In the history of any nation’s literature, prose as a form of conscious art has flourished much later than verse. The development of prose has nearly always been slower and more uncertain than that of poetry. In the history of English literature, we have to wait almost three centuries after the composition of Beowulf to get the first English prose work, and even a long time before we find it fully articulate, and perhaps longer before we meet with prose that is a pleasure to read.
The development of English prose wholly took place in England and was mainly occasioned by the introduction of Christianity in England. We find the first traces of Anglo-Saxon prose in the collections of laws such as the Laws of Ine, the king of the West Saxons, and the opening pages of the Chronicle which was kept up in various monasteries, such as Canterbury, Abingdon, Winchester Worcester, and Peterborough. But the prose that we find in the laws is formless and clumsy. Literary prose did not develop in England until the ninth century, when, to quote Emile Legouis, ‘Alfred, the king of Wessex–“England’s darling”-attempted to bring back to his kingdom her lost learning.’
King Alfred (c. 849) hence is justly claimed to be the ‘father of English prose.’ The monks had written in Latin, which was unintelligible to the masses. When King Alfred set to writing there was a lamentable state of learning even among the monks. The knowledge of Latin had steadily declined. Hence, after establishing peace and order in the country after the ravages of the Danes, he applied himself to the task of nurturing the mental life of the people. He attempted to bring within the range of his people the most significant aspects of Christian thought. And with this end in view, he undertook to translate into his own tongue some popular books, which, he thought, would fill up the greatest gaps in the minds of his countrymen, and were most needful for all men to know. He formed his prose to Latin, making his English follow Latin constructions. His important translations include, (i) Pope Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis, a work describing the duties and responsibilities of a bishop; (i) Orosius’s Universal History and Geography, the leading work in general history for several centuries; (ii) Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the first great historical work written in England: (iv) Boethius’s Consolations of Philosophy, the most popular and philosophical treatise of the Dark Ages; and (v) the Soliloquies of St. Augustine. There is, in addition, a Handbook or commonplace-book, the existence we know from Asser, the king’s biographer, but which is no longer extant. As Edward Albert notes, ‘The chronological order of the translations cannot be determined with any certainty, though it is clear that the Pastoral Care (i.e. Cura Pastoralis) was the first and the Soliloquies the last of the series.’
More important than any translation is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which was inspired though not written by Alfred, and which contains a series of annals commencing with an outline of English history from Julius Caesar’s invasion to the middle of the fifth century, and continues to 1154. W.H. Long writes, ‘When it touches his own reign the dry chronicle becomes an interesting and connected story, the oldest history belonging to any modern nation in its own language.’ Long further adds, ‘The record of Alfred’s reign, probably by himself, is a splendid bit of writing and shows clearly his claim to a place in literature as well as in history.’ The Anglo- Saxon Chronicle is the best monument of early English prose that is left to the English. To quote Long again, ‘The Chronicle was continued for a century after the Norman conquest and is extremely valuable not only as a record of events but as a literary monument showing the development of our language.
True, Alfred’s literary activities are of immense importance in the development of Anglo-Saxon prose. The prominence he gave to the vernacular made it possible for English prose to develop on its own lines. As P.G. Thomas puts it, ‘Compared with thé abrupt and rugged style of the king Cynewulf episode in the early part of the Chronicle, Alfred’s prose is that of an accomplished writer.’ Apart from the historical importance, Alfred has some personal claim to recognition as a prose-writer. His original passages embody, as Thomas further notes, ‘his own personal convictions, and afford a remarkable proof of his ability to inform with life the materials at his disposal. In literature, personality is of the utmost importance, and Alfred is one of the most personal of writers.’
Alfred’s endeavor to create vernacular prose was carried on by Aelfric, the abbot of Eynsham, and the great English scholar of the Benedictine reformation of the tenth century. He wrote sermons in the vernacular, and these sermons display a great advance upon the Alfredian prose. The first two series of these sermons are known as the Catholic Holimies, and the third is Lives of the Saints. Aelfric also produced a Somewhat abbreviated version in Anglo-Saxon of the first seven books of the Old Testament. Aelfred’s contribution to English prose is immeasurable. He created a taste for it in the public, made them available as much good writing as in other languages as possible, and sought to set things right after the wholesale massacres of the scholars and pillaging of monasteries by the Vikings.
The chief literary contemporary of Aelfric was Wulfstan, the Archbishop of York from 1002 to 1023. He is best known as a homilist and his literary fame rests mainly on a single homily-Sermo Lupi ad Anglos. His style is much more forceful than that of Aelfric. He is a preacher rather than a teacher and he seeks to appeal more to the emotion than to the reason of his hearers.
Byrchtfercht was another notable monk engaged in serious studies of various subjects but especially interested in science and theology. He wrote Handboc or Enchiridion that contains short treatises on mathematics and philosophy. Some philosophical tracts like The Ages of the World, The Loosing of Satan, and The Seven Sins are also attributed to him. His scientific and mathematical writings set him apart from the generally widespread tenor of the homilies.
To conclude, as W.J. Entwistle and Eric Gillett aver, ‘The disaster of the Norman invasion cut short the development of prose before it could rise from the miniature saga of Iceland; but the straight-forward, affecting language of devotion did not perish utterly; it renewed its life among the medieval mystics and the translations of the Bible.’