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The Political Thought of King Alfred the Great.

The Political Thought of King Alfred the Great, by David Pratt. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2007. 413 pp. $110.00 US (cloth).

The Political Thought of King Alfred the Great offers an engaging and comprehensive analysis of political thought and court culture in Wessex during the reign of King Alfred the Great. This volume excellently investigates how the burst of intellectual activities, such as the production of books and the translation of authoritative literary works, underpinned the successful construction of Alfred's power in the years c. 871-99. The focus of the book is primarily, but not only, on the impact that the translation of a number of Latin sources into Old English had on the formation of what the author calls "Alfredian discourse" and how this supported the consolidation of Alfred's royal authority. The book is structured in such a way that allows the reader to gain an accurate understanding of the historical context in which Alfred's cultural programme succeeded as a means of reinforcing his royal power and image.

The structure of the book is twofold: part I explores Alfred's administration of power against the backdrop of West Saxon political structures. Part II is focused on textual analysis and royal modes of communication. Pratt's study begins with an evaluation of Alfred's administration of economic and military resources in social and historical perspectives. The political expansion of Wessex in the first half of the ninth century had entailed remarkable changes in the economy of the reign and in the ways sources of royal revenue were exploited and centrally controlled. Pratt convincingly argues that central control of such increasing resources had implications for Alfred's organization of secular and ecclesiastical structures, changing their sociopolitical role and, especially, their relationship with royal power. In such political conditions, he remarks, the construction of a successful royal rhetoric became essential to Alfred's operation of power. In this section, careful consideration is especially given to ways in which Alfred secured loyalty from the most notable people in his household, and provides a sociopolitical framework for analyzing modes of communication between the king and his circle and for questioning the role of royal rhetoric in his control of power. This topic is also given some historical perspective, as the author examines various modes of expressing power under King Alfred's predecessors and how these provided a solid ground for Alfred's advancements and innovations. The study of the relationship between the king and his circle is placed in a broader perspective, as Pratt ably and usefully draws parallels and contrasts with contemporary Frankish courtly habits, which are critical to a fuller understanding of how late ninth-century Wessex is situated in the broader European scene. Part I ends with a chapter devoted to the Viking invasions and the impact these had on King Alfred's power and the political unity of his kingdom. This section highlights the centrality of communication between the king and his aristocratic retainers to the consolidation of defensive action and, by implication, of a stronger power.

Royal communicative modes are more thoroughly explored in Part II. This contains close analysis of the translation of what Pratt considers to be "royal texts" and focuses on the implications that this undertaking has on the consolidation of Alfred's kingship. The translations compiled at King Alfred's behest provided an English vernacular version to a selection of Latin works, which came to be crucial to the development of Alfred's authority. These include Pope Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, St. Augustine's Soliloquies, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, the first fifty Psalms, and Mosaic law in the introduction to Alfred's law codes. This section explores the impact of Alfred's adoption of the Old English language for translating prose works on aristocratic education and, royal discourse. Such innovations as the adoption of authoritative texts written in the vernacular language had, inevitably, a paramount effect on the accessibility to knowledge, which came to be more easily attained by a larger number of aristocrats. Promotion of culture and literacy among the aristocracy through the adoption of vernacular texts is surely one significant innovation underpinning Alfred's cultural programme; it is examined in this book in the context of existing West Saxon habits and, more comprehensively, in relation to Carolingian cultural trends. The texts translated at Alfred's behest are then analyzed individually. Each chapter is devoted to the study of a Latin source and the influence it exerted on its vernacular translation in shaping royal rhetoric and expressing royal authority. Through these analyses, Pratt places the translated texts in their immediate cultural and political contexts and concludes that material culture, especially the production of books and the vernacular translations of authoritative Latin texts, instrumental to Alfred's illuminated kingship, as these entailed a wider circulation of literacy among the aristocracy and thereby provided a solid support to the realization of Alfred's royal power.

In grounding its argument in authoritative current literature, The Political Thought of King Alfred the Great presents a learned and convincing analysis of Alfredian intellectual and cultural policies, which will be of great value and interest to an audience of Anglo-Saxonists and early medievalists. Pratt's ability to position his argument in a historical perspective and to assess its implications against the backdrop of continental experiences makes the volume an excellent resource for postgraduate students of early medieval history and culture. Non-specialists with an interest in intellectual and cultural history and/or the history of the Anglo-Saxons, might similarly find this book an exciting read.

Erika Corradini

University of Winchester
COPYRIGHT 2009 Canadian Journal of History
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Author:Corradini, Erika
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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