Seminar CLXV: getting at the saints in medieval England

Juxtaposed thirteenth- and nineteenth-century stained-glass depictions of pilgrims at the shrine of St Thomas, Canterbury, from the cathedral there

Juxtaposed thirteenth- and nineteenth-century stained-glass depictions of pilgrims at the shrine of St Thomas, Canterbury, from the cathedral there; image from Wikimedia Commons

It’s not that there are no seminars about medieval matters in Oxford that don’t focus on England, you understand, and it’s not even that more specific seminars like the After Rome seminar or the Late Roman and Byzantine seminars draw away non-English content, it’s just that for some reason during Spring 2013 I seem only to have made it to English-focused papers. The next of these was at the Medieval History Seminar on 10th February 2013, and it was Anne Bailey of Harris Manchester College presenting with the title, “Reconsidering ‘The Medieval Experience at the Shrine’ in High-Medieval England”. This is out of my area of interest, you might think, and so it is to an extent, but it did two things I always appreciate, these being firstly to try and set out a sound basis for imagining medieval lives and actions in the kind of depth in which we can actually immerse ourselves, the real choreography of action in the medieval world, and secondly to use the ability to count to attack badly-founded generalisations that have nonetheless stood unchallenged for years. Since Miss Bailey had provided a sterling example of one of these at the start of her number-filled handout, I’ll quote it so as to identify the target:

“A modern visitor, magically transported to the darkened crypt of this ancient church, would probably be astonished, if not repelled, by the sight of wretched cripples writhing on the floor at Becket’s simple tomb, by the screams of fettered madmen straining at their bonds and the low moans of lepers and the blind, and by the characteristic odour of the Middle Ages, the stench of poverty and disease. The pious would pray nosily in the dancing shadows of the crypt or offer their hard-won pennies and home-made candles. An uncouth youth gesticulates wildly as he tries to explain his miraculous cure to the monk in charge of the tomb; he knows no Latin, no French, and his English dialect is scarcely comprehensible to the guardian-monk….”1

This is indubitably imaginative, but is its imagination well-founded? The fact that at the end of the paragraph of my notes in which this trope is introduced I find the mystic sigils, “O RLY!” will give you an early idea where Miss Bailey was going. In particular she was interested in testing the idea that people could actually get so close to saints’ tombs, and that contact with the relics was as important as it is usually taken to be. So, in order to test this she did the numbers: having painstakingly explained the differing contexts and backgrounds of the cults concerned, she counted up the miracles recorded for St Modwenna of Burton, St James’s Hand at Reading, St Aldhelm at Malmesbury, St John of Beverley, St Æbbe of Coldingham, St Swithun of Winchester, St Ivo of Ramsey, St Æthelthryth of Ely, St Anselm of Canterbury, St Gilbert of Sempringham and St William of Norwich.2 This is a pretty good range and has two particular assets worth mentioning: firstly, we have here both saints whose relics were in raised shrines and saints whose relics were in tombs, inaccessible in the ground, which ought to make a difference but (spoiler) doesn’t, and secondly it does not include St Thomas á Becket, the largest outlier, always safer.

The Hand of St James as once culted at Reading, back there briefly in 2012

The Hand of St James as once culted at Reading, back there briefly in 2012

In total, anyway, this gives one 173 stories, and Miss Bailey discovered that of those 173, as far as the hagiographers allow us to tell a mere 18 actually happened in proximity to the relics. 10 of those occurred on feast days when the relics were being processed, and several of the others involved someone who had obtained special permission to be near the shrine. Only in 1 case of the 173 did someone actually touch the reliquary, this being Aldhelm’s as it happened, and even then the outside of the reliquary is as close as they got. Furthermore, a number of the miracles are recorded at places where the saints weren’t: in both Æbbe’s and Ivo’s case there was a secondary site, evidently manned and even set up to receive visitors, at the place where the saints’ relics were found, and that place retained its attraction even once the body was taken elsewhere.

Kirkhill, St Abb's Head, Scotland, site of the <i>Urbs coludi</i> where StÆbbe's relics were supposedly found in 1118

Kirkhill, St Abb’s Head, Scotland, site of the Urbs coludi where St Æbbe’s relics were supposedly found in 1118, photo shamelessly borrowed from Tim Clarkson’s excellent post at Senchus about her cult. Not much to see now!

That last aspect opens up the question, much debated in discussion, of how far these centres were aimed at actually attracting pilgrims, something which we often assume but which was, for Miss Bailey at least, hard to see in these texts except in the ever-distorting case of Becket. It’s obviously not that people didn’t want to visit the saints; the way that they evidently went where they were allowed to, the invention shrines already mentioned, and that some attempt was made to provide hospitality there shows that there was both demand and supply, but for the most part the supply seems to have been fairly grudging: the monks and canons here were more interested in keeping pilgrims away from the shrines so that they could get on with their actual work of worship than in flogging them tokens and rolling in the sick and crippled so as to advertise their curing saint’s powers. This, arguably, would change, and it may even have been the runaway success of Becket’s cult that changed it. The fact that Catholic affective piety is now very strongly focused on contact with the bodies of the saints, as we saw in England when John Henry Newman was beatified a few years ago or as any visitor to a Greek or Italian shrine (like St Catherine’s in Siena for example) would see full force, and arguably has been since the sixteenth century, should not lead us to thinking that it was ever thus, and Miss Bailey would put the change after the period she was looking at.

Plan of the crypt of Hexham Abbey, with detail of reused Roman inscriptions in it

Plan of the crypt of Hexham Abbey, with detail of reused Roman inscription in it

At the time this made me think only one thing, which was that perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised if a good number of miracles happened on saints’ feast days, simply because there would then have been more people at the church both to witness and to be the beneficiary of miracles. I’m less sure now than I was then that this matters very much: Miss Bailey’s point that this was when the saints might be brought out is surely more significant. What it now makes me think, though, is that we see in the St Gall Plan and in the archæological work done at Hexham Abbey, the latter implying similar cases in the Continental houses where Hexham’s founder St Wilfrid had trained, set-ups in which access to the crypt spaces was carefully channelled either from outside the actual church building or, at the imaginary version of St Gall, from outside the monks’ part of the church, into and out of the space occupied by the tomb.3 (The canonical plan of the Hexham crypt above notes one of the routes into the crypt as the pilgrims’ one and the other as the monks’ but the notes on the St Gall Plan make me think that a one-way system is more likely; at both St Gall and Hexham, after all, there was also access from the presbytery directly above.) That suggests to me an intention to supply the access to the relics that Bede, certainly, and perhaps Continental hagiographers too, make it clear that worshippers wanted, again without disturbing the usual monastic round too much. In that case we might have a change before Miss Bailey’s period too, and it would be interesting to pin down when. My guess would be the tenth century, but of course it would, wouldn’t it?4

1. Ronald Finucane, Miracles and Pilgrims: popular beliefs in medieval England (London 1977), pp. 9-10; the other target here was the more recent work evoked in the title, Ben Nilsson, “The Medieval Experience at the Shrine” in Jennie Stopford (ed.), Pilgrimage Explored (Woodbridge 1999), pp. 95-122.

2. The handout gives full edition details but that would be a long footnote even for me, as well as esentially publishing Miss Bailey’s references for her. I can provide details if people are interested, but it may settle some people’s minds to know that this total included both William Ketell’s collection of miracles of St John and another anonymous one and divided up the count for St William between his three shrines.

3. On the St Gall Plan the masterwork is Walter Horn, Ernest Born & Wolfgang Braunfels (edd.), The Plan of St. Gall: A Study of the Architecture and Economy and Life in a Paradigmatic Carolingian Monastery (Berkeley 1979), 3 vols, though one might start with the smaller Lorna Price, The Plan of St. Gall in Brief: An Overview Based on the Work by Walter Horn and Ernest Born (Berkeley 1982) or of course the excellent website already linked. For Hexham see Eric Cambridge & A. Williams, “Hexham Abbey: a review of recent work and its implications” in Archaeologia Aeliana 5th series Vol. 23 (Newcastle 1995), pp. 51-138. The reading of the St Gall Plan here, I should confess, I’m pulling largely from a Kalamazoo paper by Lynda Coon (reported on here) and reflected in her book, Dark Age Bodies: Gender and Monastic Practice in the Early Medieval West (Philadelphia 2011), which is not to say that I would necessarily accept everything she says there about the deeper meanings of the way space is laid out in the Plan. I don’t know anyone else who has put so much work into working out the traffic flows through the imaginary church, though.

4. I think of course of the Benedictine reform movement of the tenth century that would seek, among other goals, to exclude the laity more thoroughly from pure monastic practice: see Catherine Cubitt, ‘The Tenth-Century Benedictine Reform in England’ in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 6 (Oxford 1997), pp. 77–94, or Julia Barrow, “The Ideology of the Tenth-Century English Benedictine ‘Reform'” in Patricia Skinner (ed.), Challenging the Boundaries of Medieval History: the legacy of Timothy Reuter, Studies in the Early Middle Ages 22 (Turnhout 2009), pp. 141-154.

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