King Alfred’s Translation of the Pastoral Care


Pope Gregory the Great (r. 590–604) was revered in Anglo-Saxon England because he had sent Augustine to convert the English to Christianity. As a result, Gregory’s own writings were widely studied. This manuscript contains a translation into Old English of one of his best-known works, the Cura Pastoralis (‘Pastoral Care’), a thoughtful treatise on good stewardship and leadership.

This translation, attributed to Alfred the Great himself, is prefaced by a letter from the king to Bishop Werferth of Worcester. Werferth is likewise associated with an Old English translation of Gregory’s ‘Dialogues’, describing miracles performed by holy men in 6th-century Italy.

The translation of the ‘Pastoral Care’, called Hierdeboc (‘Shepherd-book’) in Old English, is generally dated to the last decade of Alfred’s reign, when the king had the leisure to turn from conflict to culture.

In this letter — evidently one of many sent to bishops throughout the land — Alfred describes how the standard of Latin learning had declined so much following many decades of viking attacks that, whereas once the land had been a magnet for foreign scholars, now learning had to be acquired from beyond its borders.

Alfred instructs his bishops to lead a programme of translation from Latin, the language of the Church, into the more widely accessible English vernacular, while also educating the young to read their own language. The letter also mentions that each manuscript containing the translation was to come with an æstel (for pointing at words while reading), worth fifty gold coins. The Alfred Jewel is widely considered to be part of such a treasure.

Full title:
An Old English Translation of Gregory the Great’s Cura Pastoralis
Held by
Bodleian Library, University of Oxford
Bodleian Library MS Hatton 20

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