Eleanor Parker–Alfred the Truly Great

You can see a manuscript of this text here. To translate it ‘into the language we can all understand’:

It has very often come into my mind what wise people there once were among the English, 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 their peace, their morality and their 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. Thanks be to Almighty God that we now have any supply of teachers at all! And so I ask you to do what I believe you wish to do: that you disengage yourself from worldly matters as often as you can, so that wherever you can make use of that wisdom which God gave you, use it. Consider what punishments came upon us in this world when we neither loved wisdom in any way ourselves, nor passed it on to others. Then we loved only the name of being Christians, and very few loved the practices.

When I remembered all this, then I also remembered how I had seen, before it was all ravaged and burnt, how the churches throughout all 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 people who there formerly were among the English, 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…

This is wonderful: an explanation of the advantages of translation, an assertion of the value of wisdom and learning, and a programme for the production of vernacular literature.

Read it all.


Posted in Church History