The Prose of the World


The earliest known examples of Anglo-Saxon prose are codes of law, confirming the supposition of administrative historians that England was always an intensely organised country; it is even possible that the administration of rural areas, like the pattern of land-holding, is derived from prehistoric practice. This context of governance, paradoxically, maintained the individual “liberty” which was the rallying cry of eighteenth-century patriots. The laws of Aethelbert and Ine, which survive from the seventh century, are composed in the vernacular. In Europe they would, invariably, have been written in Latin. The English tongue was already seen as a noble and persuasive medium; it shares with Irish the distinction of being pre-eminent among the vernaculars of the western world.

The status of Old English was then confirmed by the policies of King Alfred, who, in the second half of the ninth century, instituted a great programme of translation and transmission. The king had been so dismayed by the decay of Latin learning and of general scholarship that he determined on a course of instruction and exhortation. The diminishment of Latin and the possibilities of English could become part of the same formula of change. In the prefatory letter to his own translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care Alfred declared that on his accession there were so few able to understand “their Divine Services . . . or translate a letter from Latin into English . . . that I cannot remember a single one south of the Thames.”1 He recalled the happier times of the seventh century when foreigners sought “wisdom and learning” in England, and lamented that all the treasure of the books of the world was lying unused; the English “could not understand anything of them, because they were not written in their own language.” He therefore deemed it his duty “to translate some books which are necessary for all men to know into the language which we can all understand.” He also exhorted his bishops— the magnates who were his principal audience—that “if we have peace enough” from the incursions of the Vikings “all the youth now in England born of free men, who are rich enough to be able to devote themselves to it, be sent to learn as long as they are not fit for any other occupation, until they are well able to read English writing.”2

Alfred was “Angelonde ’s deorling,” according to Layamon in the twelfth century, and in the letter of entreaty and advice the king established the claims of the vernacular in an unprecedented way. From the ninth to the eleventh century the English language became the proper and appropriate medium both for literature and for learning, and that tradition of native composition was never afterwards lost or forsaken. Alfred’s wish to set up schools for the children of freemen, where the learning of English would be compulsory, is acknowledgement that the vernacular could also become the language of government as well as literature; there is evidence to suggest that from the middle of the tenth century there was an Anglo-Saxon chancery producing and distributing charters, diplomas and writs. This is of utmost significance in explaining the power and continuity of English prose for more than a thousand years. One scholar has suggested a connection “between the two facts that England is the world’s oldest continually functioning state, and that English is now its most widely spoken language.” 3

Alfred himself has earned the title of “the father of English prose” no less for his compositions than for his exhortations. He himself translated into English Gregory’s Pastoral Care, the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius and Augustine’s Soliloquies; it is probable that he dictated his words to a scribe or group of scribes but, even so, it is extraordinary that a king beset by all the cares of ninth-century warfare and administration should accomplish so much. He caused to be translated Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum, written in Latin more than 250 years before, as well as the Seven Books of Histories against the Pagans by Orosius, and the Dialogues of Pope Gregory. He also instituted work on that great historical compilation known as The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which in its early stages “was essentially designed to glorify him and his royal house.”4 In the Consolation and Soliloquies he affirmed the power of the Christian vision; he translated the desire of Augustine “to understand God and to know my own soul,” and in Boethius translated a philosophical disquisition on the contempt of the world and the consolations of wisdom; there are passages, also, on the nature of evil and the existence of free will not untouched by Alfred’s own meditations and anecdotes. In the process of translation the king was compelled to accommodate these reflections within an English sensibility; he omitted long passages of Boethian autobiography as of no relevance, for example, but more importantly he was compelled to turn a relatively abstract Latin vocabulary into a plainer, simpler, more concrete language. He relied much more heavily upon detail and practical or particular instances, in a manner which we will discover to be typical or symptomatic of the English imagination. The general laws within Augustine’s Soliloquies are matched by descriptions of trees and grasses, as well as intimations of the turbulent sea. A discussion by Boethius on the nature of fate is supplemented by Alfred with a description of the axles and wheels of a wagon. Where the Latin is complex and sonorous, the English maintains the rising and falling rhythms of speech.

The earnest practicality of the king is best adduced, however, in his translation of Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, which he despatched to the bishops of Wessex, Mercia and Kent. One extant manuscript has the legend “ Deos boc sceal to wiogora Ceastre,” or “This book to go to Worcester.” It may also have reached the courts of the principal thegns, since the themes were those of good governance and the need for administrative ability—“What kind of man he is to be who is to rule . . . Concerning the burden of government . . . How discreet the ruler is to be in his blaming and flattering.”5 He was not preoccupied with administration at the expense of everything else, however, and other elements of his translation programme suggest that he was possessed by a vision of Englishness and of English history in the context of the spiritual history of the world. It has been well said that he caused Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum to be translated into Old English because of that historian’s grasp of a national chronology; Bede’s awareness and description of “gens Anglorum,” or the English people, have been described as “giving a strong sense of ethnic unity to the diverse tribal and provincial kingdoms of England.”6 Alfred wished to impart that awareness to his spiritual and secular counsellors, drawing the sense of a tradition from the strength of a common language and inheritance. That same urgent wish—in his own prose Alfred uses the injunction “now . . . now . . . now”—was formulated in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a set of annals distributed throughout the kingdom which preserve local variations and interpolations; despite these differences in the extant versions, however, the work is all of a piece in the sense that “English nationalism comes to the fore.”7

The continuation of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to 1154 suggests the persistence of a prose tradition which lasted well beyond the reign of Alfred in the late ninth century, but there is perhaps a more impressive continuity. In one of the footnotes to Matthew Arnold’s endlessly fascinating lectures on Celtic literature occurs the remark that “Our modern English prose in plain matters is often all just the same as the prose of King Alfred and the Chronicle. Ohthere’s North Sea Voyage and Wulfstan’s Baltic Voyage is the sort of thing which is sent in every day, one may say, to the Geographical or Ethnological Society in the whole style and turn of phrase and thought.” If this is correct, then it is a very remarkable phenomenon. The scholar R. W. Chambers wrote a study entitled On the Continuity of English Prose from Alfred to More and His School; since that “school” can be taken to include John Milton and the great historians of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries then the influence of Alfred has been wide indeed. In the words of Chambers himself, “it became part of the inheritance of every educated Englishman.”

Much Anglo-Saxon prose has been lost; the middle years of the tenth century, from the reign of Athelstan to that of Edgar, are scant of testimony. The final entry in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, dated 1154, marks the abeyance of English historical prose, which did not become glorious again until the early sixteenth century. Yet Alfred’s own works were copied as late as the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, while his enterprise and example materially assisted the growth of a various and complex vernacular. By the latter part of the tenth century the range of Anglo-Saxon prose includes saints’ lives and grammatical treatises, fictional narratives and gospel translations, medical texts and oriental legends, herbals and lapidaries, geographical texts and philosophical speculations, dialogues and astronomical works, theses on government and on ancient history, wills and laws, charters and natural history. The wealth and variety of these prose writings were not equalled in English until the fifteenth century, and in their own period they were unrivalled in Europe. Theirs was an ascendancy matched by achievements in stone-carving, metal-working and manuscript illumination.

One of the finest phases in English prose, from the late tenth to the early eleventh century, is most readily characterised by the works of Aelfric and Wulfstan. It has been said of Aelfric that he was “the great master of prose in all its forms” and that he “works on principles that would have been approved by Dryden.” 8 Just as King Alfred looks back to Bede, so Aelfric turns back towards Alfred for inspiration; thus a tradition is formed, a line of beauty and harmony stretching for as long an interval as that between Purcell and Britten, between Dowland and Elgar. We may imagine an audience gathering for the recitation of a law or charter, just as we know that the scop “told the tale” of heroism ancient and modern in open spaces and in dining-halls.

But writing itself, with its roots in the folklore of runes, was considered to be a spiritual or sacred activity. It was the mark of continuity for the tribe, but it also called to the inward conscience of the silent and solitary reader. When those who were illiterate were asked to witness a written document, they simply touched a cross inscribed beside their name, but the power of writing was formulated in actual practice. “Bookland” was the name of territory granted by “book” or charter, while written charms were considered to be more efficacious than those merely spoken.

All this lies behind the prose of Aelfric, who himself was nervous of the power of the written word. In his preface to the translation of Genesis he remarks that “Ic ondraede”: I fear that some foolish man, reading this book or hearing it read, will think that he can live as if he were still under the tutelage of Moses. His Old English is perhaps more lucid and elegant than any contemporary translation, but it bears the same syntax and structure as modern English. Thus the phrase “reading this book, or hearing it read” is derived from “thas boc raet othe raedan gehyrth” which is simple and limpid; it is the simplicity of native speech preserved in a more enduring form.

George Eliot said of Shakespeare’s prose that it remains “intensely colloquial even in his loftiest tragedies,” and it can fairly be asserted that this is a direct inheritance from the best Anglo-Saxon prose. Of course Shakespeare had encountered no writing of that period, but the English language itself had incorporated and maintained its salient characteristics; it is almost as if the language itself were as much the originator of certain texts as the writer. Certainly, in Shakespeare, the language seems to lead him forward into fresh perceptions as if it were speaking through him; he comes upon felicities in the most sublime combinations of words. Aelfric was also a literary artist, and one of great intellectual range, but the high rhythms of his prose rise and fall with the distinctive emphasis and momentum of the spoken language.

He was a monk in the late tenth century at Cerne Abbas in Dorset, close to the great chalk figure of the giant delineated upon a hill with erect penis and club in hand. He composed homilies and lives of the saints in “the usual English speech, desiring to profit others” in “that noble nation”; he also translated certain books from the Bible and wrote a text concerning grammar. He was part of a great monastic reform programme, in which he became an educator whose books were transcribed and distributed all over the kingdom. One other feature of his prose is instructive in this context; it follows the natural beat of English in more than one sense since it incorporates an alliterative rhythm which is all the more persuasive for being partly submerged. If the work of Aelfric is read aloud, as surely it must have been in monastic halls as well as in pulpits, it falls naturally into the cadences of oral poetry. Since English poetry is syllabic rather than accentual it will quite naturally follow the line of instinctive utterance; whatever patterns of elaboration are imposed upon it, the native breath will emerge. That is why there is within English literature a great consonance between prose and poetry, since they both spring from the same source; this is the inheritance which was bestowed upon Aelfric and which in turn he bequeathed to others.

Aelfric’s contemporary Wulfstan evokes those qualities in a much more idiosyncratic manner. He was the first English writer to suggest the possibilities of a deliberately rhetorical prose, and his “Sermon of the Wolf to the English” is the most famous example in Old English of the ornate and vivid sermons which have since become characteristic of England’s religious literature. He ends laconically: “God ure helpe. Amen.” Curiously, the word “God” is of Celtic rather than Germanic provenance, related to the Erse word “Guth” or voice. So God help us—but in this fiery address, delivered in 1014 when Ethelred was hesitant before the Danish intruders and settlers, the warnings and imprecations are expressed with an eloquence heightened by ancient echoes. Wulfstan invokes “ stric ond steorfa,” plague and pestilence, “wiccan ond waelcyrian,” witches and wizards, “bryne ond blodgite,” burning and bloodshed, “here ond hunger,” war and famine. He recalls how the “Britta” were conquered by the “Engla” because they had fallen from God; now the “Engla” in turn are likely to be destroyed by foreign invaders. It may seem unnecessary to sift the details of forgotten polemic, but it is important to understand that, a thousand years ago, English prose was as elaborate and as rigorous as in any of its contemporary manifestations.

There is, however, one distinction. There were effectively two languages in England since Wulfstan, archbishop of York and bishop of London, wrote and spoke Latin as fluently as English. Latin was still the preferred medium for scholars and ecclesiastics, who communicated with their peers on the continent in that tongue. Here again it is unwise to underestimate the powers and possibilities of early utterance. It has been confirmed that at the time of the Roman occupation “British Vulgar Latin,” the language of the Romano-Britons, was considerably purer than that of France or Spain. It was more “conservative,” more “archaic,” and thus closer to classical sources.9 Its usage tends “to agree with the pronunciations recommended by the grammarians as distinct from those of ordinary colloquial Vulgar Latin.”10 This throws a distinctive light upon the qualities of life in Roman Britain but, significantly, seven centuries later—by the time of William’s invasion in 1066—the Latin culture of the English was still considerably more advanced and more sophisticated than that of their Norman conquerors. There were other spheres, too, in which the Anglo-Saxons excelled.

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