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hand in hand, to teach his subjects those things which help men to live rightly. He restored the religious houses, and founded a school for the training of the young nobles. He gathered learned men about him, from the old Anglian kingdom of Mercia, from Gaul, and from Wales. Before this time learning had been almost entirely confined to the clergy. Alfred wished his clergy to be well-educated, but he did not stop there, so far as possible he wanted to train and educate the nation. He directed that all the sons of English freemen, except those who were too poor to spare the time, should be taught to read English perfectly, and that all those who were able to continue their studies should be taught Latin. One feature of Alfred's plan deserves our especial notice: the language of the ordinary, the elementary education, was to be English, the language of the people, and not Latin, which at that time was the language usually employed by the scholars of Europe. The people could not all learn Latin; if education was to be general, their books must be in the familiar English which all could understand. But where were such books to be found? At this time there were, indeed, poems in English, but hardly a single work of any value in English prose; all the text-books were in Latin, as well as all those histories and religious books which the King especially wanted his people to know. Alfred himself undertook to take literature out of Latin and bring it to his people. In spite of the weight of his “manifold cares," and the heavy burden of illness, he set himself the task of translating into English the books which he thought "most needful," and in so doing he unconsciously became the true beginner of English prose.
Alfred's Translations. — Among the books which
Alfred translated were the Regula (or Cura) Pastoralis, of Pope Gregory the Great, the Ecclesiastical History, of Bede, a History of the World, by a Spanish monk named Orosius, and the Consolations of Philosophy, by Boethius. There is something significant in the King's choice. The Regula Pastoralis, or Shepherd's Model, was a handbook for the clergy, the shepherds of the people, intended to guide them in their duties and set before them the model of the ideal priest. The clergy were the teachers of the masses, and on the improvement of the clergy the success of Alfred's effort to enlighten the nation must largely depend. Bede's History, on the other hand, was a book for the people. Alfred himself found inspiration in the study of the great and noble Englishmen of the past, and he felt, no doubt, that a knowledge of England's growth and former greatness would rouse and strengthen the spirit of patriotism. Then he chose a general history to broaden men's minds by its stories of other nations and distant times. To these two histories, which related how men had lived and acted in England and in the great world without, Alfred added a book of wise meditations on life itself. This book of Boethius' was one of the most famous and influential books of the time. A great many people throughout Europe then turned to it for help, and, long after, the historian Gibbon called it " a golden volume." In this book, as in some of the others, Alfred was not merely a translator, he did not hesitate to introduce into his books original passages of his own, and some of the meditations which he added to those of Boethius bring us very close to the devout and lofty spirit of this great King.
Another great work with which Alfred's name is associated is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. From very
early times it had been the custom in certain English monasteries to make a brief record of the most important historical events of each year. During Alfred's reign the Annals, or yearly Chronicles which had been kept at Winchester, the capital of Wessex, were revised and added to, and the King is supposed to have inspired and directed this important work, or possibly to have done some of it himself.
From the Death of Alfred to the Norman Conquest.King Alfred is one of the noblest men in all history. Great alike in defeat and in victory, in war and in peace, his life was a force for good in the Church, in the state, and in the school. While he lived he “sought to live worthily," and his people were lifted to a higher level by his labors and his example. He saved England from the Danes, and he saved literature and learning for England. As Northumbria had become the great literary center of the country, through the labors of such
men as Bede and Alcuin, so when the Danes destroyed learning in the north, Wessex became the literary center of England through the labors of Alfred. English literature before the Norman Conquest falls naturally into two divisions: in the first, which stretches from the time of Cædmon (about 670), to the destruction of literature by the Danes (about 867) the literary activity of the country is chiefly in the north. in the second, which stretches from the revival of literature under Alfred (about 886) to the coming of the Normans (1066), the literary activity of the country is almost wholly in the south. The glory of the northern literature, in the first period, is its poetry, composed in old English or Anglo-Saxon, and, to a less degree, its Latin prose. But during the second period little poetry appears to have been written; the chief glory of the southern literature is, that Alfred and his successors began and developed English prose, and gave it a place in the people's life.
We must pass rapidly over the interval between the death of Alfred in 901 and the Conquest of England by the Normans in 1066. During a great part of this period the English were either trying to win back the north from the Danes, or endeavoring to repel the attacks of fresh bands of Danish invaders, and the result was not favorable either to learning or to literature. Until long after the Norman Conquest there were no signs of a literary revival in the north; the Danes had done their work of destruction too well. In the south alone, where the effects of Alfred's example and practical enthusiasm still lingered, we find the traditions of culture and the signs of some literary activity. In the reign of EDGAR THE PEACEABLE (958–975), when the land had a short interval of rest and security from the Danish peril,
DUNSTAN (924-988), Archbishop of Canterbury, and his follower and fellow worker, ÆTHELWOLD (908?-984), did much to improve the education of the clergy and advance the study of Latin. ÆLFRIC (born about 940?), a pupil of Æthelwold, carried on his master's work still further. Ælfric, like Bede, to whom he is sometimes compared, was the greatest English scholar of his time. Like Alfred he translated books from Latin into English, and like Alfred he is a great figure in the history of English prose.
His best known work is his Homilies or sermons, probably the best example of old English, or Anglo-Saxon, prose that we possess. Moreover, during this interval between King Alfred and the Norman Conquest additions were made to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
It is not probable that any corresponding progress was made in English poetry during this time; at least it is certain that only a few poems composed during this period have been preserved. Two battlesongs of the tenth century, however, are so full of the old fighting spirit that they ought to be read and remembered. The first of them, The Battle of Brunanburh, celebrated the victory of Alfred's grandson, King ÆTHELSTAN, over the Scots in 937. There is a spirited version of it in modern English by Lord Tennyson. The second poem, of which we possess only a fragment, treats of the Battle of Maldon (991), a bloody encounter between a band of Danish invaders and the East Saxons, or men of Essex. The English were defeated and their leader, the brave Earl or Ealdorman, Byrhtnorth, was slain. With this picture of an English hero, overcome by a foreign enemy, and dying surrounded by his faithful vassals, with an unconquered spirit, the war-poetry of that older, Anglo-Saxon, England fitly comes to an end.