King Alfred the Great and the Moral Constitution of the English People

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Macfarlane, David
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University of Guelph

The purpose of this thesis is to analyze and investigate the literary revival and translation program that took place in the late ninth century under the directive of King Alfred the Great (849-899). This was a period of disruption and reorganization in English history due to Viking invasions. In response to these turbulent times, Alfred sponsored a program of literature translation of various historical, philosophical, and theological texts from Latin into English. He expressed his belief that the collapse of English prosperity was due to the failure of past generations to maintain the pursuit of wisdom. Thus, he believed that the continued survival of the English people rested on whether they would return to their former moral rectitude. This thesis will argue that Alfred’s intention behind these translations was to create a moral constitution for his people that would redefine the behaviours and values that constructed the core of English identity. It will do this by examining the texts which Alfred translated himself: Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, Boethius’ On the Consolation of Philosophy, and St. Augustine of Hippo’s Soliloquies. These works taught such moral lessons as how to pursue wisdom, how to rule righteously, and the obligation to live respectively of eternal reward. Alfred offered such lessons to his people through these carefully selected texts and also through the accompanying prefaces and epilogues which he wrote specifically for each text. This investigation will involve both moral and political analysis which were both indivisible parts of medieval kingship. It was a king’s duty not only to govern the people, but also to insure their spiritual and moral well being. The discussion of duty should not detract from the zeal with which Alfred undertook this program. He must have had a personal inclination toward academic study since he undertook these efforts so personally and extensively. With these understandings in mind it is comprehensible why Alfred would have thought it his duty to undertake this program. Therefore, this thesis will argue that it was Alfred’s intention to fulfill his own duties as king by forming a constitution which would reflect the ideal English moral character for the emulation of his subjects.

Alfred, Constitution, Moral, Morality, Wessex, On the Consolation of Philosophy, De Consolatio Philosophiae, Pastoral Care, Cura Pastoralis, Soliloquies, Vikings, English, Eschatology, Translation, Anglo-Saxon, Old English, Ninth Century, 9th Century, Education