Society News: The Church

This post is part of an ongoing series, in which I look at various classes of 7th century Anglo-Saxon England society. For previous posts, click the links below. 

Society News: Introduction

Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

Society News: The Upper Crust


I am working my way down through Anglo-Saxon society in these series of posts, and this week I will be discussing the church.  First, just to clarify terms, when I say “the church”, I’m not writing about the average everyday people who might attend a service on Sundays. In particular, I am writing about the men and women who made up the ecclesiastical hierarchy in the seventh century.

The men and women of the Christian church had a bit of a dual identity in terms of where they stood, society-wise. The church was made up of individuals who came from various classes of society, and so there you would find the sons and daughters of kings rubbing shoulders with those who were further down the social ladder. Monks and nuns could be just about anyone, and in theory, so could the abbots and bishops and abbesses, given that they were taken from the ranks of the regular clergy.

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The Anglo-Saxon church at Monkwearmouth, which, together with its “twin” at Jarrow, was one of the earliest monasteries in Britain. The bottom part of the tower and the west wall are from the original building, built in 674 AD. It is where the Venerable Bede lived and worked.

However, it is true to say that many of the higher-ranking clergy also came from the higher ranks of society. Both St. Aidan and St. Columba were from the Ui Neill clan of Ireland, a very powerful and influential clan, and it is likely that both of these men were high-ranking men in their clans, perhaps even of royal blood.  There were exceptions, of course. St. Patrick of Ireland started off as an English slave in Ireland, you don’t get much lower class than that! Depending on which story you believe, St. David may have been the result of a rape, and grew up in a nunnery. Both these men became the most-respected clergymen in their countries, and so you can see that in the church hierarchy a person’s worth was not necessarily tied to their original status in society.

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Beautiful stained glass commemorating Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, found at St. Michael Church, Workington. Cuthbert is one of those whose original status in society is disputed. Some scholars suggest he came from noble birth, others that he came from a poor family. Either way, he became of one England’s greatest saints. Photo from Wikicommons. 

As the Christian church began to get established in Northumbria, it began to amass land, through gifts from kings who wanted to see the church succeed. Most notably, we can see that the monastery Lindisfarne was begun by the Irish bishop/abbot Aidan, who was granted land by the Bernician King Oswald in 634 AD  to start a monastery close to his royal seat at Bebbanburg. Oswald had converted to Christianity while in exile in Dàl Raida, and when God granted him victory over King Edwin in 633 AD, restoring his family’s claim to the Bernician throne, he wanted to make sure his fellow Angles in Bernicia were converted to the new faith as well. As Aidan and his monks spread out through Northumbria in their missionary journeys and people began to accept Christianity, more monasteries were established along with more gifts of land.

The abbots and abbesses in charge of the monasteries (the Celtic Church allowed for double monasteries, housing both monksand nuns in separate buildings, often presided over by women) became local agents of the king, in many cases, although in theory, their ultimate obedience was always to God. The monasteries were centres of learning, operating schools for the sons and daughters of the local nobility as well as for the novices who joined the monastery, looking to one day become monks and nuns themselves. They also were orphanages and hospitals, taking in the sick or homeless. And so the local people had a certain amount of respect for the clergy which was tied to what they did as well as who they were socially, in terms of what family they originated from.

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St. Hilda (Hild) of Whitby, the important double-monastery of which she was Abbess. Hild’s father was the nephew of King Edwin, so she certainly came from an upper class Northumbrian family.

The locals gave tithes to the monasteries in terms of food, services, land rent, etc, just as they gave tribute to the kings each year (the concept of taxes goes a long ways back!). A priest had the same rank in society as a thegn, and a bishop was seen as equal to an eoldorman.

Although the life of a monk or nun was not an easy one, they certainly were able to have a fairly secure life, and had a mainly respected role in society. This may help to explain why the monasteries grew so rapidly in the Early Medieval period, with some of the major ones boasting a population in the thousands. It was a fairly unusual place in that society, where someone from a very low class could end up being as highly respected as a king or queen. This opportunity for upward social mobility may have attracted some to the church. But bottom line, spiritual devotion was still very important. There may have been some of the excesses in the church that characterized the institution later in the Middle Ages and beyond, but at this time devotion to God and obedience to the monastic rule was still very much emphasized.

The next post in this series will not tackle a certain social class, but I will pause for a moment to explain something that was integral to this whole idea of societal ranking: the concept of weregild. 

That post will be coming up in the next month or so…I hope you join me!

 

 

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Beowulf Basics

This post is one of a series of posts on literature from Dark Ages Britian. For the first post in this series, click here.


 

As I have explained here on the blog, there are not a lot of extant manuscripts from the Early Middle Ages. But surely the most well-known is the epic poem, Beowulf.

I will admit that I have thought about writing a post on Beowulf many times and have put it off. The reason being that I hardly know where to start.

It’s a bit intimidating, to tell you the truth. There are people who have had whole  careers built around this epic poem. Much better minds than mine have studied it and offered their interpretations on it, people who have read it in the original Anglo-Saxon language in which it is written. People like J.R.R. Tolkien. I feel wholly inadequate even discussing it. But, as it is such an important piece of literature originating from the times in which my novel (s) are set, I don’t feel like I should ignore it any longer.

But I chose to title this post Beowulf Basics for a reason. I’m not going to go too deep into this poem. And I certainly don’t have the knowledge to contribute to any of many scholarly debates about one aspect of it or another. I’m just going to discuss some of the things that I think are really interesting about it.

 

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The first page of the Beowulf  manuscript. You can see the damage from the fire at Ashburnham House in 1731 in the corner and along the edges. image from Wikicommons

When the poem was actually composed is a matter of some debate (there’s lots of debate about many things about Beowulf!). But there are a couple of certain facts. It was written down sometime between 975 AD and 1025 AD. The author is unknown, referred to by scholars as “the Beowulf poet”. The poem is written in Anglo-Saxon (Old English), mainly in the West Saxon dialect, but is about events in Scandinavia. It’s a mix of legends and historical events and include names of some Scandinavian kings and kingdoms. Most scholars agree that some of the events mentioned (battles and the like) in the poem are historically accurate, and occur in 6th century Scandinavia. Many of the people who appear in Beowulf also are mentioned in other Scandinavian works, but not Beowulf himself.

Out of the surviving 30,000 lines of Anglo-Saxon literature, 4,000 of them are contained in this one poem, which shows you its importance in our understanding of Anglo-Saxon literature. The poem is written in typical Anglo-Saxon alliterative style. Alliterative poetry is not rhyming poetry, but it generally is composed of lines of two short phrases which have stresses on various words in a rhythmical pattern. It’s a form of poetry that is not used much any more, but it is well-suited to poems which are read aloud, which of course was true of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon verse.

This is hard to describe, but easier to hear.  Have a listen to this short excerpt of the beginning of the poem, and you will get a sense of the rhythm of it. Note the repetitive sounds, like the “s”  “f” or “m” sounds, and the way the words lift and fall in a pleasing rhythm.* It’s easier to hear it the longer you listen. By the time this short section finishes you should start to feel the rhythm.

 

The poem itself doesn’t have a name, but it is called Beowulf after the main character, who is a great warrior of the Geats (a kingdom that is located in modern Sweden). Beowulf comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes. whose mead hall is under attack by the monster Grendel. Beowulf kills the monster and then also kills Grendel’s mother, who comes to the hall looking for revenge. Beowulf goes back to Geatland in triumph and eventually becomes king of the Geats. After fifty years has passed, Beowulf battles a dragon but is mortally wounded, and is mourned with great fanfare by his people. That is the very bare nuts and bolts of the story!

 

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Grendel and Beowulf, by MunsonX, from DeviantArt

So, this thoroughly Scandinavian pagan hero is the subject of a thoroughly English poem, written in Old English, probably by a Christian Anglo-Saxon monk. Why was this tale treasured by the Anglo-Saxons?

It’s a fascinating window into the times. The Anglo-Saxons were of course the descendants of the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes, all Scandinavian people-groups who had begun migrating to Britain after the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century. These people-groups had their own legends, gods, and culture, that they brought with them to Britain. And through a process of immigration and conquest, a new society and culture began to form, synthesized out of the collision of the pagan Celtic Britons, Christian Celtic Britons, Roman Christian Britons, pagan Roman Britons, and the pagan Anglo-Saxon newcomers.

Beowulf includes hints and threads of both Christian and pagan cultures. Grendel and Grendel’s mother are said to be descendants of Cain. There are references to the flood, and to the importance of humility, generosity, and self-sacrifice. There is also a lot of references to fate, and fame, both of which were strong elements of the Germanic pagan culture of the Anglo-Saxons. Some scholars feel that the author of Beowulf is showing how the pagan culture and beliefs are much better than the new, Christian ones, while other scholars argue the opposite, that the poem shows the superiority of the Christian beliefs over the pagan ones. I’m not sure of either of these two positions, but I do believe that the poem certainly has a synthesis of both of these world-views, and is a glimpse into the mindset of the early Christian Anglo-Saxons. I believe it is because of this intermixing of old and new that this poem had such popularity among the Anglo-Saxons. Also, because don’t we all love to hear about monsters and and the heroes that defeat them, especially around the fire on a dark and stormy night?

Beowulf takes place amidst a typical Germanic warrior society, with the lords and mead halls vividly described. It has given us a snapshot of the culture of the Anglo-Saxons that has been verified by archeology and other literature from the time. In fact, archeologists have found a hall in Denmark which they feel corresponds with Heorot, King Hrothgar’s hall mentioned in the poem.

Beowulf may be one of our oldest pieces of literature, but it still fascinates us today. Even in the 21st century we are still interpreting and re-imagining this poem. In 2006 a live-action film called Beowulf and Grendel, was released, followed by a CGI version in 2007 called Beowulf (I’m not sure that Grendel’s mother was supposed to look like Angelina Jolie, but oh well…). Beowulf: Return to the Shieldlands was  a short-lived TV fantasy series which aired in Britain and the US in 2016.

It seems as if this story is one that is going to be part of our heritage for many more years to come. And for that, I am glad!

 


*The last line of that section, Þæt wæs god cyning! leaps out to our modern ears. Did it sound to you like the reader said, “that was good kinging!” to you? Well, basically, he did. The translation for that phrase is, “That was a good king!” You will find phrases and words like this standing out to you when you listen to Old English read aloud. Amazing that even after almost two centuries we can still pick out a word or two that we modern English speakers still use today.

 

Featured image from vvilkelyte.wixsite.com

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

I have really been enjoying the non-fiction books I have read so far in my Year of Reading Buechner, but this month I turned my eye to one of Buechner’s fiction books. I have been eager to read Brendan: A Novel, for a couple of reasons. One, because a few years ago I read and really enjoyed Son of Laughter, his fictional account of the life of the Biblical patriarch, Jacob; and secondly, because this book was all about one of my favourite people from the Early Middle Ages: Brendan the Navigator.

Brendan

Brendan was published in 1987, and won the Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize that year. As I mentioned, it is the fictional account of the life of the 6th century Irish saint, Brendan the Navigator, whose story of adventures and miracles encountered during a sea voyage with fellow monks was one of the most popular stories in medieval times.

The tale is told from the point of view of Finn, Brendan’s companion and best friend, and is set in a realistically dark and dirty sixth century Ireland. Brendan is no polished saint in this book, in fact far from it. Finn is a nominal Christian at best, and he casts a skeptical eye on some of Brendan’s tales, because he knows how much Brendan loves to embellish the truth. But there are times when Finn sees Bren performing a miracle himself, and is unable to explain away the occurrence except as a miracle.

There is a great tension in this book between truth and lies; faith and doubt. Brendan himself struggles between these dichotomies. He makes his way with great self-confidence at times, but at others he is racked by doubts. This novel does not allow you to think of him as a saint in the way we normally think of them, as people who are so advanced in holiness that they have left us behind in the dust.

I love the way Buechner portrays the people of sixth century Ireland in this book. They feel like real people. And I appreciate they way he shows how Christianity met and mixed with the old religions that the Irish Celts practiced.  Even Brendan himself, when sent to pray in a cave overnight as penance by the Abbot Jarlath, also turns to the Celtic god Dagda.

He knew it was the one and only true God he was supposed to call on for mercy but he thought it would do no harm to call on the Dagda as well. He only whispered his name in his heart instead of speaking it out loud though. The last thing in the world he wanted was for the Dagda to turn up there in the cave lugging his terrible great club and his brass cauldron. All the boy was after from him was a bit of luck. 

And when Brendan sets off on his voyage, he does so in order to reach Tir-na-nog, a kind of earthly Paradise, the land of the young, where the gods of the Irish Celts lived. It eventually morphed into the idea of the Otherworld, the land of the Elves. These tales  abounded in Celtic folklore, but it is not exactly a kosher concept from a Christian point of view.

But this was an age where the old beliefs were meeting head-on with the new, so this juxtaposition of pagan and Christian is very realistic for the times.The Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, says that Brendan was trying to reach the Promised Land of the Saints. The idea is of an earthly Paradise, such as the Garden of Eden. The stories of Tir-na-nog could certainly have been meshed with that idea, in the minds of Celts who are new to the faith. So I like this insertion into the book, although it is not strictly true to the stories of Brendan.

There is also quite a bit of comedy in this book. The “holy fool” is a theme you find often in Buechner’s writings, and in this book Brendan takes on that role. He is a braggart, full of wild tales and exaggerations; and odd-looking, with his mis-matched teeth, pointy head, and large derrière. He stumbles through this book, at times serenely performing miracles and at others cowering in unbelief and doubt. And so in this way Buechner makes a larger-than-life saint a person we can relate to.

Other characters also have their comedic moments. Finn himself is cheated out of going on Brendan’s first voyage because as they set sail a sudden squall comes up and he falls out of the boat, the others not noticing in the dark.

In the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (The Voyage of Saint Brendan the Navigator), the medieval manuscript that details Brendan’s voyage, the saint only takes one voyage, but in Buechner’s book, he divides it into two. Finn accompanies Brendan on the second voyage, and finds both miracles and heartache along the way. In the end, we are again left with uncertainty about exactly what they encountered, and where, and how much was truth, and how much exaggeration.

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An illustration from the Navigatio from a 14th century manuscript. It shows one of the stories in the tale, of Brendan and his monks staying on an island which they later discover is actually the great whale Jasconius. Image from Wikicommons.


Many of the other famous people from this time appear in this book, such as Saint Brigid, and Saint Malo. I particularly like the appearance of Gildas in this book, near the end, after Brendan is back from his voyages and goes away to Wales to escape his fame.  Gildas is a sour and bitter monk, which actually kind of fits the work for which he is best known today, called De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), in which he details the many sins and failing of kings and churchmen alike.

As Finn says,

He spent his days in his hut with a quill in his hand scratching out on his parchment the nastiness of his times. 

But through Gildas, Brendan gets to meet the great king, Artor, an old man now, still serving as king at Caerlon. Brendan and Finn go to meet him, as Brendan wants to bring him God’s peace after he hears the tale of the betrayal of his queen Gwenhwyfar and the child Artor had with his half-sister. Finn doesn’t hear what Brendan says to Artor, but Artor is grateful for his visit. As they leave Caerlon, the small, wizened figure of the king stands at the battlements, his hands raised over his head in farewell.

Finn says,

I pictured him standing there all the rest of the day and the night as well with his arms in the air and his beard blowing. If I went back in a thousand years it wouldn’t surprise me to find him standing there yet if there’s anything left standing by then in the world. 

I love this picture of King Arthur, watching over Britain throughout the ages.

During a conversation with Gildas, as Brendan reflects on this voyages and expresses the fear that perhaps he had missed the point of what God had called him to do, it comes out in the conversation that the old monk only has one leg.

“I’m crippled as the dark world,” Gildas said.

“If it comes to that, which one of us isn’t, my dear?” Brendan said.

Gildas with but one leg.  Brendan sure he’d misspent his whole life entirely.  Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy.  The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths.  We was cripples all of us.  For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

“To lend each other a hand when we’re falling,” Brendan said.  “Perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.”

This book comes at you sideways. It is a window into the life and times of Brendan, well-researched and imaginative. But it’s more than that, too. Brendan’s voyages, both physical and spiritual, mirror our own voyages through life, with their ups and downs, their triumphs and tragedies. The book contains many treasures, but not all of them are ones that you find along the surface. It forces you to dig deep and ponder a little bit. Not a bad thing, nowadays.

The New York Times Book Review called Brendan: A Novel, “Strikingly convincing…sinewy and lyrical.” I agree.  There is a lot that is earthy in this novel, but at times it will take your breath away. It reminds me a lot of Son of Laughter in that way.  It  took me a few chapters to get into it, but by the end I knew it was one I would have to read again.


Other posts in my Year of Reading Buechner series can be found here:

 2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

 

 

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Pt. 1

I’m a little overwhelmed with busy, busy, busy at the moment and so seeing as today, March 20th, is the feast of St. Cuthbert, I thought it would be a great time to repost this, which appeared on the blog last year. I hope you enjoy it, and I’ll be back with new content next week! 


I realized a few weeks back when I wrote a post about clothing in the 7th century, that I have yet to write a post about one of the most influential figures of the Early Middle Ages, that being Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne (634 AD – March 20, 687 AD).

It’s time to rectify that!

Cuthbert is a fascinating figure whose life echoes throughout the centuries until even today. After his death he became possibly the most popular saint in England, eclipsed only by Thomas à Beckett who died in 1170 AD. In fact there is so much to say about Cuthbert that I am going to present his story to you in two parts. I will follow up with Part II next week.

Most of what we know about Cuthbert comes from the hand of Bede, the famous Early Medieval historian, sometimes called the Venerable Bede.  Bede actually wrote three accounts of Cuthbert’s life. One was a  poem, one was a work of prose, commissioned by the brethren of Lindisfarne, and one which was included in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. 

What fascinates me about this is that Bede was actually a contemporary of Cuthbert. Bede was fourteen when Cuthbert died and, although he never met him, in writing his Life of Cuthbert he spoke with many who knew Cuthbert well. As he puts it in the introduction to the Life (addressed to the Lindisfarne community which has commissioned the work):

…I have not presumed without minute investigation to write any of the deeds of so great a man, nor without the most accurate examination of credible witnesses to hand over what I had written to be transcribed. Moreover, when I learnt from those who knew the beginning, the middle, and the end of his glorious life and conversation, I sometimes inserted the names of these my authors, to establish the truth of my narrative, and thus ventured to put my pen to paper and to write. But when my work was arranged, but still kept back from publication, I frequently submitted it for perusal and for correction to our reverend brother Herefrid the priest, and others, who for a long time had well known the life and conversation of that man of God. Some faults were, at their suggestion, carefully amended, and thus every scruple being utterly removed, I have taken care to commit to writing what I clearly ascertained to be the truth, and to bring it into your presence also, my brethren, in order that by the judgment of your authority, what I have written might be either corrected, if false, or certified to be true.

After he had completed the task the book was read by the Lindisfarne elders and teachers for final approval before it was allowed to be copied for wider distribution.

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This is the earliest surviving copy of Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert. It dates from the 9th century and was found in France, which shows you how far-reaching Cuthbert’s popularity was, even at that early date. Image from the British Library.

Now let’s remember that these hagiographies (biographies of saints), are always meant to popularize the said saint in order to attract people to the monasteries that saint was associated with. In other words, nothing negative was going to be included in Bede’s Life of Cuthbert. Hagiographies were a kind of medieval one-up-man-ship: “Yo, my saint’s better than your saint, dog!” .  So we do need to keep that in mind as we read these accounts.

However, with all that being said, I love the fact that Bede’s Life of Cuthbert was written in consultation with people who actually knew the man and who had seen themselves the stories they recounted to Bede. And I love that Bede tried to make his account as accurate as possible, using many witnesses and checking and rechecking the stories. We have so few credible accounts of people’s lives from this era. It’s wonderful having this window into one person’s life, even though that window may be squeaky clean indeed.

What is also interesting is that Bede’s Life of Cuthbert was not the first one to be written. Bede completed his work around 721 AD, but the earlier one was completed around 700 AD. This earlier work, like Bede’s, was commissioned by Bishop Eadfrith* of Lindisfarne, which is the monastery most associated with Cuthbert. The earlier Life of Cuthbert is often called the Anonymous Life of Cuthbert, because we are not sure who the author was, although it most certainly was one of the monks at Lindisfarne.

Although you wouldn’t know it from his introduction quoted above, Bede draws heavily from the anonymous Life in his work. In fact you might accuse Bede of being a little disingenuous in his introduction, but I guess I can forgive him seeing as Eadfrith and the other monks certainly knew all about the other anonymous Life, and possibly the author of the previous version may still have been at Lindisfarne. The Latin of Bede’s Life is apparently much more classical and stylized than the earlier one, which is perhaps one of the reasons why Bede was asked to do another one. The other reason we will discuss in Part II, so come back next week to find out!

So, now that we know the source(s) of our information, let’s get to Cuthbert himself.

He was  born in 634 or 635 AD, just as Aidan was invited by King  Oswald to found the monastery at Lindisfarne and become its Bishop. He was born in Dunbar, located on the east coast of Britain at the mouth of the Firth of Forth. At the time this was part of Northumbria, but now it is in Scotland.

There are indications that Cuthbert came from noble birth, perhaps even son of a king, but other historians discount this, and say that he was more likely born to a poor family. Either way, he grew up near Melrose Abbey (at the time called Mailros)  on the banks of the river Tweed.  He was by all accounts a devout youngster, and one night in 651 AD, when he was seventeen, he had a vision while he was watching the sheep. In the distance he saw angels coming down to earth and escorting a soul to Heaven. The next day he discovered that Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne had died, and decided then that he would also join a monastery and devote his life to God.

However, the real world interfered with this plan. At the time Oswy, King of Northumbria, was engaged in an epic struggle with Penda of Mercia over who would eventually have control over Northumbria. Like most of the men of fighting age at the time, Cuthbert became a soldier and fought with the Northumbrians against the Mercians until the decisive battle of Winwidfield in 654 AD. While we don’t have the exact date of his entrance into Melrose as a monk (Bede let us down there) it seems that some time after 654 AD he arrived at the monastery with a spear, and on horseback–one of the reasons some say he came from nobility, as only the wealthy had horses.

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Unfortunately, there is nothing left of the original Mailros Abbey, founded by Aidan and the monks from Lindisfarne around 650 AD. This is the little interpretive centre built on the site associated with the monastery. Image from saintsandstones.net

Along with the epic political struggle between Penda and Oswy for control of Northumbria that was occurring at this time, there was also an epic struggle in the ecclesiastical world. On side was the Celtic British monks of the north-west, nurtured under Columba‘s Rule at Iona, whose influence had spread across northern Britain, and on the other, the southern Roman Christians, whose practices of the faith stemmed from Rome (this is a very simple explanation…one day I will do a more detailed post on this).

Us moderns have a hard time understanding the nature of this conflict between two “styles” of Christianity, for it seems to us to revolve mainly around what style of tonsure the monks should wear, and, most importantly, how one should calculate the date of Easter. Indeed, these are the outward expressions of this conflict, but it goes much deeper than that.

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Two styles of tonsure: Roman, on the left, and Celtic, on the right. Or is it? Technically we are not entirely sure of the Celtic tonsure. We know that the hair was cut from ear to ear, but some suggest that the opposite of this look, in other words the hair at front is kept and all the hair from the ear back is shaved off! Image from Church History for Everyday Folks.

As a Celtic Christian monk who learned the monastic rule from the community at Lindisfarne, Cuthbert was by no means unaware of this conflict, and it shaped his life in significant ways. He quickly distinguished himself at Melrose, and when a new monastery was founded in Deira at Ripon,  he was sent there as guest-master along with Eata, who became Bishop.  But in 661 AD Cuthbert and Eata returned to Melrose, ousted from Ripon by King Alhfrith of Deira (son of Oswy) who had put the ambitious monk Wilfrid in Eata’s place. Alhfrith and Wilfrid were proponents of the Roman practices, and Ripon was thus changed from a Celtic Christian monastery to a Roman one.

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St. Wilfrid. Oh, he was a wily one. Soon I will be doing a post on him…stay tuned.

Soon after their return, some type of plague strikes Melrose, and many of the brethren there are afflicted, including Cuthbert, but he recovers.

However, by 664 AD Cuthbert must have seen the writing on the wall, for he has a change of heart. In the hugely important Synod of Whitby that year, King Oswy decrees that henceforth the Roman practices would be the ones followed in the Northumbrian monasteries. Some of the Northumbrian monks balk at this, but Eata accepts the ruling, and Cuthbert follows his mentor’s lead.

Back at Melrose, the abbot, Boisil, dies of the pestilence, and Eata is named Abbot/Bishop (these offices were somewhat fluid at the time).  Cuthbert becomes prior (second in rank to the Abbot). While there he became a great evangelist, travelling around the country and up into the mountains to preach the gospel to the pagan people where others feared to go. He also encouraged those Christians who had given up the faith in the face of the plague and had resorted back to their pagan practices to rid themselves of the sickness.

It is during this time at Melrose that one of the most famous stories of Cuthbert occurs. Cuthbert often left the monastery to spend the night in prayer. One night one of the monks follows him to see where he goes. He follows him down to the sea, and watches as Cuthbert wades out into the waves, until the water is up to his arms, and begins to pray.

As dawn breaks he comes back on to the beach, falls on his knees, and continues to pray. The monk watching is astonished to see two otters come out of the ocean, breathe upon Cuthbert’s feet, and lay down upon them to dry his feet with their fur. Cuthbert blesses them for their duty and the otters scamper back to the waves. The astonished monk confesses his spying to Cuthbert and the Bishop forgives him, but asks him to tell no one of it until his death, a promise the monk keeps.

Eata is in charge of both Ripon and Lindisfarne, and sometime in the 670s  he assigns Cuthbert to Lindisfarne as prior. Cuthbert is given the task of reforming the monastery from the Celtic practices to the Roman ones. This would not have been easy, and it seems it caused some bitterness among the brethren there. But he was a perfect one to do it, seeing as he was raised in Northumbria and trained in the Celtic practices himself as a monk.

Let’s hear Bede’s explanation of this:

There were some brethren in the monastery who preferred their ancient customs to the new regular discipline. But he got the better of these by his patience and modest virtues, and by daily practice at length brought them to the better system which he had in view. Moreover, in his discussions with the brethren, when he was fatigued by the bitter taunts of those who opposed him, he would rise from his seat with a placid look, and dismiss the meeting until the following day, when, as if he had suffered no repulse, he would use the same exhortations as before, until he converted them, as I have said before, to his own views. For his patience was most exemplary, and in enduring the opposition which was heaped equally upon his mind and body he was most resolute, and, amid the asperities which he encountered, he always exhibited such placidity of countenance, as made it evident to all that his outward vexations were compensated for by the internal consolations of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes retreat is a good offence, it seems. I can think of a few meetings I have endured where this strategy could well have been employed!

At any rate, it is after the reforms are completed, in 676 AD, when he is 42 years old, that Cuthbert decides he wants to withdraw even more from the world and become a hermit. I suppose after the harrowing work he had to do to change the monastery’s practices and dealing with the difficulties that caused I can’t blame him for having enough of people and wanting to renew his spirit by time alone in prayer!

He first finds an isolated spot on the outskirts of the monastery, but finding even that not quite isolated enough (too easy for the other brothers to get to him, I imagine) he sets himself up on Inner Farne Island, a deserted island some miles east of Lindisfarne.

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Eider ducks are known as Cuddy Ducks in Northumbria, after Cuthbert. While on the Inner Farne Cuthbert became enamoured of these ducks, and instituted laws to protect them as people often would harvest both the eggs and the birds. So aside from his religious accomplishments, Cuthbert thus became the world’s first conservationist! Image from wikicommons

Thus ends the first part of Cuthbert’s fascinating life. But there is much more to come. I hope you join me next week as we learn more about Cuthbert the hermit and the influence he continued to have, even after separating himself completely from the world.  And even after his death, as we shall see.


*Fun fact: Eadfrith is also the man responsible for the Lindisfarne Gospels. And by “responsible”, I mean he is one who actually designed, drew, and painted them, as historians have determined that the Gospels were the work of one man alone.  What wonderful treasures he gave us!

Featured image is an icon of Cuthbert, from Aidan Hart Sacred Icons. Note the otter at his feet, and also the raven. Ravens are associated with Cuthbert because, as he was building a shelter on Inner Farne for visiting brethren, three ravens came and pulled out the thatch on the roof. Cuthbert banishes them from the island, but they return, and in a penitent manner bowed their heads and showed signs of asking forgiveness. Cuthbert does so, and they bring him a piece of hog’s lard, which he uses to grease the visiting monk’s shoes.


You can find Part II of Cuthbert’s story here

The Cotton Library

 Today’s post is the first in a series about surviving manuscripts from the Dark Ages. Look for posts in this series to appear on a regular basis. This series will join the other series I am currently exploring, called Society News, about the different classes of people who make up Anglo-Saxon society in 7th century England. I hope you enjoy!


I have often written here on the blog about the dearth of manuscripts from the Early Middle Ages, and it is true, there is not a lot of original material surviving from this time. There are likely three main reasons for this:

  1. While not everyone was illiterate, there were still relatively few who could both read and write. So there is not a lot of people actually producing manuscripts. Most of the manuscripts produced during that time were done at the hand of the monks. These were not all religious texts or Scripture, however. In general the Celtic Christian monks had a high view of learning, and held in their monasteries copies of works that survived from the ancient world, the accumulated knowledge from the Greeks and Romans. This is quite remarkable considering these works were not necessarily Christian. But the monks saw their value nonetheless, and preserved this knowledge at a time when much of that knowledge was being lost on the Continent after the collapse of Rome. Copies of these works were sent to various monasteries in Britain, and back to the Continent on their missionary journeys there.
  2. The Vikings invasions. Lindisfarne, on the north-east coast of England, was the first monastery to be attacked by the raiders in 767 AD. The monks were basically defenceless, and their monastery contained many beautiful items used in their worship, including silver chalices, bowls, and other such items. The Vikings knew a good thing when they saw it, and kept coming back, to Lindisfarne as well as to other monasteries. The raiders weren’t looking for books, particularly, but often Bibles or Gospel books would have jewel-encrusted covers, so the books, if not destroyed, would certainly be damaged. And of course fires were a risk during these attacks, as well. I have no idea how the monks at Lindisfarne managed to save their beautiful Gospel book during that first, chaotic, attack, but save it they did, and continued to keep it safe in the centuries that follow, so that we have it today.
  3. The Dissolution of the Monasteries. King Henry VIII, in his embrace of Protestantism, decided that the English Church needed reforms and that the monasteries, nunneries, priories, convents, and friaries had to be disbanded and destroyed (it was part and parcel of a whole wave of reforms sweeping across the Continent in the wake of the Reformation). It was also a way for the considerable wealth of the church, both monetary and land wealth, to be transferred to the Crown. Manuscripts which had been held safely by the Church through the centuries now entered private hands, and many were lost. For example, Worcester Priory had 600 books in its collection at the time of the Dissolution, only six have survived to this day.

And here enters the hero of our story, Sir Robert Cotton.

Born in 1570, heir of Thomas Cotton of Conington, Sir Robert was educated at Westminster School and studied under the antiquarian William Camden. He began to study antiquarian topics and began his life-long love of collecting historical objects; in particular, manuscripts.

As he progressed through his education, finally graduating as a lawyer, Cotton continued to amass his collection of ancient works, often by purchasing the estates of others who had amassed collections.  He entered Parliament in 1601, representing Newtown, Isle of Wight. Later he helped devise the rank of baronet, and was made baronet himself. He held various seats in Parliament throughout his life, but his major interest and most enduring legacy is of his wonderful library.

Along with his mentor, William Camden, Cotton was an early member of the Society of Antiquaries in London in the 1580s, and eventually revived the Society in 1598. He was much revered as an antiquarian (basically a gentleman historian) during his lifetime. Cotton’s house, near the Palace of Westminster, housed the ever-growing library and became the headquarters of the Society of Antiquaries. Unusual for the time, he allowed other scholars, such as Francis Bacon and Walter Raleigh, to use his library. He even loaned some manuscripts to others (also a rare occurrence at the time), with the result that some which belonged to his collection are now housed in other collections around the world (every library has a problem with returns, I guess!).

Cotton managed to amass a huge number of manuscripts, including some of the most rare and precious manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon era, including the Lindisfarne Gospels,  and the only copy (!) we have of Beowulf.

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Part of the Beowulf manuscript. Can you see the word “beowulf” on the same line as the big “D”?

The library was housed in a room twenty-six feet long by six feet wide, filled with book presses (an early form of bookcase) holding the manuscripts. Each press was surmounted by a bust of a figure from antiquity, namely the twelve Caesars and two Imperial Ladies. Cotton categorized each manuscript by the bust on top of the case, the shelf letter, and the position of the manuscript on the shelf.  The British Library continues that tradition, even though of course the books are not now stored in the same fashion. For example, the Lindisfarne Gospels are designated Cotton Nero D .iv, designating the fourth manuscript (iv – the letter four in Roman numerals) on the shelf fourth (D) from the top of the book press with Nero’s bust on it.

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First page of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This is the only surviving manuscript of this 14th century poem, acquired by Sir Robert and added to his collection. 

Cotton lived in perilous times, when the Crown and Parliament were wrangling over many disputes. Sir Robert got caught up in these wrangles when in 1629 he was arrested for supposedly circulating a seditious pamphlet (actually written fifteen years prior, by someone else). Even thought he was released and then exonerated, his library was closed., thus keeping all the official documents and historical manuscripts  he had amassed  safe from prying eyes who might want to use them to support rebellion, I suppose.

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Sir Robert in 1629, the year the library was forced to close. Image from Wikicommons

Sadly, Cotton never got to open the library again, as it stayed closed until 1631 AD, when it was restored to his heir, Sir Thomas Cotton. He added to the collection and expanded it, and passed it on to his heir, Sir John Cotton. At his death in 1702, he donated the entire collection to the British nation, and it formed the basis of what is now called the British Library. Interestingly, as early as 1598 Robert Cotton had petitioned the Queen to join his library with the royal collection, to form a national library, but the Queen refused.

It’s a good thing that Sir John donated the library to the nation. If it had continued to be passed along to the heirs it’s uncertain what would have happened to it. His grandsons, unlike the rest of the literary Cotton family, were both illiterate, and perhaps would not have seen the value of the treasures they owned, and could have starting selling it off to help finance their lifestyles.

Thankfully, the library was kept safe….but was it?

The collection found a home in Ashburnham House, along with the royal manuscripts, watched over by the royal librarian Richard Bentley, a theologian and scholar. But in October of 1731 disaster struck in the form of a fire. Up to a quarter of the collection was either damaged or destroyed. Bentley escaped, clutching the precious Codex Alexandrinus under his arm, a fifth-century manuscript of the Greek Bible which is one of the earliest and most complete manuscripts of the Bible that we have.

The manuscript of the Battle of Maldon* was destroyed, and Beowulf was heavily damaged. Thankfully these and others had been copied by this time, but not all of those destroyed had been copied. In the intervening centuries,  attempts have been made to restore and fix the damaged manuscripts, with some success.

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One of the manuscripts damaged, more by water than fire. The parchment has shrunk at the edges where it was exposed to water, and so it has been cut to allow it to be pressed flat again and fastened to paper. 

Today the Cotton collection at the British Library contains 1,400 manuscripts and over 1,500 charters, rolls, and seals, dating from the 4th century to the 1600s.

And all thanks to the tireless efforts of one man. Here’s to you, Sir Robert!


*A tenth-century poem celebrating the Battle of Maldon in 991 AD, in which Anglo-Saxons unsuccessfully fought against Viking raiders.

Featured Image: Sir Robert Cotton, in a painting commissioned in 1626, by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen. Image from Wikicommons. 

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

After reading Buechner’s latest book last month to start of my Year of Reading Buechner, I decided that before going any further into his works I should read his first memoir, The Sacred Journey, so as to have a sense of who he is, and of some of his story.

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The photo on the front is of the author as a young boy with his father.

Buechner has written four memoirs all told. The Sacred Journey is his first, written in 1981, when he was fifty-five years old. He was at the apex of a busy and successful career as a lecturer and author, and decided that he would begin to set down the story of his life.

This first memoir covers the first part of his life, from childhood to just after the publication of his first and second novels, and includes his decision to become a Christian and to pursue the ministry.

Those few words are far too utilitarian to describe this lovely book, however. I was very glad to see that my hunch in reading last month’s book was correct. That book, The Remarkable Ordinary, was a compilation of some of his previously unpublished lectures. I found the writing style to be somewhat casual, more like a lecture than well thought out writing, but I was thought that his other books would likely have a higher writing standard.

I was not disappointed. This book captivates from the very first sentence.

How do you tell the story of your life–of how you were born, and the world you were born into, and the world that was born in you?

In Buechner’s case, he tells the story by weaving us a beautiful tale of grace-haunted moments, of sorrow and joy, of childhood and the larger-than-life characters that populate his world. And of failures and successes, and of the backdrop of his life, which was America in the 1930s to the 1960s, and how that era marked him.

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Warwick Academy, in Bermuda, the school Buechner attended in the 1930s after moving there with his family for a short while.  Of his time in Bermuda he writes, “I lived there…with a sense of the magic and mystery of things greater than I had ever experienced this side of Oz.”  Image from the Bermuda Sun

I don’t want to re-tell the story of his life, because I would really love you to read it for yourself. He tells it so much better than I could.

This is a short book, only 112 pages in my paperback copy, but full of wisdom and truth. I’ve starred or underlined something every two or three pages. It’s a book that weaves a gentle, contemplative spell.

As he explains,

Deep within history, as it gets itself written down in history books and newspapers, in the letters we write and the diaries we keep, is sacred history, is God’s purpose working itself out in the apparent purposelessness of human history and of our separate histories, is the history, in short, of the saving and losing of souls, including our own.

It is this most important history that Buechner addresses in this book. God is speaking through our lives, he writes. What can the events and ordinariness of our lives tell us of what he has said, and what he is saying still?

I am reading this book in my 55th year, so I understand perhaps some of the motivation he had for writing this book. As you get older the past becomes both more significant, and less. The people who populate it, especially those who live only in your memories now, are mythic beings. The events you have lived, some epic, some ordinary, are signposts along the way. You get feeling that you want to make sense of it all, and there must be some sense to make, if you could only spend some time to figure it out.

I love that he took that yearning and turned his life story into so much more than just a story of events, although you certainly get those. But woven throughout all of it is the question of not just what happened, but what it means. And therein is an even more interesting tale.

This wider scope is what makes this book both so very intimate but also so very relevant to the reader. As he says,

My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all.

Indeed, in the telling of his story Buechner invites us to look with new eyes upon our own story, to see those grace-haunted moments that we may have been oblivious to when we lived them.

This book has many, many glowing reviews, and I will confess that although I didn’t disbelieve the authors of the reviews, I couldn’t quite understand why people said it was a book they returned to again and again. Why would you want to read a memoir of someone’s life over and over? Once you had read it, wouldn’t your curiosity be satisfied?

Now I understand. This is a book that is meant to be read, and re-read, and savoured.  Buechner gives you much to ponder, and a light to shine on your own path. I highly recommend it.

My rating: 5 stars. Or however many stars you would give to one of the best books you have read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

St. David of Wales

I have written here on the blog about St. Aidan of England, St. Columba of Scotland, and St. Brigid of Ireland. So it’s high time to shine the spotlight on St. David of Wales. My mother is Welsh, and I have a certain fondness for St. David, myself! But as he doesn’t really fit into the story and setting of my book (Northumbria, 7th century AD) I have left him until now.

But this week we celebrate St. David’s Day (March 1st) , so I thought this would be a great week to explore the life of the patron saint of Wales.

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The Welsh flag

David, (or Dewi, as his name is spelt in the Welsh language), is a bit of a tricky person to hunt down. There most certainly was a great Bishop of that name in the 5th-6th century in Wales*, but his dates are a bit uncertain. He is said to have been born in 454, 487, 520, 542, or 544 AD. And similarly, the year he died is also unclear, with 560, 589, or 601 AD being given as dates. Depending on which dates you choose, you can understand why there are some traditions that state he was over one hundred and forty years when he died!

Most of what we know of David’s life comes to us from the writings of an eleventh-century monk named Rhygyvarch, who was the son of Bishop Sulien of Saint David’s Cathedral in Wales (as far as I can tell, a legitimate son. Clergy could be married in those days!). Rhygyvarch claims to have gathered his material from older, written sources which have since disappeared. The earliest mention of David that we know of comes from an Irish Catalogue of Saints compiled in 730 AD.

As wth all the hagiographies we look at here at The Traveller’s Path, Rhygyvarch’s Life of David was more than just an accounting of the saint’s life. It is likely Rhygyvarch wrote it to promote the Welsh church through popularizing its favourite saint, in order to support its independence from the English Church in Canterbury. So we have to take everything he says with a grain of salt. Medieval historians, Bede aside (and even he had ulterior motives in his History), were not necessarily concerned about exact facts.

You may wonder why Bede, who was so meticulous in giving us the stories of Aidan, Cuthbert, and Columba, ignored David. Well, in a nutshell, Bede didn’t like the native Britons (Welsh) very much. He made allowances for the other three because they all had a part in the growth of the Anglo-Saxon church, through their evangelical out-reach to the Anglo-Saxons and their establishment of monasteries throughout Northumbria.

However, the Welsh had a very different outlook on their relations with the Anglo-Saxons who came to Britain after the Romans withdrew in the fourth century. The Romano-British had a thriving church on the island, and after the soldiers left and the Romano-British society started to fall apart under the pressure of raids and upheaval from the Irish and the Picts and other invaders from the continent, the native British Christians withdrew into the west and north, and pretty much stayed there, remaining unconquered by Saxons and Vikings alike.

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You can see that the British Celts (the Britons) had a lot of territory in the 600s, including today’s Wales, Scotland (most of it) Ireland, and substantial parts of today’s northwest England.

Although David and others took the Gospel to their fellow British in Wales, unlike the Irish Celts they were seemingly uninterested in evangelizing the Anglo-Saxons. And in fact, when Augustine arrives from Rome in 595 AD to re-evangelize this supposedly pagan nation of Britain, he is met by a delegation of Celtic British monks and priests, who don’t take too kindly at his arrogant ways.

So, strike one in Bede’s mind was that the Welsh had no part in the building of the Anglo-Saxon church. Strike two would be that they were Celtic Christians. Their monks wore the odd Celtic tonsure and more importantly, had not moved on along with the Roman church and changed their method to date Easter. The Celtic/British church still followed the old, archaic method, and this refusal to see the error of their ways and bow to the Pope’s authority in this matter was heretical in Bede’s mind.

So, as David gets no mention in Bede’s History, we are pretty much left with Rhygyvarch’s Life of David and a few other mentions here and there.

And an interesting tale it is! No matter the year you ascribe to David’s birth, his beginnings are highlighted by violence and upheaval, a small window into the times. His mother, named Non, was by all accounts a beautiful high-born daughter of a Pembrokeshire chieftain. Her beauty attracted Sant, a local chieftain or king (who may have been related to King Arthur) and he raped her. Non goes into hiding and gives birth during a violent storm somewhere just south of where St. David’s Cathedral is situated today. A medieval chapel, now in ruins, marks the spot today.

His mother at some point became a nun (or perhaps was a nun when she was raped, the stories are a little unclear) and David was raised in her convent as a young boy and there nurtured in the faith. He was educated in the monastery of Hyn Fynyw and then studied under the monk St. Paulinus. Already at an early age several miracles are attributed to him, including that while he was still in the womb his mother went to church and the priest was struck dumb, unable to continue while in David’s presence. He is also said to have cured Paulinus of blindness.

At any rate, he was with Paulinus for at least ten years, by all accounts a star pupil, and also studied under St. Illtud of Llanilltud Fawr.**

David was ordained as priest and began missionary work in Wales, eventually establishing over fifty churches and twelve monasteries, including Glastonbury and the one at Mynyw, now called St. David’s Cathedral. He also made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he was consecrated bishop. In 550 AD he was made Archbishop of Wales. Although there is some dispute about this, too. In general the Welsh had the same Celtic Christian style of church hierarchy, which was not nearly so organized as the Roman one that followed it. It is possible that, like Aidan, David was both Abbot and Bishop).

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St. David’s Cathedral, in Pembrokeshire. Image from Wikicommons

It is told he had a lovable and happy disposition, and was tall and physically strong. Which is a good thing, given that David practiced an extreme form of aestheticism. The Celtic Church in general was greatly influenced by the ancient Desert Fathers, Christians who withdrew to the Egyptian desert in the 3rd and 4th century to separate from the surrounding disintegrating Roman/pagan society. They practiced a very aesthetic form of Christianity, and David embraced that life-style whole-heartedly. He ate only bread, herbs (probably watercress), and vegetables. The patron saint of vegans, perhaps? Due to the fact that he only drank water and no alcohol, he was known as Aquaticus or Dewi Ddyfrwr (David the water drinker) in Welsh.

He would also stand up to his neck in cold water and recite Scripture as a form of penance (which seems to be a standard practice for the Celtic monks, as other prominent churchmen such as Aidan and Cuthbert did this as well).

So it’s not surprising that David initiated a particularly strict Rule on his monasteries. He did not allow oxen to pull the plough, the brothers had to do it themselves. The monks were allowed only one meal per day of bread, vegetables and salt, and they were also forbidden alcohol. They also kept silence, which was not necessarily unusual for the times but was enforced perhaps a little more strictly at his monasteries.

David himself followed an even stricter discipline than his fellow monks, often staying up alone all through the night to pray.

The major religious controversy in Britain at the time was the Pelagian heresy, which had been growing since the monk Pelagius began its teachings in the fourth century.  It’s a bit complicated but basically, from what I understand, it is a doctrine that denies original sin. Around 550 AD David preached to great effect against Pelagianism at the Synod of Brefi, it is said that while he preached the ground rose up under his feet so that others could hear him better and a dove alighted on his shoulder. Later on he presided over the Synod of Caerleon in 559 AD known as the “Synod of Victory” where Pelagianism was officially condemned by the church.

David either founded Glastonbury Abbey (according to Rhygyvarch) or renovated it (according to William of Malmsbury who wrote a history of England about forty years after Rhygyvarch’s work). At any rate it is said that he donated a sapphire altar to the abbey at that time, and indeed there is a manuscript that indicates that the soldiers of Henry VIII confiscated a sapphire altar from the abbey during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century.

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The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey today. Image from flickr

David died on March 1st, which is now celebrated as St. David’s Day in Wales. As I said before, the exact year is uncertain, but the best guesses are 589 or 601 AD. Rhygyvarch records that his last words were in a sermon at Mynyw:

Lords, brothers and sisters, Be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about. And as for me, I will walk the path that our fathers have trod before us.

There is a tradition that during a battle between the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxons, St. David told the Welsh soldiers to pin a leek on themselves to distinguish them from their enemies. Thus the leek became one of the emblems of Wales, and is still worn on St. David’s Day today in Wales.

David was buried at Mynyw, and his bones kept in a shrine there. During the Reformation the shrine was stripped of jewels and the relics confiscated.

But David’s legacy still lives on, in the churches he founded and the faith he defended. I think he would be happy with that legacy!


*Just a quick reminder: the word “Welsh” is a modern term. But in order to make this less confusing I will continue to refer to this part of Britain as “Wales”, although at the time it was a conglomeration of native British Celtic kingdoms, such as Powys, Gwynedd, and the like.

**Llanilltud Fawr, located on the southern tip of Wales, was the first major Welsh monastery and the first centre of learning in early Britain. It was an important hub of Celtic Christianity, and besides St. David, also educated many famous figures of the early medieval period including St. Patrick, Gildas, and Taliesin, as well as royal princes. At its peak it had around 2000 students.