Reference > Cambridge History > From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance > Alfred and the Old English Prose of his Reign > The Handbook and Pastoral Care
  Asser’s Life of Alfred Translations of Orosius and Bede  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

VI. Alfred and the Old English Prose of his Reign.

§ 2. The Handbook and Pastoral Care.

The Handbook may safely be considered the earliest of Alfred’s compilations. Unfortunately, no trace of the book is now to be found, though its existence is attested by external evidence. The circumstances under which the formation of the Handbook was begun make it clear that it was essentially a commonplace book of extracts from the Latin Bible and the Fathers. Asser, to whom was due the suggestion that a book of this nature might be of service to the king, describes it as an assemblage of flosculi, culled from various sources. These extracts Alfred wrote down in latin, in the first instance, and, afterwards, began to render them into English. The first entries were made on 11 November, 887, in venerabili Martini solemnitate. William of malmesbury  1  refers to the commonplace book, quem patria lingua handboc (Encheiridion) i.e., manualem librum appellavit. Further, there is in Florence of Worcester’s Chronicle a reference to certain Dicta regis Aelfredi, whereby the Handbook may possibly be meant. There would, however, be no justification for identifying the Dicta with the Handbook, were it not for the fact that Malmesbury uses the latter as an authority for the life of Aldhelm. It is quite conceivable that Alfred inserted among his notes an account of Aldhelm, with whose verses he was probably acquainted.   5
  But no importance whatever is to be attached to Florence of Worcester’s suggestion that the Handbook was a record of West Saxon genealogy. It is possible that neither chronicler is to be relied upon in this matter. The formation of the Handbook was of literary importance merely: it afforded Alfred valuable literary training and indirectly stimulated him to try his hand at more extensive translation.   6
  The translation of Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis may be considered the first of Alfred’s literary works, properly so called. Grein, Pauli and Bosworth awarded first place to Boethius, but internal evidence is altogether in favour of the priority of the Pastoral Care. The decay of learning consequent upon Danish raids made it imperative that an attempt should be made to revive the education of the clergy. No work of the middle ages seemed better adapted to enlighten the church than Gregory’s treatise, designed to serve as a spiritual guide for the conscience of the priest. In Moralia Gregory had indulged to the full his passion for allegory; Cura Pastoralis is less dominated by the tendency to allegorise, though it contains some gross examples of the practice-the explanation, for example, of Ezekiel’s injunction to the priests not to shave their heads. But the allegorical method of the church reformer does not altogether obscure a vigorous and healthy tone, and this in spite of Gregory’s expressed contempt for the technical side of letters. Cura Pastoralis appealed to Alfred by its spiritual insight; consequently he began to turn into West Saxon “the book called in Latin Pastoralis and in English Hierdeboc, sometimes word for word, sometimes sense for sense.” In so doing he availed himself of the help of his teachers Plegmund and Asser, Grimbald and John, and as he understood their explanations he rendered the matter into English.   7
  The preface which gives this particular account of the origin of the Pastoral Care is of great importance in another respect. An earlier passage makes it clear that the present was only the first of a series of books which the king intended to translate, in order that ultimately all the free-born youths of England, who had the necessary leisure, might be instructed in their own tongue. The preface to the Pastoral Care is thus a preface to the whole series of translations. At the same time it ranks among the most important of Alfred’s original contributions to literature. It gives an account of the decay of learning in Britain, and sets forth the king’s determination to reform the schools of Wessex. It defends the use of the vernacular by showing how the Old Testament was written first in Hebrew, then translated into Greek and subsequently into Latin, and how all other Christian nations had turned some portion of ancient literature into their own tongue. From a literary point of view, the preface is the first important piece of prose in English; linguistically, it is, on account of its age, of unique value. A passage in alliterative verse, containing a glowing tribute to Gregory, “Christ’s warrior, the Pope of Rome,” forms a kind of second preface. It closes with a reference to the despatch of a copy to each bishop in the land.   8
  The style of the Pastoral Care has just those characteristics which might have been expected in an early work. Alfred’s conception of the translator’s province never limited him to a very close rendering; but, compared with his later work, there are signs of restraints in this effort that suggest inexperience. The double versions and the anacolutha in the text has given rise to the ingenious suggestion that the translation was dictated. A close comparison of the Latin text and the West Saxon version throws further light on the king’s methods. His English audience is always kept in view, and, for their benefit, he inserts brief explanatory notes. Thus, he interprets “Manna” as “the sweet meat which came down from heaven,” “shittim wood” as “the tree which never decays,” “purple” as “the royal robe.” Occasionally he Teutonises the terms of the Latin original by identifying Hebrew institutions and social grades with their nearest analogues in West Saxon civilisation. Plateis he renders by “herestraetum.” David is described as a “salm-sceop,” Uriah as a “thegn.” Blunders are naturally to be met with, as, for example, in the derivation of Sacerdotes--“in English cleansers because they are to act as guides of believers and govern them.” Compared with later translations, Alfred’s Pastoral Care is very close to the original. The style is somewhat Latinised and abounds in pleonasms and repetition, and the translation is remarkable for the number of [Greek] it contains. The copy preserved in the Bodleian is interesting as containing the name of Werferth, and it is the actual copy destined for the Worcester see.   9

Note 1Gesta, Regum Anglorum, II, /??/ 123. [ back ]

  Asser’s Life of Alfred Translations of Orosius and Bede  
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