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 This substantial piece of scholarship challenges traditional academic wisdom surrounding the ninth century king of Wessex whose achievements changed the course of English history prior to the Norman Conquest. When Alfred came to power in the south of England at age 23, his grandfather, father, and four of his brothers had all been kings before him, and Anglo-Saxon society was facing its greatest challenge in the growing incursions of the Vikings and the seemingly invincible progress of the Great Army of Danes. Alfred not only turned the tide of war, so that his sons and grandsons could eventually unite the whole of England under one king, but he was also a scholar whose writings and translations constitute a treasury of Old English prose. Smyth (Medieval History/Univ. of Kent, England) tells how, on the basis of the anecdotal Life ascribed to the king's tutor, Asser, Alfred's reign became part of the English national myth during the Reformation under Elizabeth I and was further romanticized by the Victorians, who saw Alfred as the father of the British Empire. Smyth argues powerfully that Asser's work, which still occupies a central place in Alfredian historiography, was a medieval forgery, written in order to promote monastic reform and characterized by folk legends and literal interpretations of Alfred's rhetorical topoi. For a real picture of Alfred, urges Smyth, we need to turn to his own writings, to the charters of his reign, and to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Alfred who emerges is a man of genuine piety, extraordinary intellectual and emotional resilience, as well as great physical stamina. Throughout, Smyth remains in serene command of both his complex sources and of the English language. Very much a history for historians, Smyth's work is essential reading for students of Alfredian and early medieval England. (36 b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: March 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-19-822989-5
Page count: 744pp
Publisher: Oxford Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 1996