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The king's family: securing the kingdom in Asser's Vita Alfredi.

Recent work on Asser's Vita Alfredi has pursued two separate but complementary directions. While one set of scholars has returned to the question of authenticity, asking whether the work is a genuine ninth-century text or a forgery, the other has focused on the problem of audience. (1) Because it is written in Latin, the Vita Alfredi stands out from other Alfredian texts like the Old English Bede and Old English Orosius, histories that, together with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, suggest the importance of vernacular historical writing at Alfred's court. Nonetheless, the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Asser's text is genuinely from the ninth century. (2) With regard to the question of audience, most scholars agree that Asser's life of Alfred was probably not intended to circulate at court, and many offer Asser's associates in Wales as likely readers. (3) That these questions have dominated Asser scholarship points to one of the central difficulties of reading the Vita Alfredi. Asser's combination of annals from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle with scenes from Alfred's life is an appealing story, but the ways in which the text diverges from Carolingian models of history and royal biography--models upon which we know Asser drew--have made it difficult for scholars to appreciate the cultural importance of the Vita Alfredi. (4)

I begin with the Alfred annals of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Asser's treatment of the annalist's lordship ideology is crucial to understanding what I see as the significance of his text. Blending Carolingian and Anglo-Saxon theories of ideal leadership, the Vita Alfredi interprets, supplements, and then authorizes the discourse of collective identity articulated in the Chronicle. In the Chronicle annals for 871-891, the king's defense of his realm and creation of a unified kingdom are presented as an issue of his lordship relations. Though Alfred wins and defends his kingdom on the battlefield, the annalist exploits the doubled language and rituals of lordship and peace-making to suggest that the king wins his kingdom with his performance of lordship. Thus in the foundation narrative for Alfred's realm, images of the king's lordship are so powerful that nation of origin seems not to matter. (5) Be they Dane or Anglo-Saxon, the noble men who unite themselves under Alfred become members of what the Alfred annalist calls the Angelcynn. (6) By the end of these annals, Alfred's lordship is both a defining ethos for the king's people and an expression of their cultural and political identity. (7)

In that Asser retains the annalist's particular formulation of Alfred's royal power, I suggest that he accepts the cultural function performed by the Alfred annals. In that he translates the annalist's work into Latin and into the form and ideology of ninth-century Carolingian historical biography, borrowing explicitly from well-known examples of Carolingian mirrors for princes, I suggest that Asser uses his Vita Alfredi to proclaim to the Latinate Christian world the Alfred annalist's articulation of royal power. (8) Asser's careful translation and supplementation of the Alfred annals legitimizes the annalist's work by distinguishing it from and then reintegrating it into Carolingian traditions of kingship theory. Thus performing a linguistic and cultural translation of the Alfred annalist's text, Asser shifts the reader's focus from the king's defense of his kingdom to the political and cultural life of the court and the personal life of the king. Though the Danish invaders continue to assault the land, the emphasis on Alfred's childhood, struggle for literacy, and domestic life suggests first that Asser's interests extend beyond Alfred's fight for military security and second that it is not enough to read the Vita Alfredi as a translation of the Chronicle.

To explain Asser's interpretation of the annals, the Vita Alfredi is most frequently compared to Einhard's Life of Charlemagne. But as James Campbell has pointed out, Asser's text in its combination of annals and biography also stands alongside the lives of Louis the Pious by Thegan and the "Astronomer" (anonymous); it can even be compared to Notker of St. Gall's stories of Charlemagne, Ermoul's praise poem of Louis the Pious, and Abbo's poem on the siege of Paris. (9) Further, as Anton Scharer has suggested, it is not just the form of the Vita Alfredi that can be said to be Carolingian. Working with texts from the mirrors for princes tradition, and specifically with the varied works of Sedulius Scottus, Scharer shows the extent to which the content of the Vita Alfredi can be sourced in Carolingian theories of kingship and royal power. (10) The sheer diversity of these texts does nothing to fix the form of the Vita Alfredi in any single known category, but it is clear that the Vita is a hybrid text written in the Carolingian traditions of history and historical biography and that it draws heavily from the mirrors for princes tradition. (11)

That said, Asser does not simply fold his text wholesale into a Carolingian framework. Carolingian theories of ecclesiastical kingship supply no exact precedent for the Alfred annalist's understanding of the connection between lordship and the creation and maintenance of Alfred's kingdom. Further, though there are many situational similarities, especially with regard to the politics of family and succession in ninth-century Francia and ninth-century Anglo-Saxon England, Carolingian mirrors for princes turn inwards to focus on morality, virtue, and the private realm, consistently positioning the king as an example for the faith life of his subjects. (12) In these texts, a tremendous power accrues to the body and person of the king.

In the Vita Alfredi, Asser minimizes the importance of Alfred's person and subordinates the inward aspects of Carolingian mirrors for princes to his larger project of affirming the public dimension of the annalist's theory of lordship. But he does not reject Carolingian thinking entirely. Asser uses the conventional Carolingian hagiographical topos of the suffering body to undercut the fascination with the physical body in the mirrors for princes tradition. (13) His Alfred has the weak and suffering corporeality of a saint, but unlike the lives of martyrs where suffering and mutilation empower the dying Christian, Asser's Alfred is weakened, though not betrayed, by his various illnesses. So severe is his suffering that, as Asser would have it, disease intrudes upon his marital celebrations, government, military engagements, and his secular and spiritual life. (14) Indeed, Alfred's only relief in all this debilitation is that his illness is not externally disfiguring and therefore not visible to the court. (15) But by diminishing the power of the physical, Asser refocuses his readers on the relational and communal significance of the saint-like king's body.

When the saint's body is no longer personal and private, it--like the body of the king--takes on a public dimension, representing the community, social, political, and national, of which it is part. (16) Michel de Certeau argues that "The Life of a Saint is inscribed within the life of a group, either a church or a community. It takes for granted that the group already has an existence. But it conveys its self-consciousness by associating a figure with a place.... The text also implies a network of supports (oral transmission, manuscripts, or printed works) whose infinite development it stops at a given moment" [emphasis as printed]. (17)

Alfred is clearly no saint, either literally or metaphorically. But de Certeau's analysis may productively be extended to Asser's royal protagonist figure, the authority of whose reign is very much supported by a network of texts that includes the Vita Alfredi. Moving away from the national focus of the annals, Asser centers more narrowly on the immediate community of Alfred's court. Retaining and developing the Alfred annalist's emphasis on the king's performance of lordship, Asser narrates the self-conscious formation of the king's court and, by extension, the kingdom.

Asser locates the king's power in the body political and, specifically, in the Alfred annalist's Angelcynn. (18) Displacing the king's struggle against the raiders from the center of the Chronicle annals, he writes the story of the court as the story of Alfred's journey to royal authority. Merely recording who submitted to Alfred's lordship is no longer the ideological end point of the narrative; indeed, I would argue that Asser focuses on the process of winning the kingdom. Thus the problem at the heart of the Vita Alfredi is that of how Alfred sustains the loyalty of those who have accepted his lordship; this is a problem that the Alfred annalist does not address. Here, again, Asser's adaptation of Carolingian tradition is important. Taking Solomon as their primary example, writers of texts on Carolingian ecclesiastical kingship value learning as part of the king's faith and private discipline. (19) At Alfred's court, these ideas are expressed in the Old English Regula pastoralis, the content of which might productively be read as an Old English mirror. But, like the Frankish mirrors for princes, the recommendations of the Old English Regula subordinate the political to the private, moral, and devotional. In contrast, Asser suggests that individual learning and scholarship are insufficient as political tools for sustaining loyalty. This can only be done when the king takes that knowledge out of the private realm and activates it by personally teaching his men.


Though Asser writes the story of Alfred's life, he begins with the story of Alfred's father's reign. This is in part a practical decision: Asser can now describe Alfred's birth and childhood, thereby building a more complete biography of his king. But the AEthelwulf story also performs a structural and conceptual function in the Vita Alfredi as a whole. Just as the Cynewulf-Cyneheard episode of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle prefaces the Alfred annals and the annals respond to the political succession crisis raised by the protagonists' practice of lordship, so the story of Alfred's life responds to the issues raised in Asser's account of AEthelwulf's reign. (20) But where the Cynewulf-Cyneheard episode explores succession through the political family of those who assent to the king's lordship, the political space of the AEthelwulf section--highlighting Asser's persistent engagement with Carolingian texts and discourses of power--is that of the king's familia, the relatives and members of his household who also share a lordship bond with the king.

The Vita Alfredi begins with a brief dedication to Alfred, a version of the West Saxon royal genealogy, and Asser's account of the reign of AEthelwulf, Alfred's father. (21) Though there is no explicit guide to Asser's organizing concerns, this genealogy sustains the Chronicle illusion that the kingdom passes from father to son in an unbroken succession and thus that AEthelwulf's (and, later, Alfred's) right to both the throne and the land is predicated on the authority of his lineage. (22)

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, AEthelwulf's diplomatic and military successes confirm the distinction of his lineage. AEthelwulf's reign begins, in manuscript A of the Chronicle, in 836 with the transfer of power in the West Saxon kingdom from Egbert to his son, AEthelwulf. (23) The regions of Kent, Surrey, and East and South Saxon England are passed to Egbert's other son, AEthelstan.) In the years between 839 and 851, the annalist records a series of battles against the Danes. (24) Possession of the land passes sometimes to the Danes and sometimes to the AngloSaxons until 851, when AEthelwulf engages the invaders at Aclea and gains a decisive victory. (25) For the annalist, this battle forms a turning point in AEthelwulf's reign. Having proven the king's worthiness on the field, he can now turn to AEthelwulf's diplomatic activities. In 853, the annalist describes how AEthelwulf helps Burgred of Mercia defeat the Welsh, marries one of his daughters to Burgred, and takes Alfred to Rome. For the year 855, he records the last years of AEthelwulf's life. The Vikings stay away from AEthelwulf's kingdom, enabling the king to travel to and remain for a year in Rome. On his return journey, the king takes Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald, the Frankish king, as his queen. (26) When AEthelwulf arrives in his kingdom, the annalist notes that his people are glad to see him again. (27) Within two years, he is dead.

This deceptively neutral account of AEthewulf's reign is set apart by its conclusion. Whereas the reign of AEthelwulf's father is summarized by a survey of land the king controls, (28) the annalist marks AEthelwulf's rule by a recitation of the West Saxon genealogy and list of ruling kings. If the AEthelwulf annals are written by the Alfred annalist, this avoidance of territory is typical of his strategy; nonetheless, the annalist's recourse to genealogy highlights a significant formulation of AEthelwulf's royal authority. Rhetorically, this is a strong conclusion to an account of a successful--even exemplary--reign. AEthelwulf's successes ensure that he continues the tradition he inherits.

But the form of this genealogy requires further consideration. The several extant manuscripts in which Anglo-Saxon genealogical material appears suggest the West Saxon line of descent to AEthelwulf can be broken into several broad parts: AEthelwulf to Cerdic, Cerdic to Geat, Geat to Woden and beyond. (29) There are, of course, variations in the manuscript details, but the tradition up to Geat is fairly stable. (30) While in the Anglian royal genealogies, biblical ancestors are common, extensions beyond Geat are unusual in early versions of the West Saxon royal genealogy, and the annalist's inclusion of Biblical history is extraordinary. (31) This break with tradition and the concomitant move to connect AEthelwulf with so many powerful lineages suggest the significance of genealogical discourse. By positioning AEthelwulf as the inheritor of Anglo-Saxon England's sacred, secular, and mythological pasts, the Chronicle annalist uses the family relationship implied by a genealogy as the ultimate marker of royal power and individual worthiness.

Though Asser retains most of this Chronicle account, he interprets the figure of AEthelwulf differently. As Michael Lapidge has observed, Asser is not only familiar with the Latin Christian historiographic tradition that understands historical events and, in particular, political change as indicators of a king's sin or--since they are often connected metonymically--as the sin of his people, he is working within it. (32) To translate the Chronicle battles, Asser adopts the vocabulary of war from Orosius's Historiarum libri septem, one of the most important examples of this tradition. (33) But by retaining the overall positive assessment of AEthelwulf's reign despite the disloyalty among the king's family, Asser moves away from the traditions of his intellectual background and from one of the most popular models of writing Christian history. AEthelwulf's is a good and successful reign and the king is generous in his dealings with the Church; nonetheless, neither his virtue nor his morality is sufficient to protect the integrity of his realm.

In the midst of the Chronicle account, Asser introduces the story of a family conflict between the king and his son that results in the division of the kingdom. Like the annalist, Asser recounts AEthelwulf's battles with the Danes, his decisive victory at Aclea, Burgred's request for help, Alfred's confirmation in Rome, and the marriage between Burgred and AEthelwulf's daughter. But according to Asser, AEthelwulf, despite his lineage, military victories, and diplomatic successes, cannot secure the loyalty of his family and hold the kingdom in a state of equilibrium. The threat of Danish occupation looms--indeed, accounts of Danish victories over other kings punctuate the narrative--but AEthelwulf is not deceived by the invaders. His throne is threatened by his son and heir, AEthelbald, and supported by co-conspirators, all of whom follow the king's son. (34) As Asser narrates these events, AEthelwulf handles the situation appropriately. The king is motivated only by a desire to protect his realm; there is no personal animus in his response. Seeing that a war between father and son would disrupt the kingdom more than the rebellion, and perhaps even cause the people to reject both of them, Asser's AEthelwulf acts swiftly, prioritizing the welfare of his kingdom as a whole over dealing with the insult to his regnal authority. (35) He gives up the western districts, the more important regions of his kingdom, and rules directly only over his eastern territories.

But, in the Vita Alfredi, AEthelwulf does not simply accept the situation, he uses his will (like the Frankish kings) to try to prevent the situation from happening again. (36) This disposition of the kingdom, as Asser records it, bypasses the language of royal election. Indeed, the inclusion of the will's details has textual significance, though it may not comport with historical practice. By arranging for a horizontal system of fratrilineal succession, AEthelwulf relocates the idea of power from an uninterrupted vertical line of descent and situates it, horizontally, in the group of people related by blood. While this system takes the pressure off father-son relationships, it does not prevent disloyalty among the brothers. (37) Nonetheless, the kingdom has been divided, and it remains that way until after AEthelwulf dies.

In addition to separating the Vita Alfredi from the conventions of Christian historiography, the narrative of AEthelwulf's exemplary character also distinguishes Asser's account from the ideals of kingship expressed in certain Carolingian mirrors for princes. These educational manuals, compiled during Charlemagne's reign and up to Asser's present, respond both directly and indirectly to the complicated contemporary politics of Frankish succession. (38) In short, the succession crises all turn on the division of the territory (if not the imperial power) between designated sons, the protagonists record the partition of the royal lands in a document, and the concomitant rebellions usually pit brother against brother and/or nephew against uncle.

As if to contain this family quarreling, texts such as Sedulius Scottus's Liber de rectoribus christianis and Hincmar's De regis persona et regio ministerio and De ordine palatii consistently stress the importance of the king's morality and exemplary behavior, and, as part of that morality, they explore the difficulties of family relationships and advocate order among members of the king's familia, both household and blood relative. But though Asser consistently draws on Sedulius as a lexical and conceptual source (39) and though Asser's AEthelwulf episode recalls the family politics of succession in Francia, Asser's account of AEthelwulf's reign breaks with both these traditions by again minimizing the power of the king's virtue. With the connection between Christian morality and the integrity of the state now put aside, Asser asks how a king can create and sustain loyalty among members of his familia. This question is answered in his account of Alfred's life.


Asser negotiates the question of how loyalty among members of the king's familia can be created and sustained through the structure and metaphors of his text. His focus on Alfred's journey to royal authority and the security of his kingdom meaningfully influences where he begins to read the Chronicle and where he ceases to borrow from the narrative material of the annals. Asser's source manuscript is now lost, but it is likely that his text began in 60 B.C. and extended, like other common stock texts, as far as 891. (40) Nonetheless, Asser ignores the pre-history of the kingdom; it is not relevant to the new focus of the Vita Alfredi. And he redefines the scope of the Alfred annals. Asser's story of Alfred begins in 849, in Alfred's father's reign, and ends in 886. After 886, he focuses mainly on Alfred's domestic policy. Though this focus might be a product of Asser's now-lost source, the effect means that Asser works only with the annalist's secular narrative of lordship and kingdom-making and that he places at the center of his text a series of literal and metaphorical crownings. (41)

Asser's Alfred gains his kingdom four times. Asser claims that he is first anointed by the Pope, then crowned on ascension to the throne; his kingship is confirmed for a third time when all of nonDanish England submits to his authority. But when he guides his realm into the "haven of [its] homeland," Asset indicates that Alfred has finally earned his kingdom. (42) Though Alfred has a noble genealogy, is regarded as having been anointed by the Pope, and is an effective military leader, he only becomes king of a unified realm when, at the moment of his fourth crowning, the king guides the ship of his kingdom into a safe haven, and secures the loyalty of his people by teaching them.

Alfred's first "crowning" occurs in 853, in the reign of his father. In the incident reported but not discussed in the Chronicle, Alfred's father sends the boy to Rome where the Pope anoints him as a future king and sponsors him at his confirmation. The evidence for the historicity of this moment, its relationship to Charlemagne's anointing of his sons, and its overall significance for understanding Anglo-Saxon patterns of succession go beyond the scope of this essay. (43) But the narrative of anointing is significant both to the larger structure of the Vita Alfredi and the theory of kingship it promotes. Alfred's anointing distinguishes the young boy's body. In its corporeal aspect, it becomes the symbol of the future united body politic and spiritual, and the sufferings of its physical dimension are thereby minimized. (44) Alfred is translated from his humble place as the king's youngest son and unlikely heir to a new family in which the Pope is his spiritual father and he is marked as a chosen king. (45) Why Alfred earns this status is unclear. Asser has not yet endowed his king with any specific virtues; indeed, Asser says only that "he [AEthelwulf] loved him more than his other sons." (46) Nonetheless, the boy's new position has startling effects. The king's favoritism appears to destroy the unity of his lordship family, prompting a rebellion from his son, AEthelbald, and members of his nobility. This rebellion ultimately leads to the division of the kingdom. By not explaining AEthelwulf's reasoning, Asser allows Alfred's first crowning to formulate the questions about the place of virtue and problems of loyalty that the other crownings will symbolically resolve.

In his account of Alfred's second crowning, Asser evokes parallel Frankish situations and draws from the Carolingian mirrors for princes to explore the problem of virtue as a defining quality of a worthy king. Whereas the Carolingian mirrors seek to install virtue in their kings, in the Vita Alfredi, Alfred's virtue points to the marginality of the young king's candidacy. (47) In 871, King AEthelred dies and Alfred finally takes the throne. Just prior to this coronation, Asser lingers over Alfred's virtues; he is well taught in all the secular skills of hunting, speaking, and courtly behavior, but, most importantly for an ideal Carolingian king, he has an insatiable desire for learning. (48)

But, unlike his Continental counterparts, Alfred is not greedy for personal power:

Eodem anno AElfred ... totius regni gubernacula, divino concedente nutu, cum summa omnium illius regni accolarum voluntate ... suscepit. Quod etiam vivente praedicto fratre suo, si dignaretur accipere, facillime cum consensu omnium potuerat invenire, nempe quia et sapientia et cunctis moribus bonis cunctos fratres suos praecellebat, et insuper eo quod nimium bellicosus et victor prope in omnibus bellis erat.

[In the same year Alfred ... took over the government of the whole kingdom, with the approval of divine will and according to the unanimous wish of all the inhabitants of the kingdom. Indeed, he could easily have taken it over with the consent of all while his brother AEthelred was alive, had he considered himself worthy to do so, for he surpassed all his brothers both in wisdom and in all good habits; and in particular because he was a great warrior and victorious in virtually all battles.] (49)

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the story of Alfred and his brother is positive; there is no suggestion that Alfred might wish to take over his brother's realm. Alfred and AEthelred cooperate because they are bound by lordship ties; indeed, the Alfred annalist consistently refers to Alfred not as the king-in-waiting, but as a noble brother, loyal to his lord. Asser retains the focus on the two brothers but alters this scenario to AEthelred's detriment and Alfred's advantage. Adding to the facts of the Chronicle text, Asser suggests that the security of the kingdom and AEthelred's place on the throne are more tributes to Alfred's moral virtue than a measure of his brother's authority.

But whereas Asser clearly marks AEthelbald's rebellion against Alfred's father as a usurpation rather than a legitimate passage of dominion, he also suggests that Alfred's move for the throne would have been perfectly acceptable. (50) By emphasizing the point that the witan would have agreed to Alfred's accession and thus raising the concept of consent, Asser borrows from an established discourse of royal election and succession in both Francia and Anglo-Saxon England. (51) In Anglo-Saxon texts like the Chronicle, the consent of the witan functions as a formal acknowledgement of the king's lordship and acceptance of lordship obligations. In this context, the idea of consent changes usurpation into an acceptable transfer of power. Nonetheless, because of Alfred's morality, Asser suggests that the future king does not succumb to the depredations seen across the sea in Francia and at home in the actions of his brother.

Yet despite Alfred's virtue, the situation upon Alfred's succession is not positive. As the new king, Alfred takes on a kingdom in which familial loyalty is so weak that, were it not for his forbearance, he could have launched, with the consent of all, a rebellion more successful than that of his brother against his father. Exploiting the conventional Chronicle language of accession, Asser observes that Alfred "totius regni gubernacula ... suscepit" (took over the government of the whole realm). The phrase regni gubernacula or regni gubernaculum translates the conventional and usually neutral Old English "feng to rice" (succeeded to the kingdom), but in the Vita Alfredi it gains extra meaning. Used in conjunction with the forms rexit or suscepit (ruled or took up the government of the kingdom), this phrase appears only four times in the Vita Alfredi: when AEthelbald rules the Anglo-Saxons after the death of AEthelwulf, when AEthelred becomes king, here in the second crowning, and finally in a list of Alfred's activities as king. This larger context indicates that the power being transferred is just that: power. Asser does not assess the king's authority. And herein lies the problem of the second crowning. Control of the country does not guarantee absolute loyalty in the king's familia or, to put it in the Alfred annalist's terms, government can secure neither authority nor lordship relations.

This security Alfred achieves in his third crowning. The history of events in 886 is unclear as to whether Alfred must retake London as a result of a previous breach of the peace or whether the Chronicle records a symbolic lordship ceremony. (52) In Asser's hands, however, the entry for the year 886 implies that with the attention of the Viking army turned elsewhere, Alfred can now cease to defend his land and demonstrate his control over his kingdom:

Eodem anno AElfred, Angulsaxonum rex, post incendia urbium stragesque populorum, Lundoniam civitatem honorifice restauravit et habitabilem fecit; quam [genere suo] AEtheredo, Merciorum comiti, commendavit servandam. Ad quem regem omnes Angli et Saxones, qui prius ubique dispersi fuerant aut cum paganis sub captivitate erant, voluntarie converterunt, et suo dominio se subdiderunt.

[In this same year, Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, restored the city of London splendidly--after so many towns had been burned and so many people slaughtered--and made it habitable again; he entrusted it to the care of AEthelred, ealdorman of the Mercians. All the Angles and Saxons--those who had formerly been scattered everywhere and were not in captivity with the Vikings--turned willingly to King Alfred and submitted themselves to his lordship.] (53)

Despite their prominence in the text, the new architecture and material culture of London do not transform this important place into a capital city and symbol of Alfred's power. Rather, like the Alfred annalist, Asset understands the city as a symbol of Alfred's lordship. And this is emphasized in his word choice: dominium (lordship). But Asser also alters the Chronicle annal in order to reinforce this point. In the Chronicle, Alfred entrusts London to AEthelred after he has received the submission of his people. The transfer of power is thus positioned as an act of Alfred's lordship. In the Vita Alfredi, Asser places the act of submission after Alfred entrusts the city to AEthelred. He thus suggests that the submission results from this display of Alfred's lordship and, in so doing, he implies that Alfred's lordship is generative. Acts of lordship beget more acts of lordship, which in turn beget and secure a realm.

But though, in the Chronicle, submission to Alfred's lordship is an endpoint of the text, acceptance and submission are not the center of the Vita Alfredi. Asser also uses the third crowning to ask how Alfred can maintain these lordship relations. Alfred is, by now, no longer merely the ruler of the West Saxons. In solidifying his borders against the Vikings, he has also expanded into most of the former Mercia: his new kingdom thus comprises two peoples with a distant history of possible mutual hostility and, for the Mercians, a recent history of enforced cooperation with the West Saxons and prior submission to an enemy the West Saxons manage to withstand. (54) By entrusting this former Mercian city and present symbol of the kingdom's rebirth to ealdormann AEthelred, a Mercian, Alfred demonstrates his control over the land and his desire for unity among his peoples. But the unity of this kingdom depends on strong lordship relations and such relations are not secured by the symbolism of a capital city.

Even though Alfred will ultimately link Mercia and Wessex through marriage, literally making Mercia part of the West Saxon family, Asser highlights the vulnerability of a kingdom built on military victory and cemented by family relations by turning again to the continent. (55) In Francia, in the same year, a usurpation by family members essentially repeats AEthelbald's rebellion, reminding the reader that when the king's own family is disloyal, he is also unlikely to maintain the loyalty of those not related to him by blood. (56) Alfred, who has disinherited the children of his brother, AEthelred, must now win and maintain the loyalty of the Mercian nobility. In Asser's hands, the king's first three crownings have suggested that royal authority is not located solely in military prowess and that the social and political bonds of lordship may require reinforcement. Indeed, when involving blood family members, lordship bonds can be peculiarly vulnerable. But nothing in Asser's reworking of the annals has thus far suggested how strong lordship relations can be created.

To focus entirely on the annals incorporated into the Vita Alfredi is, however, only to read half the story. Asser alternates between the well-known Chronicle narrative of the kingdom and his original story of Alfred's life, and it is here, in Alfred's private life, that Asser locates the solution to the public problem of the King's lordship relations. The year 866 marks the ascension of Alfred's brother, AEthelred, to a kingdom beset by invaders. But instead of focusing on the danger or even on the new king, Asser interrupts the narrative, turns away from the Chronicle using a ship metaphor, and begins a discussion of Alfred's youth:

Sed, ut more navigantium loquar, ne diutius navim undis et velamentis concedentes, et a terra longius enavigantes longum circumferamur inter tantas bellorum clades et annorum enumerationes, ad id, quod nos maxime ad hoc opus incitavit, nobis redeundum esse censeo, scilicet aliquantulum, quantum meae cognitioni innotuit, de infantilibus et puerilibus domini mei venerabilis AElfredi, Angulsaxonum regis, moribus hoc in loco breviter inserendum esse existimo.

[But (to speak in nautical terms) so that I should no longer veer off course--having entrusted the ship to waves and sails, and having sailed quite far away from the land--among such terrible wars and in year-by-year reckoning, I think I should return to that which particularly inspired me to this work: in other words, I consider that some small account (as much as has come to my knowledge) of the infancy and boyhood of my esteemed lord Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, should briefly be inserted at this point.] (57)

The literary idea of a narrative at sea can be traced back to, among others, Cicero and Quintilian, where it heralds what the author would like to introduce as his main point. (58) Asser uses it in precisely this way. Structurally, the ship image allows him to effect a transition from chronicle to hagiographical biography. More important, Asser uses its figurative significance to move lordship and the familia to the center of his work. His narrative has proceeded, like the Chronicle, year by year in the mode of annalistic writing. The image of the ship undercuts the text so far--indeed, Asser claims that the Chronicle, the story of Alfred's battles with the Danes, blows him off course. He will now no longer allow his text to drift; he will come to port and to the point of his text. Specifically, Asser suggests that ideal lordship relations are sustained and the identity of the kingdom secured only when the king teaches those whose loyalty he commands.


Asser breaks with the Chronicle narrative and begins the story of Alfred's life, a story in which he prepares his discussion of the king's successful lordship relations. Alfred is an unusual child, more beloved to his parents and everyone at court than any of his brothers; he is, moreover, better looking and more skilled in the expected social and courtly graces. (59) Having acknowledged these skills, Asser lingers over the moment when Alfred learns to read.

In Asser's hands, the king's interest in reading is no fleeting childhood passion. Alfred's love of learning persists into adulthood, withstands illness, and even survives the challenges of defending and governing the kingdom: "[A]b incunabulis ante omnia et cum omnibus praesentis vitae studiis, sapientiae desiderium cum nobilitate generis, nobilis mentis ingenium supplevit" [From the cradle onwards, in spite of all the demands of the present life, it has been the desire for wisdom, more than anything else, together with the nobility of his birth, which have characterized the nature of his noble mind.] (60) In the context of an encomium, such enthusiastic praise does not seem out of place. As a continuation of the Chronicle and of the stories of invasion and battle, however, such a characterization of the future king is startling. It suggests that Alfred will be a better king because he is interested in books. (61)

Learning is a value accorded much significance in Carolingian kingship texts, (62) but for Asser, scholarship is insufficient because it is a private virtue that affects only the king. Asser's Alfred needs to unite a kingdom and provide it with a unifying identity. In his entry for 885, adopting again the ship of the narrative metaphor, Asser interrupts his account of Alfred's fight for his kingdom at the moment when the Vikings break the peace. But instead of exploring the problems the failure of diplomacy raises, he turns to an account of Alfred's married life and illnesses, concentrating eventually on the education of the king's three youngest children. (63)

The youngest son, AEthelweard, "was given over to training in reading and writing under the attentive care of teachers, in company with all the nobly born children of virtually the entire area, and a good many of lesser birth as well." (64) He and the other children learn to read and write both Latin and English to such an extent that "even before they had the requisite strength for manly skills (hunting, that is, and other skills appropriate to noblemen), they were seen to be devoted and intelligent students of the liberal arts." (65) Asser specifies, furthermore, that Edward and AElfthryth (the two other children) were educated so well that they behaved "with humility, friendliness and gentleness to all compatriots and foreigners, and with great obedience to their father." (66) In the context of a chronicle narrative, this is unusual rhetoric: it suggests that invasion and physical security are less worthy of a reader's attention than family relationships and education. Many scholars have interpreted these scenes as part of larger studies of Anglo-Saxon literacy, but such readings fail to account for the incongruity of this material in a translation of the Chronicle annals and the narrative space Asser devotes to the importance of learning and teaching.

Asser's interest lies not with the children's behavior nor even with the specifics of their curriculum, but with the effect their education has upon them. He claims that learning renders Edward and AElfthryth completely obedient. (67) Because Edward and AElfthryth are so obedient to their father, Alfred, unlike his father, will not have to suffer an assault on his throne spearheaded by one of his children. Thus adding a political dimension to the expected Christian moral emphasis on obedience, Asser claims that education ensures the right relationship between authority and children, father and child, and king and subject. (68)

Asser develops this point by extending the explicit connection between loyalty and the book beyond Alfred's immediate relatives to the larger political family of the realm. Indeed, Asser suggests that to ensure the security of his kingdom, Alfred personally teaches all the children of all his courtiers:

Episcopos quoque suos et omnem ecclesiasticum ordinem, comites ac nobiles suos, ministeriales etiam et omnes familiares admirabili amore diligebat. Filios quoque eorum, qui in regali familia nutriebantur, non minus propriis diligens, omnibus bonis moribus instituere et literis imbuere solus die noctuque inter cetera non desinebat.

[With wonderful affection, he cherished his bishops and the entire clergy, his ealdormen and nobles, his officials as well as all his associates. Nor, in the midst of other affairs, did he cease from personally giving, by day and night, instruction in all virtuous behaviour and tutelage in literacy to their sons, who were being brought up in the royal household and whom he loved no less than his own children.] (69)

This is a startling claim, but Asser does not pursue what it would mean for traditional ideas of royalty and succession. Instead, he focuses on reworking Carolingian ideas about education and the kingdom. Carolingian mirrors for princes emphasize wisdom as a personal virtue, but, for Asser, learning is less important than teaching. Metaphorically constructing Alfred's court as a nurturing family environment, Asser depicts his king as a teacher-parent who nourishes those around him. In this court, membership in the king's family does not require a blood connection. (70) For Asser, Alfred's family members are distinguished by their willingness to learn from the king. (71)

But, though educating the children may facilitate unity in the future, it does not protect the king from rebellion in the present, by the children's fathers. Asser's Alfred attracts to his court a variety of foreigners, including Franks, Frisians, Gauls, Vikings, Welsh, and Irish, and he also treats them the same way that he treats his Anglo-Saxon retainers. (72) Asser claims that everyone accepts Alfred's lordship because of his distribution of alms, his generous disposition to all, and his study of things unknown. (73) In exchange for this loyalty, Asser's Alfred acts "secundum suam dignitatem" (as befits his royal status), giving wealth and authority to Anglo-Saxon and foreigner alike. (74) Such munificence, however, runs the risk of alienating a native nobility of both West Saxon and Mercian aristocrats. Asser claims that those already present at Alfred's court are guided by the king's loving lordship, but, as we have already seen, and as Asser will demonstrate again, mutual affection will not bind together the adults at court and those in the outlying provinces.

In the midst of an endorsement of Alfred's talent in the realms of architecture, aesthetics, and battle, Asser notes a problem. The material beauties of the kingdom do not compel the king's subjects to loyalty: the Anglo-Saxon people "would undertake of their own accord little or no work for the common needs of the kingdom." (75) Virtue is not enough. Despite the king's extraordinary gifts, his artistic and military skills do not inspire the kind of loyalty that would foster a sense of community and obligation. Thus stressing how poorly the Carolingian discourse of virtue and the traditional symbols of kingship create national community, Asser returns to the ship metaphor, posing again the question of how a king secures his kingdom:

Sed tamen ille solus divino fultus adminiculo susceptum semel regni gubernaculum, veluti gubernator praecipuus, navem suam multis opibus refertam ad desideratum ac tutum patriae suae portum, quamvis cunctis propemodum lassis suis nautis, perducere contendit, haud aliter titubare ac vacillare, quamvis inter fluctivagos ac multimodos praesentis vitae turbines, non sinebat. Nam assidue suos episcopos et comites ac nobilissimos, sibique dilectissimos suos ministros, necnon et praepositos, quibus post Dominum et regem omnis totius regni potestas, sicut dignum, subdita videtur, leniter docendo, adulando, hortando, imperando, ad ultimum inoboedientes, post longam patientam, acrius castigando, vulgarem stultitiam et pertinaciam omni modo abominando, ad suam voluntatem et ad communem totius regni utilitatem sapientissime usurpabat et annectebat.

[Yet once he had taken over the helm of his kingdom, he alone, sustained by divine assistance, struggled like an excellent pilot to guide his ship laden with much wealth to the desired safe haven of his homeland, even though all his sailors were virtually exhausted; similarly, he did not allow it to waver or wander from course, even though the course lay through the many seething whirlpools of the present life. For by gently instructing, cajoling, urging, commanding, and (in the end, when his patience was exhausted) by sharply chastising those who were disobedient and by despising popular stupidity and stubbornness in every way, he carefully and cleverly exploited and converted his bishops and ealdormen, and nobles, and his thegns most dear to him, and reeves as well (in all of whom, after the Lord and the king, the authority of the entire kingdom is seen to be invested, as is appropriate) to his own will and to the general advantage of the whole realm.] (76)

In this, Alfred's fourth crowning, Asser brings the ship of the text home to its port, and Alfred, with some difficulty, metaphorically secures his kingdom. The external threat of the Vikings has its interior counterpart: the exhausted sailors of a reluctant aristocracy. Asser diagnoses "vulgarem stultitiam" (popular stupidity) to be at the heart of the people's unwillingness to act "ad communem totius regni utilitatem" (for the common needs of the kingdom). (77) Popular stupidity, manifested as laziness, renders the people unable to see the underlying reasons for the king's commands. Prior to this, Asser has depicted learning as a private pursuit and teaching as a vocational mission. Now, he portrays his king actively and consciously employing learning as a public weapon. (78) Alfred persuades his people to work with him by giving formal instruction ("leniter docendo"); he uses the rhetorical skills of his own education to persuade them to follow him ("adulando, hortando"); to these he adds the prerogatives of his office ("imperando" and "acrius castigando"). It does not matter to Asser that Alfred is less than personable in his means of persuasion; it is important only that the king succeeds. (79)

Alfred, of course, does win over his people, and Asser devotes some time to the bitter lessons learned by those who doubted their king. More significant, however, is the way in which the king convinces his people to follow him. In Alfred's kingdom, the dictatorial imperative of the king is a last resort; Alfred does not use it arbitrarily. Rather he prefers to teach those around him so that the foreigners and Anglo-Saxons--despite their different heritages, dissimilar traditional loyalties, and varying geographical places of origin--are combined into a new people defined and unified by a king who teaches.

This fourth crowning symbolizes the end of Alfred's journey to security, and the king's success is reflected in the structure of the Vita Alfredi. For the remainder of the text, the narratives of Chronicle history and biography are combined to form the story of Alfred's domestic policy. The Vita Alfredi concludes, though perhaps not intentionally, with an anecdote demonstrating how education secures justice, which in turn secures peace, and peace secures the king's authority. (80) Alfred is shown teaching and exercising his authority, but his power is not that of a military or political leader. Though Viking raids continue throughout Alfred's reign, they are absent from the Vita where Asser's focus on instruction as a domestic policy shows that the king's authority derives from his willingness to instruct.

As the king's policy takes effect, Asser notices that no one in a position of power who wanted to remain there neglected his books. Even those who could not read sought instruction. No longer is the desire for knowledge a royal quirk; rather, because learning has political and domestic value, Asser suggests that inspiring a desire for knowledge will ensure justice and thus peace. Teaching creates commonality among a loosely associated body of noblemen and blood relatives. Personal instruction from the king reinforces the bond of lordship by emphasizing the personal element of the political and social tie between king and man and, in so doing, confirms the ideological centrality of lordship in Alfred's kingdom.

In effect, then, the series of "crownings" transforms Asser's work from a general narrative of Alfred's life and adapted account of Anglo-Saxon history into a cultural text that protects and affirms the West Saxon identity advanced in the Chronicle. In making this translation, Asser does not simply alternate between Chronicle material and scenes from the king's life. Because, unlike the Alfred annalist, he is not concerned with establishing Alfred's kingdom--he takes its existence as given--Asser subordinates the task of writing the political history of the kingdom to the task of narrating and remaking the Alfred annalist's ideology.


In the field of Alfred studies, ideas of learning and teaching are charged. We are accustomed to connecting Alfred with ideas of wisdom and education because so many Alfredian texts emphasize education. (81) Indeed, as the anonymous writer of the Middle English Proverbs of Alfred suggests, learning is a defining element of Alfred's rule and, perhaps, of the king himself. (82) Yet even though the Vita Alfredi and the Old English translation of Gregory's Regula pastoralis both stress the importance of a ruler who teaches, Asser's linguistic and cultural translation of the Chronicle annals and his persistent engagement with the Carolingian mirrors for princes tradition distinguish his text from other Alfredian works on education.

Of all the Alfredian texts, the Old English Regula pastoralis most explicitly makes teaching the job (or, more accurately, burden) of a ruler; (83) it focuses on how to instruct others in their Christian duty, the appropriate ways of encouraging a wide variety of others to live a Christian life, and the morality of seeking, using, and living in a position of authority. The notion of morality is key. In some ways, Asser presents Alfred as an ideal king in the terms of the Carolingian mirrors for princes and of the more local Old English translation of Gregory's Regula pastoralis; he studies, teaches, is humble, and adopts an appropriate attitude towards his position of power. But, overall, Asser subordinates his focus on Alfred's morality to writing the history of how Alfred creates and maintains his kingdom. In this regard, the Vita Alfredi is a close and careful exposition of a suggestive comment in Alfred's Preface to the Regula pastoralis.

In justifying his educational program, Alfred claims that when there were many wise men throughout England, the country's kings held "aegder ge hiora sibbe ge hiora siodo ge hiora onweald innanbordes" (both their peace, their customs, and their authority within the borders of their nations). (84) The problem of whether learning in Anglo-Saxon England really had declined to the degree Alfred suggests elsewhere in the Preface has earned much scholarly attention, (85) but scholars of Alfredian wisdom often pass this sentence by. Does Alfred literally claim a direct connection between learning and authority? The Old English Regula is formally unrelated to the Vita Alfredi, but I would suggest that the similarity of this literally improbable claim and the conceptual argument of the Vita Alfredi together argue for a discourse in which learning and the security of the kingdom are connected. In this discourse of learning, education is individually and morally beneficial, but it also has the cultural function of creating a unified political and social group.

As Asser thematizes teaching, he expands both the discourse of kingship found in the annalistic narratives of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and that of the Carolingian mirrors for princes tradition. He also moves away from the example of royal biography offered in Einhard's Life of Charlemagne and from the historiographical discourse of sin, invasion, and conquest found in Orosius and Bede. In the Vita Alfredi, Asser's Alfred goes beyond a simple adherence to the usual understandings of moral Christian leadership through private study; the unity of Alfred's kingdom depends not on descent or morality, but on a king who successfully uses instruction to unify his court. According to Asser, instruction is the key to Alfred's success.

Authorized by Asser's choice of Latin and careful adaptation of Carolingian traditions, the Vita Alfredi disseminates to readers beyond Alfred's circle the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle conceptualization of the kingdom and national identity. (86) Asser's interpretation of the Chronicle has far-reaching consequences. In an environment where royalty, Anglo-Saxon noblemen, and aristocratic foreigners are taught together, an environment where the traditional relationships between birth, national affiliation, and kingdom-centered loyalty are dismantled, education becomes a social and cultural institution that affirms the legitimacy of the king by securing peace in his land.

This focus shapes the Vita Alfredi as a biography of the king's journey to royal authority that in turn creates a new foundation narrative for the political and social community of Alfred's court and thus, symbolically, of a united West-Saxon and Mercian kingdom. Where the Alfred annalist created a political family defined by those who accepted the king's lordship, Asser extends membership in that family to those whom the king teaches and demonstrates how personal instruction from the king holds together the family of blood relations, household members, and subjects.

Pennsylvania State University


(1) The most recent instances of the forgery argument are Alfred P. Smyth, King Alfred the Great (Oxford U. Press, 1995), 271-324, and idem, The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great: A Translation and Commentary on the Text Attributed to Asser (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2002), esp. at 202-10. V. H. Galbraith, "Who Wrote Asser's Life of Alfred?" in An Introduction to the Study of History (London: C. A. Watts, 1964), 88-125, argues for a tenth-century date, with Leofric of Exeter as a possible author. Smyth, on the other hand, posits a late tenth- or early eleventh-century Ramsey milieu with Byrhtferth as a possible author. His argument is affirmed by Eric John, Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England (Manchester U. Press, 1996), 82, n. 15.

(2) The case for the authenticity of this text is made in Dorothy Whitelock, The Genuine Asset, The Stenton Lecture 1967 (U. of Reading, 1968), and Simon Keynes, "On the Authenticity of Asser's Life of Alfred, "Journal of Ecclesiastical History 47 (1996): 529-51.

(3) This point is made most clearly in James Campbell, "Asser's Life of Alfred," in The Inheritance of Historiography, 350-900, ed. Christopher Holdsworth and T. P. Wiseman (U. of Exeter, 1986), 115-35; Simon Keynes, "King Alfred and the Mercians," in Kings, Currency, and Alliances: History and Coinage of Southern England in the Ninth Century, ed. Mark A. S. Blackburn and David N. Dumville (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1998), 1-45. While I agree with the general direction of these essays, I would not claim that Asser wrote primarily for his Welsh associates. Janet L. Nelson, "The Franks and the English in the Ninth Century Reconsidered," in The Preservation and Transmission of Anglo-Saxon Culture, ed. Paul E. Szarmach and Joel T. Rosenthal (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, West Michigan U., 1997), 141-58, makes a persuasive reconsideration of certain dynastically focused tensions in Anglo-Saxon and Frankish relations. This, together with the known number of Frankish visitors at Alfred's court and Asser's persistent use of Carolingian mirrors for princes, suggests the possibility of a Frankish audience. However, the lack of evidence for either country or even for both makes me reluctant to commit to an argument about the ethnicity of Asset's projected readers.

(4) Though Marie Schutt, "The Literary Form of Asser's Vita Alfredi," English Historical Review 72 (1957): 209-20, goes a long way to pointing out the skill of the Vita Alfredi, Anton Scharer, "The Writing of History at King Alfred's Court," Early Medieval Europe 5 (1996): 177-206 at 203, still refers to Asser's work as a "'patchwork' of quotations, borrowed ideas and allusions."

(5) Indeed, in the entry for 891 where the annalist does mention the nation of origin for some of those who accepted Alfred's lordship, he does so to emphasize the point that membership in the Angelcynn (family of Angles) is not limited to those of Anglo-Saxon descent. See Janet Bately, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: MS A, vol. 3, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Collaborative Edition (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1986), 54-55.

(6) The annalist's choice of phrase is interesting, and it is well-discussed in the scholarship on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Contemporary meanings of the term are taken up in Sarah Foot, "The Making of Angelcynn: English Identity Before the Norman Conquest," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th series, 6 (1996): 25-49, and Patrick Wormald, "Engla Lond: The Making of an Allegiance," Journal of Historical Sociology 7 (1994): 1-24, esp. 10-11. Accounts of how the many kingdoms of early Anglo-Saxon England are eventually absorbed into one another and how Wessex emerges as a leader can be found in Barbara Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms of Early Anglo-Saxon England (London: Seaby, 1990), 128-56, and idem, Wessex in the Early Middle Ages (Leicester U. Press, 1995), 52-96.

(7) My argument here follows Homi Bhabha's suggestion that "nationness" can be seen as a textual community, a "form of social and textual affiliation." See Homi K. Bhabha, "DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation," in The Location of Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), 139-70 at 140. Indeed, this is the way in which many historians have imagined the function of medieval histories; see, for example, Amy G. Remensnyder, Remembering Kings Past (Cornell U. Press, 1995), 2-3, and Susan Reynolds, "Medieval origines gentium and the Community of the Realm," History 68 (1983): 375-90.

(8) Stevenson, in Asser, Life of King Alfred, ed. William Henry Stevenson, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), 162433, discusses the knowledge of Sedulius in Anglo-Saxon England, and Scharer, "The Writing of History," 177-206, demonstrates Asser's use of Sedulius's De rectoribus christianis as a source.

(9) Campbell, "Asser's Life of Alfred, "115-35 at 116-21.

(10) Scharer, "The Writing of History," 177-206 at 192-204.

(11) That said, I would also point out the general difficulty of genre criticism and expectations. In Hans Robert Jauss, "Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory," in Towards an Aesthetic of Reception (U. of Minnesota Press, 1982), 345 at 22-32, that difficulty is productively formulated as a problem of the "horizon of expectations."

(12) For a discussion of the problems of family and succession for Charlemagne, see Janet L. Nelson, "La famille de Charlemagne," Byzantion 61 (1991): 194-212; for the problems in the families of Charles the Bald and Louis the German and an explicit connection to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, see Janet L. Nelson, "A Tale of Two Princes: Politics, Text, and Ideology in a Carolingian Annal," Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History 10 (1988): 105-41; for the problems before and after Alfred's reign, see, among others,Janet L. Nelson, "Reconstructing a Royal Family: Reflections on Alfred, From Asser, Chapter Two," in People and Places in Northern Europe, 500-1600: Essays in Honour of Peter Hayes Sawyer, ed. Ian Wood and Niels Lund (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1991), 47-66; and, though I do not see the evidence for his characterizations of AEthelwulf's personality, Michael J. Enright, "Charles the Bald and Aethelwulf of Wessex: The Alliance of 856 and Strategies of Royal Succession," Journal of Medieval History 5 (1979): 291-302, studies how these events might have impressed themselves on AEthelwulf. On Anglo-Saxon patterns of succession, see David N. Dumville, "The AEtheling: A Study in Anglo-Saxon Constitutional History," Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1979): 1-33; Eric John, Orbis Britanniae and Other Studies (Leicester U. Press, 1966), 3743; John, Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England, 71-74; Patrick Wormald, "On pa Waepnedhealfe: Kingship and Royal Property from AEthelwulf to Edward the Elder," in Edward the Elder, 899-924, ed. N.J. Higham and D. H. Hill (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), 264-79 at 264-71; and Ann Williams, "Some Notes and Considerations on Problems Connected with the English Royal Succession, 860-1066," Anglo-Norman Studies 1 (1978): 144-67; and Yorke, Kings and Kingdoms, 148-54, and 167-77. The idea that a king is to set an example and correct his people is widespread in Carolingian mirrors, see, inter alia, Hincmar, De ordine palatii, ed. Thomas Gross and Rudolf Schieffer, 2nd ed., Monumenta Germaniae Historica Fontes Iuris Germanici Antiqui, (Hanover: Hahnsche Buchhandlung, 1980), 3: 44; Hincmar, De regis persona et regio ministerio, ed. J. P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus Series Latina (Paris: 1852), 125: cols. 833-56 at 835 and 850; and Sedulius Scottus, Liber de rectoribus christianis, ed. S. Hellmann, Quellen und Untersuchungen zur lateinischen Philosophie des Mittelalters (Munich: Beck, 1906), 1:26 and 34. The most explicit emphasis on royal morality seems to be from the insular text of Pseudo-Cyprian, De duodecim abusivis saeculi, ed. S. Hellmann, Texte und Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der altchristlichen Literatur (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1909), 34: 43. On the influence of Pseudo-Cyprian in the Carolingian world, see Hans Hubert Anton, "Pseudo-Cyprian: De duodecim abusivis saeculi und sein Einfluss auf den Kontinent, insbesondere auf die karolingischen Furstenspiegel," in Die Iren und Europa im fruheren Mittelalter, ed. Heinz Lowe, Veroffendichungen des Europa Zentrums Tubingen: Kulturwissenschaftliche Reihe (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1982), 2:568-617.

(13) My emphasis on the significant functions of the body counters Smyth, King Alfred the Great, 199-216, in which Smyth uses a chapter title to label Alfred a "neurotic saint and invalid king." I see the importance of Smyth's claim that the text borrows from Frankish and not Irish hagiographical topoi. Alfred's illness is indeed essential. On this topic, see also, David Pratt, "The Illnesses of King Alfred the Great," Anglo-Saxon England 30 (2001): 39-90.

(14) Asset, Life of King Alfred, 54-57, esp. 57.

(15) Ibid.

(16) The most thorough study of this aspect of kingship is Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton U. Press, 1957; reprint, 1981). Though Kantorowicz focuses primarily on the late medieval period, much of what he says about polity-centered kingship (193-272) resonates with the texts at issue here.

(17) Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (Columbia U. Press, 1988), 272.

(18) On the problems with and suitability of this term, see above at note 6.

(19) On the history of the wisdom topos and its renewed importance in the mirrors for princes for Charles the Bald, see Hans Hubert Anton, Furstenspiegel und Herrscherethos in der Karolingerzeit, Bonner Historische Forschungen 32 (Bonn: Ludwig Rohrscheid Verlag, 1968), 255-56. For the texts, see Sedulius, Liber de rectoribus christianis, 30-33, and Smaragdus, Via regia, ed. J. P. Migne, Patrologiae Cursus Completus Series Latina (Paris: 1851), 102: cols. 941-45. Because Asser uses Sedulius as a source and because the mirrors tend to repeat each other almost verbatim, I cite all following examples of the mirrors for princes topoi only from the De rectoribus christianis.

(20) S.a. 755 (A): Bately, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 36-38.

(21) The bibliography for medieval prologues is extensive, but a useful account of how prologues function is A. J. Minnis, Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages, 2nd ed. (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1988), 9-72. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, "Translator's Preface," in Of Grammatology (The Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1976), ix-xc, suggests how prefatory material that is not a formal prologue might be said to "begin" a text.

(22) On the possible connections between lineage and authority, see Craig R. Davis, "Cultural Assimilation in the Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies," Anglo-Saxon England 21 (1992): 23-36; David N. Dumville, "Kingship, Genealogy, and Regnal Lists," in Early Medieval Kingship, ed. P. H. Sawyer and Ian N. Wood (U. of Leeds, 1977), 72-104; Kenneth Sisam, "Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies," Proceedings of the British Academy 39 (1953): 287-348; and Gabrielle M. Spiegel, "Genealogy: Form and Function in Medieval Historical Narrative," History and Theory 22 (1983): 43-53. For particular examinations of the West Saxon genealogical tradition, see David N. Dumville, "The West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List: Manuscripts and Texts," Anglia 104 (1986): 1-32, and idem, "The West Saxon Genealogical Regnal List and the Chronology of Early Wessex," Peritia 4 (1985): 21-66.

(23) S.a. 836 (A): Bately, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 43.

(24) I do not mean to suggest that this part of the Chronicle is necessarily the work of the Alfred annalist. The earliest extant manuscript of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (the A MS) is not Asser's source manuscript--see Asser, Life of King Alfred, lxxxv-lxxxviii--this textual history means that we cannot tell whether in the version that Asser used the reigns of Alfred and his father are in different hands. On the textual history, see Janet Bately, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Texts and Textual Relationships (U. of Reading, 1991), 27-31 and 53-55. The powerful genealogy that concludes the account of AEthelwulf's reign has led some scholars to suggest that an early version of the Chronicle might have ended after the entry for 859. Smyth, King Alfred the Great, 465-69, discusses this thesis and its implications.

(25) S.a. 851 (A): Bately, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 44.

(26) On this incident and its implications, see Enright, "Charles the Bald," 291-302; Pauline Stafford, "The King's Wife in Wessex, 800-1066," Past and Present (1981): 3-27; and idem, "Charles the Bald, Judith, and England," in Charles the Bald: Court and Kingdom Papers based on a Colloquium held in London in April 1979, ed. Margaret Gibson, Janet L. Nelson, and David Ganz (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, International Series, 1981) 101:137-51.

(27) Without the larger context of the Vita Alfredi, this remark seems incongruous. Given that the annalist's history has thus far been without evaluation, this little interpretive comment seems to suggest at best a denial of the rebellion (as narrated in the Vita Alfredi) or at worst its suppression.

(28) Egbert is designated a Bretwalda, a term that, I suggest, seems to imply a ruler of land. On the problem of the Bretwalda in general, see David N. Dumville, "The Terminology of Overkingship in Early Anglo-Saxon England," in The Anglo-Saxons from the Migration Period to the Eighth Century: An Ethnographic Perspective, ed. John Hines (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1997), 345-65; John, Orbis Britanniae and Other Studies, 1-63, at 6-8 and 35-36; Simon Keynes, "Raedwald the Bretwalda," in Voyage to the Other World: The Legacy of Sutton Hoo, ed. Calvin B. Kendall and Peter S. Wells (U. of Minnesota Press, 1992), 103-23, at 112-14; Barbara Yorke, "The Vocabulary of Anglo-Saxon Overlordship," in Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History, ed. David Brown, James Campbell, and Sonia Chadwick Hawkes, British Archaeological Reports, British Series (Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1981) 92:171-200.

(29) Because, for the moment, I wish to distinguish only actual kings from mythical figures and gods, I collapse the more complicated and sensitive divisions of Sisam, "Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies," 287-348 at 299.

(30) Ibid., 315.

(31) For the possible sources of this use of the Bible, see F. P. Magoun, "King Aethelwulfs Biblical Ancestors," Modern Language Review 46 (1951): 249-50. Sisam, "Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies," 287-348 at 314-20, uses later texts like Beowulf and the chronicles of AEthelweard and William of Malmesbury to discuss the extension beyond Geat. He characterizes the biblical section as "artificial" and "crude" (320). This tradition does appear in Nennius, but that is not a source for Asser.

(32) Personal communication with Michael Lapidge, November 2001. The idea that the king and people are connected is a medieval commonplace. For a contemporary articulation of this Pauline idea, see the Old English Regula pastoralis: "Fordon oft for daes lareowes unwisdome misfarad pa hiremen, & oft for daes lareowes wisdome unwisum hiremonnum bid geborgen" (Therefore, very often, the people transgress because of their teacher's lack of wisdom and, very often, the unwise people are spared because of their teacher's wisdom), in Henry Sweet, ed., King Alfred's West-Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care, o.s. 45 and 50 (London: Humphrey Milford and Oxford U. Press for the Early English Text Society, 1871), 28.

(33) Personal communication with Michael Lapidge, November 2001.

(34) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 9-10.

(35) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 10; Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, eds. and trans., Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources (London: Penguin, 1983), 70, hereafter cited as Alfred the Great.

(36) In what Asser presents as a neutral description of his wishes, AEthelwulf is seen trying to exercise control over his land even after he is dead. The king specifies that "his sons should not quarrel unnecessarily among themselves after the death of their father," so he arranges for the kingship to pass from son to son in order of age (Asser, Life of King Alfred, 14; Alfred the Great, 72). His strategy asks his sons to give preference to the well-being of the kingdom, even if, in so doing, they disinherit their own sons. Because information about Anglo-Saxon succession patterns is limited and contradictory, the historical scholarship on these provisions is complex. The essential problem is election of one of a number of eligible candidates versus a move towards patrilineal succession. See above at note 12. AEthelwulf's will is not extant per se; we know its terms from Asser, Life of King Alfred, 14-16. Alfred's will has been edited and translated as in F. E. Harmer, ed., "King Alfred's Will," in Select English Historical Documents of the Ninth and Tenth Centuries (Cambridge U. Press, 1914), 15-19.

(37) Constance B. Bouchard, "Family Structure and Family Consciousness Among the Aristocracy in the Ninth to Eleventh Centuries," Francia: Forschungen zur Westeuropaischen Geschichte 14 (1986): 639-58, and Rudolf Schieffer, "Vater und Sohne im Karolingerhause," in Beitrage zur Geschichte des Regnum Francorum Referate beim Wissenschaftlichen Colloquium zum 75. Geburtstag von Eugen Ewig, ed. Rudolf Schieffer, Beihefte der Francia (Sigmaringen: Jan Thorbecke Verlag, 1990), 22:149-64.

(38) Louis Halphen, Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire, trans. Giselle de Nie, Europe in the Middle Ages, Selected Studies, vol. 3 (Amsterdam, Oxford, and New York: North-Holland Publishing Company, 1977), and Rosamund McKitterick, The Frankish Kingdoms under the Carolingians, 751-987 (London and New York: Longman, 1983) are good introductory studies of the Carolingians.

(39) Scharer, "The Writing of History," 177-206.

(40) Bately, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Texts and Textual Relationships, 62, argues that Asser's Vita Alfredi is descended from a lost MS W that, in turn, is either a direct descendant of the lost MS U or an annotated version of lost MS V, itself a descendant of lost MS U.

(41) I distinguish my work from R. H. C. Davis, "Alfred the Great: Propaganda and Truth," History 56 (1971): 169-82; and H. R. Loyn, "The Term Ealdorman in the Translations Prepared at the Time of King Alfred," English Historical Review 68 (1953): 513-25, in my emphasis on teaching. Loyn argues that the translators involved in Alfred's educational program use the term ealdormann so consistently to represent one in a subordinate position that the texts function almost as manuals for Alfred's ealdormenn. Davis's reading of the Preface to the Regula pastoralis also suggests that the translations reminded Alfred's nobility of the importance of loyalty. I do not challenge these arguments. I wish only to point out that in the Vita Alfredi, the responsibility for instructing the nobility is not delegated: it belongs to the king.

(42) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 77; Alfred the Great, 101. Alfred's various claims to the throne are something of a problem in themselves. For overviews of the problems of royal succession, see above at note 12.

(43) On the anointing of Charlemagne's sons and other Carolingian inaugurations, see Janet L. Nelson, "The Lord's Anointed and the People's Choice: Carolingian Royal Ritual," in Rituals of Royalty: Power and Ceremonial in Traditional Societies, ed. David Cannadine and Simon Price (Cambridge U. Press, 1987), 137-80 at 152-59, and Janet L. Nelson, "Inauguration Rituals," in Early Medieval Kingship, ed. Ian N. Wood and P. H. Sawyer (U. of Leeds, 1977), 50-71. On the problems of this moment and the evidence for Alfred's anointing, see Janet L. Nelson, "The Problem of Alfred's Royal Anointing," in her Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London and Ronceverte: The Hambledon Press, 1986), 309-28.

(44) On the symbolism of anointing, see Janet L. Nelson, "Symbols in Context: Rulers' Inauguration Rituals in Byzantium and the West in the Early Middle Ages," in her Politics and Ritual in Early Medieval Europe (London and Ronceverte: The Hambledon Press, 1986), 259-82.

(45) Asser calls him "secundarius," Asser, Life of King Alfred, 24, 29, and 32. On this term, see Dumville, "The AEtheling: A Study in Anglo-Saxon Constitutional History," 1-33 at 1-2 and 24.

(46) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 9: "eo [Alfred] quod ilium plus ceteris filiis diligebat"; Alfred the Great, 70. This explanation and, indeed, the episode are unique to Asser; in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, AEthelwulf's nobles are portrayed as honorable.

(47) De Certeau, The Writing of History, 273: "... [T]he Life of a Saint also points to the relation that the group holds with other groups. Thus the martyrdom tale is predominant wherever the community is very marginal, confronted with the threat of extinction, while the virtue tale represents an established church, as an epiphany of the social order in which it is inscribed." Again, I extend de Certeau's analysis beyond its original formulation.

(48) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 21; Alfred the Great, 75.

(49) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 32; Alfred the Great, 80-81.

(50) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 9; Alfred the Great, 70: "infamia contra morem omnium Christianorum' (a disgraceful episode--contrary to the practice of all Christian men).

(51) The evidence for the procedure of selecting a king is scarce and difficult. The language of accession overlaps with the language of lordship obligations. The latter is often encapsulated in the phrases consensus et auxilium and consilium et auxilium. The importance of concepts for lordship relations and Carolingian kingship is traced in J. Devisse, "Essai sur l'histoire d'une expression qui a fait fortune: consilium et auxilium au ix siecle," Le moyen age 74 (1968): 179-205, and explored in greater depth in Jurgen Hannig, Consensus fidelium: Fruhfeudale Interpretationen des Verhaltnisses von Konigtum und Adel am Beispiel des Frankenreiches (Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann, 1982), esp. 26-32 and 225-57. Consenting to a candidate's accession is equivalent to acknowledging the obligations created by lordship ties. See chapter ten of Tryggvi J. Oleson, The Witenagemot in the Reign of Edward the Confessor: A Study in the Constitutional History of Eleventh-Century England (U. of Toronto Press, 1955), 82-90, and chapter sixteen of Smyth, King Alfred the Great, 421-51.

(52) Based on the numismatic evidence--Mark A. S. Blackburn, "The London Mint in the Reign of Alfred," in Kings, Currency, and Alliances: History and Coinage of Southern England in the Ninth Century, ed. Mark A. S. Blackburn and David N. Dumville (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1998), 105-23--historians now argue that this particular moment is symbolic: see Keynes, "King Alfred and the Mercians," 145. Alfred already controlled the city--he did not have to win it again. The oath of submission is what is important in both Asser and the Chronicle.

(53) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 69; Alfred the Great, 98. This is one of those passages where the text seems not to make sense. Although the manuscript says "those who were in captivity," this agrees neither with the Chronicle account nor the transcriptions. Keynes and Lapidge have altered their translation accordingly.

(54) S.a. 827 (A): Bately, ed., The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 42. On the complexities of this problem and concomitant question of overkingship, see Dumville, "The Terminology of Overkingship in Early Anglo-Saxon England," 345-365; and Keynes, "King Alfred and the Mercians," 146. For the Viking victory over Mercia, see Asser, Life of King Alfred, 34-35; Alfred the Great, 82.

(55) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records two further Viking attacks in 892 and 896, raids that Asser, because he makes the argument through a more startling comparison with Francia, does not mention here. Further reference to the persistence of Viking raids is made in Asser, Life of King Alfred, 76.

(56) Charles the Fat was deposed by Arnulf, his brother's illegitimate son (though Asser does not record this either). Considering the history of Alfred's succession to the West Saxon throne, it seems likely that Alfred, too, feared his family: see Janet L. Nelson, "A King Across the Sea: Alfred in Continental Perspective," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 5th series, 36 (1986): 45-68. Alfred's father had used a testamentary document to determine that the throne would pass from son to son in order of age. He thereby disinherited the children of his older sons. Indeed, accounts of Alfred's accession in the king's own will and in Asser suggest the difficulties Alfred faced when disinheriting AEthelred's children and later gaining their loyalty. Ultimately, however, Alfred seems to have succeeded: AEthelred's children do not rebel until the reign of Alfred's son, Edward the Elder. See, Wormald, "On ba Waepnedhealfe: Kingship and Royal Property from AEthelwulf to Edward the Elder," 264-79.

(57) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 19; Alfred the Great, 74.

(58) Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. William Trask (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953), 128-30.

(59) Asset, Life of King Alfred, 19-20; Alfred the Great, 74.

(60) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 19-20; Alfred the Great, 74-75.

(61) As in other saints' lives, Alfred suffers physically, but Asser is not interested in the virtues and graces of the physical body. Nonetheless, the connection between the book and the political body is significant. Asser's history is performative; the national identity it conveys is a form of textual affiliation.

(62) See above at note 19.

(63) AEthelgifu is consigned to a monastery, and AEthelflaed marries AEthelred, ealdorman of Mercia.

(64) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 58: "AEthelweard ... ludis literariae disciplinae, divino consilio et admirabili regis providentia, cum omnibus pene totius regionis nobilibus infantibus et etiam multis ignobilibus sub diligenti magistrorum cura traditus est." Note that Asser does not go as far as we might expect, given the prescriptions of the Preface to Gregory's Regula pastoralis.

(65) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 58: "antequam aptas humanis artibus vires haberent, venatoriae scilicet et ceteris artibus, quae nobilibus conveniunt, in liberalibus artibus studiosi et ingeniosi viderentur."

(66) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 58: "ad omnes indigenas et alienigenas humilitate, affabilitate et etiam lenitate, et cum magna patris subiectione huc usque perseverant."

(67) For an account of Alfred's "misbehaving" noblemen, see Nelson, "A King Across the Sea," 45-68 at 52-53.

(68) Nicholas Howe here reminds me of the Old English poem Precepts in Bernard J. Muir, ed., The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry, 2 vols. (The U. of Exeter Press, 1994), 1:225-28.

(69) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 60; Alfred the Great, 91.

(70) Seth Lerer, Literacy and Power in Anglo-Saxon Literature (U. of Nebraska Press, 1991), 63-64, combines questions of genealogy, paternity, and cultural production in his analysis of Alfred as a king and teacher. A further example of the court as a "nourishing" environment may be found in Asser, Life of King Alfred, 58: the children are "in curto regio nutriti" (nourished in the royal court).

(71) Among these children, the equalizing experience of education promotes a sense of community, shared experience, and thence the moral virtues which discourage rebellion.

(72) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 59-60; Alfred the Great, 91.

(73) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 77.

(74) Ibid.

(75) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 77: (Speaking of the people) "... qui nullum aut parvum voluntarie pro communi regni necessitate vellent subire laborem" (Alfred the Great, 101).

(76) Asser, Life of King Alfred, 77-78; Alfred the Great, 101-2.

(77) Ibid.

(78) See, for example, Asser, Life of King Alfred, 20-22, where Alfred learns to read; and Asser, Life of King Alfred, 57-59, where Asser talks about the education of Alfred's children.

(79) In this regard, the Vita Alfredi rather resembles the many chapter headings of the Old English Regula pastoralis, many of which suggest that there are a variety of different ways to "encourage" a people to live out a faith-filled life. For example, Sweet, ed., King Alfred's West-Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care, 178: "Da weras mon sceal hefiglicor & stidlicor laeran, & da wif liohtlicor; fordaem daet da weras higien to maran byrdene & da wif mid oleccunga weorden on gebrohte" (One should instruct men more intensely and firmly, and women more lightly, in order that men strive towards greater burdens and women be brought on with flattery).

(80) Asser's narrative does not close formally, and the entries stop in the middle of Alfred's life.

(81) See, for example, the title of the recent volume in honor of Janet Bately: Jane Roberts and Janet L. Nelson with Malcolm Godden, eds., Alfred the Wise: Studies in Honour of Janet Bately on the Occasion of her Sixty-fifth Birthday (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1997).

(82) O. Arngart, ed., The Proverbs of Alfred, 2 vols., vol. 32, Skrifter utgivna av Kungl Humanistiska Vetenskapssamfundet i Lund (Lund: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1942-1955), 73: "Alured. he wes in englene lond. / an king. wel swipe strong. / He wes king. and he wes clerek. / wel he luuede godes werk. / He wes wis on his word. / and war. on his werke. / he wes be wysuste mon: / pat wes englelonde on."

(83) Sweet, ed., King Alfred's West-Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care, 9: "Be daere byrdenne daes reccendomes" (Concerning the burden of government).

(84) Sweet, ed., King Alfred's West-Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care, 3.

(85) I am deeply influenced by Jennifer Morrish, "King Alfred's Letter as a Source on Learning in England," in Studies in Earlier Old English Prose, ed. Paul E. Szarmach (State U. of New York, 1986), 87-107, in which Morrish shows the rhetorical nature of Alfred's letter. This approach lies behind my wish to interrogate Alfred's assertion here.

(86) For an account of how the Vita Alfredi might have been read outside the court, see Campbell, "Asser's Life of Alfred," 115-35. By contrast, Scharer, "The Writing of History," 177-206, suggests how the text might have been read as a handbook for newcomers at Alfred's court.
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Author:Sheppard, Alice
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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