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Wealth + Wisdom


Image: Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The Alfred Jewel, currently on exhibit in Winchester, is an aestel, a pointer used to guide the eye along lines of text. A gold rivet passing through the end of the narrow socket would have held the pointer of wood or ivory in place, making this the handle or head. The image is of Christ.

How different the government's actions are from those of this king, who was starting grammar schools and translating the books to be used in them at the same time he was fighting for his country's life, and his own, against invaders. Alfred had a sharp and painful memory of what it had been like before the invaders came -

I remember how I saw it before it was all ravaged and burned - how the churches stood around all England, filled with treasures and books and a great company of God's servants, and how little they felt the profit of the books for they could not understand them. As if the books said, our elders who held these places before us loved wisdom and through it they got wealth and left it to us. Here we may see their traces, but we cannot follow after them, and so have lost both the wealth and the wisdom because we were not willing to bend our minds to the pursuit of learning.

Alfred knew he needed educated men, so despite the "various and manifold troubles" disturbing the last 12 years of his reign, he sent the aestels along with the books to the teachers in the grammar schools he had established. He wrote -

We will bring it about as we very well may, if we have peace, that all the youth of free men of England - those that have the opportunity to give themselves to it - should be bound to learning, while they can be bound to no other usefulness, until they all know how to read English writing. Let them further learn the Latin tongue, the Psalms. . .and how to hunt.

Today I read Time Magazine's desperate account of some British boys. Growing up without fathers or mentors, they are consigned to state-run 'bog' comprehensives, whose playing fields have been sold off by the government. They cannot obtain the useful education they deserve or the exercise they require for body and brain. We have to use Alfred's great sense to help them and equally needy girls.

The exhibit Alfred the Great: Warfare, Wealth + Wisdom is at the Winchester Discovery Centre until 27 April.