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Source global Wall Street Journal     time 2022-06-14 15:04:08
Typefacelarge in Small


This fine nielloed ring was found near Aberford in Yorkshire, in or about the year 1870. It was first observed by a ploughman at the point of his ploughshare. He brought it to his master, who, thinking it brass, attached it to his dog’s collar, where it hung until some one assured him it was gold, whereupon he carried it to a silversmith at York, and exchanged it for spoons. From this dealer it was purchased by Canon Greenwell of Durham, from whom it passed into the possession of Sir Wollaston Franks, and ultimately by his bequest came to the British Museum. When we consider how very small is the whole number of extant gold rings (whether inscribed or not) that date from the Saxon period, it must strike us as a very remarkable circumstance that we are able to produce three such examples, all within the period of Alfred’s life, and two of154 them belonging to such near relations that we may naturally suppose they were familiar objects to his eye. And there is a fourth ring, of which we cannot assert that it belongs to this very select group, but which certainly must be assigned to the same general period, and claims association with the three. It is a simple hoop of gold, a good quarter of an inch wide, having its outer surface covered with the following engraved inscription nielloed[57]: ?ered mec ah Eanred mec agrof: that is, ?ered me owns, Eanred me engraved. Hickes described this ring in his Thesaurus (Preface, pp. viij and xiij) with a good figure: 155 but in the interpretation he read the last word as agroft, taking an idle mark like an inverted T as part of the word; whereas it is there only to fill out the space. In the lettering there are five Runes: namely, the ? in ?ered, the N in Eanred, and the A, G, and F in agrof. This is the ring which was alluded to above (p. 17), in connexion with the archaic pronoun mec, which occurs twice on it. In 1705, when this ring was described by Hickes, it was in the possession of Dr. Hans Sloane: it is now in the British Museum. The forms ‘?thred’ and ‘?thered’ are colloquial abbreviations of ‘?thelred,’ which was the name of that one among the brothers of Alfred, with whom his relations were closest. But the frequency of the name forbids us to assert that this ring was made for king ?thelred. The names ‘?thelwulf’ and ‘?thelswith’ are in themselves exceptional, and when combined with the royal title are absolutely identifying: the name ‘Alhstan,’ combined with the peculiar aspect of the ring and the circumstances of its discovery, not much less so; but the name ‘?thred,’ though forcibly aided by the noble aspect of the ring,156 only enables us to assert a degree of probability which every one must determine for himself. Everything in the appearance of these rings declares them to be the work of Saxon artists, and on the ?ered ring the artist bears a good Saxon name. Such specimens must finally dissipate any lingering relics of the old prejudice, that the work of the Alfred Jewel is too good to have been produced in the England of the ninth century. We may rest assured that the excellence of the workmanship carries with it no presumption against its being English work of the time of king Alfred. [53] See above, p. 7. [54] Alhstan had accompanied Ecgberht on his famous expedition into Cornwall in 825, and we find him with the forces of Somerset and Dorset in 845 to oppose the Danes at the mouth of Pedrida. See Mr. Plummer’s note to Sax. Chron., ā. 823. [55] But the edges of the ring show (as Franks pointed out) traces of long wear. He goes on to say: ‘The engraving, moreover, scarcely looks like the work of a goldsmith. I would therefore suggest, that the Queen had probably offered this ring at some shrine, and the priests connected with the shrine had engraved her name within the ring, to record the royal giver.’ Proc. Soc. Antiq., 2nd Series, vol. vi, p. 307. [56] 888. Her l?dde Beocca ealdorman West Sea na ?lmessan and ?lfredes cyninges to Rome. ? ?telswit cuen, sio w?s ?lfredes sweostor cyninges, fortferde, ? hire lic lit ?t Pafian. [57] Professor Stephens of Copenhagen, Runic Monuments, Part II, p. 463, dated it ‘about a.d. 700-800’: but in this estimate he has been guided (I think) not by anything in the artistic design or execution, but simply by the large proportion of Runes in the mixed lettering, a criterion of very doubtful value. CHAPTER XI SOME CLOSING REFLECTIONS Among the various criticisms which have been elicited by the Alfred Jewel during the two hundred and seven years which have elapsed since its discovery in the year 1693, the opinion that the name it bears is that of the king has not met with more than one definite and formulated objection. This objection, if it had prevailed, would have excluded the production of such a work in king Alfred’s time, as a thing impossible. But the question thus raised has evoked evidence of so overpowering a nature as not only to neutralize the objection, but also to increase the balance of probability in favour of the opinion that the person named on the Jewel is Alfred of Wessex. The name, combined with the costliness and158 the strongly marked individuality of the work, draws the mind naturally to think of the most remarkable person who bore that name; but, in addition, we have to consider that it was found in the neighbourhood of the very spot which is most closely associated with the career of the selfsame person. In these obvious prima facie elements of the case, there is an accumulation of probability, which fully justified Hickes in saying that from his first sight of the Jewel he had never doubted its having been a personal possession of king Alfred’s[58]. To this central and primary body of evidence other instances of probability have been added in the course of the present Essay. The investigation of the Epigraph led us to the conclusion that the diction answered well to the time of king Alfred’s life, and also that it bore some resemblance to an analogous piece of his admitted writing. Our examination of theories concerning the design and use of the Jewel resulted in the conclusion that the suggestions hitherto advanced were inadmissible, and of no other value than 159as narrowing the field of conjecture. We at least know a number of things that have appeared plausible in their time, and are now no more to be thought of; namely, an amulet, a pendant to a collar of state, a decorated umbilicus, the head of a stilus, a military standard, the handle of a book-pointer, the tip of a sceptre. Our review of the abortiveness of early speculations concerning the design and use of the Jewel drove us by a process of elimination to seek a place for it in the helmet. In favour of this new theory historical evidence has been adduced, such as has not been offered in support of any other explanation. Unless this theory is approved, both the Alfred Jewel and the minor jewel from Minster Lovel remain without explanation. There is not so much as a theory in the field. On the other hand, if this new theory is judged to be right, or to have high probability, then this circumstance makes strongly in favour of the identification of the Jewel with king Alfred. For it points to a warrior, a helmet-wearer, and to a person of commanding position. One of the effects of the present investigation upon myself has been to convince me (in the160 face of what I counted a settled opinion) that the enamelled Figure is a product of these islands; and that it is not necessary for us to look abroad towards Byzantium, or further east, for a satisfactory account of it. This unity again is in favour of identification with Alfred of Wessex, whose conspicuous interest in jewellers’ work is asserted by a well-sustained tradition. The symbolism of the Jewel appears to contain an allegorical representation of the designer’s position, both inherited and chosen, both national and personal. His religious standing is pictured in the Figure and its back-plate; and the ancient religion of his nation in the boar’s head, once dominant, now under foot, forming a pedestal for the Head of the Church. And to this I will add the surmise, that perhaps the scales or waves on the small triangular space in the reverse signify that his country is an island in the ocean. I am not without apprehension that these explanations may strike some readers as too minute and too far-fetched, and that I may be charged with bringing out of the Jewel more161 than is in it. I will therefore endeavour to anticipate this charge with a few apologetic words. And first of all, I think it well to state that I did not set out with any idea of discovering latent meanings in the Jewel. When first I discoursed upon it, I contented myself with exhibiting drawings of the object, narrating the story of the discovery, explaining the inscription, and rehearsing the opinions which had been put forward concerning such a remarkable find. This furnished material to fill an hour, and to satisfy an audience. Whatever I have added to the traditional exegesis has broken in upon me from time to time at wide intervals, causing me on such occasions more surprize and pleasure than I can hope to impart to my readers. For those who would test the symbolism of the Jewel, there is an obvious preliminary question. Is there any reason to think that Alfred had an aptitude and a fondness for allegory? This question has been to me a valuable guide in observations on the extant writings of the king. It would be easy to show, by examples drawn from his writings, that he had a marked fondness162 for imagery and parable, that his habit of mind inclined to all figures of analogy and similitude. It was not a previous knowledge of these in the writings that led me to look for them in the Jewel, but reversely. I am not aware that any one had called attention to this characteristic in the writings: I do not think I apprehended it from any other source than the Jewel itself. In regard to this particular feature, the Jewel has (for me) thrown light on the writings, and these again have reflected illustration back upon the Jewel. I hope this explanation may make it easier for some to think that the imagery of the Jewel is a strong indication that Alfred of Wessex was the designer. It was with this aim that, in chapter vii, I quoted the poetical Epilogue to Alfred’s Pastoralis, and with the same aim I now proceed to quote a long-drawn simile in prose, which the king inserted into his translation of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophi?. It is in the fourth book, where the discussion is about Providence and Fate[59]. 163 In the abstract and implicit manner natural to the sage of a mature and over-blown culture, Boethius had illustrated the relation between Providence and Fate by the relation between the centre of the circle and its circumference. This analogy is stated in mathematical fashion. A series of concentric circles offer points of external contact more numerous in some and less numerous in others, according as their circumference is nearer or further from the common centre, but the centre itself is unaffected by such chances; it remains always the same, one and indivisible. The stable centre is Divine Providence; by the various contact of the circumferences with external things is represented the vicissitude of Fate or Fortune. This refined similitude was translated by king Alfred, out of the diamond-cut succinct Latin of Boethius, into the homely speech of his own people, by means of a concrete figure that was familiar to every son of the soil. Accordingly some things in this world are subject to Fate, some are no whit subject thereto: but Fate, and all the things subject to it, are in subjection to Divine Providence. Concerning this I can rehearse unto thee a similitude, whereby thou mayest the better understand, which men be subject to Fate, 164 and which be not. All this moving and revolving creation revolves upon God, who is immovable, unchangeable, and one: and he wieldeth all creatures just as he at the first had ordained, and still doth ordain.


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