English not only survived the Danish invasion, eventually it benefited. When Alfred looked around at the state of the written culture, he found it to be in ruins. He used English to help weld together a demoralised and fragile people. It is also true that his stern sense of Christian duty another of the factors which so endeared him to discerning Victorians drove him to reinstitute the scholarship and learning which a century of Danish raids, often on the soft targets of monasteries, had so badly depleted. The high days of Bede and the tradition he exemplified had gone.
In the whole of Wessex, Alfred could barely find a handful of priests who could read and understand Latin. If they could not understand Latin they could not pass on the teachings of the religious books that told people how to lead virtuous lives.They could not save souls. Alfred found a chronic spiritual sickness in his kingdom and, as in war, he led from the front. At the age of forty, he learned Latin to help with the translations. For he had come up with a radical solution that hinged not on Latin but on English through translations. And in doing this, he took English to new heights of achievement.
In the preface to his own translation of Pope Gregory's Pastoral Care, Alfred wrote: "I remember how, before it was all ravaged and burned, I'd seen how the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books. And there was also a multitude of God's servants who had very little benefit from those books because they could not understand anything of them since they were not written in their own language."
Their own language was, of course, English. Alfred decided to come to the study of Latin through English. The best scholars could then go on to learn Latin and join holy orders. The rest would still have access to spiritual guidance, but it would be written in English. Centred on his capital town of Winchester, he drew up an extraordinarily imaginative plan unmatched anywhere else in Europe to empower the written vernacular which would not only bring the word of God to many denied it but also promote literacy, encourage scholarship and help unite the realm.
"We should," he wrote, "translate certain books which are most necessary for men to know into the language that we can all understand and also arrange it as, with God's help, we very easily can if we have peace, so that all the youth of free men now among the English people, who have the means to be able to devote themselves, may be set to study, for as long as they are of no other use, until the time that they are able to read English writing well." And English, the word "Englisc," was here used as confidently as the word "Latin." Alfred's power and intelligence put it on the map of languages.
From Chapter 2 of The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, pages 16-28. Copyright Melvyn Bragg 2003. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Arcade Publishing Inc. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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