Year of Reading Buechner: Godric

Godric is the second of Frederick Buechner’s books that take place in early medieval England. I reviewed Brendan: A Novel, here on the blog a couple months ago. This month, I turned with great eagerness to Godric.

Godric was published in 1981, so it came before Brendan, which was published in 1987. Probably if I was clever I should have read them in order of publication, but ho hum, oh well.

Godric was published to great acclaim. Edmund Fuller of The Wall Street Journal said in his review, “With a poet’s sensibly and a high reverent fancy, Frederick Buechner paints a memorable portrait.” Similar praise came from The New York Times Book Review, The Atlantic, and Publisher’s Weekly. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

All this to say that this is a remarkable novel, and again, Buechner succeeds in bringing this all-to-human saint to life, warts and all.

I didn’t realize until 3/4 of the way through this book that this story, like Brendan’s, was based on the life of a real person, St. Godric of Finchale (1065 – 1170AD). Godric was a popular medieval saint, but he was never formally canonized.

His official hagiography (life of a saint) was written during his lifetime by Reginald of Durham, a monk who knew Godric, and who apparently had Godric bless his manuscript before Godric died. There are apparently other hagiographies of Godric as well, but Reginald’s is the most important.

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St. Godric of Finchale, from the Cotton Faustina B manuscript, in the British Library. Image from Wikicommons

The bare bones of Godric’s story is that he was born to poor parents, and became a pedlar, merchant, and finally a sailor, plying his trade to places both near and far. It is possible he owned the ship that ferried the crusader king Baldwin I of Jerusalem to Jaffa in 1102 AD to prepare for a siege against Jerusalem.

During his years at sea, he apparently went to Farne Island, where he had a spiritual encounter with Cuthbert, the beloved Bishop of Lindisfarne, who was long dead by this point. This encounter changed Godric. He dedicated himself to Christ and devoted the rest of his life to Him.

Eventually Godric ended up at Finchale, which is around four miles from the monastery at Durham, where Cuthbert was buried. He lived there for around 50-60 years as an extremely ascetic hermit and died as a very old man.

Godric’s story is a fascinating one. That Reginald actually knew the saint makes his hagiography even more interesting, I think. But even so, it is a “official” account of his life, with hardly a wrinkle showing.

Buechner’s account has no such restraints. There are plenty of wrinkles in this tale. Buechner’s Godric is irrascable, selfish, bitter, and guilt-ridden, and he spends much of the book pining for the love of his life, who happens to be his sister.

I’m glad that I have read a couple of Buechner’s other biographical works – The Son of Laughter (the story of the biblical patriarch Jacob), and Brendan. Both of those books I enjoyed, but they gave me some familiarity of Buechner’s penchance for presenting “holy” figures as all-too-human, no halo attached.

As always, the writing in this book is strong. Buechner gives us lyrical and thoughtful prose, filled with sentences that make you stop and ponder. For example, when he takes his mother to Rome to pray for his father’s soul, they look out over the ruined Coliseum and weep.

Why did we weep? I asked myself. We wept for all that grandeur gone. We wept for martyrs cruelly slain. We wept for Christ, who suffered death upon a tree and suffers still to see our suffering. But more than anything, I think, we wept for us, and so it ever is with tears. Whatever be their outward cause, within the chancel of the heart it’s we ourselves for whom they finally fall. 

The book is full of passages like this. It’s a book that wrestles with faith, doubt and devotion, and what those things meant to Godric in his time and place, and gives you pause to ponder what they mean to you in yours. It’s a portrait of a sinful man who seeks absolution and mercy, and who tries in his humanness to overcome his flaws.

It’s a book that requires more than one reading, I think. I will admit that I did not love it upon first reading, but as I flip back over the pages and see all the places that I underlined and marked, I feel a greater appreciation for it. It’s a book that, like Godric himself, I suspect, you have to sit with awhile to really get to know and appreciate.

There’s a reason why this book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. This honest look at one person’s spiritual journey refuses to rest on pat answers or platitudes, yet it remains reverent all the same. In the book Buechner gives Godric more than one encounter with Cuthbert, and as well with a mysterious figure named Gillian, an angel-type being that encourages him even before he meets Cuthbert to embrace Christ. And despite his flaws, and turnings away, Godric’s life is a trajectory towards Christ all the same.

Godric’s story is not told in chronological order. It starts with Godric as an old man, looking back on his life, telling the story to Reginald, and this older Godric’s story is interspersed with the tale of his life as a child and going forward. I think this makes for a richer book, as we get Godric’s interpretation of his life’s choices and reflections on them as the book moves along, which makes the story deeper.

I can’t quite decide whether I found this book depressing or hopeful. It’s a bit more gloomy than the other two biographies, to be sure, and because of that I found it more difficult going. But it’s not all shadows. The light peeks in here and there, sometimes more strongly than others. Godric’s final words in the book, just before he dies, are, All’s lost. All’s found. Farewell. That pretty well sums up  the tension in the book between despair and hope.

At one point Godric remarks, How seemly is a life when told to children thus, with all the grief and ugliness snipped out. I suppose it’s how monk Reginald will tell of mine. 

This book contains all the grief and ugliness, to be sure. But because of that, the light that shines is all the brighter.

It’s a complex book. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But it’s a marvellous portrait of one man’s life, in all it’s glory and shame, and the telling of it asks questions of us. And in the end, that’s the kind of book that means the most.


Other posts in the Year of Reading Buechner series:

2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

Year of Reading Buechner: Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation


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Book review: The Private Lives of the Saints, by Dr. Janina Ramirez

The subtitle of this book, Power, Passion and Politics in Anglo-Saxon England, is a clue to why I was attracted to it. There is not a lot of books on Anglo-Saxons out there, and even fewer on the saints of the period. I was very glad to see that someone had tackled this subject!

Dr. Ramirez is an Oxford lecturer, BBC broadcaster, researcher, and author. Her aim in this book is to widen the stories of the Anglo-Saxon saints to encompass the times in which they lived, and to show how their influence in that tumultuous time gives us clues about the culture and society of the Anglo-Saxons themselves. The book was published in 2015 by WH Allen.

Needless to say, this is a subject near and dear to my heart, so it was with great eagerness that I opened the book. I was a little afraid that Dr. Ramirez would start from the seemingly more and more popular societal view that the Christians were the source of all that is wrong in our world (ok, maybe an exaggeration but you know what i mean, don’t you?), but thankfully I did not see that bias in this book. I found it to be a fair, balanced, and ultimately fascinating view of these real people who lived so very long ago.

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I will admit to knowing nothing about Dr. Ramirez before reading this book, but I was delighted to find she is has many BBC TV specials to her name (including one on The Treasures of the Anglo Saxons) , as well as print publications both academic and mainstream. She has her PhD thesis, The Symbolic Life of Birds in Anglo-Saxon England available at her website. Cool! Plus, she does many lectures and hosts a podcast, Art Detective. Phew! Busy lady! Image from her Facebook page. 

The book begins with a short but succinct description of Anglo-Saxon England. as well as an important explanation of the word, “saint”.  Too often we take our modern definition of “saint” – an extra-holy person officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church – to frame our understanding of these early saints. However, in the Anglo-Saxon period, a person was declared a saint by the common consensus of the people, which meant that pretty much anyone with influence and high status could earn this title. And even some without those qualifiers.

The lines between secular and sacred, the worldly and the otherworldly, are incredibly hard to define in the early medieval period. A king could be a saint, and a bishop could rule like a king. The idea that someone could be declared a saint simply due to popularity is something that is hard to grasp from our twenty-first century perspective. 

Ramirez gives us a good example from modern times to help us understand how this worked. Princess Diana was a royal figure, who lived in the public eye, and who was known for her good deeds and kindness. Her death sparked worldwide mourning on an heretofore unseen scale. In Anglo-Saxon England, Diana would likely have beeen heralded as a saint (with the caveat that of course, a saint in the early medieval period would also have the added mantle of Christian piety attached). But her example gives us an understanding of the mixture of public status, power, and virtuous living that seized the imaginations of the Anglo-Saxons and prompted them to confer the title of “saint” on various people in their society.

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Princess Di, a modern-day saint? Image by John McIntyre on Flickr

The book looks at the important Anglo-Saxon saints in chronological order, starting with Alban, Britain’s first Christian martyr in the 3rd or 4th century,  and ending with Alfred the Great (died 899 AD). Along the way she covers many of the saints that I have discussed on the blog, such as Brigid, Patrick, Columba, Cuthbert, Hilda, and Bede; plus a few others that I haven’t got to  yet: Alban, Gregory, Wilfrid, and Alfred.

In each chapter Dr. Ramirez gives us a thorough understanding of the times in which the person lived, and attempts to go beyond the official hagiographic account of the saint to explore what this person was really like, as well as their impact on their society. Along the way we learn fascinating details about the Anglo-Saxons and the incredible diversity of people, religion and culture that made up the mix of life at that time.

Dr. Ramirez gives us a really good principle to follow when studying the past, and it’s one that resonated with me. It is exactly this principle that has made it easier for me, as a novelist, to tackle the sometimes daunting task of bringing an era that is so far removed from our own to life:

…it is a central premise when studying the past to remember that humanity never changes beyond recognition, and regardless of the seeming differences between people past and present, basic human interests remain largely the same. 

It is this connection to the humanity of these sometime plastic and daunting figures that makes The Private Lives of the Saints so interesting.

I was happy to see that my own ramblings on these subjects on the blog lined up fairly well with what Dr. Ramirez presents in her book. As I have said before, I am very much an amateur on these subjects – I’m a novelist, not an academic historian – but I have done careful research on the times and people of the Early Medieval period in order to present that era as accurately as I can in my novel.

Dr. Ramirez does take a different view of Brigid than I did, which is fair. She come down on the side of the theory that Brigid was not a real person, but her cult grew out of a Christianizing of the goddess Brigantia. I won’t quibble with her. I think there are compelling cases to be made for either view. And I would certainly not recommend you skip that chapter if you disagree with her on that, because if you did you would miss one of the highlights of the book for me. The chapter on Brigid contains a wonderful explanation of the history of monasticism and how the Celts looked to the early Desert Fathers for inspiration as they established their monasteries in extreme, harsh locations. This chapter is well-worth reading, even if you might not agree with her ultimate conclusion about Brigid.

I also loved that Ramirez included a couple of favourites of mine who are not officially names “saints” but whose influence cannot be denied, that being the Venerable Bede and Alfred the Great (I haven’t done a post on him yet, but I definitely will!).  They were highly important figures not only in their day but also in our own. We owe a lot to them both, and in this book you will find out why.

I highly recommend The Private Lives of the Saints. I learned a lot, but never get bogged down in dry history. Dr. Ramirez has brought these people and the era in which they lived into bright relief. I really appreciate her careful and thorough scholarship throughout, as well as her knack of making it all so very interesting.

I give this one 5 stars. Perfect for lovers of history, especially of the Anglo-Saxon era, but really for anyone who wants to understand more about these fascinating people who have shaped the world we live in today.


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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!

 

 

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.

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