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1.5English Identity in the Ninth Century and Alfred the Great’s Preface to the Pastoral Care


However, it is towards the end of the ninth century that, according to Kathleen Davis, we observe the emergence of the sense of English unity (619). It was caused by the necessity for the English to unite against the Vikings and promoted by the court of King Alfred the Great (871–99) (Foot 51). In 878, he defeated the Danes at the battle of Eddington. The Danish leader Guthrum and some of his captains were baptized and the English concluded peace with the Danes. England was divided between the Danes and the king of Wessex. In 879, the Danish army finally moved to East Anglia where it began systematic settlement.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions that in 886 (it was, in fact, probably earlier), Alfred recaptured London and created a united West Saxon–Mercian realm (Foot 52). As “all the Angles and Saxons – those who had formerly been scattered everywhere and were not in captivity with the Vikings – turned willingly to King Alfred and submitted themselves to his lordship” (“Alfred the Great” 98; ch. 83), Alfred became the king of the whole English people (“all Angelcynn”) who were not subjected to the Danes and, thereafter, the charters call him “rex Angul-Saxonum” (instead of the traditional title of “rex Saxonum” of the kings of Wessex) (Foot 51–52).

Alfred the Great also became famous due to his attempts to revive learning in England (Keynes and Lapidge 28). Part of this project was a series of translations from Latin to Old English. One of the books Alfred translated was Pope Gregory the Great’s Liber Regulae Pastoralis (Pastoral Care or Pastoral Rule), a handbook about the duties and obligations of the clergy. It is its preface that is of particular interest to us.

Alfred begins the prefatory letter by greeting Bishop Woerferth. As many scholars argue, this greeting represents a common opening of a writ. Alfred thus establishes his authority not only as a translator but also as a king and the preface thus becomes legally binding as the king’s word. The past events then acquire a present significance as a justification for the program of translation and education (Davis 626).

Alfred then complains about the decline of knowledge and morality in England, remembering the old times when English kings obeyed God, ruled wisely and expanded their kingdom and when the English were so reputed for their learning that men came from abroad to let themselves be taught by them. He contrasts it with the present situation when teachers have to be obtained from abroad. Interestingly, the decline of learning is not the consequence of the Danish invasion because Alfred mentions it already “before it had all been ravaged and burned” (Alfred the Great 219). It seems that it was rather the decay of knowledge that caused the invasion, when Alfred says that “therefore we have lost both the wealth and the wisdom, because we would not incline our hearts after their [our forefathers’] example” (Alfred the Great 219).

In this first part of the preface, Alfred conceives of the English as a united nation. In fact, as Kathleen Davis points out, England achieved political unity only in the middle of the tenth century under Alfred’s successors (617). But Alfred ventures even further evoking the past of this non-existing nation, and this past is constructed as an “ideal” one. It is an important fact because, as Davis explains, it “not only posits the nation as a pre-existing, homogeneous entity, but also authorizes the contemporary nation in terms of apparently intrinsic, timeless characteristics, such as the composition of its people, its geographical boundaries, its laws, values, and political structure” (622). In fact, as Sarah Foot points out, while Bede conceived of the English people as a newly created unity based on the Christian faith (a new Israel), Alfred, who based his ideas on Bede, further developed this idea. He claimed that he was only restoring the state which had existed before (55).

In the other part of the letter, Alfred introduces and justifies his translation project. If the forebears of the English did not translate any books into their language, it was only because they did not think that learning would ever so decline in England that people would not be able to read in Latin. Moreover, by translating books he accomplishes nothing else than what Ancient Greeks, Romans and other Christian nations did when they translated the law from Hebrew. Therefore, he decides to “translate some books which are most needful for all men to know into the language which we can all understand” (Alfred the Great 220). He also mentions his intention to educate the young free men of England so that they could read and write in English and teach Latin to those who are to continue in their studies.

Here, Alfred represents the English language as a factor uniting the English and distinguishing them from other nations. Moreover, English does not have a subordinate status compared to Latin: “the English vernacular stands as one among many legitimate languages in which wisdom can be conveyed” (Davis 615). By mentioning “some books”, Alfred in fact introduces a larger project than the translation of one book. He intends to create a whole corpus of writings in English. If we accept Kathleen Davis’s suggests that translation “produces the boundaries of a culture that define it against other cultures” (Davis 616), then this corpus helps to establish the sense of English identity based on the common language.

As Sarah Foot, basing herself on Keynes and Lapidge, argues, due to his promotion of the term “Angelcynn” during the preface reflecting the common identity of the West Saxons, Mercians and the people of Kent as opposed to the Danish but also having a common heritage, faith and a shared history, we may consider King Alfred the Great the inventor of the English as a political community (Foot 51–52).

Alfred concludes the preface by claiming that he will send one copy of the Pastoral Care to every bishopric in his kingdom where it should remain. Thus, he assures the dissemination of his ideas and of the sense of unity among the English people.


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