In This Article Alfred the Great

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Collections of Essays
  • Biographies
  • Afterlife
  • Debate and Controversy

Medieval Studies Alfred the Great
by
Paul E. Szarmach
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0001

Introduction

The only English monarch to earn the epithet “Great” and who was esteemed highly by the later Victorians who considered him something of a philosopher-king, Alfred (b. 849–d. 899; r. 871–899), King of Wessex, was the youngest son of Æthelwulf. Four elder brothers were ahead in the line, but Alfred survived them all. When a young child visiting Rome, Alfred received some sort of investiture amounting to an anointing to kingship, or so the court biographer Asser would have us believe. In his early years as king, Alfred had to contend with the Vikings, whose Great Army had landed in 865. Alfred lost many a battle until he took refuge in the Athelney marshes from which he conducted guerrilla-like raids on his enemies. Alfred was victorious at the battle of Edington (878), which led to an agreement whereby the Viking chief Guthrum took baptism with Alfred as his sponsor and agreed to leave Wessex. Thereafter, Alfred consolidated his rule, especially with the Mercians, and strengthened it with a system of forts, thus effectively preparing himself for the return of the Vikings in the 890s. This time the Vikings were defeated. Alfred’s ultimate military and political successes received their complement in his program of Christian culture, outlined in the Preface to the Old English Pastoral Care, where he cited books “most needful for men to know” in a series of translations. This royal position paper would seem to stand behind the remarkable flowering of translations still generally associated with his reign. Although some of these translations can be traced to Alfred’s own hand, others would seem to take their broad inspiration from his cultural program or at least were preserved by it. In uniting cultural concerns with military-political considerations, Alfred prospered in “wig and wisdom” (“fighting and wisdom,” or “sapientia et fortitudo”). When Alfred first used the phrase in the Preface, he applied it to his forebears; clearly, he was projecting his own concerns.

General Overviews

In the last century or so, historians have taken more opportunities to offer overviews of Alfred and his milieu than literary scholars. Historians have more documentary evidence with which to work, especially given Carolingian connections. Literary scholars have until recently worked on Beowulf and other poetry to the exclusion of prose, Alfredian or otherwise. Keynes and Lapidge 1983 should be the first stop in any study, as it offers authoritative translations of texts in literature or in history with balanced judgments reflecting the traditional view of Alfred and his achievements. In Keynes and Lapidge 1983, there is an easy entry into Asser’s biography, which is the fundamental reference point for the study of Alfred. A concise introduction to Alfredian literature is available in Greenfield and Calder 1986. Abels 1998 gives an updated single-volume history, as does Sturdy 1995 that considers Alfred “a philosopher king” and “the supreme figure of a heroic age.” Peddie 1999 studies Alfred’s military campaigns and the military problems that beset him. Smyth 2002 continues contemporary controversy on the history side, and his translation and commentary on Asser reflect the author’s view that the text of Asser is a forgery. Hinton 1977 allows material culture to complement textual evidence for a wider view of Alfred and Wessex.

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

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    Upholds the traditional view of Alfred as warrior and as lover of wisdom while arguing for the importance of Asser’s Life.

  • Discenza, Nicole Guenther, and Paul E. Szarmach, eds. A Companion to Alfred the Great. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    This Oxford Bibliographies article discusses works attributed to Alfred as well as works no longer attributed to him. This corpus as a whole is the subject of A Companion to Alfred the Great. The contributors are Simon Keynes, “Alfred the Great and the Kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons”; Leslie Webster, “The Art of Alfred and His Times”; Rosalind Love, “Latin Commentaries on Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy”; Janet M. Bately, “Alfred as Author and Translator” and “The Orosius”; Susan Irvine, “Alfredian Prefaces and Epilogues” and “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”; Carolin Schreiber, “Searoðonca Hord: Alfred’s Translation of Gregory the Great’s Regula Pastoralis”; Nicole Guenther Discenza, “The Old English Boethius”; Paul E. Szarmach, “Augustine’s Soliloquia in Old English”; Patrick P. O’Neill, “The Prose Translation of Psalms 1–50”; Mary Richards, “The Laws of Alfred and Ine”; and David F. Johnson, “Alfredian Apocrypha: The Dialogues and the Bede.”

  • Greenfield, Stanley B., and Daniel G. Calder, with Michael Lapidge. “The Alfredian Translations and Related Ninth-Century Texts.” In A New Critical History of Old English Literature. Edited by Stanley Greenfield and Daniel G. Calder, 38–67. New York: New York University Press, 1986.

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    Still a generally serviceable account of how literary scholars approach Alfred’s apparent corpus.

  • Hinton, David. A. Alfred’s Kingdom: Wessex and the South, 800–1500. London: J. M. Dent, 1977.

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    An important early study based on archaeological evidence.

  • Horspool, David. Burnt Cakes and Other Legends. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

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    Cheerfully revisionist, Horspool seeks to describe how myth and reality combined to create the figure of Alfred.

  • Keynes, Simon, and Michael Lapidge, trans. Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1983.

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    The introduction, texts translated, and supplementary material make this volume an almost obligatory “first book” in the study of Alfred.

  • Peddie, John. Alfred: Warrior King. Thrupp, Stroud, UK: Sutton, 1999.

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    “Not yet another history of the life and times” of Alfred.

  • Smyth, Alfred P., trans. The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great: A Translation and Commentary on the Text Attributed to Asser. Basingstoke, UK, and New York: Palgrave, 2002.

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    Follows up on his 1995 biography of Alfred and sees the Life, allegedly by Asser, as a medieval forgery written by Byrhtferth of Ramsey c. 1000.

  • Sturdy, David. Alfred the Great. London: Constable, 1995.

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    The “backbone” of the book is a new translation of the Chronicle printed throughout the book.

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