The Medieval Review 14.04.34


Gautier, Alban. Histoire du Roi Alfred. Les classiques de l'histoire au moyen âge. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2013. Pp. xcvi, 376. €45.00. ISBN: 9782251340630.



Reviewed by:


S. Jay Lemanski
Missouri Western State University
slemanski@missouriwestern.edu

Alban Gautier has written on a variety of topics, from medieval cuisine to the evolving discourse around King Arthur. However, Histoire du Roi Alfred is his first edition of a medieval text. Working on the Life of Alfred is not an easy first project. Yet, the reader of this edition of Asser's work, the authorship itself a point of contention, will not be disappointed by his efforts.

As mentioned above, Gautier could have chosen an easier text to edit. The only manuscript to have survived the Middle Ages, Cotton Otho A.xii, was destroyed in the infamous fire of 1731. Later medieval texts, such as the Historia regum of Symeon of Durham and the Chronicon ex chronicis of John of Worcester drew from portions of this Life of Alfred. In addition, there were three transcriptions made of the Cottonian manuscript, whose reliability is questionable. Nevertheless, the Life of Alfred is primarily known through an edition of the text published by Matthew Parker in 1574. Sadly, while Parker must always be held in high regard as a conservator of Anglo-Saxon texts, his edition of the Life of Alfred was contaminated by his emendations and even more so by his interpolations, chiefly from the Annals of St. Neot, which Parker regarded as a fuller version of the Cottonian manuscript. The subsequent editions of this text from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries preserved these flaws, which after the loss of the Cottonian manuscript, would become very difficult to identify and extricate. William Henry Stevenson in 1904 provided the first professional attempt produce a critical analysis of the text, identifying emendations and interpolations, as well as noting variations from the transcriptions. English translations of the Life of Alfred with commentary were published by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (1983) and Alfred Smyth (2002). Gautier's edition, however, is the first to provide a complete edition of the Latin with translation (C. Roy Hart published a partial edition in 2010).

Given the textual difficulties of the text outlined above it is remarkable that Gautier's Introduction is only seventy five pages long. Gautier writes in a clear and concise style, which makes his edition easily accessible to the non-native speaker of French. It also enables him to address the myriad of issues swirling around this text in units of a manageable size. After introducing the original manuscript, Gautier discusses the various printed editions, from Parker's, and Hart's to his own (ix-xxv). He describes the medieval sources that have drawn from the Life of Alfred (, and in this context introduces Berhtferth of Ramsey, a late tenth-century monk to whom is attributed many of the works related to the Life of Alfred (xxv-xxxvii). He moves on to provide biographies for Alfred and for Bishop Asser, the traditional author of the work (xxxviii-xlviii). He then deals with the Life of Alfred as literature, examining its structure and audience as well as the portrayal of Alfred that it presents (xlviii-lix). In all this the reader will not find much that is new, but is, nevertheless, important background for the fundamental question of the text's authorship.

It is not surprising that a good deal of the introduction addresses the questions surrounding the Life's date and authorship (lx-lxxv). In the dedicatory introduction of the Life of Alfred the author identifies himself as Asser, "omnium servorum Dei ultimus," held to be Bishop Asser of Sherborne. However, since the mid-nineteenth century this claim has been called into question. Gautier very briefly reviews these nineteenth century objections, which seem to have been quelled by Stevenson's 1904 edition. He mentions with greater detail the debate initiated by Vivian Galbraith in the mid-1960s and how these were convincingly addressed by Dorothy Whitelock. The bulk of Gautier's examination of this question focuses on the more recent arguments of Alfred Smyth and C. Roy Hart (lxii-lxvi), both of whom attribute the work to Berhtferth of Ramsey in the late tenth century. Here Gautier's conciseness is a significant drawback; his discussion of Smyth's and Hart's position is cursory at best. Consequently, one might justly challenge whether he adequately represents their arguments. When one reads, for example, Hart's discussion in the first part of his Chronicles of the Reign of Alfred the Great, one finds that his argument is not so "complexe," nor his proposed stemma "très intrique" as Gautier suggests (lxv). In fairness, a thorough discussion of this issue would be a book in its own right. For those interested in this debate, one cannot, therefore, confine oneself to Gautier's presentation, though he will provide references to those sources one will need in order to gain a complete picture of this debate.

Perhaps the weakest part of Gautier's discussion comes under the heading "En amont des doutes: un refus plus radical" (lxx-lxxii). He argues that a fundamental motive behind dismissing the authenticity of the Life of Alfred is driven by a need to preserve the image of Alfred the Great as a national icon, which would be compromised by the Life's portrayal of Alfred as overly monkish and sickly. Here Gautier assigns motives to these scholars that he cannot possibly know. In addition, the irony of this line of argumentation is that Hart himself asserts that challenges to the Life's authenticity have not been tolerated, because historians do not want to undermine the "glowing image of Alfred as the icon of an emergent great nation" as presented in the text (Hart, Life of King Alfred, part I, 39).

Turning to the edition of the Life itself, Gautier has made some interesting choices geared toward making his edition easy to read and to understand. Gautier uses the Latin text as determined by Stevenson in 1904 without much change. He also uses Stevenson's chapter divisions (with certain misgivings), though without line numbers. Here Gautier's edition of the Latin might benefit from the use of line numbers within each chapter to provide more precise reference, as does Stevenson. He employs Stevenson's method of indicating the sections of the text deemed to be interpolations, i.e. by placing the section in square brackets and using a smaller font. Since John of Worcester borrowed so much from the Life of Alfred, Stevenson set off the portions of the Life of Alfred not also in the Chronicon by printing them in italic. Gautier, however, does not continue this practice.

Gautier's edition is not to be regarded as a text edition in the classical sense of the term. While he does have some critical notes about the text, indicated by an alphabetic footnote, he does not indicate every variation found in the sources. Gautier does provide critical notes for any restorations inserted into the text, and will also note where emendations have been made. In this latter regard Gautier is more helpful than Stevenson, who while noting emendations in the apparatus on the bottom of the page, does not mark these changes in the Latin text itself. Since Gautier does not note minor variations in the text, those seeking to trace the interconnections of the manuscripts should turn to Stevenson's edition, a point that Gautier himself admits (xxiii).

Most of the footnote space is devoted to explanatory notes, indicated by numerical footnote. In these Gautier explains historical and cultural references, as well as provides a fuller exposition of terms used in the text. In this way Gautier combines an edition of the original text (à la Stevenson) with a translation and commentary in the manner of Keynes and Lapidge. Whether this is a more helpful approach depends on the needs of the reader. As noted above, those interested in the manuscript tradition would be better served by Stevenson's edition. Those who want access to the original text along with a greater understanding of its meaning and historical context will find Gautier's edition very helpful indeed.

As to the actual translation of the text, Gautier provides a faithful rendition of the Latin in a style of French that is easily followed by non-native speakers. One can detect that he seems to have a rather conservative streak in following the original reading, rather than emending it when the sense is rather difficult. For example, Chapter 38 states that it was decided that Aethelred should confront the forces of two Viking kings. The text then says, "Alfred vero, suus frater, cum suis cohortibus contra omnes paganorum duces belli sortem sumere deberet sciret." To be sure, the literal translation of this as "Alfred...was to know that he was to take the part of the war against the duces of the pagans" is a bit strained, and for that reason Keynes and Lapidge follow Stevenson's emendation and translate "...Alfred...should submit to the fortunes of war" (Keynes and Lapidge, 79). Gautier, however, in his translation follows the original text, "que son frère Alfred sache qu'il devrait...se confronter à la fortune de la guerre contre tous les chefs de païens" (57), and makes it work.

The same respect for the manuscript reading can be seen in Chapter 74, which speaks of Alfred's illness and the different theories as to its cause. Many thought it was due to "favore et fascinatione." Because favor has a generally good connotation either as "favor" or even "attention," Keynes and Lapidge prefer to amend the text to furor, with the idea that a "frenzied inspiration" leading to witchcraft was the cause. Gautier, however, sides with Stevenson in preserving this reading, with the understanding that the attentions of the people (no matter how well-intentioned) brought on Alfred the "evil eye." With this in mind Gautier also translates fascinatio as "regard." While the verb fascino can mean "to enchant with the eyes or the tongue," it could be argued that "regard" is a bit of a forced rendering. Still, Gautier's approach displays a willingness to work with the text unless a sensible rendering is not possible.

It seems there are occasions when Gautier will use an overly literal translation to alert the reader to an unusual usage. This is actually a helpful technique given that the original text is provided on the facing page. For example, Chapter 75 discusses the education of Aethelweard, and mentions him being given over to "ludis literariae disciplinae." Primarily, ludus means "free-time, leisure" and more particularly "games"; in an educational context ludus also has the meaning of "school." However, ludis as used in the text is plural, which is rather unusual. Here Gautier translates "jeux," where we might have expected something more along the lines of "études." Because the meaning of this usage cannot be regarded as absolutely clear, Gautier gives a hyper-literal rendering that would prompt the reader to consult the original.

At this point it is appropriate to restate what was said earlier, that Gautier's translation is for the greater part a faithful rendering of the Latin. Nevertheless, as with any translation and on very rare occasions (and I have found only a couple) one might take issue with the precision of Gautier's traduction. For example, Chapter 38 describes how, while Aethelred was delayed ("moraretur") in prayer before a battle, the Vikings arrived ("advenissent") and were ready to fight. The contrast between the imperfect subjective, moraretur, with the pluperfect subjunctive, advenissent, indicates that while Aethelred was still in prayer, the Vikings had already arrived. This would clearly heighten the sense of urgency as Alfred's forces are left to confront the Vikings alone. Yet, Gautier translates this latter verb as "arrivaient," suggesting that the Vikings were still in the process of arriving during Aethelred's prayers. It is arguable that perhaps a better translation would have been "étaient arrivées" in this case. Nevertheless, such exceptions as the above contrast with the otherwise careful translation of the text.

In the appendices of his book Gautier also provides the Anglo-Saxon texts of and translations for Alfred's Preface to the Pastoral Care of Gregory the Great (203-221), and of Alfred's Will (222-243). The same observations regarding the translation of the Life of Alfred can be applied to these texts. Given the well-established place these documents have had in Anglo-Saxon scholarship, it should not be surprising that there are no major issues of translation. There is an example of Gautier's use of a hyper-literal translation to cue the reader to a problematic term. In Alfred's will he translates the Anglo-Saxon cyrelif with the slavishly literal "choix de vie," which then prompts the reader to consult footnote 70 (240 & 241). By contrast, in the translation of Keynes and Lapidge, this word is simply given as "dependents." While at the end of the sentence one finds footnote 104, one would not initially realize that the word translated as "dependents" is in fact problematic. Thus, one could argue that Gautier's practice of translating poorly understood terms and phrases in a patently literalistic way, while appearing to be sheepishly non-committal, provides an immediate cue to the reader of its problematic nature and prompts one to consult the notes.

Finally, in Appendix 3 (244-250) Gautier provides a helpful chart illustrating which sections of the Life of Alfred have parallels in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the Historia regum, John of Worcester's Chronicon, and the Annals of St. Neot. This chart gives a synoptic presentation of the interrelationship of these sources. In the left hand column the chapters of the Life of Alfred are listed, and in the columns to right the Gautier provides the citations from each of the medieval works that are related to that chapter. One can thereby easily and graphically discern which sections of the Life are connected to which sources. If one will criticizes this edition for its paucity of textual notes, Gautier may yet find redemption in supplying this handy reference tool.

One will find in Gautier's Histoire du Roi Alfred a very handy edition of the text. The Introduction will provide the reader with the fundament background of the Life and the issues regarding its transmission. While Gautier's coverage of the debate over its authorship and date could hardly be regarded as conclusive, he does martial good arguments for the authenticity of its claims, and provides references for those who wish to explore this issue further. His edition of the text itself is very user-friendly and strikes a balance between a text edition and a translation/commentary. His translations of the sources are careful, informed, and competent, and written in a French that is straight forward and easily accessible to non-French speakers.



Copyright (c) 2014 S. Jay Lemanski



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