Alfred the Great (Writer)


(849-899) king, scholar,translator, educator

King Alfred of Wessex, present-day southern England, is known in history as a strong military and political strategist and cultural and scholarly leader. He is credited with having developed an Old English prose style through his translations of well-known works from Latin.

Until the time of Alfred’s reign (871-899) there was no prose in Old English. With the exception of laws and charters, all prose was in Latin. By the ninth century, England was in a cultural and intellectual decline, and the people understood only Old English. Alfred was the first to realize the need for educating the people, and he set about translating works he deemed suitable. As Alfred himself said, “Without wisdom no faculty can be fully brought out….”

Alfred was tireless in his devotion to preserving Anglo-Saxon literature by copying and translating important pieces of his times into Old English. He himself did some of the translating and also supervised scribes and monks, influencing them to follow his example. Some of the important works he translated include Consolation of Philosophy by boethius, a philosophical work from the sixth century that had an important influence on much of the literature of the middle ages; Cura Pastoralis (Pastoral Care), a handbook by Gregory describing the responsibilities of a bishop; and Soliloquies by St. augustine, an ecclesiastical manual.

Two of the works that Alfred translated and compiled, bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People and the anglo-saxon chronicle, have generated a storm of arguments among scholars through the ages. Most of the debates are based on the style of writing in these works, as it differs from the style in works soundly attributed to Alfred’s hand. Thus, whether Alfred directly contributed to the works or not, it is established that the translation of the works was accomplished during and inspired by his reign.

Knowledge of Alfred’s early years is based on a biography by John Asser, who was Alfred’s companion. Alfred had no schooling in his childhood and could read neither Latin nor Old English until after his 12th year; however, once he started learning, there was no stopping him.

He came to the throne of England in 871, following the death of his brother, King Aethelred I. His early years as a monarch were spent organizing successful campaigns against the Danish Vikings, forcing them north back into the Danelaw, where many became Christians. This saved England from becoming part of the Norse empire. The rest of England accepted Alfred as their national leader.

Alfred acutely felt the pressures of being a monarch and of constantly having to fight to defend his land. His infirm health was also a continual source of aggravation to him. Despite all of this, he continued to ably administer his kingdom; bestow alms and largesse on natives and foreigners; practice hunting; instruct his goldsmiths, falconers, and dog-keepers; design and build majestic houses; attend Mass twice a day; memorize poems and psalms; translate works of literature into his native tongue; participate in discussions and debates with scholars from all over Britain and Europe; and, above all, pursue the education of the people of his kingdom.

English Versions of Works by Alfred the Great

Schreiber, Carolin, trans. King Alfred’s Old English Translation of Pope Gregory the Great’s Regula Pastoralis and its Cultural Context. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2003.

Waite, Greg, trans. Old English Prose Translations of King Alfred’s Reign. Suffolk, U.K.: Boydell & Brewer, 2000.

Works about Alfred the Great

Asser, John. The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great. Translated by Alfred P. Smythe. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

Harrison, Frederick. The Writings of King Alfred. New York: M.S.G. Haskell House, 1970. Peddie, John. Alfred: Warrior King. Gloucestershire, U.K.: Sutton Publishing, 2001.

Plummer, Charles. The Life and Times of Alfred the Great. New York: Haskell House, 1970.

Smyth, Alfred P. King Alfred the Great. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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