Posted by: kljolly | November 13, 2013

Boethius and Brunanburh

Other than the alliteration, what can Boethius have to do with Brunanburh?

Answer:  Aldred.

I had a thought this morning that intersected with another line of inquiry.  My thought was to ponder what kinds of things Aldred might have read in his educational journey, and how I can recreate in a fictional scenario his intellectual growth.  Besides the things we know he glossed–the Gospels, the collectar and encyclopedic materials in Durham A.IV.19, and Bede’s commentary on Proverbs–we can posit access to some standard works from Bede’s corpus, other materials from the Lindisfarne libraries, and perhaps Alcuin’s legacy.  The latter might include Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and even its Old English version developed by King Alfred.

Then the intersection:  what if Aldred read Boethius as a young man of 19, amid the upheavals created by the Battle of Brunanburh?  I could place him at Heysham, where he finds a copy of the Old English version and begins to read it.  Then because of the nearby battle, he could flee to Dacre or Carlisle, where he finds a copy of the Latin and begins to work his way through it (I am betting he glossed it in his Northumbrian Old English as he went!).  This would provide an opportunity to have him reflect on the bicultural and bilingual transformation of Boethius’ classic work in Alfred’s reign, while considering the dynamics of Wessex power moving northward.

From Cambridge University Library MS Ii.3.12, ff. 73v-74

From Cambridge University Library MS Ii.3.12, f. 73v (crop)

Why Boethius?

When I was an undergraduate first interested in medieval studies, my English professor and mentor Dr. Frank Gardiner sat me down and said that I must read Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy if I was ever to understand medieval thought.  He was right, although at the time I did not fully understand what the book meant.  I was not much older than Aldred is at the point at which I have him encounter Boethius’ work, but he lived under far more perilous circumstances where a young man might question the problem of evil:  why do bad things happen to good people and vice versa?

For those unfamiliar with Boethius, he was a 6th century intellectual and consul imprisoned and eventually executed by the Arian Gothic ruler Theodoric.  While incarcerated, Boethius writes a philosophical tract on the problems of fate and free will.  His interlocutor in the alternating prose and verse dialogue is Lady Philosophy, who guides him through an understanding of Good and Evil without a single reference to the Bible or Christ, although Boethius was an orthodox (non-Arian) Christian.

King Alfred commissioned or oversaw the creation of a West Saxon version in prose (surviving in Oxford Bodleian Library Bodley 180, 11th century), and later developed with verse sections (surviving despite the fire in London BL Cotton Otho, 10th century, and a Junius transcription).  The Old English is significantly different from the Latin original, very much placing the arguments in an English cultural environment, with an Alfredian twist that Aldred may or may not have liked.

So I think I will reread Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy as if I were Aldred sitting near a major battlefield.  I will start with the Latin original, which I have on the shelf, while I wait for the recent Old English editions to arrive on my shores.


The Old English Boethius:  An Edition of the old English Versions of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiae, ed. Malcolm R. Godden and Susan Irvine, et. al., 2 vols. (Oxford, 2009).

The Old English Boethius with Verse Prologues and Epilogues Associated with King Alfred, ed. and trans. Susan Irvine and Malcolm R. Godden (Dumbarton Oaks, 2012).

International Boethius Society


  1. I like the idea of using the texts of Boethius as a narrative tool like this, but wonder whether you might be better off with Aldred reading the Latin first. Not only is this a likely text for a talented young churchman to be reading (good Latin for learning: attractive and challenging ideas that were not theologically suspect), but the Latin version is likely to have been reasonably available.

    The Old English version does seem to have been tied to the West Saxon court circles, so it would perhaps be more logical for this to be encountered later as West Saxon hegemony was asserted in the area – a copy of a text in English (a political statement) sent to a religious centre as part of a campaign to promote common interests perhaps.

    But these are just the musings of a non-literary historian…

  2. Good point. I did the opposite, thinking that the mature Aldred would be better able to handle the Latin, at a point of greater leisure, while the Old English is something he finds and has to read quickly while caught up in the battle of Brunanburh. Unfortunately, I have alread woven my narrative of Aldred at the battle around the fact that he is in possession of a copy of “King Alfred’s translation,” which plays a role in his encounter with Athelstan. Essentially, I have King Athelstan discover it in Aldred’s bag when he is searched, identify it as a copy he gave to Heysham and then regift it via Aldred to Chester-le-Street (never delivered, since I am working on a way that the bad Seaxhelm purloins it).

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