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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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

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.

Society News: The Kings (and Queens).

Today’s post is part of a new series up here on the blog, in which I examine the societal structure of 7th century Anglo-Saxon Britain. Last week I introduced the series, and this week I present Part 2, in which we will look at the top of the heap, the kings (and queens). Subsequent posts will follow in the New Year, but not one after the other. So keep your eyes open!


 

In the seventh century, Britain was very much an agricultural society. People lived in “holdings” – a plot of land in which they farmed and raised livestock. Everyone was engaged in this activity, from kings on down to the commoners. Of course, the further “up the ladder” you were in social standing,  the more land you would own and the more you would be able to fob off all the hard work to others.

Naturally, the kings were at the top of the social structure. How they got there, however, may not be as cut and dry as you might think. One fascinating fact about kingship at this time is that succession to the kingship of the various kingdoms did not necessarily depend upon familial ties. In other words, if you were the oldest son of a king, that didn’t  necessarily mean that you would take over as king when your father died.

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Beautiful icon of Oswald, King of Northumbria, available at ByzantineArt

This is because the Anglo-Saxons were warrior kings. A king had to prove himself a worthy warrior to become a king.* When one king was killed in battle (which was the usual and preferred way for a king to die) the king’s closest advisors, consisting of the highest ranked of the nobility and clerical class, would elect a new king. This group of advisors was called the Witan, although there is some dispute about that term today. But for the sake of ease, I will use that term.

Generally, of course, the Witan would choose the new king from the surviving family members of the old king. But the new regent had to be wary, for the Witan could also dispose of a king they felt was unworthy to rule. This happened only rarely, but it did happen nonetheless, and the new king had to keep this in the back of his mind. He had to win the favour of the Witan in order to keep his throne, and he would do that by showing his prowess in battle and showering his warriors with land, battle booty, and other honours.

The Witan would meet at least once a year, and always at the pleasure of the king. It did not have a fixed place to meet, but would happen wherever the king happened to be. At this meeting, called a witenagemot,  laws would be discussed, complaints could be heard, the king would endow people with land or titles, etc.

While not at battle, the king would spend much time travelling his kingdom and accepting foodrent, or feorm, from his subjects. The king had various royal vills, places he would go to during his tours of the kingdom, and it was there that the peasants would bring their feorm to the king. The amounts were based on how much land the peasant farmed, the basic unit being one hide, which was the amount of land needed to support one family. It would include things like honey, loaves of bread, ale, livestock, butter, cheese, and even eels (which seem to be a staple in the Anglo-Saxon diet. Eeww.). In return, the king was expected to keep good order in the kingdom, and deal with the mundane business of keeping roads and bridges in order. The king would have underlings who would do this work for him, of course. He would also take part in judging of legal cases, and also craft new laws of his own, all with the aim of keeping the kingdom working smoothly.

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Yeavering Bell, Northumberland. Located at the northern edge of the Cheviots, near the border of today’s Scotland, this was the site of one of the royal vills of the Bernician kings. At that time it was called Ad Gerfin (“hill of the goats”, for the wild goats that still populate the area). The faint line at the top of the hill marks the site of an Iron Age hilltop fort, the Anglo-Saxon settlement was on the other side of the hill, on a flattened area.  This was an important residence for the Bernician kings, a centre of power in the northern edge of their kingdom. A Roman style auditorium is part of the complex, and you can just imagine Oswald or Oswy holding court, surrounded by his loyal subjects. Image from Wikicommons.

Because his standing as a king depended on how generous he was with his loyal retainers, kings at this time spent a lot of time fighting, as this was the way they expanded their territories and gained treasure. The battles could be small ones; border skirmishes or minor raids into another’s territory. Or, they could be major battles, in which they deposed another king and expanded their own territory even further. It is because of this that most of the kings of this time died in battle, rather than of old age or infirmity. In Anglo-Saxon culture, dying in battle was the ultimate way to die for a warrior. Honour and loyalty to your lord was paramount, even to the extent that if your king died in battle, it was seen as cowardice if you did not die in battle beside him.

At the beginning of the seventh century there were twelve kingdoms, and by the ninth there were only four. This is due to the various kings conquering one another and amalgamating territory into bigger and bigger areas. Of course, although highly important, warfare was not the only way in which kings gained territory and expanded their kingdoms. There was also the tried and true method of treaties and marriage negotiations, whereby a king might marry the daughter or sister or other female relative of a neighbouring king, and/or negotiate treaties with them instead of going to war. War was expensive, and when it involved large numbers of men, it involved a lot of disruption for the ordinary people who would be called up to fight for the king. This would usually be in the summer, when they would rather be making sure they had enough food to eat for the winter.

The Anglo-Saxons had a patriarchal society, so, although women did have freedoms and power that we might find surprising in comparison with women in the later medieval period, the Anglo-Saxon queens were generally not rulers in their own right, nor were they regents on behalf of a under-age son. If a king was killed in battle, the surviving wife and children would often have to flee and seek shelter elsewhere, so that they would not be killed by the new king who would not want them around as usurpers. This is why Oswald and Oswy and their brothers were sent to exile among the Scots (Irish) of Dal Riata after their father Aethelfrith was killed in battle and Edwin took over the Bernician throne.

But the Queens were no milquetoasts, either. Generally they were daughters of kings and held influence and power of their own. And they were definitely not above getting involved in the politics of the day in order to further their husband’s or son’s or father’s ambitions, even, in some cases, going to the extreme. Penda of Mercia’s son, Peada, ruler of Middle Anglia, was said in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to have been murdered through the treachery of his Northumbrian wife (King Oswy’s daughter, Alhflaed. Perhaps at the instigation of her father? Who knows, but it’s interesting to speculate!).

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Cynethryth was the wife of Offa of Mercia (757-796 AD). She seemed to have a considerable amount of influence, and her husband even had coins struck in her name, one of the very few medieval women to have this honour. Image from Medieval Girl

All in all, a king had a better standard of living than the common people, but his life was often cut short by war. A bit of a trade-off, I suppose. But one that most commoners would be willing to make, if given the chance!


*Another important qualification for kingship at this time was that the potential king’s  family lineage could be traced back to the god, Woden. Interestingly, this was important for pagan and Christian kings alike.

Feature image is an artist’s reconstruction of Tintagel, off the coast of Cornwall, in 600 AD, from English Heritage

 

Posts in this series: 

Society News: Introduction 

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, PT. II

Two weeks ago we left off with Cuthbert, prior of Lindisfarne, taking a break from his rigorous duties and retiring from the world to live the life of a hermit on the Inner Farne Island, a few miles east of Lindisfarne. We’ll pick up the story from there….


The island of Inner Farne was deserted….or was it? Bede tells us that the first thing Cuthbert does is to banish some devils from the island who presumably had moved in once Aidan left, as the first Bishop of Lindisfarne had once used the Inner Farne as a place of retreat as well.  Once the island is cleansed from evil spiritual influences, Cuthbert is now free to build his hermitage.

The Inner Farne is one of a group of wild, windswept islands. Certainly Cuthbert got his wish to be free of human company, but even today the wildlife there is quite extensive, including over 100 species of seabirds (the Cuddy Duck among them) and myriads of seals. I imagine Cuthbert strode into this wild and rugged environment with a smile on his face, eager to begin his life of prayer and contemplation.

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The south end of Inner Farne. Cuthbert’s hermitage was on the north end. The white on the cliffs is from bird droppings! Today, many go to the Farne Islands for bird watching as it is one of the most famous sea bird sanctuaries in Britain, home to over 22 species of seabirds, including Cuthbert’s favourite Eider Duck and over 70,000 puffins!

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This map, from farne-islands.com, gives you a good view of the Farne Islands, and where they lie in comparison to Lindisfarne. The Inner Farne is the island on the very bottom, closest to the main land. You can also see that some of the islands join to make larger ones at low tide.

For Cuthbert and the monks, the spiritual disciplines of prayers, fasting and communion with God were not to be taken lightly. They considered them labour, spiritual labour, whereby they were praying not only for themselves but for any and all concerns. Just as Cuthbert had fought against the Mercians as a soldier, he now took all the spiritual discipline he had learned as a monk and used it as spiritual warfare, conquering the devil’s temptations and standing against the work of the devil in the world through prayer, always seeking to draw closer and closer to Christ.

But he couldn’t just sit out in the open in the gusting wind and rain. His second order of business, after the clearing the place of devils, was to build himself a cell for shelter and prayer. Practically speaking, this would not be easy. After all, he is alone. Bede’s description of Cuthbert from when he first becomes a monk at Melrose gives you a hint that he is capable of the task:

Like the mighty Samson of old, he carefully abstained from every drink which could intoxicate; but was not able to abstain equally from food, lest his body might be thereby rendered less able to work: for he was of a robust frame and of  unimpaired strength, and fit for any labour which he might be disposed to take in hand.

So, he was up to the challenge, and he sets himself to work. It is possible that some of the brethren may have helped Cuthbert. Bede doesn’t say. But he does describe the result:

The building is almost of a round form, from wall to wall about four or five poles in extent: the wall on the outside is higher than a man, but within, by excavating the rock, he made it much deeper, to prevent the eyes and the thoughts from wandering, that the mind might be wholly bent on heavenly things, and the pious inhabitant might behold nothing from his residence but the heavens above him. The wall was constructed, not of hewn stones or of brick and mortar, but of rough stones and turf, which had been taken out from the ground within. Some of them were so large that four men could hardly have lifted them, but Cuthbert himself, with angels helping him, had raised them up and placed them on the wall. There were two chambers in the house, one an oratory [a place for prayer], the other for domestic purposes. He finished the walls of them by digging round and cutting away the natural soil within and without, and formed the roof out of rough poles and straw. Moreover, at the landing-place of the island he built a large house, in which the brethren who visited him might be received and rest themselves, and not far from it there was a fountain of water or their use.

Pretty impressive, huh? I find these details fascinating, especially considering Bede almost certainly visited this hermitage after Cuthbert’s death. Unfortunately nothing remains today of Cuthbert’s buildings.

Although Cuthbert is alone on his island, he is not completely cut off from the world. The mention of the guest-house above gives you a clue. Cuthbert was visited regularly, firstly by the monks who would also bring him food and water. He would minister to them as well, in prayers and spiritual advice. There is a lovely mention in Bede’s account of how he would wash the monks’ feet, and they his, showing  their mutual submission to one another, and to God.

But Cuthbert’s fame as a holy man was spreading, and he began to get others coming to him for advice or blessings as well, including Elfleada, the daughter of King Oswald of Northumbria, who had taken over as Abbess of Whitby Abbey after Hild‘s death. He could not refuse this royal personage and met her on another island, further south from Inner Farne.

As time went on Cuthbert decided he should grow his own food and not be dependant on the Lindisfarne brethren, so he plants some barley, reprimanding a flock of birds who come to eat it, who promptly depart, never to return.

Cuthbert seems very content on his island, and withdraws even further from society, only interacting with people through a window he cuts in the wall of his hermitage. But in 684 AD his idyll comes to an end. He is elected in abstentia as Bishop of Hexham abbey at a synod, which comes as a great surprise to him and he refuses, even disregarding the tears and pleas of his fellow monks. It takes King Ecgfrith coming to his island to persuade him for him to finally relent, but only if he can swap with Eata and become Bishop of Lindisfarne instead, which they agree to.

But his time as Bishop would be short. In 686 AD he returns to his island home, having been told by God that his time is near, and after two months becomes afflicted with some sort of sickness, possibly tuberculosis. On March 20, 687 he dies there, while at prayer in the oratory. He is  accompanied by Herefrid, the abbot of Lindisfarne, who then tells the rest of the gathered monks outside who had been spending the night in prayer and watchfulness alongside their beloved Bishop. Immediately one of the monks ascended a hill with two lit candles, as they had agreed upon this signal as a means of telling the brethren at Lindisfarne the news, and the watching monk at the monastery hurried to tell the others.

Cuthbert had previously agreed that he would be buried at Lindisfarne, and so the brethren bring his body back and inter him near the altar there. But his death was not the end of Cuthbert’s remarkable story.

Many miracles continued to be reported by people who visited the monastery and his fame continued to grow. The first Anonymous Life of Cuthbert was written in the early 720s, and it is around this time that Bede wrote his poem about Cuthbert.

As Cuthbert’s fame grows, the monks at Lindisfarne decide that it would be a good idea to dig up his bones and put them in a small box as objects of veneration. So, eleven years after his death they dug up the coffin and opened it, and to their shock and amazement they discover that his body is perfectly preserved. As Bede recounts,

…opening the tomb, found his body entire, as if he were still alive, and his joints were still flexible, as if he were not dead, but sleeping. His clothes, also, were still undecayed, and seemed to retain their original freshness and colour. When the brethren saw this, they were so astonished, that they could scarcely speak, or look on the miracle which lay before them, and they hardly knew what they were doing.

This amazing occurrence sends the Cuthbert-cult into high drive, and it is this event that prompts the Lindisfarne community to commission Bede to write a new account of Cuthbert’s life and spread the news of this miracle. The monks hastily make a new, oak coffin to house the saint. This coffin, built in 698 AD, still can be seen today, and is one of England’s most important wooden objects from before the Norman conquest.*

In homage to Cuthbert, and to God, Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, creates the Lindisfarne Gospels, one the greatest treasures of the Early Middle Ages (arguably one the greatest works of art ever produced).  Cuthbert (now reburied in his new coffin) becomes a huge draw to pilgrims.

Disaster strikes in 793 AD with the first Viking attack on a Christian church in England. The Vikings had first appeared in 789 AD, off the coast of Wessex, killing a king’s reeve. But the attack on Lindisfarne was different, as it struck at arguably one of the holiest places in Britain, desecrating the church with the blood of the monks, the church itself partially burnt down, the precious objects ransacked and taken away as treasure. Some of the monks were carted away as slaves.

However, somehow the Gospels survived.* In the chaos of that day (and many more, for the church was attacked many times after that), the monks preserved this precious book, for which we owe them our eternal gratitude.

But by 875 AD the monks had had enough. They fled Lindisfarne, taking with them what ever precious items they had, chief among them the Lindisfarne Gospels and the body of Cuthbert. They also had with them some of the bones of Aidan (the rest buried at Lindisfarne), and the head of Oswald, the great king (and saint in his own right by this point). They wandered about Northumbria, settling here and there and getting driven out again and again by the maurading Danes, but always taking their relics and the marvellous book with them.  The monks were no milquetoasts, though. At the prompting in a vision from Cuthbert himself, they were involved in a bloodless coup by saving the young Dane Guthred from slavery who ended up deposing the current Viking leader of  Crayke, near York.

Finally after seven years of wandering they settled at the old Roman town of Chester-le-Street, and built a monastery, staying there for a hundred years. But in 995 AD the Danes were threatening again so off they went, carting their book, the relics, and Cuthbert, and went to Ripon. When things settled down they started back, but on the way the wagon carrying the heavy coffin became stuck on the road, and the monks took this as a sign that this was where the saint wanted to be laid to rest (maybe the poor monks were exhausted, too.).

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I love this sculpture, located in Durham, which commemorates the journeys of the Lindisfarne monks as they travelled across Northumbria.

The site was Durham, and here they built a church and monastery, replaced by a cathedral after the Norman invasion. Cuthbert’s fame was at its peak at this point, and they wanted a church worthy of the great saint. However, people were skeptical of the story of the incorrupt body and so, before he was interred by the altar, the monks opened the coffin again and found the body still preserved inside. The coffin was placed in a beautiful shrine and visited by a great many pilgrims.

Alas, during the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry the VIII , the shrine was dismantled and the coffin reburied (not after opening it and once again finding the body complete!).

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This beautiful pectoral cross was found in the folds of Cuthbert’s vestments when his coffin was opened in 1827. It almost certainly belonged to Cuthbert himself, and he would have worn it around his neck. When Henry VIII’s reformers plundered the monasteries and opened Cuthbert’s coffin, looking for treasure, they missed this little cross, because it was hidden. Thankfully!

In 1827 the coffin was opened one last time, and a skeleton was found (darn). A post-mortem was done and the doctor said the bones were consistent with everything they knew about Cuthbert. He was laid to rest the final time in Durham Cathedral, where you can still visit his tomb today.

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The final resting place of Cuthbert is in Durham Cathedral, interred under the marble slab bearing his name. Behind the tomb is damaged statue of Cuthbert (ironically without at head), holding Oswald’s head, an object of veneration in its own right and which made the long journey with Cuthbert along with some of Aidan’s bones. Durham is a definite must-see for my next trip to Britain. Bede is also buried there, in a separate tomb!

….Or can you? There is a legend that before Henry’s agents could come and destroy the church and presumably Cuthbert’s coffin, the monks opened the coffin and replaced Cuthbert’s body with that of a recently deceased brother monk. They spirited Cuthbert’s body away and buried it in a secret location in the grounds of Crayke Abbey. The location was only known to twelve monks, revealed to another only when one of the twelve dies.

So ended the life and travels of Cuthbert. It is said that with all the travelling he did as a monk and the journeys he took after death with his fellow monks, that he was one of the most well-travelled people of Britain at the time. There is some dispute about the exact route, but after they left Lindisfarne the monks travelled between five hundred and a thousand miles before settling in Durham!

Cuthbert had a remarkable life, and a remarkable death. No wonder he is still celebrated today!

 


* Click here to read a fascinating article about a new display in Durham Cathedral of that coffin and some of the objects found in it.

**It weighs close to eighteen pounds, and due to its size, would have probably taken two people to carry.

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Pt. 1

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