Alfred is the only English king to be known as the Great.
Interestingly, one could argue that this honour came to him not as a result of his political achievements or crushing victories in battlefields — although those were numerous to mark his glorious reign — but for many he will always remain the king who devoted his life to returning English language to the inhabitants of his native land.
This article is my humble homage to the monarch, whose linguistic legacy paved the way for the language which today facilitates international learning and academic research, uniting scholars and communities across the Globe — to Alfred the Great — monarch, scholar, translator.
Back in year 871 — when Alfred [or Ælfrēd — as it was in Old English] came to power — the country was suffering the Viking invasion. Monasteries were being actively demolished, sacred books were ruthlessly burned.
The Latin-based culture of scholarship was quickly vanishing and Old Norse was pushing away Old English — the language of the Anglo-Saxons and precursor of the tongue that has now become the most spoken in the world. The very existence of English was under threat.
By the grace of King Alfred, Winchester became the capital of the country and after the decisive victory at the Battle of Edington in 878, Alfred secured a peace treaty with the leader of the Vikings, Guthrum. The move gave a new tone to the relationship between what was then known as the Kingdom of Wessex (the land of the English) and Danelaw (the territory controlled by the Danes). The border between the two stretched from the river Thames and well into the Northern Wall and was to be crossed only for trade and commerce.
However, it was not so much military or diplomatic achievements that made Alfred the only English king to be known as the Great. Posterity will forever remember him as the Defender of the English language. He fought for the spread of literacy and scholarship in the native tongue of his people. Thus he saved the language and restored its glory well beyond the British Isles.
As the Viking invasion brought scholarship to decline, only a handful of people were educated enough to understand Latin — the language of learning and religion of that era. Alfred could have directed his efforts to bringing that language back, which would have been considered, perhaps, more logical in those days. Instead his decision was to enshrine knowledge and worship in English, taking it to replace Latin across all spheres of life.
In 893 Alfred personally translated Pope Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis (Pastoral Care); in the preface to his translation the king lamented the decline of scholarship in England, remarking with fondness on the days when “people once used to come here from abroad for wisdom and learning”. He complained that the clergy could no longer understand even service-books in English, “let alone translate a letter out of Latin into English”.
His translation marked the start of a large-scale project intended to spread learning across the country. He authorised a number of works to be translated into English and delivered to different localities so that people could read those in their own language (English), thus making the acquisition of knowledge easier. The best then would proceed to learn Latin and join holy orders, but the rest would still have access to scholarship in English.
He drew up a plan to restore literacy and promote English. He firmly believed that all necessary books should be translated into the language that England’s native inhabitants know and understand. His grand programme assumed that every freeman was set to study until they can read fluently. At a considerable cost he translated many Latin works were translated into English, including Ecclesiastical History written by the Northumbrian monk Bede and recognised as the most valuable source for early English history. According to David Crystal, “most extant Old English texts were written in the reign of King Alfred”/“most of the surviving manuscripts of Old English must owe their existence to the success of this programme”.
As a result of this great effort by King Alfred by the end of the 9th century the kingdom became the leading political and cultural power. And of course, it goes without saying that most of the surviving Old English manuscripts were written in the Wessex dialect.
Another great achievement of the great king is Anglo-Saxon Chronicle — a collection of historical documents that provided a record of the past and present for the future generations.
The original of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was commissioned by King Alfred. Copies were made and distributed around monasteries where they were updated independently. The last record in Old English was made in 1154 at Peterborough Abbey [today — Peterborough Cathedral]. Curiously, the Peterborough Chronicle now is considered to be one of the earliest surviving examples of Middle English —as it was early evidence of the linguistic influence by Normans on the language of Saxons, i.e. Old English.
Melvyn Bragg in his documentary Adventure of English very beautifully stated that “Alfred the Great made English the jewel in his crown” and his legacy was that English became “prestigious and more read than ever before”.
On a personal note, I am so thrilled and proud to reside in the country that merits greatness of its rulers by their academic and scholarly heritage!
Long Live Language — any language — to facilitate learning, knowledge and communication!
Long Live Linguistics to preserve the beauty of our tongue and cherish languages in all forms that they exist!
Long Live Translation to create bridges between cultures and people thus moving the world forward and making it a better place!
Have a great week ahead!
With all the best wishes,
Credits for fuelling my inspiration go to four magnificent sources:
– To Melvyn Bragg and his “Adventure of English”;
– To David Crystal and his enthralling research into the history of the English language;
– To the city of Winchester, once the capital of the country and the cradle of the revival of the English;
– To the historical Winchester Cathedral that stood a witness in stone to the marvels of those days and survived to tell us the story.
Below you will find a selection of photos from my trip to Winchester:
All text is subject to copyright law. Copyright belongs to Liudmila Tomanek @Russian Translation World Ltd