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The illnesses of King Alfred the Great

David Pratt

Anglo-Saxon England / Volume30 / December 2001

It is an index perhaps of changing historiographical trends that the importance of Alfred’s illnesses in the moulding of his outlook, both as a layman and as a king, now hardly needs to be emphasized. In the course of the 1990s, Alfred became gradually better understood as a man of the 890s. Yet Victorian sensibilities have died hard. Both Plummer and Stevenson detected an ‘atmosphere of morbid religiosity’ in Asser’s account of Alfred’s illnesses in ch. 74, and both refused to associate this atmosphere with the ‘historical Alfred’, in view of his well-attested military successes. The recent resurrection of this approach by Alfred Smyth has only served, however, to emphasize the need for greater sensitivity to the ideals and expectations of the society within which Alfred was operating. Smyth’s unsuccessful attempt to expose Asser’s Life as a later forgery relies heavily upon his assumption that the text is a work of hagiography, because it supposedly portrays Alfred as ‘a saintly king, wrapt up in prayer [sic], and enduring some form of physical disease’. It should therefore be stressed that royal sanctity was an entirely posthumous phenomenon in Anglo-Saxon England, and, in the case of kings, nearly always acquired through an appropriate manner of death.

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