Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Latin Acrostic Poetry in Anglo-Saxon England: Reassessing the Contribution of John the Old Saxon

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Latin Acrostic Poetry in Anglo-Saxon England: Reassessing the Contribution of John the Old Saxon

Article excerpt

Other than charters, only a handful of Latin texts from Anglo-Saxon England can be conclusively dated to the ninth and early tenth centuries.1 Remarkably, of these, not one but two are sets of acrostic poetry in praise of West Saxon royalty: the first in honour of King Alfred and the second in honour of his grandson, Æthelstan. Modern understanding of these poems has been defined almost entirely by a seminal article by Michael Lapidge, who in 1980 argued that both are likely to be the work of a single individual, John the Old Saxon, one of the continental scholars named in Asser's Life of King Alfred who had joined Alfred's court in the 880s.2 Lapidge's thesis is highly persuasive and, indeed, many scholars have accepted his interpretation, despite the direct challenge of Gernot Wieland in 2006.3 There are, however, important aspects of these verses that have hitherto been overlooked and which have significant implications for their authorship. In the present essay, therefore, I seek to reappraise Lapidge's argument. I also wish to go beyond the question of authorial identity, to begin to consider these texts within a broader cultural context: comparatively speaking, why might this literary form have been so popular with Anglo-Saxon audiences at this point in time?

The acrostics in praise of King Alfred

Let us begin with the earlier of the two sets of acrostics, those in praise of King Alfred. These acrostic verses, totalling thirteen lines of Latin hexameter, survive in a single manuscript, Bern, Burgerbibliothek, Cod. 671, a small ninth-century Gospelbook of seventy-seven folios which was written in a hand of either Cornish or Welsh origin.4 A scribe writing in a late ninth- or early tenth-century Welsh or Cornish script entered these verses onto 74v, directly below the closing paragraph of the Gospel texts.5 Sometime in the tenth century, another hand, writing in a form of English Square Minuscule, then copied into the last few pages of the manuscript four vernacular documents, three of which explicitly pertain to the royal estate at Bedwyn, Wiltshire; thus it seems likely that this book spent some time there.6 The verses in this manuscript form an attempt at two double acrostics; both the acrostics and telestichs varyingly spell out the name 'Alfred'.7 This Alfred is undoubtedly King Alfred and thus, alongside its tenth-century provenance, this manuscript has strong links with the West Saxon royal household, in terms of both its context and content.

These acrostic verses have previously been edited four time8. Here I offer my own transcription as well as a new translation, based on Lapidges:

Admiranda mihi mens est transcurrere gest A I

Exa arceb astrifera cito sed redisc arbiter ind 2

Lex etiam ut docuit typice portendere fraeded L [=Aelfred] 3

Flagrantiquee simul moles mundi arserit igne 4

Rex formasti his sed melius gnarurø optime flammis 5

Eripis atque chaos uincens Christe ipse necasti 6

Diuino super astra frui per saecula uultu 7

En tibi discendant e celo Gratiae tot 8

Letus eris semper Ælfred per competa ate L [=leta] 9

Flectasf iam mentem sacris satiare sirela F [=faleris] 10

Recte doces properans falsa dulcidine mure R [=rerum] 11

Ecce aptas clara semper lucrare taltan E [=talenta] 12

Docte peregrine transcurrereg rura sophie 13

(My mind is to run through marvellous deeds:

From the starry citadel you [will] return readily,

Just as the law taught figuratively, to foretell Alfred,

At the same time the world's mass will burn in a blazing fire.

O King, you created, but from these flames more agreeably and most rightly the

wise one

You rescue - and so triumphing, Christ, you yourself destroyed the chaos -

To enjoy the divine visage above the stars through the ages.

Behold, may all the graces descend from heaven for you!

You will always be joyful, Alfred, through the happy crossroads [of life]. …

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