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Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary…

par John Asser

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Asser's Life of King Alfred, written in 893, is a revealing account of one of the greatest medieval kings. Composed by a monk of St David's in Wales who became Bishop of Sherborne in Alfred's service and worked with him in his efforts to revive religion and learning in his kingdom, this life is among the earliest surviving royal biographies. It is an admiring account of King Alfred's life, written in absorbing detail - chronicling his battles against Viking invaders and his struggle to increase the strength and knowledge of his people, and to unite them at a time of conflict, uncertainty and war.In their introduction, Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge examine Alfred's reign and turbulent times. This edition also includes other contemporary sources, including annals from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King Alfred's laws, his will and extracts from his own writings.… (plus d'informations)
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This book is a valuable and fascinating resource shedding light on the life and career on King Alfred of Wessex, who became known (in my opinion deservedly so) in later centuries as ‘The Great’. In the simplest level the main body of the book is simple an account of Alfred’s reign, written by the Welsh monk, Asser.

Admittedly, his work was bound to be partisan and designed to make Alfred look good, and the cynical may claim that this renders in unreliable. Ret there may be found insights into the source of Alfred’s greatness. More than simply a warlord fighting against the Vikings, Alfred took steps to restore learning and education. Tthe learning and application of wisdom’ seems to have been a subject close to Alfred’s heart, and though he himself did not learn to read until his later years, he seems to have established a school of sorts. Since the decline of the learning in England is lamented in the preface to the translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, this particular foundation may have been considered particularly important.

The ‘other contemporary sources’ mentioned in the title include extracts from some of Alfred’s own translations’ of important works, including Boethius Consolation of Philosophy. There are some profound thoughts here, on life, leadership, philosophy and religion. ‘Wisdom is the highest virtue’ says Alfred’s translation of the work ‘one is caution, the second moderation the third courage and the fourth justice’. The King did take some liberties with his ‘translations’ sometimes inserting ideas of his own (one passage in the Boethius translation hints at the idea of the ‘three estates’ for instance.

Some may challenge the notion that medieval religion was based on ‘blind faith’ with not room for rational enquiry “Therefore we must investigate God with all out might, so that we might know what He is. Although it is not within our capacity to know what He is like, we ought nevertheless to inquire with the intellectual capacity which he gives us”

Or as in a passage from Augustune ‘He rules the Kings who have the greatest dominion on this earth, who are born and die like other men. He permits then to rule as long as He wills it’. Another translation reveals perhaps something of Alfred’s concerns, priorities and interests. Pastoral Care written by the seventh century Pope Gregory contains several short ‘chapters’, entitled respectively

‘Concerning the Burden of Government, and how the ruler must despise all hardships and must recoil from all sense or security’ and ‘How the administration of Government often distracts the mind of the ruler’. The latter warns against a ruler may becoming ‘puffed up’ by his achievements and his people’s praising of them. The preface speaks of how rulers of old ‘obeyed God and his messages’ and maintained not only peace but ‘morality and authority’ and home and in the places to which they extended their power, and ‘succeeded both in warfare and in wisdom’. Perhaps these were idealistic and naïve expectations, rarely met, if indeed it was possible to do so. Yet it may be tempting to think they could be relevant to any age.

Alongside translations, there are extracts from the King’s laws, in his capacity as a lawgiver, and even a mention in the main Life of his having possibly developed a more efficient way of measuring time.

The Life of Alfred and other Contemporary Sources is a great start for learning of Alfred, and perhaps even understanding him in spite of the separation of over a millennium. Those interested in more academic analysis could of course read more, not that it is entirely lacking here.
The notes are quite extensive. The two editors cum translators also appear to be prominent Anglo Saxon scholars, who both worked on The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo Saxon England. Thus they are not historians out of their depth in an unfamiliar period, or enthusiastic laymen, but scholars who know their stuff, yet succeed in making it accessible- at least in my opinion.
( )
  Medievalgirl | Oct 4, 2016 |
The Book contains Asser's Life of the king, and selections from Alfred's own writings on philosophical subjects. This is a good source book and was fittingly translated.
The life was written in 893. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Jan 21, 2014 |
This account of the life of Alfred is significant as being the first biography of an English king. Much of it reads like an embellished version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, with repeated accounts of Viking movements and counter measures against them. But the last section is a more personal account of the King's intellectual and even medical life, and of Bishop Asser's relations towards him. Worth reading for the very rare light it sheds on the life of an Anglo Saxon ruler, justly called the Great, in light of his preventing the total Viking takeover of England at the Battle of Edington. ( )
  john257hopper | Nov 16, 2011 |
Excellent book; great addition of notes and inclusion of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's entries for the years 871-899, the period of Alfred's reign. ( )
  ladymacbeth86 | Aug 19, 2010 |
Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources

For the West Saxons did not allow the queen to sit beside the king, nor indeed did they allow her to be called ‘queen’, but rather ‘king's wife. The elders of the land maintain that this disputed and indeed infamous custom originated on account of a certain grasping and wicked queen of the same people, who did everything she could against her lord and the whole people, so not only did she earn hatred for herself, leading to expulsion from the queen's throne, but she also brought the same foul stigma on all the queens who came after her. For as a result of her very great wickedness, all the inhabitants of the land swore that they would never permit any king to reign over them, who during his lifetime invited the queen to sit beside him on the royal throne.

King Alfred, who ruled the kingdom of Wessex from 871 to 899 AD, spent the first and last years of his reign fighting against Viking invaders. In the intervening years, he spent a lot of his time and energy on improving literacy, knowledge of Latin and religious observance in his kingdom. Among other things, this book contains a biography of the king written by his friend Asser (who was one of the bishops he appointed as part of this strategy), plus introductions to some of the religious and philosophical works that were translated into Anglo-Saxon by Alfred himself. The long introduction to this book covers the run up to Alfred's reign and its aftermath, as well as his 28 years on the throne. It also includes what is known of Alfred's interactions with the Vikings and the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and puts the other documents included in the book into context.

One thing I found interesting is that although the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had queens during this period, Wessex did not. After a bad experience with the wicked Queen Eadburh, a daughter of King Offa of Mercia who married King Beorhtric in 789, they dispensed with queens altogether. Kings still got married of course, but their wives were known as king's wives and were not anointed queen. They were kept very much in the background and most of their names are not known, unlike earlier queens of Wessex and contemporary queens of Mercia who were often mentioned in charters.

It is a very interesting book, but took me forever to read due to being a Penguin Classics with a large notes section at the back, as I have to check every single note so I don't miss anything interesting. ( )
1 voter isabelx | Jun 21, 2010 |
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Asser, Johnauteur(e) principal(e)toutes les éditionsconfirmé
Stevenson, William HenryDirecteur de publicationauteur secondairequelques éditionsconfirmé

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Preface
The Penguin Classics series of translations is one of which King Alfred the Great would have heartily approved.
Introduction
The reign of King Alfred the Great (871-899) is among the most stirring periods of English history.
To my esteemed and most holy lord, Alfred, ruler of all the Christians of the Island of Britain, King of the Angles and Saxons, Asser, lowest of all the servants of God, wishes thousandfold prosperity in this life and in the next, according to the desires of his prayers.
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Asser's Life of King Alfred, written in 893, is a revealing account of one of the greatest medieval kings. Composed by a monk of St David's in Wales who became Bishop of Sherborne in Alfred's service and worked with him in his efforts to revive religion and learning in his kingdom, this life is among the earliest surviving royal biographies. It is an admiring account of King Alfred's life, written in absorbing detail - chronicling his battles against Viking invaders and his struggle to increase the strength and knowledge of his people, and to unite them at a time of conflict, uncertainty and war.In their introduction, Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge examine Alfred's reign and turbulent times. This edition also includes other contemporary sources, including annals from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King Alfred's laws, his will and extracts from his own writings.

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