The beautiful ornament pictured above is known as the Alfred Jewel, which has been called ‘probably the single most important archaeological object in England’ by the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which now holds the jewel in its collections. Discovered in 1693, it was made over a thousand years ago for the only English king to bear the title ‘the Great’ – Alfred of Wessex, who reigned over a troubled kingdom in the 9th century.
Aside from being a warrior king leading his people against Danish invaders and others, Alfred was also a dedicated scholar, with a keen interest in promoting the spread of literacy and a sense of national identity through the written word. John William Cousin, in his 1910 work A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, described Alfred’s literary impact:
The earlier part of his life was filled with war and action, most of the details regarding which are more or less legendary. But no sooner had he become King of Wessex, in 871, than he began to prepare for the work of re-introducing learning into his country. Gathering round him the few scholars whom the Danes had left, and sending for others from abroad, he endeavoured to form a literary class […] Though not a literary artist, [he] had the best qualities of the scholar, including an insatiable love alike for the acquisition and the communication of knowledge. He translated several of the best books then existing, not, however, in a slavish fashion, but editing and adding from his own stores.
It was this sense of scholarship and a desire to improve his subjects’ education that led Alfred to reproduce copies of Pastoral Care, a highly influential 6th century treatise by Pope Gregory I, translate it into the then current Old English, and distribute it to monasteries throughout his kingdom. With each copy he is said to have included a jewelled aestel, or reading pointer, and it is believed that the Alfred Jewel is one of these. It bears an inscription around its curved gold rim: ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’ - ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’. Alfred’s own translation of Pastoral Care still exists, and it is the oldest known book written in English.
Implements like the aestel are no longer in widespread use, but at the time they would have been practical objects as well as works of art. Literacy was far from widespread at the time, and even wealthy and powerful individuals were not necessarily literate. Reading was still considered a niche skill, generally practiced by priests and perhaps some merchants, and the assistance of a pointer may have assisted less confident readers. Only a few hundred years earlier it was considered noteworthy that the 4th century St Ambrose could read without moving his lips:
When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.