In [King Alfred of Wessex’s] preface to his translation of the Cura Pastoralis (Pastoral Care) of Pope Gregory the Great, he tells of his concern at the dearth of scholars in England at the time of his accession to the throne (in 871) and at the destruction of churches and books by the Danes and his wonder why earlier English scholars had not translated any of those books into the vernacular.  Then, he immediately proceeds to answer the last question by saying that those earlier scholars can never have supposed that a knowledge of the original languages should have declined to such a degree.  But he realized that Christian culture had its roots in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin sources and that, if these were to be made available to the people, an ambitious program of translation into the vernacular would have to be undertaken.  “When I remembered how Latin learning has already decayed throughout England, though many can read English writing, I began, among many other varied and manifold cares of this kingdom, to translate into English the book which is called, in Latin, Pastoralis and, in English, ‘Hierde-boc’ (‘herd’s book,’ i.e., shepherd’s book, pastoral).”

Alfred’s program of translation did not include direct translations from the original sources of Christian culture but concentrated on later Latin works in which, as he believed, much of the ancient wisdom was distilled.  Thus, Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis, a work describing the duties and responsibilities of a bishop which had come to be regarded as a manual of the parish priest’s duties, came first on his list – he must have been attracted by Gregory’s emphasis on the bishop’s duty to teach the laity.  Alfred was especially concerned with the training of teachers – who would all, of course, be clerics, and whose teaching would be religious – as his choice of this work indicates.  All the free-born English youth should be able to read English, and those who wished to proceed to the priesthood would, after learning English, go on to Latin.  English was necessary as a first step both for priest and layman.

From: A Critical History of English Literature by David Daiches; 2 volumes (New York: The Ronald Press Company, 1960), 1:24-25.



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