Alfred the Great's Preface to Pastoral Care

Pastoral Care is a treatise written by Pope Gregory I in which he explained the responsibilities of the church clergy. While the original text was written in Latin in the sixth century, King Alfred the Great eventually translated the volume to Old English nearly three centuries later.

Alfred had reservations about the legitimacy of translating the text in the more "common" vernacular, but wanted the religious leaders in his country to have access to the work. As part of his translated version, Alfred added a long preface to the work, explaining his motivations and concerns.

While Pastoral Care was one of the most famous religious tracts during the time of Gregory and Alfred, today many scholars focus more upon Alfred's preface in order to better understand the changes sweeping across England during that time, socially, linguistically, and in terms of literature and education.

Beginning of the original text to Pastoral Care, also known as The Book of Pastoral Rule.
Beginning of the original text to Pastoral Care, also known as The Book of Pastoral Rule.

To Translate or Not To Translate?

At the outset of the Preface, Alfred legitimizes translation by appealing to the high regard commonly granted to intellectual and spiritual leaders of past generations. He brings up the point that these revered and wise forbearers have left "wisdom" and "wealth" in written work to their descendants, yet claims that these riches are being wasted as linguistic abilities and education decline.

Alfred felt that these classical works were necessary for his time because they impart morality and spiritual teaching. Alfred sought to improve basic knowledge and morality in order to provide a framework of a functioning form of Christianity, rather practice of a mystical religion in "the name alone."

Facing the Reality of Declining Education

Although Alfred felt it was careless and unwise to let knowledge of foreign languages slip away, he also thought that without widespread access on the part of the largely uneducated clergy to classical works, a further decay of an already declining social fabric would follow.

While Alfred still advocated for learning a second language, he understood the reality that book learning reach a far wider audience if translated into the common language. In this line of thinking, Alfred pays special attention to the the role that the translator plays-- as a vital link between those less learned, to spread knowledge and improve culture.

Portrait of Alfred the Great.
Portrait of Alfred the Great.

Desire for Glory

In the Preface, Alfred outwardly expresses a desire to spread what he considers to be vital teachings on religion and the duties of the clergy found in the Pastoral Care. However, there is also a cultural factor at play in Alfred's translation, what could be considered an underlying desire for a personal legacy.

Without greater literacy and a substantial number learned people, the state of intellectualism and literature could fall into decline, thus preventing cross-cultural enrichment as Britain comes to be regarded as an unlearned and illiterate region. By engaging in translations of classical texts, education and literacy standards would be easier to reach.

In order to attract great minds, thus stimulating interest in the area, and respect for it's people among other centers of learning and commerce, Alfred recognized the need for a basic level of education shared by a significant portion of it's population, even if it only affected the higher social classes.

In the end, Alfred's act of translation paved the way for further translations of foreign texts, bringing a greater variety of work to the (learned) English people.

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Comments 6 comments

Max A. Pooch 5 years ago

interesting. I wonder how many know who Alfred the Great was?


Anaya M. Baker profile image

Anaya M. Baker 5 years ago from North Carolina Author

Probably next to no one! One of my goals in joining hubpages was to become an impoverished freelance writer. I'm hard at work doing just that-- every hub on a completely obscure subject that even those who do know about couldn't give two yips about does its part in getting me there :)


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Trish_M 5 years ago from The English Midlands

Hi :)

Alfred really interests me, yet I know very little about him.

I now know a little more ~ thanks!


Jelena 5 years ago

this article is great! It helped me a lot - thanks!


Nica 4 years ago

Was wondering where you got that image of the PC


Yona Mwanza 3 years ago

Dear Anaya

My name is pastor Yona Mwanza from Dodoma Tanzania

I'm asking the job of translation to translate your books from English language into Swahili language for the readers of East Africa and all people who are using Swahili in the World

I will be happy to get your reply

May God bless you

Thank you.

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