It is widely known that Alfred was a champion of the vernacular and of a literate (noble) population. However is it as widely known that he was prepared to put his money where his mouth was, or where his texts were? I recently researched and delivered a paper at a conference on the ways in which Anglo-Saxon society used the design of childhood to encourage assimilation, state formation and build social identity. The following is an extract from that paper that discussed Alfred’s implementation of perhaps one of the first schools in England that we would recognise as such today.
King Alfred’s ninth-century reign lasted from 871-899. He envisaged the formation of England, or at least, the amalgamation of its kingdoms and cultures. He was obliged to hand parts of the country over to Scandinavian invaders, contributing to the Danelaw. He did however insist on working with leaders that were Christian. To work with him people had to convert and thus assimilate fully. He became Godfather to the Viking leader Guthrum when he granted him the lands of East Anglia to settle, creating between them allegiance through a spiritual parent/child relationship.
Alfred used education and Christianity as tools of unification, he was especially insistent upon literacy of both Latin and the vernacular. The development of the use of English was a high priority – one imagines this being exceedingly useful in forming identity and allegiance in state formation. Alfred absolutely insisted upon his ealdormen becoming active public servants. Literate communication between them to achieve state development and defence was essential in building a safe, cohesive and above all, united Christian society.
In a somewhat ‘hagiographical style’, Alfred’s biographer Bishop Asser, tells us that the king lamented his own lack of literacy education in his childhood. It appears he achieved highly in many of the pursuits mentioned in Old English poetry. The Fortunes of Men for example, advocates the following trades and pastimes; mastery of battle or warriorhood, the tricks of the chequerboard, wise scholarship, goldsmithing and jewellery craft, storytelling and hunting.
Sadly, wise scholarship was not among Alfred’s gift until long after his twelfth birthday. Despite becoming very literate and well educated in his thirties, Alfred would claim that learning to read after twelve years old was incredibly difficult. He seemed to have realised from not only his own experience but also by observing the way children seemed to pick up language and literacy with far greater ease than the adult learner. It was therefore highly desirable for Alfred to establish an educational setting for children. By setting up a school as part of the royal household for his own children and others from local skilled families, as well as the wider somewhat multi-cultural community, he believed the teaching of literacy would serve not only as pleasurable but essential. There are many texts of Scripture that were useful in Alfred’s brand of education, which highlighted the futility of ‘pagan’ cultures’ attempts to conquer Christendom, as God will not ultimately allow Christian kingdoms to be defeated in this way. These directly paralleled his own political landscape in resistance of non-Christian Viking armies. By reading such texts, translated and presented by Alfred in this way, in both Latin and the vernacular the children of the royal school, would be able to absorb the past, learn to improve the present and thus build a safe, prosperous future around identity, place and home.
Today, the knowledge that events which inform the childhood, shape the psychology and direct the adult personality is axiomatic. I think that most would largely agree that childhood is a psychologically different state to that of adulthood as well as a physical one. I believe this understanding was also grasped by the people of early medieval England it is then, entirely likely they were interested in shaping their children into the adults that they believed the future needed.
Keynes, S. &. Lapidge, M., 1983. Alfred the Great : Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources / translated with an introduction and notes. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Nelson, J. L., 2013. ‘Alfred of Wessex at a Cross-roads in the History of Education’, History of Education, 42(6), pp. 697-712.
Shippey, T., 1976. Poems of wisdom and learning in Old English. Cambridge: Rowman and Littlefield.