Smyth, Alfred P. 1942–

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Smyth, Alfred P. 1942–

PERSONAL:

Born July 1, 1942.

CAREER:

University of Kent, Kent, Canterbury, England, became professor emeritus; Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury, director of research and dean of arts and humanities.

WRITINGS:

Scandinavian Kings in the British Isles, 850-880, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1977.

Scandinavian York and Dublin: The History and Archaeology of Two Related Viking Kingdoms, Templekieran Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1979.

Celtic Leinster: Towards an Historical Geography of Early Irish Civilization, A.D. 500-1600, Irish Academic Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1982.

Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland, A.D. 80-1000, E. Arnold (Baltimore, MD), 1984.

(With Ann Williams and D.P. Kirby) A Biographical Dictionary of Dark Age Britain: England, Scotland, and Wales, c. 500-c. 1050, Seaby (London, England), 1991.

Faith, Famine and Fatherland in the Nineteenth-Century Irish Midlands: Perceptions of a Priest and Historian, Anthony Cogan, 1826-1872, Four Courts Press (Dublin, Ireland), 1992.

King Alfred the Great, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1995.

(Editor) Medieval Europeans: Studies in Ethnic Identity and National Perspectives in Medieval Europe, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1998.

(Editor) Seanchas: Studies in Early and Medieval Irish Archaeology, History, and Literature in Honour of Francis J. Byrne, Four Courts Press (Portland, OR), 1999.

The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great: A Translation and Commentary on the Text Attributed to Asser, Palgrave (New York, NY), 2002.

(Editor, with Simon Keynes) Anglo-Saxons: Studies Presented to Cyril Roy Hart, Four Courts Press (Portland, OR), 2006.

(Author of foreword) Graham Anderson, The Earliest Arthurian Texts: Greek and Latin Sources of the Medieval Tradition, Edwin Mellen Press (Lewiston, NY), 2007.

SIDELIGHTS:

Alfred P. Smyth has spent his career teaching and researching medieval English texts and history. His most notorious publication is King Alfred the Great, the first biography of the historical figure to be published since 1902. The book spawned a firestorm of criticism in the academic world for its refutation of commonly held beliefs regarding the Wessex leader, who vanquished the Vikings in 878 and became the first king of the Anglo-Saxons in what is now England. Alfred ensured his legacy by forming a navy and an educational system, and exalting religion throughout the kingdom.

History has long described King Alfred of Wessex as illiterate, religious, and sickly. Smyth disagrees with this view, stating that Alfred was an intellectual and a courageous warrior. The most controversial part of Smyth's book, however, is his claim that the original biography of Alfred, by Alfred's Welsh tutor and advisor, Bishop Asser, was a medieval forgery authored by an eleventh-century monk at Ramsey Abbey. This claim upsets one of the cornerstones of the study of Anglo-Saxon history. Smyth also promotes new theories about the writing of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, the oldest extant document of early English history.

Although Jay Freeman, writing in Booklist, called the book "often engrossing," other critics were less enthusiastic. One of the most vitriolic reviews was written by D.R. Howlett in the English Historical Review, who claimed there are "many grievous defects in [Smyth's] scholarship," beginning with his conclusion that Byrthferth of Ramsey wrote The Life of King Alfred. Given the availability of the monk's other texts, Howlett said, it is clear from style and syntax that he did not write the biography. Howlett mentions Smyth's mistranslations from the original Latin version of The Life of King Alfred and the false facts he derived from them. Ultimately, Howlett wrote, "Smyth deals badly with both the evidence of primary sources and the arguments of secondary authorities because he has not learned how to listen to others."

Barbara Yorke, reviewing the book in History Today summarized the difference of opinion over the book being between academics and general readers. "Nonspecialist reviewers have tended to be impressed by Professor Smyth's arguments for he presents his case forcefully and in considerable detail," she wrote. While an eleventh-century forgery would solve some riddles—such as why the name of Alfred's wife is never given—it creates other riddles, such as a motive for the forgery, Yorke wrote. In the end, she stated, "anyone already familiar with the reign of Alfred is going to find many of their preconceptions challenged and that is no bad thing."

In a lengthy review for the Journal of Ecclesiastical History, Simon Keynes summarized the problems with King Alfred the Great, beginning with how Smyth "has chosen to present his thesis in the form of a sustained diatribe against what he perceives to be a conspiracy with the ‘academic establishment’." Even though Keynes concluded that taking Smyth's theory seriously requires a "suspension of disbelief," he did concede that "the opening narrative is often instructive, and always entertaining."

Smyth answered his critics with a more thorough translation of Asser's biography titled The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great: A Translation and Commentary on the Text Attributed to Asser. It, too, includes a long commentary reiterating his forgery thesis and rebutting specific criticisms of his previous book. Isabel Coates of Library Journal wrote that it is a "dense and highly intellectual book," and Richard Abels of Albion, called Smyth's translation "sound, readable, and unusually literal," but concluded that "the scholarly consensus [regarding the forgery theory] is unlikely to change." Writing in Medium Aevum, Andy King noted that Smyth "raises many interesting questions."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Albion, spring, 2004, Richard Abels, review of The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great: A Translation and Commentary on the Text Attributed to Asser, p. 86.

American Historical Review, December, 1997, Michael Altschul, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 1463.

Booklist, March 1, 1996, Jay Freeman, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 1120.

Choice, July-August, 1996, J.L. Leland, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 1853; October, 2002, J.L. Leland, review of The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great, p. 345.

Christian Science Monitor, August 29, 1996, Frederick Pratter, review of King Alfred the Great.

English Historical Review, January, 1987, Isabel Henderson, review of Warlords and Holy Men: Scotland, AD 80-1000, p. 173; September, 1997, D.R. Howlett, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 942; April, 2001, Colman Etchingham, review of Seanchas: Studies in Early and Medieval Irish Archaeology, History and Literature in Honour of Francis J. Byrne, p. 453.

History: Review of New Books, winter, 1997, Richard W. Pfaff, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 72.

History Today, December, 1996, Barbara Yorke, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 58.

Journal of Ecclesiastical History, July, 1996, Simon Keynes, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 529.

Journal of Military History, April, 1997, Bernard S. Bachrach, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 363.

Library Journal, January, 2002, Isabel Coates, review of The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great, p. 121.

Medium Aevum, spring, 2003, Andy King, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 182.

Spectator, January 13, 1996, Eric Christiansen, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 32.

Speculum, January, 1998, David A.E. Pelteret, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 263; October, 2004, Thomas D. Hill, review of The Medieval Life of King Alfred the Great, p. 1144.

Times Higher Education Supplement, December 8, 1995, Simon Targett, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 17; July 26, 1998, review of King Alfred the Great, p. 30.

Victorian Studies, spring, 1995, Peter Fleming, review of Faith, Famine and Fatherland in Nineteenth-Century Irish Midlands: Perceptions of a Priest and Historian, Anthony Cogan, 1826-1872, p. 480.

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Smyth, Alfred P. 1942–

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