And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

lørdag 12. november 2011

Life and Times of Alfred, King of Wessex

But I have explained this concern for learning how to read among the young and old in order to give some idea of the character of King Alfred.
- Life of King Alfred, Asser (translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge)

One of the great perks of being a student of Medieval history is the opportunity to become acquainted with a wide variety of literary sources to ages past, small windows into a world now lost to our understanding. Recently, in the course of my MA work, I decided to have a look at the Penguin anthology of sources to the age of King Alfred to find out whether Asser's biography could have had some bearing on the hagiographical tradition of Edward the Confessor. It turned out in the end that I could glean little from Asser's Life of King Alfred since it was poorly disseminated in the High Middle Ages and as such probably had little influence on later biographical texts. However, because it is a rather brief text I decided to read through it for the sheer pleasure and because I'm becoming increasingly fascinated with the Anglo-Saxon period.

The item on the front cover is the Alfred Jewel bearing the inscription AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN, Alfred ordered me to be made. The jewel is now at display in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Life of King Alfred was written in 893 by Asser, a clergyman, perhaps even a bishop if we are to believe Gerald of Wales (12th century), of St David's in Wales. His Welsh origin led him often to use Welsh colloquialisms such as marking directions as being on "the right hand of Severn" rather than to the south of Severn, and he often provided the - sometimes false - Welsh rendition of a placename in addition to the Latin and English. Asser was summoned by King Alfred in the mid 880s to enter into his service and after some consideration he decided, in the early 890s, to accept the offer, dividing his time between the king's retinue and St David's in Wales.

The text is a quaint literary product. Some of the chapters take the shape of chronicle, sometimes even recounting events in France and, on one occasion, passing judgements on the strife following the death of Charles the Fat of the Carolingian empire. Other sections, however, recount with a mixture of fondness and admiration the king's passion for literature, and a large portion of the book is dedicated to a detailed description of how Alfred often had clergymen read aloud to him from Scripture or poetry whenever affairs of the realm allowed him some leisure. A third emphasis - connected to both of the previous ones but the latter in particular - was the king's religious life, how he would go off at night and pray, always hearing mass before going on his morning hunt and how he would care for the poor. These sections comes very close to hagiography and it might have been the case that Asser had certain plans in that direction, but since the manuscript was abruptly left unfinished we shall never know this.

The king's love of literature is a key aspect of this anthology of sources to King Alfred the Great, translated and edited by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge. In addition to Asser's biography there are selections from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a project instigated by Alfred himself, excerpts from works by Pope Gregory, Augustine and Boethius translated into Old English at the king's behest and a compilation of other - chiefly legislative - sources. All in all it is a treasure trove for anyone who wishes a better insight in the era of King Alfred and the various literary and political undertakings that make his reign such an interesting period.

Despite his sobriquet "the Great" Alfred only achieved this fame relatively late and it is doubtful whether he was held in particularly high regard by the first generations following his death. The Cistercian monk Aelred of Rievaulx, Edward the Confessor's last Latin hagiographer, dedicated an extensive section of his Genealogy of the English Kings (1157-58) to "the very pious King Alfred", but how old this tradition was at the time of Aelred's composition is uncertain.

Alfred was the son of Æthelwulf and Osburh and became king of Wessex on the death of his brother Æthelred in 871, ruling the kingdom until his death in 899. The time of his reign was a tempestuous era of recurring attacks from marauding Vikings and his biographer Asser notes that Alfred was greatly troubled "by the relentless attacks of foreign peoples, which he continually sustained from land and sea without any interval of peace." These tribulations caused enormous material and - more importantly - human damage throughout Britain and to ward off the raiders Alfred was forced into guerilla warfare and spurred on to improve fortifications and build new strongholds where required. The reader sometimes learns of fierce encounters between the king's army and the Vikings, such as the breaching of York's walls in 867.

For in those days the city did not yet have firm and secure walls.
- Life of King Alfred, Asser

To me, however, the time of King Alfred is of interest not so much because of the ceaseless carnage, but because of the great literary endeavours that took place in that period, samples of which comprise an important part of the anthology as noted above. Illiterate and speaking only the vernacular Alfred had several texts of great cultural importance translated into Old English, and he himself kept a book in which he had jotted down certain passages of particular beauty which he carried on his body. Asser shows a particular fondness in recounting these details and likewise at the end of the document where, as the epigraph illustrates, the king's men are admonished for not being literate. A similar satisfaction on the part of Asser can be detected when the king "prompted by Heaven, took it upon himself to begin on the rudiments of Holy Scripture on St Martin's Day", 11 November, 887, i.e. when the king decided to learn Latin sufficiently enough to master the various extracts he had gathered in his little book.

This is, all in all, a delightful anthology, perfect for the Medieval enthusiast and a good starting point for those interested in the cultural exchange of the Anglo-Saxon world. In time, when time and money allow, I look forward to add it to my own book collection.

2 kommentarer:

  1. I need to read Asser's biography Steffen. I've come to really admire Alfred and his daughter Aethelflaed.

    1. I recommend it! It's a rather quick read and very informative. I find him very interesting mainly for his cultural programme, and of course the age he lived in. Have you written a post on Aethelflaed on your blog yet?