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§ 141. Alfred the Great, and Education in England.

Comp. the Jubilee edition of the Whole Works of Alfred the Great, with Preliminary Essays illustrative of the History, Arts and Manners of the Ninth Century. London, 1858, 2 vols. The biographies of Alfred, quoted on p. 395, and Freemann’s Old English History 1859.

In England the beginning of culture was imported with Christianity by Augustin, the first archbishop of Canterbury, who brought with him the Bible, the church books, the writings of Pope Gregory and the doctrines and practices of Roman Christianity; but little progress was made for a century. Among his successors the Greek monk, Theodore of Tarsus (668–690), was most active in promoting education and discipline among the clergy. The most distinguished scholar of the Saxon period is the Venerable Bede (d. 735), who, as already stated, represented all historical, exegetical and general knowledge of his age. Egbert, archbishop of York, founded a flourishing school in York (732), from which proceeded Alcuin, the teacher and friend of Charlemagne.

During the invasion of the heathen Danes and Normans many churches, convents and libraries were destroyed, and the clergy itself relapsed into barbarism so that they did not know the meaning of the Latin formulas which they used in public worship.

In this period of wild confusion King Alfred the Great (871–901), in his twenty-second year, ascended the throne. He is first in war and first in peace of all the Anglo-Saxon rulers. What Charlemagne was for Germany and France, Alfred was for England. He conquered the forces of the Danes by land and by sea, delivered his country from foreign rule, and introduced a new era of Christian education. He invited scholars from the old British churches in Wales, from Ireland, and the Continent to influential positions. He made collections of choice sentences from the Bible and the fathers. In his thirty-sixth year he learned Latin from Asser, a monk of Wales, who afterwards wrote his biography. He himself, no doubt with the aid of scholars, translated several standard works from Latin into the Anglo-Saxon, and accompanied them with notes, namely a part of the Psalter, Boëthius on the Consolation of Philosophy, Bede’s English Church History, Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Theology, Augustin’s Meditations, the Universal History of Orosius, and Aesop’s Fables. He sent a copy of Gregory’s Pastoral Theology to every diocese for the benefit of the clergy. It is due to his influence chiefly that the Scriptures and service-books at this period were illustrated by so many vernacular glosses.

He stood in close connection with the Roman see, as the centre of ecclesiastical unity and civilization. He devoted half of his income to church and school. He founded a school in Oxford similar to the Schola Palatina; but the University of Oxford, like those of Cambridge and Paris, is of much later date (twelfth or thirteenth century). He seems to have conceived even the plan of a general education of the people.836836    In the preface to Gregory’s Pastoral, he expresses his desire that every freeborn English youth might learn to read English. The work has also great philological importance, and was edited by H. Sweet in 1872 for the “Early English Text Society.” Amid great physical infirmity (he had the epilepsy), he developed an extraordinary activity during a reign of twenty-nine years, and left an enduring fame for purity, and piety of character and unselfish devotion to the best interests of his people.837837    Freeman calls Aelfred “the most perfect character in history,” a saint without superstition, a scholar without ostentation, a conqueror whose hands were never stained by cruelty. History of the Norman Conquest, I. 49, third ed. (1877)

His example of promoting learning in the vernacular language was followed by Aelfric, a grammarian, homilist and hagiographer. He has been identified with the archbishop Aelfric of Canterbury (996–1009), and with the archbishop Aelfric of York (1023–1051), but there are insuperable difficulties in either view. He calls himself simply “monk and priest.” He left behind him a series of eighty Anglo-Saxon Homilies for Sundays and great festivals, and another series for Anglo-Saxon Saints’ days, which were used as an authority in the Anglo-Saxon Church.838838    They were edited by Thorpe. See Wright’s Biograph. Britan. Lit. (Anglo-Saxon Period), p. 485, 486; and article “Aelfric” in Leslie Stephen’s “Dictionary of National Biography.” London and New York, 1885, vol. I. 164-166.

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