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.
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?
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.
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.
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…