Asser’s Life of Alfred the Great
Asser’s life is easy to read, and not too long; so it’s a pretty good way of getting to know the man, as far as we can. One of the benefits of being a king in the dark ages turns out to be an ability to control the messages being given out about you – something which quickly becomes impossible as literacy spreads.
So when we read Asser, we of course need to remember that this is not a hard hitting expose …it is close to hagiography. That’s not to say it’s not all true – but anything negative needs to be read from between the lines. Almost everything that comes to us from down the ages has come through Alfred’s hands; so not surprising, maybe that he comes over rather well…
A story from Alfred’s childhood
The story below illustrates the main themes that Asser comes back to time and again; Alfred’s love of learning, his regrets at the lack of education in his youth and determination to put that right. One of the features of Alfred’s reign was his focus on the vernacular rather than simply relying on Latin as the language of communication, and this comes out here.
At the same time Asser balances this with Alfred’s love of the hunt – essential stuff for any king of the time. If it’s true, the story seems to show too that Alfred was determined to win; soon to tbe the most important attribute by far.
“I think it right in this place briefly to relate as much as has come to my knowledge about the character of my revered lord Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, during the years that he was an infant and a boy.
He was loved by his father and mother, and even by all the people, above all his brothers, and was educated altogether at the court of the king. As he advanced through the years of infancy and youth, his form appeared more comely than that of his brothers ; in look, in speech, and in manners he was more graceful than they. His noble nature implanted in him from his cradle a love of wisdom above all things; but, with shame be it spoken, by the unworthy neglect of his parents and nurses, he remained illiterate even till he was twelve years old or more ; but he listened with serious attention to the Saxon poems which he often heard recited, and easily retained them in his docile memory. He was a zealous practiser of hunting in all its branches, and hunted with great assiduity and success; for skill and good fortune in this art, as in all others, are among the gifts of God, as we also have often witnessed.
On a certain day, therefore, his mother was showing him and his brother a Saxon book of poetry, which she held in her hand, and said,
“Whichever of you shall the soonest learn this volume shall have it for his own.”
Stimulated by these words, or rather by the Divine inspiration, and allured by the beautifully illuminated letter at the beginning of the volume, he spoke before all his brothers, who, though his seniors in age, were not so in grace, and answered,
“will you really give that book to one of us, that is to say, to him who can first understand and repeat it to you ?”
At this his mother smiled with satisfaction, and confirmed what she had before said. Upon which the boy took the book out of her hand, and went to his master to read it, and in due time brought it to his mother and recited it. After this he learned the daily course, that is, the celebration of the hours, and afterwards certain psalms, and several prayers, contained in a certain book which he kept day and night in his bosom, as we ourselves have seen, and carried about with him to assist his prayers, amid all the bustle and business of this present life. But, sad to say he could not gratify his most ardent wish to learn the liberal arts, because, as he said, there were no good readers at that time in all the kingdom of the West-Saxons.
This he confessed, with many lamentations and sighs, to have been one of his greatest difficulties and impediments in this life, namely, that when he was young and had the capacity for learning, he could not find teachers ; but, when he was more advanced in life, he was harassed by so many diseases unknown to all the physicians of this island, as well as by internal and external anxieties of sovereignty, and by continual invasions of the pagans, and had his teachers and writers also so much disturbed, that there was no time for reading. But yet among the impediments of this present life, from infancy up to the present time, and, as I believe, even until his death, he continued to feel the same insatiable desire of knowledge, and still aspires after it.”
Was he quite as perfect as he sounded?
Here’s am admonitory story from Asser. It’s a good chance for a bit of teaching from Asser, but it maybe let’s a little chink of light fall on Alfred’s salad days – when maybe he wasn’t as interested in God and education as …hunting? Sex? Who knows…
When he was a youth, and influenced by youthful feelings, he would not listen to the petitions which his subjects made to him for help in their necessities, or for relief from those who oppressed them; but he repulsed them from him, and paid no heed to their requests. This particular gave much annoyance to the holy man St. Neot, who was his relation, and often foretold to him, in the spirit of prophecy, that he would suffer great adversity on this account ; but Alfred neither attended to the reproof of the man of God, nor listened to his true prediction. Wherefore, seeing that a man’s sins must be corrected either in this world or the next, the true and righteous Judge was willing that his sin should not go unpunished in this world, to the end that he might spare him in the world to come.
A mysterious illness
Alfred’s achievements look even greater when seen against the background of an illness, possibly Cron’s Disease, which seems to have given him constant pain.
In the meantime, the king, during the frequent wars and other trammels of this present life, the invasions of the pagans, and his own daily infirmities of body, continued to carry on the government, and to exercise hunting in all its branches ; to teach his workers in gold and artificers of all kinds, his falconers, hawkers and dog-keepers ; to build houses, majestic and good, beyond all the precedents of his ancestors, by his new mechanical inventions ; to recite the Saxon books, and especially to learn by heart the Saxon poems, and to make others learn them ; and he alone never desisted from studying, most diligently, to the best of his ability ; he attended the mass and other daily services of religion ; he was frequent in psalm-singing and prayer, at the hours both of the day and the night.
Now the king was pierced with many nails of tribulation, though placed in the royal seat ; for from the twentieth year of his age to the present year, which is his fortieth, he has been constantly afflicted with most severe attacks of an unknown complaint, so that he has not a moment’s ease either from suffering the pain which it causes, or from the gloom which is thrown over him by the apprehension of its coming. Moreover, the constant invasions of foreign nations, by which he was continually harassed by land and sea, without any interval of quiet, were a just cause of disquiet. What shall I say of his repeated expeditions against the pagans, his wars, and incessant occupations of government? Of the daily embassies sent to him by foreign nations, from the Tyrrhenian sea to the farthest end of Ireland?!
A glimpse of daily life
I rather like this, and visualise Alfred as a rather serious man in middle age, taking his notebook everywhere with him noting down ideas that could help with all those challenges.
On a certain day we were both of us sitting in the king’s chamber, talking on all kinds of subjects, as usual, and it happened that I read to him a quotation out of a certain book. He heard it attentively with both his ears, and addressed me with a thoughtful mind, showing me at the same moment a book which he carried in his bosom, wherein the daily courses and psalms, and prayers which he had read in his youth, were written, and he commanded me to write the same quotation in that book…
…This book he called his ENCHIRIDION or MANUAL, because he carefully kept it at hand day and night, and found, as he told me, no small consolation therein.
Pious and thoughtful he might have been, but you have to think that none of this could have been achieved without a bit of force of personality and egg-breaking in the Omelette department. And there’s an indication that his advisers and councillors didn’t always get an easy time.
For all his bishops, earls, nobles, favourite ministers, and prefects, who, next to God and the king, had the whole government of the kingdom, as is fitting, continually received from him instruction, respect, exhortation, and command ; nay, at last, when they were disobedient, and his long patience was exhausted, he would reprove them severely, and censure at pleasure their vulgar folly and obstinacy ; and in this way he directed their attention to the common interests of the kingdom. But, owing to the sluggishness of the people, these admonitions of the king were either not fulfilled, or were begun late at the moment of necessity, and so ended less to the advantage of those who put them in execution …
… They repented, therefore, when it was too late, and grieved at their incautious neglect of the king’s commands, and they praised the royal wisdom with one voice, and tried with all their power to fulfil what they had before refused, namely, concerning the erector of castles, and other things generally useful to the whole kingdom.
We are never going to know whether Alfred burnt those cakes or not. At the time he was at his lowest point, on the run with a few companions sitting in a bog in Somerset, so it’s not impossible. On the other hand, the strong suspicion is that Asser was making this up to teach us a lesson about hubris. Nice, in this translation, to see that the Somerset accent hasn’t changed over the last 1200 years…
At the same time the above-named Alfred, king of the West-Saxons, with a few of his nobles, and certain soldiers and vassals, used to lead an unquiet life among the woodlands of the county of Somerset, in great tribulation; for he had none of the necessaries of life, except what he could forage openly or stealthily, by frequent sallies, from the pagans, or even from the Christians who had submitted to the rule of the pagans, and as we read in the Life of St. Neot, at the house of one of his cowherds.
But it happened on a certain day, that the countrywoman, wife of the cowherd, was preparing some loaves to bake, and the king, sitting at the hearth, made ready his bow and arrows and other warlike instruments. The unlucky woman espying the cakes burning at the fire, ran up to remove them, and rebuking the brave king, exclaimed :
‘Ca’sn thee mind the ke-aks, man, an’ doossen zee ’em burn !
I’m boun thee’s eat ’em vast enough, az zoon az tiz the turn.’
The blundering woman little thought that it was king Alfred, who had fought so many battles against the pagans, and gained so many victories over them. But the Almighty not only granted to the same glorious king victories over his enemies, but also permitted him to be harassed by them, to be sunk down by adversities, and depressed by the low estate of his followers, to the end that he might learn that there is one Lord of all things, to whom every knee doth bow, and in whose hand are the hearts of kings; who puts down the mighty from their seat and exalteth the humble; who suffers his servants when they are elevated at the summit of prosperity to be touched by the rod of adversity, that in their humility they may not despair of God’s mercy, and in their prosperity they may not boast of their honours, but may also know, to whom they owe all the things which they possess.