Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great
(ca. 848–899)
   Alfred the Great was king of Wessex from 871 to 899, and was successful in defending his kingdom from Danish invaders and even in expanding his holdings at the expense of the Danes. But beyond preserving an independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom, Alfred was also responsible for an OLD ENGLISH cultural renaissance through his support of learning, and, more specifically, through his own English translations of important Latin texts.
   Alfred was born in Wantage in Oxfordshire, the youngest son ofWessex king Æthelwulf.His young adult life, from 865 onwards, was spent constantly embattled by Viking armies. Upon the death of his brother Æthelred in 871, Alfred ascended to the throne.When the Danish chieftain Guthrum invaded Wessex in 878, Alfred was forced to flee to the Athelney marshes in Somerset. One of Alfred’s most remarkable accomplishments was being able to rebound from this low point. Within seven weeks he had raised enough of a force to defeat Guthrum decisively at the Battle of Eddington. He subsequently forced Guthrum to accept Christian baptism and to agree to withdraw all his forces from Wessex into East Anglia and Mercia. An official boundary, called Danelaw, was eventually recognized between the Danish and English forces by a treaty in 886. But in 892, a new army of Danes invaded England, and Alfred spent four years fighting them off. He was successful partly because of his institution of the first English navy, and partly because of his establishment of permanent fortifications around his territory. Finally, in 896, a temporary peace was achieved.
   Alfred, however, was not content with merely preserving his country. He also wanted to restore it to the heights it had achieved prior to the Viking invasions.He gave the country its first new law code in a century, basing his system on Mosaic law and on previous codes ofWessex,Mercia, and Kent. The law code emphasized protection for the weak, loyalty to one’s lord, and restraint of blood-feuds. He also wanted to restore the churches of England to their former glory, and he established a nunnery at Shaftesbury (where his daughter was to become prioress) and a monastery at Athelney. Ambitious, as well, to make his new monastery a true center of learning to help revive letters in his kingdom, Alfred imported scholars from other parts of Europe— from Gaul, Saxony, and Wales. One of the first tasks he set these scholars was the education of the royal household, including the king himself, who began studying Latin in 887.
   Alfred’s contributions to English literature take the form largely of translations. He believed that the reeducation of his people must begin with books in the vernacular. In addition to encouraging other scholars to translate Latin texts into English— he clearly was behind the translation of BEDE’s Ecclesiastical History into English—Alfred made several translations of his own, beginning with his rendition of GREGORY THE GREAT’s Cura pastoralis (Pastoral care). This text, a manual for the spiritual education of the clergy, contained a preface composed by Alfred decrying the decay of English scholarship and expressing his determination to improve that situation. He sent a copy of his translation to every bishop in his kingdom. Later, he translated Historia adversus pagonos by Paulus Orosius. This text, a history of the world structured as a series of annals, was expanded by Alfred with up-to-date accounts drawn from contemporary voyages into the far north by Wulstan and by the Norwegian Ohthere. It is possible that the structure of this history influenced the ANGLO-SAXON CHRONICLES, which were begun during Alfred’s reign, and certainly with his encouragement. Alfred’s final literary effort was probably a loose translation of Saint AUGUSTINE’s Soliloquia (Soliloquies), a kind of commonplace book with quotations about mortality, and a number of everyday examples added by Alfred himself.
   Alfred’s best-known translation is of BOETHIUS’s CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY, that vastly popular argument for the uses of adversity in human life. Here and in all of his translations, Alfred used a style of “idiomatic translation,” by which he tried to render the sense of his source into idiomatic and vivid English, rather than aiming for a word-forword imitation of his original.
   Much of our knowledge of Alfred’s life is contained in De rebus gestis Aelfredi Magni (Life of Alfred the Great), a contemporary account by the Welsh monk John Asser, one of the scholars Alfred had brought to Wessex. The biography’s objectiv-ity is questionable, effusive as it is in its praise of Alfred, but it would have been difficult not to praise him. An effective and inspirational war leader, as well as a builder, a lawgiver, a supporter of education and the arts and a scholar himself, Alfred is the only English monarch ever given the title “Great.”
   ■ Abels, Richard Philip. Alfred the Great: War, Kingship, and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. Harlow, U.K.: Longman, 1998.
   ■ Asser, John. The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great: A Translation and Commentary on the Text Attributed to Asser. Edited and translated by Alfred P. Smyth. Houndmills, Hampshire, U.K.: 2002.
   ■ Duckett, Eleanor Shipley. Alfred the Great and His England. London: Collins, 1957.
   ■ Sturdy, David. Alfred the Great. London: Constable, 1995.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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