Wednesday, 3 December 2014

alfred the great or yakety sax

Recently, I learnt about a seminal character of British history who was quite enlightened for living in the Dark Ages. King of Wessex, Alfred the Great, during the latter half of the ninth century, instituted many calculated reforms—only in part driven by the incursions of the Anglo-Saxons’ former neighbours, the Danes, drawn by the outrageous fortune of this island—which elevated his character to legendary proportions through his very real measures, ensuring the English identity at a time when it was buffeted by many outside threats.
Although a late-learner himself, like his more famous precedent influence to the south, Charlemagne, after negotiating an uneasy peace with the Nordic raiders that were given domain over the east of England in the Danelaw (Danelag) and persuading those tribes to embrace Christianity, Alfred lamented his ignorance and the general decay in scholarship in his land. There were no more experts in classical Latin, the language of the Church, left in England—in part because Charlemagne had prosecuted such a talent-drain by luring literacy to his court in order to evangelise to the continental Saxons. Absent classic academics, Alfred undertook to learn Latin and decreed that the native language, Old English, become the primary language of erudition. Wessex and Mercia, the formerly antagonising western kingdom won over by a clever union by Alfred’s daughter Æthelfæld—who got to rule the kingdom in her own right, cohabited with the raiders—just as they had done themselves some centuries before. Subsequently, there was a veritable explosion in literacy and a sizable body of literature, including the Chronicles of the Anglo-Saxons, an invaluable extant historic resource which first sought to document the people’s past and then faithfully maintained as a yearbook for the next four centuries. What is truly amazing is that Alfred accomplished all these reforms while on the run from the Danes.
Instead of retreating to the mainland as many of his fellow English regents had done, Alfred remained in Wessex and set up camp deep in the marshes of Somerset on the island of Athelny. Although there are some parallels to the capital of Rome repairing to the swampy protection of Ravenna, I can imagine, comically, Alfred staying one step ahead of the “Heathen Armies” and rushing here and there. After cleaning up the classroom, Alfred undertook the task of ensuring that the English identity would not just survive in letters but also thrive militarily. Ordering the fortification of key cities, the king ensured that no settlement was isolated and vulnerable to attack. Alfred established the English armada to counter Viking incursions—though with mixed success as Alfred insisted on designing the warships himself. Because the vast majority of conscripts were farmers with crops to look after, the season for waging battle was formerly a designated time of the year. As the invaders, however, did not respect these constraints, the peasantry was at a marked disadvantage, facing either poverty and starvation or being pillaged and massacred.

To remedy this situation, a rotating cycle of deployments was instituted so duty to family and duty to country imposed less of an egregious choice and a standing-army was ready at all times.  Alfred’s greatest coup was a diplomatic one, allowing the Danes to enjoy an independent society, cleaving to the east but slowly accepted into the fold, both sides exchanging cultural memes and vows that blended the two peoples and became an integral component of an English identity.