Friday, January 10, 2014

Life of King Alfred, by Asser

The Life of King Alfred is way shorter than I realized: I polished it off on a lunch break, what with skipping over the 100+ pages of footnotes. Much like The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this is not a book full of rich, picturesque detail, but there is entertainment value in Assser's terse recitation of the facts -- like when he refers to "the Viking army of hated memory" (p. 78). Or the digression about the wicked Queen Eadburh, finally caught in her "debauchery," who was eventually reduced to starvation and beggary, with only "a single slave boy" to her name (p. 72).

Some details of Alfred's life seem peculiar to the modern eye, such as his praying for illness to help keep him chaste, and the incapacitating, but mysterious, lifelong ailment that first strikes him on his wedding day. If Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley made that happen to a character, most people would be like, hmmmm. However, Alfred does manage to father five children, not counting "those who were carried off in infancy by an untimely death" (p. 90).

The fellow lunch-goers in the break room at my place of employment asked what Alfred was king of, exactly, and in the early portion I was all, "Well, they're in Wessex ... and talking about the Saxons ... but then there's Mercia ..." Fortunately, I was able to cry out, "Bingo!" when "in the year of the Lord's Incarnation 866 ... 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" (p. 97, 98). I'd thought he was the Anglo-Saxon king, which confused me -- since I didn't realize they weren't Anglo-Saxons yet until he came along. Impressive, considering it's always easier to divide people than it is to unite them.

Of course, the main thing that brought me to Alfred, and made him my first official Classics Club review, was his reputation as the king who promoted learning and literacy so much to the British. I appreciate his Preface to Gregory's "Pastoral Care," where he theorizes that the learned men of the past hadn't translated books into their own languages because "they did not think ... that learning would decay like this" (p. 125), to the point where educated people wouldn't be able to read them in Latin. Yup, education was already going downhill circa 890. 

In Alfred's time, "Alas, he could not satisfy his craving for what he desired most, namely the liberal arts" (p. 75). While I'm sometimes frustrated with the lack of respect for the humanities and the liberal arts in our profit-motive world, it's good to remember how much better we still have it. Our battles aren't more uphill than his, and what are the distractions of modern life compared with those of real live Vikings burning our cities down? I wonder what King Alfred would have given to acquire my library ...even if he couldn't make head or tail of all my Doctor Who episode guides.

Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. London: Penguin, 1983.

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