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Outlines of English and American Literature
Alfred the Great
by Long, William J.

We shall understand the importance of Alfred's work if we remember how his country fared when he became king of the West Saxons, in 871. At that time England lay at the mercy of the Danish sea-rovers. Soon after Bede's death they fell upon Northumbria, hewed out with their swords a place of settlement, and were soon lords of the whole north country. Being pagans ("Thor's men" they called themselves) they sacked the monasteries, burned the libraries, made a lurid end of the civilization which men like Columb and Bede had built up in North-Humberland. Then they pushed southward, and were in process of paganizing all England when they were turned back by the heroism of Alfred. How he accomplished his task, and how from his capital at Winchester he established law and order in England, is recorded in the histories. We are dealing here with literature, and in this field Alfred is distinguished in two ways: first, by his preservation of early English poetry; and second, by his own writing, which earned for him the title of father of English prose. Finding that some fragments of poetry had escaped the fire of the Danes, he caused search to be made for old manuscripts, and had copies made of all that were legible. [Footnote: These copies were made in Alfred's dialect (West Saxon) not in the Northumbrian dialect in which they were first written.] But what gave Alfred deepest concern was that in all his kingdom there were few priests and no laymen who could read or write their own language. As he wrote sadly:

    "King Alfred sends greeting to Bishop Werfrith in words of love and
    friendship. Let it be known to thee that it often comes to my mind
    what wise men and what happy times were formerly in England, ... I
    remember what I saw before England had been ravaged and burned, how
    churches throughout the whole land were filled with treasures of
    books. And there was also a multitude of God's servants, but these
    had no knowledge of the books: they could not understand them
    because they were not written in their own language. It was as if
    the books said, 'Our fathers who once occupied these places loved
    wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and left it to us. We
    see here their footprints, but we cannot follow them, and therefore
    have we lost both their wealth and their wisdom, because we would
    not incline our hearts to their example.' When I remember this, I
    marvel that good and wise men who were formerly in England, and who
    had learned these books, did not translate them into their own
    language. Then I answered myself and said, 'They never thought that
    their children would be so careless, or that learning would so
    decay.'" [Footnote: A free version of part of Alfred's preface to
    his translation of Pope Gregory's Cura Pastoralis, which
    appeared in English as the Hirdeboc or Shepherd's Book.]

To remedy the evil, Alfred ordered that every freeborn Englishman should learn to read and write his own language; but before he announced the order he followed it himself. Rather late in his boyhood he had learned to spell out an English book; now with immense difficulty he took up Latin, and translated the best works for the benefit of his people. His last notable work was the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.


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