13.09.26, Rumble, ed., Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church

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Richard W. Pfaff

The Medieval Review 13.09.26

Rumble, Alexander R.. Leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Church: From Bede to Stigand. Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 204. ISBN: 9781843837008.

Reviewed by:
Richard W. Pfaff
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
pfaffrw@live.unc.edu

There is nothing wrong with bland titles, especially considering some of the eye-catching, colon-bearing alternatives currently popular. The nine essays here gathered together and edited by Alexander Rumble could just as well have been given titles previously used by Margaret Deanesly, Sidelights on the Anglo-Saxon Church (1962, essays supplementary to her standard history of the subject) or even by the estimable William Bright, Chapters in Early English Church History (1877, enlarged third edition 1897; covers only to 709). Certainly the salient word of the present title, "Leaders," is loosely interpreted. This is true even of Rumble's extensive introductory essay, which is explicitly on the notion of leadership rather than on individual leaders. It hinges on discussions of "Guidelines for the episcopal role" (I Timothy, Bede, and especially two pieces by Ælfric) and "Guidelines for the abbatial role" (mainly the Rule of Benedict), with a side-glance at some of the wider issues involved. Only three of the essays themselves center on individual bishops: Ecgberht of York, Wulfsige of Sherborne, and (treated together) Ælfheah and Stigand.

Bede is the inevitable starting place if, as Nicholas Higham does, one focuses on "the early English church" (note the definite article) as a single entity. This is of course entirely congruous with the force of Bede's famous title, Historia ecclesiastica. The interesting point is made that Bede spent his entire life as a monk "within a wider English church which remained subject to the authority of a single arch-diocese at Canterbury," and that in his younger years "this was a comparatively interventionist diocese" until Theodore's death in 690 (though surely it must be the bishop who is "interventionist," not the whole diocese). This sharpens the question as to how Bede, eventually the great promoter of the idea of an archbishopric based at York, came to be aware that a claim for archdiocesan status was reasonable. Higham's conclusion is that Bede's "preference was probably for a single English church led in tandem by two archbishops, one in the north and one in the south": the Gregorian pattern rather than the Theodoran.

Key to the emergence of York as a viable archiepiscopal center is the work of Ecgberht, who after three years as bishop of York became its first archbishop (735-766). His achievement is studied by Martin J. Ryan, primarily through close attention to the Succinctus dialogus ecclesiasticae institutionis, "the one text that can reasonably be assumed to have come from his pen." Almost certainly written after Bede's death in 735, extant whole in just one, late eleventh-century, manuscript, and available now through the 1878 edition in Haddan and Stubbs's Councils and Ecclesiastical Documents (III.403-13), it is not so much neglected as never adequately studied. After thorough analyses of various aspects of the Dialogus-- particularly "Sources and Methods"--Ryan concludes that the Dialogus might "be best understood as part of a correspondence between Ecgberht and one of his suffragans" (though there cannot have been many of these: how extensive are the possibilities?), and that it is "precious evidence for the Northumbrian church--and indeed, for Northumbrian society as a whole--in the eighth century." One detail concerning the wider society is specially tantalizing, the possibility that Ecgberht's answer (the work is purportedly a question-and-answer dialogue) to one question "suggests the possibility that wergilds--or at least those of the upper ranks of society--could be the subject of negociation."

It has long been clear that the early Anglo-Saxon church in the West Midlands did not have to languish permanently in the obscurity that resulted from Bede's ignorance about the area. A synoptic view of a very long eighth century there is offered by Allan Scott McKinley in "Understanding the earliest Bishops of Worcester c. 660-860." Based largely on meticulous use of charter evidence, his argument proceeds on the one hand topographically and on the other dynastically: the point of the latter being the power-relationships between the Mercian kings of the period and the always shadowy Hwiccian sub-rulers. Two sketch maps make the thrust of the charter evidence clear. The whole piece helps to illuminate what can be otherwise puzzling, why it is that Worcester--unlike Winchester and Canterbury/ London, not connected obviously with political and international centers of influence--becomes such a wealthy and important diocese.

Equally far-reaching in its implications is Dominik Wassenhoven's "The Role of Bishops in Anglo-Saxon Succession Struggles, 955 x 978," a calmly confident piece that in a few pages shows episcopal weight being thrown around in a pair of crises. The first, connected with the choice between Eadwig and Edgar, uncovers the Realpolitik behind the famous description of Eadwig's scandalous behavior at his coronation banquet so lip-smackingly provided by "B," Dunstan's anonymous biographer. Evidence from charters and prosopography helps to flesh out the story, though total clarity seems impossible, partly because, as Wassenhoven points out, it looks as though there may have been as many as five bishops named Byrhthelm between 956- and 959; a muddle may well be suspected. The other crisis is that centering on Edward the (eventual) Martyr and his half-brother Æthelred (the eventual Unræd) in 995-998. A new wrinkle to a well worked over set of problems is the suggestion that what seems puzzling behavior on the part of the great Æthelwold of Winchester--his support for the unruly Edward--may indicate no more than acceptance of the fait accompli once the locus of majority support was clear.

That the way we look at such figures as Æthelwold and Dunstan is in no small part a function of how we literally look at them is demonstrated in Gale Owen-Crocker's piece "Image-Making: Portraits of Anglo-Saxon Church Leaders." Familiar depictions are called to witness: from the celebrated Benedictional, of course, and the Regularis Concordia manuscript (BL Cotton Tiberius A.iii, showing Æthelwold and Dunstan with Edgar), as well as the regrettable Stigand from the Bayeux Tapestry. More unusual, and intriguing, is the possibility that Anglo-Saxon saints were depicted on stoles and maniples of the thirteenth century: a set survives from, probably, Worcester of c. 1218-1236, and a mid-thirteenth-century source from St. Paul's Cathedral implies the existence of images of such figures as Erkenwald of London and the royal martyrs Oswald, Edmund, and Æethelberht (if this last is the East Anglian king and not his namesake of Kent).

The images of Æthelwold and Dunstan that come to the mind's eye as these prelates are named shows how effectively visual art reinforced the Monastic Reform movement. A totally unexpected reflection of that movement's concern for standards of truly monastic behavior is uncovered in Debby Banham's "'To Keep Silence Following the Rule's Command': Bishop Æthelwold, Reforming Ideology, and Communication by Signs." In a nicely succinct argument she points out first that there is no evidence "that manual signs were used as a substitute for speech by monks in England, or indeed on the Continent, before the reform;" secondly, that use of such signs seems to be indicated at Cluny by the 940s; thirdly, that there looks to be a close relationship between an eleventh-century list of Cluniac signs and a list in the same Tiberius iii manuscript containing the image referred to above--and (note well) this list is in Old English. Shakier, but intriguing, is the subsequent suggestion that "the most appropriate context of such a compilation might be the final conversion of the Canterbury cathedral community into a fully Benedictine monastery." Further investigation points back to Winchester in Æthelwold's day; raised here are several implications for a better understanding of the dynamics of the whole movement, including its vernacular aspect.

Those dynamics are also explored in Joyce Hill's rich examination of "Wulfsige of Sherborne's Reforming Text." The text in question is "the determinedly reformist Pastoral Letter written by Ælfric on Wulfsige's behalf, and issued in Wulfsige's name for the benefit of the secular clergy." Notable points include that the letter was written in Old English, presumably to reach clergy with wobbly Latin; that emphasis in the letter on the practice of celibacy underlines "the value and power that it [celibacy] had for a bishop concerned with reform;" and that the three extant copies of this letter show, in the context of their other contents, how influential a figure Wulfsige seems to have been.

In the book's final essay Rumble offers, in the old-fashioned phrase, a compare-and-contrast between Æelfheah and Stigand, the former the prime English episcopal martyr (in fact, the only one?) until eclipsed by Becket, the latter the equivocal figure who falls victim to Anglo-Norman propaganda rather than to swinish villains. Both came to Canterbury from Winchester, though representing very different strands of influence. Ælfheah was a monk from the reformers' circle who succeeded Æthelwold and who carried that monastic backgkround to Christ Church, where he succeeded Dunstan in 1006. The fame of Ælfheah's martyrdom six years later--hacked to death by drunken Danish warriors, as tradition has it--has made it hard to assess how much more thoroughly "monastic" he would have made the cathedral clergy at Canterbury. By contrast Stigand, a secular priest in Cnut's household, was pretty clearly a careerist, enjoying the revenues of vacant abbacies, enriching his family, and operating in distinctly non-monastic ways (e.g., by fathering a son, curiously named Robert). Rumble is scrupulous in assigning to Stigard any possible praise, as in his concluding assessment, also the last words of the book: "Ælfheah's designation as a martyr has not been questioned since the eleventh century, but perhaps Stigand may be seen too as a hapless victim, if only of changing political circumstances."

All the pieces assume a good deal of antedecent knowledge of Anglo-Saxon history, but translations are helpfully provided for all bits of Latin and Old English quoted, and copious footnotes furnish bibliographical assistance as well as corroboration. Its title may be bland, but for the most part--one offering, on "Abbatial Responsibility as Spiritual Labour: Suckling from the Male Breast," seems far off the main focus--this collection of essays should, like those of Deanesly and Bright, retain permanent value.

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Richard W. Pfaff

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill