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Asser, John
Bishop of Sherborne



Having read little over half of Bernard Cornwell's recommended series 'The Saxon Stories' aka 'The Last Kingdom' because of the TV-series, the books encouraged me to dive into the history (incl. mythology, politics, and more) of the Vikings. I've read a good handful of such books, still have a good handful on my TBR-pile, as you can see on one of my shelves.

Asser's 'Life of King Alfred' is not only recommended by Bernard Cornwell himself, but also a very valuable and important historical work. Penguin's edition contains not only 'Life of King Alfred', but also other, historical and primary sources connected to Alfred the Great, king of Wessex and later England. The last related work I read and which pushed me to pick up 'Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources' sooner rather than later, was 'Aelfred's Britain: War And Peace In The Viking Age' by the archaeologist Max Adams. See my review here.

Not that there haven't been other books written about Alfred; on the contrary, even. Also, one mustn't stop at one book about Alfred or the Anglo-Saxons in general. Reading about Alfred the Great also means one must expand that to reading about the Anglo-Saxons AND the Vikings (mythology, general history, the sagas, culture, ...), to see the bigger picture, to see how England became England, though still divided between the various kingdoms, and how the situation was on the continent, with France, the Franks, Flanders, the Normans, the Burgundians, and so on. Not to mention what preceded: The Celts, the Romans, ...

Alfred had a tough time as king, not just of Wessex but also of the other territories he ruled over. The invading and occupying Vikings caused him many headaches and sleepless nights. So much even that his health deteriorated. And yet, despite the problems, Alfred was a devote and religious ruler, put a lot of faith in God, the church, the bishops, ... and the arts. Reading, writing, ... were key activities for him personally and to teach to his people. He read several Latin works, had them also read to him, and even translated (whenever he could) some of them into English, so that copies of his translations could be provided to various minsters, bishops and alike, if not the people.

Asser, a Welsh bishop, was hired to become Alfred's personal assistant, teacher, chronicler, and more, though Asser couldn't commit full-time to the job. Still, his biography of Alfred offers a very interesting view of England's king, at least from his perspective. It's not a complete work, however. Asser's style is also a bit dry, yet reads quite fluently.

This Penguin edition contains a long, but interesting introduction about Alfred, about his youth, the family he grew up in, and obviously his period as king, as difficult as it was. A vital read to begin with. Followed by Asser's (incomplete) biography, an extract from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the period 888-900. These entries are succeeded by (parts of) a few of Alfred's works or what was left of them:
* preface of Werferth's translation of Gregory's 'Dialogues'
* translation of Gregory's 'Pastoral Care'
* translation of Boethius's 'Consolation of Philosophy' (this looks interesting, I might read this book one day)
* translation of Augustine's 'Soliloquies'
* translation of the Psalter (pretty stern/harsh text, I must say)

Last but not least, a few miscellaneous sources (extracts or full texts) for the reign of King Alfred:
* the laws of King Alfred
* the treaty between Alfred and Guthrum
* the will of King Alred
* Alfred's charter for Ealderman Æthelhelm
* the letter of Fulco, archbishop of Reims, to King Alfred
* Bishop Wulfsige's preface to the translation of Gregory's 'Dialogues'
* Æthelward's account of the closing years of Alfred's reign
* Two acrostic poems on King Alfred
* The 'Burghal Hidage'

Two appendices complete the book:
* Alfred and the Cakes
* The Alfred Jewel (see also the the depiction on the cover)

Oh yes, there are also extensive notes on almost, if not every, part of the book. And while they contains useful information, I agree with someone else here (can't find that review at the moment), and it's also a pet peeve of mine in general: if you want to keep track and don't mind flipping the pages back and forth, go ahead. Otherwise, simply skip the notes, read the texts in questions and maybe consult the notes when needed. Or consult the notes, then go the that particular word/phrase.

Yes, Penguin probably decided, for the sake of clarity and ease, to put all notes together in one block, so as to not have pages where the notes take up more space than the respective documents themselves. In that sense, I understand the decision. But it's not practical, in general. You could also wonder why some of these notes were not simply added to the regular text? Especially then the large introduction section.

Did I mention there are maps and genealogical tables? Mandatory elements in a work of history/ical value, of course. Next to the extensive list of consulted/related books.

To cut it short: Biographies aren't my cup of tea, yet a book like this one, especially when I've read historical fiction set in that era, makes it all the more worthwhile. From what I've read, Alfred may not have been an easy man, but he was devoted to the cause, determined to unite the various kingdoms (Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria, East Anglia, ...) and wanted people to live in peace with each other, to learn to read and write, to develop such talents, and have a nation of well-learned, intelligent people. Though he wasn't really a fan of the Vikings, as they caused him too much trouble with all their plundering, conquering, fighting, despite having established their own communities under their own rules, the Danelaw.

'Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and Other Contemporary Sources', a recommended piece of history to accompany your historical fiction reads about the Vikings and Anglo-Saxons, and/or your other non-fiction reads about the Middle Ages.
… (lisätietoja)
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TechThing | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Feb 28, 2022 |
This book is a valuable and fascinating resource shedding light on the life and career on King Alfred of Wessex, who became known (in my opinion deservedly so) in later centuries as ‘The Great’. In the simplest level the main body of the book is simple an account of Alfred’s reign, written by the Welsh monk, Asser.

Admittedly, his work was bound to be partisan and designed to make Alfred look good, and the cynical may claim that this renders in unreliable. Ret there may be found insights into the source of Alfred’s greatness. More than simply a warlord fighting against the Vikings, Alfred took steps to restore learning and education. Tthe learning and application of wisdom’ seems to have been a subject close to Alfred’s heart, and though he himself did not learn to read until his later years, he seems to have established a school of sorts. Since the decline of the learning in England is lamented in the preface to the translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, this particular foundation may have been considered particularly important.

The ‘other contemporary sources’ mentioned in the title include extracts from some of Alfred’s own translations’ of important works, including Boethius Consolation of Philosophy. There are some profound thoughts here, on life, leadership, philosophy and religion. ‘Wisdom is the highest virtue’ says Alfred’s translation of the work ‘one is caution, the second moderation the third courage and the fourth justice’. The King did take some liberties with his ‘translations’ sometimes inserting ideas of his own (one passage in the Boethius translation hints at the idea of the ‘three estates’ for instance.

Some may challenge the notion that medieval religion was based on ‘blind faith’ with not room for rational enquiry “Therefore we must investigate God with all out might, so that we might know what He is. Although it is not within our capacity to know what He is like, we ought nevertheless to inquire with the intellectual capacity which he gives us”

Or as in a passage from Augustune ‘He rules the Kings who have the greatest dominion on this earth, who are born and die like other men. He permits then to rule as long as He wills it’. Another translation reveals perhaps something of Alfred’s concerns, priorities and interests. Pastoral Care written by the seventh century Pope Gregory contains several short ‘chapters’, entitled respectively

‘Concerning the Burden of Government, and how the ruler must despise all hardships and must recoil from all sense or security’ and ‘How the administration of Government often distracts the mind of the ruler’. The latter warns against a ruler may becoming ‘puffed up’ by his achievements and his people’s praising of them. The preface speaks of how rulers of old ‘obeyed God and his messages’ and maintained not only peace but ‘morality and authority’ and home and in the places to which they extended their power, and ‘succeeded both in warfare and in wisdom’. Perhaps these were idealistic and naïve expectations, rarely met, if indeed it was possible to do so. Yet it may be tempting to think they could be relevant to any age.

Alongside translations, there are extracts from the King’s laws, in his capacity as a lawgiver, and even a mention in the main Life of his having possibly developed a more efficient way of measuring time.

The Life of Alfred and other Contemporary Sources is a great start for learning of Alfred, and perhaps even understanding him in spite of the separation of over a millennium. Those interested in more academic analysis could of course read more, not that it is entirely lacking here.
The notes are quite extensive. The two editors cum translators also appear to be prominent Anglo Saxon scholars, who both worked on The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo Saxon England. Thus they are not historians out of their depth in an unfamiliar period, or enthusiastic laymen, but scholars who know their stuff, yet succeed in making it accessible- at least in my opinion.
… (lisätietoja)
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Medievalgirl | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Oct 4, 2016 |
The Book contains Asser's Life of the king, and selections from Alfred's own writings on philosophical subjects. This is a good source book and was fittingly translated.
The life was written in 893.
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DinadansFriend | 5 muuta kirja-arvostelua | Jan 21, 2014 |
This account of the life of Alfred is significant as being the first biography of an English king. Much of it reads like an embellished version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, with repeated accounts of Viking movements and counter measures against them. But the last section is a more personal account of the King's intellectual and even medical life, and of Bishop Asser's relations towards him. Worth reading for the very rare light it sheds on the life of an Anglo Saxon ruler, justly called the Great, in light of his preventing the total Viking takeover of England at the Battle of Edington.… (lisätietoja)
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john257hopper | Nov 16, 2011 |



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