Jan 9, 2015

Don't blame the Vikings

Ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. Image: English Heritage.
In the year 793, Vikings raided the monastic community at Lindisfarne, in the Northumbrian kingdom of Bernicia. It was the ominous beginning to a series of assaults on England; the following year, Vikings pillaged the monastery at Jarrow. It is unlikely that the Vikings were making deliberate attacks on Anglo-Saxon scholarship by targeting these places of learning; monasteries were known to be full of valuable objects, and monks were probably not expected to be formidable opponents. The raiders were interested in loot and, later, in land; over the next hundred years, the once-powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, and Mercia crumbled before increasingly extensive Viking incursions. The Scandinavian takeover of England was not significantly halted until the West Saxon king Alfred, driven into a hideout in the marshes of Somerset, somehow managed to organise the remnants of the local Anglo-Saxon militia and to defeat the Danish forces at the battle of Edington in 878.

The rest of Alfred’s reign (until his death in 899) was not exactly peaceful, but he had a chance to rebuild his kingdom, and he set about this task with commendable success. Considerable effort was put into strengthening West Saxon civil and military infrastructure. But one of Alfred’s most notable accomplishments (admittedly one to which academic historians might feel a natural bias) was his program of educational reform.
Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Hatton 20, fol. 1r.

A key document to understanding this context is Alfred’s preface to his English translation of the Cura Pastoralis of Pope Gregory. This preface survives in five manuscripts of the late ninth through eleventh centuries, a couple of which are now too badly damaged to be read. It is frequently anthologised in textbooks of Old English and therefore familiar to students of Anglo-Saxon England. In the preface, Alfred explains why he thought it expedient to prepare an English translation of this Latin pastoral manual, for distribution to key ecclesiastical centres throughout his kingdom. To provide a rationale for his project, he appeals to history. He remembers, rather nostalgically,
what wise men there once were throughout the English people, both of religious orders and of secular; and how blessed were the times then throughout the English people; and how the kings who had the rule of the people in those days obeyed God and his ministers, and how they both held their peace and their morality and their rule within their borders, and also expanded their territory outwards; and how they succeeded both with war and with wisdom; and also the religious orders, how eager they were both about teaching and about learning, and about all the services that they were supposed to do for God; and how those from outside the borders sought wisdom and teaching here in the land. 
Alfred is doubtless thinking of the England of the great scholar Bede (d. 735), the England that sent the missionary Boniface (d. 754) to Germany, the England from which Alcuin of York (d. 804) set out to become a key figure of what modern historians would call a ‘Carolingian renaissance’. The reputation of the Anglo-Saxons as cultural and intellectual leaders of Europe in the eighth century had come to a wretched end under the ravages of the illiterate Vikings.

But here’s the surprising thing to note about Alfred’s view of history. He doesn’t blame the Vikings. Rather, he notes that even before their raids, ‘before it was all ravaged and burned’,
the churches throughout the English people stood full of treasures and books, and also a great many of God's servants; and then they knew very little use of those books, because they could not understand anything of them, because they were not written in their own language. As if they said: ‘Our ancestors, those who once held these places, they loved wisdom, and through that they got wealth and left it to us. Here one can still see their track, but we do not know how to follow after them, and therefore we have now lost both the wealth and the wisdom, because we would not bend to the track with our mind.’ 
In other words, the Anglo-Saxons had become complacent. Their centres of scholarship were stuffed with books, but they had neglected their own education so badly that they no longer knew how to use them. The past had bequeathed to them a magnificent legacy of knowledge, and they had been too lazy to learn from it. When Alfred refers to the Viking raids, he says this: ‘Remember what punishments then came to us because of this world, when we neither loved it [i.e. learning] ourselves, nor left it to others: we had only the name of being Christians, and very few the practices.’ Alfred practically says that his people deserved the Vikings. In this he is not unusual among Anglo-Saxon thinkers: both Alcuin before him and Wulfstan (d. 1023) after him also regarded Viking marauders as punishments for spiritual failings. It is as if, for these Anglo-Saxon scholars and statesmen, barbarian invasions were a kind of natural disaster, an act of God like plagues and droughts and storms. But what I find most striking about Alfred’s analysis of the situation is his argument that his own people were responsible for neglecting their intellectual heritage; they were on their way to losing it, even before the Vikings came.

The Alfred Jewel. Image: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Why should we care about the thoughts of a ninth-century English monarch? With the hindsight of history, we can see the results of Alfred’s priorities and efforts. His military leadership and diplomacy made England, if not completely secure, at least a more unified and more peaceful place than it had been when he came to the throne of Wessex. His civic planning laid the foundation of economic recovery. And his educational reforms, simultaneously idealistic and practical, created a precedent for literacy training in the vernacular – learning to read and write English, as a basis on which to build advanced studies in Latin – that we take for granted when we think of literacy education today. Surely even the most cynical and sceptical of historians would have to admit that Alfred was quite an astute leader in many ways, and that his ideas might be worth paying some attention to.

The ruins of Lindisfarne Priory that you will see if you visit Holy Island today are not the ruins of the monastery that was pillaged by the Vikings, but rather the remains of a later building, built in the 1100s by successors of the monks who had fled from the Vikings, relocated to Durham, and centuries later attempted to re-establish a religious house on the same site. Some of the treasures of the original Lindisfarne monastery had been saved – notably the relics of St Cuthbert and the Lindisfarne Gospels – but doubtless a great many treasures had been irretrievably lost; Lindisfarne, and indeed Northumbria, never afterward recovered the status they had had before 793. A library is easier to destroy than to create. You cannot get the past back except in fragments.
a library is easier to destroy than to create

But you can learn from those fragments. Libraries and centres of scholarship are threatened by acts of deliberate destruction today, in areas of political unrest; and last year marked the 100th anniversary of one of the most notorious criminal acts of World War I, the destruction of the University Library of Leuven. But Alfred’s words, written in late ninth-century England, are worth heeding still. A society can lose the wealth of the past not only through acts of violence, but also, and more insiduously, through neglect and ignorance. Twenty-first-century Canada, where I live, is not subject to attacks by ravaging Vikings, but it is certainly subject to neglect and ignorance of the past. For any losses incurred through those means, we have only ourselves to blame.

Yin Liu 

References and Further Reading

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entries for Alfred (by Patrick Wormald), Bede (by J. Campbell), Boniface (by I. N. Wood), Alcuin (by D. A. Bullough), and Wulfstan (by Patrick Wormald).

Stanley, E. G. ‘King Alfred’s Prefaces.’ Review of English Studies 39 (1988) 349-364.

For the Old English text of Alfred’s preface to Gregory, see Murray McGillivray’s glossed online edition. The translation quoted above is mine.

No comments :

Post a Comment