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23.11.08 Whitehead et al. (eds.), Late Medieval Devotion to Saints from the North of England

23.11.08 Whitehead et al. (eds.), Late Medieval Devotion to Saints from the North of England

This collection of essays explores northern English saints and layers of regional religious devotion in the late medieval period. It contains an introduction and eighteen essays, interdisciplinary in the aggregate, and written by impressive scholars in the field. The publication is the result of a lengthy process of research located at the University of Lausanne and entitled “Region and Nation in the Late Medieval Devotion to Northern English Saints,” funded in part “by the Swiss National Science Foundation” (15). The target audience is scholars of late medieval religion and hagiography, but Reformation-era scholars would also benefit from reading these essays.

The introduction raises several foundational issues, such as the legitimacy of analyzing a region known as the “North of England” (19-21). Obviously, the editors think so, but briefly offer complexity regarding the issue, such as the notion among those who lived in the North that their culture was unique. As Cynthia Turner Camp observes in her essay, “Praying to Northern Saints in English Books of Hours”:

“Whether or not ‘the north of England’ is a distinct region, visible as such to the island’s denizens (in the late medieval period and beyond) and what its defining characteristics might be, is a question that scholars of the region have been pursuing since the 1990s” (100).

The issue cannot be fully explored in the twelve-page Introduction, and the lack of a Conclusion prevents such issues from being revisited at the end of the collection. Therefore, one begins an engagement with the essays assuming these topics will be explored in some number of them, which is generally the case, and in a variety of ways. In the first essay, “Aelred of Rievaulx and the Saints of Durham, Galloway, and Hexham,” Denis Renevey devotes several pages to locating Aelred and his main texts to those locations. Christiania Whitehead begins her essay, “The Production of Northern Saints’ Lives at Holm Cultram Abbey in Cumbria,” with a concise historical description of the abbey’s foundation. Hazel J. Hunter Blair’s “Flower of York: Region, Nation, and St Robert of Knaresborough in Late Medieval England,” includes a section on “Frameworks of Locality.” Many other essays build on and explore the issues of region raised in the Introduction. The approach of the collection to the question of a “North of England” seemed a solid method, but it is scattered.

Unfortunately, space limitations will not allow me to discuss each essay. They are all worthy, but they are not all of a kind. They are ordered into five groups, based on “Textual Evidence,” “Material Culture,” “Case Studies,” “Female Networks and Locations,” and “Beyond the North,” which suggest ordering by both subject and method. The authors--historians, art historians, literature scholars, a philologist, and a student of modern languages--present some creative and interesting arguments and methods.

In the first section, Cynthia Turner Camp argues that one may identify certain “ideas about the North” circulating in texts, and representative of the views of “different communities,” thus suggesting the existence of numerous “Norths”--as many as there were perspective constructions. An emphasis on specific northern saints, and the clustering of those saints, conveys a specific insight into these contemporary ideas about the North. For example, William Porter, a knight who fought at Agincourt, ordered a Book of Hours that included northern saints “John of Bridlington, John of Beverley, William of York, and Cuthbert” (99). Porter had few connections to the north, but the clustering of these saints expresses his unique engagement with the region. Porter’s attraction might have resided on the association of the two northern St. Johns with Lancastrian interests (112) and their further association with both William of York and St. Cuthbert generated a merging into the liturgical traditions of the York diocese and minster. While it might seem this clustering of saints is ultimately a normalizing political statement about the ruling dynasty, Turner Camp demonstrates both more complexity and nuance. The clustering demonstrated Porter’s personalized vision of northern sanctity, created partly from a pilgrimage made with Henry V, a nostalgic expression of that travel, a representation of his closeness to the king, an expression of his engagement with York’s liturgies, and a northern name-saint.

Euan McCartney Robson’s “Space, It’s About Time Too: Architecture and Identity in Medieval Durham” begins the section on “Material Culture” and introduces the genius loci as beginning point for a discussion of Durham, which allows the author to compare northern concepts of sanctity that focused on material culture and those based on texts such as Simeon of Durham’s Libellus de exordio and the poem De situ Dunelmi (for examples, see pp. 26, 130-1). Durham Cathedral is ultimately the main text in this essay, a building that has had many repairs and stones replaced, but that maintains its Norman-Romanesque lines and geometry (142-3). It is an architectural marvel that not only has existed over the centuries, but it has been built and rebuilt over the centuries as well, thus merging time and space as categories of analysis. As McCartney Robson summarizes, the story of the cathedral “begins and ends...with historically and culturally contingent men and women” (131). To engage with the building is to engage with those folks.

Also in the “Material Culture” section are John Jenkins’s examination of the oozing of “holy oil” from the bodies of saints in Northern England, and Julian Luxford’s study of artistic representations of northern saints “to ponder the manifestation of English regional identity through culture” (165).

In the section “Case Studies,” one finds an examination of novelty (Joshua Easterling) and hermits (Catherine Sanok). Margaret Coombe’s “The Contest for and later Reception of Reginald of Durham’s Vita Sancti Gogrici” studies a neglected text often criticized for length and style (212). Reginald, the author of the text, was one of the brothers who cared for the ailing and elderly Godric and frequently “kept notes of their conversations, added information gained from other...people who knew the old man, and finally turned it into a book of his life story” (199). Yet the text fragments as various versions are produced by assorted authors for numerous reasons. These acts of appropriation illustrate that both Godric and Reginald’s text mattered; that it was “culturally flexible”; and that it proved useful to negotiating political and social strife (204-5).

In the section on “Female Networks and Locations,” Ruth J. Salter examines lay devotion at the cult of St. Æbbe in Coldingham, Jane Sinnett-Smith writes about St. Ætheldreda in the north, Daniel Talbot analyzes conflicting memories of St. Hilda and the “Refoundation of Whitby Abbey,” and Christiane Kroebel also writes on memory and St. Hilda. Hilda was a seventh-century abbess mentioned in Bede. The original monastic foundation was known as Streoneshalh, later Prestby, and finally Whitby during the Norman era (307). Talbot looks at the Memorial book for the abbey, which documents gifts and grants, but fails to mention St. Hilda and Streoneshalh (310). Talbot argues that “The evidence suggests that the Whitby monks wrote and rewrote their foundation story and relationship to Hilda to conform it to their needs and expectation” (317-8).

The final section, “Beyond the North,” contains four essays: Anne Mouron’s “The French Life of St Godric of Finchale, or Adventures for Thirteenth-Century Nuns”; James G. Clark’s “The Reception of St Oswine in Later Medieval England”; David E. Thornton’s “Northern Saints’ Names as Monastic Bynames in Late Medieval and Early Tudor England”; and Claudia di Sciacca’s “Northern Lights on Southern Shores: Rewriting St Oswald’s Life in Eighteenth-Century Friuli.” Clark begins a particularly interesting study “The Reception of St Oswine” with the body of James IV of Scotland, recently killed at the Battle of Flodden, being moved south with a short stay at the Benedictine house called Tynemouth, “a dependent house of St Albans Abbey” (29). The body of James IV would eventually reside at Sheen Priory for much of the reign of Henry VIII, but a connection with Tynemouth had been made. Other monarchs were also associated with Tynemouth, including Malcolm III of Scotland and the Dane, King Oswine. It was the relics of Oswine and the network of St. Alban’s monasteries that became an important theme in the late medieval era. As Clark writes, “in Northumberland it seems to the end of the Middle Ages the king martyr was understood to express the identity of the region” (380). Here again, we see the region most likely to be invaded by Scottish rulers, and once frequently invaded by Norsemen, expressing a localized religious sentiment.

At the end of the Introduction, the editors assert that the collection presents “a discernment of a number of new constellations of northern sanctity” (29). And so it does. The collection demonstrates numerous locally and regionally specific patterns of religious devotion that expressed a different culture than that which existed in the south. The essays illustrate how the numerous characters and personalities of saints could be fashioned to serve local identities, sensibilities, and politics. How far might we push the evidence? Do the unique patterns of sanctity in the North lay the foundation for the region’s later resistance to reforms? Does it illustrate a culture that would have to be altered to conform to the Protestant era? These are questions that go beyond the purview of the volume, but might be significant to historians of the Tudor Reformations.