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Adaptation and anweald in the Old English Orosius

  • William A. Kretzschmar (a1)


After Janet Bately's several articles and her recent edition of the Old English Orosius there is little need to analyse further what the Anglo-Saxon translator did to his source. The translator made substantial cuts in the Latin text: he deleted much of Orosius's commentary on the events he narrated, made a number of minor, probably accidental, omissions, rather surprisingly left out some details which should have interested the Anglo-Saxon audience, and carried out a wholesale chopping of events and entire sections, reducing his translation to perhaps one-fifth the length of its source. He also made some additions, primarily explanations of institutions and details which would have been obscure to his audience, but also circumstances and rationalizations taken from secondary sources or from his own whimsy. Finally, he made some changes in the organization of his source and altered Orosius's polemical tone to that of a more objective but still Christian world history. Given the large number of changes, it is important now to ask why the translator might have made such a thorough redaction, and to consider how his translation could have been an appropriate vehicle for the transmission of this standard authority to an Anglo-Saxon readership. We are not unfamiliar today with historical revisionism and the motives for it, and the practice reveals the culture of its modern practitioners; the present study seeks similar information about the culture of Alfred's age.



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1 The Old English Orosius, ed. Bately, J., EETS ss 6 (London, 1980). References for her earlier articles are included in the bibliography for the edition. For her summary of changes, see especially pp. xciii-c. Citations from this edition are by book and chapter. Translations are my own, made from Bately's edition with reference to the translation by Thorpe, B. in Pauli, R., The Life of Alfred the Great, trans. Thorpe, , Bohn's Ant. Lib. (London, 1889), at pp. 238528. An earlier version of this paper was read at the 18th International Congress of Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, 1983.

2 Her most extensive comments to date on this point occur in her inaugural lecture on taking up her King's College chair, The Literary Prose of King Alfred's Reign: Translation or Transformation?, reprinted as Old English Newsletter Subsidia 10 (1984).

3 ‘to speak out in opposition to the empty perversity of [the pagans]. Although they do not inquire into the future, and either forget or do not know the past, yet [they] defame present times as most unusually beset by evils because there is belief in Christ and worship of God, and increasingly less worship of idols.’ Pauli Orosii bistoriarum adversum paganos libri VII, ed. C. Zangemeister, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasricorum Latinorum 5 (Vienna, 1882), Prologue. Citations from this edition are by book and chapter. Translations are from Paulus Orosius: The Seven Books of History against the Pagans, trans. R. J. Defarrari, The Fathers of the Church 50 (Washington, 1964). I have checked Deferrari's work against Zangemeister and made a few silent changes.

4 Hay, D., Annalists and Historians (London, 1977), p. 31, and Laistner, M. L. W., ‘Some Reflections on Latin Historical Writing in the Fifth Century’, repr. The Intellectual Heritage of the Early Middle Ages: Selected Essays by M. L. W. Laistner, ed. Starr, C. G. (Ithaca, 1957), pp. 321, at 13.

5 Fornara, C. W., The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (Berkeley, 1983), pp. 45–6.

6 ‘History is narration of deeds, through which those events which happened in the past are made known…. This discipline belongs to Grammar, since whatever is worthy of memory is committed to writing. Histories, then, are called monuments, for they establish a memory of deeds. History is called a chain (series), then, by figure, from garlands (sertis) of flowers gathered in turn…. Histories of peoples do not impede readers in those things which they have called useful. After all, many wise men have put past deeds of men into histories for the instruction of present men – since both a retrospective sum total of times and an accounting of years are brought together by history – and from the succession of consuls and of kings they search out many necessary things.’ Isidore of Seville, Etymologiarum sive originum libri XX, ed. W. Lindsay, 2 vols. (London, 1911) I, 41–4. The translation is my own. ‘History's mounment’ is a recollection of Livy, De urbe condita I. i.

7 ‘Should history tell of good men and their good estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful and perverse, and himself with greater care pursue those things which he has learned to be good and pleasing in the sight of God’. Bede's Ecclesiastical History, ed. and trans. B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors (Oxford, 1969), pp. 23. For a useful treatment of Bede's historiography, including his relationship with Isidore, see Ray, R., ‘Bede's Vera lex bistoriae’, Speculum 55 (1980), 121.

8 For the tradition of moral lessons in Greek and Roman histories, see Fornara, , The Nature of History, pp. 105–19.

9 Augustinus oder Boethius, 2 vols. (Berlin, 19671976) see also Pickering's, Essays on Medieval German Literature and Iconography (Cambridge, 1980).

10 ‘Why do you not ask after those wise men and those ambitious [men] who came before you? And, after you have asked about their virtues, why do you not imitate them, as you easily may? For they strove for honour in this world, and strove for good repute through good works, and created a good example for those who were after them.’ King Alfred's Old English Version of Boethius, De consolatione Philosophiae, ed. W. J. Sedgefield (Oxford, 1899), p. 139 ( = Boethius IV.met.7). Citations from this edition are by chapter. Sedgefield's contractions are expanded silently; the translation is my own.

11 King Alfred and Boethius (Madison, 1968), p. 143.

12 ‘Briefly put, I have wanted to live worthily while I lived, and after my life to leave for those who might be after me a memory of good works.’ Lapidge and Keynes, in their recent Alfred the Great (Harmondsworth, 1983), at p. 298, n. 7, suggest that the location of this passage within the context of the argument of Alfred's Consolatio vitiates its seemingly personal application.

13 Trimpi, W., ‘The Ancient Hypothesis of Fiction: an Essay on the Origins of Literary Theory’, Traditio, 27 (1971), 178, at 22–7 and 6571, and ‘The Quality of Fiction: the Rhetorical Transmission of Literary Theory’, Traditio, 30 (1974), 1118, at 1114. These articles have now been printed, with some modifications and additional material, as Muses of One Mind (Princeton, 1983). It is possible to observe the use of these categories later in the Middle Ages, as early as the twelfth century (as in, e.g., my ‘Genus, Species, and Medieval Interpretation’, presented at the 19th International Congress of Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, 1984). Roger Ray, among others, has argued for a greater knowledge of classical rhetorical texts in England at earlier dates than has generally been supposed (e.g. Ray, ‘Bede's Vera lex’, pp. 6–10); Alcuin certainly made use of both logical and rhetorical sources, as in De rhetorical and in De dialectica. My point in raising this issue is not that Alfred and the translator of Orosius were experts in logic or rhetoric – if anything, they appear quite unschooled – but that there was ample precedent in the most basic concepts to allow one to suppose that Alfred, the translator, and other educated men of the time could have adopted this way of thinking about deeds as a result of their normal elementary training in matters of the trivium. Scientia here acted in the service of sapientia.

14 ‘In the four hundred and eightieth year after the founding of the city, among the many prodigies blood seemed to come up from the ground and milk down from the heavens. For gushing forth in many places blood flowed from springs, and milk, let down drop by drop from the clouds like rain, flooded the land, as it seemed to the people, in terrible showers.’

15 ‘After Rome had been built four hundred and eighty years, among many other wonders that happened in those days, blood was seen to boil from the earth, and milk to rain from the heavens.’

16 It is possible that this error stems more from a faulty text than from the translator's error, though this seems unlikely; without the base Latin manuscript, it is impossible to know for certain. For more information on sense-for-sense translation, see Bately's edition, p. xciii, n., and for some discussion of the practice, see Ælfric's statement in the Preface to his Lives of Saints, ed. W. W. Skeat, EETS os 76, 82, 94 and 114 (London, 18811900).

17 Bately, Cf. J., ‘The Classical Additions in the Old English Orosius’, England before the Conquest: Studies in Primary Sources presented to Dorothy Whitelock, ed. Clemoes, P. and Hughes, K. (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 237–51, at 244–7.

18 ‘The women took to the walls with stones and said that they would defend the city if the armed men dared not …. But the consuls were not willing to think themselves as cowardly as the women had charged, that they dare not defend themselves within their city, and they arrayed themselves against Hannibal outside the gates.’

19 ‘Cupidity and wars were then fiercer than they are now, because they had no previous examples, as men now have, but had lived their lives in innocence’.

20 ‘Now that city, which before was the strongest and most wonderful and greatest of all works, is as an example set before the entire world and as if she were speaking herself to all mankind: “Thus am I now fallen and passed away; lo, you may know and understand from me that you may have nothing with you, strong and fast, which may endure.”’

21 ‘I shall yet, says Orosius, argue more completely against those who say that these anwaldas may have risen by the power of Fate, and not by the Providence of God.’ On anwaldas, see below.

22 ‘1,164 years after Rome was built, God granted his mercy to the Romans, when he caused their misdeeds to be punished in such a way that Alaric, the Christian and most merciful king, performed it, and he captured Rome with little carnage … and after that, on the third day, [the Goths] went out of the city by their own will, so that not one house there was burned by them’.

23 ‘Now we know that all onwealdas are from [God]; we also know that all kingdoms are from him, because all onwealdas are connected with a kingdom. Now he is the ruler of the lesser kingdoms, how much more, we think, that he may be [ruler] over the greater [i.e. Babylon, Macedonia, Carthage and Rome], which held sway in such boundless onwealdas!’

24 The figures are the result of my search through the Microficbe Concordance to Old English, ed. A. Healey and R. Venezky (Toronto, 1980). Except where it is desirable to repeat the form from the translation, I have used anweald – the highest-frequency form in the Concordance – in my text, though onwald is the most frequent spelling in the translation.

25 There are five instances of anweald which may not fit this pattern: i.x, where the term refers to the power of women who had taken control of a country; iv.v, to enemy control over ships; vi.iv, to a proclamation of political control; vi.xxvi, to the seizure of control in Gaul by Tetricus; and vi.xxxiii, to the lesser power held by Valentinian before he became emperor. Of these cases, four refer to political authority of some kind, though not authority granted by God.

26 ‘… how the kings who held anweald over the people in those days obeyed God and his messengers; and how they took care of their peace and their morals and their anweald within, and also expanded their territory outside their borders …. ’ King Alfred's West-Saxon Version of Gregory's Pastoral Care, ed. H. Sweet, EETS os 45 and 50 (London, 18711872), 3.

27 ‘1,300 years before Rome was built, Ninus, king of Assyria, first among men in this world began to rule, and with boundless desire for anweald he was warring and fighting for fifty years ….’

28 ‘In that time there was no other anweald of a king except for these three kingdoms. But afterwards their example was [extended] all over the world.’

29 ‘Then Hannibal understood and said to himself that, although he might be desiring and expecting [to win] the anweald of Rome, God would not permit it.’

30 ‘Lo, you [Romans] know that you would be the slaves of the Samnites yet today if you had not broken your pledge and your oaths which you gave them; and now you complain because many peoples whom you had anweald over did not want to give you what they promised you; and you will not remember how loath you were to perform your oaths to those who had anweald over you’.

31 ‘ … I needed tools and materials to carry out the work which had been entrused to me; that was that I might guide and control honourably and without evil the anweald which was committed to me …. These are the tools and materials with which the king rules, that he have his land well-peopled; he must have men of prayer, men of war and men of work …. These are also his materials, that he shall have what is necessary for his tools, his three orders of men. This is what they need: land to occupy, gifts, weapons, food, ale, clothing and whatever else the three orders require.’

32 Orosius had devoted his first book, after the long geography, to Babylon, his second to early Roman history up to the city's sack by the Gauls, his third to Alexander the Great, his fourth to Carthage, his fifth and sixth books to Rome before the Incarnation and his seventh to Roman history until the sack by the Goths. However, each book is liberally sprinkled with Roman history even if its major topic has little to do with Rome.

33 ‘301 years after Rome was built, the Sicilians were at variance among themselves, and half of them sought aid from the Lacedaemonians and half from the Athenians, Greek peoples, who earlier were fighting together against the Persians. But after they fought in Sicily, they also were struggling between themselves until Darius, king of Persia, gave assistance to the Lacedaemonians …. That was a great wonder, that all the Persian anweald and Lacedaemonia could more easily lay waste the city of Athens than they could force that people to their wills!’

34 My italics. ‘…I desired … also that they realize how fittingly our God established those anwaldas and those kingdoms in those early times, the same one who is still establishing and manipulating every anweald and every kingdom according to his will.’

35 Sisam, K., ‘Anglo-Saxon Royal Genealogies’, PBA 39 (1953), 287348, and Whitelock, D., ‘The Old English Bede’, PBA 48 (1962), 5790. This complementarity has a natural attraction because it makes the translation effort seem to be more a rational programme than a disconnected phenomenon. For instance, Lapidge and Keynes have suggested in their introduction to Alfred the Great (p. 33) that the translation ‘could have been thought a useful companion-volume to Bede's Ecclesiastical History…’. The present argument may lend the attraction more substance.

36 ‘… it has very often sadly happened, through the ill fortune of [historians] that they, because of their laziness and carelessness and negligence, leave unwritten the virtues and deeds of men who were most famous and most eager for honour in their time. And even if they had written down all of their lives and deeds, just as they should have if they were competent, how should those writings not grow old and be lost with the passage of time, just as some writers have, and with them those they wrote about.’


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