Uncovering Alfred the Great's disability

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Mon Feb 04, 2019

Too often, it's assumed that disability has no place in the lives of heroes and pioneers. At times, it's even been actively removed from their stories. Alfred the Great had a chronic illness for much of his life, and by any modern standard, he was disabled. "Great" and "disabled" aren't antithetical, and "weak" and "disabled" aren't synonyms. But for many years and to many people, that was believed to be the case, and disability has been erased from some versions of Alfred's story.

Alfred the Great was king of Wessex, in England, in the late ninth century. He is credited with the creation of modern England. He unified the English kingdoms, drove out the vikings, revived learning in England, and made Latin learning accessible in English. He was never supposed to be king, though—he was the youngest of five sons, and he was sick from childhood. Most of what we know about him comes from a biography written by the monk Asser while Alfred was still alive, but some comes from Alfred's own writings in his translations of classical works.

It's commonly accepted that Alfred the Great had Crohn's disease, an autoimmune condition where the body mistakenly attacks the digestive tract. Alfred had extreme pain, fatigue, and digestive problems from the time he was a child well into middle age. His one respite was brief, during his teen years, when pain abated, only to return in a worse form at his wedding feast. The pain and fatigue were sometimes debilitating, and writings mention diarrhea, constipation, hemorrhoids—it's hardly the noble image scholars have wanted to paint of a powerful warrior.

For many years, scholars solved that problem by simply ignoring it. To Victorian scholars, Alfred the Great was a paragon of Britishness and the British Empire—he practically founded it. He exemplified the British hero and British superiority. In that kind of narrative, what place do illness and disability have? Better to sweep that part under the rug. Even in the 20th century, translations of Asser's biography of Alfred were made without any mentions of his illness, to make the story more palatable.

Other scholars have attacked Asser's version of Alfred as being impossible. In order to dismiss Asser's biography as a fake, one academic even resorted to name-calling the Alfred presented there. To him, Alfred was portrayed as an "invalid" and his symptoms were "repulsive." He was "depressive," "obsessive," and "sickly," and no Anglo-Saxon warrior could possibly have followed him as a great leader and king (Smyth, "King Alfred the Great"). If the biography wasn't real, then neither was Alfred disabled, neatly solving that little problem. It saves people from having to wrap their heads around a disabled person being a king of almost mythological heroism.

This is ableism at its finest, this belief that someone with a disability can't be looked up to and admired as a great warrior, scholar, and leader. It removes illness and disability from the common narrative of so many great and accomplished people, which helps keep disability to a foreign and pitiable concept to many people. Even people who are commonly known to have been disabled—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for example—have their disabilities treated as an interesting footnote. Their experiences as disabled aren't relevant, and disability becomes a fun fact, if it's discussed at all.

Modern scholars have also asserted Alfred's illness was psychological and self-inflicted—surely his supposed obsession, his prayers and searches for treatment, is proof of that. What these scholars miss is the incredible impact that intense chronic pain can have on someone. Illness can impact someone psychologically without being psychological in origin. If you spent a lot of time in unimaginable pain that could strike at any moment, you might think about it a lot, too.

That someone's illness is "all in their head" is a common weapon used against disabled people today, as well. I suppose Alfred's experience as a disabled person wouldn't be complete without someone saying something similar about him, even if he's not here to hear it.

But what does disability mean? How can we say someone is disabled? The simplest definition of disability is "impaired function or ability" (Merriam-Webster). There are also complicated legal definitions that we could discuss. In short, though, we know that Alfred had impaired digestive abilities caused by an impaired immune system. So, by modern definitions, Alfred was undoubtedly disabled.

Disability is much more than a definition, though. It's an identity, which is why proper recognition of disabilities is so important. How does Alfred's experience fit with the modern disabled experience? There was no concept of a disabled identity in Alfred's time like there is today, but that doesn't mean the identity didn't exist.

He resented his illness, he rationalized it, he searched for treatments for it, he prayed about it. He was also extremely worried about being considered an incompetent king just for his illness, and Asser's biography seems to go to great lengths to prove that he was capable despite it. If that's not part of the modern disabled experience, I don't know what is.

Disability isn't a minor aspect of someone's life, either. Alfred's illness drove his schedule from the time he was a teen. It imposed limits that he had to learn to work around. It influenced his view of the world and his place in it. It especially profoundly impacted his relationship with religion and his god, and that religion was at the center of everything he did as king—his battles against the vikings, his expansion of his kingdom, and his treatment of his people were all based in his strong religious convictions.

In retellings, heroes become flawless, and disability and illness are viewed as flaws. But disability isn't a flaw, or a weakness, or a source of shame. For Alfred the Great, disability wasn't something that he had to "overcome" to become great. It was part of what shaped him to be great.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

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