Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Alfred and the Old English Prose of his Reign > Asser’s Life of Alfred
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

VI. Alfred and the Old English Prose of his Reign.

§ 1. Asser’s Life of Alfred.


THE reign of Alfred acquired its chief glory from the personality of the king. He had many titles to fame. His character was made up of so many diverse elements that he seemed, at one and the same time, to be military leader, lawgiver, scholar and saint, and these elements were so combined that the balance of the whole was never disturbed. In the minds of posterity Alfred lives as the type of an ideal Englishman.   1
  In each of the departments of his activity the king’s work was of permanent value. His efforts, though essentially pioneer in character, laid a solid and permanent foundation for the superstructure which was to be raised by his successors. As king, he ruled a portion only of modern England and left much to be completed by his descendants. But the centralising policy which he inaugurated and successfully realised— the policy of making Wessex the nucleus of England’s expansion—alone made possible the growth of an enlarged kingdom. Alfred’s ideals for Wessex reflect a large vision and much practical wisdom, and the reign is as remarkable for its educational as for its political progress. His conceptions were cosmopolitan rather than insular. He never lost sight of the importance of keeping his kingdom in organic relation with European civilisation—a lesson stamped upon his mind ever since, in his early years (856), during the pontificate of one of the greatest of the popes, Leo IV, he had visited Rome and the court of Charles the Bald. This visit made a vivid impression upon Alfred’s mind. His father’s marriage with the emperor’s daughter Judith cemented relationships with the continent and the insularity of Britain was henceforth broken down. The importance for literature of this emergence from isolation cannot be over-estimated. Charles the Great had gathered round him at Aachen a cultured circle of scholars and writers, and had promoted a renascence of classical study, the influence of which was still powerful in the days of Charles the Bald. The illuminated MSS. of the French court of the ninth century—the St. Denis and Metz Bibles, the Psalter and book of Gospels, in particular—are conspicuous examples of artistic skill. After his accession Alfred looked to the Frankish empire for assistance in his task of reviving learning in Wessex. At his request, Grimbald, a monk of St. Bertin in Flanders, and John of Corvey came over to Britain, and were appointed abbots of Winchester and Aethelney respectively. The king diligently promoted scholarship, and himself undertook to translate into West Saxon recognised works in Latin prose. At the same time he increased the number of monasteries and reformed the educational side of these institutions by the introduction of teachers, English and foreign. The story of Grimbald’s visit to Oxford and of the existence there of a community of scholars is, however, not supported by any evidence. The legend was interpolated in an edition of Asser’s Life of Alfred, based on Parker’s text, which Camden published in 1602--3. No MS., or other authority, is known to support Camden’s statement. The consequence of the educational and literary activity of Alfred’s reign was to transfer the centre of learning from Northumbria to Wessex. The monastic communities of Lindisfarne, Evesham and Croyland had fostered scholarship in the north, and, in the seventh century, Whitby had produced Caedmon. In 674 Benedict Biscop had built the monastery of St. Peter at Wearmouth and, in 682, a second house at Jarrow, at both of which large libraries were collected. The arts of glass-making, gold-work and embroidery were introduced from the continent. Northumbria had thus become “the literary centre of western Europe,” producing scholars of the type of Bede, the master of the learning of his day, and Alcuin, the scholarly helper of Charles the Great. But with the appearance of the Danes began the decline of learning in the north. So much did scholarship suffer in consequence of the viking raids that, at the date of Alfred’s accession, there was no scholar even south of the Thames who could read the mass-book in Latin. The revival of letters in Wessex was the direct result of the king’s enthusiasm and personal efforts, and his educational aims recall irresistibly the work of Charles the Great.   2
  The authorities for the life of Alfred are many, but of unequal value. His own works, reflecting as they do his personal character and convictions, furnish the most important data, the Chronicle and the Life by Asser ranking next in value. Asser, a Welsh cleric, was, in all probability, educated at St. David’s. He had already been in communication with Alfred regarding the defence of his monastery when he was summoned by the king to assist him in his educational schemes. According to his own account, Asser arranged to stay with Alfred for six months of each year, spending the remaining six in Wales. He became the king’s most intimate friend and diligently assisted him in his study of Latin. He was eventually appointed bishop of Sherborne, and died some ten years after the king. The authenticity of Asser’s book has been much disputed. The unique MS. survives only in charred and illegible fragments, but it is clear from external evidence that Parker’s edition (1574) contains large editorial alterations and interpolations from the Lives of St. Neots. Formidable evidence in support of the genuineness of the original Asser has been collected by Stevenson and others. The Welsh and Latin forms and the scriptural quotations point to the early part of the tenth century, and, at the same time, attest the Celtic nationality of the author. The chronology is based on a primitive version of the Chronicle, which the author supplements by details which none but an eye witness could have supplied. The very incompleteness of the book is an argument against its being a forgery. Its abrupt beginning and conclusion, and its awkward combination of extracts from the Chronicle with original matter, may have been due to the choice of Frankish models, such as Einhart’s Life of Charles the Great or Thegan’s Life of Ludwig the Pious. Asser’s book holds a unique position as “the earliest biography of an English layman.” Florence of Worcester is valuable as illustrating the genuine text of Asser, since he ignores what was, apparently, interpolated. The later chroniclers, Simeon of Durham and William of Malmesbury, throw occasional light on incidents in the king’s career, but, on the whole, are responsible for the growth of the Alfred legend.   3
  The chronological order of Alfred’s works is difficult to determine. Depending, as we do, mainly upon internal evidence, there is no absolute test whereby to fix the priority of one work over another. Evidence of style is notoriously untrustworthy. There are, however, a few considerations on the basis of which a general arrangement may be attempted, though scarcely two critics are in entire agreement as to the final order. Of these considerations the most important is ability to reproduce in West Saxon prose the spirit of the Latin original. A comparatively close translation is, in Alfred’s case, a sign of the prentice hand; his latest work is marked by great freedom of rendering and large insertions. Some further light is thrown on the problem by the character of the prefaces to the various books. The chroniclers are of little assistance in the determination of the relative order.   4

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