Alfred the Great, Thomas Jefferson, and Cable TV: Ninth-Century Anglo-Saxon and Latin Literature in Popular Television Shows and at the Library

The following is a guest post by Mark F. Hall, a research specialist in the Library of Congress’s Researcher and Reference Services Division.

[Alfred the Great, King, 849-901, head-and-shoulders portrait, in oval, facing right]

[Alfred the Great, King, 849-901, head-and-shoulders portrait, in oval, facing right]

The history and culture of Medieval Europe in general, and Britain in particular, have figured prominently in recent popular culture. Inspired perhaps by the popularity of the medieval-themed HBO fantasy show Game of Thrones, (based on the Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R.R. Martin), there is a variety of programming in medieval settings. The History Channel’s Vikings and the Netflix series Last Kingdom (based on the series of Saxon Tales books by Bernard Cornwell) are two examples of this. Sequences in these two shows are interesting in that they approach some of the same historical eventsthe wars between the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons, but from different sides of the conflict. This is particularly the case in the recent seasons which focus on events during the time of King Alfred the Great, who united Anglo-Saxon England.

Because these events took place in the 9th century, there are but limited primary or contemporary sources recording them.  While the original manuscripts for these works are found in museums and other libraries, mostly in Britain, the Library of Congress does have copies of these works and of most of the extant Anglo-Saxon literature. Many of the copies in the Library are old enough to be available online, both in their original languages and in modern English translations.

The main sources for our understanding of this history are the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Saxon Chronicle) and Asser’s Life of Alfred. Later works such as William of Malmesbury’s Gesta regum Anglorum (available online through the HathiTrust Digital Library) further spread Alfred’s legends that are now being portrayed. Of those mentioned here, only the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written in the Anglo-Saxon language (or Old English), while the others were written in Latin.

Some of the medieval languages have even made it to the television screen intact. In addition to Latin dialogue (common in scenes portraying the medieval Church), some episodes of Vikings have actual dialogue performed in the Anglo-Saxon language.

In addition to their recent popularity in modern entertainment mediums, Old English/Anglo-Saxon works are some of the earliest parts of the Library of Congress collections, as they were in the personal collection of Thomas Jefferson that formed the core of the Library’s collection after the British set fire to the original congressional library in 1814.

While Jefferson’s abilities in Latin and Greek are well known (see, for example, Jefferson’s January 27, 1800, letter to Joseph Priestley, and the discussion of his collection in the June 2008 issue of the Library of Congress Information Bulletin), he was also knowledgeable of and an advocate for the importance of Anglo-Saxon language and culture. He cited the importance of Anglo-Saxon law as a background for his studies leading to the formation of the United States Government.

His belief in the importance of the Anglo-Saxon language led him to write and publish an essay proposing an Anglo-Saxon curriculum for his newly-founded University of Virginia, “An Essay Towards Facilitating Instruction in the Anglo-Saxon and Modern Dialects of the English Language For the Use of the University of Virginia.”

An entry on Jefferson’s background with Anglo-Saxon language and literature can be found in the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia on Monticello’s website. Jefferson also created a list of “Books to be procured for the Anglo-Saxon course in the school of Modern languages” (see “Thomas Jefferson: Catalogue of Anglo-Saxon Books, Apr. 1824“). Books in or about Anglo-Saxon language and literature are listed in E. Millicent Sowerby’s Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson beginning on page 126 of Volume V.

While these old books and manuscripts may appear dry and be rarely visited in the museums and libraries where they reside, they can provide valuable knowledge and tales of high drama for those who take the time to study them.

One Comment

  1. Jan Knispel
    February 23, 2019 at 9:30 am

    When I was actively teaching high school British Literature, my students were often intrigued by the lives of the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings leading up to our study of Beowulf, that, for many, led them to have a greater appreciation of where our American English language evolved from British English.

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