Alfred the Great and Crohn's Disease

Alfred Winchester-2.jpg

Title

Alfred the Great and Crohn's Disease

Catalog Entry

King Alfred the Great ruled the Saxon kingdom of Wessex, located in southwestern England, from the years  871 to 899CE. Alfred is the only English monarch given the title “the Great.” This could be due to his work defending against Viking invasions and his social reforms. It is known that through much of his life King Alfred suffered from illness that caused him severe pain. Asser, the Welsh bishop of King Alfred, studied the King’s illness and kept records of his symptoms. In Asser’s book Life of Alfred, he writes much on the subject of Alfred’s health. Fortunately for us, we can now look at the book and learn about the king’s symptoms. Upon studying his symptoms, many people have considered several conditions that the king may have suffered from, including neuritis (inflammation of a nerve), epilepsy, sexually transmitted diseases, or even psychosomatic illnesses due to stress. After all of this studying, researchers have come to the conclusion that it is most likely that King Alfred suffered from Crohn’s disease, ​an inflammatory bowel disease that causes chronic inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract.

Much of the information we have about Alfred’s condition comes from Asser’s writings. In his book, Asser explains that Alfred had a huge feast after his marriage to his bride, Ealhswith. It was after the feast that Alfred began experiencing a harsh and relentless pain. The pain persisted for over twenty years, and the cause remained unknown to physicians at the time. Because there were no concrete diagnoses, rumors spread that King Alfred was possessed by the devil or that he was being punished by a witch. Others thought that it might just be an unknown fever, or even possibly hemorrhoids. Given medical discoveries since Alfred’s time, we have a much better understanding of his symptoms. Comparing Alfred’s symptoms such as the severe pain and anal lesion to present-day illness, we can come to the conclusion that Alfred was most likely suffering from Crohn’s disease.

Crohn’s disease is an incurable, lifelong disease. Crohn’s disease causes chronic inflammation of the digestive system, typically the intestine and colon (although it can form anywhere along the gastrointestinal tract). This can cause ulcers to form. Doctors are still unsure what exactly causes Crohn’s disease, but factors such as a person’s immune system, genes, and environment can influence whether or not they get the disease. It is also known that the disease affects people in different ways, but some common symptoms are abdominal pain and cramping, fever, fatigue, blood in stool, as well as pain and lesions in the anal region, due to frequent bowel movements. Crohn’s disease can last years and in some cases can be lifelong, with symptoms worsening overtime. 

In a person with Crohn’s disease, the immune system attacks parts of the gastrointestinal system and damages it. This disease affects the way your body takes in important nutrients, and can have a negative impact on the way your body digests food and gets rid of its waste. Symptoms can be off and on, and remission only takes place when the ulcers start to heal. 

This fluctuation in symptoms can be seen in the case of Alfred who experienced periods of chronic pain where he was unable to leave his room, as well as periods with no symptoms. While Crohn’s is not usually a debilitating condition, most patients must take the disease and its possible flare-ups into consideration when planning everyday activities.

Crohn’s disease first became regarded as a medical condition in 1932 by famous gastroenterologist Dr. Burrill Crohn, which the disease is named after. Despite being first recognized in the 20th century, this was not the first time the condition was described. The first explanation given of the disease was given by an Italian physician named Giovanni Battista Morgagni, when he was diagnosing a patient who suffered from symptoms common in Crohn’s. Prior to Dr. Crohn and his colleagues’ discovery, any disease that involved the small intestine was viewed as intestinal tuberculosis. The discovery made by these doctors helped patients who were misdiagnosed with other diseases and were given the wrong treatments due to these misdiagnoses. As our medical knowledge increases with time, we are able to treat patients in a more efficient way.

King Alfred’s condition has shown us just how much medicine has changed over time and how, as we gain a better knowledge of certain conditions, we can treat a wider range of people. While it is difficult for us to prove that King Alfred for sure suffered from Crohn’s disease, from studying his symptoms that were written about is Asser’s the Life of Alfred, we can come to the conclusion that Alfred most likely suffered from this condition. If Alfred did not have Crohn’s, scientists speculate that it may have been tuberculosis, colon cancer, or infections, but these are much less likely.  Tuberculosis and colon cancer would not have allowed him to live as long as he did, and it is very doubtful that he had infections that spanned more than two decades. King Alfred’s illness caused him to fluctuate between periods of no suffering and periods of debilitating pain. The pain could sometimes be so severe that he was unable to leave his room.  This would be difficult for anyone to deal with, but particularly a king who must rule a country at war. King Alfred suffered from pain through much of his life with no relief. 

Bibliography

"Alfred the Great,"​ English Monarchs, www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/saxon_6.htm.

Alvarez, Sandra. “Alfred the Great: a Diagnosis.”
Medievalists.net​, 11 Dec. 2018, www.medievalists.net/2012/04/alfred-the-great-a-diagnosis/.

Britain Express. “Statue of King Alfred the Great - Winchester: Historic Winchester Guide.” Britain Express, www.britainexpress.com/counties/hampshire/winchester/alfred-statue.htm.

Khatri, Minesh. “Living with Crohn's Disease: What To Expect.” WebMD, 14 Aug. 2018, www.webmd.com/ibd-crohns-disease/crohns-disease/what-to-expect-crohns-disease#2.

“A Look Back at Our Beginning.” Crohn's & Colitis Foundation, www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/about/our-beginning.

“Passion, Piles and a Pebble: What Ailed Alfred the Great?” Boaring Medievalist​, 5 Aug. 2018, boaringmedievalist.com/2015/10/29/passion-piles-and-a-pebble-what-ailed-alfred-the-gre at/.

Robertson, Sally. “History of Crohn's Disease.” News Medical,26 Feb. 2019, www.news-medical.net/health/History-of-Crohns-Disease.aspx.

“What Is Crohn's Disease?” ​Crohn's & Colitis Foundation, www.crohnscolitisfoundation.org/what-is-crohns-disease.

Catalog Entry Author(s)

Madison Sideleau, Student, Fitchburg State University

Editor(s)

Reggie Warren, Student, Fitchburg State University

Photographer(s)

Kisha G. Tracy

Collection

Citation

“Alfred the Great and Crohn's Disease,” Cultural Heritage through Image, accessed October 7, 2022, https://culturalheritagethroughimage.omeka.net/items/show/118.

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