As early as the reign of King Alfred of Wessex, during the years 871-899, the Anglo-Saxons had begun to translate portions of the Bible from Latin into the vernacular. King Alfred, in fact, who had a personal devotion to praying the psalms, is thought to have translated the first fifty psalms himself. Scholars today believe that at the very least the king participated with scholars of his kingdom in the translation.

As a result, unlike other Europeans, the Anglo-Saxons were able to read and pray the Psalms, which they considered the most important of the Old Testament books, in their own language.

This is only part of the fascinating story of the Old English psalter that Patrick P. O’Neill recounts in his introduction to his Old English Psalms (Harvard University Press’s Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library), a translation of a manuscript of the 150 psalms that resides in Paris in the national library of France.

The Paris manuscript combines the first fifty psalms in prose attributed to King Alfred and the final 100 thought to have been translated anonymously in the tenth century in the form of Old English poetry. (O’Neill has chosen against using poetic form for his translation of these psalms; the Old English on the facing page retains the form.)

A scholarly book anyone serious about Old English will want to read and study, O’Neill’s Old English Psalms also offers much to readers who are simply interested in a historical book of psalms that can stimulate prayer and devotion, can be used for catechetical instruction, can elucidate understanding of the Medieval English Christian mind, or in poetry.

Two points from O’Neill’s introduction seem particularly important to note for such readers.

First, the initial fifty psalms rely on a literal, historical, and allegorical interpretation – essentially the tradition of the Church fathers. These translations, O’Neill says, are “transformations” of the original that are a “tour de force.” Second, King Alfred’s psalms have an introductory gloss that is catechetical in nature and so serve as an excellent teaching tool.

Although O’Neill notes that the psalms of the Paris manuscript contain a number of errors and omissions – some of the psalms, in fact, are incomplete – what is most striking about them is how direct and clear they are in their use of language, how engaging they are, and how useful they are for teaching the faith.

Take verse 35 of Psalm 9 (verse 15 of Psalm 10 in the Hebrew numbering). The Revised Standard Version translates this line as:

“Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; seek out his wickedness till you find none.”

O’Neill offers this for the Old English translator’s rendering:

“You will break the sinner’s arm and strength because, even if he were asked why he behaved so, he could not explain it, nor would he be willing to concede that he had acted badly.”

The initial words of the verse – “You will break the sinner’s arm and strength” – offer a directness and clarity beyond that of the RSV translation. But while the compact language of the RSV verse keeps the attention on God’s strength, the Old English turns to the pride of the sinner and the unwillingness of the sinner to know or admit his sins – a sure path to damnation. A sophisticated reader may get that from the RSV, or other translations, but the Old English translator wants to make sure he does.

At the same time, these translations are often, as O’Neill notes, bold, and his renderings of these Old English psalms often reveal a language that is fresh and engaging.

Psalm 48 (49 in the Hebrew numbering) is an excellent example. The opening verse is a call to listen to this psalm in words similar to that of the RSV, but more resounding:

“All peoples, hear these words now, and let all you who inhabit the earth lend an ear to them,”

The simple use of the word “now” gives this verse an immediacy that the RSV lacks.

Verses 18-19 also opens up the psalm to underscore its underlying catechetical message:

“18 Because he enjoyed his paradise here on earth, during which time no desire or inclination was denied him in this world, and because he did not feel any gratitude toward either God or man for what was given to him (once he possessed it), except for that single occasion when it was given to him,

19 as a result he will journey where his predecessors dwell, that is, to hell, where he will never see light,”

While this is not a psalter to use in liturgical prayer or in praying the divine office (still, a good number of the psalms here do reach this level in their simple beauty and rhythm), it is a psalter whose vibrant language will open up the psalms in a new way, and so is a book that can be read for pleasure or for productive spiritual reading.

This collection may also be of use in helping young persons or those new to the faith to get into the habit of reading and praying the psalms since the language is more accessible and less daunting than other translations.

O’Neill’s splendid translation also would be an excellent book to read alongside a fine translation of Beowulf. It might even help one see Beowulf more clearly in the light of its times and therefore more clearly as the Christian work that it is.