The Consolation of Philosophy by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, the sixth-century Roman philosopher, poet, and statesman who reconciled himself with the seeming unfairness of life while awaiting execution on false charges of treason, was a powerful text throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. It was especially respected in England, where it was repeatedly translated and otherwise transformed into English, starting with none other than Alfred the Great in the ninth century, and including (among others) Geoffrey Chaucer in the fourteenth century, and even Queen Elizabeth in the sixteenth. It is not an exaggeration to claim, as many scholars have done, that one cannot understand much of the literature of the Middle Ages without a knowledge of the Consolation.
Alfred the Great, who ruled Anglo-Saxon England from 871-899, chose the Consolation as one of the cornerstones of his educational reform, which entailed the translation of important Latin texts into the native language of his realm. His translation is not word for word, and often not even sense for sense, because his motivation was not an academic exercise. For Alfred the Consolation was a way to help his secular and spiritual leaders contemplate the most enduring intellectual issues - the problem of evil in a world made and governed by God, the apparent contradictions of manï¿½s free will and Godï¿½s foreknowledge, the role of Fortune in the fall of good and the rise of wicked men.
The primary source is the tenth-century British Library MS, Cotton Otho A. vi, the only surviving copy of the prose and verse translation, a manuscript severely damaged in the same disastrous fire in 1731 that burned nearly 2000 letters from the edges of the Beowulf manuscript. Two other manuscripts are indispensable for restoring sections of Cotton Otho A. vi that were damaged or destroyed in the fire. A twelfth-century version all in prose is preserved in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 180, and is the source for restoring any lost or damaged prose sections. A seventeenth-century copy of it in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 12, by Francis Junius, is even more valuable, because Junius fortunately collated it with Otho A. vi before the fire and fully transcribed all of the poetic sections, many of which were severely damaged or totally destroyed in 1731. Thanks to Malcolm Godden, who is directing a complementary print-based project, The Alfredian Boethius Project: Anglo-Saxon adaptations of the De Consolatione Philosophiae, digital images of both Oxford Bodleian manuscripts will be included in the image-based electronic edition.
An image-based electronic edition of these manuscript resources and the modern editions that evolved from them will provide students of cultural studies a compelling view of how the Anglo-Saxons represented their most important philosophical and theological texts, and of how nineteenth- and twentieth-century editorial tradition has sometimes misrepresented them. Image-based electronic editions have the effect of visually reversing editorial tradition, by forcing readers to see what modern editors have put into and taken away from these cultural documents. It is this stunning recognition that drives the current interest in manuscript studies, and electronic editions make it possible to disseminate far and wide these revealing insights that once were the exclusive province of solitary scholars.