Seminar CLXXXIX: buddy bishops in Bernicia

Returning to the decreasing (yes! actually decreasing!) seminar report backlog takes us up to the 13th November 2013, when I was at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar of the Institute of Historical Research as part of my grand project of accurately imitating a professional Anglo-Saxonist for the year, and also because I was interested to hear Trevor Morse give a paper entitled “Cuthbert and Wilfrid: parallel lives(?)”. This found us all looking more closely at late seventh-century Northumbrian history than I think anyone has done for a while, in a way I like to encourage everywhere, with as many of the operative personalities in it as possible considered at once.

St Cuthbert's shrine, Durham Cathedral

St Cuthbert’s final final resting place, in Durham Cathedral

The starting position here is the reputation of the two saints of the title, both bishops in the early Northumbrian Church, both much described by Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People and, in Cuthbert’s case, his two Lives of the man, while Wilfrid had a follower called Stephen who wrote up his Life for him.1 If you know this, you will also know that Wilfrid was an extremely controversial figure, expelled from his bishopric three times, an exile hosted at the courts of I think four different kings, with the pagan one of whom he nonetheless organised the conversion of the Isle of Wight; he also rejoices in the title of the Apostle of Sussex. Where Trevor brought us in to the debate was therefore with Walter Goffart’s controversial book The Narrators of Barbarian History which argues of four classic early medieval historical works that they are far more about contemporary politics than the events they purport to recall, and in Bede’s case that one of the big issues hiding in his work is the reconciliation of the various parties in the aftermath of Wilfrid’s divisive career, something that Bede did by developing Cuthbert as an alternative figure of that age suitable for veneration.2 To this, having made it clear at the outset how tricky and partisan the sources are, almost all at that dangerous remove from events where it’s still not possible to be neutral, Trevor wondered what we can learn by taking a closely chronological approach, putting the two men’s careers against each other and asking: were they in fact rivals in life?

The high altar of Ripon Cathedral

With somewhat less certainty, this is probably where Wilfrid finished up, near or under the high altar of Ripon Cathedral, if that stayed in the same place during its later rebuilding. By Andrewrabbott (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

I love chronological approaches anyway, but I did feel that this one was particularly revelatory. If, for example, one abstracts Cuthbert’s career from the various praiseworthy contexts in which his hagiographers paint him and try and put together a bald career summary, one of the things that becomes clear which certainly I hadn’t realised is that Cuthbert got booted out of office or fired upwards almost as much as Wilfrid did, driven out of Wilfrid’s foundation of Ripon with the then-Abbot Eata after Wilfrid’s move the Lindisfarne, moved to Lindisfarne from his subsequent appointment as Prior of Melrose after Wilfrid’s first restoration as bishop but retiring from there very soon afterwards, returning to the political fore as Wilfrid’s star began to rise again after his second deposition, then becoming Bishop of Hexham then swapping (with Eata) to be Bishop of Lindisfarne and dying before Wilfrid could get expelled again, whereafter Lindisfarne apparently nearly dissolved and there was a big argument over where Cuthbert’s body should go.3 It suddenly got hard to see him as a figure of peace with all this put together, and it also looked much more as if his spells in the sun coincided with Wilfrid’s than the way the Lives are built would lead you to spot.

“For I know that, although I seemed contemptible to some while I lived, yet, after my death, you will see what I was and how my teaching is not to be despised.”

This is not something a successful peacemaker needs to say on his deathbed, even less something a hagiographer should need to say of such a person thirty years later... Nonetheless, they are the words Bede gave Cuthbert in his Prose Life, c. 39.

That then raises the issue of what on earth was so divisive about him, and there Trevor’s answer was that one of the things the various Lives do say about Cuthbert, usually as praise but in this light now looking different, was that he was a champion of a fairly strict monastic lifestyle; when he ran into trouble with his various communities, this is how his hagiographers explain it, Bede indeed making this out as a trait going back to his youth when even training for war as a child he would outdo, outrun, out-strive his contemporaries. If you wanted to, then, you could see Cuthbert’s career as a long series of annoying people by over-achievement, but Trevor framed it mainly in terms of Roman and Benedictine observance. In that framework Cuthbert, despite his roots in the ‘Irish’ Church of early Christian Northumbria (roots that Wilfrid of course shared), appeared as a more Romanising figure than was found useful by his subsequent biographers.

The tomb of St Bede the Venerable in Durham Cathedral

As long as tombs is the theme… this is where the mind that we’re substantially seeing all this through finished up, the tomb of St Bede the Venerable, also in Durham Cathedral

At the end, I was still a bit unclear as exactly how sincere Trevor thought the reform agenda had been (though setting it out involved a description of a whole group of Northumbrian churchmen as ‘Whitby grads’, which I enjoyed). Bede seems to want Cuthbert to have been just a bit too ascetic for his charges to cope with; his earlier hagiographer (who Trevor suggested might have been the eventual Prior of Lindisfarne Æthelbalda Ripon priest then Lindisfarne hermit by the name of Oiðilwald, in the right places at the right times) seems to have wanted him as a Benedictine figure, but which of these, if either, was the ‘safe’ historiographical position by which someone writing up this somewhat explosive career might defuse it? Was ‘reform’ more a matter of factional competition than anything really about how to be a good monk? Still, having reason to believe we can see even that far back through the mess of writing that tangles up the history of the Northumbrian Church was further than any of us might have expected to get with such well-studied material, and even if some of the connections are still difficult to understand, Trevor managed to use them to explain things anyway, no mean achievement.

1. Almost all the materials in play here were at one point or another edited, translated or both by Bertram Colgrave, and in most cases his versions remain the standard ones: B. Colgrave (ed./transl.), The Life of Bishop Wilfrid by Eddius Stephanus (Cambridge 1927); idem (ed./transl.), Two Lives of St. Cuthbert. A Life by an Anonymous Monk of Lindisfarne and Bede’s Prose Life (Cambridge 1940, 2nd edn. 1985); idem & R. A. B. Mynors (edd./transl.), Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Oxford 1969); Colgrave (ed./transl.), The Earliest Life of Gregory the Great, by an Anonymous Monk of Whitby (Cambridge 1985). Bede also wrote a Verse Life that is only translated in a forthcoming volume of Bede’s Latin poetry by Michael Lapidge, and we also had several other bits of Northumbrian hagiography in play, all of which you can find in D. H. Farmer (ed.) & J. F. Webb (transl.), The Age of Bede (London 1983).

2. Walter Goffart, The Narrators of Barbarian History (A. D. 550–850): Jordanes, Gregory of Tours, Bede, and Paul the Deacon (London 1988), pp. 235–328.

3. One interesting sidetrack here that I prolonged in questions is how Bede describes the difficulty at Lindisfarne after Cuthbert’s death in the Verse Life. Trevor’s handout has it thus:

“The insistent north wind, trusting in its snowy weaponry, strikes the Lindisfarne monastic buidlings on all sides with such spiteful blast, that the noble progeny of our brothers was hanging by the precarious thread of events, and would choose to abandon the site rather than undergo these extremes of danger.”

This all sounds weirdly like Vikings avant la lettre. Bede kept the storm metaphor in the Prose Life but dropped the reference to the north, but that actually makes a lot of sense at the time he was writing the verse life because of the resurgent threat of the Picts, so some people present wondered if that, rather than internal trouble, could be what was threatening the island monastery. Trevor agreed that Melrose and Abercorn, two of the Northumbrian Church’s now-Scottish outposts, were in trouble at this time, and that led me in turn to remember that some of Bede’s informants on Pictland were clerics exiled from there at this point in time. If they had found refuge at Lindisfarne, that might have changed the balance of opinions there quite suddenly and sharply, but unlike the Pictish military threat, it wouldn’t have been so much of an issue by the time Bede was writing his Prose Life in the early 720s…

9 responses to “Seminar CLXXXIX: buddy bishops in Bernicia

  1. Your pic of Bede’s tomb reminds me. Funny story.
    Last year I visited Durham for the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibit since I happened to be in the country, and I made my pilgrimage to the tomb of the patron almost-saint of historians. Up at the chancel end there were loads of people lighting candles for Cuthbert, but in the West end poor old Bede was relatively neglected and I wanted to do something about that. I couldn’t find a light nearby from which to leave a candle for him, so I asked a passing verger for a match. I heard myself explaining “I’m a historian, so Bede is kind of like a God to me…” and then I realised why she was looking at me strangely.

    • Yes, I do see; a sermon opportunity, shall we say? There never is anyone in there in my experience, it seems quite unfair. That said, I interviewed for a job at Durham a long time ago and went to see Bede between presentation and interview in case he could put in a word, and I suspect I should actually have gone to the boss man up at the altar, because I didn’t get the job…

  2. I am as intrigued by Trevor Morse’s method of comparing the two timelines as I am with his results showing that the lives (and personalities?) of Wilfrid and Cuthbert may not be all that different. Is his work due to come out in the form of a dissertation or article anytime soon?

  3. Absolutely, Cuthbert was a prior at both Melrose and Lindisfarne – so he is the enforcer for Eata. Beyond that, he is the first prior of Lindisfarne to enforce Roman style immediately after the synod of Whitby. So when Lindisfarne splits and some go to Ireland, that is on Cuthbert’s watch as prior. It seems likely that this was also an opportunity to make other changes to their rule to make it either more Roman or English, as opposed to Irish.

    I think what made Cuthbert saintly to some is how he handled all this controversy. The method he put in place allowed at least some of the Irish style or spirituality to survive. Clearly Wilfrid and Eata/Cuthbert had some different ideas about how to interpret Roman tradition, but their methods may not have been all that different. After all, they were both English nobles who probably treated their subordinates in similar ways. Obviously a major difference is Cuthbert’s (reputed) simplicity of life vs Wilfrid’s prince bishop behavior.

    • Indeed, though as I used to point out to students, the burial goods in his tomb suggest that even lone-walking open-air-preaching simplicity could be done with a reasonable amount of precious-metal distinction! I think perhaps you also have your finger on what I was struggling with about what reform means here; Benedictine observance could still go Irish or Roman ways if we see ‘Irish’ as essentially meaning asceticism over cœnobiticism and Roman the other way round. The Rule would support either!

  4. I’m pretty sure that the body was redressed at some point in his many movements. I seem to remember a stole embroidered by a Wessex queen who wasn’t alive when Cuthbert died among Cuthbert’s treasures. Some of it like the cross may have come with the office but I’m sure some was added when the evacuated Lindisfarne.

    I don’t think we know that Lindisfarne was Benedictine do we? You can follow the Roman requirements without being Benedictine. I think they probably had a hybrid rule that kept some of the Irish practices. As prior (enforcer) Cuthbert must have had a big part in coming up with such a rule (not unlike Biscop’s hybrid rule at Wearmouth). If so then way then they were all following Cuthbert’s rule and living like their saintly bishop. Wilfrid may have nearly destroyed Lindisfarne during his one year tenure after Cuthbert’s death by trying to force actual Benedictinism!

    • According to the report, the body was redressed twice, but not by removing the old silks but just with new ones wrapped around, perhaps because the oldest ones now adhered to the body (as they certainly did in 1954).

      As to the latter, fair point but why would Wilfrid or Benedictinism be a wind from the north? Or even something that Bede would refer to in such terms at all? It does seem that there were other problems there too, about which Bede didn’t want to be specific.

  5. My thanks to Trevor for the correct version of his suggestion for the possible author of the Vita Wilfridi; I had my homonymous Anglo-Saxon churchmen confused, it seems!

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