Friday, 7 August 2009

Alfred the Great

In the foreword to her life of Alfred the Great (1958), Eleanor Shipley Duckett explains that her book is aimed at the typical reader of the era who knows little more about her subject than one or two anecdotes:

This is a very simple book. It is offered to those - and, of course, they are many in these busy days - who, if they were suddenly asked just what the name of Alfred the Great meant to them, would promptly answer with one or more of the following: ‘He conquered the Danes, whoever they were in those times.’ ‘Wasn’t he the king who burned some cakes in some woman’s cottage?’ ‘He dressed up as a minstrel and spied upon the enemy’s camp.’ ‘He cut out White Horses in the hills to celebrate his victories.’ ‘The tower in the park, the tearoom in the village, the statues in some towns, and the daffodils in my garden are named after him.’ ‘Didn’t he translate some old books?’ ‘Was he the king who started England’s navy?’ ‘Did he invent trial by jury?’ All these answers are honored by tradition; they rest, some on truth, some on romanticism; and all are dealt with here in their proper places.

It’s hardly scientific, of course, but this morning I separately asked four colleagues, all English and in their twenties, what they could tell me about Alfred. The first thought he might be ‘the patron saint of England,’ the second did not feel confident even to make a guess, the third pegged Alfred as a ‘King of England’ (half a point, definitely) but knew no more, and the fourth was quite sure that Alfred the Great had freed the slaves in America. None of the familiar anecdotes of earlier generations were known to this sample. Miss Duckett would have a fit!

And so would Alfred. He placed such value on learning that nobles under his rule felt compelled to take to the libraries to secure their status. He would attend judicial hearings and if the nobles’ judgements were not learned or seemed unjust to the common people he would admonish them, once delivering this assault:

I am astonished at this arrogance of yours, since ... you have enjoyed the office and status of wise men, yet you have neglected the study and application of wisdom. For that reason, I command you either to relinquish immediately the offices of worldly power that you possess, or else to apply yourselves much more attentively to the pursuit of wisdom.

The nobles were terrified at the threat to their power and

As a result nearly all the ealdormen and reeves and thegns (who were illiterate from childhood) applied themselves in an amazing way to learning how to read, preferring rather to learn this unfamiliar discipline (no matter how laboriously) than to relinquish their offices of power.

If a man despite his best efforts could not learn to read the King ordered that a family member or other literate person should be found to

read out books in English to him by day and night.

All quotes from Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred & Other Contemporary Sources, tr. and ed. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (Harmondsworth, 1983).

We can avoid the diversions and propaganda of our hostile elites by following Alfred’s example and advice, and immerse ourselves instead in the religious and philosophical literature of our civilisation, and co-operate in our studies to rebuild a sense of who we are and where we came from.

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