18.02.06, Discenza and Szarmach, eds., A Companion to Alfred the Great

Main Article Content

Ryan Lavelle

The Medieval Review 18.02.06

Discenza, Nicole Guenther, and Paul E. Szarmach, eds. A Companion to Alfred the Great. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition, 58. Leiden:Brill, 2015. pp. xiv, 469. ISBN: 978-90-04-27484-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Ryan Lavelle
       University of Winchester

Having a heavyweight vade mecum in the medievalist's toolkit for understanding the twists and turns of the evidence relating to the reign of this most well-known--and, to many, most significant--of Anglo-Saxon rulers is to be welcomed with open arms, but the companionship which this book provides has some limits. A Companion to Alfred the Great is less a companion to the reign of Alfred than a companion to Alfred-as-author or, as is the thesis running throughout the volume, Alfred-as-authorial-project.

In many ways this isn't a problem at all. Brill's Companions to the Christian Tradition series is often focused on authorship and the influence of the works of individuals, so to have a volume in that series which deals with the texts of Alfred's reign associated with the court and the scholarship of that court makes perfect sense, and a reader willing to pay the $218/€168 price tag might well be expected to do the homework to understand the context of that volume and the known events of the reign. Also, to be fair, there is a lot of context in the book even if it is pitched far beyond what would be expected if it were an introductory undergraduate text. After a short introduction by the editors, an essay by Simon Keynes sets the tone. As might be expected from Keynes, he aims a little higher than an introductory essay. With a clear statement on the emergence of a "kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons," his essay bears out very well in the light of the findings of further examples of the "Two Emperors"-type coin in the Watlington (Oxon.) Hoard discovered in October 2015, shortly after the publication of the present volume. Beyond Keynes's essay, mucky historical issues associated are less touched on--there is very little on the military campaigns and reforms of the reign, and in this respect the companionship leaves its initiates to navigate their own way through the dangerous backstreets of burghal scholarship. Still, it is fair to assume, however, that a book which is in a series explicitly on 'the Christian tradition' (should that be Christian traditions?) does not necessarily have to delve too far in the Machiavellian business of many aspects of Alfred's rulership, such as his deals with Vikings, and the book does not claim to be comprehensive.

What Discenza and Szarmach do well, however, they do very well, and they should be congratulated in bringing together so much of value in the pages of this book. There is a sense of an Alfredian 'project' here, and like that project, the value is more than the sum of its parts. The question of Alfredian authorship, though not a new question, is nonetheless dealt with at a level of comprehensiveness that leaves few stones unturned. Probing at the question of what is meant by "authorship," this is a book about the sense of authorship apparent to Alfred's reign. The design of the kingdom is expressed in this fashion, as indeed is its visual sense--a "powerful mind at work," as Leslie Webster puts it in her contribution (81).

As is appropriate for a work on Alfred, whose tripartite divisions of court and army seem to reflect a sense of order, the book is divided into three sections. The first is on "Context," containing Keynes's essay on the kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons, Webster on "The Art of Alfred and his Times," as well as Rosamund Love, with "Latin Commentaries on Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy." If the "Context" essays shine a floodlight on the ninth century and, in the case of Love's essay, the tenth-century consequences of work on Latin, the middle section, "Alfred as Author," uses a spotlight. Janet Bately's first piece in the volume, "Alfred as Author and Translator," is an important statement on Bately's understanding of the arguments for Alfredian authorship, from vocabulary to visual imagery in the texts; Susan Irvine is also a double-contributor, the first of her essays being "Alfredian Prefaces and Epilogues," addressing them in relation to the Old English Pastoral Care, Boethius, Soliloques, Laws, and--pushing the Alfredian envelope a little--an epilogue to the Old English Bede that survives in an eleventh-century manuscript. Irvine uses the discussion to engage with Gérard Genette's notion of the "paratext" as a threshold to the understanding of a book; I found myself wondering whether, while that works for the prefaces, Jerry Springer's notion of the "Final Thought" might also have been a useful analogue for understanding how the audience is taken away from the text in the Alfredian epilogues. Perhaps it's sensible to stick with Genette, though, and the spotlight moves to specific texts in the essays which follow, on the translation of Gregory's Pastoral Care (Carolin Schreiber), the Old English Boethius (Discenza), Augustine's Soliloques (Szarmach), the Old English prose translation of Psalms 1-50 (Patrick P. O'Neill), and the laws of Alfred and their relationship with the text of the laws of the earlier West Saxon ruler, Ine (Mary P. Richards).

If there is a blurred division between the treatment of "Alfred as Author" and the textual study of the Alfredian "message" in the final section, on "Alfrediana," it is hardly problematic, and two of the authors in this section are providing their second contribution to the volume: Bately's being on the Old English Orosius and Irvine's on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; David F. Johnson most closely addresses a topic which could be considered Alfrediana in his piece on the "Alfredian Apocrypha," addressing how the "post-Alfredian" audience could read an Alfredian message in texts such as the Old English Bede which were "'Alfredian Apocrypha' in the strictest sense of the phrase." While essays by Susan Irvine and David Johnson may not place Alfred at the front and centre of the cultural products of the Alfrediana of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the translation of the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, the centrality of an Alfredian influence is still perceived. That invocation to "Alfrediana" doesn't take the reader much beyond the eleventh century, however. This might be thought an odd omission as the word conjures up the post-medieval reputation of Alfred and its development, a topic dealt with so well elsewhere in work by Simon Keynes and Barbara Yorke in particular, but again this is probably not a bad thing in view of the tight scholarship of the book. A lack of a specific consideration of that most well-known companion to Alfred, Asser, is a striking absence, given how far Asser's text dominates reading of Alfred, though I suppose Asser's text is the one where by definition, Alfredian authorship has never been claimed, so the absence does make some sense, and this important author is hardly ignored.

The "Final Thoughts" of the volume are not in an Epilogue but in an invaluable appendix, effectively a lengthy annotated bibliography on the issues associated with Alfredian authorship, dealing with modern scholars on an individual-by-individual basis. Had the book been expected to be read in thesis form from cover to cover, that particular discussion might have been useful in the form of an essay at the start of the book, which might have allowed some of the individual essays to be pared back a little, but as a reference piece it would have lost something in the process. After all, the value of this book is not as a single multi-authored thesis to be read from cover to cover but as a high-level guide and in that it succeeds admirably.

Article Details