Mythical Millenaries: The Victorian Quest for the Historical Alfred
By Tomás Kalmar
Paper given at the meeting of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (1999)
Abstract: Now that we are learning to hear Asser’s voice not through the ears of the Victorians, but with our own ears, with no reason at all to fear the voice of an intelligent and sophisticated hagiographer, we will at last be hearing a voice which Alfred himself heard. And we may gain a richer and historically more accurate understanding of the function of hagiographic discourse in Alfred’s circle of scholars. The primary function of hagiography at Alfred’s court may have been to help inaugurate the incipient cult of Alfred himself. If so, it launched something that has lasted eleven hundred years: a cult that is alive and still kicking. No mean achievement. Well worth celebrating!
Excerpt: Between 1885 and 1901 thousands, millions publicly confessed their faith in Alfred; and this faith was authorised through a dialogue with Alfredian ‘scriptures’. Thus the process by which Plummer and Stevenson established the canonical versions of the Chronicle and the Life is inseparable from the history of the Victorian Cult of Alfred. Here, for example, is how the Dean of Ely invoked the charisma of the Old English Chronicle to publicly confess his faith in Alfred in 1901, in a sermon launching the Alfredian Millenary:
One day last month I stood in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and gazed on the oldest manuscript of the oldest historical work written in any Teutonic language. It was the text of the “Old English Chronicle,” that national record which, at Alfred’s bidding, in part quite probably under his own eye, took shape first here in the scriptorium of the monastery at Winchester and from the brief annals of your local church gradually grew into shape a continuous detailed history of the English people from their earliest coming into this land down at least to the middle of the twelfth century.
As I took the book in my hand and turned to the pages written in the beautiful Saxon writing of that time, the ink still black, as if written only last week, where at the record of the death of Æthelwulf, Alfred’s father, the roll widens into the fuller story of Alfred’s own reign, written with a vigour, and a freshness, and a life worthy of the temper and the spirit of a king whose deeds they record, and which at least serve to mark the gift of a new power to the English language, I am not ashamed to confess that I felt a thrill of emotion, akin, I suppose, to that with which a mediaeval churchman kissed the reliquary in which he believed a fragment of the true Cross lay enshrined.