The west of England, Cornwall, Devonshire, is a magical kingdom, with its memories of Arthur at Tintagel and Glastonbury and Alfred at Winchester. After Britain ceased being Roman, and with the withdrawal of the Legions in mid-fifth century, the two great events in this territory that would become Alfred’s Wessex, a land stretching across the south of England from Devon to Kent, were the invasions and the triumph of the Christian religion after a long and indecisive battle with the shadowy remnants of the old religion and the paganism of the invaders. They came in waves; Saxons, Angles, Jutes, Vikings, Danes, as did Christianity, which was first the result of missionary efforts within the Empire, then the fruit of the Celtic, monastery-centered Church, then stabilized as part of Latin Christendom with the coming of Augustine to Canterbury in 597 a.d..
From its beginning, in Britain as elsewhere, Christianity was represented by both a living witness, known through a tradition of preaching and catechesis and in the celebration of the sacraments. It also possessed a vibrant literary tradition. Judaism, like every other near eastern religion, had its smoky side, the sacrificial animals at the tabernacle or temple door, clouds of incense ascending before the Mercy Seat, but it was also a literate and intellectual religion. It was arranged around writing, God’s revelation set down in an odd language, written backwards, without vowels, as unlike the Greek of Homer as a language could be, but writing still. Israel had a founding myth in Genesis; it had a moral code in Deuteronomy, an ethic in Proverbs, a kind of philosophy in the Wisdom literature, and in the prophets a theology of history. It had a civil history in the books of the Kings, a poetry in the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. In the synagogue, the place that later would be occupied by the tabernacle containing the precious Body of Christ, there would stand a scroll, that is, a book.
That the Church should have been founded on books as well as living memory and the sacramental presence of Christ was in a way inevitable, because at the heart of its teaching was the surprising doctrine that the founder was both a person and the Word, reason itself. And this reason, this Logos, was to be found not only in the beginning with God, not only spread throughout the world God had made, but was to be discovered in books, and even, or especially, in Plato, who, although he had not possessed the Logos perfectly, as an effect of grace, possessed it or participated in it in a way that made his thought, and the thought of all truth-seeking philosophers, valuable. And from that point on the Church felt free to claim the heritage of Greek philosophy and literature as its own.
True, there were dangers. Basil the Great wrote a treatise arguing that Christian boys should be taught the literature of the poets and philosophers, but carefully, with discretion, not emphasizing too much the carryings on of the gods and goddesses, but from that point there was no turning back. Christianity would be a literate religion, a religion of thought and hence of writing. The principle had been set forward by a philosopher from Tarsus named Justin about 130 in the simple apothegm: “Whatever is true belongs to us Christians.”
It was to be expected that as the church became self-consciously intellectual, most writing by Christians would be theological and exegetical. There was always philosophy, Saint Augustine being the great exemplar. But the intellectual tradition was crowned by the one thing that mattered most, the revealed truth about God. In a sense, secular literature as a thing detached from the presuppositions of religion ceased in Christian culture.
There was already, at mid-ninth century, a vast collection of writings of the apologists and Fathers. Augustine of Hippo towered above all others, and there were the letters of Ignatius and Polycarp, the treatises of the great Alexandrians from Origen to Athanasius, the scholarship of Jerome, the homiletic and theological works of the Cappadocians, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory Nazianzus, the writings and letters of popes like Leo, Gelasius, and Gregory the Great, and the not insignificant contribution of men who lived in the distant west like Prosper of Aquitaine and Vincent of Lerins. And of course, first and always, the Bible.
Alfred, son of Æthelwulf, succeeded to the kingdom of Wessex in 860. He shares with Charlemagne the happy circumstance of a good biographer; for Alfred it was Bishop Asser, who wrote a touchingly personal story of Alfred’s reign. The future king of Wessex was given a cosmopolitan upbringing by his parents, Æthelwulf and Osburga, having been sent to Rome as a boy of five, where he was blessed by Pope Leo iv and where he imbibed the Romanitas that would color his reign.
Despite the efforts of his immediate forebears, Alfred inherited a kingdom in decay, a people unaware of the history of which they were part, without a past and hence without a future. They were without knowledge of Latin and without books, and thus prey to the moral weakness which ignorance breeds.
I would have it known that very often it has come into my mind what men of learning there were formerly throughout our England, both in religious and secular orders, and how there were happy times then throughout England, and how the kings, who had authority over the people, obeyed God and his messengers, and how they not only maintained their peace, morality and authority at home, but also extended their territory outside, and how they succeeded in both warfare and wisdom, and how eager were the religious orders both in teaching and in learning as well as in all the holy services which it was their duty to perform for God, and how people from abroad sought wisdom and instruction in this country, and how nowadays, if we wished to acquire these things, we would have to seek them outside.
This failure to cherish learning had brought its own reward. “Remember what punishments befell us in this world when we ourselves did not cherish learning nor transmit it to other men. We were Christians in name only, and very few of us possessed Christian virtues.”
The location of the golden age of King Alfred’s imagination, the happy times when learning flourished, is uncertain. Perhaps he was thinking of the age of Bede, when the fruits of the great missionary enterprise of the fifth and sixth centuries were fresh. But wherever we locate the happy times of the past, his biography will still tell us what Alfred thought about learning. Good learning meant happy times. The kings ruled in peace, morality, and authority at home and were successful in the unending warfare caused by the succession of invasions from the low countries and Scandinavia. The religious orders gave themselves to teaching and learning, to celebrating Mass and hearing confessions. People came from abroad to seek wisdom in England.
What had happened in England was the damaging, catastrophic failure of good learning under the pressure of the invasions. There were few who could understand the divine service in English, or even translate a single letter from Latin into English. Continental writers describe the England that Alfred sought to reform at the end of the ninth century as a place of spiritual desolation, clerical marriage and riotous living among the religious houses. Pope John vii wrote Ethelred, archbishop of Canterbury, in 877, that the clergy in his province should at last be taught to keep their rule. Pope Formosus complained that “abominable pagan rites” were rampant, adding that in the face of all this English Bishops kept quiet, “like dumb dogs that cannot bark.”
So to restore the happy times, Alfred undertook the heroic task of restoring learning. It is not easy to imagine the circumstance in which this King of Wessex proposed to conduct this restoration. We are given a glimpse of declining population, a forested landscape bereft of cities, in Fulk of Reims’ gratitude that Alfred, “so as not to see empty handed or sponging,” had sent him as a gift accompanying his request that a teacher be sent to Wessex, a pack of dogs trained to attack the wolves that roamed the forests.
It is not easy for us to imagine a world in which an invading army might appear on the coast, unheralded of course, and proceed to pillage and burn, settling down perhaps for a winter or two before turning their attention to the other shore and terrorizing Brittany. For the invaders, our ancestors the pirates, truly were unlike anything the empires of the classical world had known. They were nomads of the sea, capable of producing fine artifacts, but a people whose language has been largely lost to us because with one great exception it had no literature; a people among whom violence was a way of life and considered unremarkable. The rich lands located along the channel, England and Brittany or America, from 449 when the Saxons, summoned to the aid of the would-be emperor Vortigern, first appeared to the Battle of St. Clare-sur-Ept in 935 and finally to the Norman Conquest in 1066, was intermittently a bloody battlefield. Between the sixth and tenth centuries we are not dealing, as was Arthur in the 470s, with a battle between civilized Romans and the savage invaders but with battles between successive waves of Germanic and Nordic invaders who would come, sometimes as mercenaries, sometimes as marauders, settle in England, become Christians, develop language, and create a kingdom that then looked like easy prey to the next wave of Goths or Frisians or Vikings who wanted the fruits of civilization without the labor involved.
In this unlikely climate, Alfred undertook the restoration of his kingdom to the happy times by undertaking a carefully conceived promotion of books and learning. This revival was rooted in his own biography. Perhaps Alfred’s love for learning began when his mother had offered her sons a book of poetry with the words, “I give this book to the one who can learn it fastest.” Spurred on, Asser wrote, by divine inspiration, and by the beauty of the illuminated initial letter, Alfred took the book to his teacher, quickly learned it and recited it. One might mention in passing that bookmaking, of which the Book of Kells (c. 800) and the Lindisfarne Gospels (696) are the finest fruit, was perhaps the principal craft of the civilization, attested by dozens of manuscripts in which bookmaking was elevated into high art through illuminations and the careful design of every page.
Alfred promoted learning by becoming a scholar himself. In imitation of the Frankish kings, Charlemagne and his sons, he established a palace school for his sons and the sons of the nobility, requiring that they learn to read and write English, and if they had time, Latin. His younger sons were to be educated “in company with almost all the children of noble birth in the whole country, and many of humbler birth.” The school books were in both languages, that is Latin and Saxon, and were diligently read, and time was given also for writing. Accordingly, “before they had the strength for manly pursuits which befit noblemen, they, with good study, became skilled in the liberal arts.”
To staff his school, Alfred sent across the channel for teachers, for in 890, as he wrote in his preface to Gregory’s Pastoral Care, learning had declined so thoroughly in England that there was nobody in Wessex, nobody south of the Thames, who knew Saxon and Latin. It was, therefore, necessary to find teachers in the nearest Christian land, the kingdom of the Franks. So requests were made, and there exists the amiable letter written to Alfred by Fulk, bishop of Rheims, in response to Alfred’s request for a teacher. Albeit reluctantly, Fulk sent the noted Saxon priest and teacher, Grimbald, across the channel along with another less well-known named John, gently protesting all the while that allowing Grimbald and John to go was a great sacrifice.
Alfred was a winning, indeed forceful, advocate for his program. Bishop Asser has told us how he made it abundantly clear that his nobles were expected to participate in the revival of learning on pain of losing their posts. Extreme measures were required because his kingdom was in decay, full of ignorance and wickedness. “I recollected how, before everything was ransacked and burned, the churches throughout England stood filled with treasures and books.” But the decay had begun long before the Vikings came. Books existed, but they were written in Latin and knowledge of Latin had been lost. I wondered, Alfred wrote, why the good, wise men who were formerly throughout England did not wish to translate any part of them into their own language? And his answer was that they did not think the knowledge of Latin would vanish and that they at the same time thought, “The more languages we know, the greater would be the wisdom in this land.” Alfred recollected that the Bible had been written in Hebrew, translated into Greek and Latin. So why not translate it into English, which he was about to do, as well as other works he considered important. But behind it all was the premise: more languages, more wisdom, which is as true then as now because, as Alfred intuited, language lives in the space marked out by metaphor. Parallel languages are themselves textures of metaphor, and because a language is a civilization, to know many languages is to know many civilizations.
At the root of his love of learning there was Alfred’s little commonplace book, which came to Bishop Asser’s attention in this way.
One day, when we were sitting together in the royal chamber discussing all sorts of topics, as we normally did, it happened that I was reading aloud to him some passages in a certain book. As he was listening intently to this with both ears and was carefully mulling it over in the depths of his mind, he showed me a little book which he constantly carried on his person, and in which were written the day-offices and some psalms and certain prayers which he had learned in his youth. He told me to copy the passage in question into a little book. When I heard this and realized his natural good will on the one hand as well as his devout enthusiasm for the pursuit of divine wisdom, I stretched out my palms to the heavens and gave mighty, albeit silent thanks to almighty God, who had sown such pursuit of learning in the king’s heart. But when I could find no empty space in the little book in which I might copy the passage—for it was completely filled with all manner of things—I hesitated slightly because I was eager to draw the king’s excellent intelligence to a fuller understanding of passages of Holy Scripture. When he urged me to copy the passage as quickly as possible, I said to him: “Would it meet with your approval if I were to copy out the passage separately on another parchment. For we don’t know whether we might at some point find one or more similar passages which you would like.”
So Asser began another book in which the King entered other passages. The little book, which they called Alfred’s Enchiridion, grew to the size of a psalter as Alfred took up the study of Holy Scripture.
We can know something of the character and purpose of the restoration of learning Alfred envisioned from the books he cherished, some so much that he translated them into English. There was, of course, St. Augustine, who dominated the intellectual landscape of the early Middle Ages, represented directly by the Soliloquies, and indirectly by Orosius’ Universal History. The Soliloquies are a long conversation about the good of the soul. Orosius was a pupil of St Augustine who had written a kind of universal history having as its theme the proposition that Christians had not caused the decay and the invasions but had in fact mitigated the events that might have befallen a sin-prone people without God’s providential government. Orosius was in this way, and by anticipation, a kind of anti-Gibbon. Orosius and probably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, although the latter required no translating, having been commissioned or encouraged by Alfred, in their different ways, gave the Christians of Britain a past.
And of course, there was Boethius, that compendium of poetry, philosophy, and natural theology that charmed the Middle Ages. With its discussion of fortune and providence, the Consolation of Philosophy, written three hundred years earlier by another Christian whose life was framed by his encounter with the barbarians, was bound to be of interest and to give pleasure, so much so that Alfred not only translated it into English but recast parts into poetry.
Perhaps Alfred’s most famous translations were of St. Gregory’s two books, the Pastoral Care, which based the authority of government on the example of Christ, and the Dialogues which provided examples of saintly living. By translating the Psalms, Alfred contributed to the eradication of priestly ignorance and to the establishing of the monastic hours in his own language. Be it noted that the learning Alfred cherishes, the failure of which can bring down the realm, is not technical unless one should call liturgy technical. It is broadly moral and deeply Christian, compassing both Gregory’s Pastoral Rule and Boethius. Indeed the world in which Alfred reigns is one in which Christianity is a synonym for civilization, in which the network of bishoprics is spread across Gaul and into England, connecting Winchester with Gaul and Rome, where there are monasteries, with monastic life sometimes flourishing, and heroic missionaries frequently engaged in evangelizing the Germans.
The learning Alfred envisioned was not what we now mean by education on several counts. Learning, although essential to civil usefulness, was not a means toward property or station; in fact at one point he says that what has ruined England in the past has been getting rich in a climate of luxury. The thesis on which Alfred’s revival of learning proceeded was his conviction that ignorance has the capacity for destroying kingdoms. Alfred’s anxiety was not misplaced because an ignorant people cannot survive on a mixture of prejudice, sentimentality and irrationality. Literature and history are in their respective ways the mirrors in which we as well as the citizens of Alfred’s England see the outlines of human possibility and the human adventure. One, just one, of the reasons that moderns seem to be rootless wanderers is that they will think of themselves not as members of a tradition but as radically free of the past, indeed as radically free of everything but their passions. It may be that Orosius’ book was not a great history, and it may be that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was a composite work in which Alfred played no principal part, but what these achieved was giving Alfred’s people a history.
Books were to renovate the kingdom by teaching that knowledge which opened the door to morality. Almost all the offscourings of television are calculated to promote a kind of ignorance and moral blindness. Almost all education, especially ‘higher education,’ once one moves beyond a certain technical level is calculated to promote ignorance by teaching relentlessly against that discrimination which is the soul of thought and hence of judgment, and by inculcating historical errors of the most egregious sort. The inherited tradition, which Alfred knew, was derived from Plato, Plotinus, Aristotle and the Bible. It argued broadly that the good life was proposed by the intellect and achieved by the will; that the absence of either virtue or learning was no more than half a life, but that it was certain that without the intellectual virtues goodness would be blind.
It was the proud boast of the later Anglo Saxon moralists, G. E. More, H. A. Prichard, and A. J. Ayer that philosophy had absolutely nothing to do with life, an attitude that would cause Alfred, were it true that he founded the University of Oxford, to revoke its charter. For the purpose of learning in Wessex was that God might be honored, souls saved, the church steadied, and the kingdom set in right order and the liberal arts usefully employed. That the case could have been otherwise would not have occurred.
Of course, Alfred did not think learning was simply reducible to theology. Otherwise he would not have translated Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. He did, however think that learning could make men better and make society gentler. Alfred’s last translation was Augustine’s Soliloquies, and his preface is a kind of parable, a sweet summary of his efforts to revive learning, and with it, virtue.
I gathered for myself staves and props and tie-shafts, and handles for each of the tools that I knew to work with, and cross bars for each of the structures that I knew how to build, the finest timbers I could carry. I never came away with a single load without wishing to bring home the whole of the forest, if I could have carried it all. In every tree I saw something for which I had a need at home. Accordingly, I would advise everyone who is strong and has many wagons to direct his steps to that same forest where I cut these props, and to fetch more for himself and to load his wagons with well-cut staves, so that he may weave many elegant walls and put up many solid houses and build a fine homestead, and there may live pleasantly and in tranquility both in winter and summer—as I have not yet done. But he who instructed me, to whom the forest was pleasing, may bring it about that I may abide more comfortably in this temporary dwelling by this road in this life, and also in the eternal home that he has promised us through the writings of St. Augustine and St. Gregory and St Jerome and through many of the Holy Fathers, as I believe He will through the merits of all the saints, both make this present life easier than it was before, and in particular will illuminate the eyes of my mind so that I can discover the most direct way to the eternal homeland and to eternal glory and to the eternal rest which is promised to us through those Holy Fathers.
Nor is it any wonder that a man should work with such materials, both in transporting them and in building with them; but every man when he has built a hamlet on land leased to him by his lord and with his lord’s help, likes to stay there some time and go hunting, fowling, and fishing, and to employ himself on the leased land, both on land and sea, until he shall have deserved bookland, and a perpetual inheritance through his Lord’s kindness.
Bookland, land held according to a ‘book’ or charter, and free of the burden of taxation, was the eternal kingdom. And who cannot be touched by the deep, tender, and profoundly Christian words of a king great in wisdom and war who, while he longed for the great inheritance, loved to hunt the hills of Wessex and fish the Humber. Loving Christ the one thing necessary; life itself a gift.
But Bookland cannot be anything other than the land to which Alfred has been brought by books. We do not have much by way of artifacts from Alfred’s reign, but the most precious artifact is called Alfred’s jewel, a delicately made cloisonné tear-shaped object inscribed around with the words “Alfred caused me to be made.” What the purpose of this object was has been much discussed, but the majority opinion is that it was the head of a bookmark or pointer, such as he promised to send to every bishop with his copy of the Bible.