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.
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
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:
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.)
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,
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
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
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.
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.