Margaret Coombe / Anne Mouron / Christiania Whitehead (eds.): Saints of North-East England, 600-1500 (= Medieval Church Studies; Vol. 39), Turnhout: Brepols Publishers NV 2017, XVIII + 360 S., 19 s/w-Abb., 4 Tabl., ISBN 978-2-503-56715-0, EUR 100,00
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Saints range from the universal to the highly local, from Mary and Peter and George to those whose cult might extend to only one church and whose name would be unknown beyond the immediate locality. There are also saints between these two extremes, those of regional fame, and the volume reviewed here is addressed to a group of such regional saints, those of north-east England (the kingdom of Northumbria in the early Middle Ages), with contributions ranging in time from the early days of Christianity among the English of the region in the seventh century to the violent suppression of the cult of the saints after the Protestant Reformation, described in detail by Margaret Harvey. The topics addressed in the book tend to cluster into two periods, however: the Age of Bede, as it has been called, when Bede's writings, especially his Ecclesiastical History (completed in 731) cast an especially informative light on the subject, and then what the editors here call "The Long Twelfth Century", a period when numerous substantial and detailed texts (several of which call out for modern editions and translations) provide a rich picture of the cult of the saints in northern England.
Dominating both periods, and indeed the book itself, is the figure of St Cuthbert. Cuthbert's cult is unusual. There are four early accounts of his life and miracles (three by Bede, one anonymous) and we have good knowledge of the beginnings of his cult. He died and was buried on the holy island of Lindisfarne in 687. In 698 his tomb was opened and his body found to be incorrupt. He was then placed in a carved wooden coffin and enshrined above the church floor. Thereafter, his remains became the focus of continuity in what is otherwise a story remarkable for its discontinuity: the monks abandoned Lindisfarne in 875 because of Viking attacks, then wandered with the saint's relics for several years before settling at various sites, finally and permanently at Durham in 995. By this time the community was no longer monastic but after the Norman Conquest, in 1083, Benedictines were introduced to Durham. The magnificent new cathedral was begun in 1093 and Cuthbert's remains translated to a new shrine there in 1104. In all probability, they are still there, in the east end of the cathedral, more than 1300 years after his death. The coffin into which he was placed in 698 is still on display in Durham. Truly, "the figure of Cuthbert binds the past to the present" (136).
Several of the contributors to this volume write about aspects of Cuthbert's cult: the possibility that his mentor, Boisil, was Irish (Sarah McCann); evidence for his cult in the south of England in the late Anglo-Saxon period (Alison Hudson); an argument that the translation of 1104 was intended to echo that of 698 (Dominic Marner); an attempt to establish a symbolic link between Cuthbert's wanderings with the liturgy at the cathedral, based for some reason on late-sixteenth-century evidence (Allan Doig); an analysis of the programme of the now-vanished painted glass depicting Cuthbert (Lynda Rollason).
But there are other northern saints, of both the seventh and twelfth centuries. The volume contains a lively analysis of the theme of exile in the Life of Wilfrid, a contemporary of Cuthbert's distinguished for his cantankerousness and quarrelsomeness (Alice Hicklin), and two essays on Godric of Finchale, a hermit-saint of the twelfth-century, one seeing parallels between Godric and the literary figure of the "Wild Man" (Dominic Alexander), the other containing a meticulous investigation into the manuscript evidence for the songs attributed to him - traditionally regarded as "the earliest songs in the English language to survive with their musical notation" (219, Margaret Coombe). David Rollason deals with the saints of Hexham, where the Augustinian canons who were established in the church in 1113 regarded the early, often obscure, bishops of Hexham in the period when it had been an episcopal see (678-c. 821) as saints, translating their relics and depicting them on screens and altarpieces hundreds of years after the extinction of the diocese.
The longest and most original contribution is a 58-page essay by Richard Sharpe on the banners of these northern saints. St Cuthbert's banner is recorded in the twelfth century being brought into the town of Durham to quell a fire, and during the wars between England and Scotland that shaped the region between 1296 and 1560 it was carried by English armies into Scotland on many occasions - the huge surviving documentation of the English royal government allows us to know such details as how long it was taken for and how much the bearer was paid. An earlier military deployment of the banners of the northern saints occurred in 1138, when the banners of St Peter of York, St Wilfrid of Ripon and St John of Beverley were raised on a ship's mast in the midst of the English defenders facing invasion by King David of Scotland. The contraption was so memorable that the ensuing battle is even called the Battle of the Standard.
Richard Sharpe sees this use of banners as part of "the northern saints' distinctive role" (295) but it is not clear that there is anything else distinctive about the saints considered in the volume. Sarah Foot argues that the defining feature of the early saints of northern England, as depicted by Bede, is that they "were those who imitated Christ and his apostles most closely" (31), but this is hardly specific. The value of the book is thus in the parts rather than the whole. Anyone interested in the physical history of shrines will benefit from Alan Thacker's consideration of that subject, and scholars dealing with the so-called Sawley manuscript, an important twelfth-century historical and hagiographical compendium, will have to read Helen Appleton's piece on that book, but the volume does not have a coherent subject, and this is exacerbated by the very light editing - we have the basic facts of Cuthbert's life recounted on page 305 after dozen of pages on him earlier in the volume - and by the absence of an index, which it should be the duty of editors to provide.