Bruce O'Brien

title.none: Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (O'Brien)

identifier.other: baj9928.0003.007 00.03.07

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Bruce O'Brien , Mary Washinton College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Abels, Richard. Alfred The Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. The Medieval World. Essex, UK: Longman, 1998. Pp. xviii, 373. $30.60. ISBN: 0-582-04048-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.03.07

Abels, Richard. Alfred The Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England. The Medieval World. Essex, UK: Longman, 1998. Pp. xviii, 373. $30.60. ISBN: 0-582-04048-5.

Reviewed by:

Bruce O'Brien
Mary Washinton College

As a particularly graceful addition to the wave of Alfredian scholarship now being produced, Richard Abels offers a concise biography of King Alfred (871-99) that is not merely a synthesis of current work, but also includes much that is original. It consists of a chronological narrative with (in the manner of Polybius) an introduction and background chapter added at the start, a short epilogue, and three thematic chapters on "The Defence of the Realm," "The Reign of Solomon," and "The Practice of Kingship" as an interlude between the death of Guthrum in 890 and the new invasion by vikings under Hasteinn in 892.

One of the most striking aspects of this book is Abels' keen sense of both the significance of Alfred to his own time and the shifting place the king has occupied in the historiography of his reign. Abels' step is necessarily delicate, given the battlefield Alfredian biography has become (though whether it is Thermopylae or Rourke's Drift, and who are the Spartans or the South Wales Borderers, I'll leave to the interested parties). Delicate, but confidant. Abels' careful placing of his work in the context of other work will age well, filled not with criticisms of current scholarship, but with an assessment of Alfred's latest century as a public figure.

In the narrative core of the biography, what stands out first and foremost is locale. Abels creates a three-dimensional sense of space, a sensual description of setting. He has learned a good deal from John Peddie's Alfred the Good Soldier (1989). But more than that, he not only has visited many of the sites he discusses--his "Alfred pilgrimage of 1989" as he calls it (6)--but he has tested them out. These visits have given birth to sweet fruit. For instance, in March of 878, while Alfred was a refugee from Danish invaders in Wessex, he established a camp at Athelney in the Somerset marshes from which he launched his assault on the Danes. In Asser's near contemporary account, "King Alfred, with a few men, made a fortress at a place called Athelney, and from that fortress with the thegns of Somerset he again waged war ceaselessly and tirelessly against the heathens" (Asser, c. 55). After pointing to the site's high ground that would serve as a "natural lookout," Abels adds: It is difficult for a modern visitor to envision Athelney as an 'island' rising out of the marshes; erosion and tractors have considerably lowered the hill . . . and the Somerset fens have long since been drained. What does impress one, though, is how small the site is: about 365 paces long and 50 paces across" (157), a measure that translates instantly for me into a football field (of either kind). Given the confined space at Athelney, Abels calculates that Alfred probably had at most one hundred men with whom to begin the reconquest of Wessex, which makes the king's accomplishment all the more remarkable. Even when it is unclear whether such personal visits were undertaken, Abels' ability to characterize setting is superb: on the size of Rome to ninth-century English pilgrims, Abels says all of Saxon Southampton (Hamwic), the "greatest commercial town of Wessex," would fit into the Baths of Caracalla (76). A measurement like this conveys more than any statistic or pages of description.

The narrative covers King Alfred's life and his kingdom's history woven together, but the actual life is much more than the spine around which broader, yet circumstantial, evidence is arranged--the common form of modern biographies of medieval subjects, where sources are often scarce. This is partly the result of Abels having a good sense for the reader, partly also because there is a good deal of scholarship about Alfred and his age now in print (and much of it fairly recent), but principally because Alfred was blessed with a contemporary biographer and the fortunate survival of a medley of other materials, including the king's will, his law code, and his own translations of biblical and patristic works. The picture we get is impressive in frame and detail, and exhibits thoughtful judgements throughout. Abels does not overstate his case--his conclusions are always judicious. For instance, in his discussion of Alfred's illness--the "agonizing infirmity" Alfred suffered throughout his life--Abels has proper recourse to modern interpretations of the king's affliction as Crohn's disease, but admits that it can only ever be "an attractive possibility" given the state of the evidence (100). On different evidentiary terrain, he is equally sure-footed; he notes that the Danelaw mints produced "Alfred coins" at the beginning of the tenth century but attributes--despite the serpent 'Polity's' temptation--little political significance to that fact (166-67). His analysis is especially good on the explanations for Alfred's translations. Here, instead of choosing from among the three principle explanations, he finds much in all that is complimentary (241). One need not see Alfred and his fellow translators as muddling classical ideas they could not understand, nor as manipulating text to reflect the king's personal world-view, nor as simply incorporating conventional wisdom on these tried and true pillars of the Carolingian canon (e.g. Boethius and Augustine); Abels persuades the reader to see all three explanations as holding true to some extent for the varied body of work Alfred produced. Lastly, Abels does not gloss over nor eschew controversy in his aim to produce an overview. He devotes a separate appendix to assessing claims against the authenticity of Asser's Life of Alfred; this is a fair and thoughtful consideration of the arguments of V. H. Galbraith and Alfred Smyth, arguments which Abels rejects. Elsewhere, he alerts readers to the existence of debates and offers the essence of rival positions or qualifications of standard positions (e.g., on extrapolating from dies to estimate circulation of coinage on 210, n. 113).

There is much to agree with, and much less to disagree with. Abels rightly points out that Alfred Smyth may have pushed his now notorious 'blood eagle' too far in recreating the actual deaths of some English kings, but I always took that as mere garnish to the political side of Smyth's thesis--that the invaders had an agenda to eliminate all of the native dynasties rather than just loot the realm or even establish limited hegemony over native rulers (117-8). In some cases, alternatives to Abels' views strike me as worth considering. For example, Abels admits that the explanation for why Ealdorman Aethelred of Mercia did not take the title 'king' is a matter for speculation, the only interpretation he offers for this Mercian interregnum is that Alfred was both admired as their liberator but still recognized as the West Saxon king, which made this Mercian middle course of having a king (other than Alfred) in all but name a wise one (181-2). Other possibilities might have been offered: were there any Mercian candidates for the kingship? Burgred may have died soon after the beginning of his exile in Rome, but was there no one else? On the other hand, was Alfred trying to avoid being perceived in the same light as the Danes, who had placed a puppet over the Mercians, an act which endeared them to few? But these comments are signs that the book engages the reader in fundamental questions about the period.

Although the narrative is lean and, in places, riveting, and the analysis impressive, what is the keystone to this biography is Abels' portrait of Alfred as lord, which should not be surprising given Abels' previous work on the subject. Lordship is the frame into which most is fitted. This is no mechanical attribution, but something Abels sees in all of Alfred's work, from his translation of Christ's second commandment as "Love your lord as you would love Christ himself," (250) to his generalship at Edington; from the submission he received from the Mercian ealdorman, Æthelred, in or before 883, to his control of ecclesiastical appointments and seizure of Church lands. Alfred's world is defined by the relationship between lords and men, between Alfred as the lord king and his people, and between the Lord God and all the English. But these pairings again only capture a part of what Abels has so subtly shaded for readers. Alfred's lordship was a species of friendship (255), but was sacred in the eyes of God: Alfred glossed Gregory's Pastoral Care with the remark that "when we offend against lords, we offend against God who created lordship" (250). If Alfred's lordship had little of a dark side (except for those churches that lost land to the king's needs), it was because he lacked the means. For while he was a powerful lord, it was because of personal qualities he possessed that he had the power to move men (and build burhs and ships). He was no mere inheritor of some abstract power he could wield, some crown, some throne, some institution. Alfred was a warrior attempting to grow wise, not a CEO whose resources were drained by waves of hostile takeover attempts.

One area of Alfred' lordship that I think deserved more extensive treatment is Alfred's juridical and legislative work. Abels evaluates Alfred from what seems to me a slightly later set of norms--his Alfred finds fault with his judges because they do not end suits in settlements and reconciliation but in judgments (which are unjust and thus reach his ears). This urge to seek compromise or reconciliation is rather eleventh-century for my tastes; Asser, who is Abels' source here, says only that sometimes the ealdormen, reeves, and the people who were involved in cases disagreed violently about what was the correct judgement, not that they sought and failed to reach compromise or settlement. Alfred was also, I believe, a keener supervisor of his judges than Abels credits. Asser says that Alfred reviewed all of the judgements passed while he was away, which implies to me that Alfred expected to be present or to review all of the judgements when he was home. If Abels thinks this an exaggeration, he needs to say why.

A bigger complaint is that while Abels often links Alfred's law code to lordship--that the code shows Alfred's royal lordship, that the law was Mosaic and lordly, etc.--this is only one side of the code. Nowhere does Abels directly address the use or purpose of the law code beyond its demonstration of Alfred's state of mind. If it had no other application, Abels needs to argue his case. He comments that the judges found ignorant applied themselves to learning how to read, not to gain access to a written code, but to acquire wisdom. Alfred was himself wise enough to know the difference, Abels implies, between a wise judge who was literate and a literate judge who knew the law but was a fool. But Abels does not explain what the purpose of the code then was and he does not make much of Edward the Elder's requirement that his judges judge by the domboc, presumably meaning Alfred's lawcode (273-4). I think it a wonderful insight to remind us, before we turn all of Alfred's judges into black letter law students, that the king's concern was wisdom first. But let us hope, at least for the sake of the accused before them, that their lessons in becoming wise judges did not stop with the inevitable execution of the accused in Alfred's Boethius, but went on to the abundant mercy found in Alfred's Pastoral Care and, for at least some consistency, perhaps to the lawcode itself. Alfred's issuance of the code and his requirements that his judges learn to read can not be so independent of one another as Abels' analysis (by omission) implies.

Abels' Alfred the Great is a personal book, filled with the touches found in works that are a product of sympathetic familiarity. It is a pleasure to read at a number of levels. Abels has a clear sense of (dare I say it) plot--readers are often tipped off to future events (cf. 192-3). The picture is thereby extended and enriched. Abels is comfortable conveying insight through simile and metaphor, some of which are arresting. Alfred, the translator of Augustine's Soliloquies, is a jazz musician engaged in improvisation (though I would say more Tony Bennett than Sarah Vaughan) (240). And Abels' sense of humor, good natured and rich, is a presence now and then. Abels sums up the account of Alfred's ninth-century delegation to "India"--a perplexing event given the times--with a small dose of Wordsworth on the subject ("inspiring" he recognizes as too strong a word to describe the verse). "But," he opines, "as the better Victorian scholars realized, Alfred as a prefigurement of Clive was too good to be true," and Abels offers W. H. Stevenson's conclusion that it was Edessa, and (alas for later imperialists) not "British" India, to which Alfred was directing England's attention (192).

The book has been cleanly produced with a minimum of typos and editing errors, and with useful maps, a genealogy, and a guide to further reading. It is a pleasure to offer the counsel that it should be read widely in and out of the profession.