Anglo-Saxon England

Fragments of Boethius: the reconstruction of the Cotton manuscript of the Alfredian text

Susan Irvine 

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‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’: T. S. Eliot's metaphor in The Waste Land evokes the evanescent frailty of human existence and worldly endeavour with a poignancy that the Anglo-Saxons would surely have appreciated. Such a concept lies at the heart of Boethius's De consolatione Philosophiae, and perhaps prompted King Alfred to include this work amongst those which he considered most necessary for all men to know. Written in the early sixth century, Boethius's work was translated from Latin into Old English at the end of the ninth century, possibly by Alfred himself. It survives in two versions, one in prose (probably composed first) and the other in prose and verse, containing versifications of Boethius's Latin metres which had originally been rendered as Old English prose. It is the latter of these versions which will be the focus of my discussion here. Damaged beyond repair by fire and water, the set of fragments which contains this copy will be seen to epitomize the ideas imparted by the work in ways that Alfred could never have envisaged.