Alfred the Great

King Alfred’s Preface to the Translation
of Gregory’s Pastoral Care

Alfred the Great was King of Wessex from 871 to 899. He is remembered today chiefly for his success in preventing the Danes from conquering England, and for fostering a revival of learning in his kingdom. A truly noble character, Alfred was one of those rare monarchs who have excelled both in the arts of war and in those of peace. The Danish invaders had destroyed many churches and monasteries, and had disrupted the transmission of learning, so that there was a great need for rebuilding, and for a recovery of professional knowledge among the clergy. The ability of clergymen to read Latin had seriously declined during the Danish troubles, and so Alfred decided to promote the translation of Latin works into Anglo-Saxon. Sometime after 890 he himself made an Anglo-Saxon version of a Latin work known as the Liber Regulæ Pastoralis or Liber Pastoralis Curæ. This work, written by Pope Gregory I around the year 590, was designed to teach clergymen how to perform their pastoral duties. I reproduce Alfred’s Preface to the translation here. The Anglo-Saxon text is according to the Hatton manuscript in the Bodleian Library, as printed in King Alfred’s West-Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, with an English Translation, the Latin Text, Notes, and an Inroduction, edited by Henry Sweet (London: Early English Text Society, 1871).

Ælfred kyning hateð gretan Wærferð biscep his wordum luflice & freondlice; & ðe cyðan hate ðæt me com swiðe oft on gemynd, hwelce wiotan iu wæron giond Angelcynn, ægðer ge godcundra hada ge woruldcundra; & hu gesæliglica tida ða wæron giond Angelcynn; & hu ða kyningas ðe ðone onwald hæfdon ðæs folces on ðam dagum Gode & his ærendwrecum hersumedon; & hie ægðer ge hiora sibbe ge hiora siodo ge hiora onweald innanbordes gehioldon, & eac ut hiora eðel gerymdon; & hu him ða speow ægðer ge mid wige ge mid wisdome; & eac ða godcundan hadas hu giorne hie wæron ægðer ge ymb lare ge ymb liornunga, ge ymb ealle ða ðiowotdomas ðe hie Gode don scoldon; & hu man utanbordes wisdom & lare hieder on lond sohte; & hu we hie nu sceoldon ute begietan gif we hie habban sceoldon. Swæ clæne hio wæs oðfeallenu on Angelcynne ðæt swiðe feawa wæron behionan Humbre ðe hiora ðeninga cuðen understondan on Englisc, oððe furðum an ærendgewrit of Lædene on Englisc areccean; & ic wene ðætte noht monige begiondan Humbre næren. Swæ feawa hiora wæron ðæt ic furðum anne anlepne ne mæg geðencean besuðan Temese ða ða ic to rice feng. Gode ælmihtegum sie ðonc ðætte we nu ænigne on stal habbað lareowa. & forðon ic ðe bebiode ðæt ðu do swæ ic geliefe ðæt ðu wille, ðæt ðu ðe ðissa woruldðinga to ðæm geæmetige swæ ðu oftost mæge, ðæt ðu ðone wisdom ðe ðe God sealde ðær ðær ðu hiene befæstan mæge, befæste. Geðenc hwelc witu us ða becomon for ðisse worulde, ða ða we hit nohwæðer ne selfe ne lufodon ne eac oðrum monnum ne lefdon: ðone naman anne we lufodon ðætte we Cristne wæren, & swiðe feawa ða ðeawas. King Alfred greets bishop Wærferth with his words lovingly and with friendship; and I let it be known to thee that it has very often come into my mind, what wise men there formerly were throughout England, both of sacred and secular orders; and how happy times there were then throughout England; and how the kings who had power over the nation in those days obeyed God and his ministers; and they preserved peace, morality, and order at home, and at the same time enlarged their territory abroad; and how they prospered both with war and with wisdom; and also the sacred orders how zealous they were both in teaching and learning, and in all the services they owed to God; and how foreigners came to this land in search of wisdom and instruction, and how we should now have to get them from abroad if we were to have them. So general was its decay in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their rituals in English, or translate a letter from Latin into English; and I believe that there were not many beyond the Humber. There were so few of them that I cannot remember a single one south of the Thames when I came to the throne. Thanks be to God Almighty that we have any teachers among us now. And therefore I command thee to do as I believe thou art willing, to disengage thyself from worldly matters as often as thou canst, that thou mayest apply the wisdom which God has given thee wherever thou canst. Consider what punishments would come upon us on account of this world, if we neither loved it (wisdom) ourselves nor suffered other men to obtain it: we should love the name only of Christian, and very few of the virtues.
Ða ic ða ðis eall gemunde ða gemunde ic eac hu ic geseah, ærðæmðe hit eall forhergod wære & forbærned, hu ða ciricean giond eall Angelcynn stodon maðma & boca gefyldæ ond eac micel menigeo Godes ðiowa & ða swiðe lytle fiorme ðara boca wiston, forðæmðe hie hiora nan wuht ongietan ne meahton forðæmðe hie næron on hiora agen geðiode awritene. Swelce hie cwæden: Ure ieldran, ða ðe ðas stowa ær hioldon, hie lufodon wisdom & ðurh ðone hie begeaton welan & us læfdon. Her mon mæg giet gesion hiora swæð, ac we him ne cunnon æfterspyrigean, & forðæm we habbað nu ægðer forlæten ge ðone welan ge ðone wisdom, forðæmðe we noldon to ðæm spore mid ure mode onlutan. When I considered all this I remembered also how I saw, before it had been all ravaged and burnt, how the churches throughout the whole of England stood filled with treasures and books, and there was also a great multitude of God’s servants, but they had very little knowledge of the books, for they could not understand anything of them, because they were not written in their own language. As if they had said: “Our forefathers, who formerly held these places, loved wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and bequeathed it to us. In this we can still see their tracks, but we cannot follow them, and therefore we have lost both the wealth and the wisdom, because we would not incline our hearts after their example.”
Ða ic ða ðis eall gemunde, ða wundrade ic swiðe swiðe ðara godena wiotena ðe giu wæron giond Angelcynn, & ða bec eallæ befullan geliornod hæfdon, ðæt hie hiora ða nænne dæl noldon on hiora agen geðiode wendan. Ac ic ða sona eft me selfum andwyrde & cwæð: Hie ne wendon ðætte æfre menn sceolden swæ reccelease weorðan & sio lar swæ oðfeallan; for ðære wilnunga hie hit forleton, & woldon ðæt her ðy mara wisdom on londe wære ðy we ma geðeoda cuðon. When I remembered all this, I wondered extremely that the good and wise men who were formerly all over England, and had perfectly learnt all the books, did not wish to translate them into their own language. But again I soon answered myself and said: “They did not think that men would ever be so careless, and that learning would so decay; through that desire they abstained from it, and they wished that the wisdom in this land might increase with our knowledge of languages.”
Ða gemunde ic hu sio æ wæs ærest on Ebrisc geðiode funden, & eft, ða hie Creacas geliornodon, ða wendon hie hie on hiora agen geðiode ealle, & eac ealle oðre bec. & eft Lædenware swæ same, siððan hie hie geliornodon, hie hie wendon ealla ðurh wise wealhstodas on hiora agen geðiode. Ond eac eall oðra Cristnæ ðioda summe dæl hiora on hiora agen geðiode wendon. Forðy me ðyncð betre, gif iow swæ ðyncð, ðæt we eac sumæ bec, ða ðe niedbeðearfosta sien eallum monnum to wiotonne, ðæt we ða on ðæt geðiode wenden ðe we ealle gecnawan mægen, & ge don swæ we swiðe eaðe magon mid Godes fultume, gif we ða stilnesse habbað, ðætte eall sio gioguð ðe nu is on Angelcynne friora monna, ðara ðe ða speda hæbben ðæt hie ðæm befeolan mægen, sien to liornunga oðfæste, ða hwile ðe hie to nanre oðerre note ne mægen, oð ðone first ðe hie wel cunnen Englisc gewrit arædan: lære mon siððan furður on Lædengeðiode ða ðe mon furðor læran wille & to hieran hade don wille. Then I remembered how the law was first known in Hebrew, and again, when the Greeks had learnt it, they translated the whole of it into their own language, and all other books besides. And again the Romans, when they had learnt it, they translated the whole of it through learned interpreters into their own language. And also all other Christian nations translated a part of them into their own language. Therefore it seems better to me, if ye think so, for us also to translate some books which are most needful for all men to know into the language which we can all understand, and to bring to pass, as we very easily can with God’s help, if we have tranquillity enough, that all the youth now in England of free men, who are rich enough to be able to devote themselves to it, be set to learn as long as they are not fit for any other occupation, until that they are well able to read English writing: and let those be afterwards taught more in the Latin language who are to continue learning and be promoted to a higher rank.
Ða ic ða gemunde hu sio lar Lædengeðiodes ær ðissum afeallen wæs giond Angelcynn, & ðeah monige cuðon Englisc gewrit arædan, ða ongan ic ongemang oðrum mislicum & manigfealdum bisgum ðisses kynerices ða boc wendan on Englisc ðe is genemned on Læden Pastoralis, & on Englisc Hierdeboc, hwilum word be worde, hwilum andgit of andgiete, swæ swæ ic hie geliornode æt Plegmunde minum ærcebiscepe & æt Assere minum biscepe & æt Grimbolde minum mæsseprioste & æt Iohanne minum mæssepreoste. Siððan ic hie ða geliornod hæfde, swæ swæ ic hie forstod, & swæ ic hie andgitfullicost areccean meahte, ic hie on Englisc awende; ond to ælcum biscepstole on minum rice wille ane onsendan; & on ælcre bið an æstel, se bið on fiftegum mancessa. Ond ic bebiode on Godes naman ðæt nan mon ðone æstel from ðære bec ne do, ne ða boc from ðæm mynstre: uncuð hu longe ðær swæ gelærede biscepas sien, swæ swæ nu Gode ðonc wel hwær siendon; forðy ic wolde ðætte hie ealneg æt ðære stowe wæren, buton se biscep hie mid him habban wille oððe hio hwær to læne sie, oððe hwa oðre biwrite. When I remembered how the knowledge of Latin had formerly decayed throughout England, and yet many could read English writing, I began, among other various and manifold troubles of this kingdom, to translate into English the book which is called in Latin Pastoralis, and in English Shepherd’s Book, sometimes word by word and sometimes according to the sense, as I had learnt it from Plegmund my archbishop, and Asser my bishop, and Grimbold my mass-priest, and John my mass-priest. And when I had learnt it as I could best understand it, and as I could most clearly interpret it, I translated it into English; and I will send a copy to every bishopric in my kingdom; and on each there is a clasp worth fifty mancus. And I command in God’s name that no man take the clasp from the book or the book from the minster: it is uncertain how long there may be such learned bishops as now, thanks be to God, there are nearly everywhere; therefore I wish them always to remain in their place, unless the bishop wish to take them with him, or they be lent out anywhere, or any one make a copy from them.