18.10.09, Coombe et al., Saints of North-East England

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Cynthia Turner Camp

The Medieval Review 18.10.09

Coombe, Margaret, Anne Mouron, and Christiania Whitehead, eds. . Saints of North-East England, 600-1500 . Medieval Church Studies. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2018. pp. xviii, 363. ISBN: 978-2-503-56715-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Cynthia Turner Camp
University of Georgia

Saints of North-East England is an important collection of essays that will reinvigorate the study of Anglo-Saxon, especially northern, saints. The product of a conference in 2015, this volume brings an all-star cast of contributors together with new voices in the field. These essays consolidate research about and offer new perspectives on the saints of northern England, including but not only Cuthbert. The collection as a whole points toward further avenues of research to be undertaken on the region and its saints throughout the Middle Ages.

Divided into three sections, the volume covers the span of the Middle Ages, ranging into the early modern period. Part one centers on Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. It opens with Sarah Foot's analysis of Bede's portrayals of northern saints across all of his writings, concluding that Bede did distinguish Northumbrian figures as extraordinarily special in the eyes of God. Alan Thacker surveys the development of early Anglo-Saxon shrines from Roman and especially Merovingian examples. Sarah McCann presents a multifaceted argument for Boisil of Melrose, abbot and formative influence on Cuthbert, to have been Irish, using Bede's silence on Boisil's origins as a lever to pry open the nuances of Bede's attitude toward the Irish. Alice Hicklin unpacks the theme of exile in Stephan of Ripon's Vita Wulfridi, drawing attention to its reciprocal nature: both Wilfrid and his familia experience their separation as a kind of exile. Refusing to take Cuthbert's popularity among the tenth-century reforming clergy as a given, Alison Hudson interrogates a constellation of possible reasons for their fascination with a Northern saint who didn't always align with the reformers' primary agendas.

The second section, focused on the long twelfth century, treats a wider diversity of saints. Cuthbert and Durham are the topic of two essays. Dominic Marner examines symbolic numerology in Symeon of Durham's Libellus as the Durham monks attempted, during Cuthbert's relic translation, to affiliate themselves even more firmly with Lindisfarne. Helen Applegate undertakes a nuanced reading of the later, northern-focused sections of the twelfth-century manuscript Cambridge, University Library MS Ff.1.27, considering how all aspects of the manuscript's production--its mise-en-page, its ordering of texts, and textual changes distinct to this manuscript--function together to impose upon its viewer the power and spiritual glories of Durham over both Lindisfarne and episcopal authority, a glory centered in Cuthbert himself. The later medieval cult of obscure bishop-saints by the Augustinian canons of Hexham is the topic of David Rollason's contribution; he determines that the later medieval emphasis on these figures was a political-spiritual tool in Hexham's eleventh and twelfth century negotiations with Durham and York, figuring the church's dominant position in English history. Godfric of Finchale is treated by Dominic Alexander and Margaret Coombe. Alexander examines monastic and cultural ambivalence about extreme physical asceticism in Godric's vita via the literary figure of the wild man, who often resembles Godric himself, while Coombe revisits the three English songs associated with Godric, paying particular attention to their manuscript and performance contexts.

The final section covers the later Middle Ages through the lens of material culture. Richard Sharpe considers the evidence for the use of northern saints' banners taken into battle against the Scots, asking questions about their appearance, their liturgical use, and ultimately the limitations of the documentary record for understanding these objects' functions. Allen Doig surveys the architectural arrangements for Cuthbert's cult, from Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne through Reformation Durham, considering the liturgical, female, and lay use of monastic space. Lynda Rollason reconsiders the glazing scheme of Durham Cathedral, arguing for coherence in its presentation of Cuthbert and other northern saints. The volume concludes with Margaret Harvey's postscript, which looks at early modern antiquarian and apologist attitudes to Cuthbert and the northern saints, concluding that these writers kept alive the legends of these saints, whether they were lauding or bashing them.

Several threads run through these essays. The most obvious is Cuthbert himself, the signature saint of north-east England, and Durham; all but four essays foreground one or the other, and each contributor addresses these megaliths in some fashion. A second is material culture; many of the essays that break new ground do so concerning saints' shrines and banners, manuscripts, and monastic architecture and artistic features. A third, related thread is the issue of space. Some of the spaces discussed are physically delimited: churches, shrines, anchorholds (Thacker, Marner, D. Rollason, Doig, Alexander, L. Rollason). Others, however, are spaces produced through practice, whether through literary conventions or embodied performance. The space of exile in theVita Wulfridi, for example, not only includes Wilfrid's geographic exclusion from England, but is also produced rhetorically through biblical references and spiritual ordeal (Hicklin). The holy space of Lindisfarne is revealed numerically in Durham Cathedral (Marner). And the boundaries of a saint's authority are expanded under his banner, whether used for spiritual or military ends (Sharpe).

For all the new ground this essay collection breaks, it also reveals a number of areas ripe for further exploration, especially in the post-Conquest period. One area is the “other” northern saints. While the collection's intense focus on Cuthbert is understandable, the essays by the Rollasons, Sharpe, and Harvey hint at the potential for examining the afterlives of other north-eastern saints like Wilfrid and John of Beverley, while other saints receive only passing mention--Hilda, Aebbe of Coldingham, Oswald of Northumbria, and Bede himself. Additionally welcome would be studies on the relationship of these older cults to the newer orders, especially the Cistercians who came to dominate the northern landscape. References to Aelred of Rivaulx and the Cistercians pepper these essays, but a sustained consideration of their response to long-established cults is in order. Several of these essays, especially those of Appleton and Coombe, demonstrate the fruits that detailed manuscript study can bear; given the richness of Durham Cathedral's medieval library, more revealing studies like these are certainly forthcoming. Finally, the contributions by the Rollasons, Doig, and Harvey are a valuable reminder that much work remains to be done on the late medieval cults. These essays particularly demonstrate how long known but lightly studied antiquarian texts like the Rites of Durham can be judiciously used to develop a rich understanding of these saints' popularity at the end of the Middle Ages. As Harvey's contribution suggests, Cuthbert and his fellows remained a vital force in northern English culture through Elizabeth's reign and beyond, and there is much to be done to understand continuities and changes with the cults' medieval iterations.

The volume's editors Margaret Coombe, Anne Mouron, and Christiania Whitehead are to be praised for bringing together such a diversity of voices and perspectives on a well-studied but certainly not exhausted topic. The collection would have benefited from an index, but the book's production value is otherwise as high as one has come to expect from Brepols. These essays not only exemplify the work still to be done on northern saints' cults, but also model approaches that could be used to interrogate the late medieval iterations of southern Anglo-Saxon saints' cults. It is a collection that opens doors, and it will be exciting to see the new studies on northern saints that follow from it.

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