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on 28 June 2017
Have not fully read it but it very interesting great backup to Bernard Cornwells Last Kingdom series where Asser is mentioned frequently
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on 19 November 2016
did not know anything of this era
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on 2 March 2000
The book is an excellent addition to anybody who is studying the events of Anglo-Saxon England. The book includes Asser's "Life" and this is added to with extracts from the Anglo-Saxon chronicles. What makes this book so impressive is its ability to present Alfred in his context as the Great King that he was. The inclusion of various other sources mean that one can really grasp the knowledge and learn more about the period in which Alfred lived. The notes iron out any confusing that could be left in the open. It is one of the most important and worthwhile buys that I have made while studying this topic at university.
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VINE VOICEon 21 December 2003
A good rounded collection of late 9th century sources pertaining to King Alfred the Great (871-99) make up this little volume, including Asser's "Life of Alfred", Alfred's will, law codes and extracts from his own translations (includ. Gregory's "Dialogues" and Boethius's "Consolation of Philosophy"), and some accredited letters and charters. Given new and, in places, very lively translations by the indomitable scholars Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge, they're made accessible to the general reader.
However, as other reviewers have noted, these sources are not the most entertaining of historical documents. Despite their accumulated importance for students and scholars of Anglo-Saxon history, they're often difficult to penetrate and to untangle. This is partially eased by the very useful and insightful introdution, maps and footnotes included, which serve to buttress the otherwise inaccessible materials.
Asser's "Life of Alfred" is of particular interest, being one of the first surviving biographies of a lay person in the Anglo-Saxon world. Written around 893, it is a remarkable account of the king's activities in peace and in war and offers a clue as to the origins of Alfred's epithet - "the Great".
An excellent, pivotal text for those people interested in the Anglo-Saxon world, and also prepared to delve into the sources for a lot more than simple entertainment. As an afternote, a copy of the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle" would probably prove useful when reading just to familiarise yourself with the wider implications of the texts, and particularly Asser's "Life."
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on 24 February 2015
This book is a valuable and fascinating resource shedding light on the life and career on King Alfred of Wessex, who became known (in my opinion deservedly so) in later centuries as ‘The Great’. In the simplest level the main body of the book is simple an account of Alfred’s reign, written by the Welsh monk, Asser.

Admittedly, his work was bound to be partisan and designed to make Alfred look good, and the cynical may claim that this renders in unreliable. Yet there may be found insights into the source of Alfred’s greatness. More than simply a warlord fighting against the Vikings, Alfred took steps to restore learning and education. The learning and application of wisdom’ seems to have been a subject close to Alfred’s heart, and though he himself did not learn to read until his later years, he seems to have established a school of sorts. Since the decline of the learning in England is lamented in the preface to the translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, this particular foundation may have been considered particularly important.

The ‘other contemporary sources’ mentioned in the title include extracts from some of Alfred’s own translations’ of important works, including Boethius Consolation of Philosophy. There are some profound thoughts here, on life, leadership, philosophy and religion. ‘Wisdom is the highest virtue’ says Alfred’s translation of the work ‘one is caution, the second moderation the third courage and the fourth justice’. The King did take some liberties with his ‘translations’ sometimes inserting ideas of his own (one passage in the Boethius translation hints at the idea of the ‘three estates’ for instance.

Some may challenge the notion that medieval religion was based on ‘blind faith’ with not room for rational inquiry “Therefore we must investigate God with all out might, so that we might know what He is. Although it is not within our capacity to know what He is like, we ought nevertheless to inquire with the intellectual capacity which he gives us”

Or as in a passage from Augustine ‘He rules the Kings who have the greatest dominion on this earth, who are born and die like other men. He permits then to rule as long as He wills it’. Another translation reveals perhaps something of Alfred’s concerns, priorities and interests. Pastoral Care written by the seventh century Pope Gregory contains several short ‘chapters’, entitled respectively

‘Concerning the Burden of Government, and how the ruler must despise all hardships and must recoil from all sense or security’ and ‘How the administration of Government often distracts the mind of the ruler’. The latter warns against a ruler may becoming ‘puffed up’ by his achievements and his people’s praising of them. The preface speaks of how rulers of old ‘obeyed God and his messages’ and maintained not only peace but ‘morality and authority’ and home and in the places to which they extended their power, and ‘succeeded both in warfare and in wisdom’. Perhaps these were idealistic and naive expectations, rarely met, if indeed it was possible to do so. Yet it may be tempting to think they could be relevant to any age.

Alongside translations, there are extracts from the King’s laws, in his capacity as a lawgiver, and even a mention in the main Life of his having possibly developed a more efficient way of measuring time.

The Life of Alfred and other Contemporary Sources is a great start for learning of Alfred, and perhaps even understanding him in spite of the separation of over a millennium. Those interested in more academic analysis could of course read more, not that it is entirely lacking here. The notes are quite extensive. The two editors cum translators are also Cambridge scholars, who both worked on The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo Saxon England. Thus they are not historians out of their depth in an unfamiliar period, or enthusiastic laymen, but scholars who know their stuff, yet succeed in making it accessible- at least in my opinion.
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on 21 April 2002
...Primarily, of the 368 pages which make up the book, around 180 pages are notes on the numerous sources covered. This is a necessary evil I suppose, but it's extremely irritating to have to refer to the back of the book every five minutes, and you do feel as if the editors had been a little too extravegant in detail. Secondly, Asser, the Welsh clergyman who actually wrote 'The Life of Alfred' uses a very scratchy form of expression, and the language is not at all captivating, even though he's writing over 150 years after Bede. Also, the Welshman is very economical with detail, in that he'll mention something and leave it at that, without even attempting to expand. This is the same as the 'Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' entries included, although they don't actually strive to be a biography, just a record of events.
On the other hand, there are many good points about this book...
Firstly, Asser's work..., does give us a glimpse of one of the greatest humans ever to grace English soil, and lend us an insight into the type of man Alfred was, as a ruler, a soldier, a scholar, and a friend, as well as his being a religious man. The 'Chronicle' entries compliment this, as do 'Alfred's Will' as well as his own prefaces to numerous religious works like Pope Gregory's 'Pastoral Care'. As well as this, the reader has to forgive Asser his short-comings, as he was writing in a Viking-infested age, where the threat of war seemed ever-present.
To sum up then, this book is a bit of an enigma. If you can do without it, try to, but don't be afraid to use it for research. Alternatively, this is not a light read, and if you've already read the 'Historia Ecclesiastica', you'll be a little disappointed.
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on 9 December 1999
This book presents a number of sources on Alfred; The principle amoung these being a translation of his biographer Asser and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. These are backed up by excerpts from Alfreds writings and some other sources.
This book is very informative and the notes (which occupy the entire second half of the book )are well researched and provide more insight to both the sources and the monarch. If you're looking for a scholarly introduction to the king, I reccomend this.
( Oh one last thing, if the publishers are reading this I have to say that the cover looked better with the black background. )
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on 16 November 2013
I am no scholar of Anglo Saxon history, but I do like to read historical fiction and have a lay man's interest in the "facts" behind the fiction. It will no doubt shock those with better qualifications to discuss this classic work, that I came to it from the very light Saxon stories written by Bernard Cornwell. These are well written books a little bit above the level of bodice ripping pulp fiction... but to be honest only a little bit. I enjoy such fiction and I can happily tolerate the fact that the main characters in a Cornwell book are always pretty much the same people just moved to different eras. I also am able to convince myself that the novels have an educational edge, as in general they seem (superficially) to be well researched. I found the Saxon stories a disappointment in this last respect, the Sharpe character (he is called Uhtred in the Saxon era books) is actually more credible than the pious prig Alfred and the monstrous Aethelred of Mercia. In order to find out how far Mr Cornwell had wandered away from the historical record I turned to Asser's first hand account.

To my surprise and considerable disappointment, the Asser version of Alfred was a dead ringer for the Cornwell version. Neither appear to be the sort of man who would effectively create a country (England) out of nothing. Furthermore, the story in Asser (which was supposedly written in the 10th century) only seemed to make sense given a fairly healthy portion of hindsight. It is a good story, it is just not a credible story.

As I said at the top of this review, I am not a scholar of the Anglo Saxon (or for that matter any other) period of history. However, I did find out that there are scholars (real scholars) who have noticed the same lack of credibility in this text. The author talks about armies fighting in continental Europe which would only become relevant to the story of Alfred many years after the death of the historical figure of Asser. The book also describes the young Alfred skipping backwards and forwards between Rome and England in a fashion that would have been quite an achievement in the 19th century let alone the 9th. Most of all the book (novel) purportedly written by a Welsh cleric talks with ease and comfort about "England" a concept that had been dreamed up by the hero of the novel and which would not come into any sort of reality for the best part of a hundred years after Alfred and Asser were dead and buried. Even the concept of "Welsh" would have been a strange idea for someone in the 9th century, other than a form of insult - which the real Asser would have been unlikely to support.

These inconsistencies were all noted by Alfred Smyth in his book "King Alfred the Great". As Professor Smyth is/was a true scholar he was also able to find many other problems relating to intricacies of the use of language (all of which go well above my head). Professor Smyth was even able to put a name to the probable author of the Life (Byrhtferth a monk from Ramsey Abbey). Apparently, when Professor Smyth made these observations he was heavily criticized. Criticisms that mostly seem directed at the finer points of the argument rather than at his descriptions of gaping holes which even a numpty like me can see.

I have given this book 4 stars, a pretty good score, I stand by that score. The shame is that the proper credit was not given to poor old Byrhtfreth. He was a good writer, but he made the mistake of writing a book in the first person that was probably never meant to be anything other than a work of historical fiction. He did write other works with a very similar style so he probably can feel (if he is looking down on us now) that he hasn't done too badly, but I'm sure he is owed some back royalties for The Life of Alfred
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on 21 July 2014
A must-have for all serious students of Anglo-Saxon England. Translated and introduced by leading Anglo-Saxon experts this book remains the most easily accessible way into the main written sources relevant to the study of this highly significant Anglo-Saxon king. These sources include: Asser's Biography of King Alfred; key annals from The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; extracts from Alfred's own writings; miscellaneous sources for Alfred's reign (including extracts from his laws, his will, etc). Whilst the nature of the book does not allow for an investigation of all the complex issues relating to these sources, this is in no way a criticism. What this book provides is a way to read these sources themselves in translation, along with introductions and notes hat have a lightness of touch, despite the huge depth of scholarly expertise represented by the translators and editors.
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on 9 December 2011
I came to this not as a student, but as a podcaster of the history of england looking for good material. I really found it here. Asser's life is a wonderful biography; it's quite exceptional to have such a personal portrait of a king of this period. The bit I enjoyed moist was how he recounts Alfred walking around with his 9th Century notebook - it's brilliant. I know what one of the other reviewers means in saying that not all the material is compelling - but much of it is. Aethelweard's account for example is fascinating.
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