This quote is from the Very Bloody History of Britain by John Farman. I have a soft spot for it as the first history book I ever read, almost twenty-five years ago.

I have always wondered what the phrase below means, apparently from the time of King Alfred:

Swa clæne hio wæs oðfeallenu on Angelkynne ðætte swþiðe feawe wæron behionan Humbre þe hiora ðenunga cuðen under-standan on Englisc.

This means 'So clean was it fallen away in England that very few were there on this side of the Humber who could understand their service books in English'.

'So clean was it fallen away'? What does this mean? It's obviously a literal translation into modern English, but what did this phrase mean?

  • I suspect you need to expand the context and tell us what the preceding lines are so that we can discover what it was that had fallen away such that there were few who could read their service books. I'm going to guess that it is something like literacy or education. 'So clean was it fallen away' just means 'so completely was [whatever it was] abandoned or absent'.
    – Spagirl
    Oct 19, 2017 at 15:42
  • 2
    @Spagirl The book Ne Mo got the quote from only has this snippet, which seems to be Farman’s own translation. The quote in Old English is utterly mangled. The full quote takes a fair bit of digging and knowledge of Old English to find from this, but also makes much more sense (and the translation here isn’t particularly good or clear); see my answer for the context. Oct 19, 2017 at 15:45
  • It had fallen away cleanly (that is, without leaving any traces behind).
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 19, 2017 at 16:02
  • I was trying to nudge Ne Mo towards doing a little research on their own account. However, I see that you and I arrived at pretty much the same conclusion.
    – Spagirl
    Oct 19, 2017 at 16:46

1 Answer 1


That quote is seriously mangled. Old English spelling was fluid and not particularly standardised, but this quote is just wrong.

The quote is from King Alfred’s preface to Pope Gregory’s Pastoral Care, and it should read (in Robert E. Diamond’s version linked to):

Swǣ clǣne hēo wæs oþ-feallenu on Angelcynne þæt swīðe fēawa wǣron be-heonan Humbre þe hiora þeȝnunga cūðen onder-standan on Englisc …

The translation is reasonably sound, though perhaps not too easy to understand.

Fallen away (oþ-feallenu) here means ‘decayed, fallen in standard’, and clean (clǣne) is an adverb meaning ‘entirely, completely’, similar to how it’s used in Modern English in contexts like, “I clean forgot about that”. Service books (þeȝnunga) are books used for service/mass in church.

The ‘it’ being talked about is, it seems, learning. Alfred is talking about how sad it is that England, once a stronghold of learning and wisdom, has now (well, back then) become a country of imbeciles and ignoramuses which would have to import its wisdom from elsewhere. In context, Diamond’s far superior translation reads:

[It has very often come to my mind] how abroad one looked to this country for learning and instruction, and how we should now get it from abroad, if we were to have it. So completely had it lapsed in England that there were very few on this side of the Humber who could understand their mass-books in English or translate even one written message from Latin into English …

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