It is authentic

December 8, 1995

The Life of King Alfred purports to have been written in the year 893 by a Welsh priest at King Alfred's court.

The work has not been found to contain any errors or anachronisms of a kind that would be fatal to its authenticity; it is full of incidental detail that would seem to have been derived from the author's direct knowledge of king, court and kingdom; it contains information that can be corroborated by independent sources; it does not serve any identifiable purpose of a later forger; and its author writes in a Latin style appropriate to the context and date.

That is not to say, of course, that the work is a masterpiece of biography nor that the modern reader is under any obligation to believe everything that Asser tells us about the king. The Life has simply been accepted as a work which for all its faults affords an intimate view of Alfred, written by one of those who knew him best.

The trouble is that Asser portrays the king as one obsessed with ill-health. Professor Smyth finds it difficult to believe that such a person could have achieved as much as Alfred is known to have achieved, and wishes to restore the king to the good health felt to be commensurate with his achievement.

His solution is to dispose of the Life as a later forgery. He first explains that previous challenges to the authenticity of Asser have been suppressed by a conspiracy within the "academic establishment". Having thus disarmed his critics, he develops his case at great length.

The case depends on raising objections to the text that, if not contrived, are quite capable of some other explanation, on dismissing as spurious documents that would otherwise corroborate Asser, and on giving the supposed forger access to a remarkable range of "lost" sources (not to mention a good supply of tall stories). It can only do good to have the debate reopened; but whether this case will convince anyone other than Smyth himself remains to be seen.

Simon Keynes is reader in Anglo-Saxon history and a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

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