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

6 thoughts on “St Cuthbert’s ‘Life’ by Bede: part I

  1. Fascinating post. Do we know today what causes the incorruptibility occasionally associated with saints and suchlike? It’s a phenomenon across a range of cultures and reported quite widely among Buddhist saint-equivalents, which lends me to suspect it is a real thing probably related to how the body is stored, but I don’t know if anyone’s done any work on it (probably quite hard to get enough saint’s corpses to do a comparative analysis of…).

    The story of the otters is quite charming.

  2. Thanks for the comment. The incorruptibility topos I tend to attribute to the fairly obvious desire among hagiographers to symbolise how pure and undefiled the saintly corpse is: there’s often a reference to a sweet, heavenly odour to the body, too, just to reinforce the supernatural element. That’s why even objects which have simply been in contact with the holy body are imbued with spiritual, healing power, like the phials containing water made holy by its being used to flush down St Thomas Beckett’s tomb at Canterbury. The phials would be worn as reliquaries by pious pilgrims to the shrine; the monks made a healthy profit from the sale of these items in the medieval equivalent of the cathedral shop. These ‘brandea’, as they were called, could simply be pieces of cloth that had briefly been hung in contact with a saint’s tomb or reliquary. The otter story is delightful, isn’t it? St Mary of Egypt, subject of my PG research, was lifted into her grave by a monk named Zosimas, who took the shoulders end, and a passing lion, who took her feet. There are some charming images of this iconic scene in stained glass windows in French cathedrals. Must post something about this interesting saint’s legend one day. Great to hear from you again, Max.

  3. That’s certainly part of it, but I understood the phenomenon had on occasion been fairly credibly demonstrated. Part of that may be of course that as a general rule we don’t inspect corpses after burial for signs of preservation, so if certain circumstances did preserve them more than usual we wouldn’t notice it most of the time.

    Couple that with perhaps a dietary influence on the preservation, and then a good dolloping of folklore and myth, and there you go.

    Of course, the other group that tend not to corrupt are vampires in traditional folklore – it was one of the signs of them that when you dug up the suspect their body hadn’t decayed as expected.

    The odour is the scent of roses in the Western tradition isn’t it? That one is fairly evidently cultural, the incorruptibility occurs over a range of cultures but the odour seems much more a Christian tradition.

    Lions wander past much more than one would expect in medieval folklore. It’s one of the problems of examining these tales, one can assume (as I have above) some element of physical underpinning but the fact they were so prone to intermingling the plainly mythic with the evidently factual makes it very hard to take a view on whether any given element has a basis in fact or not (not that I’m suggesting the lion does).

    Have you ever read The History of the Franks? It’s quite wonderful in that it starts, logically I suppose, with Adam and Eve. It takes ages before you get to the first of the Franks. I can’t believe the author assumed it was all literally true, since apart from anything else much would have been unverifiable, but the author plainly doesn’t make the distinction between the mythic and the prosaic in the way we would.

  4. I think you’re quite right about the myth/folklore element, and I hadn’t associated the vampire myth with saints’ incorruptibility, which is pretty ironic…though maybe not: both sets of legends are intended to increase awe towards the deceased person of supernatural power. The lion of course indicates the traditional notion that saints have special control over nature: even early desert fathers’ apophthegmata relate stories of, eg, friendly crocodiles acting as living rafts to ferry hermits across rivers. Edenic symmetry between holy person and natural world (hence the reverence of the otters, and Kevin’s empathy with the blackbird). As for the Franks, yes, I read Gregory of Tours years ago, and as I mentioned in the last couple of posts (Gerald of Wales) the whole notion of ‘this happened or must have happened’ is fascinating: a hagiographical motif that’s worthy of David Shields or post-modern revisionists – early lives of St Gregory are among the earliest to suggest that even if the events narrated didn’t happen, they could or should have. Realism: who needs it?! Sholes and Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative is one of the first books I read, many years ago, that presented a compelling account of the rise of the ‘histor’, and the development of the realist novel via autobiography, biography, etc. – Plutarch, Herodotus, etc. Saints’ lives generally make no attempt to present biography as we know it, so the notion of the incorruptible body is essentially a metaphor: I’m not aware of any biological analogue (as in bogmen/corpses preserve in peat, etc.) that might have influenced the hagiographers: they weren’t generally interested in historical verisimilitude.

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