A king of monkish fable?

King Alfred the Great
March 8, 1996

King Alfred (871-899) was one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon kings. His greatness was forged in terrible adversity. All his energies during the early part of his reign were spent outmanoeuvring and ultimately defeating the invading Viking armies which had threatened the stability of his kingdom and which had caused the disintegration of law and learning. One of Alfred's abiding concerns was with repairing the structures of law and education. In particular, he undertook to translate into English various books which he thought necessary for all men to know, such as Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care and Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. To accomplish this task he sought the guidance of a number of scholarly collaborators who were invited to his court from far afield. Among these men was Bishop Asser of St David's in Wales (d. 909), whom Alfred specifically thanks as "Asser my bishop" in the preface to his translation of the Pastoral Care. By what seems a remarkable stroke of luck, we have from the pen of this Bishop Asser a Life of King Alfred, written, it would seem, in 893, with the intention of explaining the king's benevolent nature to Welsh audiences (this is why many English place-names in the text are given in Welsh) and also to flatter the king himself. The Life contains many memorable recollections about the king - his illnesses, his struggles to learn to read Latin, his piety, his concern with justice - and provides us with a more intimate picture of King Alfred than we have for any other Anglo-Saxon king.

For A.P. Smyth, in King Alfred the Great, this picture is too good to be true. The principal argument of his long and turgid book is that the Life of King Alfred is not the work of Bishop Asser, but is a forgery by an early 11th-century monk of Ramsey named Byrhtferth, whom we know otherwise as the author of a Latin computus, an English handbook to this computus (the Enchiridion), two saints' lives (of St Oswald of Worcester and St Ecgwine of Evesham), and a historical miscellany treating the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms up to the death of King Alfred (and containing, incidentally, long extracts from Asser's Life of King Alfred). If the Life of King Alfred was indeed forged by Byrhtferth, then the intimate picture of the king's personality purveyed by the Life must be rejected, and our knowledge of that king's reign must be fundamentally reassessed. But it is a very large "if".

Smyth's argument is two-pronged: he alleges, first, that the Life of King Alfred betrays "heavy indebtedness" to a life of the layman Gerald of Aurillac, written c.940 by Odo of Cluny, and hence must, on these grounds alone, have been composed after the death of Asser in 909; and, second, the many stylistic similarities which the Life shares with Byrhtferth's other Latin writings imply that he must be its author-forger. The arguments of the book, then, depend on source identification and stylistic analysis. The deployment of such arguments requires both learning and judgement. Smyth's book contains no evidence of either.

Smyth deploys his stylistic arguments with all the rigour of Shakespeare's Fluellen assessing the contents of rivers in Macedon and Monmouth ("salmons in both"). Odo's Life of Gerald treats the life of a layman, Asser's King Alfred was a layman; Gerald had an illness (leprosy), so did Asser's King Alfred (piles); Gerald spent much time in prayer, so did Asser's King Alfred; Gerald made wax candles for votive purposes, Asser's King Alfred made a large wax candle in order to measure time; and so on. At no point does Smyth quote so much as a single Latin phrase or sentence to illustrate a verbal link between Odo and Asser. And how was Byrhtferth the forger supposed to have known Odo's work? Smyth makes no mention of the manuscript transmission of the work (in fact it is preserved solely in four French manuscripts; there is no English manuscript, and no evidence that it was ever known in England); instead, he hypothesises that Odo could have deposited a copy of his Life of Gerald at Fleury, and that Abbo of Fleury, Byrhtferth's teacher, could have brought it to England with him in 985. If so, the manuscript has left no trace either at Fleury or in England (whereas there are abundant traces in later English manuscripts of other works brought by Abbo from Fleury). In the absence of a demonstrable verbal link between Odo and Asser, such hypotheses are otiose, and the argument that the Life of King Alfred depends on Odo's work must be regarded as not proven.

When we move to stylistic comparison between the Life of King Alfred and Byrhtferth's writings, the amount of detail increases, but the quality of analysis deteriorates. On Smyth's argument, the Latin style of the Life is indistinguishable from that of Byrhtferth; therefore Byrhtferth was its author. Smyth points, for example, to the large number of unusual polysyllabic adverbs ending in -iter which are found in Byrhtferth and the Life, and duly lists these in an appendix (Latinists will be amused by Smyth's inclusion of arbiter in this list). The difficulty with Smyth's list, however, is that it is not sufficiently discriminating: it is true that the words inedicibiliter or immarcessibiliter found in Byrhtferth - but not in the Life - are rare; whereas the words which make up the bulk of Smyth's list, such as aequaliter, breuiter, feliciter and pariter are common coin, and their occurrence in any Latin work cannot be used as a criterion of authorship. The same may be said of Smyth's other vocabulary tests. He points to various vocabulary which he regards as rare, including agentive nouns in -or such as rector, superlative adjectives such as piissimus, diminutives such as seruulus and the negative immo. But none of these words is unusual or distinctive. Worse yet, apparent ignorance of Latin leads him to regard as similarities features that are manifest differences. He points to the repeated use of the phrase die noctuque in the Life, and compares it to phrases such as diebus et noctibus in Byrhtferth. The form noctu is an archaic ablative of noctus (contrast nox and nocte), and the author of the Life was evidently so pleased with this archaism that he repeated it 11 times. Byrhtferth never once uses noctu, always nocte or noctibus.

But the argument against Byrhtferth's alleged authorship of the Life is not that Smyth has handled the putative stylistic similarities carelessly and inconclusively, rather that he has not attended sufficiently to palpable differences between the works, as the example noctu/nocte illustrates. In his genuine writings, Byrhtferth used a large number of personalised cliches: luce clarius, mente sagaci, aureus sol, uaga Lucina, Romuleae sedes for Rome, etc. None of these is found in the Life of King Alfred. On the other hand, the author of the Life used a number of his own cliches: die noctuque, adunatis uiribus, suatim utens, uiam uniuersitatis adiens. None of these is used by Byrhtferth. Throughout his writings, Byrhtferth shows an inability to master the use of the passive infinitive (a situation compounded by the nature of deponent verbs), so that he normally writes legi where legere is required, and vice versa. No such confusion is found in the Life, whose author competently distinguishes active from passive infinitives throughout. The author of the Life had a penchant for stringing together ablative absolute phrases, whereas Byrhtferth avoids such usage. In fact the difference between the styles can clearly be seen in those passages of Asser which (on my view of the evidence) Byrhtferth copied into his historical miscellany, where Asser's phrase Romam perrexit is characteristically recast by Byrhtferth as Romuleas adire sedes coepit. The distinction between the two styles could scarcely be clearer.

Evidence against Smyth's case is also provided by the sources drawn on by the two authors. Byrhtferth, for example, quotes a large number of school texts - the Disticha Catonis, Prosper of Aquitaine, Arator, Macrobius - which are unknown to the author of the Life. On the other hand, the author of the Life quotes from an unusual (Irish?) florilegium called Prouerbia grecorum which was known in ninth-century Wales, but never in Anglo-Saxon England. On two occasions in the Life of King Alfred the Bible is cited in the pre-Jerome version known as Vetus Latina or "Old Latin", a version which had, in England at least, been replaced by Jerome's Vulgate no later than the eighth century. In Wales, however, the Old Latin Bible was used down to the end of the 11th century. The Old Latin citations in the Life of King Alfred are wholly consonant with what we know of ninth-century Cambro-Latin culture, and wholly in contradiction to the (thoroughly well attested) use of Jerome's Vulgate in tenth-century England. Byrhtferth, for example, quotes the Bible some 230 times: always in the Vulgate version, never in an Old Latin version. If Byrhtferth were the forger of the Life, he would have to have known that, in ninth-century Wales, the Old Latin text was still in use, and he would have had to locate a copy of this biblical text: an impossibility in tenth-century England, to judge from the numerous surviving biblical manuscripts, all of which are Vulgate. In short, Smyth's case that Byrhtferth forged the Life of King Alfred will not bear examination. It is, as Smyth repetitively says of arguments with which he takes issue, "a nonsense".

Once the principal pillar is removed, the book collapses under the weight of its own pomposity. It has nothing of interest to tell us about King Alfred, no more than would a biography of Dr Johnson which perversely ignored the witness of Boswell's Life. Smyth's book is riddled with errors pertaining to the primary sources of tenth- and 11th-century English history: that the author of the Life of St Dunstan was a "monastic writer", or that the Encomium Emmae is "a praise poem on Emma". When Latin prose is quoted it very frequently contains error: iterpretatur; utriusque linguae libri, Latini scilicet et Saxonicae, ad monachium habitum, etc. Sometimes the Latin errors produce a comic (and unintentional) effect, as when Smyth writes, "One can only hope for the sake of the personal safety of the reader of the Life of Alfred, that his sentence gentem illam devantans, dominio Burgredi subdit was either lost on an uncomprehending audience, or else drowned out in derision along the benches of the halls in Glywysing and Gwent" - the derision being directed, presumably, at Smyth's Latin howler. An apologist might perhaps wish to argue that these errors are the result of careless oversight at proof-reading stage; but the sheer number of them must give pause, and it is worth asking in any case whether someone who thinks that arbiter is a Latin adverb is suitably qualified to undertake stylistic analysis of difficult Latin texts. In my view, scholarship would have been better served if the energy which Smyth has devoted to reckless iconoclasm, were devoted instead to the emulation of those scholarly qualities manifest in the publications of Sir Frank Stenton and Dorothy Whitelock (whose work Smyth denigrates throughout), namely competence in Latin, sound judgement, and care in presentation.

Michael Lapidge is Elrington and Bosworth professor of Anglo-Saxon, University of Cambridge.

King Alfred the Great

Author - Alfred P. Smyth
ISBN - 0 19 822989 5
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 744

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