Alfred the Great: a diagnosis

Alfred the Great: a diagnosis

By G. Craig

Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 84 (1991)

Introduction:  King Alfred, ‘England’s Darling’ (849 – 900) suffered from a painful illness for much of his life, the nature of which has been the source of some speculation among Anglo-Saxonists. We are fortunate to have a contemporary record of the king’s symptoms as recorded by Asser, King Alfred’s Welsh bishop and admirer. The study of Asser’s work, ‘The Life of King Alfred’, has fuelled many guesses as to the nature of the sovereign’s illness. The suggestions that have been made cover a wide range of ailments: neuritis, epilepsy, a sexually transmitted disease associated with homosexuality, some sort of psychosomatic illness and so on. A rather coloured picture of an over sensitive youth morbidly preoccupied with his health emerges from these speculations, which are normally accompanied by the familiar disclaimer: “The truth will never be known”. I do not think such pessimism is warranted.

Asser in his Life of King Alfred dwells on the subject of the king’s ill health, a subject that must have interested Asser somewhat. This work was thought to have been written for a Welsh audience who might not have been all that keen on a West Saxon king. Therefore it is likely that Asser was drumming up interest in his intended audience by representing the king’s lot as quite a hard one, which seems to have been correct. Additional material that makes a possible diagnosis more certain is taken from the Leechbook of Bald a collection of medical texts written in Old English, that was probably compiled during Alfred’s reign.

Asser tells us in his Life of Alfred that after Alfred had married Ealhswith his Mercian bride, he participated in a grand feast that had lasted for a day and a night ‘he was struck without warning in the presence of the entire gathering by a sudden severe pain that was quite unknown to all physicians. Certainly it was not known to any of those who were present on that occasion, nor to those up to the present day who have inquired how such an illness could arise and – worse of all, alas! – could continue so many years without remission, from his twentieth year up to his fortieth and beyond.

Many alleged that it happened through the spells and witchcraft of the people around him; others, through the ill-will of the devil, who is always envious of good men; others thought that it was the result of some unfamiliar type of fever; still others thought that it was due to the piles, because he had suffered this particular kind of agonizing irritation even from his youth”

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