« PreviousContinue »
construction of any new theory, that Alfred directed his attention. In practice the judges had become shamefully corrupt. Asser mentions that he exercised great vigilance over the judges, frequently reprimanding those who did amiss, and threatening them with deprivation and other punishments. We have the same good authority for the facts that the courts became pure ; that the laws, such as they were, were fairly administered ; and that town-people and villagers kept such good police that robbery and theft became almost unknown. Towards the close of his reign it was generally asserted, that one might have strewed golden bracelets and jewels on the public highways and cross-roads, and no man would have dared to touch them for fear of the law.
Alfred, who felt that if the divine law were duly observed there would be no necessity for human legislation, opened his code of laws with the ten commandments, a selection from the Mosaic precepts, and the canons of the First Apostolic Councils. “Do these,” he said, “and no other doom-book will be needed.”
But if Alfred did not introduce many new laws, he rejected some of the old ones. For this we have his own word. He says in his doom-book, “I then, Alfred, King, gathered these laws together, and commanded many of those to be written which our forefathers held, those which to me seemed good; and many of those which seemed to me not goor, I rejected them, by the counsel of my Witan, and in otherwise commanded them to be holden ; for I durst not venture to set down in writing much of my own, for it was unknown to me what of it would please those who should come after us. But those things which I met with, either of the days of Ina, my kinsman, or Offa, King of the Mercians, or of Ethelbert, who first among the English race received baptism, those which seemed to me the rightest, those I have here gathered together and rejected the others. I then, Alfred, King of the West-Saxons, showed these to all my Witan, and they then said that it seemed good to them all to be holden.” It was Alfred's grand object to consolidate the dominions of England, to make one consistent and inseparable whole of the various states into which it had been divided by the Saxon conquerors (states which were still separated by old jealousies and antipathies), to regenerate the whole Anglo-Saxon people, and to create a new national spirit'; and as he effected this not ostentatiously, but by unwearied political activity, he was in reality the King, the Liberator, the Reformer of all England.
Alfred was not only the first warrior, the first statesman and legislator, but he was also the first scholar in his dominions. From Asser's interesting memoirs the fact may easily be gathered that Alfred vastly exceeded even the most learned of his prelates in scholar-like accomplishments. He states that the king's noble mind thirsted for knowledge from the very cradle, and that when a mere child he had got many of the Anglo-Saxon poems by heart. It appears highly probable that Alfred diligently studied the language between his twelfth and eighteenth year ; that he had a few Latin books with him in his solitude at Athelney, and that he was (for that time) a good Latin scholar before he invited Asser to his court. But whenever or however he obtained his knowledge of that learned tongue, he certainly showed in his literary works a proficiency in Latin which was almost miraculous for a prince in Alfred's age. The style of his works in his native language proves that his acquaintance with a few good classical models was familiar, and extended to higher things than mere words and phrases.
Alfred was accustomed to say that he regretted the imperfect education of his youth, the entire want of proper teachers, and the many difficulties which then
barred his progress to intellectual improvement, much more than all the hardship and sorrows and misfortunes that befell him afterwards. As one of his greatest impediments had been the difficult Latin language, he earnestly recommended from the throne, in a circular letter addressed to the bishops, that thenceforward “all good and useful books be translated into the language which we all understand ; so that all the youths of England, but more especially such as are of gentle kind and in easy circumstances, may be grounded in letters for they cannot profit in any pursuit until they be wel! able to read English.” His mind was too lofty for pedantry to reach it, and too liberal and expansive to entertain the idea that learning ought to be kept in a foreign disguise and out of the reach of the people. He looked to the intellectual improvement of the people and their religious instruction as to the only solid foundation upon which a government could repose or a throne be established. It was left to a later age to advance the monstrous principle that the bulk of mankind can be governed only by the suppression or debasement of their intellectual faculties, and that governments and all the institutions of civil life are best supported by the ignorance of the greatest part of those who live under them. The doctrine of this enlightened English king of the ninth century was—let there be churches, abbeys, schools, books; let the churches be served by active and conscientious priests ; let the abbeys be filled by the most learned men that can be found ; let the schools be taught by able masters; and let the books be in the language which is spoken by all the people. And the theory was carried into practice to an extent which is surprising for those times. He never rebuilt a town without furnishing it with a good capacious school ; he founded or restored churches and monasteries at Athelney, Shaftesbury, Winchester, and many other places, in some of which the people had almost relapsed into heathenism; he sent into various countries in search of learned and industrious teachers ; and in order that there might be books for the people to read, he wrote many himself. Even as an author, no native of England of the old Saxon period, except the venerable Bede, can be compared to Alfred either for the number or for the excellence of his writings. These works were in good part translations from the Latin into Anglo-Saxon. He thus translated for the instruction of his subjects—1, Orosius's History, sis books ; 2. St. Gregory's Pastorale ; 3, St. Gregory's Dialogues ; 4, Bede's History, five books; 5, Boetius, on the Consolation of Philosophy ; 6, The Merchen-Lage (Laws of the Mercians); 7, Asser's Sentences; 8, The Psalms of David. His original works—all in the same plain-spoken language of the people, were—1, An Abridgment of the Laws of the Trojans, the Greeks, the Britons, the Saxons, and the Danes ; 2, Laws of the West-Saxons ; 3, Institutes ; 4, A Book against Unjust Judges ; 5, Sayings of the Wise ; 6, A Book on the Fortunes of Kings; 7, Parables and Jokes ; 8, Acts of Magistrates ; 9, Collection of Chronicles ; 10, Manual of Meditations.
He was an elegant poet, and wrote a great many Anglo-Saxon poenis and ballads, which were sung or recited in all parts of England, but of which we believe no trace has been preserved, though we have a few verses of a still more ancient date. In his original works the extent of his knowledge is not less astonishing than the purity of his taste : the diction is classically easy and simple, yet not deficient either in strength or in ornament. Asser tells us that his first attempt at translation was made upon the Bible, a book which no man ever held in greater reverence than King Alfred. He and the king were engaged in pleasant conversation, and it so chanced that Asser quoted a passage from the Bible with which the king was much struck. Alfred requested his friend to write the passage in a collection of psalıns and hymns which he had had with him at Athelney and which he always carried in his bosom ; but not a blank leaf could be found in that book. At the monk's suggestion the king called for a clean skin of parchment, and this being folded into fours, in the shape of a little book, the passage froin the Scriptures was written upon it in Latin, together with other good texts : and the king setting to work upon these passages, translated them into the Anglo-Saxon tongue.
Bishop Alfric, reputed the best philologist of his age, undertook a new version of the Pentateuch, and of some of the apocryphal books; and in his preface he refuted certain objections which had already been raised against similar labours, or against the practice of giving the Scriptures to the common people in a language they could understand. “The rubrics prefixed to the lessons of the Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospels,” says Sir Francis Palgrave, “ leave no reason to doubt but that they were regularly read in the churches on Sundays and festivals. Large portions of the Scripture were also reproduced in the Anglo-Saxon homilies or sermons, and the study of the Holy Scriptures was most earnestly recommended both to clergy and laity, as the groundwork of their faith.
From the AngloSaxon age, down to Wicliffe, we in England can show such a succession of Biblical versions, in metre and in prose, as are not to be equalled amongst any other nation in Europe."
Nothing is more astonishing in the story of this marvellous man than how he could find time for these laudable literary occupations ; but he was steady and persevering in all things, regular in his habits, when not kept in the field hy the Danes, and a rigid economist of his time. Eight hours of each day he gave to sleep, to his meals, and exercise ; eight were absorbed by the affairs of government ; and eight were devoted to study and devotion. Clocks, clepsydras, and other ingenious instruments for measuring time, were then unknown in England. Alfred was no doubt acquainted with the sun-dial, which was in common use in Italy ; but this index is of no use in the hours of the night and would frequently be equally unserviceable during our foggy sunless days. He therefore marked his time by the constant burning of wax torches or candles, which were made precisely of the same weight and size, and notched in the stem at regular distances. These candles were twelve inches long; six of them, or seventy-two inches of wax, were consumed in twenty-four hours, or fourteen hundred and forty minutes ; and thus, supposing the notches at intervals of an inch, one such notch would mark the lapse of twenty minutes, and three such notches the lapse of an hour. These time-candles were placed under the special charge of the king's mass-priests or chaplains. But it was soon discovered that sometimes the wind, rushing in through the windows and doors, and the numerous chinks in the walls of the royal palace, caused the wax to be consumed in a rapid and irregular manner. This induced Alfred to invent that primitivo utensil the horn lanthorn ; which now-a-days is never seen except in the stable yard of some lowly country inn, and not often even there. Asser tells us that the king went skilfully and wisely to work; and having found out that white horn could be rendered transparent like glass, he with that material, and with pieces of wood, admirably (mirabiliter) made a case for his candle, which kept it from wasting and flaring. And therefore, say we, let none ever look upon an ostler's horn lanthorn, however poor and battered it may be, and however dim the light that shines within it, without thinking of Alfred the Great.
In his youth he was much addicted to field sports, and a perfect master of hunting and the then newly introduced art of hawking ; but in after life he begrudged the time which these exciting arousements demanded.
No prince of his time made such strenuous efforts in favour of education and the diffusion of knowledge among his people. Charlemagne acted upon a much vaster stage ; but in this, as in several other respects, he was left far behind by our Alfred. Since the days of the venerable Bede the civilization of the country had sadly retrogaded. the Danes, by directing their chief fury against the churches, abbeys, and monasteries, had destroyed the most learned of the Anglo-Saxon priests and monks—had burned their little libraries, and scared literature away from its only haunts. The schools had disappeared, there being at this period no schools or libraries in the country, except such as belonged to the monastic establishments. Alfred's own account of the state in which he found the kingdom in this respect, at his accession to the throne, is most interesting; and his feeling of his own merits in effecting a change for the better is expressed with all the modesty of a truly great mind. In the circular letter which he prefixed to his translation of St. Gregory's “ Pastorale,' he says—“ Knowledge had fallen into such total decay among the English, that there were very few on the other side of the Humber who understood the common prayers, so as to be able to tell their meaning in English, or who could have translated into that language a Latin passage ; and I ween there were not many on this side of Humber who could do it. Indeed there were so few such, that I do not even recollect one to the south of the Thames, at the time I succeeded to the crown. God Almighty be thanked, there are now some holding bishoprics who are capable of teaching."
His own large mind was ever open to instruction on any subject. The science of geography was then in a most imperfect, mutilated state. The works of the Greek and Roman geographers (themselves very defective) were unknown in England, and very little known in any part of western Europe. The dark ages had furnished nothing to supply their place. But barbarous invention had disfigured this fair world by promulgating the most absurd fables about distant countries and the men who inhabited them. Johannes Scotus had been a great traveller before he came to Alfred's court to impart the varied knowledge of which he was master. Other travelled men preceded or followed him ; and it was evidently one of the greatest delights of the king's life to converse with these men about the distant lands in which they had been, and the still remoter parts of the earth of which they had obtained some information by reading books in other languages, or by hearsay. One of these adventurous men was Audher, or Othere, who had coasted the continent of Europe towards the North Pole, from the Baltic to the North Cape, with the view of ascertaining how far that continent extended ; and who, in his skiff, had run along all the northern coast of Lapland, and had ventured to the shores occupied by the wild men of Finland. Another of these travellers was Wulstan, apparently a born subject of the king, who undertook a voyage all round the Baltic, and who succeeded in gathering many particulars concerning the divers couutries situated on that sea. Others among these bold men who either had been sent out expressly by Alfred, or had been brought by him into England op account of the journeys they had previously made, had visited Germany, Bulgaria, Sclavonia, and Bohemia. All the information about foreign parts that Alfred obtained from these, his rough but honoured guests, he committed to writing in the plain mother tongue, and with the noble design of imparting it to his people ; and in enlarging the text of Orosius, the Spanish chronicler, whose work he translated, he introduced a geographical account of Germany, and the voyages of Audher towards the North Pole and of Wulstan in the Baltic; this new, and for the time most valuable matter, being the cream of his conversations with his travelled guests.
Having obtained information-probably from Johannes Scotus, who had been in the East--that there were colonies of Christian Syrians settled on the coasts of Malabar and Coromandel, who spoke the same tongue which Christ spoke when he was upon earth, Alfred, partly from feelings of devotion, and partly no doubt to increase his geographical knowledge, resolved to send out his well-instructed friend Swithelm, Bishop of Sherburn, to India, a tremendous journey in those days, and one which had never been made by any Englishman. But the stout-hearted bishop, making, as it should seem, what is now called the Overland journey, went and returned in safety, bringing back with him presents of gems and Indian spices. Hereby was Alfred's fame increased, and the name and existence of England probably heard of for the first time in that remote country, of which, nine centuries after, she was to become the almost absolute mistress.
This Saxon king, who could practise with his own hand the mechanical arts, extended his encouragement to all the humble but useful arts, and always gave a kind reception to mechanics of superior skill, of whom no inconsiderable number came into England from foreign countries. “No man,” says Milton, “could be more frugal of two precious things in man's life, his time and his revenue. His whole annual revenue, which his first care was, should be justly his own, he divided into two equal parts: the first he employed in secular uses, and subdivided those into three ; the first, to pay his soldiers, household servants, and guard; the second, to pay his architects and workmen whom he had got together of several nations, for he was also an elegant builder, above the custom and conceit of Englishmen in those days; the third he had in readiness to relieve or honour strangers, according to their worth, who came from all parts to see him and to live under him. The other equal part of his yearly wealth he dedicated to religious uses, those of four sorts : the first, to relieve the poor ; the second, to build and maintain monasteries ; the third, to a school, where he had persuaded the sons of many noblemen to study sacred knowledge and liberal arts (some say Oxford); the fourth was for the relief of foreign churches, as far as India to the shrine of St. Thomas.”
This great prince was anxious above all things that his subjects should learn how to govern themselves, and how to preserve their liberties; and in his will he declared that he left his people as free as their own thoughts. He frequently assembled his Witenagemot, or parliament, and never passed any law, or took any important step whatsoever, without their previous sanction. Down to the last days of his life he heard all law appeals in person with the utmost patience; and, in cases of importance, he revised all the proceedings with the utmost industry. His manifold labours in the court, the camp, the field, the hall of justice, the study, must indeed have been prodigious. “One canuot help being amazed,” says Burke, “that a prince who lived in such turbulent times, who commanded personally in fiftyfour pitched battles, who had so disordered a province to regulate, who was not only a legislator, but a judge, and who was continually superintending his armies, his navies, the traffic of his kingdom, his revenues, and the conduct of all his officers, could have bestowed so much of his time on religious exercises and speculative knowledge ; but the exertion of all his faculties and virtues seemed to have given a mutual strength to all of them. Thus all historians speak of this prince, whose whole history is one panegyric; and whatever dark spots of human frailty may have adhered to such a character, they are entirely hid in the splendour of his many shining qualities and grand virtues, that throw a glory over the obscure period in which he lived."
Our amazement at all this bodily and mental activity must be increased by the indisputable fact that all these incessant exertions were made in spite of the depressing influences of physical pain and constant bad health. At the age of twenty or twenty-one, he was visited by a tormenting malady, the inward seat and unknown nature of which baffled all the medical skill of his “leeches.” The accesses of excruciating pain were frequent-at times almost unintermittent; and then, if by day or by night a single hour of ease was mercifully granted him, that short interval was embittered by the dread of the sure returning anguish. But the good monk Asser, who withdraws the curtain and admits us into the sick room of the great