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How to make a book: Alfredian prefaces in theory and practice

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This article focuses on how questions regarding the signification of knowledge manifest in Alfredian literature in order to investigate how epistemology shapes books. It primarily examines the Alfredian preface, reading it as a mechanism though which texts were shifted from disparate anthologies to unitary books, reflecting an understanding of knowledge as a stable and transferrable object. The article both surveys the centrality of textual fluidity to Alfredian literature and considers how and why the need to fix and define knowledge was felt within early medieval England. It then sketches a brief history of the Alfredian preface’s development, stretching from early experiments to a growing scepticism surrounding both the preface’s efficacy and the project of stabilising, signifying, and transferring knowledge. It concludes by considering how Alfredian literature can help enrich and nuance modern theoretical understandings of the preface.

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  1. Medieval manuscripts of the Soliloquia often employed a sentence from Augustine’s Retractiones 1.4.1 as a heading. The OE Soliloquies begins with a paraphrase of this sentence, suggesting that the translator’s exemplar had the heading (Godden 2001).

  2. Throughout, translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.

  3. C.f. Augustine, Soliloquia 2.20.36 (Hörmann 1986, 97.15–98.5).

  4. Scholars have convincingly suggested that the text in the Southwick Codex is incomplete, missing a section around 64.4, without which the text makes little sense (Jost 1920; Carnicelli 1969, 101).

  5. The other headings echo these terms: f.44r, ‘[H]er onȝinð seo ȝadorung þære blostmena þære æftran bec’ (here begins the gathering of blossoms of the Second Book); ff. 53v–54r, ‘[H]er endiað þa blostman þære æfran bec [54r] þe we hatað Soli loquiorum’ (here ends the blossoms/anthology of the Second Book).

  6. This passage was added by the Old English translator and has no Latin analogue.

  7. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 53.

  8. Ker (1990) suggests one hand, while Christine Franzen (1998, 12) is less certain.

  9. Bately (2009) argues that the preface was written by Alfred. Malcolm Godden (1997, 36–38), by contrast, argues that the preface is by Wærferth, the writer of the text.



  • British Library, Cotton Otho B II

  • British Library, Cotton Tiberius B.xi

  • British Library, Cotton Vitellius A.xv

  • Cambridge, Trinity College R.5.22 (717)

  • Cambridge, University Library, Ii.2.4

  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 180 (2079)

  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, Hatton 20

  • Oxford, Bodleian Library, Junius 53

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I am grateful to Francis Leneghan, the two anonymous readers, and the editors at postmedieval for their very helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this article. I am also indebted to the Bodleian Library, Oxford (and especially Andrew Dunning) for supporting me through the revision period.


Funding was provided by Ertegun Programme in the Humanities.

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Moseley-Roberts, N. How to make a book: Alfredian prefaces in theory and practice. Postmedieval 14, 203–229 (2023).

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