King Alfred and the Latin Manuscripts of Gregory's Regula Pastoralis

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Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association

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King Alfred's translation of Pope Gregory the Great's 'Liber Regulae Pastoralis' has long been recognized by students of Anglo-Saxon literature as one of the earliest and greatest monuments of Old English prose. Alfred's first translation, commonly referred to as the 'Pastoral Care,' has been the focus of much scholarly attention by historians, philologists, and literary critics. Historians have seized upon the work more for Alfred's two prefaces and what they tell us of Ninth-century England than for the translation itself, but nonetheless the mode of translation is not without its biographical and historical implications. Philologists on the other hand have concerned themselves more directly with the translation as a lengthy coherent representation of Early West Saxon. The translation, even though often paraphrased, is exceptionally close to its original, and this close relationship provides crucial evidence in the Latin text for the philologist considering the OE text. Literacy critics, in comparing Alfred's translation to Gregory's original, have been less than unanimous in their estimates of Alfred's competency as a translator, especially in this first attempt. Judgments have ranged from uncritical praise to damning condemnation, but in the main critics have been somewhat uneasy in coming to any hard conclusions because of a number of disturbing differences in the Latin original and Alfred's translation. The unpalatable conclusion (at least to traditional critics) is that the 'Pastoral Care' is a novice's valiant, but often bumbling attempt at translating what is really a simple Latin text. This conclusion, however, is based on the faulty assumption that the printed editions of Gregory's 'Regula' represent the Latin text as Alfred translated it. Actually Alfred's Latin MS belongs to a recension which has never appeared in print, and when the OE translation is compared to this Latin recensional version, many of the disturbing differences disappear. Alfred's translation does indeed contain errors, but these are errors of his recensional original. We may fault the King for not distinguishing these errors (e.g. in the attribution of biblical books), but we cannot fault him for directly translating what he found in his Latin text. Thus it is essential that the historian, philologist, or literary critic considering the relationship of Alfred's 'Pastoral Care' to Gregory's 'Regula' understand the textual tradition of the Latin text and its recensional version in England.


Originally published by the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association. Publisher's PDF available through remote link. Must click on corresponding volume.