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The attachment of Alfred to history appears, from his translations of Orosius's Abridgement of the History of the World, and of Bede's History of the Anglo-Saxon Nation, and from his short sketch of the History of Theodoric the Gothic king, by whose order Boetius was confined (1). But from the want of proper books, Alfred's acquaintance with ancient history appears, from his allusions to it in his Boetius (2), to have been but slight, and not always accurate.
His historical knowledge.
His great historical work was his version of Bede's His translation of history into Saxon (3). In this he omits or abridges Bede. sometimes single passages, and sometimes whole chapters. He frequently gives the sense of the Latin in fewer and simpler words; but he for the most part renders his original with sufficient exactness. The style of the translation is more stately (4) than the dialogues of his Boetius, and therefore has not the charm of their lively case and graceful freedom; but it shows the variety of his powers of composition.
His attention to astronomy appears from his translation of a metrum of Boetius, in which he rather imitates than translates his original, and expresses a few more astronomical ideas than he found there (5).
"Which of the unlearned wonder not at the journeying and swiftness of the firmament? How he every day revolves round all this world, outside! Or who does not admire that some stars have shorter revolutions than others have, as the stars have that we call the Waggon-shafts? They have a short circuit, because they are near the north end of that axis on which all the firmament revolves. Or, who is not amazed, except those only who know it, that some stars have a longer circuit than others have, and the longest, those which revolve round the axis midway, as now Boeties doth? So the planet Saturn comes not to where he was before till about thirty winters. Or, who does not wonder at some stars departing under the sea, as some
(1) Alf. Boet. p. 1.
(2) Thus he mentions, p. 39., Cicero's other names; touches on the Trojan war, p. 114.; on the Hydra, p. 126.; notices Virgil, p. 140.; and adds a few additional circumstances, in other places, to the names of the persons mentioned by Boetius.
(3) This translation was formerly published by Wheloc, from three MSS., two at Cambridge, and one in the Cotton Library; but the best edition of it is that appended by Smith to his Latin Bede, Cantab. 1722, with the various readings and a few notes. Alfred's translation is mentioned by Elfric, who lived in 994, in his Anglo-Saxon Homily on St. Gregory," and eac istoria Anglorum tha the Aelfred cyning of Leden on Englisc awend." Elstob. Sax. Hom. p. 2.
(4) Dr. Hickes says of it, that neither Cæsar nor Cicero ever wrote more perfectly in the middle specics of composition. Pref. Gram. Angl. Sax. This is too warm an encomium for a translation.
(5) The passage in Boetius is : "If any one should not know that the stars of Arcturus glide near the pole; or why Boetes slowly drives his wain, and immerges his fires late in the sea, while he urges rapid their ascent; he will wonder at the law of the lofty sky. The horns of the full moon may grow pale, affected by the departure of the dark night, and Phebe, overshadowed herself, discovers the stars which her radiant face had concealed. A general error then disturbs the nations, and they tire their cymbals with frequent blows,"
men think the sun doth, when she goeth to rest? But she is not nearer the sea than she was at mid-day. Who is not amazed at this, that the full moon is covered over with darkness? or, again, that the stars shine before the moon, but do not shine before the sun?
66 They wonder at this (1) and many such like things, and do not wonder that men and all living animals have perpetual and unnecessary enmities betwixt themselves. Or, why should they wonder at this, that it sometimes thunders, and sometimes that there begins a conflict of the sea and the winds, and the waves and the land? or why that this should be; and again, that the sun should shine according to his own nature? But the unsteady folk wonder enough at that which they most seldom see, though this is less surprising. They think that all else is but old creation, but that the casual is something new. Yet, when they become curious, and begin to learn, if God takes from their mind the folly that it was covered with before, then they wonder not at many things which now amaze them (2)."
This latter part, in which he has enlarged upon his concise original, shows how much his mind rose above the superstitions both of his own times and of the ancient world on the phenomena of nature.
The additions which he has made to a passage in Boetius show that botany, as then known, had been an object of his attention and acquisition. The sentences in italics are the additions of Alfred, and evince that he had interested himself with studying the progress of vegetation, as far as its process was then known, and as its principles could from that knowledge be understood :
His botanical knowledge.
"Isaid, I cannot understand of any living thing; of that which knows what it will and what it does not will, that uncompelled it should desire to perish; because every creature wishes to be healthy and to live, of those that I think alive; excepting that I know not how it may be with trees and herbs, and such substances that have no soul.
"Then he smiled and said, 'Thou needest not doubt it of these creatures, any more than of others. How! canst thou not see, that every herb and every tree grows on the richest land that best suits it, and that is natural and customary to it, and there it hastens to grow the most quickly that it may, and the latest decays? The soil of some herbs and some woods is on hills; of some in marshes; of some in moors; of some on rocks; some on bare sands.
"Take any wood or herb whatsoever thou wilt from the place that is its earth and country to grow on, and set it in a place unnatural to it, then it will not grow there, but will fade away; for the nature of every land is, that it nourishes like herbs and like trees; and it so doeth,
(1) "Yet no one wonders that the breath of the north-west wind beats the shore with the raging wave, nor that the frozen mass of snow is dissolved by the fervor of Phebus. Here the mind is alert to perceive causes; there the unknown disturbs it, and what is rare amazes the movable vulgar. Let the errors of ignorance depart with their clouds, and the wonderful cease to amaze. Boet. lib. iv. met. 5.
(2) Alf. Boet. p. 125, 126.
that it defends and sustains them very carefully, so long as it is their nature that they may grow.
"What thinkest thou? Hence every seed grows within the earth, and becometh grass and roots in the earth without. For this they are appointed, that the stem and the stalk may fasten and longer stand.
"Why canst thou not comprehend, though thou mayest not see it, that all the portion of these trees, which increases in twelve months, begins from their roots, and so groweth upwards to the stem, and then along the pith, and along the rind to the stalk, and thence afterwards to the boughs, till it springs out into leaves, and blossoms, and fruit?
"Why may you not understand, that every living thing is tenderest inward, and its unbroken outside the hardest? Thou canst see how the trees are clothed without, and protected by their bark against winter, and against stark storms, and also against the sun's heat in summer. Who may not wonder at such works of our Creator, and not less of their Creator? And though we may admire it now, which of us can properly explain our Creator's will and power, and how his creatures increase and again decline? When that time cometh, it occurs again, that from their seed they are renewed. They then become regenerated, to be what they then should be again, and become also in this respect alike such they will be for ever, for every year their regeneration goes on (1).
The book written by Pope Gregory, for the instruction of the bishops of the church, called his Liber of Gregory's pas Pastoralis Curæ, was much valued in Christendom at that period (2). It was the best book at that time accessible to him, by which he could educate his higher clergy to fulfil their duties (3); and though it tends to make them too inquisitive into human actions, and would insensibly lead them to erect a tyranny over the human mind, incompatible with its improvement or its happiness; yet, as it contains many moral counsels and regulations, and was written by the Pope, who was called the Apostle of the English, and no other book was then at his hand which was equally popular or likely to be as effectual, it was an act of patriotism and philanthropy in the king to translate it (4).
It was not Alfred, but his bishop, Werefrith, who translated the Dialogues of Gregory. The king directed the translation, and afterwards recommended it to his clergy (5). The subjects are chiefly the miracles stated to be per
(1) Alf. Boet. p. 89, 90. Boet. lib. iii. pr. 11.
(2) Alcuin twice praises it. The council of Toledo ordered that it should be studied by all bishops.
(3) The MSS. of it in the Cotton Library, Tiber, B. 11., was supposed to be the copy which Plegmund possessed. It is nearly destroyed by fire. There is another ancient MS. of it in the Bodleian, Hatton, 88.
(4) Alfred had complained to Fulco, archbishop of Rheims, that "the ccclesiastical order, from the frequent irruptions and attacks of the Northmen, or from age, or the carelessness of the prelates and the ignorance of the people, had declined in many." Ep. Fulc. p. 124.
(5) Alfred's recommendation of this work appears in the preface which he
formed in Italy by religious men. They display the pious feeling of the age, but these words comprise almost the whole of their merit; for the piety is unhappily connected with so much ignorance, superstition, credulity, and defective reasoning, that we are surprised it should have interested the attention of Alfred. But as it had not then been determined what was true, or what was false in history, geography, philology, or philosophy, criticism was not at that time practicable. The weight of evidence, the natural guide of the human belief, was then its only criterion; and as Gregory professed to relate what he himself had known concerning perfect and approved men, or what he had received from the attestations of good and faithful persons, these legends seemed to have an adequate support of human testimony. We are now wise with the experience, thought, reading, comparisons, and inferences of a thousand additional years; and with this knowledge, the slowly-formed creation of so many centuries beyond the time of Alfred, we can detect those errors of judgment and of vulgar tradition, which he had no materials that enabled him to question. Let us, however, not impeach our Anglo-Saxon ancestors for peculiar credulity, nor consider it as an index of their barbarism. They believed nothing on these points, but such things as came recommended to them by the analogous belief of the classical and Roman empire which had preceded them. What Athens and Rome alike supposed of the powers and agencies of their gods and goddesses, heroes, demons, and genii, the imperial Christians attributed to their saints and most venerated clergy. Pope Gregory was not more credulous in his religion than the Emperor Julian was in his paganism; or Apuleius, and perhaps even Lucian, in common with his age, of witchcraft (1). Philostratus, Jamblichus, Porphyry, Ammonius, and other heathen philosophers, of the third and fourth centuries, in their belief of the miracles achieved by the sages whom they patronised (2), were the precursors of the prefixed to it, and which is printed by Wanley, p. 71., from the Bodleian MS. Hatton, 100.
(1) Julian's works show abundant evidences of his credulity, and Lucian describes the powers of witchcraft as fully, and with as much seriousness, as Apuleius.
(2) See Philostratus's Life of Apollonius Tyanæus, written by the desire of the empress of Septimius Severus, to be run against the life of our Saviour, and therefore written accordingly; Jamblichus's Life of Pythagoras; Porphyry's De Antro Nympharum, and other remains. It was such a favourite point with declining paganism to set up Apollonius against the Christian legislator, that in the reign of Dioclesian, when such a bitter war was waged against Christians, Hierocles, the intolerant president of Bithynia, took up his pen to maintain the superiority of the Tyanæan sophist. He was such a zealous defender of the pretended miracles which are now ascribed to this upheld competitor, above two centuries after his death, that both Eusebius and Lactantius thought it necessary to refute his exaggerating supporter. Some modern opponents of religion have emulated both the credulity and literary efforts of Hierocles in favour of the Tyanæan; although time, the great decider between truth and falsehood, has long since verified the dying exclamation of Julian, VICISTI, Galilæe!"
Catholic biographers of their respected saints; and our Alfred may be pardoned for following the stream, not only of his own age, but of the most cultivated classical periods, in believing such wonders on the authority of Gregory, which every age of the world had concurred to admit to be both practicable and practised by those whom its different sects and parties revered. With such sanction, from both philosophical and popular belief, it then seemed irrational to doubt them (1). One of Alfred's favourite objects was the moral improvement of his people. He wisely considered religion to be the most efficacious instrument of his benevolence; and Gregory's dialogues were as adapted to excite pious feelings at that time, as they would now operate rather to diminish them. We feel that piety allied with nonsense or with falsehood only degrades the Majestic Being whom it professes to extol. He whose wisdom is the most perfect intelligence and the fountain of all knowledge to us; He whose creations display a sagacity that has no limit but space, and which appears in forms as multifarious as the countless objects that pervade it; should be adored with our sublimest reason and knowledge united with our purest sensibility. Alfred possessed this noble feeling in its full aspiration, but he was compelled to use the materials which his age afforded. He chose the best within his reach, which was all that was within his power. That they were not better was his misfortune, but leaves no imputation on his judgment.
In the Cotton Library there is an Anglo-Saxon MS. of some selections from St. Austin's soliloquies (2), tions from St. or, as the MS. expresses it, "The gathering of the flowers," from St. Austin's work. At the end of these flowers is this imperfect sentence: "Here end the sayings that king Alfred selected from those books that we call (3) Here the
Malmsbury mentions that Alfred began to translate the Hymns of David, but that he had hardly finished
(1) So much self-delusion and mistake have been connected with miracles; so many are resolvable into accidents, natural agencies, imagination, false perceptions, erroneous judgments, and popular exaggeration, independent of wilful falsehood, that the cautious mind will believe none but those mentioned in the Scriptures, as no others have that accumulation of evidence, both direct and inferential, which impresses these upon our belief.
(2) It is in Vitellius, A. 15. After three pages of preface, it says, "Augustinus Cartama biceop worhte swa bæc be his egnum gethance; tha bæc sint gehatene soliliquiorum, tha is be modes fineaunge and treounga. The first part closes as ær endiath the blostman there fopman bocum; " and the next part begins with "ær originth seo gado ung there blostmena there æfteran bec." MS. p. 41. (3) Aer endiath tha vidas the Elfred Kining alas of thære bæc the we hatath on MS. p. 56. Wanley says of this MS. Tractatus iste quondam fuit ecclesiæ B. Mariæ de Suwika, ut patet ex fol. 2. litteris Normanno-Saxonicis post conquæstum scriptus," p. 218. A transcript of this MS. made by Junius is in the Bodleian Library, Jun. 70., and this has the same abrupt ending. Wanley, 96.