03.03.26, Burton, Life and Miracles of St. Modwenna

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David Townsend

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.026


Geoffrey of Burton. Bartlett, Robert, ed. and trans.. Life and Miracles of St. Modwenna. Series: Oxford Medieval Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Pp. lxxii, 230. ISBN: 0-19-820606-2.

Reviewed by:
David Townsend
University of Toronto

Moninna, a.k.a. Darerca, foundress of the nunnery of Killevy in south Armagh, died in 517. Perhaps as early as the seventh century, she was commemorated by an anonymous vita, as edited most recently by W.W. Heist in 1965 from Brussels, Royal Library 3179 (the so-called Codex Salmanticensis). Some time later, one Conchubranus reworked this early biography. Under his pen the saint's career takes a decidedly peripatetic turn: she travels three times to Rome, as well as to southern Scotland and to the vicinity of Burton-on-Trent in the West Midlands. (Perhaps, as early Celtic saints were on occasion wont to do, she had absorbed into her story the stories of other holy personages, Ninian possibly among them.) It's not clear how early, or why, she came to be associated with the neighbourhood of Burton, whose abbey was founded in 1004. Conchubranus tells us the saint died on the nearby island of Andresey in the middle of the Trent. At some point (we don't know when) her bones were translated to the abbey church itself. Geoffrey of Burton, before becoming abbot of the house in 1114, had previously served as prior of Winchester Cathedral until he was sacked by the bishop for reasons unknown. (Bartlett appends to his introduction texts of thirty-two documents issued by or for Abbot Geoffrey, providing a welcome cache of primary materials for the reconstruction of his career.)

Like nearly two generations of Anglo-Norman prelates before him, he arrived at his new house to find a relatively obscure local saint, now known as Modwenna, honourably ensconced. Embarking on pious oral research into the details of her life, he found out more than he could record; and then a book arrived from Ireland in which he found a text that is certainly to be identified with Conchubranus' biography. (One's mind might here run, in a more secular vein, to Geoffrey of Monmouth's more or less contemporary search for sources, only to have dropped into his lap a certain very ancient book in the British tongue.) Geoffrey tells us that this source text was a treasure as to its content, but left much to be desired in organization and style. And so, some time between 1118 and 1150, but probably before 1135, he provided an improved version (BHL 2097), here edited and translated for the first time from the two surviving manuscripts -- London, British Library Add. 57533 (A), and BL Royal 15 B. iv (R). Three abbreviated versions and an Anglo-Norman adaptation also survive. The first two epitomes, each extant in a single mansucript, are based, according to Bartlett, on the version represented by A; the third, that of John of Tynemouth's Sanctilogium and the Nova legenda Anglie, is closer to the text of R, as is the thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman version. None of these abbreviated versions figure in the critical apparatus of the present edition.

Geoffrey expands the modest dossier of posthumous miracles recounted by Conchubranus into a self-announced tractatus de miraculis (according to R's rubric) comprising chapters 39-50. (Among the miracles is numbered, in chapter 47, a striking tale of the walking dead.) One might also observe that Geoffrey's Modwenna appears to live into the later ninth century, when in ch. 18 she cures a young Alfred of Wessex of his chronic illness. In other respects, Geoffrey's text adds few further details to the saint's career: for the most part, he reorganizes and polishes his source, according to his announced intentions. The resulting stylistic modifications, however, are considerable. Bartlett's introduction characterizes these as exemplifying several of the trends found widely in Benedictine writing of the early twelfth century: to wit, a proliferation of Biblical echoes, a rhetorical concern for elaborately balanced phrasing, and the insertion of long discourses by Modwenna and others.

One might have wished for a more specific establishment of this literary context, by comparisons to the work of roughly contemporary historians and hagiographers. Figures that might contribute to such a contextualization would include writers of more local significance, for example Dominic of Evesham, Symeon of Durham (albeit both these some years earlier than Geoffrey's text), Thomas of Monmouth (albeit this latter some years later), the anonymous author of the Vita Sancti Erkenwaldi, and Arcoid, canon of St. Paul's and author of the Miracula sancti Erkenwaldi. Explicit comparison to the roughly contemporary principal figures -- such writers as Eadmer and William of Malmesbury among his fellow Benedictines, but non-Benedictines such as Henry of Huntingdon and Geoffrey of Monmouth as well -- would also have enriched the literary context of Geoffrey's work.

Bartlett makes a case that A represents a later redaction of the text -- whether under Geoffrey's hand or that of a later interpolator remains unclear. Two short interpolations might suggest familiarity with Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia regum Britanniaeand so would date the later redaction to the mid-1130s or later. R represents something closer to Geoffrey's original composition, but is a defective copy of this earlier state of the text and is missing six and a half chapters from the miracula. Bartlett chooses to follow R save for some preferable variants of A, but he supplements R's defects with the text of A for chapters 41-2, 45-6, 48-9, and part of 50, as well as the list of capitula as given in A after the work's preface. Variations between the two manuscripts are in any case relatively minor, save for the short additions in A by which Bartlett justifies his contention that it represents a later version of the text. Of about three hundred variants recorded in the critical apparatus of the first thirteen chapters, a few less than two hundred and fifty provide no evidence that either manuscript is intrinsically "better" or more reliable than the other: the bulk of these variants consist of synonymical substitutions, variations of verb tense, metatheses within short phrases of two or more words, and the like. Of the other fifty-odd variant readings, superior readings from A outnumber those from B by about three to two. Over the work's entire text, excluding those sections extant only in A, Bartlett adopts readings from A over R a little under two hundred times.

It is perhaps a moot point whether it would have been preferable to adopt A as base. But grounding the edition on A would have produced a text that more directly reflected the integrity of one of the surviving manuscripts -- a version Bartlett does not rule out being the product of the author's own later revisions. The care with which A was produced is considerable: it is a composite library volume of uniform layout that must date from after 1198. Its inclusion of initial capitula bespeaks the local authority the text had assumed, and there is evidence of care over textual variants: at least once (p. 38, note c of Bartlett's edition), an interlinear gloss supplies a variant reading (that agrees with R). Also justifiable, but open to objection, is Bartlett's decision not to include interlinear corrections from either manuscript in the apparatus. Leaving them out certainly streamlines presentation, but users of the edition also thus lose access to significant details of transmission.

Other discrepancies of presentation, though minor, are more unequivocally worrisome. Chapter 5, line 15 should read considerantem, not considerandem -- this is clearly simply a typographical error. At chapter 6, line 23, the text reads erat et against R, et erat without comment; at line 27, ac uirtute against R, et uirtute (by expansion of the Tironian "7"); chapter 7, line 19 reads quatinus against R, quatenus; line 20 illam against R, eam; line 34, ex isto usque against R, ex isto tempore usque(this actually bearing on the sense by changing the antecedent of the pronoun); line 38 sibi semper against R semper sibi; at line 49, the Tironian note is once again, as at 6. 27, expanded as ac rather than as et with no explanation. Such examples would suggest that caution is required passim, albeit at a level of minor variations that for the most part have negligible bearing on sense.

Debatable preferences aside, and despite the looseness of the critical apparatus, this edition is a worthwhile contribution. It makes available one of the more substantial pieces of early twelfth-century Anglo-Latin hagiography not previously edited. It thus offers a welcome enhancement of our knowledge of its generation's monastic literary culture -- and, one would hope, will spur further research into the origins and development of its subject's cult.

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David Townsend

University of Toronto