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The Lost Works of King Alfred the Great

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Right... well I’ve just been refreshing my reading about King Alfred’s contribution to English letters when something hit me, right between the eyes. 

So until the swelling goes down and I’m safe alone out of doors, may I take my mind off my troubles by sharing the following thought it gave me with my fellow ġesíðas?

Re-reading the Penguin Classic compendium Alfred the Great translated and annotated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge ( 1983 Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-044409-2) I tumbled to the full significance of the line in their Introduction where they say that eoldorman Æthelweard, the lay chronicler of the latter part of King Alfred’s reign, speaks of the “unknown numbers of books” he thinks King Alfred has translated.  For whilst Æthelweard may, a) simply be failing to distinguish between the number of books translated by King Alfred known to him personally on the one hand and the number of books King Alfred was thought to have translated by people generally on the other, and whilst, b) Æthelweard’s style is quite pretentious enough for this to be just another clunky stylistic flourish... nonetheless it does raise the possibility that King Alfred translated other books than those known to us in our, surviving historical records.

Yes, like the chance of a lost Shakespearian play, there could have been other books by King Alfred we wouldn’t know about. Whether translated, caused to be translated or, as the first Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Bald’s Leechbook and maybe Solomon and Saturn are thought to be, inspired by his example and/ or the momentum of his educational policy.

Now as ġesíþas will guess who have heard of that children’s book of mine that keeps getting researched instead of getting finished, what had me sitting up was the potential of this grey area in our historical knowledge from a storytelling point of view.  Already, having come across a story that King Alfred wrote a book on falconry ( unsubstantiated if plausible) and that King Harold II owned a book on hunting ( that the balance of probability favours), I have stuck my neck out so far as to portray King Alfred composing a hunting book that he and Princess Ethelflæda end up calling The Wose’s Nose.  The way I tell it, this was hived off from that handbook we know King Alfred used to fill up with jottings and, because Princess Ethelflæda grows up to be the chip off the old block when it comes to his love of hunting, she adds to The Wose’s Nose after his death when it is included in her share of his estate.
   It’s simply an almanac of hunting lore, and it is from her hands that it comes to the attention of my child characters: “Osfrith found herself holding a book bound with silver clasps like the claws of glovebirds, all crafted with the same uncanny skill as Lady Ethelflæda’s bow.  Looking at the drawings of glovebirds and collared hounds inside, she realised they were offspring of the same hand.  The craft and lore were King Alfred’s.”  As they learn to read and write they learn to tell apart the father and daughter’s handwriting, Lady Ethelflæda’s being a neater and more regular version of King Alfred’s.

Now my problem is to use the potential of other lost Alfredian material as wisely as can be, viz not to go mad but keep things consonant with established historical knowledge and to work within the scholarly consensus as to what is probable.  Or else it had better be good!  One of the few things I’m tolerably certain about in the uncertain world of creative writing, and that is you can get away with almost anything if you do it well enough.  I'm considering portraying Lady Ethelflæda adding an entry about her father to De Viris Illustribus by St Jerome, so by all means tell me what you think of that.

Because, er, that’s where you folk :D come in.  Hoping this is genuinely interesting to ġesíðas, I should value any thoughts or comments as to just what else King Alfred’s influence and literary legacy may have involved.

If my understanding a serves, King Alfred made it from piety to pragmatism because freewill plays much the same role in the Judaeo-Christian concept of moral virtue as it does in many others. Viz: the moral credit or blame for a deed resides in the fact that a person is free to do wrong, but chooses to do right, and vice versa.  Ergo virtue cannot flourish amongst slaves or anybody else insofar as they are unfree, ergo virtue cannot flourish under a ruler insofar as his or her subjects are reduced to slavery.  As ġesíþas may well know, this seems to be the main reason manumissions appear in Old English wills and why King Alfred, as a reflective and committed Christian who took seriously his kingly duties, volunteered an interest in finding ways to promote freedom amongst his subjects: that virtue should flourish.
   In moral philosophy education and literacy fall under the class of freedom known as an “augmented freedom” or “acquired freedom”, meaning there’s a trick to it.  Unlike the other two which are, a) legal or political freedoms ( lack of which lead to slavery) that are social constructs, and b) natural freedoms ( the freedom to extend your fist that ends where somebody else’s chin begins) of the sort we’re born with.  E.g. at first blush one might think that drawing is about as free and easy as air, until you realise you can’t draw very well on air.  You have to have something with which, and on which, to draw if only a dusty surface and the use of one finger, ergo drawing is an acquired not a natural freedom since you first need something like a stylus and a delible substrate, these being what a Stoic philosopher would call the “anterior necessity” of drawing. Or in laymen’s terms, there’s a trick to it.

King Alfred chose to promote education and literacy because, again if my understanding serves ( especially of The Political Thought of Alfred the Great by David Pratt and Alfred and Boethius by F. Anne Payne) only through good works can one make sure one is using one’s freewill rightly instead of wrongfully, and aiding and abetting other people’s freedom is the best way to make sure of that.  So if you meet Bernard Cornwell on the road, kill him.  For it happens to be exactly true that our greatest king was not only a military hero because he fought for his subjects’ legal/ political/ natural freedom from foreign domination, he is also a culture hero in that he cultivated their intellectual freedom so well, his legacy still cultivates ours. 
   Or as his daughter puts it to my child characters: “Ignorance is the prison we are all born in. .... Most of us die in its deeps, ignorant even of that.  Ignorant of the choices we had, never to fulfil ourselves.
    “Learning is the light that shows us to the world of wisdom.  Learning shows us how every book is a door unbarred, every letter a window unshuttered.  Through learning, folk who live far away or died long ago can tell us how wisdom slew the guards, long before our forefathers.  We need only follow the light to escape” and by a great gift to storytellers her father also designed that lamp, one of which I portray her lighting for my child characters to get their first look at some books she shows them, in the build-up to this moment.

So apart from something of private interest to King Alfred, for which I think I’ve shot my bolt with The Wose’s Nose, I’m guessing that any hypothetical unknown Alfredian work would be of the same stable as his translations of Pastoral Care, Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, of St Augustine of Hippo’s Soliloquies, his re-write of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy and his translation and update of Orosius’ History Against the Pagans, although the latter makes me wonder whether Wulfstan and Ohthere were the only two travellers he spoke to with an eye to updating it.  We know he sent alms to India and I’m personally sure he would have been interested in King Sisebut, of Visigothic Spain.  Already, during her husband’s lifetime, I have portrayed Lady Ethelflæda working on a Wonders of Iceland because the Norse settlement of Iceland began towards the end of King Alfred’s life and, as DNA tests have shown, about a quarter of the individuals were women from the British Isles.  Yet this is a work in progress because the sailors’ stories making their way back to British wharfsides ( of “simmering tarns” that “turn wood and weft into stone, and there are snowpeaks that spew sparks and springs that sprout steam” to the peril of the unwary) seem a bit far-fetched and fact-checking isn’t the most straightforward thing for Lady Ethelflæda to see done.

Then there’s always the Wild East, for I’ve found that the modern expression for today’s kleptocratic, mafia-ridden Russia also works well for the state of Eastern Europe at the time my book is set, as the Norsemen penetrate deeper into “the lands of the woodland Slavs”.  Did you know there was a real Lake Town, founded by the Vikings in northern Russia? However, William of Malmesbury was under the impression that King Alfred was translating the psalter when he died, and both the Paris Psalter and Keynes and Lapidge support him in this.  An English psalter seems in character for King Alfred and his education and his policies ( “certain books which are the most necessary for all men to know”) and already my Lady Ethelflæda has told my child characters of “King David’s words, rendered into the English tongue for my brothers and sisters and I, by Father” in her personal psalter.

What about a guide book for pilgrims to Rome and Jerusalem?  Including the shrines of St Anselm of York at Tours, St Boniface at Fulda and others at Aachen ( the hot springs didn’t exactly put people off either, seemingly) where I have lately learned Old English pilgrims also visited.  Again, if my understanding serves the Holy See made a lasting impression on King Alfred ( wonder what he made of the library at Abbots Trebford, come to that) and a guide book for the pilgrim route would be both pious and practical.  Abbot John of Old Saxony could help with the German shrines, Abbot Grimbald with the Frankish ones.  Abbot John was definitely still alive during King Edward’s reign ( as Abbot of Athelney, though no longer very mobile if Bishop Asser’s account of the murder attempt upon him is anything to go by) so maybe they were still editing it together by about AD 905, when my story opens.  King Alfred was still leading armies from the front within a year or two of his death in AD 899, so he may have committed his childhood memories to writing if he, or those inspired by his policies, had initiated such a project.  Boethius’ tomb and that of Queen Ethelswith, King Alfred’s own sister and the last queen of Mercia, were at Pavia in Lombardy, and I’m in the middle of trying to nail whether the relics of St Augustine of Hippo made it there before AD 900 ( as they are today, having been taken from Africa before the Islamic takeover and spending some time in Sardinia). Yet what might its title be?  The Pilgrim’s Packpony?

Yet as I say, I must tread carefully here so I’m rather anxious to hear the reactions of fresh pairs of eyes and what informed minds have to say.

And stop rattling on.

The moral right of the author to be identified in an inhabited vine scroll has been asserted.

So, here's my thoughts, since you so unwisely asked, Bowerthane! First, I'm probably wrong, but I think Osfrith is a boy's name. I think Osthryth is the female version? (Waiting to be shot down in flames by all you OE speakers now!!).

If you/Ælfred says only by doing good works are you using your free will rightly, that's not free will at all is it? You are being bound by somebody else's idea of what is right. So I couldn't kill Bernard Cornwell if I saw him, because although I might think that's right, society may not.

I like the idea of Ælfred being a travel writer but think it's probably unlikely! With being an active king and all I doubt he had enough time to translate/write much more than those works we already know of. I think you would be right, if you are assigning extra works to him, to make them of the same ilk as the ones we already know. But as you say, if you tell the story right, you can get away with anything - just as long as you show what a hero he was!! (I'm sure you will!). And keep his dignity, nothing too frivolous - children are quite sophisticated these days and things read in childhood stay in the mind, influencing adult opinions....

You clearly know much more than me after all your research so I'm not confident to challenge you on anything else - although I would like to know more about the story. What age of children are you writing for? How long do you intend your book to be? I hope it will be shot through with humour as your posts are ;D

I do wonder if Alfred might have indulged in some travel writing though? Given how he liked to hear tales of travellers (do I have that right?) I suppose he may have jotted down the ones he liked best for re-reading, or for sharing. Especially if they conveyed a lesson most needful for men to know :)

Osfrith is a boy's name

You’re quite right Eanflaed, thanks.  Lapse of attention on my part.  I’m so glad I found out now.

[J]ust as long as you show what a hero he was!! (I'm sure you will!)

Ooh, don’t worry about that! Bards perform The Lay of Alfred at least three times and it is mentioned some more, if only because I portray local variants.  Free Mercia is the main setting for the first half of the book, so their versions play up the role of the Mercians.  This and the tapestries inspired by it tell of King Alfred’s life, career and achievements.  Scenes my child characters clap eyes on include “the Moonless Muster of the Saxon host before King Alfred beneath the boughs of a wide wood in Wessex called Selwood” ( using black sheep’s wool for the backcloth and amethyst and silver leaf sewn in for the torches of the Wexiteers) later followed by “a king on a high-stepping horse, welcomed by cheering throngs” which turns out to be King Alfred liberating London. 

( Incidentally, what do think of web-sight as an Old English, -ish, synonym for ‘scene in a tapestry’, likely to appeal to the Net native?)

[K]eep his dignity, nothing too frivolous - children are quite sophisticated these days

Crumbs, too right!  Again, my only worry on that front is being too solemn or boring or preachy for children’s taste.  Already, thanks to the ‘mentions’ Lady Ethelflæda lets drop about King Alfred, my child characters “were astonished to hear that King Alfred did not, in fact, ride home in triumph from the Battle of Ashdown.  He’d slipped in quietly the back way, over the fields. 
   “‘But it’s no use telling the bards that,’ chuckled his daughter.  Yet the truth rang truer of the father Lady Ethelflæda spoke so lovingly, and Edwald led them all in agreeing that it spoke more nobly to the bones.”

I hope it will be shot through with humour as your posts are

This, too, is my fervent hope as I’m terrified I’m too prone to get lost in Dark Agey details that’ll just bore the party pants off the target age-range, which is anywhere you like between nine and fourteen.  I’ve pinched Jane Austen’s sense of humour and bolted it on to my Lady Etheflæda because she, too, has the kind of mind that lights up distant objects.  Re-reading Northanger Abbey and parts of Pride and Prejudice in quest of a bum-steer for what sense of humour should be in character for a high-IQ, high-status woman with the benefit of a good education, I cranked my silly head round the Blindingly Obvious Observation that you can’t do better than Jane Austen’s own, can you?  There are none who can!  So I’ve been developing some less-is-more, bone dry drolleries to put in Lady Etheflæda’s mouth too.  You can tell me whether “Adam, alone of all his sex, bore alive a woman from the side of his ribcage” is much good ( for when Lady Etheflæda has occasion to mention the Genesis story) or her tendency, whenever Lord Athelred’s court draws near enough to a Mercian town to sight the welcoming throngs, to say “We’ve caught them in” is up to the mark. 

Which brings me to:

You are being bound by somebody else’s idea of what is right. So I couldn’t kill Bernard Cornwell if I saw him

I was being facetious about Bernard Cornwell!  ( Do you have a better use for him?)  But you are quite right that, considered in abstract, there is a circularity of reasoning that choosing to do good works presupposes one is competent enough to judge good from evil, already.  But I was trying to divine the mindset of a committed and instructed Christian king late in the Dark Ages, and such a one would look to Christian scripture and his senior churchmen for what good works are.  King Alfred was very interested in King Solomon, for instance, and his interest in philosophy’s old, old bone of Freewill was spurred partly because, as a medieval ruler, he knew the risks of looking weak and he was anxious that the failure of the Judaeo-Christian god to punish obvious evil-doers makes God look weak.  If my understanding ( and memory of how it all went) serves, King Alfred would say that you are always free to choose wrong as well as right, but, granted you wish to do right, you are freely co-operating with God’s will ergo you deserve credit.  He was fussy about the distinction between a good intention and a good deed because he thought Boethius gave no proper thought to how often people may be in no practical position to do what is right, be they ever so willing to see it done.  So beefing up people’s freewill by promoting literacy and making morally edifying reading material available to them was King Alfred’s ‘belt and braces’ way of making sure, not only that he couldn’t go wrong, but by thus using his royal power in a pious as well as practical way he was helping to solve this “But how?” side of the problem by generating some practical options for others do right, too.

Or to put it another way...

Yet maybe what I have made clear is, if anyone tells you King Alfred simply translated, mistranslated or woefully misunderstood The Consolation of Philosophy it’s their numptiness, not his.  King Alfred thoroughly re-wrote whole sections, finding his own answers to some questions some of which, as you can see, are still pertinent.  He was his own man and he knew what he was about.   

I]t's probably unlikely

Well a Pilgrim’s Packhorse wouldn’t have to be by him, and thanks for reminding me that he did have a kingdom to rule and, even at the best of times, an unreliable ‘peace partner’ to keep his eye on!  Any book inspired by his example or caught up in his policy would do.  If I were tempted to fool around with a Pilgrim’s Packhorse it would be in the hope that I could ‘spin’ it in some way that would appeal to, or at least surprise, nine-to-fourteen-year-olds.  At the moment it doesn’t seem to rise above being churchy and boring.  As you know, I’ve been mugging up about the connections the Old English had with Germany, and whilst I had a good deal more success than finding out about Visigothic Spain ( of which hardly any information survives at any level of detail) it was, again, mainly churchy stuff some of which bored me, so what chance does that give the kids?

Clearly the fact that Old English missionaries spent some of their time wandering around in the original Mirkwood ( the Black Forest) will have to come into it.  I have already squeezed in a reference to the Drachenbergs, where Fafnir had his lair.  Yet trying to get much more narrative mileage out of the German angle has otherwise proven to be a bit of a pain in the old ears, even without having to tiptoe round the Ghost of Nazis Past and Wagner. – Because I hate blōdig Wagner!

Also, I keep forgetting that more letters to and by King Alfred would be about in the first decade of the tenth century.  Now what would they say, and who might incorporate information or passages from them into some book or other?  Isn’t one of the theories for why some of the herbs in Bald’s Leechbook are not native to the British Isles that King Alfred was using his international connections to search for a cure for his mystery illness, and the contents of some of his replies found their way into Bald’s Leechbook?

I'm not confident to challenge you

Ya-boo!  Please don’t say that!  I need people to throw rotten eggs and tomatoes at my literary genius, if only for fear I’ve drifted off into mungo-bungo land.


Incidentally, something else Keynes and Lapidge reminded me about was that line of King Alfred’s from the preface to Pastoral Care, in reference to Christian scripture, “all the other Christian peoples turned some part of them into their own language”, because “There is no certainty about what translations Alfred is here referring to. The Bible was translated into Gothic by Ulfilas in the fourth century, but Alfred is unlikely to have known of this work.  It is more likely that he knew of one of the translations made in Germany during the ninth century: a prose translation of the gospel story ( based on Tatian’s Diatessaron in East Franconian made at Fulda c. 830; a metrical same gospel story ( similarly based on the Diatessaron) in Old Saxon made during the decade 830-40, perhaps at Werden, known as the Heliand; and a metrical version of the gospels in Rhenish Franconian made by the monk Otfrid of Weissenburg sometime between 863 and 871.  See Bostock Handbook, pp. 157-83 and 190-212. Alfred may have known of one or all these translations through his continental helpers, Grimbald and John the Old Saxon. See also Wormald, ‘Uses of Literacy’, p. 106.”   

For besides those translations King Alfred was blazing the trail when it came to vernacular translations of the Bible or almost everything else, bearing in mind that literacy was petty much co-extensive with latinity and remained so, bar Old England, for several centuries.  Having mugged up about Visigothic Spain, where Orosius wrote his History Against the Pagans, where Bishop Aldhelm’s poems exerted some mysterious influence and where the British colony of Britonia survived until the Moorish conquest in AD 711, giving me a moral certainly that King Alfred would have taken an interest in King Sisebut ( of whose poem about eclipses Bede had a copy), I wonder if King Alfred had heard things about the Gothic liturgy? Copies of Wulfilas’ Bible may have not made it to Visigothic Spain, but I’ll bet his translations of the psalms did.
   However, having mugged up about Old England’s connections with Germany, I should be astonished if King Alfred knew nothing about the Old High German translations Keynes and Lapidge mention.  Resolved to do something similar in English, it would seem quite natural to him to bring at least one well-educated German churchman to his court. 

This Diatessaron, by the way, is a pick’n’mix gospel editing all the best incidents and dialogue into one, continuous narrative.  This is how this Tatian chap filled his time out in the Assyrian desert in the second century AD.  Says Wikipedia, “this harmony, the Codex Fuldensis, survives in the monastic library at Fulda, where it served as the source text for vernacular harmonies in Old High German, Eastern Frankish and Old Saxon ( the alliterative poem ‘Heliand’).” Old English pilgrims definitely visited Fulda, where St Boniface’s tomb was

In later centuries such the Church turned against such “gospel harmonies” in favour of using the four gospels in the original, separately.  Easier though it is to sympathise with the Virgin Mary upon being told she was having quadruplets, Lazarus has to get resurrected four times and then, right at the end, poor old Mary has to squeeze in fifty-two apostles at the Last Supper.  Not one of the Judases has second thoughts about putting a stop to this nonsense, and who’s going to blame them for that? 

 The moral right of the author to be identified broadcasting on Radio Goodies, three miles offshore from The Saucy Gibbon, has been asserted.

You have an amazing breadth of knowledge, Bowerthane, but you couldn't use that much detail in a children's book. I think you should give them succinct nuggets of info without doing it obviously. The best way to do this (says she the absolute amateur, but avid book reader!!!) is to put the words in your characters' mouths. Maybe have one "bookish", geeky character. I started a writing course, but never finished it because life got in the way, but the one thing I do remember being told about writing stories was "don't tell - show!" And in children's fiction (having had 3 of my own and now working with other people's children), humour is important and so is not being too loquacious.

And I knew you were being facetious about Bernard Cornwell - and I can't think of a better use for him either ;D


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