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UPDATED - King Alfred and the survival of our children

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Winchester Cathedral Library
The library holds over 4,000 books. It was begun by the monks of a Benedictine monastery, later called the Priory of St. Swithun, who copied and preserved in Latin the few books in existence in the 7th, 8th and 9th centuries. These monks taught Alfred the Great to read and write.

Does Alfred's history give us any clues about the upbringing and survival of our children?

Some of the monks who preserved civilisation were Irish, as has been famously described elsewhere. Some, like St Swithun, were British. In violent times they offered children several distinct advantages, aside from being able to teach them.

By the time Alfred became king, the chaos created by repeated invasions was so terrible that civilisation hung by a few threads. He later wrote, “I did not know one priest south of the Thames who could render his Latin service-book into English.” From the monks, who swore a vow to stability, and from the ghastliness of life lived under repeated attack, Alfred developed an appreciation for the stability that makes life, learning and the pleasures of life possible. He came to realize that this stability was based on fundamental principles of truth, goodness, and excellence that had stood the test of time and which, like fertile soil, allowed new growth and developments.

Alfred found these truths written in books, but the books were in Latin. He wanted them in English so English people could read them, but his schedule was a little tight for working on translations, since he was fortifying towns, building a navy to defend England, establishing the common law and hearing and reviewing cases.

However you do what you have to do, and Alfred made time to translate the books he had from Latin into English. They included the universal history of Orosius, Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Consolation of Boethius, and the Pastoral of Pope Gregory. Alfred expanded on his texts. Having heard Othere’s account of his journey round the North Cape to explore the “White Sea”, Alfred added it to the universal history. When he translated an account of Nero, he added a passionate denunciation of the abuses of power. To the stoicism of Boethius he added warm words about the goodness of God.

Since, as we observed elsewhere, Alfred wanted people to be able to read his English books, he started grammar schools to teach them.

Alfred's curiosity, his active life, and his love of books made him happy, and his happiness was shared by many of his countrymen and women over the next thousand years. They were made possible by a belief in God-given reason, Judaeo-Christian ethical principles, and the stability that makes learning possible in the first place.

The kind of teaching that Alfred received, and that grammar schools gave British children, helped to create not a perfect society but a society of ever-increasing ebullience, inventiveness, justice, freedom, and peace. That is the kind of society children thrive in.

It was made possible because Alfred loved books and had a solid grounding in ethical principles and because he was willing to put his life on the line to defend them.


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