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Bæda’s Latin work that English literature strikes its keynote.
ÆLFRED'S WORK.— When Bæda died, Northumbria was the home of English literature. Though as yet written mostly in Latin, it was a wide-spread literature. Wilfrid of York and Benedict Biscop had founded libraries and established monastic schools far and wide. Six hundred scholars gathered round Bæda ere he died. But towards the end of his life, this northern literature began to decay, and after 866 it was, we may say, blotted out by the Danes. The long battle with these invaders was lost in Northumbria, but it was gained for a time by Ælfred the Great in Wessex; and with ÆLFRED'S literary work learning changed its seat from the north to the south. But he made it by his writings an English, not a Latin, literature; and in his translations he, since Bæda's work is lost, is the true father of English prose.
As Whitby is the cradle of English poetry, so is Winchester of English prose. At Winchester Ælfred took the English tongue and made it the tongue in which history, philosophy, law, and religion spoke to the English people. No work was ever done more eagerly or more practically. He brought scholars from different parts of the world. He set up schools in his monasteries. He presided over a school in his own court. He made himself master of a literary English style, and he did this that he might teach his people. He translated the popular manuals of the time into English, but he edited them with large additions of his own, needful, as he thought, for English use. He gave his nation moral philosophy in Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy; a universal history, with geographical chapters of his own, in the History of Orosius ; a history of England in Bæda's History, giving to some details a West Saxon form ; and a religious hand-book in the Pastoral Rule of Pope Gregory. We do not quite know whether he worked himself at the English, or Anglo-Saxon, Chronicle, but at least it was in his reign
that it rose out of meagre lists into a full narrative of events. To him, then, we look back as the father of English literature.”
* With the Peace of Wedmore in 878 began a work even more noble than this deliverance of Wessex from the Dane. “So long as I have lived,' wrote Ælfred in later days, “I have striven to live worthily.' He longed, when death overtook him, to leave to the men that come after a remembrance of me in good works.' The aim has been more than fulfilled. The memory of the life and doings of the noblest of English rulers has come down to us living and distinct through the mists of exaggeration and legend that gathered round it. He really lived for the good of his people. He is the first instance, in the history of Christendom, of the Christian King, of a ruler who put aside every personal aim or ambition to devote himself to the welfare of those whom he ruled. The defence of his realm provided for, he devoted himself to its good government. His work was of a simple and practical order. wanting in the imaginative qualities which mark the higher statesman, nor can we trace in his acts any sign of the creative faculty or any perception of new ideas. In politics as in war, or in his after dealings with letters, he simply took what was closest at hand, and made the best of it. The laws of Ini and Offa were codified and amended, justice was more rigidly administered, corporal punishment was substituted in most cases for the old blood-wite, or money-fine, and the right of private revenge was curtailed.
The strong moral bent of Ælfred's mind was seen in some of the novelties of his legislation. The Ten Commandments and a portion of the Law of Moses were prefixed to his code, and thus became part of the law of the land. Labor on Sundays and holy days was made criminal, and heavy punishments were exacted for sacrilege, perjury, and the seduction of nuns. The spirit of adventure that made him in youth the first huntsman of his day, and the reckless daring of his early manhood took later and graver form in the activity that found time amidst the cares of state for the daily duties of religion, for converse with strangers, for study and translation, for learning poems by heart, for planning buildings and instructing craftsmen in gold-work, for teaching even falconers and dog-keepers their business. Restless as he was, his activity was the activity of a mind strictly practical. Ælfred was pre-eminently a man of business, careful of detail, laboriious, and methodical. He carried in his bosom a little hand-book, in which he jotted down things as they struck him-now a bit of family genealogy, now a prayer, and now a story, such as that of Bishop Eald.
helm's singing sacred songs on the bridge. Each hour of the king's day had its peculiar task ; there was the same order in the division of his revenue and in the arrangement of his court. But, active and busy as he was, his temper remained simple and kindly.
Neither the wars nor the legislation of Ælfred was destined to leave such lasting traces upon England as the impulse he gave to its literature. His end indeed even in this was practical rather than literary. What he aimed at was simply the education of his people. As yet Wessex was the most ignorant of the English kingdoms. · When I began to reign,' said Ælfred, 'I cannot remember one south of Thames who couid explain his service-book in English.' To remedy this ignorance Ælfred desired that at least every free-born youth who possessed the means should “abide at his book till he can well understand English writing.'' J. R. Green.
THE LATER OLD ENGLISH PROSE.--"The impulse Alfred gave soon fell away, but it was revived under King Eadgar, when Æthelwald, Bishop of Winchester, made it his constant work to keep up English schools and to translate Latin works into English, and when Archbishop Dunstan took up the same pursuits with eagerness. Æthelwald's school sent out from it a scholar and abbot named ÆLFRIC. He takes rank as the first large translator of the Bible, turning into English the first seven books and part of Job. We owe to him a series of Homilies ; and his Colloquy, afterwards edited by another Ælfric, may be called the first English-Latin dictionary. But this revival had no sooner begun to take root than the Northmen came again in force upon the land and conquered it. During the long interweaving of Danes and English together under Danish kings from 1013 to 1042, no English literature
It was not till the quiet reign of Edward the Confessor that it again began to live. But no sooner was it born than the Norman invasion repressed, but did not quench, its life.
THE ENGLISH CHRONICLE.—One great monument, however, of old English prose lasts beyond the Conquest. It is the English Chronicle, and in it the literature is continuous from Ælfred to Stephen. At first it was nothing but a record of
the births and deaths of bishops and kings, and was probably a West Saxon Chronicle. Ælfred edited it from various sources, added largely to it from Bæda, and raised it to the dignity of a national history. After his reign, and that of his son Eadward, 901–925, it becomes scanty, but songs and odes are inserted in it. In the reign of Æthelred and during the Danish kings, its fulness returns, and, growing by additions from various quarters, it continues to be the great contemporary authority in English history till 1154, when it abruptly closes with the death of Stephen. “It is the first history of any Teutonic people in their own language; it is the earliest and the most venerable monument of English prose.' In it old English poetry sang its last song, in its death old English prose dies. It is not till the reign of John that English poetry in any extended form appears again in the Brut of Layamon. It is not till the reign of Edward the Third that original English prose again begins."
“Taking the Chronicle as a whole, I know not where else to find a series of annals so barren of all human interest, and for all purposes of real history so worthless.”—Geo. P. Marsh.
FROM THE CONQUEST TO THE DEATH OF CHAUCER,
LESSON 6. Brief Historical Sketch. At the time of the Norman Conquest, the Anglo-Saxons and their literature were languishing. The Conquest did not cause, only hastened, the downfall of the Saxon Commonwealth. It infused new life into the exhausted race. Rescued it from sinking into utter barbarism. Feudalism introduced by William. King the feudal lord and source of all jurisdiction. Crown vassals, afterward called Barons, greater and lesser, held fiefs directly from the king. Thanes were feudatories of vassals. During the 12th and 13th centuries, the larger towns secure by charter the right of self-taxation, the control of their trade, and self-government; serfs the right to buy their freedom; and villeins the right to commute labor-service by the payment of money. Art of weaving woollen cloth introduced by the Flemings about 1110. Trial by jury begins, 1166. Partial conquest of Ireland by Strongbow, under Hen. II., 1170. Richard's ade, 1190–94. Loss of Normandy, 1204. John grants Magna Charta, 1215. First summons of burgesses to Parliament, 1265. The independence of Scotland from the overlordship of England, secured by Wallace and Bruce, recognized by Treaty of Northampton, 1328. With the battle of Cressy, 1346, Edward III. begins the Hundred Years' War for the recovery of the English possessions in France, acquired by the marriage of Hen. II., the first of the Plantagenet kings, with Eleanor of Acquitaine. This war and that with Scotland developed the spirit of English nationality. First use of gunpowder and of artillery at this battle of Cressy. Gunpowder makes war a profession, undermines feudalism, destroying military service, the tenure by which land under it was held, and advances civilization. Treaty of Bretigny, by which Gascony, Guienne, Poitou, Santoigne, and Calais came into the full possession of the English, and Edward's claim to the Crown of France and to Normandy was waived, 1360. Dress and diet of each class fixed by statute, 1363. Peasant's Revolt under Wat Tyler, 1381. Rich. II. invades Ireland, 1394