King Alfred's issue carries on burning

March 29, 1996

Michael Lapidge's comments on my book on King Alfred the Great (THES, March 8) raise worries which go far beyond the academic in-fighting that clutters up his text.

Lapidge repeats - no less than six times - that I attribute the authorship of the Life of King Alfred to Byrhtferth of Ramsey. Byrhtferth is indeed a leading candidate for authorship, but I have never made such a positive identification and indeed I have pointed out that Lapidge himself may have been over-eager in the past to attribute too many works to Byrhtferth alone, when we know that Byrhtferth was one of several writers in the Ramsey school c. 1000ad. I have even suggested that the Life of King Alfred may have been written by a British monk in Byrhtferth's circle.

Lapidge, although holding a chair of Anglo-Saxon, is a specialist in medieval Anglo-Latin literature, and his tactic in this review seems to demonstrate that if I am capable of allowing typographical errors in Latin to slip through the press, and if I can be shown to have perpetrated howlers, then why should I be believed in other areas of my work.

Concentrating on a scholar's weak points can be a risky as well as an unworthy business and Lapidge knows full well that as a Latinist, even he is not without sin. His resort to ridicule constitutes a sad smokescreen calculated to stifle an honest and open debate on historical issues.

Lapidge's statement that my book "has nothing of interest to tell us about King Alfred" is an outrageous allegation by a non-historian which I am prepared to contest. What must worry all who read Lapidge's attack must be the disturbing issues of academic integrity and freedom which lie at the heart of his unfortunate outburst.

There seems to be an unwillingness here to discuss a whole range of issues. Lapidge's approach is in marked conflict with that long-established tolerance for liberal enquiry so characteristic of British academe and of the University of Cambridge where he now holds a chair.

Have we any reason to hope that his students will be treated to a fairer presentation of the arguments in my book than Lapidge has offered to readers of The THES?

ALFRED P. SMYTH

University of Kent

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