03.01.12, Smyth, The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great

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Stephen J. Harris

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.012


Smyth, Alfred P.. The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great: A Translation and Commentary on the Text Attributed to Asser. New York: Palgrave, 2002. Pp. xx, 280. ISBN: 0-333-69917-3.

Reviewed by:
Stephen J. Harris
University of Massachusetts

This book is the next sortie in Alfred Smyth's sustained attack against positions held by some of the most formidable scholars ever known to Anglo-Saxon studies. The Medieval Life reproduces, often verbatim, an argument Smyth set out in his King Alfred the Great (Oxford, 1995; hereafter KA). Both works focus on the Res Gestae Aelfredi (or Vita Aelfredi), a biography of King Alfred (reigned 871-99) long ascribed, but not without unease, to the Welsh Bishop Asser (d. 908/09). In KA, Smyth contested Asser's authorship and dismissed the Vita as appropriate evidence for understanding this ninth-century king. Smyth placed the composition of the Vita, which he now considered a later forgery, near the Huntingdonshire abbey of Ramsey c. 1000, and attributed it to Ramsey's prolific monk Byrhtferth or his circle. For a variety of reasons, not least of which was Smyth's charge of an academic conspiracy to hide these facts from the public, this book did not appeal to its reviewers. The Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) hosted in late 1995 and early 1996 an exchange of terse notices between, on the one hand, Professor Simon Keynes of Trinity College, Cambridge and Michael Lapidge of Notre Dame (then Erlington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Cambridge), and on the other hand, Smyth, then a professor of medieval history and Master of Keynes College at the University of Kent. Keynes, in a detailed and measured refutation of Smyth's argument, concluded in the summer of 1996 that Smyth had failed to show any evidence or reason why the Vita ought to be classed a forgery. In this newer work, Smyth makes no significant additions to his earlier arguments save attributing the Vita to Byrhtferth alone.

Smyth fails to answer dozens of important critiques of his KA, not least of which are Keynes' 1996 response and Richard Abels' 1998 review of the evidence, which, unsurprisingly to Smyth, "adheres to traditional thinking on this subject" (xix) and for that reason, he concludes, can be rejected out of hand. It is not easy to assess whether or not Smyth has successfully answered scholarly critique, since he does not present evidence as much as he implies it. Any given argument is disposed incompletely in its multiple parts throughout the book, repetition rather than reason often providing the standard of proof. Dangerously, Smyth rarely distinguishes between primary evidence and his own creative extrapolations, and he dismisses the best scholarship in favor of theories so contorted they defy recapitulation. With respect to the translation, Smyth points out that it "has been produced under the influence of an alternative interpretation regarding the origins, the authorship and the date of the medieval Life of King Alfred the Great" (xvi). Smyth, following William Stevenson in 1902 (and before him the Monumenta Historica Britannica), marks off large chunks of the Life as interpolations. These passages had already been identified, but the typography in Smyth's translation is quite useful. Smyth is quiet about his scholarly debts, and especially quiet about his profound debt to Lapidge, notably to the 1983 Penguin translation of the Vita by Keynes and Lapidge.

Smyth's translations in KA were brutally savaged by Lapidge (though Smyth has corrected a howler on p. 130 which was spotted by Lapidge in KA, p. 363). The style of Smyth's translation does not compel its association with Byrhtferth. In the Latin, neither suggests the other, as Lapidge pointed out ("The distinction between the two styles could scarcely be clearer," THES 8 March 1996). Smyth testily (and now ironically) replied that "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" (THES 29 March 1996, p 13). Smyth makes the identification (and also attributes the Worcester Chronicle to Byrhtferth) on precisely the same dubious stylistic grounds he offered in KA. Lapidge's earlier conclusions about Smyth's stylistic arguments therefore have to be counted as devastating, since Lapidge's judgment about Byrhtferth's style provides Smyth's primary stylistic evidence for an attribution to Byrhtferth (e.g., KA, p. 365). Smyth includes in this present work an entire chapter on the Life's Latin style, one supposes in order to shore up his earlier efforts. But the "new" chapter reproduces, with only a few words of difference, chapter 11 from KA. Smyth substitutes, for example, "the Life of Alfred" for "pseudo-Asser" of KA, omits "the" from one paragraph, and adds a sentence to another. He does manage in one new sentence to dismiss entirely Lapidge's unequaled knowledge of Anglo-Latin by noting that some Latinists make "unreal distinctions" between tenth-century and later Latin (139). Then, apparently without the specter of Lapidge's competence haunting his argument, he immediately reproduces KA, pp 280 ff. Virtually all of the book's commentary reproduces KA, which has been reviewed elsewhere. For example, pp. 123-31 reproduce KA pp. 356-62. A section of chapter two on "The Welsh dimension in the Life of King Alfred" is taken, almost entirely verbatim, from chapter thirteen of KA, "Burning Cakes and a Welsh Dimension." Similar reproduction is rampant, but because KA is over 700 pages, it would be a task beyond this reviewer's inclination to collate. Smyth acknowledges that he has reproduced "passages in revised form" (xi), but such wholesale reproduction over pages and pages strains the definition of "passages."

The translation itself is incautious, offering a more literal and less idiomatic rendering of the Latin than that by Keynes and Lapidge. Medieval Latin is not always open to literal translation, since dialect features, idiom, and formulae are sometimes at odds with classical usage. Difficulties in Smyth's translation present themselves almost immediately. The Vita's brief dedication to King Alfred contains two items which draw Smyth's comment:

Domino meo venerabili piissimoque omnium Brittanniae [sic] insulae Christianorum rectori, Aelfred, Anglorum Saxonum regi, Asser, omnium servorum Dei ultimus, millemodam ad vota desideriorum utriusque vitae prosperitatem. (Stevenson, p 1) (Smyth translates, p. 3: To my venerable and most pious lord, to Alfred king of the Anglo-Saxons, ruler of all the Christians of the island of Britain, Asser least of all the servants of God, wishes thousandfold prosperity in this life and in the next, according to the prayers of his fervent desires.)

Stylistically, one expects Alfred's name and title to be treated in subordinate apposition to the opening phrase (as in Lapidge's translation), but Smyth puts them in parallel for some reason, awkwardly implying two recipients. In any event, the first matter of note to Smyth is the lexeme rector, used to denote a king. Smyth says that Byrhtferth "used the anachronistic rector to describe a late seventh-century king in his Life of St. Ecgwine" (194-95, and KA, p. 391). Smyth claims in KA that the word is actually a tenth-century title, and thus proof of a later date. But the term used in this sense is not rare before the reign of Alfred. A quick look at the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, for example, shows the word used in this sense by Isidore of Seville, Historia Gothorum (MGH AA 11 p 293), and by St. Boniface in his letters to Lul (MGH Ep. nos.13 and 131). The term is also used by Defensor, Liber scintillarum (later glossed in Old English) to mean a teacher or leader (e.g. cap. 32), and similarly by Augustine of Hippo and Cassiodorus. These works were all extant in Anglo-Saxon libraries.

The second item to draw comment is the styling of Alfred as king of the Anglo-Saxons. This is a very complex issue and relies for explication on numismatics, charters, writs, laws, and more. Smyth claims that the use in the Vita of this styling is anachronistic for the ninth century and "echoes the language of charters issued in the names of Alfred's grandsons" (211, n. 1). The reverse possibility is not seriously entertained. But there are at least two stylings in the Latin, Anglorum Saxonum rex and, in the first line of the Life proper, Angul-Saxonum rex. The difference may be important, and whether syntax mirrors political reality is something worth considering here. One cannot be sure which styling Smyth supposes anachronistic; moreover, the Venerable Bede in the early eighth century saw the Angles and Saxons as a single people in their ecclesiastical union, as Patrick Wormald and Georges Tugenes, among others, have shown. Most of the relevant stylings in the charter evidence are addressed by Keynes and Lapidge in their notes (227, n. 1). In fact, those charters which do not support Smyth's conclusions he quickly dismisses as forgeries -^× Smyth rightly dismisses Sawyer 351 (=Birch 740, p. 267, n. 91), but does not explain the relevance or irrelevance of Sawyer 346, 347, 348, 354, 355, and 356.

Rarely discussed in the notes are any lexical or syntactic issues. Why, for example, does Smyth translate utriusque vitae as "in this life and in the next," following exactly the wording of Lapidge in that translation (67)? It might interest Smyth's readers to know this is a phrase sometimes used by Bede and Gregory the Great, among others, to refer to both lives that one has in Christ, the active and contemplative. It is an intriguing phrase to put in apposition to a king. Surely this deserves some comment, given Smyth's insistence on a hagiographical model of this Vita. And for those whose ecclesiastical Latin may be rusty, an explanation of the phrase ad vota desideriorum might be in order as well. Lapidge translates "according to the desires of his prayers," which makes more sense in idiomatic English than Smyth's more literal "the prayers of his fervent desires," not least because "fervent" appears nowhere in the Latin. The phrase ad vota desideriorum is not only patristic, but also liturgical, found in some later medieval sacrementaries in a prayer addressed to God^×again an intriguing point in a dedication to a secular dominus. To his credit, Smyth does point out that his is not be counted a definitive translation, but where he differs from Lapidge, he usually makes literal what is better translated as idiomatic. There are countless similar examples (I will not list errors or infelicities), and Lapidge's translation is to be preferred on all counts.

With respect to the commentary, two examples of Smyth's egregious method will, I hope, suffice. This ground has been covered before. Chapter One is entitled "A Tour Around the Manuscripts," but Smyth ignores virtually all learned opinion on the manuscripts. In his defense, Smyth dismisses all paleographical and codicological argument outright, and declares that dating or attributing early medieval chronicles, for example, is not "amenable to 'proof' in any accepted sense of that term"(70). David Dumville and Lapidge are dismissed in their dating of a chronicle not for their arguments, but for their impoliteness: Roy Hart's "arguments were contemptuously dismissed in a two-line footnote rather than answered point by point, [which] lends little credibility to the pronouncements of his critics" (74). Thus a twelfth-century date reverts to a tenth-century one for want of a longer footnote. Ironically, Smyth doesn't respond to any of his own critics point-by-point. In a startling move, Smyth becomes, as best I can estimate, the first codicological creationist on record. Decades of careful comparison of various portions of the Vita in a number of recensions are dismissed with this cunning suggestion: "Byrhtferth may have had several different versions of the Life of King Alfred on the drawing board at any one time" (71-72). Thus, "such differences between recensions may not relate to a conventional manuscript transmission from one copyist to another over, say, a century or more of time, but rather to different versions of the text in the mind of one prolific author..." over 30 years or so (72). A single text did not evolve into various versions, but was created (and remained pristine) in manifold variety. This absurd notion is quickly dropped since variant readings will provide needed support for his source, Hart, whose argument was challenged by one of the great historians of Anglo-Saxon England, Dorothy Whitelock. Smyth claims that "more recent studies" have shown Whitelock to be wrong. The endnote to that claim (73, n. 106), where one would expect an example of a recent study, instead claims that "Whitelock was essentially agreeing with Stevenson here," and "Hart challenged Stevenson's analysis, point by point" (248-49). That challenge is never described, nor what is meant by "essentially agreeing," but the invocation of Hart's pointed challenge, like some talisman, apparently suffices to keep the snapping dons at bay -- and no studies more recent than Stevenson's need be addressed, it seems.

Here is a second example of Smyth's insidious method. Smyth opposes the long-held claim "that the writer of the Encomium Emmae Reginae (a eulogy on Emma, the widowed queen of Cnut, who died in 1052) borrowed two glosses from the Life of Alfred into his text" (p 76). Smyth is concerned to show that the Vita was never consulted by the Encomiast. The evidence comprises three items, two glossed place names (at II, viii where Sheppey is described as insula ovium, and at II, ix where Ashingdon is described as mons fraxinorum), and mention in II, ix of a Danish banner on which is emblazoned a raven. The banner is absent from the chief (but lost) version of the Vita known as the Cotton manuscript, which otherwise contained the two glosses. Alistair Campbell, a highly respected editor of the Encomium, wrote in his 1949 introduction that on account of these two glosses and because no other place names are glossed in either work, he believed the Encomiast "was familiar with Asser's Res Gestae Aelfredi" (xxxv). He does not name a version. This conclusion is warped by Smyth: Campbell "demonstrated" that the Encomiast "had consulted" the lost Cotton ms. of the Life. Clearly, Campbell did no such thing. Then, by implication of the term "also," this demonstration now turns in Smyth's mouth to a certainty: "Campbell also claimed certainty for his opinion..." (76). Not so on any account. But Smyth now unfairly has both his straw man and his reader's attention deflected from a non-Cottonian Vita. The third item, the raven banner, appears in the Annals of St. Neots. Campbell thus says he is "inclined to think" that the Encomiast and the author of the Annals used a version of the Vita which contained all three items -^× therefore, contra Smyth, not the Cotton version. Smyth says Campbell's conclusion was not unreasonable "for his time" (77), but that the existence of a manuscript version prior to Cotton "is unlikely." He gives no reason why. Instead, Smyth suggests, perhaps following the principle of Occam's shaving bowl (and lathering up the evidence until it is fully obscured), that the Encomiast was in possession of an unattested library of manuscript sources (rather than one Vita containing the three items), and that the banner episode "was not necessarily textually based" (77). But one could equally claim with as little reason and as much imagination that all the evidence, glosses and banner, are from oral tradition. The Encomiast would then have had no need of any text! Woe to the reader trying to negotiate these labyrinths.

Finally, the matter of the motive for forgery. Whitelock wrote that describing a motive was the prime task of anyone attempting a case for an eleventh-century forgery. Smyth responds with a reprise of KA (cf. 332). Byrhtferth had to reinvent Anglo-Saxon history, and he and his brethren "if need be, reinvented" (203) chronicles, charters, and vitae. But why? Smyth speculates that the English fenlands were a pagan stronghold to which Frankish missionaries were being sent (202). According to Smyth, Byrhtferth created the Life on Frankish models in the midst of these Godless fenlands "to hold up a mirror to Christian kings...to show how their saintly and robust predecessors stood up to pagan hordes from Scandinavia" (204). If these were pagan strongholds, whence these Christian kings? But this self-contradictory fiction is quickly forgotten. The fenlands, Smyth speculates, were not pagan after all: "Saintly biographies were part of the propaganda with which Fenland abbeys like Ramsey consolidated their spiritual and political gains among the half-Christian Anglo-Danish magnates of eastern England" (205). One is asked to suspend disbelief a little longer, even concerning the ridiculous notion of "half-Christian." If the alleged forgeries were (or were not) part of a Frankish (or native) mission (or plot) among a pagan (or Christian) population (or elite), then how did this ploy for power work? Well, apparently the Life describes positively "the role of Christian kings who befriended the Church" (206). But why bother to forge a life of Alfred, since every ecclesiastical writer from Bede to Boniface made the same point? These feverish elaborations bewilder the reader, as Smyth, uninhibited by coherence, makes to unmask other perfidious plots -^× such as the lie of sizable donations of lands to monasteries, which are clearly absurd since "no sane medieval king would have even [sic?] attempted to diminish his resources [by a tenth]...and hope to stay in office" (as if he might prompt a vote of no confidence). The Life too was a plot to fool nobles with its fictions and thereby to raise money for the wily monks. It was, Smyth continues, part of a larger ecclesiastical conspiracy to gather saints' relics and resting places to an abbey: "To set the seal on these prestige ritual acquisitions, the Lives of the saints associated with such remains had to be written up in the remarkable Ramsey scriptorium" (207). But the bones of the lay king Alfred do not rest at Ramsey. Readers may be unconvinced of the great Catholic conspiracy, and of the half-truths which, pace Bacon, are not more pleasing.

There may be a case for an eleventh-century Life, but Smyth has not made it. On that failure hangs the success of his translation.

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Stephen J. Harris

University of Massachusetts