The Earliest States of Eastern Europe
DG-2016, 211-230

Heathens and the Heathen Past in the Old English Translation of Paulus Orosius’s Historia adversus paganos

Z. Y. Metlitskaya

According to the well-established scholarly opinion Orosius’s work was
chosen for translation in late 9th-century Wessex because it was a patristic
text giving a specifically Christian view of the history; this work provided the
translator with an opportunity to present to his readers/listeners the narrative of
the world history from the Christian point of view. An alternative explanation
of this choice is that Orosius’s providential conception of the ‘transition of the
Empire’ between four great kingdoms, as well as his idea that the rise of Rome
was due to the Divine Plan of the preparation of the Incarnation, allowed the
translator to read the text as a reflection on kingship and power, and to propose
to the audience a piece of king’s propaganda.
Nevertheless none of these versions can fully explain the radical changes
made in the structure of the narrative. In particular, the Anglo-Saxon translator
followed the Latin original fairly enough up to the end of the fourth book, but
the fifth book, as well as the sixth and seventh, covering the Christian epoch,
were dramatically abridged. There are also many minor changes, omissions and
The comparison of the depictions of the heathen past and the heathens in
Orosius’s work and in its Anglo-Saxon translation may be useful for deeper
understanding of the message of the Old English Orosius as a whole. In his
dealing with the history of the pre-Christian past the Anglo-Saxon translator
was keen not so much in the demonstration of the terrible state of the world,
as in the description of brave (though much often desperate) efforts of men to
survive and act in this world. So he was really interested neither in the early
history of the Roman state, nor in its political history in Christian times, but
in the struggle of Romans for the existence of their city, and their anweald
(this Old English word that means something like ‘sphere of power’). Such an
interpretation was probably influenced in a great degree by the Anglo-Saxons’
own perception of the pre-Christian past, particularly of their own past, which
included the ideals of bravery and honesty in desperate situations.
The Christian world is better, not because the pre-Christian world was dark
(as in it presented in the Latin original), but because in it good and steadfast
people might hope to be victorious.
Thus retelling Orosius’s stories of evils, wars, and calamities, which had
been the mainstream of the human history from the ancient times, the translator
communicated to real Anglo-Saxons the Christian reflections on the problem of
the Vikings’ invasions. He reminded that even before Christ there were many
heroes who fought bravely to defend their land, notwithstanding the prospect of
inevitable defeat. He also told, that in the Christian world there was a place for
mercy and hope, that calamities come and pass over, and people ought to be
steadfast and enduring, for now there were no reasons for despair.

Alfred the Great, Anglo-Saxon England, “Alfredian translations”, Vikings invasions, Old English Orosius

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