Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 01.djvu/174

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Ælfred
Ælfred
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and he gladly received all who brought with them any knowledge or any useful art, the seafaring Othhere no less than Grimbold or Asser. And it should be noticed that his reception and encouragement of strangers, forming as it did a marked feature in Ælfred's character, seems never to have been turned against him as a fault, as it was against some other kings.

But for us Ælfred's greatest and most abiding work in his character of promoter of knowledge is that he gave us our unique possession, a history of our own folk in our own tongue from the beginning. The most reasonable belief seems to be that it was at Ælfred's bidding that the English Chronicles grew into their present shape out of the older local annals of the church of Winchester. We thus have, what no other nation of Western Europe has, a continuous national record from our first coming into our present land. In its earlier parts some mythical names and reckonings may have found their way into its text; but the essential truth of the record becomes more and more strengthened every time it is put to the test. In the course of Ælfred's reign it grows into a detailed contemporary narrative of the most stirring years of his life.

Of Ælfred's own writings the chief are his translations of Boetius's ‘Consolation of Philosophy,’ of the Histories of Bæda and Orosius, and of the ‘Pastoral Care’ of Gregory the Great (‘þa boc þe is genemned on Læden Pastoralis and on Englisc Hirdeboc’). The order in which they were written is a matter of some interest which is discussed by Dr. Bosworth in his preface to the Orosius. He is inclined to place them in this order, Boetius, Bæda, Orosius, Gregory. The first three he places in the time of peace, between 887 and 893, and the fourth in the last years of peace after the war with Hasting, between 897 and Ælfred's death. And we may perhaps safely infer that the Boetius is the earliest, and that it was begun in the year 887. For it is in that year that Asser (M. H. B. 492) places the beginning of Ælfred's work of translation, and William of Malmesbury (Gesta Regum, lib. ii. cap. 122) speaks of Asser as giving Ælfred help in the translation of Boetius. The Gregory cannot be earlier than 890, as Ælfred speaks of Plegmund as archbishop, which he did not become till that year. And, even without dates, we might set down the Boetius as earlier than the Orosius. It is perhaps the most interesting of all Ælfred's works, and best shows the spirit of the man and the way in which he went to work. He wrote for the edification of his people, and a literal translation of the Latin writer was not that which would be most edifying. Whether Boetius was personally a Christian or not is a difficult question; the popularity of his name and writings was largely due to the belief that he was a martyr for orthodoxy at the hands of an heretical prince, and to the existence of several theological treatises bearing his name. These were doubtless the grounds which suggested the works of Boetius to Ælfred or to Asser as a subject for study and translation. But, whatever its author was, the ‘Consolation’ is certainly not a christian book, though, like many writings of the last days of paganism, it is to some extent tinged with christian thoughts and phrases. It is also a learned book, full of allusions which would be quite unintelligible to Ælfred's unlettered West-Saxons, many of which were not well understood by Ælfred himself. It is also a book written partly in prose and partly in verse. The book needed a thorough recasting to suit Ælfred's purpose. He did thoroughly recast it; the pagan book became christian, the learned book became popular. Short allusions of Boetius to historical or mythological points are expanded into full narratives under the hand of Ælfred. In these expansions Ælfred sometimes makes historical mistakes which he would hardly have made after he had mastered the history of Orosius, and which thus help us to fix the Boetius as the earlier work of the two. On the other hand, he sometimes catches historical analogies with the happy grasp of true genius. The ‘Consolation’ of Boetius is interspersed with poems, which are specially crowded with allusions which for Ælfred's readers needed a commentator. In Ælfred's hands therefore the Metres become prose, and prose of a very different kind from that of the original. Ælfred made it his business to explain whatever would be puzzling. Thus in the Metre in iv. 3 of the ‘Consolation,’ Boetius tells the story of Odysseus and Kirkê without mentioning the name of either. Odysseus is merely pointed at as ‘Neritius dux,’ as in iv. 7 he is pointed at as ‘Ithacus.’ Ælfred explains at length who ‘Aulixes’ was. He was king of two kingdoms—‘Ithacige’ = Ithaca insula, and ‘Retie,’ seemingly a corruption of Nêritos. These two kingdoms King Aulixes held of the Emperor Agamemnôn (‘Aulixes … hæfde twa þioda under þam kasere … and þæs kaseres nama wæs Agamemnôn’). The over-king at Winchester understood the position of the over-king at Mykênê so much better than many much deeper scholars that we may forgive him his little slip in the geography of Western Greece.

Then come the two strictly historical