St Cuthbert’s ‘Life’ by Bede: part I

 

St Cuthbert, from BL Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 1v

St Cuthbert, from BL Yates Thompson MS 26, f. 1v

Today, 20th March, is the feast day of St Cuthbert (c. 634-687), the Anglo-Saxon monk, bishop and hermit. The Catholic tradition is to celebrate a saint’s feast on the day of their death, not of their birth, in the belief that this is the beginning of their immortal life.  I’ve used a variety of sources here, but chiefly the prose Life in Latin by Bede, written c. 721, for Cuthbert’s cult revived after the discovery of his incorrupt body when it was elevated from its grave eleven years after his death.

 

Anglo-Saxon England's kingdoms

Anglo-Saxon England’s kingdoms

Cuthbert was born only a decade after the conversion of King Eadwine, and Christianity struggled to gain ascendancy over paganism in the kingdom throughout Cuthbert’s lifetime. Cuthbert became a monk after seeing a vision of St Aidan, founder of Lindisfarne monastery, being transported to heaven by angels.  He later discovered that Aidan had died at the moment of his vision. He was initially instructed by Irish monks at Melrose Abbey, a daughter house of Lindisfarne, now in Scotland, but then part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. He later became prior there, and subsequently at Lindisfarne itself.

A magnificent illuminated MS copy from the last quarter of the twelfth century contains a

Scribe, possibly Bede, same MS, f. 2

Scribe, possibly Bede, same MS, f. 2

copy of Bede’s Life. This is BL Yates Thompson 26, and all of the images of Cuthbert’s life in this post are from this MS (link here to the BL Catalogue description and all the illuminations).

Bede relates many miracles attributed to Cuthbert. The most delightful stories indicate Cuthbert’s affinity with the natural world. In one he tells how one night he refused the offer of food from a generous hostess, but insisted that his horse be well fed. He rode on next day, but was obliged to spend the night in a derelict shepherd’s hut, no houses being nearby:

f. 14, from Ch. 5 of Bede's Life of Cuthbert

f. 14, from Ch. 5 of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert

 

but suddenly, as he was  singing a psalm, he saw his horse lift up his head and pull out  some straw from the roof, and among the straw there fell down  a linen cloth folded up, with something in it. When he had ended  his prayers, wishing to see what this was, he came and opened  the cloth, and found in it half of a loaf of bread, still hot,  and some meat, enough of both to serve him for a single meal  (from the English translation of Bede’s Life by J.A. Giles, found online here; all quotations here are from this translation.)

F. 28v: eagle brings him food

F. 28v: eagle brings him food

The description of this scene in the BL catalogue describes the food as bread and cheese (the meaning of ‘meat’ was originally food of any kind, not just flesh; Giles appears to be using the word in its original, broader sense here). Other stories tell how food was brought to him miraculously by an eagle and ravens. Once he found a freshly cut up dolphin, ready to be cooked for him.

My favourite is that which relates of his practice of immersing himself secretly all night in the icy waters of the North Sea, ‘praising God’. A fellow monk witnessed this one night, and saw how, when Cuthbert emerged on the shore to pray again:

[two] otters, came up from the sea,

Otters dry his feet, bottom right of f. 24

Otters dry his feet, bottom right of f. 24

and, lying down before him  on the sand, breathed upon his feet, and wiped them with their  hair after which, having received his blessing, they returned  to their native element.

 

Always a zealous preacher, he acquired a reputation as a great healer and visionary, although he favoured the ascetic life. He was given permission by his abbot to retire to a hermitage on the island of Farne, off the Northumbrian

Builds hermitage on Farne, Ch. 27, f. 39

Builds hermitage on Farne, Ch. 27, f. 39

coast. There he lived austerely, and eventually in virtual solitude.

He was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne, after much resistance on his part, in 685, but just over a year later he returned to his island cell.  After his death in 687 he was buried at Lindisfarne, but with the attacks of the Viking Danes becoming ever more dangerous in the late eighth century the monks undertook a long sequence of removals of his relics, which they carried with them in a portable reliquary. Bede says that eventually the remains themselves chose a spot as final resting place that became the site of Durham cathedral.

Many miracles were attributed to him after his

Priest heals woman with holy water blessed by Cuthbert, f. 58v, ch. 29

Priest heals woman with holy water blessed by Cuthbert, f. 58v, ch. 29

death, and he was a particular inspiration to King Alfred in his struggles against the Danes. His shrine at Durham became a popular pilgrimage site, until its destruction under Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The relics survived the usually thorough destruction work of the iconoclasts, and are still at Durham.

Cuthbert was seen as a symbol of unity in a turbulent, divided early medieval England. When the Danes settled in England and converted to Christianity even they developed a reverence for this Northumbrian ascetic. Throughout the medieval period his shrine was visited by pilgrims who came from across Christendom, many of them drawn by stories of miraculous cures effected there by the sanctity of his relics.

Body found incorrupt, f. 77

Body found incorrupt, f. 77

When his sarcophagus was reopened in 1104 his relics were removed to a new shrine behind the altar of the recently completed cathedral. Inside the coffin was a small seventh-century copy of the Gospel of St John (now known as St Cuthbert’s Gospel, BL Add MS 89000). Its decorative original goatskin binding is said to be the oldest surviving of any western MS. This magnificent book, written in an Italianate capitular uncial hand, is currently on display in Durham in an exhibition on book-binding, where it will remain until the end of 2014, when it will return to the British Library.

 

I shall add more images from these two beautiful MSS in my next post. Once again time’s winged chariot has overtaken me, and I haven’t an opportunity to proof-read this too carefully – hope there aren’t many solecisms.

St Cuthbert's Gospel, f. 51: from John, 11: 18-25

St Cuthbert’s Gospel, f. 51: from John, 11: 18-25

Werewolves and fleas: Gerald of Wales, ‘Topographia Hiberniae’, part 2

Two Connaught men in a boat; a rider, f. 29 of the BL Royal MS 13. BVIII, f. 29

Two Connaught men in a boat; a rider, BL Royal MS 13. BVIII, f. 29

Last time I introduced Gerald of Wales (c. 1146-1223) and his Topographia Hiberniae, a Latin guide to twelfth-century Ireland, in the invasion and settlement of which the Norman branch of his family had played a prominent part.  I described some of the material found in the first of the three parts of the text, which focused on flora and fauna.  Here I shall turn my attention to part 2: Wonders & Miracles.  Translation from the Latin into English is by John J. O’Meara in the Penguin Classics edition, published as The History and Topography of Ireland.  Images are from the detailed record for BL Royal MS 13 B.VIII in the Catalogue of Illuminated MSS held in the British Library.

Man killed with axe, f. 28

Man killed with axe, f. 28

O’Meara points out that this section of the book consists largely of tall tales which would have been told to Gerald during his visits to the island, but he also made use of written Irish sources (themselves probably arising from an older oral tradition; see O’Meara, n. 15, p. 130).  As we saw last time, he makes use of the familiar hagiographic topos of insisting on the truth of his stories:

I am aware that I shall describe some things that will seem to the reader to be either impossible or ridiculous.  But I protest solemnly that I have put down nothing in this book the truth of which I have not found out either by the testimony of my own eyes, or that of reliable men found worthy of credence and coming from the districts in which the events took place (p. 57)

The fish with golden teeth, f. 16v

The fish with golden teeth, f. 16v (and a deer)

After relating the miraculous qualities of various natural phenomena such as wells and islands, he tells of the fish from Ulster ‘with three gold teeth’.   Strangely, this creature ‘seemed to prefigure the imminent conquest of the country’ – but Gerald neglects to explain how.

Royal 13.B.viii,  f. 17v. detailIn section 52 comes my favourite story in the book: the ‘wolf that talked with a priest’.  While travelling from Ulster to Meath this priest spent the night in a wood.  As he sat by the fire a wolf came up to him and said: ‘Do not be afraid!’  Naturally he and the small boy who was with him were terrified.  When the wolf spoke of God in a ‘reasonable’ manner the priest adjured him not to harm them, and to explain himself.

The wolf’s story was that he was a native of Ossory, where every seven years, because of the imprecation of abbot Natalis, a man and a woman are compelled to go into exile from their territory in the form of wolves.  If they survive seven years they will then be replaced by another couple, and restored to their former status.  The wolf’s companion, he went on, was lying nearby, close to death.  He begged the priest to perform the last rites for her.

The wolf led the priest to a tree in the hollow of which lay a she-wolf ‘groaning and grieving like a human being’.  He performed the last rites, but did not give the viaticum, insisting that he did not have with him the elements of communion.  The wolf pointed out, however, that he knew the wallet hanging from the priest’s neck contained consecrated hosts, and begged him not to deny his partner the ‘gift and help of God’.  Thereupon he pulled the skin off the she-wolf from the head to the navel, ‘folding it back with his paw as if it were a hand.’  He thus revealed the the torso of an old woman.  The priest, terrified once more, administered the sacrament and the skin resumed its former place.

Royal 13 B.VIII, f.18

Royal 13 B.VIII, f.18

The wolf spent the rest of the night with the priest by his fire, chatting amiably, and in the morning directed him the best route onward.  As they parted he thanked the priest.

Gerald says that two years later when passing near Meath his advice on this matter was sought, for the priest had passed on his version of these extraordinary events.  As a result the priest was sent to the Pope ‘with his documents in which was given an account of the affair and the priest’s confession’.  Sadly we never hear whether the wolf ever made it back to human shape.

I may return, in a future blog, to the subject of werewolves in medieval literature.

Bearded woman and man-ox of Wicklow, f. 19

Bearded woman and man-ox of Wicklow, f. 19

Other stories follow, mostly illustrated in the BL MS.  There’s the bearded woman with a mane on her back ‘like a one-year-old foal’.  She is no centaur, however, and followed the court of Duvenaldus, king of Limerick, ‘wherever it went, provoking laughs as well as wonder.’  Gerald seems to approve of her wearing the beard long, for such is the custom of her country (albeit among the men, not women).  Other hybrid creatures appear, and some less salubrious tales of bestiality.

St Kevin and his blackbird, f. 20

St Kevin and his blackbird, f. 20

Then comes the most famous story of all: St Kevin and his blackbird.  When taking eremitical refuge in a remote cabin he put his hand out of the window, as was his custom, and prayed.  A blackbird settled there, nested,  and laid its eggs.  St Kevin was so patient and sympathetic that he waited in that same posture ‘until the young were completely hatched out’.

The rats of Fernegigan, wandering bell of Mactalewus, f. 21v

The rats of Fernegigan, wandering bell of Mactalewus, f. 21v

St Colman’s teal, the fleas banished by St Nannan, the rats expelled from Ferneginan by St Yvor, the tame falcon of Kildare and other wonders follow, some involving bells, miraculous fires and books.

Part 3 deals with the history of Ireland, but even Gerald is sceptical about the veracity of some of these old legends.  It seems, for example, that the Basques were early settlers there.  He goes on to describe the contemporary condition of the Irish in fairly unflattering terms.  They are, he says, barbarous: ‘wild and inhospitable’, primitive, hirsute, lazy, ‘deplorable’, ‘wallowing in vice’, and largely heathen, despite the best efforts of saints such as Patrick and Bridget. All

St Colman's ducks, f. 21

St Colman’s ducks, f. 21

Irish saints are confessors; there were no Irish martyrs, he asserts.

As my surname attests, I’m of Irish ancestry myself, but it’s hard to find Gerald’s criticisms of my ancestors too offensive.  He writes in the medieval spirit of recounting tales collected from various sources, attested and unattested.  Notions of credibility were different from ours.  As the frequent Christian morals attached to the stories indicate, God is considered capable of all kinds of wonder, and it is therefore to be expected that miraculous events and objects abound in His world. Everything is a lesson to be interpreted by the cleric.

The Kildare Gospels falcon, f. 22

The Kildare Gospels and falcon, f. 22

As the Viking exhibition opens at the British Museum, I’m more inclined to marvel at the artistic skill and psychogeographic acumen of early medieval travellers.

 

 

 

Kingfisher mothballs, barnacles, cranes; Gerald of Wales, ‘Topographia Hiberniae’. Part 1 of 2. BL Royal MS 13 B.VIII illustrations

Part One:

Ten-legged spider, f. 11v

Ten-legged spider, f. 11v

Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerald’s Latin nom de plume, was born at Manorbier Castle, Pembrokeshire, fourth son of William de Barri, and grandson on his mother Angharad’s side to Nest ferch Rhys, mistress of Henry I (youngest son of William the Conqueror), who became, through marriage, mother of the first members of the illustrious and powerful Norman fitzGerald family, which included Maurice, one of the main leaders of the Norman invasion of Ireland.  This began in 1169, and continued under Henry II in 1171.  The Tudor royal family traced its descent from Nest (as did the Stuarts, President JFK and Diana, Princess of Wales).

Manorbier Castle (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Manorbier Castle (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Little is known of Gerald’s upbringing or education.   He became an Archdeacon in 1175, but seems never to have succeeded in his ambition to become Bishop of St David’s.  His first visit to Ireland in 1183 would have enabled him to meet members of his family.  In 1184 he joined the entourage of Henry II, and became tutor to his son John, with whom he came to Ireland a second time in 1185.

The Topographia was composed by Gerald between 1186 and 1188. He produced a second edition before the death of Henry II in 1189, followed by a third, fourth and various ‘late’ editions before his death in 1223.  It is from this text that most of what is known about Ireland in this medieval period derives.

Two snakes with legs.

Two snakes, one with legs, f. 11. Gerald reports the absence of poisonous reptiles, including snakes, banished according to legend by St Patrick

Among the wonderful digitised literary resources provided online by the British Library is a description and reproduced photos of the images from BL Royal MS 13 B VIII, date  c. 1196-1223, which contains at ff 1r-34v the text of the Topographia Hiberniae (Topographia Hibernica).  All the reproductions from the Royal MS in this post are taken from the BL site.

The illustrative programme of the BL Royal MS, with its 45 marginal miniatures of animals, wonders and people, was probably formulated by Gerald or under his direct supervision during his sojourn in Lincoln (1196-1198), according to the BL catalogue. There are three other manuscripts of the Topography illustrated with a series of marginal tinted drawings: Dublin, National Library of Ireland, MS 700, Bodleian Library, Laud. Misc. MS 720, and Cambridge University Library, MS Ff.1.27. According to Brown 2002, the Dublin manuscript is the closest to the original copy, whilst this manuscript, produced in Lincoln, probably in Gerald’s presence (1196-1198, or 1207-1208) is the earliest known.

Full-page image of f. 8v, with crane and barnacle geese

Full-page image of f. 8v, with crane and barnacle geese (see also below)

The Topographia is divided into three parts: Landscape, flora and fauna (which I shall focus on in this post); the Wonders and Miracles of Ireland (supposedly witnessed by Gerald first-hand, or else reported to him orally by reliable sources).  This is the most interesting part of the book, and the one I shall focus on next time.  Part 3 deals with the Inhabitants of the country, their history and culture.

In his introduction to the Penguin Classics translation from the Latin, John O’Meara scathingly describes Gerald’s account as indicating ‘the single-minded flattery of an ambitious flatterer’ (the text is fawningly dedicated to Henry II by his ‘Silvester’ or Merlin-like prophet), ‘the haughty contempt of one who came with his family to reform and invade, and the apparent credulity which must have delighted the hearts of the Irish’.  He writes in a lively rhetorical style, and embellishes almost every aspect of description with allegorical Christian moral tags.

Animals, f. 10v

Stag, hare, badger and beaver(?), f. 10v – but he says there are no beavers in Ireland, see below.

In Part I there are several unusual claims about Ireland’s flora and fauna.  There are bees, he says, but they are not plentiful, for they are ‘frightened off by the yew trees that are poisonous and bitter’.  Here in talking about the sources of stories about who first brought bees to Ireland he makes a statement similar to those found in numerous works of medieval hagiography about verisimilitude:

Neither would it be strange if these authors sometimes strayed from the path of truth, since they knew nothing by the evidence of their eyes, and what knowledge they possessed came to them through one who was reporting and was far away.  For it is only when he who reports a thing is also one that witnessed it that anything is established on the sound basis of truth.

Crane and barnacle geese, f. 8v

Crane and barnacle geese, f. 8v

There are no poisonous creatures in the island.  Cranes, he says, are numerous; O’Meara thinks Gerald might be mistakenly identifying herons here.  They stand on one leg, he says, ‘while in the other featherless claw they hold a stone’.  They do this so that if they fall asleep the dropping of the stone into the water will wake them.

He writes of the barnacle geese in the island what is described elsewhere in medieval bestiaries: that they hatch from shells sticking to seaweed on logs in the water (see the picture above).  Here he claims to have seen with his own eyes up to a thousand such hatchings; surely he was taken in by the popular belief that barnacles washed up on shore flotsam were incubating goose embryos.  Religious folk at the time felt it reasonable to eat the flesh of these geese ‘without sin at fasting time’, as they were regarded as more akin to fish than flesh.

Osprey, f. 9

Osprey, f. 9

Ospreys, he says, have talons on one foot for snatching prey, but the other ‘is closed and peaceful and suitable only for swimming’.  Kingfishers when they die, if kept dry, will not putrefy, Gerald claims.  Keep such corpses among your clothes and they will keep the moths away.  Storks, he thinks, are black, whereas crows are not: they are of many colours. 

 

Kingfisher, Stork, f. 9v

Kingfisher, Stork, f. 9v

Fox and wolf, f. 11v

Fox and wolf, the only ‘harmful’ creatures in Ireland, according to Gerald, f. 11v

There are badgers (or ‘melots’) but no beavers in Ireland, he asserts.

Part Two of this post will deal with the second and third sections of the Topographia: werewolves and priests, bearded women and other wonders.