Alf, the cinder fella

December 8, 1995

Simon Targett reports on how a dispute among medieval historians over the authenticity of King Alfred's biography (Asser's Life) has grown from an argument about burnt cakes into a flaming row about the integrity of the discipline

He talks a soft Dublin Irish, sips Stella shandy and writes stories for children in his spare time. It is the CV of a conformist, you would have thought. Yet Alfred Smyth, professor of medieval history at Kent University, has just written one of the most controversial Anglo-Saxon history books ever, rampaging through the hill fort of orthodoxy and leaving behind the rubble of bitter rivalry and broken friendships.

Even before publication, his King Alfred the Great, the first full-length biography of the Anglo-Saxon warrior-scholar for nearly 100 years, was causing outrage among medievalists. According to Smyth, one academic even went to Oxford University Press to try to persuade them to insist on a rewrite. And since the book appeared, Smyth has been bad-mouthed behind his back, with some distinguished scholars showing a rare appreciation of the Anglo-Saxon vernacular.

Few have yet gone public. Patrick Wormald, a historian at Christ Church in Oxford, has his own reasons for keeping mum. "I used to be a friend of his," he says, "and I owe it to the memory of that friendship to stay silent." But some scholars are starting to speak out.

The book is seriously revisionist, and this partly explains its reception so far. Alfredian scholars have traditionally relied on a medieval biography supposedly by the king's tutor, Bishop Asser. Final proof of the authenticity of Asser's Life was lost when the surviving medieval manuscript was destroyed by fire in 1731. But, regardless of this, Smyth thinks the biography is a forgery by a monk called Byrhyfert working at Ramsey Abbey in the early 11th century. In so claiming, he questions virtually every biographical detail about Alfred the Great, including old favourites like the burning of the cakes.

These arguments alone would have been enough to stir up professional resentment. But Smyth goes further than this, arguing contentiously that the orthodoxy has never been fully challenged because the study of Alfred "has long been enmeshed in polemic and the politics of academic patronage". Too many academics have stayed silent, kowtowing to the job-distributing "establishment". Those who have dared to raise questions about the Asser text - notably V. H. Galbraith - have been hounded out of a comfortable existence.

Curiously, Smyth identifies Sir Frank Stenton, professor of history at Reading University, from the mid-1920s, as the first ruler of an essentially Oxbridge establishment. But his real demon is the late Dorothy Whitelock, Stenton's protege and eventually professor of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge. "She was the Margaret Thatcher of medieval history," he says. "Stenton's patronage passed to her, and this meant that if you were a young man who had promise, you were not going to go against what she handed down because it would destroy your entire career." Today, he suggests, the baton of the establishment has passed to a triumvirate of Cambridge scholars: Simon Keynes, who worked on Whitelock's unpublished biography of Alfred; Michael Lapidge, who holds Whitelock's old Anglo-Saxon professorship; and palaeography professor David Dumville.

In effect, Alfred has been, as Smyth puts it, "a no-no subject" for most of this century, and this explains why there has not been a new biography since the one written by Charles Plummer in 1902. Smyth is almost certainly right about Whitelock. She was notoriously vindictive to academics who disagreed with her. Some books she refused to allow anywhere near the Cambridge Anglo-Saxon library, and at the end of a posthumous edition of Stenton's famous Anglo-Saxon England, she identified several scholars whose books she refused to put in the bibliography, saying simply that "Sir Frank Stenton was not convinced by their work".

Less convincing is Smyth's conviction that a contemporary Cambridge-based establishment rules the Anglo-Saxon roost. Wormald was so incensed by this transparent subtext, and especially by the "highly personalised" writing, that he broke off his long friendship with Smyth. Lapidge calls the idea "paranoiac", insisting that the so-called Cambridge triumvirate is a fiction: "We are not a school. We are not an establishment. We do not try to suppress the views of other scholars." By way of emphasis, he reveals that he and Dumville "seldom agree on anything". Others outside the Oxbridge orbit think that Smyth has overstated his case, including Birmingham professor Nicholas Brooks and London professor Janet Bately. On the other hand, David Kirby, the widely respected professor of medieval history at Aberyswyth, confirms that an establishment has long been "a feature of Anglo-Saxon history", and notes that the standard edition of Asser's Life by Keynes and Lapidge is "very conservative" and, in his opinion, does not take into account the views of "anyone outside the charmed circle".

Smyth concedes that his King Alfred "comes across as an angry book". This is enhanced by the language of antagonism: words like "enemies" and "rivals" to describe fellow academics. But he suggests there was no other way of writing the biography, referring to "the terrible business that every ditch must be fought over". Roy Hart, an amateur Alfred expert outside traditional academic circles, sort of agrees. "He might have put it more diplomatically. But then if he had put it too diplomatically, he would have been ignored."

If one thing is certain, he will not be ignored. Bately, who read the work in draft, says Smyth's thesis "deserves to be answered". Kirby thinks the real test will be whether it is accepted by the medieval Latinists like Lapidge. "That will be the absolute crunch," says Kirby. Smyth is a historian who sees himself as taking on the linguists who, he believes, have "taken over" Anglo-Saxon studies. His central argument in relation to the Asser 'forgery' relies on a conviction that Asser's Latin was anachronistic, too flamboyant for the ninth century. But Lapidge, the country's leading medieval Latin scholar, thinks this is just plain wrong. "It is perfectly possible for a student of Latin style to show that the way Asser writes is completely different to the way Byrhyfert writes."

The complexity of the case means that Anglo Saxonists are hedging their bets on who will be proved right - except for Roy Hart, who rather extravagantly compares Smyth to Einstein and who thinks that "in ten years time he won't be in a minority of one". For his part, Smyth says "there is no danger that the book will become the new orthodoxy", and he expects to join the "long thin line of mavericks", espcially those he worked with like Oxford's J. M. Wallace-Hadrill and Birmingham's R. H. C. Davies.

Whichever, he is sure to experience, as Kirby puts it, "one hell of a backlash". Will it be worth it? Smyth asked himself this question when he first struck upon his thesis in the late 1980s. By then, he had been working on the biography for five years, and had even written several chapters of orthodox history. "Even Dorothy Whitelock would have approved of them," he says, a touch cheekily. He thought of giving up. "I knew I was going to have to take on the whole world," he remembers, "and I really want a comfortable existence."

But, in the end, he recalled the words of his mentor Wallace-Hadrill, a maverick who fetched up at All Souls as Chichele professor of medieval history: "You always say what you want, young man, otherwise you'll be no good."

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs