Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Neot

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NEOT, Saint (d. 877?), Saxon anchoret, derived his name, it has been suggested (Gorham, pp. 25, 27), from the word ‘neophytus,’ or it may be a Grecism for ‘the little one,’ in reference either to his spiritual humility or to his short stature, on which later writers lay much stress (ib. p. 31). A destroyed manuscript of a ninth-century version of Asser's ‘Life of Alfred’ (Otho A. xii.) declared (according to Wise, the editor of Asser, who saw the manuscript before it was destroyed) that King Ælfred, ‘as we read in the life of the holy father St. Neot,’ was long concealed in the dwelling of one of his cowherds, and that Ælfred visited, among other holy places, the chapel of St. Guerir, ‘where now St. Neot also rests.’ No other contemporary references to Neot are known; interpolated passages in later manuscripts of Asser give further details of Neot: how he was a kinsman of Ælfred, how he reproved the king, and how after death he miraculously appeared before Ælfred at the placed called Æcglea. The loss of the early Asser MSS. renders it impossible to date these interpolations with certainty. The earliest writing now extant in which St. Neot is spoken of at any length is an Anglo-Saxon homily, written primarily for purposes of edification, about 1000 A.D.; it has been printed and translated (Gorham, p. 256, Suppl. xcvii.), from the Cott. MS. Vesp. D. xiv., f. 142b. The homilist says that St. Neot was set to book-learning in his youth, ‘thus the book saith,’ and this book may possibly be the life of St. Neot referred to by Asser, and not otherwise known. He also says ‘it is recorded in writing that the holy man went to Glastonbury in holy Bishop Ælfheah's days, and by him he was ordained.’ Now Ælfheah was bishop of Winchester 934–51, yet the homilist also says St. Neot died before King Ælfred, who died in 901. This anachronism weakens the authority of the homily, and the choice of Glastonbury as St. Neot's place of education is suspicious; it is questionable whether a religious house existed there in the reign of King Ælfred (cf. Asser, s. a. 887). Later writers of the life of St. Neot, accepting the homily, make him contemporary not only with Ælfred, but also with Ælfheah, and even Dunstan [q. v.] and Æthelwold [q. v.], and enlarge on his connection with Glastonbury. The homilist tells us further that St. Neot travelled to Rome seven times, and ultimately built a dwelling in a fair place ten miles from Petrockstow (now Bodmin); ‘this place they call Neotestoc’ (now St. Neot's). Here he did much preaching, and King Ælfred often came to the holy man about his soul's need, and the saint reproved him, prophesied his sufferings, and recommended him to go to Rome ‘to Pope Martin, who now ruleth the English school;’ but Marinus or Martin II did not become pope till 882, after St. Neot was dead, according to both the homily and Asser. His disciples buried St. Neot's body in the church which he had founded, and seven years later his bones were elevated and placed near the altar. The homily gives the story of Ælfred and the cakes, and of St. Neot's appearance to Ælfred, as in the interpolated Asser.

To these scanty materials much legendary detail was added by monastic writers eager to magnify the saint, whose relics their monasteries professed to possess. The monastery of Ely was active in relic-hunting at the end of the tenth century, and it is probable that the Abbot Brithnoth, who stole Withburga's relics from Dereham, and was interested in the foundation of the religious house of Eynesbury in Huntingdonshire (Liber Eliensis, p. 143), helped to obtain the relics of St. Neot from the college of secular priests that then maintained his chapel in Cornwall. The sacristan himself agreed to bring them to Eynesbury (Gorham, App. iii. p. 267) about 972–5 (Lib. El. p. 143), and the name of that place became St. Neot's. About 1003 the relics were conveyed to Crowland to protect them from Danish robbers (Ord. Vit. vol. iv. c. 17), and Crowland in after times still claimed to possess them, though when the house of St. Neot's in Huntingdonshire was refounded as a cell to Bec, 1078–9, Anselm, as abbot of Bec, officially attested that the body of the saint was there (Gorham, p. 67, quoting Archives of Lincoln Cathedral). Pits and Bale ascribe several works to St. Neot without any authority (Gorham, p. 43).

[Asser in Mon. Hist. Brit. pp. 480–4; Gorham's History of St. Neot's, 1820; Liber Eliensis, ed. D. J. Stewart, p. 143; Ordericus Vitalis's Hist. Eccles.; Hardy's Descriptive Catalogue, vol. i. pt. ii. p. 538 seq. An account of the legendary lives of St. Neot is given by Gorham and by Hardy; as biographies they are of no value.]

M. B.