Saints: The original multitaskers


As I’m due to become a father in the near future, I’ve been casting around looking for names for both boys and girls. Given my interests in the medieval and classical worlds, it was inevitable I’d look at a saints’ calendar or two, even if not entirely in seriousness. And so it was that I discovered I had missed the feast of St Benedict of Nursia by a day – sorry Ben.

Benedict – who died in the sixth century and for whom the pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, is ultimately named – is important in my research, even if he’s not a figure I study directly. His monastic rule was the most influential of all in early medieval times, with a great many monastic houses following it even if the name “Benedictine” had yet to come into play.

A monastic rule was a set of guidelines that instructed the brethren in appropriate behaviour and duties, both religious and temporal. It was the cornerstone of any monastery, because it enforced collegiality and discipline. It was vital because while the ideal might be to spend all one’s time in prayer or divine contemplation, there were everyday requirements for maintaining a religious order: They needed to be fed, clothed, educated, kept in line. The latter is not so much oppression as pragmatism. Monasteries were by definition made up of people from all over the place, and so a uniform code of conduct was necessary. Everybody needed a role because everybody depended on one another to some extent. So it’s not surprising then that many monastic saints were able to govern well, preach to swathes of people, found numerous monastic houses, be a skilled diplomat within their own monastery (this didn’t always work out), and yet still maintain inner sanctity beyond that of most people – you had to be a skilled multitasker in those days. Western monasticism is rooted in Benedict’s rule, which not only governed an individual’s behaviour but taught how to efficiently run a monastery.

(Video: Benedictines from Glenstal Abbey in Co Limerick)

Gregory the Great, who would go on to profoundly influence the Anglo-Saxon writer Bede, was in turn shaped by Benedict, and wrote what amounts to a vita or hagiography (biography of a saint) of the Nursian. He is a exemplary saint, demonstrating faith and good works and working a number of miracles, as one would expect of a saint. They are both rock stars and aspirational characters.

Catholic saints are intercessory figures. They are not worshipped in their own right but are supposed to bridge the gap between humans and God; if you are in need you pray to a saint who then carries the message to God, presumably adding some influence to your request. If you read articles about medieval Christianity you will see references to saints’ cults – these involved venerating and promoting the memory of a particular saint, often for political reasons (“our monastery’s saint is better than yours because he could do this” sort of thing). Some were related to royal houses, and so their veneration served a propaganda as well as religious function.

The thing that particularly struck me about Benedict is that he is the patron saint of a good many seemingly unrelated things, according to his Wikipedia entry:

  • Against poison
  • Against witchcraft
  • Agricultural workers
  • Cavers
  • Civil engineers
  • Coppersmiths
  • Dying people
  • Erysipelas
  • Europe
  • Farmers
  • Fever
  • Gall stones
  • Heerdt (Germany)
  • Heraldry and Officers of arms
  • the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest
  • Inflammatory diseases
  • Italian architects
  • Kidney disease
  • Monks
  • Nettle rash
  • Norcia (Italy)
  • People in religious orders
  • Schoolchildren
  • Servants who have broken their master’s belongings
  • Speliologists
  • Spelunkers
  • Temptations

Some of these are understandable. He lived in a cave for three years, hence being a patron saint of caves and spelunkers. He miraculously survived several attempts to poison him by his monks, hence poison. But Italian architects? Servants who have broken their master’s belongings? Surely that last one is the most specialised form of patronage in Christendom (it’s probably not, mind).

Like highly decorated generals, saints tend to pick up accolades over the centuries based on their life, where they went, and any reported miracles or achievements. Saints are fascinating because of how contemporaries and later generations use them as mirrors for the present day as well as a bridge to the divine. Is it any wonder, then, that they can become all things to all people?

Using the past

We all use the past for our own purposes. Some of these are quite innocent, some are not. I’m sure we can all thing of examples for both cases. As you might expect, it has gone on since the invention of writing. Skirmishes became major victories, minor rulers become emperors, and so on and so forth. I’m watching V For Vendetta as I write this, in which a man in a dystopian future uses ideas about the past to inform the present and future. Although there are no Guy Fawkes or revolutionary figures on show here.

Bede: “Should history tell of good men and their estate…”

Some medieval writers were very clear about why they were using the past. Bede, the subject of my PhD, wrote that “should history tell of good men and their estate, the thoughtful listener is spurred on to imitate the good; should it record the evil ends of wicked men, no less effectually the devout and earnest listener or reader is kindled to eschew what is harmful or perverse”. Bede’s interpretation is always religious, and for him, learning from “good men and their estate” would inspire people to live good, Christian lives. But by establishing this in the preface, he establishes the precise meaning that he wants the audience to derive from the work. It’s only one facet of the text, but it’s a very important one.

Bede, of course, was not an innovator in this. The Classical world had paideia, and education by good example was an important part of this; consider the qualities extolled in The Odyssey or The Aeneid (although neither are actual histories, they were intended and were understood to be such).

People’s use of the past is often determined by what they need for the present. In Bede’s case, it was to encourage moral and religious reform amid what he believed to be a deep spiritual crisis. By using examples from Anglo-Saxon and continental history, his Ecclesiastical History became a “gallery of good examples”, to quote the oft-repeated phrase of James Campbell. I, like most people working in the field, would hesitate to say that Bede invented aspects of an individual’s character, and he probably did not. However, that is not to say that Bede did not emphasise certain elements in order to inspire the most reform. There are enough facets of King Edwin’s character, for example, that work against him being an ideal Christian ruler when Bede could simply have written them out and made him the Constantine-style ruler that King Oswald is in the EH. Edwin, for example, promises to convert several times but always finds an excuse not to become Christian. Oswald is Christian from the beginning of his reign.

Edwin: Good but not as good as he could have been 

Oswald, for example, becomes more than just a great king in Northumbrian history, he becomes a Northumbrian Constantine who restores and renews Christianity in the kingdom and, in Bede’s account, makes sure the religion becomes so embedded in the realm that it does not flitter away, as it had when Edwin was killed. I wrote a whole MA thesis on this, so I won’t repeat it here. But suffice it to say that Bede thus presents a progression in his people’s history, where they become more solidly Christian and so greater culturally and politically. By implication, these good examples become symbols of what they can achieve and what they stand to lose should they stray too far from the path, as he believes they are. Bede sought to use the past to make the present and future better.

Oswald: Shinier than this picture suggests

Gildas, the British writer of the sixth-century, wrote history for the very same reason, although he was also writing against the backdrop of Saxon invasions and the threat of imminent conquest, which he understood to be divine judgement. He, in turn, used the Bible as a model for his history: prophetic history. Gildas, by identifying current events with ancient patterns, stitched his people into universal history and, in doing so, sought to expose corruption and “sting” the present so that society could be healed.

The Bible was, for Gildas, a “mirror” for his own times. It was a key for medieval writers to unlock not only the past but their own times. By studious analysis of the narratives and themes, they saw patterns in history that they believed were being replicated in their own days. Bede too looked into the Bible and saw it as a reflection of the present. When commenting on the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Bablyon (in the book of Kings), he says that the “allegory of so lamentable a history fits so well with the negligence of our own time”, but with Jerusalem standing for the Church and Bablyon for “the city of the devil”. Much of what I’m doing is recreating this sort of early-medieval mindset, because by studying the historian I can more effectively study the history.

The study of the Bible and commentary on the texts, exegesis, informed a good deal of medieval history writing. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History is, as Benedicta Ward noted, as much theology as it is history. I’m not much of a theologian, but I have always been a decent literary critic and analyst, so those skills are very much coming to bear on the structure and development of Bede’s writing. It is a very different intellectual world from the one we inhabit, and as such it becomes all the more of a puzzle.

I suppose a fair question to ask at this point is, ‘How do I use history?’ I am no prophet or theologian. For me, history is a way to explore the past, both at a cultural and intellectual level. I can pick up a book and chip a way into a world now lost to us. It’s probably why I favour ancient and medieval history; the modern is just too familiar. While I have learned much from my study of history, I seek to learn and teach rather than mould wider society. I don’t have the specific drive of a Bede or a Gildas, or perhaps I do but with a different focus.

Having scribbled thus I feel there is a lot more to be said on the subject. I will return to it now and again, methinks. But for now, I shall let history tell its own stories.

Crucifixion corpus

While on the subject of digital databases, a project at my own university this week launched a collection of images and information concerning representations of the Crucifixion in Ireland between AD800 and 1200. The site, COIRP, is in its infancy but the team aim to update the images and categories in the near future. This should prove to be a great resource for art and cultural historians of the early medieval period.

The project, Christ on the Cross, has been studying how Irish art and literature represented and dealt with Christ’s crucifixion, both in an aesthetic and liturgical sense. The database takes its name from the Irish word for “body”. At the launch, Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh, one of the investigators, said it was a play on corpus, the Latin for “body” but which is also shorthand for the figure of Christ on the cross as well as a body of work. Initially, they had tried to avoid puns related to corpus, but it was too suitable to ignore. They then managed to make it an acronym of sorts: Corpus Of Irish Representations of the Passion.

I was at a conference organised by CotC last year, Croch Saithair: Envisioning Christ on the Cross in the Early Medieval West, that was fascinating and intense. I look forward to seeing what else will come from the project.

Monolithic churches

(Pic from here via Wikipedia)


Although ThereIFixedIt is usually dedicated to DIY nightmares and the like, it runs a Historical Thursday column which I really enjoy. The latest looks at the monolithic churches of Ethiopia, churches carved out of the bedrock itself. These are truly beautiful and unique buildings that are also a testament to the ingenuity of engineers and workmen, but also to the depths to which religion can motivate rulers and a populace. Some of the churches in Lalibela are about 800 years old, and still going strong.

The Easter controversy

Anyone who does even cursory research into early medieval Ireland and Britain will come across a major – and bitter – controversy regarding how one calculates Easter. The significance is, naturally, lost on modern readers, who are far removed from this world (although some people still ask to be crucified). Most medievalists spend their careers trying to avoid any serious reading on the subject, and for good reason. It will drive you close to insanity, even if some, such as Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, are erudite enough to write about and publish on the subject.

To (perhaps grossly) simplify things, let us just say that there were a number of different ways to calculate the date of Easter. From what  I can tell, these seem to have existed from a very early period. Some Christians in the near East followed the same calendar as Jews regarding Passover, with the Easter feast being celebrated on the fourteenth day of Nisan, no matter what  day that fell on. These were called quartodecimans. The link to Passover is fundamental as the gospels say Jesus was executed then, and Jesus was held to be the new paschal lamb sacrifice. However, other Christians kept the feast on the Sunday, the day Jesus was resurrected.

However, in later years and particularly after the Council of Nicaea (if I remember correctly) the Church attempted to consolidate the celebration of Easter so all Christian communities kept the observance at the same time. I’m sure that part of this was the Church at Rome trying to assert its dominance over the other churches, but in part it was an attempt to ensure that the Christian world was united. This was important, given that many popes and Christian writers argued that the Church was superior to the Roman Empire, in that it had travelled to areas the empire had not conquered. It would therefore not do if Christian communities in neighbouring areas celebrated one of the central events in Christianity at different times. Think of what those pagans would say, if Christians didn’t even know when the founder of their religion was executed.

The tables used to calculate Easter are ridiculously complicated, as they are supposed to take into account the solar and lunar calendars and lots of other things including the date of the equinox. I’m deliberately not going into detail because I don’t want your brain to melt. All right, it’s because I don’t want my brain to melt. They varied from a 19-year cycle to an 84-year cycle to a 95-year cycle to a 532-year cycle. But the problem was that all these calendars had some sort of patristic or ancient authority behind them, which certainly came into play in Ireland and Britain in the sixth and seventh centuries.

Most of my reading has been of Bede’s various works, and he was a man who did a lot of work on the calculation of time. But his Historia ecclesiastica tells us a lot about the different attitudes toward Easter, as he makes considerable mention of communities that followed different calendars.

Bede’s main problem was that many of the Irish churches and preachers affiliated with Iona, the greatly influential monastic foundation off the coast of modern-day Scotland, followed the 84-year cycle, which was no longer held to be canon by Rome. Rome favoured the Dionysian tables and most churches had fallen into line with this, largely because they didn’t want to be seen as being out of step with the chief church.

By the Synod of Whitby, in 664, most of the Irish and English churches (but not the British) followed the canonical Easter, but some in Northumbria and Scotland/Pictland held to the 84-year cycle. This polarised attitudes on either side, with Bede going so far as to say he detested that people followed the old cycle. However, he notes pointedly that Bishop Aidan’s purity of life and industrious work in converting the kingdom outweighed this, and that this was why the dispute over Easter was tolerated during his lifetime. Even if he was out of step, it was through sincerity and out of respect for his monastic superiors, and all he was doing was honouring Christ (HE 3.25). At the synod, King Oswiu, in a Constantine-type role, decrees that since Peter gave authority to the popes, his kingdom should follow the Roman canonical calculation. It was only much later that Iona itself was converted to that cycle, which Bede presents as a fitting gift from the Anglo-Saxons to the church that brought his people Christianity (HE 5.22). He depicts it as a reward, not a forced conversion as punishment, and he also ensures that the Irish are not considered quartodeciman heretics.

But Bede is slightly calmer in his appraisal than some Irish writers of the 660s. Cummian’s paschal letter, for example, criticises the Irish and British churches for thinking that “pimples on the face of the earth” could know more than Rome. This shows that Irish writers felt as strongly about union with Rome as writers from other kingdoms and societies.

As far as Bede is concerned, this marked a sense of unity in the region, with the exception of the Britons, who in the 730s are presented as schismatics and marginalised accordingly (HE 5.23). So at the end of the Historia, the Irish and Anglo-Saxons are in full communion with Rome – and therefore with the rest of the Christian Latin world – and the Britons are wayward. The message here is that the Irish and Anglo-Saxons are following the same rituals and teachings as anywhere else, meaning they are part of the centre while being at the geographical edge.

That the Easter controversy still dredged up considerable ire decades after its resolution suggests that there was either a danger that some people would resurrect the old ways, or perhaps that this was part of a process that made those following the canonical way feel more strongly convinced that they were right. But it also stresses Bede’s message that unity was vital, and particularly that unity of faith could cross the borders of kingdoms and even the sea.

I believe that this is, in part, tied in to his apocalyptic and eschatological concerns. In his commentary on Genesis, Bede notes that the end of days would be characterised by lawlessness and corruption, while in De Temporum Ratione he mentions that the end would come suddenly. Therefore it was important that his people be united and fully converted, because if the end came and the English were out of step with the wider Christian world, this would put them in jeopardy at the Last Judgement.

I’m still working on how this determined how he wrote history, and Easter is only one line of inquiry in a much wider thesis (says he trying to ensure no smart-ass claims this counts as previously published material that can’t be included in his PhD). Thoughts, anyone?

University’s medieval projects

My research (and I will start posting a series of research diaries soon) in part concerns representations of death and the afterlife, with a particular focus on how fears about and ideas of the end of the world influenced the writing of history. I am preparing a paper and article of the vision of Dryhthelm, who Bede, the Anglo-Saxon historian writing in the eight century, tells us came back from the dead. The vision itself is quite rooted in apocryphal and early Christian images of heaven and hell.

But while I am focussing on the Anglo-Saxons, the university’s Department of Early and Medieval Irish is working on a major project examining Irish representations of the afterlife. De Finibus (On the ends) has been on the go for a few months and the website provides an introduction to the project, the people involved and, in time, a bibliography of relevant secondary literature. The team is working on editions of key Irish eschatological texts, and also aim to produce a sourcebook of the main literature.

Over at Christ on the Cross, meanwhile, members of UCC’s English and Art History departments are hard at work evaluating Irish representations of the crucifixion, both literary and material. It’s just a small bit outside my own research era (the project is focussed on AD800-1200 and I’m meandering through the 700s and earlier) but is still of huge relevance. The project’s mission statement is here, and the upcoming conference on March 29-30 looks like it will be a very interesting one indeed.