Burning the cakes

There are certain types of characters and persons who leave a legacy behind which generation after generation is fascinated with. One of those persons is a man, who throughout his life was troubled by illness according to his biographer. Alfred the Great became King of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex (West Saxons and Kent) after his 4 older brothers all died. After being born as an unlikely king, as the youngest boy in among a large group of sons, he became the succeeding link which saved the kingdom from its defeat and extinction. Not only that, he also, as the Victorians saw it, laid the foundations of the Empire, the Navy and much else in English society.

But what is so special about Alfred that triggers the imagination of so many and why did generations of Brits grow up on the stories of Alfred’s reign? Why did he the most unexpected king end up as a favorite of the nation? Well the answer is in one way simple, and I’ve already mentioned it: Alfred have a biography, which is quite unusual for kings at his time, or at least among the Anglo-Saxon Kings before him. Written records about lives in the Anglo-Saxon world was prior to Alfred reserved for Saints predominantly, although on the continent the great rulers of the Frankish kingdom got their deeds and lives recorded in the fashion of the Roman emperors.  So Alfred’s life is recorded, and there exist a biography of his life, but so what? Is that all that caused Alfred’s fame, or is there more one might ask, well if it was so then more of the later Anglo-Saxon kings would have been much better known. SO what is Alfred’s key claim to fame?

Well one explanation is that Alfred, his life and reign, is relatively well documented compared to many of his contemporaries. Another might just as well be the fact that Alfred saved England and the English, and through his lifestyle as it appears in the bibliography became a perfect man. The perfect character in History. Not only did Alfred turn back the Viking invasion of England, and both consolidated his power as king of Wessex and extended his influence beyond the borders of his kingdom. In one way is he the turning point in British history, both the last king of a small Anglo-Saxon kingdom and the first of what was to turn into England a few generations later. Although he was a successful ruler, there must have been another reason for his fame, and why so many know his name. Well his fame did not kick off until after the reformation as historians have shown but if you ask most people in Britain about him, some will today not know him and others will mention the burning of the cakes. Yes even the bus driver on bus I took the other day mentioned the cakes that Alfred burned. Through the problem is, we don’t know if he ever burned the cakes, for the story is a later edition to the story of Alfred that first appeared from a book about an Anglo-Saxon Saint written years after Alfred’s death. But this is what Britain remembers; that Alfred burned the Cakes. Although one can read into the story that one should mind one’s work or it might go wrong and the intended product of the work might not turn out as one hoped. For that is what Alfred did, he forgot to mind the cakes so they burned instead of being perfect just as the Swineherd’s wife had intended.

‘So mind your work or it goes wrong’, well even though it is a powerful message, it might not quite historical correct, although we have no possibility of testing the validity of the story. But Alfred could be known for so much more, it is just a shame that history is not important or well-known in today’s society as it used to. 100 years ago history shaped society differently, and knowing the past was a vital part of a child’s education and readings, although what was seen as important in the past than is different from now. Even though we today know more about the past than we did 100 years ago, the impact of our knowledge might actually have shrunk. How can this be? Well let me try to explain; at the beginning of the 20th century children growing up in Europe, among other, learned about the history of their nations through school, through textbooks, through normal children stories etc., and as a result of that did a significant part of British children know the name of Alfred, French children knew about the Frankish kings, and Norwegian children could recite parts of Snorri’s Heimskringla.  However, as History as a discipline has developed during the 20th century, the knowledge of some parts of the past have decreased, not only because History have become a more specialized discipline, but also because more history have happened in between then and now. A textbook I had in my first year at University is known as ‘Fortida er ikke hva den en gang var’, meaning the past is not what it was, a fitting title for a text about historiography, but it also describes the development of history. It is no longer what it was, although children today know proportionally less of the total history of their nation, they today are not educated to be good citizens of the nation, but rather of the world. For their history lessons was a part of defining who they were, and both their individual and collective identity. While historians have found it more interesting to examine the sources and other aspects of the past than just kings and heroes, and have moved away from the role as narrator towards the role as examiner, who seek to understand more than just the successions of kings and their deeds.

Even though many of my friends from Britain probably wouldn’t have known who King Alfred was if they had not studied in Winchester, which has a statue of the King, Alfred is still important today. Not as much as the perfect Englishman as he was in 1901, but more as a window into a mostly hidden world which the Anglo-Saxon world is for us. Even if Alfred and the truthfulness of his biography is still a debated subject today, it is still both a window into the world it was written and it gives historians vital knowledge about the early middle ages. So even though children today might not know Alfred’s name, or the stories about him found in the sources, he is still an important part of their past, and like so much else deserves to be examined and talked about, like all history. For if we don’t remember then we will forget, not only who came before us, but also who and what we are. After all if we don’t mind the cakes they’ll burn…


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