Metres of Boethius

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The Metres of Boethius (or Lays of Boethius) are a series of Old English alliterative poems adapted from the Latin metra of the 6th-century Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. The Metres were produced shortly after King Alfred (r. 870-899) translated the Consolation of Philosophy in straightforward prose at the end of the 9th century. Alfred may also have been the author of the Metres, though any direct evidence is lacking.

Alfred's translations

The Consolation of Philosophy was a 6th-century Latin work and is considered one of the most important works of philosophy from the Middle Ages. Alfred's avowed aims in translating the Consolation and other philosophical and historical works was the education of his people. In another of his works, Pastoral Care, Alfred decries the lack of people who could read Latin in his kingdom; even in the clergy. The translation of Boethius would not only bring his important work and philosophies to a larger readership, it would also promote the English language.

The Latin of the 9th century had changed considerably from that of the 6th century when Boethius wrote, and it is likely Alfred was only familiar with the Latin of his day. Asser reports in his life of King Alfred that:

"...his most usual custom, both night and day, amid his many other occupations of mind and body, either himself to read books, or to listen whilst others read them."

The Lays are probably Alfred's most important work, for although he is credited with translating several other works, the Lays show a greater spark of creativity than a simple translation. The attribution of the work to the King himself, along with his other works, is sometimes disputed. This is partly due to Asser's claim of an immediate and miraculous conversion to literacy by Alfred.

"In the same year [c. 886] Alfred, king of the Anglo-Saxons, so often before mentioned, by divine inspiration, began, on one and the same day, to read and to interpret..."

Although this reported late development casts some doubt on Alfred's authorship, all of his purported works seem to bear the influence of a single writer and although he certainly worked with a group of scholars Alfred's authorship is usually considered likely. This is in marked contrast to his near contemporary Charlemagne who had rudimentary literary skills.

Prose and verse

Alfred's prose version was a fairly free adaptation of Boethius and some parts are greatly summarised from the original. There is an introduction putting the work into context and numerous notes and digressions throughout explaining allusions for the intended audience.

While some of these additions may be Alfred's own work, many of them come from glosses to contemporary Latin manuscripts of the Consolation which were obviously used in the translation process. There is also a significant number of references to Christianity within the translation which are entirely absent in Boethius's secular work.

There are two surviving main manuscripts of the Alfred's Boethius. The earliest was written in the 10th century about fifty years after Alfred's death and contains the alliterative verse rendering of the work. This manuscript was damaged in the Cotton library fire of 1731. The later document is from the 12th century and is the prose translation of the work.

Alfred enjoyed working on the translation as a release from his worries and as a kind of self-education in philosophy. It was his hope that others would benefit from its moral message. He explains this in the proem of the work as well as confirming that he produced both the prose translation and the verse Lays.

"King Alfred was the interpreter of this book, and turned it from book Latin into English, as it is now done. Now he set forth word by word, now sense from sense, as clearly and intelligently as he was able, in the various and manifold worldly cares that oft troubled him both in mind and in body. These cares are very hard for us to reckon, that in his days came upon the kingdoms to which he had succeeded, and yet when he had studied this book and turned it from Latin into English prose, he wrought it up once more into verse, as it is now done."

See also


Editions and translations

  • Assman, Bruno, ed. Die Handschrift von Exeter: Metra des Boethius, Salomo und Saturn, die Psalmen. 2 pt. (Bibliothek der angelsächsischen Poesie; 3.) Leipzig: (G. H. Wigand?), 1897–98
  • Fox, Samuel, ed. and tr. King Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Version of the Metres of Boethius, with an English translation and notes. London: W. Pickering, 1835
  • Griffiths, Bill, ed. Alfred's Metres of Boethius. Pinner: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1991 ISBN 1-898281-03-3.
  • Krämer, Ernst, tr. Die altenglischen Metra des Boetius. (Bonner Beiträge zur Anglistik; Heft 8.) Bonn: P. Hanstein, 1902
  • Krapp, G. P., ed. The Paris Psalter and the Meters of Boethius. (Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records; vol. 5.) New York: Columbia U. P., 1932; pp. 153–203
  • Irvine, Susan and Godden, Malcolm, ed. and trans. The Old English Boethius with Verse Prologues and Epilogues Associated with King Alfred. Cambridge: Harvard U. P., 2012. ISBN 9780674055582 [an edition and facing-page translation of the Old English Boethius, both prose and verse]

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