King Alfred’s Scholarly Writings and the Authorship of the First Fifty Prose Psalms

King Alfred’s Scholarly Writings and the Authorship of the First Fifty Prose Psalms

Treschow, Michael, Gill, Paramjit & Swartz, Tim B.

The Heroic Age, Issue 12 (May 2009)


A great part of King Alfred’s renown comes from his translations of Latin writings into Old English. The group of translations that he gets credit for, however, has changed over the years. Presently four translations are attributed to him: the Pastoral Care, the Boethius, the Soliloquies, and the first fifty Prose Psalms. The first three works openly name Alfred as translator and provide strong internal evidence that they are Alfred’s work. The Prose Psalms, however, lack Alfred’s name. Although now widely endorsed as Alfred’s on the basis of studies by Janet Bately and Patrick O’Neil, the Prose Psalms do not allow the same confidence in Alfred’s authorship as with the three named translations. Bately’s and O’Neill’s arguments exhibit several weaknesses. Their conclusion, moreover, breaks down when stylometric analysis is applied to the translations associated with Alfred. The statistical methods employed in this study indicate that Alfred should not be regarded as the translator of the Prose Psalms after all.

So King Alfred is presented at the outset of the Middle English poem that we call the Proverbs of Alfred. The several versions that we have of this poem were written down over three hundred years after Alfred’s death in 899. It offers an endearing portrait. The great king, seated before his assembled bishops, clerks, nobles, and warriors at Seaford (Arngart 1955, 1.1–10), is about to address them and offer them his guidance. And they are ready to listen. For he is the guide of the English people (englene hurde: 1.10) and their beloved leader (englene derling: 1.11). He has come before them as their cherished possession (lufsum þing: 1.18). He is their scholar-king (king 7 cleric: 1.19). Through his wise words and deeds he is their comfort (frowere: 2.26). This loving depiction of King Alfred as scholarly, gracious, and wise complements William of Malmesbury’s earlier description of Alfred in the Gesta Regum Anglorum. William the historian 12th century historian is less effusive than the thirteenth century poet, but he still makes much of Alfred’s learning and scholarship. He attributes to Alfred the work of translating Orosius’s Historia Adversus Paganos, Gregory the Great’s Liber Pastoralis, Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, and also the excerpts of scholarly writings that he had collected in his own “Handbook” or Enchiridion. William adds, moreover, that Alfred translated a portion of the Psalms shortly before his death (2.4).


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