King Alfred's Literacy Program


Erich W. Guthrie

Copyright 2000

The entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, one of the products of Alfred's vernacular literary renaissance, for the year 793 reads

In this year dire portents appeared over Northumbria and sorely frightened the people. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine immediately followed those signs, and a little after that in the same year, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God's church on Lindisfarne, with plunder and slaughter (qtd. in Abels 104).

This first landing of the Vikings in 793 inaugurated a period of cultural devastation for the Anglo-Saxons. Eighty-five years of routine Viking raids had, by the time of Alfred's important victory over Guthrum at Edington in 878, reduced the condi tions of Anglo-Saxon religious life and learning to a state of figurative and literal rubble. The period following King Alfred's victory at Edington has been called a "cultural renaissance," for it is during the fourteen-year span of easy peace which fol lowed (878-892) that Alfred instituted new social policies which endeavoured to restore Anglo-Saxon culture to a former golden age of wisdom and prosperity.

The passage from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles can be read as indicating a specific concern about the state of England at the time of the first Viking raids. It positions the arrival of the raiders alongside what are clearly intended to be signs of God's displeasure with the English people. Alfred believed that the affliction of the Vikings was the consequence of the general decay of English learning, church life, and morality, not the cause of it; hence, the Vikings were a punishment. As an example of the sort of degeneracy which God would punish Alfred was known to have complained of the fact that at the time of his ascendency to the throne only a few men either north or south of the Humber could understand the meaning of the church services they performed or even translate a letter of Latin into English.

And yet there was another angle to the reforms in education of "Alfred's renaissance." Alfred thought that an educated populace was a fortified populace. The project of educating the English population -- or least specific and important parts of the population -- was inherently part of the military defense of the kingdom, akin to the system of fortified towns he created in prevision of the possible return of the Viking raiders. The writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which can be viewe d as a concerted effort to order and unite the multiple, fragmented histories of the various English populations which eventually came under Alfred's rule, was an important part of Alfred's project of literary fortification. With a sense of a united and ordered history, Alfred hoped that his peoples would unite under the threat of further Viking raids, wanting to preserve their "historical" bonds.

Alfred's educational reforms entailed two phases. The first was the translation into English of Latin works the king deemed "most necessary for all men to know." This would ameliorate the situation of both the clergy and the laity. By rendering into the vernacular certain books which would then be distributed to all of his bishops throughout the kingdom Alfred took a crucial first step toward improving the quality of religious life. Alfred also knew that a supply of texts in English could add t o a base of marginal literacy among laymen, as English had increasingly become the language of secular administrative documents through the ninth century, especially in wills and charters. The second phase of Alfred's educational reforms was the esta blishment of a court school for his children, the children of his noblemen, and selected children of lesser birth. The idea was to equip the generation which would one day occupy the seats of power with the skills and habits of learning that would enable them to properly and responsibly administer their powers. Alfred may also have recognized other benefits of a literate administration: they would be able to read and carry out instructions given to them, and they would be able to refer to written laws i n matters relating to judicial principles and procedures. In other words, they could be controlled. Out of these two basic phases would emerge a resultant third, which Alfred described as

bring[ing] it to pass, as we can very easily do with God's help, if we have the peace, that all the youth now in England, born of free men who have the wherewithal may be devoted to learning as long as they cannot be of use in any other employment, unt il such time as they can read well what is written in English (qtd. in Abels 227).

The issue of improving literacy (to debatable ends) was at the core of Alfred's reforms. The necessary first step toward this goal was the procurement of texts. Since Alfred's own education needed supplementing before he could share the power of knowledge with his people he began assembling around him a group of men who would assist in both his own education and in the task of producing texts in English. From Mercia came Plegmund, Werferth, Aethelstan, and Werwulf, from the Frankish empire came Grimbald and John (The Old Saxon), and from Wales came Asser, who would eventually write the Life of King Alfred. In cooperation with these men and under their tutelage Alfred translated Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Boethius's Cons olation of Philosophy, St. Augustine's Soliloquies, and the first fifty psalms of the Psalter. Additionally, at the direction of Alfred were translated Gregory's Dialogues, Orosius's Histories against the Pagans, and Bede's Ec clesiastical History. Along with these books, Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge suggest that Bald's Leechbook and an anonymously compiled Old English Martyrology were also among the works produced, translated, or acquired as part of a po licy of general availability of works in English and of public readings of these translations.

Modern scholarship has raised the possibility that Alfred's motives for improving literacy were less benevolent than has previously been thought. Feeling that the impulse for Alfred's program could not solely have been a sense of duty to protect h is "flock," scholars view Alfred as attempting to secure the cooperation of his nobles by retraining them to think of themselves as an "aristocracy of service" (Szarmach 19). Citing what occurs in Alfred's translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care, i t is argued that the work becomes imbued with a subjective intentionality, transforming it from a treatise which specifically addresses those who oversee spiritual matters into a treatise about power and authority generally. Also of note is the fact that Alfred threatened his nobles with the loss of their offices should they not learn to read. What is most important about the issues raised by this scholarship is that it forces one to consider that the pragmatic, political implications of the program mus t be viewed alongside what might simply have been Alfred's generous impulse to share learning and knowledge with his people.

Unfortunately, no charter exists detailing how Alfred intended to implement his educational program. Though he seems to have been comitted to a qualified "universal" literacy, there is no trace of laity schools. It is beyond doubt that Alfred him self was an enthusiastic proponent of the virtues of education, and at least some records of the actual steps he took toward systematizing this enthusiasm and transforming it into actual reformation remain. Alfred's literacy program sought both to share his own joy of learning with those entrusted to his care, and to assist them in arming themselves against a wrathful God who, Alfred believed, would surely not hesitate to again afflict His people with a tribulation by heathens should they not maintain th e standards of morality He impelled of them. Modern scholars add an important political dimension to a "reading" of the program: its political effects, insofar as it would produce a more useful population, seem to have been carefully designed.

For further reading

Abels, Richard. Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. New York: Longman, 1998.

Conybeare, Edward. Alfred in the Chroniclers. Cambridge: W. Heffer and Sons, Ltd., 1914.

Duckett, Eleanor. Alfred the Great and His England. London: Collins, 1957.

Greeenfield, Stanley B. and Daniel G. Calder. A New Critical History of Old English Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

Helm, P. J. Alfred the Great. London: Robert Hale, Ltd., 1963.

Keynes, Simon and Michael Lapidge. Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. Middlesex: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1984.

Peddie, John. Alfred: Warrior King. Pheonix Mill, England: Sutton Publishing, Ltd., 1999.

Plummer, Charles. The Life and Times of Alfred the Great. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1902.

Powell, Robert. The Life of King Alfred, Or, Alvred. London: 1634.

Szarmach, Paul, et al., eds. Medieval England: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1998: 19-23.

Scott, Ronald McNair. Alfred The Great. Sussex: The Book Guild, Ltd., 1993.

Smyth, Alfred P. King Alfred the Great. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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