CAN WE LEARN FROM THE PAST?
In the late 9th century, King Alfred, ruler of the kingdom of Wessex (now southwestern England), became concerned about the declining state of learning and the growing unfamiliarity by the citizens of books and works that at one time were considered great works. So he wrote a letter to his bishop, expressing his thoughts and feelings about this situation.
Although it occurred over 1,000 years ago, we see a similar trend today. When you read this letter, where it states England, think United States. See if you can detect where England went and where the United States is going. The text reads somewhat old fashion, but it conveys King Alfred’s thoughts very clearly.
“King Alfred bids bishop Wærferth to be greeted with loving and friendly words; and bids you to know that it very often comes to my mind what wise men there formerly were throughout England, both of sacred and secular orders; and how happy the times were then throughout England; and how the kings who then had power over the people obeyed God and his ministers; and they maintained their peace, their morality and their power within their borders, and also increased their kingdom without; and how they prospered both with war and with wisdom; and also how eager the sacred orders were about both teaching and learning, and about all the services that they ought to do for God; and how men from abroad came to this land in search of wisdom and teaching, and how we now must get them from abroad if we shall have them. So completely had wisdom fallen off in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber estuary who could understand their rituals in English, or indeed could translate a letter from Latin into English; and I believe that there were not many beyond the Humber. There were so few of them that I indeed cannot think of a single one south of the Thames when I became king.
Thanks be to God almighty that we now have any supply of teachers. Therefore I command you to do as I believe you are willing to do, that you free yourself from worldly affairs as often as you can, so that wherever you can establish that wisdom that God gave you, you establish it. Consider what punishments befell us in this world when we neither loved wisdom at all ourselves, nor transmitted it to other men; we had the name alone that we were Christians, and very few had the practices.
Then when I remembered all this, then I also remembered how I saw, before it had all been ravaged and burnt, how the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books, and there were also a great many of God’s servants. And they had very little benefit from those books, for they could not understand anything in them, because they were not written in their own language. As if they had said: ‘Our ancestors, who formerly held these places, loved wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and left it to us. Here we can still see their footprints, but we cannot track after them.’ And therefore we have now lost both the wealth and the wisdom, because we would not bend down to their tracks with our minds.
Then when I remembered all this, then I wondered extremely that the good and wise men who were formerly throughout England, who had completely learned all those books, would not have translated any of them into their own language. But I immediately answered myself and said: ‘They did not think that men ever would become so careless and learning so decayed: they deliberately refrained,for they would have it that the more languages we knew, the greater wisdom would be in this land.’
Then I remembered how the law was first composed in the Hebrew language, and afterward, when the Greeks learned it, they translated it all into their own language, and also all other books. And afterward the Romans in the same way, when they had learned them, translated them all through wise interpreters into their own language. And also all other Christian peoples translated some part of them into their own language. Therefore it seems better to me, if it seems so to you, that we also translate certain books, which are most needful for all men to know, into that language that we all can understand, and accomplish this, as with God’s help we may very easily do if we have peace, so that all the youth of free men now in England who have the means to apply themselves to it, be set to learning, while they are not useful for any other occupation, until they know how to read English writing well. One may then instruct in Latin those whom one wishes to teach further and promote to a higher rank.
Then when I remembered how knowledge of Latin had formerly decayed throughout England, and yet many knew how to read English writing, then I began among the other various and manifold cares of this kingdom to translate into English the book that is called in Latin Pastoralis, and in English “Shepherd-book,” sometimes word for word, and sometimes sense for sense, just as I had learned it from Plegmund my archbishop and from Asser my bishop and from Grimbold my masspriest and from John my masspriest. When I had learned it I translated it into English, just as I had understood it, and as I could most meaningfully render it. And I will send one to each bishopric in my kingdom, and in each will be an æstel worth fifty mancuses. And I command in God’s name that no man may take the æstel from the book nor the book from the church. It is unknown how long there may be such learned bishops as, thanks to God, are nearly everywhere. Therefore I would have them always remain in place, unless the bishop wishes to have the book with him, or it is loaned out somewhere, or someone is copying it.
It was only a few years after this letter was written, that a new religion was born in Arabia known as Islam and began to spread to Europe and other parts of the world. Let us pray to God that with the threat of this monotheistic religion now raising its head again, but in a more fanatic and radical form, that our country will realize how vulnerable it has become because the works that once stood as the foundation of this country are now no longer read, studied or even considered necessary. God help us!