The Inheritance of Historiography, 350-900

By Christopher Holdsworth; T.P. Wiseman | Go to book overview

IX
ASSER’S LIFE OF ALFRED

James Campbell

Asser, a Welsh cleric, entered the service of King Alfred in about 886. Seven years later he wrote a life of his lord, most unusual in being written during the lifetime of its subject; for Alfred did not die until 899. Its plan is curious: after its introductory account of Alfred’s birth and descent, it can be divided into six sections: three are annalistic, describing events, most military, and largely derived from an early version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; these alternate with three sections describing aspects of the king’s life and character. The book is sometimes rambling and disjointed, with inconsequential and apparently contradictory elements, even at crucial points, and is written in a style in which eloquence vies with clumsiness. The loose construction has suggested, though it does not prove, that our text is a draft.2 Some of what Asser says, and the way in which he says it, falls oddly on the ears of historians more accustomed to medieval centuries other than the ninth. For example V.H. Galbraith wrote of Asser’s lacking ‘the humour and the immediacy which belong to contemporary writing’ and felt an instinctive distrust which helped him to the conviction that the work is a fake.3 It is not a fake; and it is very important.4 The only known life of an English king written before the eleventh century, it has to be considered beside the other works composed at Alfred’s court: the Chronicle, the Laws, and the translation of Latin works of edification. The ‘Alfredian Renaissance’ is a singular phenomenon in the history of learning, and of the state. Fully to understand the nature and origins of Asser’s work would be to understand much else about the relationships between [earning and power in Dark Age Europe. I say ‘would be’, not ‘is’, because as far as I am concerned, the nature of the book is by no means fully understood.

One thing of which one can be reasonably sure is that Asser’s work stands in a Carolingian historical tradition. The relationship between Wessex and the Carolingians was a substantial one. Alfred’s grandfather, Egbert, had been an exile at Charlemagne’s court at a time when its leading intellectual was the English Alcuin. Alfred’s stepmother (later sister-in-law), Judith, was a Carolingian princess. Very prominent among the scholars whom Alfred took into his service were Grimbald of St Bertin’s, sent with the aid of Fulk, archbishop of Rheims, and John the

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