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John the Old Saxon (fl. c.885–904), scholar and abbot of Athelney, was invited to England by King Alfred and contributed to Alfred's revival of English learning. In his life of Alfred, the Welshman Asser reports that John ‘was a man of most acute intelligence, immensely learned in all fields of literary endeavour, and extremely ingenious in many other forms of expression’ (Life of Alfred, chap. 78); he further states that John was in origin an ‘Old’ Saxon (as opposed to an ‘Anglo’-Saxon or Englishman), that is, from somewhere in Saxony, east of the Rhine. It is not known precisely where John originated; as a monk, he might have been raised in one of the Saxon monasteries such as Korvey or Gandersheim, but equally he could have come to England from western Francia, as did Grimbald, who came to Alfred from Rheims at approximately the same time as John, in the mid-880s. Asser's comment (chap. 97), that John had some experience in the martial arts, implies that he had a secular upbringing.

In one of his earliest translations from the Latin, that of Gregory's Regula pastoralis, King Alfred acknowledged inter alia the help of ‘John my mass-priest’. John witnessed one of Alfred's charters (AS chart., S 348, a grant to Ealdorman Æthelhelm, dated 892), and presumably took a part in formulating Alfred's ecclesiastical policy. When Alfred founded the monastery of Athelney (precise date unknown), John was appointed abbot, with unfortunate consequences. As Asser relates, the newly established monks of Athelney included some who were of ‘Gallic’, or West Frankish, origin. Two of these plotted to kill John by paying two (Frankish) assassins to hide in the church until he entered to pray in private. One night they attacked John and wounded him severely, but his outcry caused them to flee and John was rescued by his supporters. He evidently survived, for he witnessed several charters of King Edward the Elder (AS chart., S 364, 372, 373, 374), the latest of which are dated 904. It may be significant that he witnessed as ‘priest’ rather than as ‘abbot’, so implying that he had by then relinquished the abbacy of Athelney; but since none of the charters is witnessed by anyone described as an abbot, the implication is vague.

The date of John's death is unknown. William of Malmesbury preserves the epitaph of a ‘Iohannes Sophista’, buried at Malmesbury, but whose identity cannot be established (he cannot have been John Scottus Eriugena, who had died in Francia probably between c.870 and 877). John the Old Saxon is not known to have had any connection with Malmesbury, but, on the other hand, it is difficult to think of another scholar named John who lived and died in England before the time of William of Malmesbury. So, maybe, Iohannes Sophista was John the Old Saxon.

A small group of Latin acrostic poems may be attributed with some confidence to John the Old Saxon. The first is an eight-line hexameter poem, probably copied in English script during the 930s into a manuscript of continental (north Frankish) origin which later moved to England, and having the legend ADALSTAN as its acrostich, and IOHANNES as its telestich. The date of the writing, in combination with the spelling Adalstan (compare Old English Æþelstan, an apparent representation of an English name by a Germanic (probably Saxon) speaker, suggests that the author, Iohannes, is John the Old Saxon. The poem describes Adalstan as a prince, and is best understood as an encomium to King Alfred's young grandson Æthelstan, then aged no more than five, but subsequently king from 924 to 939. The diction of the poem is embellished with Greek words and archaisms, and so is a harbinger of the stylistic affectation which was to become dominant in tenth-century Anglo-Latin literature. Given the rarity of the acrostic form at this time, two further acrostics (preserved as early tenth-century additions to a late ninth-century manuscript, which has various links with Alfred) dedicated to King Alfred are possibly also the work of John the Old Saxon, and are thus evidence of the ingenuity which Asser recognized in him.

Michael Lapidge


Asser's Life of King Alfred: together with the ‘Annals of Saint Neots’ erroneously ascribed to Asser, ed. W. H. Stevenson (1904) · Alfred the Great: Asser's Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources, ed. and trans. S. Keynes and M. Lapidge (1983) · M. Lapidge, ‘Some Latin poems as evidence for the reign of King Athelstan’, Anglo-Saxon England, 9 (1981), 61–98 · AS chart., S 348, 364, 372, 373, 374 · Willelmi Malmesbiriensis monachi de gestis pontificum Anglorum libri quinque, ed. N. E. S. A. Hamilton, Rolls Series, 52 (1870)