A somewhat unexpected interpretation of Asser

I have one more thing I want to write about spinning out of David Bachrach’s Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, and then he can rest and I will move onto historians of much longer ago. But it is the way that one such historian is used in this book I want to query here. In comments here, even, Professor Bachrach has said, “Alfred the Great imported a Saxon from the duchy of Otto I’s grandfather to serve as a military adviser.” The book gives the full argument behind this somewhat surprising statement, and, well, I struggle with it.

Statue of King Alfred at Wantage

There being no decent pictures even of people’s imaginings of Asser or John the Old Saxon, it’ll just have to be Alfred, as portrayed in this statue which stands at Wantage

The historian in question is Bishop Asser of St David’s and Sherborne, biographer of King Alfred the Great of Wessex (871-899), and at cap. 78 of his Life of King Alfred he tells us of Alfred’s recruitment of various religious men to instruct him and his court in intellectual matters. In particular,

“he summoned John, also a priest and monk, a man of most acute intelligence, immensely learned in all fields of literary endeavour, and extremely ingenious in many other skills.”

This is our alleged military advisor.1 Not seeing it? Well, you don’t know what happened as a result. Firstly, Alfred established a monastery at the marsh island of Athelney, whither he had briefly retreated in 878 when all seemed lost in the face of Viking attacks. Athelney, Asser tells us, is reachable only by a causeway and Alfred put a fortress at the other end of it.2 The excellent commentary of Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge on Asser’s Life identifies that fortress as Lyng but points out that the 878 episode tells us that there already was one at Athelney itself, into which the monastery was presumably inserted.3 Anyway, a fairly multinational group of monks, English, Gaulish and (Asser says) at least one Scandinavian—paganus is the Latin word he uses, paradoxically—was assembled there and this John was placed at their head as abbot.4

Aerial view of the site of Athelney Abbey

Aerial view of the site of Athelney Abbey, I hope

Now, this did not go well. The Gauls, especially, did not like John, and Asser tells us that this resentment grew to the point where they set up two Gaulish slaves (whose presence itself raises questions), armed them and set them to kill Abbot John when he said his customary small-hours prayers in secret. (Obviously not secret enough!) Asser tells us the outcome:

“At midnight John entered the church secretly as usual (so that no one would know) in order to pray, and bowed down on bended knees before the altar; then the two villains attacked him suddenly with drawn swords and wounded him severly. But he, being a man of customary sharp intelligence and (as I have heard about him from several sources) a man with some experience in the martial arts, had he not set his mind on a higher course – rose briskly to meet them as soon as he heard their commotion and before he saw them or was wounded by them. He called out and resisted them as best he could, shouting that they were devils and not men… However, he was wounded before his own men arrived; they had been awakened by the uproar but, having heard the word ‘devils’, were frightened and did not know what to do… before John’s men got there, the villains had fled as quickly as possible to the depths of the nearby marsh leaving the abbot half-dead.”

And Asser goes on to assure us in his nasty fashion that the assailants were caught and tortured to death, although it’s not clear that the actual conspirators were ever disciplined.5 Abbot John could apparently handle himself, though, and you could read that passage as indicating that he also had some kind of bodyguard or troop, though perhaps it just refers to monks who had arrived with him, I think. But it is possible to extract even more implication from it, and Professor Bachrach does:

“Thus Asser, in his De rebus gestis Ælfredi, draws attention to the fact that King Alfred (871–899) recruited a Saxon named John to join his court, and eventually established him as an abbot, an office that certainly required much more than a passing acquaintance with ‘book learning’. Of importance in the present context, however, is that Alfred recruited this Saxon because of the man’s knowledge of military affairs.53 Saxony, which at this point had been part of the regnum Francorum for the better part of three generations, clearly not only offered opportunities for advanced study of the military arts, but also had developed some reputation in this regard, if Alfred was advised to seek there for a man who could hold high office in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom.”6

I can’t help but feel there’s some slippage here. Nothing in the texts we have tells us that anyone advised Alfred to look to Saxony or that he picked John because of his knowledge of military affairs, and it’s misleading to imply that it does. Even if he had done so, surely he would have wanted such a man at court instructing future soldiers, not in charge of a miscellaneous group of cloistered religious in one of the most inaccessible parts of the kingdom. And yet there’s a fortress, a man who can handle himself in a fight, retinues and slaves and no shortage of weaponry, it would seem. Perhaps we could be too quick to dismiss a military role for this community. But hang on: there was a footnote…

53 Asser, De rebus gestis Ælfredi, ed. W. H. Stevenson (Oxford, 1959), chs. 94-97, and specifically ch. 97 for the discussion of John’s knowledge of the belicosae artes. See the discussion of this passage by Richard Abels, Alfred the Great: War, Kingship and Culture in Anglo-Saxon England (London, 1998), 223. It should be noted that Asser does not accord John an exceptional knowledge of the military arts, saying that he was belicosae artis non expers, but I accept the basic thrust of Abels’ implicit argument that Asser did not wish to overemphasize the secular aspects of John’s career in Alfred’s service.”

And now I am confused. [Edit: I completely misunderstood the Latin here first time through. It makes the post a lot simpler but me look a lot more foolish. I’ve tried to leave the evidence behind and still make the post more coherent. Sorry!] We know that John was a trained fighter… because Asser tells us he wasn’t, but is trying to hide [the fact that John was a capable fighter it… by mentioning it at all? That all makes alarm bells ring for me, but also, the Latin as given there is not at all what Keynes and Lapidge give in their translation, quoted above; no hint of inexpertness there. What does it actually say?

Facsimile of the opening page of the lost manuscript of Asser's Life of King Alfred by Francis Wise, 1722

Facsimile of the opening page of the lost manuscript of Asser’s Life of King Alfred by Francis Wise, 1722, image from Wikimedia Commons

Well, we famously have no surviving manuscript of Asser’s Life, as the only one there was was lost in a fire in 1731, but a 1904 edition by W. H. Stevenson is usually agreed to have done the best possible job in reconstructing the text from early editions and the texts of the numerous medieval historians who quoted Asser.7 And of course because we live in the future, that’s in the Internet Archive and so without leaving my seat I can tell you that the best guess we have at the relevant Latin phrases is:

“Sed ille ut solito ac semper acris ingenio et, ut audivimus de eo a quibusdam referentibus, belicosae artis non expers, si in meliora disciplina non studeret, statim et sonitus latronum auderet…”8

I wish we did have the manuscript at this point, because what this shows is that the ambiguity is Asser’s, at least as we have him, not Professor Bachrach’s (or Richard Abels’s). I can’t offer a translation of this that makes any more sense of it than Keynes and Lapidge have. That word “expers” cries out to me for emendation to “inexpers”, not only because that would make it into a sensible litotes but also because otherwise Asser seems to be saying that John would not have been expert in the arts of fighting if he had not chosen a ‘better discipline’, which would imply that his Church career had actually taught him to fight. If his appointments always went this well one could imagine that being true, I suppose! But then I would have expected him to have a weapon handy himself… and I don’t think it can be what Asser meant. I think Keynes and Lapidge are probably as close to the sense as modern English can get and that Asser probably didn’t write what the edition says.

Holy Island and Lindisfarne

Another isolated place run by a religious man with early military training, sort of, Holy Island and Lindisfarne

Of course, if what Asser did mean meant is that John would have been a promising warrior had he not been called to the Church, then that’s little more than is said of St Cuthbert by Bede, and yet we don’t suppose that Cuthbert was made Bishop of Lindisfarne because the King of Northumbria really needed a tactical advisor, even if Lindisfarne was right by the royal seat.9 Such people had warriors where they needed them. Equally, from the other perspective, while Professor Bachrach is surely right that being an abbot involved more than purely literary knowledge, one obvious layman who ran abbeys and was, indeed, well-known to Asser through his works was Einhard, again, Charlemagne’s biographer, and he more or less tells us he was too small and weedy to have been given a military training. Yet he ran three abbeys for Emperor Louis the Pious.10

Einhardbasilika at Seligenstadt

Here is one of them, Seligenstadt, though it’s, er, come on a bit since Einhard’s day. This is, indeed, the Einhardbasilika. CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=246880.

So it is all quite dangerous: even the simplest reading of this source involves fiddling with the text. I still think that none of this gives us evidence that John was actually recruited or served as a military advisor; that isn’t the context in which Asser mentions him, either, and what Asser says about him is surely aimed at explaining his survival of an attack by two armed men when he had no weapon, rather than at gilding John’s secret career as a martial arts instructor (though now I put it like that it does all seem weirdly like the Hong Kong cinema cliché where a group of armed men unwisely attack the bent old sensei and learn the error of their ways forthwith). And yet, even my opposite reading of the source still involves bending it to fit my view. That mainly makes me think it won’t bear this kind of weight, but I do wish we had the manuscript…

1. Asser, Life of King Alfred, transl. Simon Keynes and Michael Lapidge in eidem (transl.), Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of King Alfred and other contemporary sources (London 1983), pp. 65-110, whence all translations of Asser in this post, the quote here being cap. 78 as said.

2. Ibid. cap. 92.

3. Keynes & Lapidge, Alfred the Great, p. 271 n. 229.

4. Asser, Life of King Alfred, capp. 93-97 for this and the story that follows. The Latin I access through William Henry Stevenson (ed.), Asser’s Life of King Alfred, together with the Annals of St Neots erroneously ascribed to Asser, edited with introduction and commentary (Oxford 1904), online here.

5. Asser takes too much of a delight in people who don’t do what they’re told getting a bloody come-uppance for me to like his authorial character; compare this episode (Asser, Life of King Alfred, cap. 97 referred to and quoted here) with the bit of cap. 91 about people who should have built fortresses when they were told getting slaughtered by Vikings if you don’t know what I mean.

6. David S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012), p. 113 and n. 53.

7. See Keynes and Lapidge, Alfred the Great, pp. 223-227 for an account of the manuscript history and its modern lack.

8. Stevenson, Asser’s Life, Asser cap. 97.

9. Bede, Life of St Cuthbert, ed./transl. Bertram Colgrave in idem (ed./transl.), Two Lives of St Cuthbert: A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life. Text, Translation and Notes (Cambridge 1940, repr. New York 1969 and Cambridge 1985), pp. 141-308 at cap. I.

10. For Einhard’s life see David Ganz, “Einhardus peccator” in Patrick Wormald and Janet L. Nelson (edd.), Lay Intellectuals in the Carolingian World (Cambridge 2007), pp. 8-36. On the non-religious duties of an abbot in the Carolingian world, see F. J. Felten, “Herrschaft des Abtes” in Friedrich Prinz (ed.), Herrschaft und Kirche: Beiträge zur Entstehung und Wirkungsweise episkopaler und monastischen Organisationsformen, Monographien zur Geschichte des Mittelalters 33 (Stuttgart 1988), pp. 147-296.

5 responses to “A somewhat unexpected interpretation of Asser

  1. David Bachrach

    Once more into the lists it seems. On this point, I defer to the interpretation of Richard Abels, perhaps the leading expert on Alfred and certainly a leading expert on Asser. As I point out in my note: “It should be noted that Asser does not accord John an exceptional knowledge of the military arts, saying that he was bellicosae artis non expers, but I accept the basic thrust of Abels’ implicit argument that Asser did not wish to overemphasize the secular aspects of John’s career in Alfred’s service.”

  2. Benjamin Savill

    Is the Latin not fine? ‘Expers’ is a false friend, meaning ‘lacking’ or ‘free from’ – so, he was ‘not lacking in the bellicose arts’. Keynes-Lapidge trans. seems right, I think.

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