“A Thousand Years of Deceit”: The New Debate Surrounding the Authenticity of Asser’s Life of King Alfred
Gateway: An Academic Journal on the Web, Issue 4 (2003)
Introduction: A great deal of modern scholarship pertaining to the reign of Alfred the Great (871-899) rests upon the Life of King Alfred, a biography purported to have been written by Asser, a Welshman from St. David’s, in or shortly after AD 893. Not only does this text serve to corroborate the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the other major literary source for Alfred’s reign, but it also offers to shed light on aspects of this man’s life and achievements that are absent from the account provided in the Chronicle. Yet the authenticity of the Lifehas not been immune to suspicion and scepticism. The most recent challenger to Asser’s authorship is Alfred P. Smyth, who in his King Alfred the Great (1995), argues that the text in question was forged by one Byrhtferth of Ramsey in the early eleventh century. And while the majority of scholars have rejected Smyth’s thesis, there is not, as of yet, any sense of consensus among them. This, I believe, is largely because the merits of Smyth’s work have not been adequately disentangled from its shortcomings. Therefore, by highlighting and building upon his strongest arguments, what I first intend to demonstrate is that Smyth is correct in his view that the Life is, in fact, a forgery; and having done this, I shall in turn argue that his critics are correct in contending that this text is not the product of an eleventh-century forger, before ending with the suggestion that it was probably written by an obscure Welshman in the early tenth century.