223. The Life of King Alfred, by Asser (893 AD)

Source :  Alfred the Great : Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources, translated by Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge (ISBN 014044092)

Thoughts :

Much like his near contemporary Charlemagne, Alfred is part historical personage and part legend, remembered for both his defense of his people against invaders (although he used a mixture of bribes and battles as necessary) and a patron of the arts and learning.

Asser wrote his biography during Alfred’s lifetime. It survived as a single copy, which was subsequently destroyed in a fire in 1731. Copies had been made from that original, including a facsimile of the title page.

It starts out like The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a fairly dry recording of major events in each year in almost dot point form, but then becomes more detailed and conversational. For example, Asser describes Arthur’s promise to God to spend half of his time in His service, day and night, and how candles had to be developed that would mark the time by night, and lanterns of wood and translucent shaved ox-horn to stop gusts of wind from accelerating the candle burn.

We did cover Alfred in primary school history (as I suppose all good Commonwealth country schools did in the 1970s) but I confess all I recall was the story of Alfred letting the cakes burn as he hid out with a swineherd’s family in the Somerset marshes. Asser does not report this story, so it probably fall on the legend side of the ledger.

Personal rating: A hearty 5/10

In the years 850-900:

  • Danes sack Canterbury Cathedral 851, Winchester 860, capture York 866
  • Wessex leads resistance against Viking attacks 856-875, Alfred becomes King 871, England divided by the Danelaw, a line between English south and Danish north 878
  • Viking attack on Paris repulsed 885
  • Santiago de Compostela in Spain becomes a pilgrimage site
  • Western polyphonic music evolving
  • Mayan culture in decline

from The Book of Key Facts, Paddington Press, 1978

Other reading:  

4.50 from Paddington, by Agatha Christie. Miss Marple acts by proxy to prove her friend Elspeth McGillicuddy (great name!!) did indeed see a murder from her train window. Engaging young amateur sleuth Lucy, domestic help par excellence investigates the suspects and dallies with romance. I quite like Lucy and would have liked Christie to use her character again.

The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. The ghosts of Bogart and Lorre will always hover around this novel, once you’ve seen the famous movie which nailed the book very well. This book pretty much kicked off the noir style of detective fiction. Sam Spade has his own brand of flinty integrity, which doesn’t always let romance interfere with the job.

Leave it to Psmith, by P. G. Wodehouse. Plum merges his Psmith and Blandings series in this one, with Psmith staying at the Castle where he and everyone else is trying to steal a string of pearls for various reasons, charitable or criminal. Several scenes are reused from other adventures and the usual misunderstandings abound until all is made right. Nevertheless an extremely satisfying read for Wodehouse lovers – which should be everybody!

 

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