The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).>br>Volume I. From the Beginnings to the Cycles of Romance.

VI. Alfred and the Old English Prose of his Reign

§ 8. The Chronicle

The literature of the reign for which the king was not directly responsible owed at least its inspiration to him. In the monasteries the work of producing MSS. went forward with great activity, but the scribes were engaged in merely copying out books; they did no original work. It had been customary, however, for the monks to keep record of events of outstanding importance. These monastic records were of the briefest possible kind, designed to serve merely as landmarks in the passage of time and not as historical surveys, but in these casual and unsystematic notes Alfred perceived the nucleus for a larger survey of West Saxon history. The change in the tone of the Chronicle has been ascribed to Aethelwul’s reign, but it is probable that Alfred was responsible for the systematic revision of the earlier records back to Hengest and Horsa, and his connection with the Chronicle is possibly referred to in Gaimar’s Estorie des Engles, though the allusion is somewhat obscure. The Chronicle, as known to us, is a highly composite piece of work, and it consists of various recensions, the relations between which have been carefully worked out by Earle and Plummer. The original nucleus belonged to Winchester, the capital of the West Saxon kingdom. The Alfredian version comes down to 892 only, at which date the first hand in the MS. ceases, and of this portion Alfred may be supposed to have acted as supervisor.

From a historical point of view, the Chronicle was the first national continuous history of a western nation in its own language; from a literary point of view, it was the first great book in English prose. The account of the years 893–7 is one of the most vivid in the whole of the annals. The struggle with the Danes and the great series of campaigns extending over the whole of the south of England are described in detail. At one time the king is at Exeter while Aethelred, the ealdorman, is occupied on the Severn, the struggle extending north as far as York and Chester. Alfred’s military and naval reforms are enlarged upon, the king’s brilliant exploits, and his care for the nation’s well-being, inspiring the annalist with the spirit of a historian. The whole narrative is a masterpiece of Old English prose, full of vigour and life.