Cynewulf the Poet

There are only a few Old English poets known by name, and Cynewulf (pronounced “kin-eh-wolf”) is one of them. We can definitively ascribe four poems to him, which may not seem like a lot, but these four poems together comprise several thousand lines of poetry. There are a couple more which are possibly his, including The Dream of The Rood, which I blogged about here.

It is difficult to determine exactly when Cynewulf lived. His poems appear in two of the manuscripts that survive from the Early Medieval period, the Exeter and Vercelli books, both of which are a collection of poems and other works.  These date to the second half of the tenth century, so we know he lived before then. Dates as early as the 8th century and as late as the 9th are given as to when he actually lived and wrote his poems, with perhaps more credence being given to the 9th century dates, for reasons I don’t have space to catalogue here.

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Lindisfarne Island, Northumbria. Home of Cynewulf? We just don’t know for certain…. CC image courtesy of David Newman on Flickr

Little is known about the poet himself, but he does leave a few clues behind. First of all, linguistic evidence in his poems tells us they are written in the Anglian dialect of the Anglo-Saxon language (our Old English), as opposed to the Saxon dialect. Therefore scholars believe that he lived in Northumbria, and possibly Mericia,. The Saxon dialect was more prominent in Wessex and Kent.

Secondly, he was a learned man, as we see a high level of sophistication in his poetry. As the poems are religious in nature, he was likely a monk or priest. That he came from the Church is also surmised by the fact that his poems referenced other Latin works, and only the people in holy orders knew Latin.

Scholars disagree as to who, exactly, Cynewulf was. His name is of Anglo-Saxon origin, so he was likely not a Celt. There was a Bishop of Lindisfarne named Cynewulf, who died around 780 A.D., who is named as a likely candidate. Others postulate he could be a priest of that name who lived in Dunwich in the 800s, or even Cenwulf, the Abbot of Petersborough, who died in 1006 AD. But this is all speculation, based upon these figures having the same name and living Northumbria or Mercia, so we can’t say for certain.

From the autobiographical epilogues in the poems, we know that at one point in his life he enjoyed the favour of princes and the gifts of kings. He could have been a thegn or a high-ranking scopScholars also presume he was a warrior at some point, and as well that he knew much about sea travel, based on the content of his poems. Other than these tantalizing tidbits, we do not know anything about the poet himself.

 

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The Old English and modern English translation from the beginning of Christ II. Image from Mere Inkling

You might wonder how we know that four poems in particular, namely, Juliana, Christ II (both found in the Exeter Book), Elene, and the Fates of the Apostles (both found in the Vercelli Book), were actually written by Cynewulf. Well, it’s simple. He signed his name to them.

Not just any old signature, though. In the poems’ epilogues in which he gave some of the story of his life and asked for prayers,  he included a runic acrostic containing the letters c, y, n, (e), w,u,l,f. The “e” is not included in all four signatures.

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Runes are the characters used in Anglo-Saxon writing. In the poems these runes both spell his name and stand for a word, so it is not necessarily easy to see that he has signed his name to the poems. However, he does leave us a clue, for in one of the epilogues he says, Here anyone who takes pleasure in songs, if he is sharp of mind, may discover who composed these verses. 

The  Vercelli Book languished in a dark corner of the Capitulary Library of Vercelli, in northern Italy, until it was re-discovered in the late 1800s and translated by scholars. One of these, John Kemble, is credited with discovering Cynewulf’s acrostic signature in one of the poems and subsequently it was found in the other three as well.

Interestingly, this is thought to be the first “signed” work in English literature. Previous to this, writers of such works preferred to remain anonymous, so as to give God all the glory for their acts of creativity.  However we shouldn’t assume that by signing his name  Cynewulf  sought personal glory. He states that he wished others to pray for him, thus perhaps emphasizing spiritual rewards rather than material ones for his work.

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I have been unable to find a picture of Cynewulf’s acrostic runic signature as seen in the original MS, but here is a typed version of the autobiographical epilogue in Elene, where you can see how he integrated the Anglo-Saxon runes into the Latin characters of the other words. Image from Pgenglish2015

The four poems are written in the typical alliterative style of Anglo-Saxon poetry, such as BeowulfElene is the longest poem, comprised of 1,321 lines, and it is about the finding of the True Cross by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. It not all poetry, it also contains a prose section. It is thought to be his finest work, and because of that, some speculate it is the last one of the four to be written, but of course we do not know this for sure. Juliana (731 lines), is another hagiographic poem, about St. Juliana, who was martyred for refusing to marry a pagan man. Christ II (427 lines)also known as the Ascension, is a meditation on a sermon given by Pope Gregory, on the resurrection of Christ. It is the second part of a trilogy on the advent, ascension, and second coming of Christ, all of which are by different authors. The Fates of the Apostles (122 lines), is a poetic telling of the life and death of the twelve apostles of Christ.

Aside from the hidden runic acrostic signature, which I think is pretty cool, the other cool thing about Cynewulf is that he is responsible for one of the most iconic terms in our modern day. As many of you know, J.R.R. Tolkien, aside from being an author, was first and foremost an Anglo-Saxon scholar. He, of course, was very familiar with Cynewulf and his poems, and it is in the poem Christ II where he found the term middangeardwhich translates as, “middle-earth”.

The lines read:

Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, above the middle-earth sent unto men, and true radiance of the sun, bright above the stars – thou of thy very self illuminest for every season!

Very Tolkien-esque, no? Earendel can be translated, “radiance of the dawn”, and is a reference to John the Baptist in the poem. But these words had a profound effect on Tolkien, inspiring him to write the “Lost Voyage of Earendel” in 1916, where the character Earendel is transformed into a voyager who carries the morning star on his brow across the sky.

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Earendil, by Alarie Tano, on DeviantArt

Amazing that this long-dead, obscure poet could still have such a profound impact on our culture today. I’m sure he would be stunned if he knew.

But maybe he does. Perhaps Tolkien and he have had great discussions in the world beyond this world. I’d like to think so!


This post is one of a continuing series on Anglo-Saxon literature. You can see the other posts by clicking the following links: 

The Dream of the Rood

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The Cotton Library

Beowulf Basics

 

Featured image is the Exeter Book, from Wikicommons

 

 

 

Making a Date in Anglo-Saxon England

Probably most of you know that our calendar comes from the Roman one. January is named after Janus, the two-faced god who looked front and back simultaneously, March comes from the Roman god Mars, the god of war, etc.

But the Anglo-Saxons of 7th century England had a very different calendar.

The most detailed account of this  Anglo-Saxon calendar comes from Bede, who, in his book, The Reckoning of Time, written in 725 AD, details each of the months. It’s interesting to note that by the time Bede writes this book, this is very much an “old” way of reckoning the calendar year. The Julian calendar we still follow had come to England along with the Gregorian mission in 595 AD, and as Christianity spread, the old Germanic calendar fell into disuse.

It’s a good thing Bede bothered to include this old, “heathen” calendar in his book,  because his summary preserved for us a bit of history we would not have, otherwise.

The Last Chapter

The Venerable Bede

The Anglo-Saxon calendar was a lunisolar calendar, based on the moon’s cycle. But as the lunar cycles are about 29.5 days each, the year ends up with 354 days instead of 365. After two or three of these shortened twelve month years, the lunar cycle would be out of line with the solar year by about a month. The Anglo-Saxons got around this by inserting an extra month in summer time every so often to keep it all synchronized properly.

According to Bede, the new year began on December 25th, called Modranecht, or “Mother’s Night”. There is much speculation about what these “mothers” might be, but there is a tradition of Germanic peoples honouring female ancestral spirits, so possibly this is what Bede is referring to. It happened at the winter solstice, which was a very important day for the Anglo-Saxons, know as Geola (“Yule”).

The months of the year were as follows:

JanuaryÆfterra Geola, or “after Yule”.

February – Solmonað,  roughly translated as “mud month”, which Bede says refers to the cakes they offered to their gods in that month. However, the word “sol” is not generally translated as “cakes”, but “mud”. So maybe their cakes looked like mud? Or it’s a reference to the soggy English winter? Hard to say.

March – Hreðmonað. Bede tells us that this refers to the goddess Hreða, whom they sacrificed to in this month. We don’t know a lot about this goddess today. There is not much existing Germanic lore about her.

April – Eostermonað, corresponding to the goddess Eoster or Eostre, who was celebrated this month. This is where we get the name Easter, for the Christian celebration of Christ’s resurrection, which is usually celebrated in April. Interestingly enough, like Hreda there is no information about Eostre apart from Bede’s writings.

May – Ðrimilcemonað, or “month of three milkings.” The idea being that the grass is so plentiful and rich that the livestock (cows, sheep, goats) could be milked three times in one day.

June – Ærra Liða, or “before mild”.

July  –  Æfterra Liða, or “after mild”. “Mild” refers to the calm breezes that made it easy to sail on the sea in the summer months (as well as the mild summer weather). At the height of summer, another month would be added occasionally to compensate for the shorter lunar cycles, a “leap month”, if you will. This month was called Thriliða, or “third mild”.

August – Weodmonað, or “weed month”. I’m sure modern gardeners can relate! However, to be fair, the word “weod” could mean “weeds” or could also refer to herbs, or grass.

September – Haligmonað, or “holy month”Unfortunately Bede lets us down here and doesn’t give us any details as to why this month was given this name. Perhaps there were celebrations that happened to do with harvest. He merely says it was a month of sacred rites.

October – Winterfylleth, or “winter full moon”. This refers to the fact that the Anglo-Saxons counted the beginning of winter as the first full moon in this month.

November – Blotmonað, or “blood month”, as this was the month where surplus livestock would be slaughtered in preparation for the winter season, and/or sacrificed and consecrated to the gods.

December – Ærra Geola, or “before Yule”.

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The early Germanic people counted the day as starting at sunset, not sunrise. It is possible the Anglo-Saxons did the same. The concept of the “week” came from the Romans, and was adopted by the Germanic peoples as well.

Although the Anglo-Saxon names of the months have not survived in today’s modern English, we can’t say the same about the names of the week. Perhaps I will do a blog post about those echoes from the Anglo-Saxon past that are still in use today.

In the meantime, I hope you have a happy Ðrimilcemonað!

Featured image is found at Medievalists.net, and is the phases of the moon, from an 11th century manuscript.


 

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Year of Reading Buechner: The Alphabet of Grace

In 1968, Frederick Buechner had just moved with his family to a farmhouse in Vermont, after concluding a successful stint as a the department head of the Religion department at Philip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.

Buechner began working on a new novel, but making the transition from writing amidst a busy career to focussing solely on writing was a challenge, and he soon found himself struggling. He writes in his memoir, Now and Then, that the writing of it…was so painful that I find it hard, even now, to see beyond the memory of the pain to whatever merit it may have.

In the midst of this struggle he received an invitation from the Chaplain at Harvard to present the Noble Lecture series in the winter of 1969, a proposal which both flattered and intimidated Buechner. Previous presenters had included luminaries such as Richard Niebuhr, and Buechner was uncertain he was up to the task.

However, the Chaplain, Charles Price, upon hearing Buechner’s concerns, wrote back, suggesting that he write something about “religion and letters”. And out of that thin sliver of inspiration, The Alphabet of Grace was born; first as the lecture series, and subsequently published as a book.

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Buechner’s idea was to write about the everyday events of life,

…as the alphabet through which God, of his grace, spells out his words, his meaning, to us. So The Alphabet of Grace was the title I hit upon, and what I set out to do was to try to describe a single representative day of my life in a way to suggest what there was of God to hear in it.

The book is broken up into three sections: Gutturarls (6:45-7:30 AM); Sibilants (7:30 -8:30 AM), and Absence of Vowels (8:30 AM – 11 PM). At the time Buechner’s family was growing up around him, and he writes of ordinary things such as getting up in the morning, having breakfast, dropping the kids off at school, and going to work–which in his case was to the nearby church where he co-opted a Sunday School room in which to write–followed by going home and finally to bed.

An ordinary day, in other words, such as is lived by many ordinary people. But don’t be fooled. Out of this ordinary day Buechner has crafted an extraordinary book, which will linger with you long after it is finished. It is a long meditation on how to see God in the midst of an ordinary life, and the difference that makes to the person living it.

The first sentence of the book is this:

At its heart most theology, like most fiction, is essentially autobiography. 

His point is that people understand concepts through the lenses of their own experiences, whether that be the concept of family, love, or friendship. And so it is with our understanding of God and faith. We meet Him in the daily ordinariness of our own existence, or not at all, and this is the theme that runs through this book.

Right at the beginning he quotes a passage from one of his own books (The Final Beast) in which the character, a young clergyman, lies down in the grass, praying a fervent prayer of only one word: Please. A prayer of longing, not entirely sure of what he is asking, until he clarifies it. Please come, Jesus. 

And nothing happens, at least, nothing that anyone would notice. Except for the young man, who, in the midst of an extraordinary moment of timelessness and significance, hears two branches of an apple tree strike together in the wind: clack-clack.

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Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

 

This was not just a moment in Buechner’s novel. He explains in The Alphabet of Grace that this was a moment he lifted out of his life and put in the novel. And it perfectly describes the way in which a person can be moved out of unbelief into faith, in ways that are hard to explain to anyone else but real, nonetheless.

The quote from the novel continues,

It was an agony of gladness and beauty falling wild and soft like rain. Just clack-clack, but praise him, he thought. Praise him. Maybe all his journeying, he thought, had been only to bring him here to hear two branches hit each other twice like that, to see nothing cross the threshold but to see the threshold, to hear the dry clack-clack of the world’s tongue at the approach of the approach of splendour. 

This idea, of the ordinary moment being transformed into one of transcendence, is the idea that Buechner explores throughout the book. The clack-clack of those branches are interwoven in and out of the ordinary events of his day.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Buechner is a giant of faith, who has it all figured out. Part of his great appeal is that he shows himself just as he is, doubting, confused, and weary, hanging on by the skin of his teeth, so to speak. And yet, he cannot even now turn away from the path.

Cannot is not the right word. If faith is anything, it is a choice. God comes to us with his hand outstretched, and it is up to us to take it, or not. In the moments of his day, through the interactions with his wife, his children, through the struggle of putting words down that convey exactly what he means, Buechner shows us how the choice to take that hand is presented again and again. It’s so easy to forget, in the midst of the minutes passing, that at every moment is a moment in which we can take that hand.

Doubt is not fatal to faith. In fact, doubt can strengthen faith, through an honest wrestling through the questions that plague us. Buechner writes of doubt, and the longing for a miracle that would put all the doubts to rest. But then he muses,

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. 

And so, through the ordinary day of an ordinary man, we see his journey and gain a new understanding of our own., We hear the clack-clack of the branches, signalling the approach of the approach of splendour. 

And with him we say, praise Him.

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!

 

 

Year of Reading Buechner: Brendan, A Novel

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

Brendan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

As Finn says,

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

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

Finn says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 2018 Reading Challenge: The Year of Reading Buechner

Year of Reading Buechner: The Remarkable Ordinary

Year of Reading Buechner: A Sacred Journey

 

 

Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Pt. 1

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


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

It’s time to rectify that!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s hear Bede’s explanation of this:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


You can find Part II of Cuthbert’s story here

St. David of Wales

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

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

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The Welsh flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey today. Image from flickr

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

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

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

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

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


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

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