St Cuthbert’s ‘Life’ by Bede: Part II

 

BL Yates Thompson MS 26, f.17

BL Yates Thompson MS 26, f.17

From Ch 7 of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert: It chanced that Cuthbert was appointed to the office of receiving strangers, and he is said to have entertained an angel of the Lord who came to make trial of his piety. For, as he went very early in the morning, from the interior of the monastery into the strangers’ cell, he found there seated a young person, whom he considered to be a man, and entertained as such. He gave him water to wash his hands; he washed his feet himself, wiped them, and humbly dried them in his bosom; after which he entreated him to remain till the third hour of the day and take some breakfast, lest, if he should go on his journey fasting, he might suffer from hunger and the cold of winter. For he took him to be a man, and thought that a long journey by night and a severe fall of snow had caused him to turn in thither in the morning to rest himself. The other replied, that he could not tarry, for the home to which he was hastening lay at some distance.

Cuthbert exhorted the visitor to eat, but when he returned with freshly baked bread, found him gone, having left no footprints in the fresh snow.

From f.18: miraculous loaves

From f.18: miraculous loaves

The man of God was astonished, and revolving the circumstances in his mind, put back the table in the dining-room. Whilst doing so, he perceived a most surprising odour and sweetness; and looking round to see from what it might proceed, he saw three white loaves placed there, of unusual whiteness and excellence. Trembling at the sight, he said within himself, ” I perceive that it was an angel of the Lord whom I entertained, and that he came to feed us, not to be fed himself. Behold, he hath brought such loaves as this earth never produced; they surpass the lily in whiteness, the rose in odour, and honey in taste. They are, therefore, not produced from this earth, but are sent from paradise. No wonder that he rejected my offer of earthly food, when he enjoys such bread as this in heaven.” The man of God was stimulated by this powerful miracle to be more zealous still in performing works of piety; and with his deeds did increase upon him also the grace of God. From that time he often saw and conversed with angels, and when hungry was fed with unwonted food furnished direct from God.

f.26

f.26: at sea

As I posted last time, there are several stories in Bede’s Life that relate how animals or birds fetch Cuthbert food, or else he finds it miraculously provided for him. Ch. 11, for example, describes how he prayed for calm weather and the tempest subsided, allowing him and his brethren to sail safely home. On the shore beforehand   they found three pieces of freshly cut dolphin flesh laid out for them to eat.

 

In Ch. 19 he admonished birds

f.42

f.42

who were eating his barley crop which he had sown by his newly built hermitage on Farne island, and the greedy birds dutifully departed for good. Bede draws from this a typical hagiographical moral, based on saintly precedent:

Thus in two miracles did this reverend servant of Christ imitate the example of two of the fathers: for, in drawing water from the rock, he followed the holy St. Benedict, who did almost the same thing, and in the same way, though more abundantly, because there were more who were in want of water. And in driving away the birds, he imitated the reverend and holy father St. Antony, who by his word alone drove away the wild asses from the garden which he had planted.

f.44

f.44

Another sign of his sympathy with the world of nature is related in the next chapter, when crows took straw from the roof of his shelter and were reproved by Cuthbert. Shortly afterwards they returned, making gestures of repentance and sorrow, and dropped at his feet a gift of hog’s lard

which the man of God used to show to the brethren who visited him, and kept to grease their shoes with; testifying to them how earnestly they should strive after humility, when a dumb bird that had acted so insolently, hastened by prayers, lamentation, and presents, to obliterate the injury which it had done to man. Lastly, as a pattern of reformation to the human race, these birds remained for many years and built their nests in the island, and did not dare to give annoyance to any one. But let no one think it absurd to learn virtue from birds…

f.62: child cured of plague

f.62: child cured of plague

This time Bede’s moral is drawn from the Bible. Other miracles are told of the ‘obedience’ of the sea and other elements to ‘the venerable man’. He is also able to effect miraculous cures of people who are gravely ill. Even ‘brandea’ – items that have simply been in contact with his saintly body – are capable of curing the sick: his shoes, or hairs from his head, or  holy water, oil or bread.

It is a commonplace of hagiography that the telling of a saint’s miracles is calqued upon incidents in earlier Lives; this was not considered problematic in terms of verisimilitude.

f.73: death of Cuthbert

f.73: death of Cuthbert

As we have seen in this Life of Cuthbert, the author is at pains to point out parallels with biblical or  hagiographical precedents (early Lives of Gregory famously make this point). It is only in more recent years that the histor or author of a tale felt the need to be original: Shakespeare didn’t usually invent his plots. On the contrary, weaving your narrative from strands of already familiar storylines was considered not just normal but desirable.

Bede, Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert, in a volume entitled Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation,. trans. J.A.  Giles, Everyman’s Library 479,(London: J.M. Dent; New York: E.P.  Dutton, 1910), 286-349; all quotations in this post are taken from the online version found here. All illustrations taken from the digital collection at the British Library, from BL Yates Thompson 26.

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