Graham Jones

title.none: Cartwright, ed., Celtic Hagiography (Graham Jones)

identifier.other: baj9928.0510.018 05.10.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Graham Jones, St. Johns' College, Oxford,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Cartwright, Jane, ed. Celtic Hagiography and Saints' Cults. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 339. $69.00 0-7083-1750-2. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.10.18

Cartwright, Jane, ed. Celtic Hagiography and Saints' Cults. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 339. $69.00 0-7083-1750-2. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Graham Jones
St. Johns' College, Oxford

The value of this ably edited volume is two-fold. First, it demonstrates the range of evidence and approaches available towards the recovery and appraisal of both official and popular understandings of, and devotion to, Christian saints, and the variety of uses to which such studies can be put. Hagiographic texts only take us so far. Penelope Dransart, inquiring into 'Saints, stones and shrines: the cults of Sts Moluag and Gerardine in Pictland', marries clues from early medieval inscribed stones with those of dedications and devotional traditions to the present day. Second, the book is thematically exciting. The widest possible readership should have a chance of assessing John Koch's arresting thesis that Patrick, apostle of the Irish, may have been the Treasury official appointed by the Emperor Magnus Maximus to take charge of the case against Priscillian, Bishop of Avila, the first Christian executed for heresy by a Christian state. Likewise, Wyn Evans, Dean of St Davids, deserves wide reception of his discussion about the possible succession there of churches and saintly patrons. His contribution bears reading in the context of two other recent collections of essays, The Cross Goes North and Local Saints for Local Churches. [1] Through analysis of aspects of the architectural history of St Davids Cathedral, and more widely of the devotional landscape of Menevia and south-west Dyfed generally, he builds up a persuasive case for concluding that David, Wales's patron saint, was a relative latecomer as patron of the cathedral and diocese where he was bishop and which bears his name. Evans assesses indications of earlier commemoration of a saint Justinian, then of the apostle Andrew, setting up a model which could be usefully deployed elsewhere. Another, but by no means the only other, essay deserving of a large audience is 'Fasting, flesh and the body in the St Brendan dossier,' Jonathan Wooding's highly original and revealing interpretation of references to eating practices as a guide for monks to the fasting practices of other communities and places.

All these essays excite responses from other regions. This is one of the book's great strengths. Its richly eclectic character was possible because the conference from which it stemmed brought together scholars who study diverse material relating to lands where Celtic languages are or have been spoken. Opportunities are rare to compare recent work across this region. Ironically, the title which reflects this strength also risks diminishing the audience the book deserves. Publishers realise that 'Celtic' in a title ensures a good sale in certain home, and to some extent captive, markets. There are also the many potential unschooled buyers for whom 'Celtic' resonates with a sense of mystery and gnosis. But was the present decision of the University of Wales Press in the best interests of the contributors and of scholarship at large? The risks for a ground-breaking scholar like Cartwright are of having one's work (and in this case that of equally distinguished colleagues) perceived as out of the mainstream; even, most unjustly, of belonging to the 'we are different -- and apart' school of thought that survives in a few nooks and crannies of intellectual and political life in the westernmost parts of Europe. Similarly, everyone loses when an important text like Cartwright's previous study of the Welsh-language Lives of women saints (again, a University of Wales Press publication) is denied to those without benefit of time or opportunity to learn Welsh. The loss is easily gauged by reference to Cartwright's own excellent contribution here, 'The harlot and the hostess: a preliminary study of the Middle Welsh Lives of Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha.' It is much to be regretted that present public policy prevents larger audiences benefitting from the learning and vision of scholars who choose to publish first in their mother tongue, and that commercial calculations have here put important and challenging ideas at risk of eluding an adequately wide academic audience.

This reviewer's reading is that the contributions here presented as reflecting their 'Celtic' background are in fact European first and foremost. They need to be read in European contexts, and deserve critical comparison with material from England and the Continent. Ireland may not have been as isolated from the Roman world as generally assumed; the devotional succession at Menevia beings to look remarkably like that at numerous insular and continental places with strongly venerated local saints. Of course it is vital that first-rate scholarship should support the claim of Celtic-speaking societies and their investigators for a proper share of public attention and investment. That said, while this timely volume takes us several important steps forward in appreciating aspects of medieval religious devotion in a single region of Europe, characterisation of its themes as 'Celtic' risks reinforcing the unjustified portrayal of this region as peripheral, culturally as well as geographically.

An example is Mary-Ann Constantine's fascinating esssay, 'Saints behaving badly: sanctity and transgression in Breton popular culture.' Vernacular songs about saints is a sadly neglected topic: the Breton kantikou deserve comparison with other forms of vernacular hymns praising patron saints--the printed Catalan goigs, for example, of which there are thousands of annually-revised wordings and designs. Here Constantine is concerned particularly with nineteenth-century songs about saints behaving badly or presiding over abherent behaviour in their devotees. Sant Yann Bubry (St John of Bubry) has been guilty of incest, it seems. Constantine does not claim that the genre is 'Celtic,' but the volume's constraints prevent her from useful observations on cultural diffusion into Celtic-speaking lands, for example by reference to Alan Deighton's 1993 resume of abherent saints, all named John and the subjects of texts of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries: Johan Paulus (France), Johanne Romita (Italy), Giovanni Boccadoro (Italy), Johannes Chrysostomus (Germany), and Jan van Beverley (Netherlands) alias John of Beverley (England). Like Yann Bubry, these other Johns seek absolution for sexual crimes--typically adultery followed by the husband's murder. All appear derived from the 'hairy anchorite' tale imported into Europe at the start of this period. What is remarkable about the Breton version is its late survival.

Another contribution with much wider significance than its title suggests is that of Bernard Merdrignac, 'The process and significance of rewriting Breton hagiography,' in which he challenges the primacy of searching for, or reconstructing some ur version of a saint's vita. Rather he demonstrates the value of examining textual revisions as a means of uncovering clues to the conditions under which revision was undertaken. A wider perspective is explicitly claimed by Nerys Ann Jones and Morfydd Owen in 'Twelfth-century Welsh hagiography: the Gogynfeirdd poems to saints.' They argue for a correspondence between Welsh and English defence of indigenous saints in opposition to reformers who arrived in the wake in the Norman conquerors. They are also interested in the possible strength of Breton influence on Welsh religious literature at the time--not unconnected, perhaps, with the presence of Bretons among the Norman Marcher lords who were supplanting Welsh kings.

Putting the title on one side, Cartwright deserves thanks for organising the conference and bringing the selected papers swiftly into print in an attractive and crisply edited volume. Here is first-rate scholarship which admirably reflects the new wave of interest in the religious development of the British-Irish archipelego and its neighbouring Continental regions, and which will undoubtedly stimulate further advances in research and interpretation.

The essays by Koch, 'The early chronology for St Patrick (c.351-c.428): some new ideas and possibilities', and Evans, 'St David and St Davids: some observations on the cult, site and buildings,' show how widely the themes range. Further testimony to the standard of scholarship is the contribution of Elissa Henken, justly respected for her two important volumes which classify and analyse the topoi in Welsh saints' lives. Here she addresses 'Welsh hagiography and the nationalist impulse.' The range of themes continues with Thomas O'Loughlin, 'Reading Muirch's Tara-event within its background as a biblical 'trial of divinities'; Thomas Charles-Edwards. 'The Northern Lectionary: a source for the Codex Salmanticensis?'; Karen Jankulak, 'Alba Longa in the Celtic regions? Swine, saints and Celtic hagiography'; Joanna Mattingly, 'Pre-Reformation saints' cults in Cornwall--with particular reference to the St Neot windows'; and Dorothy Ann Bray, 'Miracles and wonders in the composition of the Lives of the early Irish saints.'

Indeed a wide-ranging volume, though notably lacking in detailed attention to one key characteristic of Celtic-speaking lands--the multiplicity of saints and religious dedications. In Wales alone, just short of 600 names are recorded which tradition has associated with persons known as saints. More than half of the country's dedications in honour of 'Celtic' saints occur only once. This is a rich seam of evidence on which to draw, but up to now, as with dedications generally, the material has been under-used and misused. The host of 'Welsh' saints has long been a leading indicator for those concerned to find differences between 'Britons' and 'Anglo-Saxons.' The distinction may be false, however, the result of hardier survival of cultural forms in Wales compared with England, where insular traditions gave way before more than one wave of religious reform, not to mention modernity. John Blair has recently published a provisional handlist of Anglo-Saxon saints which contains about 250 names. Most if not all may have been the object of local veneration. Indeed, among the most challenging contributions here are those which demonstrate the permeability of the 'Celtic' realm's cultural borders. Such an approach requires both cross-cultural vision and a sense of locality. Refreshingly, all the essays have this to greater or lesser degree, urging hagiographers away from any tendency to limit consideration of locality to issues of authorship.

The value of also deploying topographical inquiry can be illustrated by reference to Thomas Owen Clancy's contribution, 'The Little Book of the Birth of St Cuthbert': 'Magpie hagiography in twelfth-century Scotland: the case of Libellus de nativitate Sancti Cuthberti.' The last of Cuthbert's miracles to be mentioned is his appearance to a hermit at Moddry, a township in Bedfordshire. Clanchy dismisses reference to Cuthbert in south-east England as 'somewhat unlikely,' unaware of the dedication to Cuthbert of one of the medieval parish churches of the county town, just six miles away. What is more, this hermitage became Beaulieu Priory, whose local endowments included a chapel under the patronage of St Machutus, alias St Malo, a companion of the voyaging St Brendan and supposed apostle of the Orkneys. William Camden recorded a tradition that Machutus was bishop at Godmanchester in neighbouring Huntingdonshire. Here it is sufficient to note that Beaulieu was founded by Robert of Aubigny, whose ancestral home lay not far from Saint-Malo, and whose fellow chief landholders in this part of England included King David of Scotland, Earl of Huntingdon by marriage to a daughter of Waltheof who was also Earl of Northumbria. David's stepson, also Waltheof, was abbot of Warden in Bedfordshire before becoming abbot of his stepfather's foundation, Melrose, a house whose history was closely associated with Cuthbert. Clancy favours composition of the Libellus at Melrose, notes that Abbot Waltheof 'had been for a time in an abbey in Bedfordshire, which could be the source of the [Moddry] legend', and elsewhere mentions David's appearance in the Libellus--but without connecting the king and abbot. His purpose is to emphasise the text's Irish influences and this is richly achieved, but the English and Noran/Breton connections deserve to be brought out. They not only support his case for authorship at Melrose but by reference to Brendan's companion Machutus they introduce a further strand from the shores of the Irish Sea. What they do not support is the idea of a watertight 'Celtic' world, any more than do the essays of Koch and Evans. By coincidence, the central character of Mattingly's essay, St Neot, is a Cornish saint whose remains were taken in the late tenth century to Huntingdonshire, where he gave his name to St Neots. The reader of these engaging essays is repeatedly forced to confront the familiar issue of whether 'Celtic' is a term with any validity beyond the study of language.


[[1]] Martin Carver (ed.), The Cross Goes North: Processes of Conversion in Northern Europe, AD 300-1300 (York, York Medieval Press, 2003); Alan Thacker and Richard Sharpe (eds), Local Saints for Local Churches in the Early Medieval West (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002), hereafter Thacker and Sharpe, 'Local Saints.'

[[2]] Alan Deighton, 'The literary context of the wall-painting at Idsworth, Hampshire', Antiquaries Journal 73 (1993), pp. 69-75.

[[3]] Elissa Henken, Traditions of the Welsh Saints (Cambridge, D. S. Brewer, 1987) and The Welsh Saints: A Study in Patterned Lives (Cambridge, D. S. Brewer, 1991).

[[4]] Graham Jones, Saints of Wales: An Inventory of Religious Devotion (Aberystwyth and Andover, Mass., Celtic Studies Publications, forthcoming).

[[5]] John Blair, 'A handlist of Anglo-Saxon saints', in Thacker and Sharpe, 'Local Saints.'

[[6]] One of several in the east Midlands. See the dedication datasets of TASC, the Trans-national Database and Atlas of Saints' Cults, now on-line via the UK Data Service and at the TASC web-site,