The Old English Boethius

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The Old English Boethius is an Old English translation/adaptation of the sixth-century Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, dating from between c. 880 and 950. Boethius's work is prosimetrical, alternating between prose and verse, and one of the two surviving manuscripts of the Old English translation renders the poems as Old English alliterative verse: these verse translations are known as the Metres of Boethius.

The translation is attributed in one manuscript to King Alfred (r. 870-899), and this was long accepted, but the attribution is now considered doubtful.


The Old English Consolation texts survive in only two manuscripts: the prose translation is in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 180 (produced at the end of the eleventh century or the beginning of the twelfth), while another version which retains the prose translation of Boethius's prose but gives verse translations of the metres is in London, British Library, Cotton MS Otho, from the mid-tenth century. However, a further fragment, now lost, perhaps from the tenth century, was found in the Bodleian in 1886. The work was clearly widely known, however. Early booklists from Exeter Cathedral and Christ Church Canterbury mention it, which Æthelweard's Chronicle mentions it, as does William of Malmesbury. It influenced Ælfric, the Old English Distichs of Cato, and even Nicholas Trevet's commentary on the Consolatio of c. 1300. Despite the dates of the surviving manuscripts, the verse translations of the metres are clearly based on the prose translations and so are later.[1]


The version in Otho attributes the work to Alfred the Great in both its prose and verse prologues, and this was long accepted by scholars. To quote the prose,

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.

But the attribution is no longer considered reliable, and it is now usual simply to speak of the Old English Boethius, or at most to describe it as 'Alfredian', signalling that it was probably connected with Alfred's educational programme. The translation is thought to have originated between about 890 and the mid-tenth century, possibly but not necessarily in a court context, and to be by an anonymous translator.[2]

First, prose translation[edit]

The Consolation of Philosophy was a sixth-century Latin work and is considered one of the most important works of philosophy from the Middle Ages. A translation associated with Alfred's reign would be consistent with his avowed aims to circulate translations of the Consolation and other philosophical and historical works for the education of his people. In another of his works, the preface to the Old English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care, Alfred decries the lack of people who could read Latin in his kingdom, even among the clergy. The translation of Boethius would not only bring this important work and philosophies to a larger readership, it would also promote the English language.

The translation is 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. Many of these additions 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 work.

Metrical adaptation of prose translation of Boethius's verse[edit]

Sometime after the composition of the prose translation, someone adapted the prose translations of Boethius's metres into Old English alliterative verse. They are an important example of relatively securely dateable Old English poetry.

Editions and translations[edit]

  • 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]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Old English Boethius: An Edition of the Old English Versions of Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae, ed. by Malcolm Godden, Susan Irvine, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), I ix-x.
  2. ^ The Old English Boethius: An Edition of the Old English Versions of Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae, ed. by Malcolm Godden, Susan Irvine, 2 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), I ix-xiii.

External links[edit]