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.

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