Posted by: anna | February 10, 2010

St John of Malmesbury?

Today (28 January) we commemorate St John ‘the Wise’ of Malmesbury (8th century). Or do we? There do seem to be several confusions and misattributions in this story, which was a good research exercise rather than particularly enlightening. Two sources were useful, Farmer and the Victoria County History:

‘At this time, about 870, according to the tradition recorded by William of Malmesbury, (fn. 59) John Scotus Erigena, the philosopher, at the instigation of King Alfred took up his residence at the abbey as a fugitive from the Continent; after some years he was murdered by his pupils. He was buried first in St. Laurence’s Church, but the body was later translated to the left of the high altar of the abbey church, chiefly as the result of preternatural portents. The terms of the epitaph as given by William imply that the dead scholar was regarded as a martyr; and it seems clear that he bases the story on an old tradition and a tomb bearing an epitaph of a ‘John the Wise’ who is termed saint and martyr. (fn. 60) This John, however, almost certainly cannot have been the famous philosopher; he may possibly have been John the Old Saxon whose unfortunate régime at Athelney (Som.) nearly ended in murder. (fn. 61) John the Old Saxon escaped from Athelney, but when and how he died we do not know; it is possible that he is to be identified with the John the Wise of Malmesbury.’

From: ‘House of Benedictine monks: Abbey of Malmesbury’, A History of the County of Wiltshire: Volume 3 (1956), pp. 210-231. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=36532 Date accessed: 12 February 2010.

‘John the Sage, mentioned in R.P.S. (11th century) as resting at Malmesbury with Maedub and Aldhelm. He should probably be identified with the John whose tomb William of Malmesbury described and whose epitaph he transcribed. He believed that this was John Scotus Erigena, the Irish philosopher of the 9th century, and that he was killed by the pens of his students after settling at Malmesbury. It seems certain that this is due to confusion with another John and that the manner of John’s death is borrowed from the Acts of St. Cassian of Imola. Feast: (at Malmesbury), 28 January .’

“John the Sage” The Oxford Dictionary of Saints. David Hugh Farmer. Oxford University Press 2003. Oxford Reference Online. Oxford University Press. University of Oxford. 12 February 2010

‘John the Old Saxon’ has an entry in the ODNB, which I would like to copy here for reference and edification, but I am definitely not allowed to do that. Many public libraries have online subscriptions to this and other reference works, accessible with your library card number, so if yours does, it’s a gold mine of information! John Scottus Eriugena, rather better known, is also in the ODNB, and they are both 9th century, so I have no idea which is meant in the yorkthodox calendar. I will leave it there for now, and see whether Eriugena turns up later in the calendar. If he doesn’t, next time this date comes round I will see about posting on both St Johns! but for now,

Holy Father John, saint and scholar, pray to God for us.

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