contributor.author: Elizabeth A. Lowe

title.none: Freeland and Dutton, eds. Aelred of Rievaulx: Lives of the Northern Saints (Elizabeth A. Lowe)

identifier.other: baj9928.0712.006 07.12.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Elizabeth A. Lowe, ealowe@charter.net

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Aelred of Rievaulx. Translated by Jane Patricia Feeland, edited with an introduction by Marsha L. Dutton. Aelred of Rievaulx: The Lives of the Northern Saints. Cistercian Fathers, vol. 71. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2006. Pp. xiv, 144. ISBN: ISBN-13: 978-0-87907-471-5, ISBN-10: 0-87907-471-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.12.06

Aelred of Rievaulx. Translated by Jane Patricia Feeland, edited with an introduction by Marsha L. Dutton. Aelred of Rievaulx: The Lives of the Northern Saints. Cistercian Fathers, vol. 71. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 2006. Pp. xiv, 144. ISBN: ISBN-13: 978-0-87907-471-5, ISBN-10: 0-87907-471-X.

Reviewed by:

Elizabeth A. Lowe
ealowe@charter.net

At first glance, Aelred of Rievaulx's The lives of the northern saints appears to be a compilation of three of Aelred's hagiographical works: namely, The life of Ninian, apostle to the southern Picts; The saints of the church of Hexham and their miracles; and A certain wonderful miracle. Upon closer examination, this slender paperback volume is both more and less than that. The book does include each of the aforementioned texts, translated into a Scriptural, and often lyrical, English prose by Jane Patricia Freeland. It also includes a relatively lengthy introduction by Marsha Dutton, as well as scholarly notes and three tables of indices for easy reference. Yet there is a sense in which these texts are not so much early medieval hagiographies as records documenting the daily concerns and troubles of the early medieval laity and the popular piety which suffused their worldview.

Dutton's introduction is divided into five parts. She begins by delineating Aelred's family history and biography, situating him squarely in the ecclesiastical-political context of twelfth century Britain. Dutton then provides an in-depth exegesis of each of the three works, in turn. Following these three exegetical essays is an exploration of Aelred's treatment of women. In this section, Dutton examines Aelred's habitual partnering of men and women in pursuing goals both spiritual and temporal. She also discusses his individualistic treatment of various royal and religious women in his other works. To be honest, I don't quite know why Dutton included the section on women: her handling of the topic is sound but the topic, itself, is not central to at least two out of the three texts. She ends her introduction with a short note on the manuscripts and the historical transmission of the texts.

Of the three texts included in the volume, Aelred's The life of Ninian is the only one which falls squarely into the early medieval hagiographical genre in its focus. About a third of the brief work is taken up by the prologue, in which Aelred discusses his charge to write the work and the sources upon which it will be based: an unidentified work written in and obscured by a "barbarous speech;" and Bede's Ecclesiastical history. As Dutton points out in her introduction, Ninian is best known for his apostolic ministry in the North, the establishment of the see of Whithorn and the construction of the first stone church in Britain. (10-11) Aelred, however, focuses his attention, and ours, on Ninian's rescue and conversion of, not the worthy, but of unrepentant sinners. Thus, the Life of Ninian slowly arcs upward as Aelred recounts Ninian's befriending of the arrogant Tuduvallus, who had earlier mocked his ministry; his intercessory (and successful) prayers for the revivification of a man who had been gored to death while trying to steal his cows; and his similarly successful prayerful intercession for a student who, fleeing punishment, had stolen his staff and hopped into a coracle which lacked the cowhide necessary to render it buoyant. Aelred ends the Life of Ninian with a short recital of posthumous miracles which added to Ninian's fame.

Although Dutton writes, in her introduction, that Aelred viewed Ninian as "a man of learning and divine vision," I found the portrait presented in the Life to be that of an especially outgoing and active man who, despite his pall and staff, had his own take on things. Setting out to convert the isle, Ninian appeals to St. Martin of Tours not for clerics or monks but for masons; he plants his see in a remote spot which can only be approached from the north; he enjoyed visiting "his daily herds and the huts of his shepherds. He wanted his flocks. . . to share in his Episcopal blessings." He chides the sick, lectures criminals, and calls town meetings. In Aelred's retelling of his life, we meet not debating scholastics and their abstract ideas, but men and women stumbling and grubbing their way through life as Ninian happily prods them back on the path towards salvation.

In contrast to the Life of Ninian, The saints of the church of Hexham is not so much about the holy men who first planted and nourished Christianity in northern England as it is about Aelred's older contemporaries and the local figures who colored his childhood. Originating as a homily to commemorate the translation of the relics of five sainted bishops, Eata, Acca, Alchmund, Frethbert, and Tilbert, The saints reads more like a fond and nostalgic celebration of the small town in which one grew up. (16) In his prologue, Aelred waxes eloquent over the holiness of Hexham's early bishops and, let us not forget, the "wonderful stone work" of the church they built and the manner in which they "beautified it throughout with pictures and engravings." He then launches into a virtual litany of stories concerning the falls and foibles of the preceding generation of Hexhamites; and their subsequent rescue from the full consequences of their actions by the intercessory prayers of the aforementioned bishops, as well as similar intercessions by Saints Wilfred and Cuthbert. A youth stretching forth his neck on the executioner's block, cries out, "Help me now, Wilfrid, because if you don't now, soon you won't be able to" (68) and through the laughing crowd race Wilfrid and a companion, "astride very swift horses" to present surety and thereby liberate the delinquent from both custody and death. Faced with almost-certain rampage and destruction by Malcom III Cranmore's Galwegians, the townspeople appealed "with groans and outcries to Wilfrid, some to Cuthbert, and not a few to Alchmund," (71) and within days the Scottish army was enveloped in such a cloud that they mistakenly trekked west back into Scotland, thereby missing Hexham altogether. As Dutton points out, Hexham's saints, when they appear, are fierce, quirkily individualistic and quick to protect their prerogatives, as well as their spiritual heirs. (19) Thus, when Thomas of York is persuaded by his clergy to appropriate the relics of Hexham's bishops, he is accosted in a dream by the blessed Eata, who strikes him about the shoulders with his pastoral staff and then, "with many threats," disappears. (107) Neither are the Hexhamites, themselves, ashamed of their small town origins or small town patron saints. Two townsmen embark on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and travel a bit with an "unhappy soul" who disputed the merits of Acca, saying that he had never heard of him; and mocked the simplicity of the Hexhamites. "Suddenly struck down with a terrible faintness," the cynic rolls on the ground and foams at the mouth. As is the case throughout, the Hexhamites and their saint win the day: their companion is converted.

Popularized by Migne as the The nun of Watton, A certain wonderful miracle is Aelred's apologia for a local scandal which erupted in the Gilbertine convent at Watton. A young girl, entrusted to the monastery by Henry Murdac, archbishop of York (1147-1153), grows to maturity and enters the Order despite clear signs that her vocation lay elsewhere. Seduced by a lay brother, she becomes pregnant. Upon discovery by her community, she "was, however, stripped, stretched out, and whipped without mercy," before being enchained with fetters and flung into a narrow strip of a prison cell. "She was sustained on bread and water; she was fed with daily opprobrium." (115) Forced to castrate her lover, she was then "thrust back into her cell." The tone of Aelred's narrative then shifts, as he recounts her appeals to Christ for mercy. Following dreams in which Henry Murdac instructs her to recite the psalms, the young woman's pregnancy miraculously disappears. As part of the investigation into the matter, Aelred advises both the community and the bishop that, "What God has cleansed you must not call common, and her whom he has loosed, you must not bind."(122) The young woman is freed from her cell and returned to her community. Since the work is a report on an incident and not a treatise on spirituality, one is left wondering how the young woman, not to mention her community, felt about the incident and about each other, as she lived out her years in their midst.

Despite the disturbing nature of A certain wonderful miracle, Aelred's Lives of the northern saints is a lively, compassionate and, at times, humorous gateway into early medieval Hexham. Aelred writes with a cadence that is both easy to read and a manner of expression that sticks with you. Thus, when a cleric is accused of misconduct, "the good were scandalized, the wicked smirked, the common folk snickered and the sacred order was blasphemed." (47) In the end, the cleric is cleared and the wicked stop smirking. Dual leitmotifs of mocking critics being converted and powerful enemies being defeated are interwoven throughout each of the three narratives. In the world presented in the Lives of the northern saints, the truth always outs and for Aelred, it seems to be this: the inhabitants of remote, rustic little Hexham and their largely forgotten saints are on a par with the powerful who reside in the cathedrals of York and courts of Scotland--because God rescues them. Not only would this volume be of interest to historians but it would make a great discussion piece in an undergraduate or graduate course.