latin translator of the Bible is influenced by these works of Caedmon, as named in Bede’s The Ecclesiastic History of English People.
- The Exeter Book (Exeter Cathedral): It contains the second most important religious works with a great spirit of Christianity and Cynewulf – the greatest and obscurest poet of Old English can be traced here. Christ, Juliana, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Widsith, Deor and many more minor pieces, like we’ve considered, lower in religious spirit and more personally tended.
- The Vercelli Book (Vercelli Cathedral, Italy): This too, the last manuscript also contains the major works of Cynewulf or the Cynewulf School of Poetry. Andreas, The fate of Apostles, Address of The Soul to The Body, The Dream of The Rood, Elene are the poems, every single poem of a religious theme.
It is believed that there should be a good volume of non-religious poetry in the period of Anglo-Saxon literature, which is non-religious in nature, but which couldn’t survive in an age where heroic poetry was just declining and religious spirit filled lands and nations around. A few examples can be found like the poems of The Wanderer and The Seafarer of The Vercelli Book which have a personal tone more than a religious one. Apart from that a set of poems which were not at all touched by the age’s clergy are The Wife’s Lament, The Husband’s Message and Wulf and Eadwacer which have the themes of love and melancholy, and how they have survived an age which has no interest upon such these is an interesting point.
The Politico-Religious Tension of Anglo-Saxon Age:
The tale which we will check out now will demonstrate how important the political conditions are for a religion to thrive. How closely these both are interconnected.
It has all started in 597 A.D. when St. Augustine was sent to Kent by Gregory the Great to sow the seeds of Christianity in pagan England. With the conversion of Aethelberth, the king of Kent, then, the whole of Kent was Christianized and the bishopric of Canterbury was established. But that was not it. The widespread of Christianity was not as easy as it was thought. Then, with the supportive intervention of missionaries from Ireland and Scotland has helped the Roman Church, but soon, the differences between Irish Church, Iona and Roman Church – which generally didn’t go hand in hand – was evident.
In the midst of these inter-religious strife, the death of Christian Edwin, king of Northumbria in the hands of Penda, king of Merica in 632 has proven a fatal blow for Christianity in Northumbria which was all of a suddenly cleansed off the religion which till then was a stronghold of it and has produced the first of all Religious poetry in Britain. Only after a long time period, the Irish Church has claimed the territory back.
Beowulf, which is considered as the only ‘such kind’ of a epic in all Germanic languages is in a continuous debate of having the Christian symbols or not. Even though a few were found they are considered as a recent interpolation by later-generation-enthusiasts of religion. Though Beowulf was an Anglo-Saxon epic, we can find that the national spirit was very low, because all the major characters in the Epic are from far off lands and not from Briton – Geats, Danes, Sweden kings and also Scandinavian mythological interventions can be observed and a lot of Teutonic sentiment can be found. The Christian editing of whatsoever should have been done in the later periods as it is found in another fragmentary epic poem – Walthairus, by Ekkehard of St. Gall.
When Christianizing the country has its effects on everything that is seemingly and unseeingly possible, the biggest impact was that it has connected this Christianized Anglo-Saxons with Christianized Europe through which these Anglo-Saxons got a chance to access the cultures, languages and enriched values of Greece and Rome, which in the very near future course will show its greater effects in forging this ‘barbarian’ state into the most modern and strong of all.
As we can see the religious development of Briton, it is the same time when the universal-worship-of-a-hero tradition has slowly inclined towards celebrating ‘patriotic’ and ‘national’ heroes of the country (about which we will talk in the next session). And such a change in the attitude of looking upon a hero has paved the perfect pitch for Alfred the Great to claim his place in history.
Alfred the Great – The King on The White Horse – The Gamechanger:
Alfred the Great has seen the political strife that was going on around the continent. Danes, in their second invasion, as I already mentioned, were tearing countries apart. Alfred, with his military strategies and staunch statesmanship withheld the Danes but they have already rummaged the country. Churches were lost and precious pieces of knowledge were destroyed. Alfred, by the time he claimed lordship with his people support and got on the throne, was baffled at the state of the country. He couldn’t find any reliable scholars and he didn’t exactly understand why the laymen were left so and are not properly educated. He wanted a long-term solution. He didn’t see a solution in Latin, as Rome was a far-off land and they cannot always hold Latin as their major language., By then all the youth in England could speak English and most of them could even read. So, Alfred found, their national language could be the solution. He thought patriotism should be evoked in citizens to make them really strong. Then, in all the political strife, he set out an Odyssey to serve his nation in the right way.
Layman should be educated and it is a duty of the priest to do so. He, taking up the task upon his shoulders, has begun to translate Greggory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis into English. Alfred didn’t rely upon the major sources of Christianity. He went through the translated works in Latina and adopted Latin works, for he believed, the language Latin has a lot of wisdom within and that should be provided to his laymen. Every English youth should be able to read and write English. Even the one who needs to take up priesthood should master English first and then move towards Latin. English is a must for both priests and layman alike.
To keep it in a sentence, what Alfred had in his mind was, ‘political unity of Englishmen,’ and he used language and history as methods. He invoked the cultural and traditional importance of Englishmen by initiating a highly ambitious project named, ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicles,’ in which he and his later perpetuators have fed all great legends of great warriors of the land, providing a reliable resource to look upon the greatness of nation. This Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is the source of the inspiring tales of Battle of Brunanburh – in which Aethelstan of Wessex and Edmund, his brother have won against their mighty Norse and Scots foes. Along with such inspiring tales, the legends like Battle of Maldon – in which Byrthtnoth, ealdorman of Essex has sacrificed his life in war against Danes. Such stories should have deeply moved the people of England.
With these tales, Alfred has also taken care that the new-religious faith would stay strong in the hearts of people, without turning towards paganism again. His second translation was Historiae adversum Paganos of 5th Century Latin writer Paulus Orosius demonstrating how religion hasn’t made the world worse, which was suffering under paganism. Alfred was liberal and didn’t go for a lot of didactic unlike its Latin counterpart. He kept the preaching subtle, but tried to add a lot of sense to it. He also added new narratives of contemporary travellers he met and also his own experiences, which has paved a path for the people to know about the gracious world around them.
But, personally, the greatest and the most profiting translation of Alfred which has changed the perspective of an Englishman upon himself would be the translation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica which contained both the religious and literary history (for they were not different by the time) of greater time. It has brought out even the writings of Caedmon and Cynewulf and gave them to public in the later ages.
In the last ages of his life, he has turned completely towards philosophy and contemplation of life. He has shown his interest of providing a taste of Roman philosophy and religious philosophy to his people to enrich them. His Laws of governing a state which he composed at the end has still been a great importance for any history student.
After establishing standard English prose and its importance, his lineage in literature was continued by the writers/translators like Waerferth of Worchester and Aelfric, abbot of Eynsham, who was considered as the greatest of all English translators. They have translated all important religious and historical work which contributed to England’s wholesome evolution as a strong state.
I don’t have any idea how to conclude this, but who we need are rulers like Alfred, may be, who would see the long-term solutions rather than depending on momentary covering-ups. I didn’t want to judge saying he promoted religious works and not secularism. He did what was most needed by his people. I think, it is important for us to recreate these legends to understand our own history better.