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Reference group
Scholars at King Alfred's court (act. 880–899) constitute a seemingly unique group in the history of pre-conquest English government and culture. The majority of Anglo-Saxon kings were illiterate, that is to say, they could neither read nor write Latin, the language in which much official business (conveyancing of land, communication with foreign courts, and so on) was transacted. Kings accordingly depended upon advisers literate in Latin to compose the necessary documents for them. These advisers were normally high-ranking ecclesiastics (bishops or abbots). Only in exceptionally rare cases did kings interest themselves in this aspect of their government, to the point of making an effort to learn Latin for themselves. Such an interest can be surmised in the case of such tenth-century kings as Æthelstan and Edgar; but the only king for whom such interest is reliably documented is Alfred (r. 871–899). Alfred's interest was manifestly stimulated by the scholars whom he invited to his court. Of particular importance among them was Asser, the king's own biographer, who was bishop of St David's when about 885 Alfred invited him to spend half of every year in Wessex in attendance on himself. Through the bishop's tutelage Alfred began to learn Latin, and Asser vividly describes (chap. 87) the moment of breakthrough when the king succeeded in reading and translating a passage of Latin for the very first time. The year was probably 887, when Alfred was aged nearly forty.

Asser (who subsequently became bishop of Sherborne), writing in 893, records that Alfred invited to his court several Mercian ecclesiastics, probably in the early 880s, including Werferth, bishop of Worcester, and Plegemund, later archbishop of Canterbury, as well as the priests Æthelstan and Werwulf. Later in the same decade he invited from overseas the continental scholars Grimbald, a monk of St Bertin in Flanders (who is said to have declined the archbishopric of Canterbury to which Plegemund was then appointed) and John the Old Saxon (his precise continental origin is unknown, but presumably he came from somewhere in Saxony east of the Rhine). It was these men, along with Asser, who did most to assist Alfred in realizing his programme for the revival of wisdom and learning in his realm.

King Alfred may not himself have been a proficient Latinist but his enthusiasm for Latin learning, and for the education of his people (especially the clergy), is witnessed by a number of English translations that were issued in his name (and in which he may have participated to a greater or lesser extent), as also by a number of other translations that were apparently inspired by him. In the first category belong the Old English translations of Gregory the Great's Regula pastoralis, Augustine's Soliloquia, and Boethius's Consolatio philosophiae. Copies of the translation of the Regula pastoralis (which is principally concerned with the behaviour and morality of bishops) were sent on Alfred's instructions to all bishops of the kingdom. The prose preface of the work explains that Alfred was concerned with making widely available those Latin works ‘most necessary for all men to know’, and that he had translated it ‘as he had learned it’ from Archbishop Plegemund (whose title indicates that the translation was completed after 890), Bishop Asser, Grimbald, and John. Similar means of production are usually assumed for the translations of Augustine and Boethius (Alfred is also thought to have translated the first fifty psalms, perhaps as an act of personal devotion of the sort described by Asser in chapters 88–9). Works belonging to the second category include a translation of Gregory's Dialogi by Bishop Werferth, as well as the anonymous Old English translations of Orosius's Historiae adversum paganos and Bede's Historia ecclesiastica (with these may also belong the prose Martyrology, apparently translated from an earlier Latin martyrology of English origin).

The level of scholarship displayed in these works varies considerably. On one hand, Werferth's translation of the Dialogi contains many errors that indicate that his training in Latin was far from secure. On the other hand, the translations of Augustine and Boethius reveal a high level of scholarly attainment, inasmuch as they involve the collation of a number of Latin works (including glosses) in addition to the target texts themselves. Although they were issued in King Alfred's name, it is not clear who was responsible for the actual work of translation, given that the king's knowledge of Latin was rudimentary at best, and insufficient for, say, rendering the Latin style of Boethius. William of Malmesbury in the twelfth century claimed that Asser had assisted Alfred in translating the Boethius, but the source of William's information is unknown, and it may be significant that Asser's Vita Ælfredi contains no verbal reminiscence of Boethius (in fact the range of Asser's reading in earlier Latin literature is rather limited, being confined in effect to patristic authorities such as Augustine, Orosius, Gregory, and Bede). Modern knowledge of the scholarly activity of Alfred's councillors is further limited by the fact that, with the exception of Asser (and perhaps John the Old Saxon, to whom some acrostic poems have been attributed), no other writings survive that can be attributed to any of the scholars in question. This lack is particularly acute in the case of Plegemund and Grimbald.

In addition to the role played by these scholars in the literary translations undertaken by (or at least issued in the name of) King Alfred, their influence may also be suspected in other aspects of his government: in, for example, his establishment of monasteries at Athelney—where John the Old Saxon was appointed abbot—and Shaftesbury (Asser's Life of King Alfred, chaps. 92–8), and his concern that the judges of his realm be devoted attentively to the pursuit of wisdom, which might involve either learning to read or having suitable books read to them (ibid., chap. 106). Their influence is also to be suspected in the day-to-day working of his government. Whereas charters issued during the first decade of Alfred's reign reveal an appallingly low level of expertise in Latin composition, those from later in the reign begin to show a striving after more sophisticated means of expression (for example the charter listed as number 346 by Sawyer, a grant dated 889 by Alfred to Bishop Werferth of land in London, the vocabulary of which is highly ornate, and an anticipation of the flamboyant style that characterizes the Latin charters of Alfred's grandson, Æthelstan). So, too, Alfred's law code, issued in the late 880s or early 890s, reveals the use of a Latin compendium of Mosaic law which was possibly brought to his attention by the scholars at his court; as he states himself, he decided what laws to include and what to reject ‘with the advice of my councillors’ (Liebermann, 1.46), men who presumably included the ecclesiastics assisting him with his programme of education and translation.

Michael Lapidge


Asser's Life of King Alfred: together with the ‘Annals of Saint Neots’ erroneously ascribed to Asser, ed. W. H. Stevenson (1904) · F. Liebermann, ed., Die Gesetze der Angelsachsen, 3 vols. (Halle, 1903–16), vol. 1, pp. 16–123 · C. Schreiber, ed., King Alfred's Old English translation of Pope Gregory the Great's Regula pastoralis and its cultural context (2003) · AS chart. · S. Keynes and M. Lapidge, eds., Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of Alfred and other contemporary sources (1983) · A. J. Frantzen, King Alfred (1986) · T. Reuter, ed., Alfred the Great: papers from the eleventh-centenary conferences (2003) · J. Roberts, J. L. Nelson, and M. Godden, eds., Alfred the Wise (1997) · M. R. Godden, ‘Did King Alfred write anything?’, Medium Ævum, 76 (2007), 1–23