Friday, 26 October 2012

Alfred the Great, and Wantage Parish Church - or not

Today is the anniversary of the death in 899 of Alfred the Great, one of the most attractive figures of Anglo-Saxon history.  There are all sorts of reasons to love Alfred, 'England's darling' (as he was called by the twelfth century): defender of his kingdom against the Vikings, law-maker, pioneer of the navy, patron of the church - all that good stuff.  But I like him most for his educational and literary interests.  Any competent king might win battles and make good laws - but how many rulers devote themselves, in the middle of wartime, to the education of their people?  To summarise, Alfred believed that learning in England was in a poor state after the depredations of Viking attacks, and there were too few educated people to hold up literacy in the church and society at large.  He approached this problem by inviting foreign scholars to come and help him revive learning in England, and he arranged for the translation of - or perhaps even translated himself - a range of religious and philosophical texts into English: the first fifty Psalms, Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care and Dialogues, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, Augustine’s Soliloquies, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History; he also encouraged the writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.  He believed these were the books 'most necessary for all men to know', and he wanted people to be able to read them in the vernacular.  Let's hear from Alfred in his own words:

[M]ē cōm swīðe oft gemynd, hwelce wiotan īu wǣron giond Angelcynn, ǣgðer ge godcundra hāda ge woruldcundra; ond hū gesǣliglīca tīda ðā wǣron giond Angelcynn; ond hū ðā kyningas ðe ðone onwald hæfdon ðæs folces on ðām dagum Gode ond his ǣrendwrecum hērsumedon; ond hū hīe ǣgðer ge hiora sibbe ge ge hiora siodo ge hiora onweald innanbordes gehīoldon, ond ēac ūt hiora ēðel gerȳmdon; ond hū him ðā spēow ǣgðer ge mid wīge ge mid wīsdōme; ond ēac ðā godcundan hādas hū giorne hīe wǣron ǣgðer ge ymb lāre ge ymb liornunga, ge ymb ealle ðā ðīowotdōmas ðe hīe Gode dōn scoldon; ond hū man ūtanbordes wīsdōm ond lāre hieder on lond sōhte, ond hū wē hīe nū sceoldan ūte begietan, gif wē hīe habban sceoldan. Swǣ clǣne hīo wæs oðfeallenu on Angelcynne ðæt swīðe fēawa wǣron behionan Humbre ðe hiora ðēninga cūðen understondan on Englisc oððe furðum ān ǣrendgewrit of Lǣdene on Englisc āreccan; ond ic wēne ðætte nōht monige begiondan Humbre nǣren. Swǣ fēawa hiora wǣron ðæt ic furðum ānne ānlēne ne mæg geðencean be sūðan Temese, ðā ðā ic tō rīce fēng...

Ðā ic ðā ðis eall gemunde, ðā gemunde ic ēac hū ic geseah, ǣr ðǣm ðe hit eall forhergod wǣre ond forbærned, hū ðā ciricean giond eall Angelcynn stōdon māðma ond bōca gefylda, ond ēac micel menigeo Godes ðīowa, ond ðā swīðe lȳtle fiorme ðāra bōca wiston, for ðǣm ðe hīe hiora nānwuht ongietan, ne meahton, for ðǣm ðe hīe nǣron on hiora agen geðīode āwritene. Swelce hīe cwǣðen: 'Ūre ieldran, ðā ðe ðās stōwa ǣr hīoldon, hīe lufodon wīsdōm, ond ðurh ðone hīe begēaton welan, ond ūs lǣfdon. Hēr mon mæg gīet gesīon hiora swæð, ac wē him ne cunnon æfter spyrigean, ond for ðǣm wē habbað nū ǣgðer forlǣten ge ðone welcan ge ðone wīsdōm, for ðǣm ðe wē noldon tō ðǣm spore mid ūre mōde onlūtan.'

Ðā ic ðā ðis eall gemunde, ðā wundrade ic swīðe swīðe ðāra gōdena wiotona ðe gīu wǣron giond Angelcynn, ond ðā bēc ealla be fullan geliornod hæfdon, ðæt hīe hiora ðā nǣnne dǣl noldon on hiora āgen geðīode wendan. Ac ic ðā sōna eft mē selfum andwyrde, ond cwæð: 'Hīe ne wēndon þætte ǣfre menn sceoldon swǣ rēccelēase weorðan, ond sīo lār swǣ oðfeallan; for ðǣre wilnunga hīe hit forlēton, ond woldon ðæt hēr ðȳ māra wīsdōm on londe wǣre ðȳ wē mā geðēoda cūðon.'

Ðā gemunde ic hū sīo ǣ wæs ǣrest on Ebrēisc geðīode funden, ond eft, ðā hīe Crēacas geliornoden, ðā wendon hīe hīe on hiora āgen geðīode ealle, ond ēac ealle ōðre bēc. Ond eft Lǣdenware swǣ same, siððan hīe hīe geliornodon, hīe hīe wendon ealla ðurh wīse wealhstōdas on hiora āgen geðīode. Ond ēac ealla ōðra Crīstena ðīoda sumne dǣl hiora on hiora āgen geðīode wendon. For ðȳ mē ðyncð betre, gif īow swǣ ðyncð, ðæt wē ēac suma bēc, ðā ðe nīedbeðearfosta sīen eallum monnum tō wiotonne, ðæt wē ðā on ðæt geðīode wenden ðe wē ealle gecnāwan mægen...

Ða ic ða gemunde hu sio lar Lædengeðiodes ær ðissum āfeallen wæs giond Angelcynn, ond ðēah monige cūðon Englisc gewrit ārǣdan, ðā ongan ic ongemang ōðrum mislīcum ond manigfealdum bisgum ðisses kynerīces ðā bōc wendan on Englisc ðe is genemned on Lǣden 'Pastoralis,' ond on Englisc 'Hierdebōc,' hwīlum word be worde, hwīlum angit of angiete...

And in my own words:

It very often comes into my mind what wise men there once were among the English people, both in sacred and secular states of life, and what a blessed time that was then among the English: how the kings who held power over the people in those days obeyed God and his ministers, and how they maintained peace, morality and power within their borders, and also extended their kingdom beyond them, and how they prospered both by war and by wisdom; and also of those in holy orders, how enthusiastic they were about both teaching and learning, and about all the acts of service that they ought to do for God; and how men from abroad sought wisdom and instruction here in this land, and how we now have to get them from abroad if we want to have them.  Learning had so completely declined among the English that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their services in English, or could translate a letter from Latin into English; and I think there were not many beyond the Humber, either. There were so few of them that I cannot even think of a single one south of the Thames, at the time when I became king...

When I remembered all this, then I also remembered how I had seen, before it was all ravaged and burnt, how the churches throughout England stood filled with treasures and books, and there were also a great many of God's servants; they got very little benefit from those books, for they did not understand anything in them, and could not, because they were not written in their own language.  It was as if they said: 'Our elders, who once held these places, loved wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and left it to us.  Here one may still see their footprints, but we cannot follow after them; and so we have now lost both the wealth and the wisdom, because we would not bend down our minds to study their tracks.'

When I remembered all this, then I wondered very much that the good and wise men who there formerly were throughout England, who had learned all those books to the full, did not translate any of them into their own language. But I answered myself at once, and said: 'They did not think that people would ever become so careless, or that learning would decay so much; they chose not to do it, thinking that there would be more wisdom in the country, the more languages we knew.'

Then I remembered how the Law was first established in the Hebrew language, and afterwards, when the Greeks learned it, they translated it all into their own language, and also all the other books [of the Bible].  And later in the same way the Romans, when they had learned them, translated them all through wise interpreters into their own language; and all other Christian peoples have also translated some part of them into their own language.  Therefore it seems better to me, if it seems so to you, that we too translate certain books - those which are most necessary for all men to know - into the language we can all understand...

When I remembered how knowledge of Latin had formerly decayed throughout England, and yet many knew how to read written English, then I began among the other sundry and manifold cares of this kingdom to translate into English the book that is called in Latin 'Pastoralis', and in English "Shepherd-book," sometimes word for word, and sometimes sense for sense...

And there you have it - an explanation of the advantages of translation and a programme for the production of vernacular literature.

To pay homage to Alfred I thought today I'd pay a visit to the town of Wantage, which is where he was born.  It's not that far from Oxford, and I've never been before.  In Alfred's time it was the site of a royal palace, and it stands near the ancient tracks of the Ridgeway and the Icknield Way, in the Vale of the White Horse.  These paths and the white horse were ancient long before Alfred was born, or before he learned to memorise English poetry at his mother's knee.

Today Wantage is a small market town, and there's not much to see there, so the aim of my visit was to see the parish church.  (There seemed a good chance of Alfred-themed stained glass).  But this was where the expedition, so perfectly planned, fell down.  Attempting to learn from my last disastrous church expedition to Headington Quarry, where the church website said the church would be open when it wasn't, and I waited around in the rain for an hour until it was, I absolutely scoured the Wantage church website for opening times.  'Open daily', it said, with a service at noon lasting an hour; so I thought, I'll aim to arrive at 1pm, and that will give me plenty of time to look round.  Oh, foolish me.  You see, the church website expected me to psychically divine that 'open daily' actually means 'open for two hours every morning, and locked every afternoon'.  And so, after my expensive and chilly bus ride from Oxford, this is what awaited me in Wantage when I arrived at 1pm:

Open between 10.30 and 12.30!  I could have cried; when you're standing in front of a locked door it starts to feel like a rather pointed metaphor.  I took a picture of the sign because, well, there was nothing else to take a picture of, and its solidity infuriated me.  When they were having this sign planned and professionally made, didn't it occur to anyone to say, 'you know, if you're not standing right outside the church door this information isn't available - maybe we should put it on our website...'?  It's this kind of thing that makes me think churches don't really want to interact with the public, since they've given no thought to how strangers might first encounter them.  (I've recently been doing some work writing the website of a small charity, so I've been thinking about these things).  Of course churches can open and close at whatever hours they please, but what's the harm in providing clear and accurate information about the hours they're open?  To do otherwise, when people might be travelling some distance to visit, is just thoughtless and inconsiderate.

Anyway, this is what the outside of the church looks like:

The churchyard was leafy and autumnal, but it was raining, so I didn't linger.

It's pretty, but would have been prettier in the sunshine.  Experiences like this make me think I should really stop trying to write my own church-visiting posts, and become one of those blogs which just copies and pastes photos and text from Wikipedia; at least you can do that from the comfort of a warm, dry room!

As I said, there's really nothing to see in Wantage apart from the church; the site of the Saxon palace hasn't been conclusively identified, and although there's a nice little brook running through the town, it's not much fun in the rain.  There's a town museum where, in desperation, I whiled away a few minutes, only to find myself being annoyed by signs like this:

'The only king in British history to be called 'Great''?  Um, no...

And really, that was it.  My trip to Wantage proved to be a complete waste of time and money.  The most interesting thing I saw was the statue of Alfred in the Market Place, which looks like this:

With the inscription:

But, you know, there's a bigger statue of Alfred in Winchester and Winchester actually wants visitors, so if you're looking for Alfred-related destinations I suggest you go there instead.

 Alfred looks out over Wantage.  Probably in disapproval.

To end on a more positive note - because I do love Alfred, truly - let me link to this post from last December about various Alfred-related things I saw in Winchester; and encourage you to read Chesterton's long poem on Alfred, if you haven't before ('The Ballad of the White Horse', which can be found here); and also draw your attention to this series of short essays currently running on Radio 3, all biographies of notable Anglo-Saxon people.  I stumbled across the programme on St Cuthbert last night by chance, but will be catching up on the rest of the series over the weekend - the essays have been written by the great and good of the Anglo-Saxon academic world, and so promise all to be as well-written as Cuthbert's was...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I also tried to visit Wantage church at the end of of a walk during which I had already visited (and left donations at) several other village churches in the area. This is the first Church I have found locked up for some time now. What is more disappointing is the website information saying it is open. The church is right in the town centre so it must be missing visitors.