Monday, February 26, 2007

And the Academy Award for best Early Medieval addition to a famous Latin Text goes to...

Why, it's that perennial favorite, Boethius, translated into English by none other than his Royal Highness King Alfred the Great! (I'm ignoring issues of authorship here -- "Alfred" is just a construct anyway -- and a rather annoyingly pious one at that, if Asser and Bernard Cornwell can be believed.)

The addition in question? Well, in my most carefully considered opinion, it's the addition of the "Wagon Wheel" to the very end of the OE Boethius. Alfred's translating the explanation that Boethius tries to go through of the spheres, and in essentially discarding most of Boethius' explanation, he comes up with the the first tripartite social hierarchy explanation. At this point, I would like to interrupt my speech to thank Karl, one of the eminent bloggers at In the Middle for pointing out this stunning moment in Chapter 39 to me when I was still back in Chapter 33, wondering if anything interesting would ever happen again.

The Excerpt in Question:

Swa swa on wænes eaxe hwearfiað þa hweol & sio eax stint stille & byrð þeah ealne þone wæn, <&> welt ealles þæs færeltes; þæt hwerfð ymbutan & sio nafu next þære eaxe sio færð micle & orsorglicor þonne ða felgan don, swelce sio eax sie þæt hehste god þe we nemnað God, & þa selestan men faren nehste Gode, swa swa sio nafu færð neahst þære eaxe, & þa midmestan swa swa ða spacan. forðæmþe ælces bið oðer ende fæst on ðære nafe, oðer on þære felge. Swa bið þæm midlestan monnum; oðre hwile he smeað on his mode ymb þis eorðlice , oðre hwile ymb ðæt godcundlice, swilce he locie mid oðre eagan to heofonum, mid oðre to eorþan. Swa swa þa spacan sticiað oðer ende on þære felge oþer on þære nafe, middeweard se spaca bið ægðrum emnneah, ðeah oðer ende bio fæst on þære nafe, oðer on þære felge. swa bioð þa midmestan men onmiddan þam spacan, & þa betran near þære nafe, & þa mætran near ðæm felgum; bioð þeah fæste on ðære nafe, & se nafa on ðære eaxe. Hwæt, þa þeah hongiað on þæm spacan, <þeah> hi eallunga wealowigen on þære eorðan; swa doð þa mætestan men on þæm midmestum, & þa on þæm betstan, & þa betstan on Gode.

and the translation (pretty stilted) of it in The Whole Works of Alfred the Great (ed. Giles. NY: AMS Press, Inc, 1969, Vol 2 p. 522):

As on the axle-tree of a waggon the wheel turns, and the axle-tree stands still, and nevertheless supports all the waggon, and regulates all its progress; the wheel turns round, and the nave being nearest to the axle-tree goes much more firmly, and more securely than the fellies [the outer part of the wheel] do; so that the axle-tree may be the highest good, which we call God, and the best men go nearest to God, as the nave goes nearest to the axle-tree; and the middle class of men as the spokes. For of every spoke one end is fixed in the nave, and the other in the felly. So is it with respect to the middle class of men. One while he meditates in his mind concerning this earthly life, another while concerning the heavenly: as if he should look with one eye to the heavens and with the other to the earth. As the spokes stick, one end in the felly, and the other in the nave, and the spoke is midward, equally near to both, though one end be fixed in the nave and the other in the felly; so are the middle class of men in the middle of the spokes, and the better nearer to the nave, and the most numerous class nearer to the fellies. They are nevertheless fixed in the nave, and the nave on the axle-tree. But the fellies depend on the spokes, though they wholly roll upon the earth. So do the most numerous class of men depend on the middle class, and the middle class on the best, and the best on God.

I really don't like that translation, but since I don't have time to fix it it will do. There you have it -- tri-partite social divisions. Alfred's also setting out pretty solidly not only what he thinks rulers should be (note the "one while" meditating on heaven and "another while" on earthly things) -- but also that he's very nearly constructing the image of himself that the preface to the Boethius conveys, and that Asser's Life also gives. I'm brewing more thoughts about all of this, but in the meantime...big meeting with my adviser tomorrow, and so I'll leave it with Alfred's Boethius for tonight. It's telling, I think, that the first "King of the English" (self-styled, of course, and was there even such a thing in that time?) would expend his art (to borrow the Tolkienian phrase from Monsters and the Critics) on making clear the social hierarchies of men, and their proper relation.


Marina said...

'Waggon wheels' are these great chocolate and marshmallow biscuits.. (NOT cookies) in the UK.

Just, you know, as a FYI.