The Venerable Bede, Part 2

I have written before about Bede, the 7th century Northumbrian monk who wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People. In that work Bede gives us a rare glimpse of the history and times in which he lived.

Bede is sometimes called the Venerable Bede, which is a title given to those a little lower than full Sainthood in the Catholic Church.* His work on the Ecclesiastical History would alone be enough to ensure his fame, but the wonderful thing about Bede is that he is the author of many, many books and letters on a wide-ranging scope of topics, including biblical commentaries, science, mathematics, geography, hymns, poetry, and school textbooks. In fact, when you add up all that he wrote, the total number is over forty.

You may wonder how we know that all the books purported to be by him are, in fact, actually written by him. This is a good question. But in fact we can state exactly what books he wrote with complete accuracy, as at the end of the Ecclesiastical History, he included a list of the other books he had written. For a handful of these we have no extant copies available, unfortunately. There are also a few manuscripts that are attributed to Bede that are not listed in the Ecclesiastical History, because they were written after that work was completed. Some of these are disputed, but others are confirmed as Bede’s work after careful analysis of the works and comparisons to his other writings.

Besides the Ecclesiastical History, the works of Bede that really fascinate me are his scientific treatises, De Natura Rerum (On the Nature of Things) and De Temporum (On Time). “Scientific” is not exactly the right term for these books, as of course “science” as we understand it was not something that Bede would have been familiar with (ie the scientific method comes much later, in the 19th century). But at any rate these works are attempts to understand and explain the natural world and how to calculate and understand the passage of time, and as such, they are extremely valuable windows into the mind of a 8th century Christian monastic scholar.

De Natura

Part of a 10th century copy of De Natura Rerum. Image from British Library Medieval Manuscripts Blog

These books were written in AD 703**, early in Bede’s career as a monk. He would have been around thirty years old, teaching in the monastery of Monkwearmoth-Jarrow, and he had just been ordained as a priest. These books are a distillation of all that he knew about these subjects at the time. In AD 725 he expanded On Time  and wrote another book, named De Temporum Ratione, or On the Reckoning of Time. The best guess is that De Natura Rerum and De Temporum are likely his first literary works.

Bede was not writing about these things in isolation, of course. His books rely heavily on a previous work that was much admired at the time, also called On the Nature of Things, by Isidore of Seville (AD 560-636). He also compiles and draws upon the Classical understandings of these topics from works of Pliny and Augustine, among others.  But there is also original thinking in these books. They are not merely a regurgitation of what had come before.***

The books present a thoroughly Christian view of cosmology, of course. Part of the reason for Isidore’s book was to combat the superstitious practices and beliefs brought about by the solar and lunar eclipses in AD 611 and 612. Isidore, and Bede after him, sought to bring an understanding of the order and rationality of the Creation, and that things such as eclipses or other phenomenon such as volcanoes or earthquakes were part of this natural order, ordained by God, not the works of demons.

The other reason for Bede’s books were to explain how to calculate time, and most importantly, how to calculate the date of  Easter. Easter is a movable date based on the cycles of the moon. It was vitally important in the Christian church to be able to calculate when this most important day would be recognized, and so a complicated method of doing so, named computus, was developed. Bede’s influence, through these books, on the development of these mathematical and scientific calculations cannot be understated.

The first book, On the Nature of Things, includes fifty-one short chapters, starting with the fourfold work of God (Chapter One), the formation of the earth (Chapter Two), what the world is (Chapter Three), and the elements (Chapter Four). He goes on from there to cover a wide range of topics, in which he starts from the heavens and works his way downwards. He has chapters on the stars, the planets, the moon, eclipses, comets, rainbows, lightning,  hail, snow, the sea, the tides, the earth, earthquakes, and many, many more.

I wish I had a copy of these books, but I am forced to rely on a few quotes and snippets here and there that I have found on the web, as well as studying some of the commentaries that explain what is in the books. One of these days I will have to order a translation of my own. But one thing is abundantly clear. The depth of Bede’s intellect and his understanding of the natural world is truly astounding, especially when we consider the times in which he wrote.

I have written before that too often our perception of the so-called “Dark Ages” is skewed. The people then (at least the educated people) understood a lot more than we give them credit for. For example, Chapter 46 of On the Nature of Things is titled, Why the Earth is Like a Globe.” Yup. Even in back-water Northumbria at the beginning of the 8th century, Bede knew the Earth was round. Fascinating, hey? He also discusses the effect of the moon on the tides

I found a quote from Chapter Three, “What the World Is”. Bede states,

The world is the whole of everything, which is constituted by the sky and the land, the four elements in the form of a completely rounded sphere: fire, by which the stars shine; air, which all living things breathe; waters, which surround the land, encircling and penetrating; and the land itself, which is the middle and core of the world, hanging unmoving, with everything turning in equilibrium around it.

Again, note the “rounded sphere”.

On Time/The Reckoning of Time are Bede’s explanation of the calculation of time, and include a fascinating descriptions of the ancient calendars of the Hebrews, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks, and Anglo-Saxons. They also include detailed overviews of the seven days of Creation, lunar cycles, Paschal calendars (Bede explains the different ways to calculate the date of Easter and presents his reasoning for the method he prefers), and the Six Ages of the World (based on Biblical narrative; the First Age being from Adam to Noah, the Second Age from Noah to Abraham, the Third Age from Abraham to David, etc).

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A beautifully illustrated 13th century copy of De Temporum, showing zodiac symbols. In this book Bede goes into detail about how to calculate the course of the sun and moon through the zodiac. Image from Medieval Manuscripts Blog .

When you consider Bede’s historical treatise and all his other works, including these wonderful books on the natural world and time, it’s no wonder that he became one of the Early Medieval period’s most famed and studied scholars. It is precisely because his books were so popular that we have so many of his works available today. Many copies of the books were made and they circulated widely over not only England, but the Continent as well.  Because so many were made, it increased the opportunity for them to survive.

These books point to a truly remarkable and fascinating man. I’m so glad my research on Wilding, my historical fantasy book, brought me to his doorstep, so to speak, and that I can now share him with you!


*Those given the title “venerable” in the Catholic Church are deemed “heroic in virtue”, but in order to be declared “saints”, they must also either be a martyr, or have been proven to have miracles associated with them.

**We know this because at the end of On Time, Bede included a world chronicle from the beginning of time at Creation to his present, where he states “At this time Tiberius is in the fifth year of his rule…” This refers to Tiberius III Apsimar, who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from AD 698-705.

***In fact, Bede is accused of heresy in later years because of some of the content of On the Reckoning of Time. Perhaps the subject of a future blog post…who knows?

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Battles of Anglo-Saxon England: Badon

I thought it might be fun to look at some of the battles of Anglo-Saxon England here on the blog. Seeing as warfare was something that certainly happened on a regular basis throughout the Anglo-Saxon era, it really is something I should talk about here, too.

Generally I focus on the 7th century, as that is the era in which Wilding,  my historical fantasy is set. But to give myself more scope to write about, I thought I would use this sub-series in my blog to look at some of the major battles of the Anglo-Saxon era throughout the time period, from the 5th to the 9th century. So strap on your armor and grab a sword, we’ve got some fighting to do!

I thought I should start with an early battle that occurs a few decades after the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon era, and one that results in a very important victory for the British.

This battle, which likely happened in the late 5th or early 6th century,  featured the Celtic and Romano-Britons fighting against the newcomers from the Continent. Such was the scale of the victory it resulted in a decades long peace between the native British and the Anglo-Saxons. And to a great extent, the victory is laid at the feet of the great hero, Ambrosius Aurelianus, the Romano-British warrior many associate today with King Arthur.

The historical veracity of any of the Arthur tales is difficult to pin down. I’m not even going to try to explain all the various theories of who he was, when he lived, and what exactly he accomplished. There’s a huge rabbit hole on the Internet named “King Arthur”, and if you are interested, I invite you to dive right in!

For the purposes of this blog post, however, I will just say that I agree with those historians who theorize that Ambrosius Aurelianus was a warrior of Roman/British extraction, who made alliances with the native Britons (the Celts) and together with the remaining Roman/British people who lived in Britain after the Roman legions left, managed to create a resistance of sorts against the Germanic tribes that began to flood into Britain after the chaos of Rome’s defeat at the hands of the barbarians.

The involvement of Arthur at this battle is first mentioned in the 9th century Historia Brittonum, an account of the British people by the Welsh monk Nennius. However, there are accounts of the battle that come from much earlier, most notably De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae (On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain), written by St. Gildas in the 6th century.

Gildas, who wrote his account much closer to the time of the battle (in fact he states that the battle happened the year he was born), doesn’t mention Arthur at all, leaving some to assume that the later mention of him in Nennius’ work was an insertion of a legendary figure with no basis in fact. The fact that Gildas was actually alive during Arthur’s supposed lifetime does make it odd that Gildas does not mention him.

However, there are a couple of explanations for this. Firstly, some scholars argue that Arthur’s fame was such that the people of the time who read Gildas’ work would have known that Arthur was there, without the monk having to mention it. No one has to say that George Washington was at Valley Forge, for example, or Napoleon at Waterloo. Gildas’ work was not meant to be a detailed account of the battle, it just summarizes the result; that peace reigned over the land for many decades after.

Secondly, In the 12th century a hagiography of Saint Gildas states that indeed, Gildas had praised Arthur extensively in his account of the battle, but that after Arthur killed Gildas’ brother, Huil Mab Caw, a Pictish warrior and rival of King Arthur, Gildas excised all mention of Arthur from his historical account of Britain

After Gildas’ work, the next mention of the battle comes from the 8th century, from the hand of my favourite historian of the era, the Venerable Bede. Frustratingly, however, Bede only makes small mention of the battle. He states that 44 years after the “invaders” arrive on Britain’s shore (the date of which he gives as between AD 449-456), there was a “siege of Mount Badon, when they made no small slaughter of those invaders”. But then, he airly adds, “But more of this thereafter,” and then never mentions it again. Drat.

So what actually happened? Well, again, the details are murky, most especially the exact date and location of the battle.  There are many places around England that claim to be the spot, but we can’t say exactly which is the historically true one. Gildas puts the battle at the Roman town of Bath, but neither Nennius, Bede nor other early historians mention the location, other than to say it happened at Mount Badon. It seems like Bath could be a plausible location, however. It is in the centre of England, close to the Bristol Channel, which, if controlled by the Saxons, would have basically cut England in two, with the Saxons controlling the South. So this was a strategically important spot.

There was obviously a mountain or hill involved, as the early accounts all speak of “Mount Badon”, and as it happens, there is an ancient hill fort near Bath, on Little Solsbury Hill, over looking Bath. Archeological evidence gives proof that the British occupied that fort in the 5th century. Finally, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle* gives the name of Bath as Badanceaster, or “City of Badan.” All of these clues give scholars some confidence that the battle was in that location. But there are others who would argue!

Here’s a little video of Little Solsbury Hill from the air. It really is more a hill than a mountain, so seeing a still picture isn’t very dramatic.

 

It’s impossible to say what happened during the battle. And perhaps it was more than just a battle, as Bede and Gildas both speak of a “siege”, likely of the hill-fort. Whatever happened, it resulted in a major victory. Bede speaks of the British forces slaughtering “no small number of their foes”.

What we do know from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, is that all mentions of the Saxon kingdom of Sussex, begun in AD 477 by the warrior Ælle, cease after AD 491. It is not mentioned again in the Chronicle until it’s re-founding  over a century later. Archeological finds support the idea that something dramatic happened, as there have been no discoveries of Saxon burials in the area from the late 5th to the late 6th centuries, and there is also a break in the discovery of Saxon ceramics in this area during this time, suggesting they withdrew from the area. We don’t know why, but perhaps the victors were able to broker a truce, claiming that part of England for the British for a few more decades.

So it seems likely that early in the 5th century the Romano-British and Celtic British did engage the invading Saxons in a decisive battle, stopping their advance into England for decades after.

A most important battle, indeed, and one in which the legend of Arthur becomes intertwined. Nennius says Arthur slaughtered 960 men himself that day. Whether Arthur was involved or not, the battle gives us a fascinating glimpse into a time when England’s future hung in the balance.

*Funnily enough, the Chronicle itself does not mention this battle. 


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Iona: Cradle of Celtic Christianity

Hello, dear readers!

It has been quite awhile since I have written any new content for the blog, and I apologize for that. What with one thing and another, including and especially the book launch, I have had little time to devote to my regular posts here.

For new readers, thanks for coming aboard! This is my online home,  a place where I have a chance to share with you my fascination with 7th century England, as well as other topics that might hit my fancy.

I have several series going on here at The Traveller’s Path. I’ve done several posts on various aspects of life in 7th century England, including literature, Anglo-Saxon society, important people, special places, the Celts, and others. One of these days I will group them all under the various topics for easy access on the blog – when I get some time. Heh.

It’s been awhile since I have done a deep dive into one of the important places in 7th century England, so today I will rectify that by doing a deep dive into one of the most important places, that of the island of Iona, and more specifically, the Celtic Christian monastery located there.

Iona is a small island, found in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. This mainly treeless island is about 2 km wide and 6 km long, and is found about 2 km off the coast of Mull, one of the larger islands of the Inner Hebrides. It’s a tiny dot on the map, and it’s hard to imagine how such an inconsequential place could have had the impact on life in the 7th century that it did; an influence that lasts even today.

The reason why this tiny island had such a huge impact is because this is where the great Saint Columba founded his monastery in 563 AD after being exiled from Ireland*. He came there because at the time it was in the Irish Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata, and its king, Conall, was a relative of Columba’s. Columba and his monks immediately set to work building the small wattle and daub buildings typical of the time. Eventually the monastery would include the church, a refectory (kitchen/dining hall), scriptorium (library), monks’ cells/dormatories, and a guesthouse. There is also indications today of what is called Columba’s day room, a small building where Columba, as the abbot, worked and wrote. A small ditch encircled the monastery proper, a physical reminder of the set-apartness of this sacred space from that of the world.

The name of the island at the time was Hii, the Latin form of the original Gaelic name that meant something like “yew-holder” or “yew-place”.  That sentence is deliberately vague, because the truth be told this little island had many names stretching back over a long time, and it’s very difficult for modern historians to determine exactly what the locals called it at any given point in time. After all, the Hebrides have been occupied by people who spoke many different languages, from British Gaelic to Irish Gaelic, Pictish, Latin, and many variations of all of those.

Adoman, Abbot of the abbey from  AD 679-704, wrote the first hagiography of Columba. His attempt at changing the Gaelic name of the island to Latin resulted in the name Ioua, which morphed into Iona in the 13th century due to a transcription mistake, as the “u” and “n” look very similar in the insular uncial writing used by Adoman in the 7th century. Hii comes from Bede’s Latin name for the island in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in AD 731. Hii was the Latin translation of the Gaelic word I (pronounced “ee”)which was one of the names for Iona at the time. Clear as mud, right?

Once Columba and the monks had the buildings they needed for the monastery, they wasted no time on their missionary pursuits. They were incredibly successful in sharing the Gospel with the Picts and the Gaels of Dál Riada, and spreading out from there into the territory of the Picts in northeast England and further south, into the Northumbrian kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira.

St-Martins-Cross-and-Iona-Abbey

St. Martin’s Cross, which is the original cross still standing where it was installed, sometime between AD 750-800. The arms look short as they originally would have had wooden or metal extensions attached on the ends to make them longer. Amazing that this cross survives after all those years! It sits just outside the entrance of today’s Iona Abbey. Image from Seaview Bed & Breakfast

As the monks’ influence grew, and as the distances between Iona and the places where they worked grew ever more distant, the monks started setting up satellite monasteries in the territories where they ministered. Soon there was a growing network of these monasteries scattered all over the north, all looking to Iona as their spiritual “head”. Iona continued to grow in influence and prestige, and by the time the seventh century rolled around, it was an important centre of learning, with a highly esteemed school. The monks at Iona were kept busy in part with copying important manuscripts housed in their scriptorium, which would then be sent out to the satellite monasteries, which over time were found not only in England, but over on the Continent as well, in Gaul.

It is this process of the re-seeding of important works of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers and teachers back into the Continent after the chaos and destruction of the fall of Rome that author Thomas Cahill describes in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization. Far-off Iona was sheltered from the storms of looting and destruction that occurred when the barbarian hordes finally conquered Rome and the Dark Ages descended upon the Continent. Cahill’s premise is that without these Irish monks, who valued learning and knowledge and preserved the ancient wisdom even though it clashed with their faith in some ways, all of that knowledge could easily have been lost. And where would we be today without it?

But the monks on Iona not only copied books such as the Bible, or Homer’s Iliad. They also created some beautiful illustrated manuscripts, the foremost of those being the Book of Kells. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Gospel book, similar to the Lindisfarne Gospels, consisting of the four Gospels in Latin, and accompanied by marvellous illustrations. I am going to do a separate post about this stunning work of art at another time, but suffice it to say, it is one of the treasures of British art.

Of course, the monks at Iona were practitioners of the uniquely Celtic brand of Christianity that developed in Britain after the Roman legions left the island. Once the Roman Christians returned during the mission of Augustine in AD 596, these two “flavours” of Christianity began to clash, and kept an uneasy peace, until the Synod of Whitby in AD 664, when the tide definitely swung in favour of the Roman Christians (also an upcoming post, stay tuned!). Many of the Ionian monasteries accepted the decision of the Synod and began to follow the Roman ways. But a few monasteries held out, including Lindisfarne and the mother house, Iona. In fact Iona continued in the practice of Celtic Christianity until the eighth century, in AD 715, when it finally adopted the Roman practices.

Iona’s influence was further diminished with the arrival of the Vikings. The first attack on Iona happened in AD 795, and many other attacks occurred over the next 30 years, resulting in the death of many monks and the plundering of treasure. Somehow the monks managed to protect both their beautiful Gospel book and important relics, including Columba’s bones, throughout this time, but in AD 878 the remaining monks had had enough, and they left, taking the illuminated Gospels and Columba’s reliquary with them, ending up in Kells Abbey, in Ireland. Which is how the Book of Kells got its name.

Today Iona is home to around 120 people, but it is still a place of pilgrimage for people the world over. The original Early Middle Ages buildings are long gone, but in the 1920s the ruins of the old Benedictine monastery on the island were restored and the buildings are now used by the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community who are, according to their website, “a dispersed Christian ecumenical community working for peace and social justice, rebuilding of community and the renewal of worship.”

I think Columba would be pleased by that, and to know that even today, every year hundreds of pilgrims go to Iona for spiritual retreats, prayer, and worship, and to seek to encounter the living Christ whom Columba followed.


*If you want the whole story behind Columba’s exile, have a look at my previous post linked to above. It’s a fascinating tale.

Featured image from Wikipedia

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Star Wars and 7th Century Monks

If you start a conversation about the Star Wars: The Last Jedi, you are likely going to get some conflicting opinions on whether or not it was a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon. Or maybe you won’t. Does anyone think it was? Heh. I digress.

I will admit that I was less than impressed by the movie. Could they not show some originality in the screenplay? How many times must we see the same battle scenarios over and over again? And don’t get me started on Kylo Ren. Ugh.

But there was one part of the movie that had me absolutely giddy with delight. That was when Rey and Luke are together on the ancient Jedi temple on Ahch-To. We saw a glimpse of this at the end of the previous movie, The Force Awakens, but in The Last Jedi we are treated to more of the scenery and buildings that make up the old temple as Rey tries to convince Luke to join her in the fight against the First Order.

Trust me, it wasn’t because of the plot or acting that made me so happy at this part of the film, although both actors handed their scenes well enough. No, it was the setting that gave me such delight.

That is because this part of the movie was not made up of CGI enhanced buildings or scenery. This was filmed in a real place, the beautiful little island of Skellig Michael situated off the south-west tip of Ireland, and it has a place in the story of seventh century Ireland.

In real life, this wasn’t a temple, but it was a religious site, a monastery built in the Early Medieval period. The little “beehive” building that Luke lives in and the stone steps that Rey climbs are all real features, built by the monks themselves.

Skellig Michael is a small island (54 acres), consisting of two rugged vertical peaks, with a couple of flatter spots in-between peaks where the structures are located. There are three bays on the island where the monks could land, depending on the time of year and the weather, and there are stone stairs leading up to the buildings from each of them. Today only one of them is safe (ish) for use. The island is named after the archangel Michael. The word skellig comes from the Old Irish Gaelic word sceillec which means small or steep area of rock.

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This is a daunting place to live. Howling, near-hurricane force winds are common, and the seas around the island are often rough. Modern visitors are only allowed on this World Heritage Site in the summer. No children are allowed, as the stairs are too steep and dangerous for them. Visits are limited to six hours, and only 180 people are allowed at one time, to protect the structures.

The monastery itself consists of two oratories (places where the monks could pray) a cemetery, crosses, cross-slabs and six domed beehive cells, given that name because of their resemblance to beehives. There is also the remains of a later medieval church.The cells and oratories are all of dry-built construction and the church is of mortared stone. There is also a hermitage on another part of the island, possibly built in the 9th century. This would have been a  place for visitors to stay who might have come there for retreat, or for the abbot or another monk to withdraw even more from the world.

It is thought that there would have been maximum twelve monks and one abbot on the island at one time. The monks would likely have shared their beehive cells. The cells  vary in size, and some may have had an upper loft. It’s hard to know exactly when the first monks came there to establish the monastery, called St. Michael’s. The monastery could have been founded in the 5th century, as I mentioned earlier, but the first historically reliable reference to it comes from the 8th century, in the recording of the death of “Suibhini of Skelig”. I imagine he was likely a monk or an abbot of the monastery.

One wonders how the monks survived in this remote, wild, harsh environment. There is some evidence of gardens on the small areas that allowed for growing. Of course fish, birds, and eggs were plentiful. Making their way up and down those steps would have been a challenge, but it was a journey the monks would have to make any time they went on/off island or down to the spots where they could fish.

The cleverly constructed dry-stone cells are good shelter against the harsh winds and rain, but it must have been a cold, miserable place when the freezing winds howled and the sleety rain lashed against their walls. The monks were made of sterner stuff than I, but this place suited the aesthetic bent of these Celtic Christians very well. It was isolated, harsh, and difficult. A perfect place to stretch one’s dependence on God.

It’s not an easy place to visit, even now, but I sure would like to try. Another place to add to my places of pilgrimage for the next time I get to Great Britain.

I’ll leave you with a bonus clip of Mark Hamill discussing the filming of Star Wars on Skellig Michael.


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Letters from the Dark Ages: Berhtgyth

It’s that time of year when letters and cards might actually arrive in your mailbox. Real letter, hand-written by a friend or loved one who lives far away. Isn’t it wonderful? One of the sad things about this modern age is the pen-and-paper letter has gone the way of the dodo, for the most part.

Of course, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Up until even thirty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon to get a letter from someone far away. And even in Anglo-Saxon England, in the midst of the so-called Dark Ages, there were people who communicated to one another via letters.

This was not an easy task, and, just like today, not exactly a common one. There wasn’t the convenience of a centralized postal system which would handily take care of getting your letter to its destination. You had to find someone who was going to the letter’s intended destination, and then someone at that destination had to get that letter to the recipient.

Couple these difficulties with the fact that most people could not read and write, and you can easily see that for the general population, this means of communication was not possible. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but for most of human history, when people left their homes to go to faraway places (in those days, that could even be relatively close by, to our minds), it was likely that they would never be heard from or seen again by their loved ones.

Having said all that, it’s amazing that some letters from the 7th century survived through the centuries. They are  fascinating, as they give us a first hand view of one person’s life at the time. Since these close and personal glimpses of life in the Early Middle Ages are few and far between, these letters are very instructive to us today.

The one group of people who could easily write and send letters were those in religious life, as they learned to read and write as part of their vocations. And because there were often travellers between the various monasteries, they had a way for letters to be carried back and forth. So, it’s not surprising that the letters we have are mainly from Church men and women.

And seeing as the Church was engaging in missionary work at this time, establishing monasteries on the Continent, there were even opportunities to send letters back and forth across the ocean.

Today I want to introduce you to Berhtgyth, a Anglo-Saxon nun who grew up in Wessex. She eventually went overseas to Germany as part of a mission to that country, likely with her mother, Cynehild, and taught in the region of Thuringia, Germany. She likely worked under the leadership of the Abbess Leoba. At the end of the 8th century* she  wrote some letters to her brother, a monk named Balthard, who at the time of receiving the letters could have been Abbot of the monastery at Bad Hersfeld, in central Germany. The letters themselves aren’t clear exactly where Balthard was, but it is evident he was some distance away, either in Germany, or perhaps even back in England.

We don’t have Balthard’s side of the correspondence; just three letters that Berhtgyth wrote to him have survived. You might wonder why. Although it seems she was a learned woman and accomplished teacher, Berhtgyth was, by all accounts, an ordinary nun, doing the work set out for her as part of an English missionary circle which included the much more famous Boniface, the celebrated English missionary to Germany.

According to a later, 11th century Life of St. Boniface, Berhtgyth’s mother Cynehild was a maternal aunt of Lull. Lull (or Lullus) was the eventual successor of Boniface as Archbishop of Mainz. Because Boniface and Lull were both important figures, the correspondence between the two of them, as well as letters to and about Boniface, were saved for posterity. In the midst of that bundle of letters that have been saved (probably compiled by Lull), you will find these three letters from Berhtgyth to her brother Balthard. I will touch on why this might be so later.

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Statue of St. Lullus, in Bad Hersfeld. Image from Wikipedia

The letters are short, but remarkable. To give you a taste, here is the opening of the second letter:

Most beloved brother in God and dearest in the flesh, Berhtgyth salutes Balthard in the name of Christ. 

My soul is weary of my life because of our fraternal love, for I am alone, left behind and without help of kin. For my father and my mother abandoned me, but the Lord has taken me up. Many are the congregations of water between me and you, yet let us be joined in love because true love is never divided by the borders between places. But still I say that sadness never recedes from my soul, nor can I rest my mind in sleep, because love is as strong as death. I therefore ask you now, most beloved brothers to come to me or have me come to you, so that I might see you before I die, because your love never leaves my soul. Brother, your only sister salutes you in Christ. 

All three letters follow this theme. In them, Berhtgyth begs her brother to come and visit her, and expresses her loneliness and sadness at being abandoned by her parents (by their death). In fact, as you can tell from this excerpt, she does lay it on rather thick. However, we have to keep in mind that this type of overblown rhetoric only seems that way to our  modern eyes. In some of the other literature we have looked at, such as The Wife’s Lament, you can see hints of this same style, so it’s not like this was unusual for the times.

In the third letter, we get a glimpse of some of the ways letters travelled from one person to another, as we see that Balthard has obviously replied to Berhtgyth’s letter.

It may be known to you that your missionary words came to me through a faithful messenger named Aldraed,  together with gifts that are embraced with intimate love. And now I confess to you that with the help of God I long to fulfill all that you instructed me, if your will might deem it worthy to come to me, because I cannot in any other way suppress my fountain of tears.

Aldread has brought a letter back to her from Balthard, along with some gifts. It almost seems like the package of a letter and the gift maybe passed through more than one hand, finally getting to Aldread and thus to Berhtgyth. And at the end of the letter, she reciprocates:

A little present, although small, still loaded with great love, which we send to you by the faithful messenger named Alfred; that is a ribbon.

Try to look past the “fountain of tears” to see the woman who wrote the words, who has given up husband and family to serve Christ as a nun, and who is missing her only kin, her brother, longing for a glimpse of home in a foreign land. They write back and forth, sending gifts via a messenger or messengers they can only hope and pray will reach their destination. It’s really rather touching, don’t you think?

There is some speculation that these letters were included with the bundle of Boniface correspondence as a type of “form letter” that others could use in their own correspondences to use in similar circumstances. If you were missing your brother/sister/aunt/uncle/mother/father, etc, you could pull out these letters, personalize it with the appropriate names, and you would have a letter already done for you. Keep in mind that letter writing was an important skill that was taught in Classical times, and although we don’t know for sure, there are hints that it could have been taught throughout the Early Medieval period in England as well at the monastery schools. It was expected that letters would follow certain forms and include specific parts. It would have been handy to have examples of a “good” letter to work from for busy church men and women.

At any rate, no matter why there are there, I’m really glad these letters still survive. We get a small glimpse of an ordinary person of the times, in her own words. That it is a woman’s voice we are hearing is even more remarkable. These letters are a small window into this long-ago time, one far removed from the battles, warriors, and saints we usually see.

But I wish we knew whether Balthard finally visited Berhtgyth or not, don’t you? I really hope so!


Featured image from medievalists.net

If you want more in-depth info on Berhtgyth’s letters, have a look at Berhtgyth’s Letters to Balthard, a scholarly paper from the University of Iowa by Kathryn Maude.

 

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.

Godric-Finchale

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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