Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
22.06.07 Fulk, The Old English Pastoral Care

22.06.07 Fulk, The Old English Pastoral Care

The Old English Pastoral Care, edited by R. D. Fulk, is a new edition and facing-page translation of the Old English version of Gregory the Great’s Regula pastoralis. The original Latin text is, in Fulk’s words, “an account of the qualities required of a bishop and of the best methods to be employed in dealing with the diverse sorts of people under a bishop’s care” (viii). The Old English version, produced in the late ninth century, was distributed with a prefatory letter, apparently written by Alfred the Great, which claims that the king translated the Latin himself, with the support of four advisors. The Old English text in Fulk’s edition is based on the version preserved in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 20.

In its discussion of how to advise the humble and the arrogant, the Old English text states that there is a point between the two “which ought to be examined meticulously” (the Old English reads: ðe mon wærlice sceal geðencean) (318-319). This is a statement which could well be applied to the Old English Pastoral Care, a text which rewards meticulous attention, in its small but telling departures from the Latin, its idiosyncrasies in wording, and the threads of recurring images which run throughout the text. Fulk’s book, with its readable translation and helpful notes, makes this sort of meticulous care not only easy, but also enjoyable.

The translation of the Old English Pastoral Care comes fully equipped with an introduction, notes on the manuscripts of the text and manuscript variants, explanatory notes, short bibliography, and a concise index of proper names. The introduction is succinct, as is conventional for the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series, but rich and full of detail, providing brief biographical details about Gregory and the historical background to the Regula pastoralis; the context of the production of the Old English text, the famous prose preface, and the connection to Alfred; details of the only pre-existing full translation and edition of the Old English Pastoral Care, edited by Henry Sweet in the nineteenth century; [1] and the rationale behind Fulk’s own translation and stylistic decisions in his version.

In the section on Alfred, Fulk’s introduction does not quibble with the idea that Alfred was the instigator of both a translation programme and educational reform, nor does it refute the attribution of the translation to Alfred made in the prose preface. The relationship between Alfred and the translations attributed to him remains a contentious issue, with many scholars sceptical of Alfred being involved in any literary project at all. Although, in contrast to Sweet’s earlier edition, there is no reference to Alfred in the title of the book, Fulk does offer support for the idea that Alfred had a hand in the work of the translation, arguing: “the claim of Alfred’s authorship asserted in the epistolary preface to the Pastoral Care is exceptionally difficult to dismiss” (x). The information about the scholarly helpers in the prose preface is important here, as Fulk suggests that if the situation outlined in Alfred’s letter was entirely fictional, the king would have free rein to promote his own literary prowess and claim full authorship for himself; the detail of the four advisors has, in Fulk’s view, the ring of reality about it. It is possible that some scholars will object to this (albeit somewhat cautious) defence of Alfred’s authorship, but given the restrictions of the necessarily brief introduction, the case is put forward persuasively.

Elsewhere in the introduction, Fulk offers a helpful overview of his approach to translation: like the Old English translator, he tends to follow the spirit more so than the letter, resulting in a readable translation which is easy to compare with the Old English. Fulk outlines his decision to render the Old English in “a somewhat elevated register, though not one that is oppressively archaic” (xi), in order to reflect the solemn tone of the morally instructive Pastoral Care. This “elevated register” can be seen, for example, in some vocabulary choices and the occasional use of the subjunctive. Fulk also defends his decision to use a range of Modern English words to translate the same Old English word, on the grounds, firstly, that repetition becomes tiresome in a language with as many synonyms as Modern English and, secondly, that this variety enables him to draw out the range of meanings afforded by a single Old English word. As will be explored in greater depth below, this is largely a very successful approach.

The ordering of the text and its various paratexts is as follows: verse prologue, epistolary preface, dedicatory letter of Gregory, the main text of the translation (subdivided into four books to ease comparison with the Latin), Gregory’s epilogue and, finally, the Old English verse epilogue. The prose preface comes before the verse prologue in Hatton 20, so it is not clear why the order has been inverted here, unless it is to create a pleasing symmetry, with the two poems at the beginning and the end of the book. The order of the prefaces is important, as in the Hatton 20 ordering the reader experiences a transition from, apparently, the voice of the king, to the voice of the book which speaks the verse preface, to the voice of Gregory himself. The speaking book, then, joins together Alfred and Gregory, as it does in the poem that the book speaks; this is unfortunately not reflected in the ordering of the prefaces in this edition.

The translation of the prefaces, epilogues, and main text is easy to read, and affords easy comparison with the Old English text on the facing page. Fulk clarifies the often-convoluted syntax of the Old English, limiting the accumulation of ðæt-clauses found in the original, simplifying correlative clauses and rendering the word order in idiomatic Modern English (e.g., OVS becomes SVO). The elegant translation smooths out many of the awkward constructions in the Old English text, both grammatically and lexically, finding words and phrases which capture the rich sense of the Old English without sacrificing clarity or readability in Modern English: this is, of course, precisely what the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library series sets out to do. For example, ðæm unwrence ðære ungeðylde is translated with the excellent phrase “the swindle of impatience” (230-231). In the prose preface, “English realm” deals better with Angelcynn (6-7) than the more commonly used “England,” which is not really applicable in the context of the late ninth century. The translation of the verse epilogue features some original and creative translation choices, such as the rendering of gewit-loca (literally, “container of the intellect”) as “the mind’s reservoir” (534-535), which captures the sense of a container implied in the Old English compound and resonates well with the water imagery found not only in the epilogue, but also elsewhere in the text (e.g., 326-327 and 394397).

As flagged in the introduction, Fulk often translates the same Old English word with a range of different Modern English synonyms or related words. This often works to draw out the variety of meanings latent in a single Old English word. For example, lytegan is translated not only with the relatively neutral term “shrewd,” but also “cunning”: both senses are important for Gregory’s recommendations on how to deal with the worldly-wise (216-217). In this same chapter, though, we find an example of what can be lost through this technique. The Old English text advises that the teacher must work to persuade these shrewd or cunning people ðæt hie ðone wisdom forlæten ðe him selfum ðyncð ðætte wisdom sie (216). This is translated: “to abandon the cunning that seems to them wisdom” (217). In this case, wisdom is translated first as “cunning” and then as “wisdom.” While this does make very good sense of what is implied by the Old English, the reader of the translation, arguably, loses out on the original text’s wordplay: that is, that the wisdom of these people is not true wisdom at all. That said, a closer translation would sacrifice readability, and the translation choice does draw out the implication of the original.

Ultimately, Fulk’s new translation of the Pastoral Care renders this often-overlooked text far more accessible for a whole range of readers. The new translation will make it considerably easier to examine, for example, the rich imagery employed by the Old English translator, such as the gardening imagery which recurs in other Alfredian texts (e.g., 238-239); the translation of Gregory’s biblical quotations and exegesis, aided by the explanatory notes which provide biblical references; and stylistic techniques such as the contrasting of oppositions and binaries, to take just a few possibilities for further study. It is to be hoped that students, teachers, and researchers use Fulk’s new edition to go beyond the prefaces and epilogues, and turn their meticulous attention to the main text of this important and understudied Old English translation.



1. Henry Sweet, ed. and trans., King Alfred’s West Saxon Version of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, 2 vols, Early English Text Society, o.s., 45, 50 (London, 1871).