Anglo-Saxon modernity

This was a shame because Anglo-Saxon England had been quite progressive.

As England regrouped following its battering at the hands of the vikings, King Alfred and his ecclesiastics put a high priority on rebuilding the church. One of the difficulties in doing so was that it was impossible to train the average priest to do more than recite a few prayers by rote in Latin. They often did not even own the minimum of books they were supposed to have. Beyond that, Alfred himself was a deep thinker who regarded a life not informed by reflection as wasted. According to him, at the time of his accession very few clergy south of the Humber, not a single clerk in Wessex, and not many clerks beyond the Humber could explain what the words of the mass meant in their native language or could translate a letter from Latin into Anglo-Saxon. (In practice he was probably not doing justice to Mercian scholarship.) Even before the Danes plundered the monasteries and destroyed their libraries, there had been few who could take advantage of them. So he decided on a program of mass literacy: he himself and his assistants would translate certain books "most necessary for all men to know," and then all the free-born youths of England who could be spared would be sent to school until they could read, at least in English. Those who were to become priests would continue in school and learn to read Latin (Stenton 270). The universal aim and the use of the vulgar tongue were astoundingly modern. And although there was some emphasis on Xian values and Xian learning, the objective clearly breezes right past the needs and priorities of the church. Alfred's first translation was of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, but he also translated Bede's Ecclesiastical History and Orosius' history of the ancient world. Late in life he translated Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and wrote a meditation on St. Augustine's Soliloquies. From the point of view of Alfred and the scholars he worked with, there was no contradiction between re-establishing bishoprics, seeing that the people had priests who could serve their flocks adequately, and getting monasticism going again and promoting ancient Roman philosophy and knowledge of geography and history.

In the following century, the tenth, there was an enthusiastic monastic revival that became known as the Tenth Century Renaissance. In about 970, under Edgar, Bishop Ćţelwold of Winchester produced the Regularis Concordia, a synthesis of best practice from various monastic traditions on the Continent that was intended to be applied by all English foundations. Also during Edgar's reign, well born clerks were thrown out of the monasteries and replaced with monks, and by the end of the century bishops who had taken monastic vows had been placed in all the sees.

As in other European countries, there was pulpit-thumping about moral rottenness: Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, wrote Sermo Lupi as a call to repentance for the entire nation. But it was part of a building wave of educated vernacular scholarship, exactly as Alfred had wanted. Sermo Lupi, despite its title, is in Anglo-Saxon. Byrhtferţ of Ramsey's Enchiridion or Manual is a widely influential astronomical treatise that was written in both Latin and English to assist parish priests in their regular duties. Wulfstan not only wrote influential sermons - in English - he participated in writing the law codes of Eţelred the Unready and Cnut. And the other great sermonist of the early eleventh century, Ćlfric of Eynsham, wrote sermons in beautiful alliterative prose for the parish priests to use, and translated sections of the Bible, while at the same time composing a manual of grammar for Anglo-Saxons learning Latin and writing a Latin biography of his master Ćţelwold and a Latin abridgment of the Regularis Concordia. As many scholars have bemoaned, Anglo-Saxon poetry also eventually jumped on the Bible bandwagon and became a series of verse retellings of the Old Testament.

But all of this amounts to a virtual prefiguring of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century: the use of the vernacular, the emphasis on Scripture, on understanding it, and on preaching to the laity and serving their religious needs, the promotion of universal literacy and of non-religious learning alongside theology and liturgy, and the conviction that greater knowledge and more informed thought in all realms could only make people better Xians. Even the moral breast-beating, although churchmen castigated the immorality of their people and their rulers throughout the Middle Ages as a sign of good faith and a means of getting attention. The only real differences were the emphasis on the monastic, which can be explained by the fact that English cathedrals had been set up from the start as minsters, cathedrals with monasteries as part of them, so that the most educated and serious clerics were all naturally monks - and the fact that the English church did not question the authority of Rome. It just saw it as remote and difficult and expensive to get to. Alfred had made two journeys to Rome as a child and they probably played a large part in forming his philosophy of learning. Ćlfric would have been shocked by the suggestion that Latin could be dispensed with, and grumbled about the proliferation of rival translations of the Bible. It was the medium of higher learning. But the Anglo-Saxon churchmen did not see themselves as guardians of secret knowledge that must be hidden behind Latin as an impenetrable veil, and in that and what they achieved, they were six hundred years ahead of their time.

It was the same kind of matter of fact modernity that caused the English barons to force King John to sign the Magna Carta, the "Great Charter of Freedoms," at Runnymede in 1215. A resurgence of the Anglo-Saxon spirit that left choosing the king up to the witan and reserved to the witan the right to rebuke or even depose him.


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