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The Alfredian Boethius Project

Anglo-Saxon adaptations of the De Consolatione Philosophiae

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Board, 2002-7, and based at the Faculty of English, University of Oxford.
Director: Malcolm Godden, Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Oxford, and Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford
Co-director: Professor Susan Irvine, Department of English, University College, London
Co-editor: Dr Mark Griffith, Fellow and tutor, New College, Oxford
Research Associate and Project Co-ordinator: Dr Rohini Jayatilaka, Faculty of English, University of Oxford


The Alfredian Boethius Project was completed on 30 September 2007. The new edition of the Old English Boethius was published by Oxford University Press on 16 April 2009. For details of the contents of the book click here.
In addition to the edition and the symposium papers published on this site (see Annual Symposia below), the work of the project generated several publications during the course of the project. For a list of these publications click here.
A continuation project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, to compile and edit the early medieval commentary on the Latin De Consolatione Philosophiae began on 1 October 2007. See here for details.


About the Project
Related Projects
Boethius, the Anglo-Saxons and King Alfred
Versions of the Anglo-Saxon Boethius
Annual Symposia

The Project

The Alfredian Boethius Project began in 2002, and its primary aim is to enhance understanding of the Anglo-Saxon adaptation and appropriation of late Roman culture, especially in the circle of King Alfred. The project aims over the next five years to undertake intensive research into the history and background of the Anglo-Saxon interest in Boethius, and particularly the Anglo-Saxon versions of his De Consolatione Philosophiae, or 'On the Consolation of Philosophy'.

The main areas it hopes to focus on are:

The Project organises annual symposia to explore and publicise these issues, and reports on work in progress on this website and at major conferences. The results of this work will be presented in a new, expansive and thorough edition of the Alfredian Boethius, with introduction, commentary, translation and glossary, to be published by Oxford University Press in about 2009.

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Related projects

A crucial factor in the establishment of a sound text of the Alfredian versions is our link with the parallel project run by Professor Kevin Kiernan of the University of Kentucky, in association with the British Library. Professor Kiernan is preparing new digital images of the burnt Cotton manuscript, which will allow better access to the damaged text than has ever been possible since the Cotton fire of 1731. Our own project will be helping to organise the production of digital images of the two Oxford manuscripts as part of that project.

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Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was a Roman scholar and statesman, a prominent member of the Roman senate in the early sixth century and a leading counsellor to the Ostrogothic king Theoderic, who ruled Italy from 493 to 526. In 523, at the height of his influence and power, Boethius suddenly fell from favour, accused by fellow-senators of plotting against the king. He was sent into exile, and perhaps imprisonment, in Pavia, and was killed, apparently at the king's orders, in 524.

While in exile in Pavia Boethius wrote his most famous work the De Consolatione Philosophiae in which he sought through philosophy to come to terms with the vicissitudes of fortune and the apparent triumph of evil. Written in Latin prose interspersed with more lyrical or impassioned passages in verse, the work was to become one of the seminal texts of the European Middle Ages; the Anglo-Saxon adaptations associated with King Alfred were the first of many in English, including versions by Chaucer and later Queen Elizabeth I.

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Boethius and the Anglo-Saxons

The widespread fame and serious study of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy seems to have begun at the end of the eighth century with its discovery by Alcuin (c.735 - 804), the Anglo-Saxon scholar who left York for the court of Charlemagne in the 780s and spent most of the remaining years of his life on the Continent, writing, teaching and advising. He may have found the text on a visit to Italy. Through the ninth century it became intensively studied, quoted and commented on over much of the Carolingian world; its philosophy, its metrical varieties, its science and its allusions to classical legend, history and literature, all became part of the academic curriculum. Although the influence of Boethian ideas has sometimes been posited by modern scholars in early Anglo-Saxon poems such as Deor and The Wanderer, the first clear evidence of interest in the work comes in the late ninth century. A copy of the Latin text made in France in the middle of the ninth century (now in the Vatican) had reached Britain by the end of the century, when notes and glosses were added in a script characteristic of Wales or south-west England; the manuscript was later glossed and annotated further in southern England, by St Dunstan among others. Glossed copies and Latin commentaries were to become common in England in the tenth and eleventh centuries. But the most significant development was the ninth-century translation and adaptation of the text attributed to King Alfred.

Boethius and King Alfred

King Alfred's programme for a series of translations of the major Latin works of the past is set out in the prefatory letter with which he introduced the first of his own translations, that of Gregory the Great's Regula Pastoralis. There he urges the importance of both teaching the young to read English and making books available to them in that language, and notes the help he has had from a series of English and foreign advisers, including the Welshman Asser, John the Saxon and Grimbald the Frank. The king himself is generally thought to have been responsible for the versions of the De Consolatione and the Regula Pastoralis that survive, and also for two other substantial translations into Old English, each surviving in just one later manuscript: Two other translations that were closely associated with the king are: Back to the top

The Versions of the Anglo-Saxon Boethius

There are two versions of the Anglo-Saxon adaptation of the Consolation of Philosophy, one all in prose and the other alternating verse and prose, and the history and relationship of these two is one of the great issues of current Anglo-Saxon scholarship.

The Bodley Version

What is probably the first version survives only in a twelfth-century manuscript now in Oxford, MS Bodley 180. This begins with a preface identifying Alfred as author (though in the third person), and then goes on to give a table of contents, dividing the work into 42 chapters, and an introductory account of Boethius and the circumstances which led up to the composition of the work. This is followed by a rendering of the work itself in Old English prose. The text is very freely adapted, with much new material reflecting Alfredian concerns and expansions of the many allusions to classical legend and history.
The preface reports that the king wrote the text first in prose and then turned it into verse 'as is now done'. What follows is nevertheless all in prose, but the other version which survives does indeed use verse.

The Cotton Version

This survives only in a manuscript of the mid-tenth century, now in London, British Library MS Cotton Otho A vi. Much of the text in this version corresponds closely with that in the Bodley version, but there is an additional brief preface in verse, identifying Alfred again as the author of this version, the introduction on Boethius and his circumstances has been turned into verse, and so have some thirty sections of the prose translation itself - the parts which were designated in the prose version as 'songs' or 'poems' and which correspond to metrical passages in the original Latin text. This version thus alternates between prose and verse throughout its length.

The Junius Version

The Cotton Otho manuscript was very badly damaged in the great Cotton fire of 1731, which destroyed or damaged many of the medieval manuscripts collected by Sir Robert Cotton in the 16th and 17th centuries, including the only manuscript of Beowulf. Fortunately the Dutch antiquarian and scholar Francis Junius had made a copy of the Oxford manuscript in the 17thC and collated it carefully with the Cotton version, copying the different readings on to the margins of this transcript, and on additional leaves. That transcript is preserved in the Bodleian library at Oxford, as MS Junius 12, and is the only source for parts of the Cotton copy which can no longer be read.

Whether King Alfred was really the author of the English translation has not yet been established with certainty. The contemporary account of the king ascribed to Asser presents him (though not consistently) as an earnest but ill-educated man who did not learn Latin until he was about 38, some 12 or 13 years before his death, and one might question whether such a person could really have mastered the complex Latin of Boethius, especially the metres, and translated it so confidently, particularly in the midst of major warfare which almost destroyed his kingdom. There are, too, signs that whoever produced the Old English metrical version did not have the kind of familiarity with the Latin text of Boethius and the other sources used in the original translation which one might have expected if he was the original translator - whether that was Alfred himself or someone else. But the work certainly became well known in the next century. Æthelweard, the late tenth century ealdorman and chronicler, refers to it as a much read work which moved its readers to tears, and Ælfric the homilist drew extensively upon it in his own writings. Leofric, the eleventh-century bishop of Exeter, left a copy to his cathedral library, and the work continued to attract interest through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

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This bibliography is a preliminary listing of publications related to the concerns of the project.

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Annual Symposia

There will be a scholarly symposium in each of the five years of the project, drawing on invited specialists and dealing with a different aspect of the Alfredian Boethius each year.

First annual symposium, 24 July 2003

Second annual symposium, 27 July 2004

Third annual symposium, 4 July 2005

Fourth annual symposium, 4 August 2006



The Alfredian Boethius Project, English Faculty, University of Oxford, St Cross Building, Manor Road, Oxford OX1 3UQ

Professor Malcolm R. Godden, Director:

Professor Susan Irvine, Co-Director:

Dr Rohini Jayatilaka, Research Associate and Project Co-ordinator:

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Page created 6 December 2002
Page updated 05 May 2009