Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Alfred and the Old English Prose of his Reign > Translations of Orosius and Bede
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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.

§ 3. Translations of Orosius and Bede.


The relative positions of Orosius and Bede are difficult to determine. For a long period the prior position was assigned to Orosius, but, latterly, there has been a tendency to reverse the order. The argument based on closeness of translation may, in this case, be fallacious, not only from the fact that the Latin of Orosius presents more difficulties than that of Bede, but because, in the latter case, Alfred would have been far less justified in tampering with his original. Bede’s work ranked, in Alfred’s day, as a standard history of the early English church; it was a recognised classic. Much of Orosius, on the other hand, was obviously unsuitable for English readers unversed in the outlines of classical history. The comparative closeness of the translation of Bede does not, therefore, necessarily imply early work. Plummer has pointed out that the account of Caesar’s invasions was omitted in the first recension of Bede--a fact which can only be understood by assuming that Alfred had already treated these events in detail in Orosius   10
  The Historia adversus Paganos of Paulus Orosius, a Spanish ecclesiastic, dates from the fifth century and was looked upon as a standard text-book of universal history. Orosius, as a disciple of Augustine, had already given expression to anti-Pelagian views in an earlier work. His later book, likewise due to the inspiration of Augustine,  2  was an attempt to expound the thesis that the decline of the Roman empire was due to other causes than the rise of Christianity and the neglect of pagan deities.   11
  Alfred’s interest in the work of Orosius lay chiefly on the historical and geographical sides, though he did not neglect to draw the moral. He aimed at giving to the English people a compendium of universal history and geography, handling his original with great freedom, introducing alterations and additions, omitting much superfluous detail and making original contributions of great value. The account of the geography of Germania is an interpolation of the greatest importance as a historical document. Further, the accounts of the celebrated voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan inserted in the volume were taken down from hearsay. The Norwegian Ohthere had voyaged furthest north of all his contemporaries reaching a latitude of about 71° 15’. Passing round the north of the Scandinavian peninsula, he afterwards explored the White Sea. Not till 1553 was this feat eclipsed, by Willoughby. Ohthere afterwards made a voyage south, from Halgoland to Haddeby in the Baltic. From this point Wulstan set out to explore the great sea, which Ohthere had described as running for many miles into the land. For a time he had Wendland on his starboard and the Danish islands on his port side. Continuing past the Swedish provinces of Bleking and Smaland, he reached the mouth of the Vistula. He entered the Frische Haff and sailed up the Elbing to Truso, having accomplished the voyage in seven days. On their return both voyagers recounted their adventures to Alfred, who gave them a sympathetic hearing. The narrative of Ohthere must have had particular interest for him, for the spirit of discovery which animated the Norwegian sailor was akin to that felt by the West Saxon king. Alfred had already formed plans for the development of a navy, and would readily recognise the relation between the spirit of adventure and the maintenance of seapower. Geographical conditions were largely responsible for the unrest of the Scandinavians. The interior of Sweden was filled with dense pine forests and Norway was, for the most part, a barren moor. Hence expeditions, piratical or otherwise, and the growth of that love for the sea which is reflected in the northern sagas. “He alone,” says the Ynglinga Saga, “had full right to the name of sea-king, who never slept under sooty beam and never drank at chimney corner.” The narrative of Ohthere’s voyage holds a unique position as the first attempt to give expression to the spirit of discovery. It is, besides, good literature, and finds an honourable place in Hakluyt’s great collection of voyages.   12
  Alfred was too wise to burden his book with all the geographical detail given by Orosius. He confined himself to the essentials of general geography, omitting the descriptions of northeast Africa and of central Asia and abbreviating other passages. The mistakes which crept into his version are to be asscribed either to lack of acquaintance with the district described or to a misunderstanding of the somewhat difficult Latin of Orosius. The historical portion of the book is less original than the geographical. Alfred omitted a great deal, particularly in the sections dealing with classical mythology. The stories of Philomela, Tantalus and Caligula had little to commend them, and were not inserted in the translation. Many of the moralisings of Orosius were left out, though a number were retained in a paraphrased form. Curiously enough, some of the passages definitely ascribed by Alfred to Orosius are not to be traced in the original. It is possible that, in such cases, Alfred availed himself of materials as yet unknown to us. A more questionable proceeding is the omission of details prejudicial to the reputation of Germanic tribes. The alterations and additions in the historical section are decidedly interesting. There are the usual misunderstandings—the identification of Theseus with the victor of Marathon, of Carthage with Cordova, and the fusion of the consuls Lepidus and Mucius into one under the title of Lepidus Mutius. Wherever possible the king acts as interpreter, substituting, for example, English equivalents for the Latin names of British towns and English names of measures for Latin. The description given by Orosius of the appearances of Commodus in the arena is reduced to the simple statement that the emperor was accustomed to fight duels. Alfred’s imagination plays around the details of the plague of frogs in Egypt—“No meat could be prepared without there being as large a quantity of reptiles as of meat in the vessel before it could be dressed.” Cleopatra is described as placing the adder against her arm because she thought it would cause less pain there. Interesting accounts are inserted of a Roman triumph and of the temple of Janus. A side glimpse is often to be had of the king’s opinions, religious or otherwise. He enlarges on Scipio’s love for the fatherland, concluding, “He compelled them to swear that they would all together either live or die in their native land.” His admiration is likewise moved by the courage of Regulus, to whom he devotes considerable space. Orosius is thus of great value for the light it throws on Alfred’s character. He is shown to have been a skilful geographer and an interested, if not a scholarly, student of history. His practical purpose is clearly apparent. Everywhere in dealing with history he endeavours to bring the historical fact into vital relation with current affairs. The military achievements of Greeks and Romans remind him of wars in which he had himself been engaged, and his explanations of manceuvres are generally based on his own experience. Though the hand of Alfred is very apparent in the pages of Orosius, there is no good external authority for the authorship. The first to associate his name with this translation was William of Malmesbury.  3    13
  The translation of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica may be considered next. The original is much less freely rendered than is the case with Orosius—a fact which may have been due to the authoritative position occupied by Bede’s book. The external testimony of Alfred’s authorship is fairly trustworthy. In his Homily on St. Gregory Aelfric refers to the Historia Anglorum, “which Alfred translated out of Latin into English,” and there is further evidence in the Cambridge MS., on the first leaf of which is written, Historicus quondam fecit me Beda latinum, Alfred rex Saxo transtulit ille pius. On the ground of certain Mercian characteristics in the text, however, Miller ventures to doubt the Alfredian authorship, and is led by the fact of certain omissions to fix the locality of the original MS. at Lichfield. On the other hand, Schipper holds to the orthodox view and considers the arguments based on dialect to be unproven. The omissions in Alfred’s Bede are very considerable, and no attempt is made to supplement the original with southern annals. No account is given of the famous ecclesiastical controversy which took place at Whitby--a fact which seems to Miller to confirm his view that the translator was not a West Saxon but a Mercian, keenly aware of Scotch susceptibilities. Bede’s accounts of the great figures of the early churches are retained, though the story of Adamnan is omitted. In the interest of his narrative Alfred omits such documents as letters from popes and bishops, retaining only Gregory’s first letter to the monks, and this in oratio obliqua. The finest passage in the English version is the account of Caedmon, an excellent piece of early prose, and Caedmon’s hymn is inserted in a West Saxon form, of which the original is to be found only in the Moore MS. of Bede’s History. The style is frequently marred by over-literalness. Latin constuction are constantly introduced in an altogether un-English fashion, and words are used in an un-English sense as equivalents for Latin terms. A peculiarity of the style is the employment of two English terms to represent a single term in the original. On the whole, the translation cannot rank very high among Alfred’s works, even if it be rightly attributed to him.   14

Note 2. Cf. De Civ. Dei, III. [ back ]
Note 3Gesta Regum Anglorum, 11, /??/ 123 [ back ]

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