The Alfredian Project and its Aftermath: Rethinking the Literary History of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries

The Alfredian Project and its Aftermath: Rethinking the Literary History of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries

By Malcolm Godden

Proceedings of the British Academy, Volume 162 (2009)

Introduction: Some time in the 890s King Alfred sent a letter to his bishops apparently announcing two major new government initiativies: a programme of mass education, to deliver near-universal literacy in English; and a matching programme of translation and book production, to make all the key Latin texts available to everyone in English versions. To launch the programme he attached his own translation of one of those essential tests, Gregory the Great’s guide for bishops, the Pastoral Care.

The letter was to become one of the best-known of all Anglo-Sacon texts. A century later we find Aelfric echoing it in the preface to his Grammar, and referring approvingly to King Alfred’s translations, and Archbishop Wulfstan annotating the copy which the king had sent to earlier bishop of Worcester. Another century or so on we have William of Malmesbury citing the letter and summarising its contents, and adding a detailed list of the king’s translations, and in the sixteenth centruy we find John Joscelyn, secretary to the archbishop of Canterbury, transcribing and collating different copies of the letter. When Henry Sweet included it in his Anglo-Saxon reader in 1876 he ensured that it would be read for the next hundred years by many thousands of students and many scores if not hundreds of teachers. It is in many ways a founding document for the modern narrative of Angl0-Saxon cultural histroy, at both scholarly and popular levels, leading to stories of educational reform in Latin and English, a renaissance in the history of the book, the founding of English prose, the creation of English national identity and of course the literary and intellectual achievements of King Alfred himself.

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