Chapter XV. HOW ALFRED THE GREAT FOUGHT WITH HIS PEN
WHILE Caedmon sang his English lays and Bede wrote his Latin books, Northumbria had grown into a center, not only of English learning, but of learning for western Europe. The abbots of Jarrow and Wearmouth made journeys to Rome and brought back with them precious MSS. for the monastery libraries. Scholars from all parts of Europe came to visit the Northumbrian monasteries, or sent thither for teachers.
But before many years had passed all that was changed. Times of war and trouble were not yet over for England. Once again heathen hordes fell upon our shores. The Danes, fierce and lawless, carrying sword and firebrand wherever they passed, leaving death and ruin in their track, surged over the land. The monasteries were ruined, the scholars were scattered. A life of peaceful study was no longer possible, the learning of two hundred years was swept away, the lamp of knowledge lit by the monks grew dim and flickered out.
But when sixty years or more had passed, a king arose who crushed the Danish power, and who once more lit that lamp. This king was Alfred the Great.
History tells us how he fought the Danes, how he despaired, and how he took heart again, and how he at last conquered his enemies and brought peace to his people.
Alfred was great in war. He was no less great in peace. As he fought the Danes with the sword, so he fought ignorance with his pen. He loved books, and he longed to bring back to England something of the learning which had been lost. Nor did he want to keep learning for a few only. He wanted all his people to get the good of it. And so, as most good books were written in Latin, which only a few could read, he began to translate some of them into English.
In the beginning of one of them Alfred says, "There are only a few on this side of the Humber who can understand the Divine Service, or even explain a Latin epistle in English, and I believe not many on the other side of the Humber either. But they are so few that indeed I cannot remember one south of the Thames when I began to reign."
By "this side of the Humber" Alfred means the south side, for now the center of learning was no longer Northumbria, but Wessex.
Alfred translated many books. He translated books of geography, history and religion, and it is from Alfred that our English prose dates, just as English poetry dates from Caedmon. For you must remember that although we call Bede the Father of English History, he wrote in Latin for the most part, and what he wrote in English has been lost.
Besides writing himself, Alfred encouraged his people to write. He also caused a national Chronicle to be written.
A chronicle is the simplest form of history. The old chronicles did not weave their history into stories, they simply put down a date and something that happened on that date. They gave no reasons for things, they expressed no feelings, no thoughts. So the chronicles can hardly be called literature. They were not meant to be looked upon as literature. The writers of them used them rather as keys to memory. They kept all the stories in their memories, and the sight of the name of a king or of a battle was enough to unlock their store of words. And as they told their tales, if they forgot a part they made something up, just as the minstrels did.
Alfred caused the Chronicle to be written up from such books and records as he had from the coming of the Romans until the time in which he himself reigned. And from then onwards to the time of the death of King Stephen the Saxon Chronicle was kept. It is now one of the most useful books from which we can learn the history of those times.
Sometimes, especially at the beginning, the record is very scant. As a rule, there is not more than one short sentence for a year, sometimes not even that, but merely a date. It is like this:—
"Year 189. In this year Severus succeeded to the empire and reigned seventeen winters. He begirt Britain with a dike from sea to sea.
"Year 200. In this year was found the Holy Rood."
And so on it goes, and every now and again, among entries which seem to us of little or no importance, we learn something that throws great light on our past history. And when we come to the time of Alfred's reign the entries are much more full. From the Chronicle we learn a great deal about his wars with the Danes, and of how he fought them both by land and by sea.
The Saxon Chronicle, as it extended over many hundred years, was of course written by many different people, and so parts of it are written much better than other parts. Sometimes we find a writer who does more than merely set down facts, who seems to have a feeling for how he tells his story, and who tries to make the thing he writes about living. Sometimes a writer even breaks into song.
Besides causing the Chronicle to be written, Alfred translated Bede's History into English. And so that all might learn the history of their land, he rebuilt the ruined monasteries and opened schools in them once more. There he ordered that "Every free-born youth in the Kingdom, who has the means, shall attend to his book, so long as he have no other business, till he can read English perfectly."*
*Preface to Boethius' Pastoral Care, translated into English by Alfred.
Alfred died after having reigned for nearly thirty years. Much that he had done seemed to die with him, for once again the Danes descended upon our coasts. Once again they conquered, and Canute the Dane became King of England. But the English spirit was strong, and the Danish invasion has left scarcely a trace upon our language. Nor did the Danish power last long, for in 1042 we had in Edward the Confessor an English king once more. But he was English only in name. In truth he was more than half French, and under him French forces began already to work on our literature. A few years later that French force became overwhelming, for in 1066 William of Normandy came to our shores, and with his coming it seemed for a time as if the life of English literature was to be crushed out forever. Only by the Chronicle were both prose and poetry kept alive in the English tongue. And it is to Alfred the Great that we owe this slender thread which binds our English literature of to-day with the literature of a thousand years ago.