Sunday, 17 December 2017

The Anglo-Saxon O Antiphons: O Caelorum Domine, Lord of the Heavens

Anglo-Saxon ivory plaque of Christ in Majesty, 11th century (V&A)

Of all the poetry you might read in Advent, the great season of paradox and interpretative possibility, the very best choice may be some of the poetry inspired by the 'O Antiphons'. The last week of Advent has for centuries belonged to these ancient songs of appeal, which are sung each day at Vespers as Christmas draws closer. You can read about the history of the O Antiphons here; these texts are now best known via J. M. Neale's hymn 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel', but they have inspired poets since the earliest days of poetry in English. In the past I've posted several Middle English poems based on these texts - two poems and two carols - as well as the exquisite Anglo-Saxon poetic meditation inspired by the antiphons, which is known today as the Advent Lyrics or as Christ I.

This poem, which survives in the tenth-century Exeter Book, is incomplete (the beginning is lost), but as it stands it consists of twelve sections, each opening with the Old English equivalent of the antiphons' 'O': Eala. Some of these sections correspond with the seven antiphons which are today the best-known, but the first three (O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse) are missing, and there are several additions; diverse medieval practice encompassed a range of further antiphons no longer used today. In past years I've looked in detail at different sections of the poem, which you can find in the following posts:

O rex gentium (lines 1-17)
O clavis David (18-49)
O Jerusalem (51-70)
O virgo virginum (71-103)
O Oriens (104-129)
O Emmanuel (130-163)
O Joseph (164-213)
O rex pacifice (214-274)

Of the twelve there are still four I haven't looked at here, and this year I'll translate and explore two more of them. It's not entirely clear whether the Advent Lyrics are one poem or a sequence of poems, but either way they benefit from being read in stages like this, piece by piece - they are poems which ask you to read them slowly and meditate upon them. Each word, each metaphor, gives forth more meaning the more you dwell upon it. The O Antiphons are reflections on the idea of Christ under his different names and titles, a shifting succession of metaphors which attempt to express something, yet not all, of what he might be: the key, the root, the king, the sun, pure and complete wisdom. I've said in the past that I think the antiphons lend themselves particularly well to Anglo-Saxon poetry because this kind of allusive naming and renaming is exactly how much Old English poetry chooses to explore ideas (usually in the form of what's called 'variation') - it's an incremental, oblique progression of thought, where each name offers a new form of understanding or a different glancing light upon the thing described.

So these are texts rich in metaphor, alive with language and images of profound beauty; and yet they are something more, because in Christ, as nowhere else, metaphor collapses into truth. The antiphons suggest that in some mystical sense what is coming at Christmas is more truly the sun (or root, or king) than the sun itself. It is the external world which is the metaphor, Christ who is the reality. God is a poet who has written the world in metaphors which reveal his truth, his self; and our task - our pleasure - is to learn how to read them.

At the same time, there's something about the antiphons, and the poems inspired by them, which is not solely meditative - they are urgent and immediate and dramatic (in every sense of that word). They are to be sung as if in the voice of the whole church, the whole world, calling out in longing to its Lord. Each is a cry of desire, bearing a startling emotional intensity, and they encourage the reader to dwell with that desire - to feel it, explore it, attempt to understand its source. What is it we long for? What do we hope for, what do we seek? Sometimes the poems articulate what they are asking for - they appeal for light, or for freedom, or for strength - but at other times the desire is left undefined, and perhaps more powerful for being so. The poems do not promise that desire will or can be fulfilled; they long for and ask for fulfillment, but they don't possess it yet. They exist forever in a state of hope and uncertainty, acknowledging the world's great wound of need, and appealing for it to be healed.

Christ in Majesty, from a 10th-century English manuscript (Cambridge, Trinity MS. B 10 4, f. 16v)

So, here's the first of this year's translations: 'O caelorum domine'. This is the antiphon on which the poem is (rather loosely) based:

O caelorum domine,
qui cum patre sempiternus es una cum sancto spiritu,
audi tuos famulos,
veni ad salvandum nos, iam noli tardare.

O Lord of the heavens,
who with the Father and the Holy Spirit eternally lives,
hear your servants,
come to save us, do not delay.

This is so simple - what could be simpler? But look what the Anglo-Saxon poet made of it.

Eala þu halga heofona dryhten,
þu mid fæder þinne gefyrn wære
efenwesende in þam æþelan ham.
Næs ænig þa giet engel geworden,
ne þæs miclan mægenþrymmes nan
ðe in roderum up rice biwitigað,
þeodnes þryðgesteald ond his þegnunga,
þa þu ærest wære mid þone ecan frean
sylf settende þas sidan gesceaft,
brade brytengrundas. Bæm inc is gemæne
heahgæst hleofæst. We þe, hælend Crist,
þurh eaðmedu ealle biddað
þæt þu gehyre hæfta stefne,
þinra niedþiowa, nergende god,
hu we sind geswencte þurh ure sylfra gewill.
Habbað wræcmæcgas wergan gæstas,
hetlen helsceaþa, hearde genyrwad,
gebunden bealorapum. Is seo bot gelong
eall æt þe anum, ece dryhten.
Hreowcearigum help, þæt þin hidercyme
afrefre feasceafte, þeah we fæhþo wið þec
þurh firena lust gefremed hæbben.
Ara nu onbehtum ond usse yrmþa geþenc,
hu we tealtrigað tydran mode,
hwearfiað heanlice. Cym nu, hæleþa cyning,
ne lata to lange. Us is lissa þearf,
þæt þu us ahredde ond us hælogiefe
soðfæst sylle, þæt we siþþan forð
þa sellan þing symle moten
geþeon on þeode, þinne willan.

O holy Lord of the Heavens,
from of old you were with your Father
equal-being in the glorious home.
Not one angel had yet been made,
nor one of the mighty and majestic host
which guards the kingdom in the skies,
the splendour-dwelling of the Prince and his thegns,
when first you were with the eternal Lord
yourself establishing this vast creation,
the wide and spacious lands. One with you both
is the sheltering Spirit. Saviour Christ,
we all pray to you in humility
that you may hear the voice of the hostages,
of your captives, Liberating God,
how we are sore pressed by our own desires.
The cursed spirits, hate-filled hell-foes,
have cruelly confined the exiled race,
bound with bale-ropes. The remedy is
dependent entirely on you alone, eternal Lord.
Help the heart-sore, that your coming here
may comfort the wretched, though we
through our desire for wickedness have made a feud against you.
Have mercy now on your servants and think on our sorrows,
how we stumble on, weak at heart,
wandering hopelessly. Come now, king of men,
do not delay too long! We need kindness,
for you to rescue us and give us the true
grace of salvation, so that we may henceforth
always be able to do the better thing
to thrive among the people: your will.

There's a very sudden shift in this poem which occurs around the halfway point - a vertiginous plummet from heaven down to hell. The first half is all glory, eternity, stability, strength; the second half suffering, sorrow, constriction, frailty. By the swiftness of the transition, the poem enacts the descent it asks for: the entry of Christ, 'Lord of the heavens', into the world of exiles and captives. It reminds me of this image from an Anglo-Saxon Psalter of a gigantic Christ leaning down to pluck his people from the jaws of hell:


This is the kind of disparity of scale the poem evokes, with its contrast between the brade brytengrundas, 'the wide and spacious lands' of his dwelling-place, and the confining (genyrwad, i.e. 'narrowed' ) limits of ours.

The first half of the poem is stately and measured, with some elegant negatives:

Næs ænig þa giet engel geworden,
ne þæs miclan mægenþrymmes nan...

Not one angel had yet been made,
nor one of the mighty and majestic host...

There's language of stability and constancy: eternity, of course, and the establishment of the heavens, described as a þryðgesteald, a 'dwelling of glory' (gesteald suggests a fixed dwelling, stable and steadfast.) And we have a reminder too that there was almost no theological concept which Anglo-Saxon translators wouldn't render in English if they could; so notice here efenwesende, 'equal-being', as the Old English for 'consubstantial'!

But the second half is darker and sadder. The last lines are very moving, offering two affecting verbs to characterise what humans do in the world: we stumble and we wander (tealtrigað and hwearfiað). The verb tealtrian suggests tottering, stumbling, unsteady movement, while hwearfian is something more turbulent: 'to turn, change, roll about, revolve, wander'. I particularly associate hwearfian with The Seafarer, where it describes the movement of the soul which flies out of the body to roam restlessly across the earth, 'eager and greedy'. That's an image, and a poem, of ravenous desire - of 'hunger' and 'longing' and 'lust', which drive the speaker out onto the ocean, away from the safe and familiar to an existence which is painful, lonely, but better than the life he has known on land.

In the Advent poem, too, desire is a powerful force. We are in captivity, bound not just by the ropes of devils (bealorapas) but by our own desires: we sind geswencte þurh ure sylfra gewill. By our love of sins (firena lust) mankind has enslaved itself, and placed itself in 'feud' with God. If the O Antiphons take their power in part from the force of their desire for God, this poem suggests what happens when that potent desire is misdirected. The only cure is liss, one of those far-ranging Old English words which means many beautiful things: mercy, favour, grace, gentleness, kindness, joy. Alliteratively speaking, liss often collocates in Anglo-Saxon poetry with life and with love; but here it's with ne lata to lange, a cry of impatience: 'Do not delay too long.'

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Herebert's 'Holy moder, that bere Cryst'

The Virgin in glory (from a fourteenth-century manuscript, BL Royal MS 6 E VII Part 2, f. 479)

It's a while since we've had any poetry on this blog, and it seems time to correct that. This year I've been paying particular attention to the works of the early fourteenth-century English poet William Herebert, and especially his sensitive, thoughtful versions of Latin hymns; and since we're in Advent, let's take a look at his version of 'Alma Redemptoris Mater', the Compline antiphon for this season. (For another Middle English poetic response to the same text, see this post.) It's a short text; the Latin is:

Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli
Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat, populo: tu quae genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.

Listen to it here. This is Herebert's version:

Holy moder, that bere Cryst, buggere of monkunde,
Thou art ȝat of hevene blisse that prest wey ȝyfst and bunde.
Thou sterre of se, rer op the folk that rysing haveth in munde.
In thee thou bere thyn holy fader,
That mayden were after and rather,
Wharof so wondreth kunde.
Of Gabrieles mouthe thou fonge thylke "Ave";
Lesne ous of sunne nouthe, so we bisecheth thee. Amen.

Which is:

Holy mother, who bore Christ, buyer of mankind,
You are gate of heaven's bliss, who gives the near and ready way.
You, star of the sea, raise up the folk who intend to rise.
Within you you bore your holy father,
Who maiden were before and after,
At which nature wonders.
From Gabriel's mouth you received the 'Ave';
Release us from sins now, we beseech you. Amen.

That gives you the sense of Herebert's version, but not the poetry. Herebert is a faithful translator but he always adds something to his sources, and close attention to his choice of language is immensely rewarding. I've been thinking recently about how approaching familiar texts through Old and Middle English translations brings to life certain aspects of religious language which have become, in Modern English, so conventional and familiar as to be almost dead metaphors. There's a perfect example here in Herebert's version of redemptor, which is buggere, to be pronounced (I promise!) as buyer - the sense being that Christ has 'bought back' (i.e. redeemed) mankind from the slavery of sin. It's a fairly common Middle English translation of redemptor, giving an English equivalent rather than adopting, as we do now, the Latin word; redeemer turned up late in English, in the fifteenth century, and Herebert's far from the only one to use buyer or again-buyer. (The Wycliffe Bible says: 'I wot that myn aȝeenbiere liueth, and in the laste dai I am to rise fro the erthe...')

The financial metaphor is there in the Latin redemptor, of course - emptor is buyer, as in 'caveat emptor' - but it's probably not alive to most people today who use the word 'redeemer'. (Though other poets have made use of it; compare, perhaps, 'Redemption' by Herebert's namesake, George Herbert...) But it was alive to Herebert, and must have been to a medieval reader of this poem. Herebert's whole first line is only translating three words of the Latin, the opening phrase of the hymn - alma redemptoris mater - and yet he has space not only for that metaphor but also for aural play on buyer and bear, a similarity of sound which links Mary's action ('bearing') to Christ's action ('buying'), and thus underlines the fundamental link between them which motivates the whole poem: the role that Mary plays in salvation, through her choice to become Christ's entry into the world and her acts of love to mankind.


The hymn imagines Mary as the open door to heaven, a road by which Christ enters the world and by which mankind can travel to joy. Herebert's description of that road is again a little more expansive than the Latin, and he plays with a beautiful ambiguity in his language which is not present (I think) in his source. He says that Mary the 'prest wey ȝyfst and bunde'; I translated this above as 'gives the near and ready way', but it's not quite as simple as that. Both prest and bunde mean something like 'ready, prepared, near at hand', and the sense is that the road to heaven is accessible and open (pervia is the Latin word he's building on). However, both words mean a good deal more than 'open'. Both also connote energy, readiness, and eagerness, and in other Middle English texts are more often used of people than of objects or roads: of an army preparing for battle, a servant promptly attending on his lord, a lover eager to do his lady's bidding - of anyone quick, lively, spirited, attentive, ready to spring into action. They're incredibly life-filled words.

And so, perhaps, they suggest the eager, life-bearing, near-at-hand person in an Advent context: Christ, who stands ready to spring into the world through the gate opened by Mary. Herebert's verb ȝyfst offers more than the Latin, too: Mary 'gives' (not only 'remains') the way to heaven, and of course, she gives Christ to the world. The way in this poem is primarily the road to heaven but Christ, too, is 'the way', and the adjectives used to describe the way here could apply equally well - if not rather better - to him.

Herebert's Christ is always an energetic figure, active, determined, and forceful, brimming with physical as well as spiritual vitality. I talked about this earlier in the year in reference to Herebert's poems for Easter and the Ascension, which have Christ climbing onto the cross and then into the skies, and it's most obvious of all in his poem 'What is he, this lordling, that cometh from the fight?' In that poem he imagines Christ as a young knight coming bloodied from battle, who through his strength and douhtynesse has won a hard struggle against evil. This is the Christ whom the medieval church saw in the young man of the Song of Songs, who comes seeking his beloved:

Look, he comes leaping on the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle, or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me, 'Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away. For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone... Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.'

As Gregory the Great wrote (and an Anglo-Saxon poet turned into poetry):

Hence it is that Solomon has put into the mouth of the Church the words: 'Behold, He cometh! leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills.' These hills are his lofty and noble achievements. 'Behold, He cometh leaping upon the mountains.'

When He came to redeem us, He came, if I may so say, in leaps. My dearly beloved brethren, would you know what His leaps were? From heaven he leapt into the womb of the Virgin, from the womb into the manger, from the manger on to the Cross, from the Cross into the grave, and from the grave up to heaven.

Lo, how the Truth made manifest in the Flesh did leap for our sakes, that He might draw us to run after Him for this end did He rejoice, as a strong man to run a race.
This isn't the passive, suffering Christ of most medieval poetry about the Crucifixion, nor the grave gentle Jesus of later imaginings; it's something immensely vital, virile and alive, a shape-shifting force of pure energy. Herebert's word prest exactly describes this Christ.


But Christ is only hinted at here; the focus of the hymn is Mary, and her intermediary role. The images of her as 'gate of heaven' and 'star of the sea' are familiar ones, which Herebert also translates in his version of another Marian hymn, 'Ave maris stella'. I'll come back to the 'gate' image in another post this Advent (if I get around to it!) because there's a wonderful Anglo-Saxon poem which does even more, brilliantly, with that image of Mary as the door between the worlds. Here it's only one aspect of her role as mediator. She is implored 'rer op the folk that rysing haveth in munde' ('raise up the folk who want to rise', with a nice alliterative touch), and 'lesne ous of sunne', a more specific petition than the Latin's peccatorum miserere - asking to be 'released' from sin loops back to the opening idea of Christ as 'redeemer'. So the poem comes full circle, and returns to the link between Mary's action and Christ's - the one who bought us and the one who bore him.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

St Edmund and Abingdon

St Edmund (Chichester Cathedral)

16 November is the feast of St Edmund of Abingdon, Oxford scholar and Archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1240. (It's also the feast of St Margaret of Scotland and one of the feasts of St Ælfheah, a predecessor of Edmund's at Canterbury two centuries earlier.) St Edmund had a long and somewhat turbulent career, as many medieval bishops did, and we have a mass of detailed information about his life - the cause of his canonisation was started very shortly after his death, which means that materials to support the cause were gathered from his contemporaries and those who had known him well.

For me (quite selfishly), the interest of the hagiographical material about St Edmund lies in his early life, as a child in Abingdon and then a young scholar in late twelfth-century Oxford. It gives a vivid picture of Oxford in the early days of the university, which is not dissimilar, in some essential ways, from the work of universities and schools today. Education was one of the glories of the medieval church, and it's a shame that so many people today believe (on the basis of unthinking assumption, rather than fact) that the church in the Middle Ages was somehow 'anti-education'; nothing could be further from the truth, as St Edmund's life and story (and those of many others like him) demonstrate.

It’s also rare to know so much about the early life of a medieval figure, or to have such specific details about their childhood that it becomes possible to visit and envision the scenes of their youthful experiences. In this post I thought I'd share some of those early stories about Edmund, and take you on a visit to Abingdon, where they still cherish the memory of their home-grown saint.

All quotations are taken from the thirteenth-century The Life of St Edmund by Matthew Paris, ed. and trans. C. H. Lawrence (Stroud, 1996).

St Nicholas' church, Abingdon

Abingdon is a market town on the River Thames, six miles south of Oxford, and (like the village of Eynsham, north of the city) it has a much longer history - and longer scholarly history - than its more famous university neighbour. Abingdon actually claims to be 'the oldest town in Britain', because there's evidence of settled inhabitation here in the Iron Age; it subsequently became a Roman town, and in the Anglo-Saxon period it was the site of an important monastery. One of the most dynamic and influential figures in the late Anglo-Saxon church, St Æthelwold - he of the splendid Benedictional, and a champion of monastic reform and education - was abbot of Abingdon before he became Bishop of Winchester, and the town still bears traces of the work he did here in the tenth century. (The abbey millstream still follows the course he set for it, a thousand years later.)

Abingdon from above, looking south-east (from the roof of the town museum)

In Edmund's day the abbey would have been an imposing presence in the town, physically, institutionally, and psychologically. It was a major landowner here and for miles around, as well as the chief provider of education and healthcare. St Edmund was born in Abingdon around 1174, probably into a fairly prosperous middle-class family in trade. His parents were named Reginald and Mabel, and Edmund seems to have been the eldest of a large family; he had at least three brothers and two sisters, whom he took responsibility for after his parents’ death. Edmund's name might perhaps suggest that he was born or baptised on the feast of St Edmund of East Anglia (20 November); in the last days of his life he made reference to his namesake, telling his companions that after his death he would return to them on the feast of St Edmund, king and martyr, so perhaps he saw a link between himself and the Anglo-Saxon saint.

Abingdon from the river

Records show that Edmund's father owned several properties in Abingdon, and the family home was in West Street (now West St Helen Street). The house was remembered as Edmund's birthplace, and a chapel was established nearby at the end of the thirteenth century in memory of the saint. The street-name St Edmund's Lane preserves the name:



These were relatively modest origins, and it was entirely through Edmund's parents' commitment to his education, and his own hard work, that he later achieved a position of eminence. It was Edmund’s mother Mabel who was the guiding and inspiring influence of his early life, especially his education. His father died when Edmund was young, and Mabel encouraged her sons’ education, supporting them first at Oxford and then at Paris. She was a particularly devout and determined woman, known for her works of fasting, almsgiving and prayer; ‘of all the widows of Abingdon she was said to have been the jewel’, Matthew Paris says.

Abingdon has two medieval churches in addition to the lost abbey church, and one of them, St Nicholas', is associated with Mabel; at least, she was buried there. St Nicholas' stood at the edge of the abbey grounds, and though the abbey and its big church are gone, the little church of St Nicholas remains. This is what it looked like on St Edmund's day two years ago:


The church was founded in 1170, so it was brand-new in Edmund's childhood and not very old when Mabel was buried there. It has a plaque to Edmund and his mother:

A view of the inside:


Attached to the church is a gateway which would once have led into the abbey's grounds:


There's something evocative about a doorway which still stands and gapes, but no longer leads to the place it was built for.


This gateway is from the fifteenth century, and has a statue of the Virgin Mary above the door:


St Æthelwold and his fellow abbots were running a school at Abingdon when Oxford was just an ordinary Anglo-Saxon town, a ford over the Thames, but by Edmund's youth in the late twelfth century Oxford was increasingly gathering the communities of teachers, scholars and students who would in time form the nucleus of the university. Reginald and Mabel sent their son to be educated in a grammar school in Oxford, and the first signs of his future sanctity were said to have manifested themselves when he was around twelve years old. He was a devout child, and at that age he decided to pledge himself in a sacred marriage to the Virgin Mary. He placed a ring on the finger of a statue of the Virgin in token of his vow, and after making his promise he tried to remove the ring - but by miraculous power it could not be removed. (This miracle was supposed to have taken place in the church of St Mary the Virgin, in Oxford.)

Another miracle in Edmund's childhood took place when he went out one midsummer day for a walk with some fellow students in the meadows near Oxford (traditionally said to be the river meadows near what is now Magdalen College). He wandered away from his companions,
And, lo, he came upon a bush marvellously covered with most beautiful flowers, contrary to its habit and out of its proper season, scattering its fragrance far and wide all around. As he pondered on this, it occurred to him that it had some heavenly meaning, and kneeling down, he prayed, saying 'O God, who didst appear to the holy Moses on Mount Sinai in the figure of a burning bush that was not consumed, reveal to me what is portended by this miraculous thing.'

As he sank down on his knees, alone, praying tearfully, a flood of light from heaven shone round him, and in it, to his stupefaction, there appeared the infant Christ shining with great clarity, who spoke to him words of consolation: 'I am Jesus Christ, the son of Blessed Mary the Virgin, your spouse, whom you wedded with a ring and took as your Lady. I know the secrets of your heart, and I have been your inseparable companion as you walked alone. From now on I promise you that I and my mother, your spouse, shall be your helpers and comforters.' Saying this, he imprinted a blessing on the young man's brow with these words: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, and added 'Sign yourself often thus and repeat this in memory of me.'

He remained long in that place, praying on his knees and asking the Holy Spirit to grant him the learning that conduces to salvation with the other virtues.

The spire of St Helen's church, Abingdon, from the meadows outside the town

This window in the church of St Edmund and St Frideswide, Oxford, shows Edmund's vision:


The scene at the bottom is his vision of the Christ-child, with towers which evoke Oxford's spires behind him:


As he grew older Edmund continued his education at Oxford and then at Paris, before coming back to Oxford to teach. He remained a serious and devout young man, and his hagiographer observes that ‘when as a youngster of more mature years he was put to the study of liberal arts, he proceeded of his own will along the road by which he had previously been led, being – as his name signified – blessed and pure’. (The Old English name-element ead- means ‘blessed’.) He engaged in strict ascetic practices to mortify his flesh, following the example to which his mother had encouraged him; when he was studying in Paris she sent him clothes (as mothers do!) along with a hair-shirt, urging him to wear it as a form of self-discipline. But despite this he remained, his companions recalled, ‘affable and kind to others’, ‘full of joy and gaiety’, and ‘a refuge of the oppressed, a consoler of the wretched and a most kind comforter of the afflicted’.

When he became a Master of Arts and began lecturing at Oxford, he was known for going to hear mass daily before giving his lectures, ‘which was more often than customary among lecturers at that time’, comments Matthew Paris (or indeed any time, I suspect...). While he was still what we’d now call an Early Career Researcher, Edmund gave financial help to support poor scholars at the university (sometimes selling his own books in order to do so) and built a chapel in Oxford dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The miracles of this phase of Edmund’s life are closely tied to his work as a lecturer: stories tell how he contended with the devil while making lecture notes for his students; how he healed one of his scholars from a serious illness; how he miraculously kept rainclouds away when he was preaching outside, and so on. He wrote, lectured and preached with great skill and eloquence; ‘when he lectured or preached, it seemed to his hearers that the finger of God was writing in his heart the words of life that flowed from his mouth like the river of paradise.’ He had so little concern for wealth that one of his colleagues testified that ‘when he received money from his scholars, he was in the habit of placing it, or rather tossing it, in the window, as if it were available to everybody’, and people would carry it away!

By this time his mother had died, but she was still exerting a powerful influence on his life. At this point he was lecturing on the liberal arts, but had not yet progressed to teaching theology; and then he had a vision of his mother which sent him in a new direction:

[At a time when he was giving lectures on geometry to his students] his most pious mother, who had died shortly before, appeared to him in a dream, and said: ‘My son, what are those shapes to which you are giving such earnest attention?’ When he replied, 'These are the subject of my lecture,' and showed her the diagrams which are commonly used in that faculty, she promptly seized his right hand and painted three circles in it, and in the circles she wrote these three names: 'Father. Son. Holy Spirit.' This done, she said, 'My dearest son, henceforth direct your attention to these figures and to no others.'

Instructed by this dream as if by a revelation, he immediately transferred to the study of theology.

This is a lovely story – a spur of parental guidance (disapproval?) from beyond the grave! The fact that she draws circles on his hand, as a mother might with a child, is a nice touch, echoing the sign Christ drew on Edmund's forehead in his earlier vision. Mabel is not imagined here disapproving of geometry per se; the point is that this is basic knowledge, and it’s now time for Edmund to progress to higher and deeper subjects, through the study of theology. This story suggests something of the powerful bond between Edmund and his mother, enduring after her death; but it’s also relevant that in the Middle Ages educational subjects – from Boethius’ Lady Philosophy to Geometry and Theology, as in the image below – are often represented as female. Here the real woman Mabel is envisaged teaching her son as if she were a vision of Theology itself, guiding the promising student towards the Queen of the Sciences.

A female figure teaching Geometry (BL Burney 275, f. 293)

Edmund's best-known work in the Middle Ages was his Speculum Ecclesie, which was probably written during this period of his career. It's a work on the contemplative life, offering (among other things) meditations on different moments in the life of Christ, aiming to help the reader to enter imaginatively into the scenes of his Passion and feel intense compassion for his sufferings. I don't know whether people read the Speculum Ecclesie today, but most students of Middle English will have read a poem which survives as part of it. This is one of the earliest, shortest, and most popular devotional poems in Middle English:

Nou goth sonne under wod,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Nou goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

[Now goes the sun under the wood,
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face;
Now goes the sun under the tree,
I grieve, Mary, for thy son and thee.]

This short poem is designed to be a spur to meditation on the Crucifixion, perhaps at the appropriate hour of the day when the sun begins to set. Apparently very simple, the poem is dense with meaningful wordplay: as the sun sets behind the wood, so Christ the Son is shrouded in darkness on the wood of the cross, the tree; that is, the 'rode', which means both 'face', and 'rood' (cross). And here we have another pair of a mother and her son, and their strong emotional bond: the poem encourages the reader to meditate and dwell on Christ's crucifixion by approaching the Son through the Mother, to feel compassion for his suffering as it is reflected in her grief (underlined by that wordplay on 'rode' - his cross and her face). We don't know who wrote this precious little poem, but it's possible it was St Edmund himself - and either way, how wonderful it is that this poem should be associated with a saint whose mother was such an important presence in his life.

In 1222 Edmund became treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral, and began increasingly to preach outside Oxford; in 1233 he was selected (as fourth choice) to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. His time as archbishop involved mediating in various political crises and disputes between Henry III and his barons, as well as conflict between Edmund and the monks of Canterbury; but it lasted only seven years. In 1240, on his way to Rome for a council with the Pope, he was taken ill on the journey. He died, and was buried at Pontigny - a long way from Abingdon and the banks of the Thames.

On his deathbed he was happy and peaceful, and made play with a proverb which the hagiographer quotes in English:
After being fortified by the viaticum of salvation, he began to seem a little better, and became merry, as though he had been fed to repletion by the celestial banquet. Supported by a pillow so that he could sit, he looked serene and he joked with those standing around, telling them this proverb in English: ‘Men seth gamen goth on wombe. Ac ich segge, gamen goth on herte’; which is to say, play enters the belly, but now I say play enters the heart. The meaning of this epigram is: it is commonly said that a fully belly makes men joyful and ready for play; but it is my opinion that a heart fed by a spiritual feast produces a serene conscience, freedom from anxiety and joyfulness. In fact, he displayed such joyfulness and hilarity that those who were with him were quite astonished.


Edmund's name is preserved in Oxford in the college St Edmund Hall, in the east of the city, which stands on the site of a house where Edmund is said to have taught. There's a modern sculpture of Edmund in the grounds of the college (above), which shows him reading - a companion to today's students, who can sit and read next to him if they like. He is depicted in thirteenth-century stained glass, made within a few decades of his death, in the church of St Michael at the Northgate:


Back in Abingdon, the Catholic church (a Victorian building) is dedicated to him and to the Virgin Mary, the mother and bride who was so constant a presence in his spiritual life:



And to close, here are a few more pictures of Abingdon, because I'm very fond of it. A lively small town, full of civic pride and rich in history, is just about my favourite kind of community (like Edmund, I grew up in one); it's not very fashionable to love such places, but I do. Abingdon has an excellent town museum, in this gorgeous building in the centre of the town:


From the roof you can look across the town, down to the Thames and beyond to Didcot Power Station...




The clump of trees in the last picture are growing on the site of Abingdon Abbey, which still takes up a large expanse of ground in the east of the town. Much of the site is now a public park (well, a bit of it's under Waitrose carpark).


Standing here in the Middle Ages, you would have been looking at the west end of a huge church - apparently along the lines of the west front at Wells Cathedral. Can you imagine it?


This would all have been where the abbey church once stood:



The park has some picturesque ruins which look like they're the remains of the abbey, but are in fact mostly Victorian follies (in some cases with medieval stone):




Lots of empty and evocative doors to nowhere here.




But there are some remaining buildings from the abbey, too - this is the impressive 'Long Gallery' (perhaps built as a guesthouse for the abbey), dating to the fifteenth century:



Look at those beams!


And underneath are some impressive vaults:


If that's just the guesthouse, what might the church have been like...


I was in Abingdon most recently on August Bank Holiday this summer; the park was full of children and their parents, playing on the site of the abbey church, and the flowerbeds were bright with colour. I don't know what St Æthelwold would have thought of it all, but it brought Edmund and Mabel to mind.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Saints and Shrines of England


This striking monument stands in a central position in Winchester Cathedral, behind the high altar, and surrounded by empty space. It commemorates the medieval shrine of St Swithun, which was destroyed at the Reformation, and the inscription reads (in Latin on the floor, in English on the monument itself):

Whatever partakes of God is safe in God. All that could perish of Saint Swithun, being enshrined within this place and throughout many ages hallowed by the veneration and honoured by the gifts of faithful pilgrims from many lands, was by a later age destroyed. None could destroy his glory.


The monument itself evokes an absence: beneath the cloth hanging are bare ribs of metal, as of a skeleton stripped of its flesh. Swithun was a very popular saint in medieval England, and his shrine, moved at various times as the cathedral was rebuilt and reordered, was the destination of many pilgrims' journeys. At three o'clock in the morning of 21 September 1538, his shrine was demolished by the Commissioners of Henry VIII, who recorded their intention to 'sweep away all the rotten bones' they found within - bones which had for more than five hundred years been venerated as treasures.

Ælfric tells us that the Anglo-Saxon minster at Winchester, which housed the original shrine of St Swithun, 'was hung all round with the crutches and stools of cripples who had been healed there, from one end to the other on either wall - and even so they could not put half of them up'. No such offerings can be found in Winchester today, but modern pilgrims leave tokens of their presence nonetheless: votive candles, whose flames glow in the reflection of the shrine.


This is the season of All Saints, Hallowtide, and it seems a fitting time to post a collection of pictures on a theme I've been interested in for a while: how English cathedrals and major churches today choose to represent their pre-Reformation history, and especially the history of the medieval saints whose shrines they once housed. In the Middle Ages, these shrines were integral to the life, history, and physical shape of these cathedrals, a tangible embodiment (in every sense) of their shared spiritual life and their collective identity as a community. As at Winchester, these shrines were usually in a prominent and central position in the church, close to the high altar, and the history of most cathedrals was inextricably bound up with the saints whose relics they preserved, who might be their founders, early leaders, or the nucleus around which the community originally grew. The saint was both literally and metaphorically at the heart of the cathedral, and to remove them created a huge gap. When these shrines were destroyed, it left an absence in more ways than the loss of the saint's holy 'rotten bones'.

A number of churches today choose to acknowledge and commemorate that absence, and as a medievalist I'm interested in the different ways they find to do that. This post is a brief journey through the shrines of some of England's medieval saints - or rather, the empty spaces which those shrines once occupied.

Some of these churches are among the oldest surviving institutions in England, with more than a thousand years of tumultuous, yet essentially unbroken continuity, and their saints and their medieval history of pilgrimage are an unavoidable part of their story - unless they are prepared to ignore the first six or seven centuries of their history, and often their own foundation-story, these churches have to find some way of telling that story to visitors. But they don't have to do it with such eloquent generosity to the medieval past as that monument at Winchester does, and the choices they make are interesting. If space is given over to an absence, in the middle of a busy and crowded church, it becomes significant how that space is identified and used. My aim in this post is to illustrate some of the varied ways in which different churches choose to mark out that empty space - with a replica shrine, a plaque, or simply an area left clear - as well as how they encourage their visitors to approach and interact with it. Do they treat it primarily as an architectural feature, as a historical curiosity, or as a place for prayer? It's surprising, perhaps, how often the third of those options is the case; these churches are, of course, all Anglican cathedrals, which makes it all the more remarkable that they (and their visitors and worshippers) are prepared to embrace these relics of medieval Catholic devotion. They don't always call them 'shrines' - is something like that monument to Swithun a shrine itself, or a memorial to a lost shrine? - but it seems a fine line to me between commemorating the shrine and effectively recreating it.

What is clear in all cases, though, is that these saints still matter to the churches which once housed their shrines. They are still a part of the stories these places tell about their own history and identity - not in the ways they would have been in the Middle Ages, but nonetheless in ways which are meaningful and significant both to the churches and to those who visit them. One thing which surprised me at many of these shrines, again and again, was how many votive candles had been left burning beside them by visitors who had been there before me. As a medievalist, I get to hear a great deal about how weird and alien medieval devotion to saints and shrines is to a 'modern audience', but these churches and their visitors seem to feel differently - and that might be worth bearing in mind next time you hear someone holding forth about medieval 'superstition'. Even if they do not subscribe to medieval (or modern) Catholic beliefs about saints and their relics, many of these churches are generous enough to acknowledge that there is something special about a place which was the destination of so many pilgrims' journeys, as if once the shrine itself is gone the thousands of prayers can hallow even the empty air.


Her ongynð secgean be þam Godes sanctam þe on engla lande ærest reston. ('Here begins the account of God's saints who rest in England.')

As I was compiling this post it reminded me of the Anglo-Saxon text known as the 'List of Saints' Resting Places', the opening of which you can see above in an eleventh-century manuscript. This text gives a survey of the saints of England and the places where their relics lie, and many of those saints are those still commemorated in the same places, a thousand years later. This text arranges its saints by rough geographical area - from Northumbria into Mercia, down to East Anglia, Kent and Wessex - so I've mostly followed that order in this post. My collection is far from comprehensive, since it's just really based on places I've visited myself, so there are doubtless many places not included which ought to be - I haven't been to Hereford Cathedral, for instance, which appears to have a magnificently colourful shrine, or to St Albans. St Alban is actually the first saint in the 'List of Saints' Resting Places', followed by Columba - and then comes St Cuthbert, so let's start with him. At Durham Cathedral, the site of Cuthbert's shrine is marked out very prominently:

(image from here)

Visitors are guided to walk around the shrine (up one set of stairs and down another) and reminded that this is a special place, slightly set apart. When I visited last year, a number of people were sitting quietly there or lighting candles. Similarly, in the cathedral's unusual Galilee Chapel at the west end of the church, Bede's tomb is treated as a place for private prayer:


After Cuthbert the 'List of Saints' Resting Places' tells us about its next great Northumbrian saint: Þonne resteð Sancte Oswald cyninge on bebban byrig wið þa sæ, 7 his heafod resteð mid Sancte Cuðberhte 7 his swyðra earm is nu on bebban byrig ('St Oswald the king rests at Bamburgh beside the sea, and his head rests with St Cuthbert, and his right arm is now at Bamburgh'). St Oswald, who died in 642, was a very popular saint, and in the Middle Ages his relics were dispersed between a number of churches: his head was buried with St Cuthbert, and other relics could be found in Gloucester, Peterborough, and at Bamburgh 'beside the sea'.

Within the walls of Bamburgh Castle today, you can visit the chapel where those relics once were:


There's no shrine here or anything like it, but this kind of collection wouldn't be complete without some ruins of medieval churches and chapels; they were shrines too, and the lack of any religious presence here - this is just a space inside a castle - is as much worth noting as its survival elsewhere. Nearby, in the church of St Aidan at Bamburgh, it's slightly different; there you can see a spot associated with St Aidan:


According to Bede, it was St Aidan who - seeing Oswald distributing food to the poor - blessed the king's right hand, exclaiming 'May this hand never wither!' Oswald's right arm, severed at his death in battle, remained miraculously incorrupt, and was later preserved as a relic at Peterborough Abbey. (More of that in a moment...)

But now for Mercia, and the example which first got me interested in the idea for this post: Lichfield Cathedral, which places its Anglo-Saxon saint front and centre.


Lichfield's saint is Chad, who established a monastery and episcopal see here in the middle of the seventh century. St Chad died at Lichfield in 672, and his shrine continued to attract pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. The site of his shrine was beyond the high altar, and a place is now marked out near the spot with an icon, a plaque, flowers, prayers, and candles:


The sign on the left is information about the shrine of St Chad, on the right a prayer for recent victims of terrorist attacks in London - a striking juxtaposition of the medieval and modern.

Chad's head was kept separately in an upper chapel, which you can also visit:



Modern cathedral visitors like going up and down stairs as much as medieval pilgrims did - crypts and upper chapels feature several times in this collection, as spaces set apart (then and now) as special and self-contained areas for prayer.


Lichfield has some particular advantages in presenting its medieval past to visitors. This is the wonderful 'Lichfield Angel', discovered under the floor of the cathedral in 2003, which may have formed part of the Anglo-Saxon shrine of St Chad. It probably dates to around 800, and is now displayed next to the St Chad Gospels, a beautifully decorated Anglo-Saxon manuscript which has been at Lichfield since at least the eleventh century.


These are two remarkable treasures for a cathedral to have, and they are displayed in an accessible and informative way which puts Chad and his shrine in their historical context. Visiting this summer, I was interested to see how Chad has become integrated into the recent growth of interest in Anglo-Saxon Mercia, sparked partly by the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard in 2009. Lichfield Cathedral is now part of the Mercian Trail, which also incorporates the museums displaying the hoard and Tamworth Castle, all of which provide vivid glimpses into the early history of Mercia. Tourism and pilgrimage have always gone hand-in-hand, and clearly Chad's shrine is now part of a new focus for the heritage industry in this area - it's a fascinating example of how a discovery like the Staffordshire Hoard can provide an impetus for re-imagining how an unfamiliar period of history can be presented to the public. But the prayers and candles at Chad's shrine show this is not 'just' heritage - the visitor is encouraged to reflect on something more.


From this plethora of Anglo-Saxon history, it's an interesting contrast to turn to another Mercian shrine - a much smaller one (and not in a cathedral), but worth mentioning nonetheless because it's such a special place. Repton, which I wrote about at greater length here, has an Anglo-Saxon crypt which may at one time have housed the shrine of St Wigstan. (Þonne resteð Sancte Wigstan on þam mynstre Hreopedune, neah þære ea Treante, says the 'List of Saints' Resting Places'.)


This small, atmospheric space is left dark and unadorned, and here the candles suggest a shrine, without quite attempting to reconstruct one. They are a reminder that this little crypt is not just an amazing architectural survival, but a holy space - in some ways, the closest one can come to visiting the semi-underground kind of arrangement which we know some early medieval shrines had.


Now, like St Guthlac, let's go from Repton to Crowland, where we find a different kind of absence. Crowland was one of the great Fenland abbeys, and the north aisle of what was the abbey church is still in use as the parish church. But the rest of the abbey church is in ruins:



The shrine of St Guthlac would have been around this area, near the high altar, but there's nothing to say where:


In this case the ruin itself serves as the empty space; a church with a ruin attached is a powerful image of destruction. Crowland provides information on Guthlac, but doesn't attempt to recreate his shrine, and in this it's quite a contrast to some of the other great Fenland churches, especially Ely Cathedral, home of the cult of St Etheldreda since the seventh century. At Ely, a prominent and central space is set aside within the choir to commemorate Etheldreda's shrine:



Visitors are also encouraged to light candles before a statue of the saint:


And to take away prayer cards, which describe medieval pilgrimage in sympathetic terms which deftly connect the modern visitor with those who have visited Etheldreda's shrine over the centuries:


This is, as you may have guessed, my own preferred attitude to medieval pilgrimage - to recognise the humanity of those who sought out these shrines, and to treat them not as ignorant superstitious dupes but as people with comprehensible needs and desires. It's funny to see a very different attitude to Ely's in the neighbouring diocese of Peterborough, which adopts a much more negative tone from its fellow cathedrals in talking about medieval saints. When I visited in 2015, this display board in the nave made its opinion clear:


In reference to the arm of St Oswald, kept as a relic at Peterborough before the Reformation, we are told:


Ouch! As a medievalist, I'm naturally inclined to think this attitude both over-simplified and quite disrespectful to the people who built this great cathedral - but that's just my view, and I'm actually surprised it isn't more widely represented in what are, after all, Anglican churches. It is also, however, deeply ironic, because just a few feet away from this condemnation of saints and shrines is... an impromptu shrine.


This is the tomb of Katherine of Aragon, and here people leave pomegranates as offerings (?) to the queen. She's not a saint, but people do love a mistreated princess. Is this more or less 'superstitious' than venerating the relics of St Oswald? Squash out relic-veneration all you like, people just make themselves new saints and new rituals.


But if relics are a step too far, Peterborough does actually have what may be the remains of an Anglo-Saxon shrine:


And the saints aren't ignored - there's a chapel dedicated to two of Peterborough's very early female saints (who feature in the 'List of Saints' Resting Places'):



And this nice window to some illustrious Anglo-Saxon Benedictines:


That's St Dunstan, St Æthelwold, King Edgar and Queen Ælfthryth (I think), who were all credited with involvement in the tenth-century refoundation of Peterborough Abbey - and even, in the bottom left, the twelfth-century Peterborough chronicler Hugh Candidus. So it's a good show for the medieval saints, and we'll have to forgive the appearance of that awful word 'superstitious'. ;)


Ely and Peterborough are both beautiful and impressive cathedrals, and to turn from there to Bury St Edmunds - their equal and rival in the Middle Ages - is to realise how easily those beauties could have been lost. Bury St Edmunds no longer has the shrine of St Edmund, which would have stood among what are now the ruins of one of the greatest churches in England:


But in the small church nearby - which is now the cathedral, though much smaller than the abbey church would have been - there's a reminder of the medieval splendour of Edmund's shrine:


This is a tapestry based on an image from the fifteenth-century manuscript BL Harley 2278, a lavishly illustrated manuscript of Lydgate's Life of St Edmund. It shows Henry VI praying at Edmund's golden shrine - a reminder of what once stood where the grass now grows.

It's worth mentioning, of course, that the story of these shrines is not all one of destruction - sometimes the twenty-first century has new shrines which their medieval churches never knew. East Anglia has not just these shrines, plus all the renewed pilgrim activity at Walsingham, but also the church of St Julian in Norwich, which is now very much a shrine to its most famous inhabitant:



This is a reconstruction of Julian's cell, which was destroyed by bombing. When Julian of Norwich was an anchoress here we know that people came to seek her out, but that was because they wanted the wisdom of the living woman - not to make pilgrimage to a saint. No one in the Middle Ages would have brought offerings or lit candles at Julian's shrine, but since the twentieth century pilgrims have been doing those things in this little suburban church. They buy hazelnuts, as pilgrim tokens.


From East Anglia let's move swiftly on into Kent (skipping over London, because I can't afford to visit St Edward's shrine at Westminster Abbey...). Canterbury Cathedral, of course, provides several examples, as one of medieval Europe's most popular shrines and pilgrimage destinations. The empty space once occupied by the shrine of St Thomas Becket is marked by a single candle in the lofty east end of the cathedral:


The little candle is dwarfed by the space, and it's a powerful memorial. All this part of the cathedral was rebuilt to house St Thomas' shrine - the pillars are red marble as an allusion to his holy blood, and all the windows (treasures of thirteenth-century art) depict his miracles. Those windows tell lively stories of people from all classes who sought out the shrine of St Thomas for healing and help, but the shrine to which they came is gone.

The site of his martyrdom is also dramatically highlighted, and made a place for prayer:


As well as these points for devotion to St Thomas, in the crypt there is an atmospheric space set aside for prayer, dedicated to Our Lady of Canterbury:

As you can see, visitors are encouraged to light candles and take prayer cards here, and there's a beautiful statue made in 1982. It's a wonderfully quiet space in the middle of a cathedral almost always full of tourists ('from every shire's end...'). One thing I do find odd about Canterbury Cathedral, though, is how much Thomas Becket overshadows its other saints - the Anglo-Saxon archbishops Dunstan and Alphege had shrines near the high altar too, but you can't find those sites unless you're specifically looking for them. St Anselm has a chapel, but there are no prayer cards or candles for him. An interesting choice of priorities, reflecting which saints are popular today (and in the late Middle Ages) rather than at other possible points in Canterbury's 1400-year history.

While we're in Canterbury, I ought also to mention one of its other major medieval shrines, lost among the remains of St Augustine's Abbey:


St Augustine of Canterbury, his sainted fellow-missionaries, King Ethelbert, and Bertha of Kent were all buried here, but only concrete blocks mark out the sites of their tombs.


English Heritage do an excellent job presenting the history of this church to the public, but of course it's an archaeological and historical site - not anything close to a shrine. Though it's obvious why they don't encourage visitors to interact with this site in the same way the cathedrals do, it's important to remember that this was once a place of devotion and pilgrimage, just as Canterbury Cathedral was or any of the other churches in this post. The difference between them today is an accident of history, more than anything else.

As an additional note: a shrine to St Augustine has recently been built, along medieval lines, in the church in Ramsgate which is 'England’s newest shrine recalling England’s first missionary': here's a picture.


From Kent into Sussex, and Chichester Cathedral. Above is the site of the shrine of St Richard of Chichester, bishop here in the thirteenth century. It's behind the high altar, and the cathedral website provides a useful guide to the mixture of modern art and medieval devotion here. 'The Shrine of St Richard in Chichester was considered by many to be the third most important in the land after St Thomas in Canterbury and the Virgin Mary at Walsingham, so brought pilgrims to both the city and the cathedral. The gifts they brought to the shrine provided the funds that largely ran the cathedral and enabled refurbishment in those times, as do the gifts of visitors today', it says (a more fair-minded way of talking about pilgrimage-as-fundraising than you sometimes see!). 'The modern area is a raised platform with a Purbeck marble altar designed by Robert Potter in 1984... Behind the altar is a tapestry screen designed by the German artist Ursula Benker-Schirmer in 1985.' The tapestry illustrates some of the miracles of St Richard.


'History repeats itself in the shrine area,' the cathedral website says, 'with treasures for modern pilgrims to see and prayers are given and candles lit exactly as medieval pilgrims did in the past.'


And indeed they are, in large numbers - each one the flame of a prayer, or an individual's thought.


We've already seen a Wessex shrine at Winchester, where candles burn for St Swithun; but it's also worth mentioning one of Wessex's shrines which is now in ruins. Above are the remains of Shaftesbury Abbey, where the Anglo-Saxon saint Edward the Martyr was buried. It's a museum now, a very nice one, and here (unlike at St Augustine's in Canterbury) there's an effort to suggest a church within the ruins:


Three more examples. First, Worcester Cathedral, once home to two medieval saints, St Oswald of Worcester and St Wulfstan. By one of the ironies of history, the space near the high altar which once held their shrines is now home to a very different kind of draw to the tourists:


In the centre here is the tomb of King John, who is here because he wanted to be buried near to the shrines of Wulfstan and Oswald. Their tombs are gone and his remains, one of the cathedral's main tourist attractions; between this and Katherine of Aragon, it seems that royal tombs play some of the same role within cathedrals as saints' tombs once did. Worcester doesn't attempt to reconstruct St Wulfstan's shrine or point out where it might have been, but they do give space to remember the saint in the eleventh-century crypt:


They also have (or did when I was there last year; I don't know if it's permanent) a fantastic exhibition on the medieval history of the cathedral, including images of manuscripts produced at the monastery, quotations from Old English texts and reflections on Anglo-Saxon spirituality. But no 'shrine' as such.

Finally, into Oxfordshire. Þonne resteð Sancta Fryðeswyð on Oxnaforda, 'St Frideswide rests at Oxford', says the 'List of Saints' Resting Places'; centuries before Oxford had a university, it had St Frideswide and her shrine. The Priory of St Frideswide was seized by Thomas Wolsey in 1525, who founded a college on the site which became Christ Church, one of the richest of Oxford's colleges. The church of the priory is Oxford Cathedral, which has a monument to the shrine on whose destruction its wealth was built:


(You'd really think I would have a picture of this in daytime, but apparently I don't!) This chapel is in the north-east corner of the cathedral, and is frequently used a site for modern art inspired by Frideswide's story - it also has a Burne-Jones window showing Frideswide's life in vivid colour.


And finally a shrine which brings us full circle. This is Dorchester Abbey in Oxfordshire, which has a modern reconstruction of the shrine of its Anglo-Saxon bishop, St Birinus:


In the Middle Ages Birinus was also venerated in Winchester, and in front of the shrine of St Swithun in Winchester Cathedral, with which we began, there is a fragment of the medieval shrine of St Birinus encased in a cross:


The inscription reads 'The fragments of the Shrine of Birinus, first Bishop of Dorchester, set in this cross, were given by Dorchester Abbey to commemorate the 1300th anniversary of the transfer of the See of Wessex from Dorchester to Winchester, 1979'. The shrine itself has become a relic.


In some ways these pictures speak for themselves, but I'll just say a few things in closing. Firstly, I think all this is admirable and worthy of praise; I complain every now and then about negative portrayals of medieval religion, and there's no doubt that just dismissing medieval shrines as silly superstition is by far the easiest attitude to take. But these are all examples (and fairly recent examples, mostly from the past few decades) of churches engaging seriously and sensitively with their medieval history, and being open to seeing the good in it. They embrace saints as their founders or as significant figures in their history, and find them useful as a means of telling stories about their past. One reason I included the quotations from the 'List of Saints' Resting Places' is to make the point that these are ancient shrines - many of them date back to the seventh or eighth century, and in most cases the medieval history of these churches 'outweighs', in simple temporal measure, their post-Reformation history: some of them had been in existence for eight hundred years or more before the Reformation, which is only five hundred years ago. It's easy from a modern perception to elide all that time - it's all just the Dark Ages, isn't it? Just mud and darkness. But eight hundred years is a very long time. We are closer in time to the Reformation than sixteenth-century pilgrims were to the Anglo-Saxon saints whose relics they venerated, and that ought to put into perspective the modern tendency to assume everything 'medieval' is all just basically the same.

And secondly, I admire the willingness of these churches to see and point out parallels between medieval pilgrims and their own twenty-first century visitors. It's so common to see medieval pilgrims treated as 'other', as stereotypes, as fools or dupes whose devotions deserve only to be joked about or cynically explained away. (All about greedy monks and money-raising, right?) This is a popular media perception, but these modern shrines - or memorials to shrines - suggest that many ordinary people do not find the practices of medieval devotion as utterly alien as this perception would suggest. Of course, modern visitors don't interact with shrines in the same ways medieval pilgrims did, and the absence of physical relics does make a big difference. But not perhaps as much as you might think. Who knows what the people who visit the shrines to St Chad or St Etheldreda or St Swithun think about when they light candles in these places? I wouldn't presume to guess. Many probably think of themselves as tourists, not as pilgrims, and light a candle as a nice thing to do; others do it with clear intention and particular prayers in mind. No one does it because they're expected to - it's entirely a personal choice. Are the hopes, desires, and fears which those candle flames represent really so different from those of medieval pilgrims, even if the beliefs which structure them have changed? There are now, as there were in the Middle Ages, a variety of ways for people to interact with these holy places, and the beliefs people bring to them vary. But the very fact that these spaces are made the focus of attention and reflection, and prayer, means that there is some kinship. In one sense these shrines are lost, destroyed - they are absences, as I began by saying. But they aren't actually empty; they are, to visitors today as in the Middle Ages, full of meaning.