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Two years have now passed since a public meeting was held in the town of Wantage, on the 25th of October 1849, to celebrate the Jubilee or thousandth year since the birth of king Alfred the Great.
At that festival, twenty thousand of our fellow-countrymen were met together, and the whole town presented an appearance of mirth and holiday. A select number of one hundred persons dined together at the Alfred's Head, and their chairman was Charles Eyston esq. of Hendred House, near Wantage, a true English gentleman and both in heart and name a thorough AngloSaxon. At that meeting, attended by guests from every part of England, and from America—that hopeful mother of future Anglo-Saxons, as well as from Germany, that ancient cradle of our common race,-surrounded with banners of every hue, with trophies, legends and memorials, it was declared to the world that the name of Alfred, who on that spot first saw the light, should not be forgotten. At that meeting it was resolved :
That a JUBILEE EDITION of the Works of King ALFRED The Great, with copious literary, historical, and pictorial illustrations, should be immediately undertaken, to be edited by the most
competent Anglo-Saxon scholars who might be willing to combine for such a purpose.
This noble design immediately revived the hopes which all English, and indeed all Anglo-Saxon, scholars had so long entertained,—that they might at last see the valuable writings of the great king, whom Old England called her Hero and her Darling, united into one collection, worthy of their author, and of the people who owe to him their arts, arms, and civilization.
It is well known that some of the learned societies, which are engaged in investigating the early history and antiquities of this country, and in publishing the most valuable documents and records of every description, had repeatedly taken into consideration such a plan ; that a few of the first and most profound scholars in Saxon history and literature had intended to do the same; and that transcripts of several of Alfred's works had been made by various persons, and were actually almost ready for the press. Owing, however, to various circumstances, which it is unnecessary here to detail, neither societies nor private individuals had been able to carry this design into execution. What, however, public societies and private persons have failed to do, is now on the verge of accomplishment, after the revolution of one of those eras which often inspire mankind to feelings that otherwise would have slumbered.
The Jubilee Edition might have been offered to the public without any preliminary observations whatever ; for the works themselves would have told their own story, and sufficiently have indicated the mind of their great author. But, as many of our readers were before, possibly, ignorant even of the fact that King Alfred has left behind him numerous writings in the Saxon or Old English language, it may not be lost time to notice them in this preface with such remarks as may serve to point out the circumstances which give to them their value and render them so interesting to all Englishmen.
The first peculiarity of King Alfred's writings is the remarkable fact that they are all written in the old English language. This circumstance alone places them above both praise and blame. In the ninth century, when all the rest of Europe was dark as night, and the light of the mind seemed on the point of being extinguished among men for ever, there was found, in England, a man
whose soul shone through that thick darkness, and that individual was a king, engaged in a long course of more cruel warfare than the most warlike kings and generals of all former times had ever before accomplished,—and that man had grown to be a boy of twelve years
old before he had ever learned to read at all! To praise such a wonderful man is to gild the rainbow or to paint the lily!—to criticise his writings for any other purpose than to admire, would be unjust towards their author, who had no model to copy, no rules to follow, and who was forced, in the intellectual sterility of his
age, not to imitate what had gone before, but to carve out models for those who should come after him. Viewed in this light, the works of King Alfred give us a magnificent idea of his superiority over the rest of the world : for he was the inventor, if we may use the expression, of a vernacular literature. His writings are not stored up in the obscurities of monkish Latin, of which it is hard to say whether the trouble of reading it or of writing it is the greater : but they were written in plain English, which the plough-boy, as he whistled his way to the furrow in the neighbourhood of Wantage, might have read with ease, and with profit. And what adds to the merit of these works is the ascertained fact, that the king of England was working alone at that time in pioneering and opening the road to a national literature. All besides himself were grinding in the heavy mill of the Fathers and the Schoolmen, putting forth to the world masses of literary rubbish, which, without doing one atom of good to mankind, swelled the libraries of the monasteries, entailing a load of mental tribulation on posterity for centuries to come.
What, then, is the nature of the writings which employed the pen
of a great prince, who was to found the largest and most powerful empire that the world has yet beheld? The reader will see in these volumes what were the writings of the king. They extend to almost every kind of learning then known, or rather, it may be said they reach even beyond the utmost excellence of all contemporary learning. They comprise Poetry, History, Geography, Moral Philosophy, and Legislation ; and they form, in fact, the most valuable portion of Anglo-Saxon Literature. It is no disparagement to these writings, that they are mostly paraphrases of ancient Latin authors. This peculiarity was the necessary result of the ignorance in which the whole English nation were then sunk. We may see, in the words of Alfred himself, found in
I wish you
his own works, the lamentable state of degradation to which the national learning was reduced.
Reason ! thou knowest that covetousness and the possession of this earthly power I did not well like, nor strongly desired at all this earthly kingdom, but, oh! I desired materials for the work that I was commanded to do. This was that I might unfractiously and becomingly steer and rule the power committed to me
-What! thou knowest that no man may show any craft or rule, nor steer any power without tools and materials. There are materials for every craft, without which a man cannot work in that craft.
These are the materials of a king's work, and his tools to govern with ; THAT HE HAVE HIS LAND FULLY PEOPLED; that he should have his prayermen,
and armymen, and workmen. What! thou knowest that without these tools no king
, may show his skill.
These are also his materials, that with these tools he should have provision for these three classes, and their provision then is, land to inhabit, and gifts, and weapons, and meat, and ale, clothes, and what else that these three classes need; nor can he without these keep his tools; nor without these tools can he work any of those things that it is commanded to him to do.
know that it often occurs to my mind to consider, what manner of wise men there were formerly in the English nation, both Spiritual and Temporal, and how happy the times then were ainong the English, and how the kings, who then had the government of the people, obeyed God and his written will, how well they behaved both in war and peace, and in their domestic government, and how they prospered in knowledge and in wisdom. I considered also how earnest God's ministers then were, as well about preaching as about learning, and about all the service which they did to God, and men came from foreign countries to seek wisdoin and doctrine in this land, and how we who live in these times are now obliged to go abroad to get them. To so low a depth has learning fallen among the English nation, that there have been very few on this side of the Humber, who were able to understand the English of their service, or to turn an epistle out of Latin into English; and I know there were not many beyond the Humber who could do it. There were so few, that I CANNOT THINK OP ONE ON THE SOUTH SIDE OF THE THAMES, WHEN I FIRST BEGAN TO REIGN !
It is now our pleasing task to notice the means to which Alfred had recourse in order to remedy the evil. And here, also, he shall tell in his own words, the designs which his master mind conceived and executed :
I called to mind [SAYS HE], that the law was first written in the Hebrew tongue, and that, when the Greeks learned it, they translated it into their own language, besides many other books. And after them the Latins, when they learned it, translated it, by means of wise interpreters, into their own language, as all other Christian people, too, have turned some part of it also into their own tongue. For which reason I think it best, if you too think so, that we also