Book review: Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources

Alfred the Great
Alfred the Great

The Dark Ages were dark not for reason of savagery (although they were), or for ignorance (there were remarkable instances of learning amid the fighting), but for obscurity: after the legions’ withdrawal in AD 410, history… stops. For a century or so there is virtually nothing. The fifth century – the time of warfare between Britons, Angles and Saxons, the time of Arthur (if he existed) – is almost blank. The sixth and, more, the seventh centuries emerge a little into the light, with most of the illumination coming from Bede’s extraordinary – truly extraordinary in the context – Ecclesiastical History of the English People. And that very history might have permanently brought English history back from the silence of archaeology, for the Christian Church required men and women who could read and write to carry out its services, if not for the irruption of another group of raiders and invaders, very like the Angles and the Saxons: the Vikings.

The fact that history does not go completely silent again is due in no small part to the works contained in this crucial book: the biography of Alfred the Great, by Asser, and extracts from some of the works the king himself commissioned and, in some cases, translated. For Alfred, almost uniquely among war chiefs, saw fighting as the lesser part of the task of kingship. What he set his mind and his kingdom to was nothing less than cultural renewal, a re-establishment of the learning that had swiftly become the hallmark of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, only to decline to almost nothing before the ferocity of the Viking attack. This wonderful edition contains Asser’s contemporary biography of Alfred (the only such document we have from the period), and extremely valuable, and thorough, editorial notes on every text from noted scholars Michel Lapidge and Simon Keynes; the notes on the provenance and work that went into each text by generations of scholars are particularly valuable. An indispensable book for anyone interested in the Anglo-Saxon period.


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