Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

St Ailred of Rievaulx

Today is the feast day of St Ailred ( Ælred, Ethelred) of Rievaulx (c.1110-1167).

File:De Speculo Caritatis.jpeg

We know about Ailred chiefly from his own writings and from a Vita by his secretary and medical attendant, Walter Daniel.

He was born c. 1110 in Hexham to a priestly family , was educated there and possibly at Durham, and was a courtier of King David I of Scots, before entering the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in the early or mid 1130s. In 1143 Ailred became the first abbot of its daughter house of Revesby in the Lincolnshire Wolds. In 1147 he was elected abbot of Rievaulx, a position he held until his death. Under his rule Rievaulx was a vibrant institution, helping to spread the Cistercian model of momastic life across northern England and beyond.

There is a biography on Wikipedia, with a useful bibliography and links, which can be read here, and a more detailed one by David N Bell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which can be read here. Both bring out the wide range of his contacts and the influences and interests which shaped him. In this respect he is reminiscent of his fellow Cistercian St Bernard (1090 - 1153), though he noticeably lacked Bernard's acerbic side.

His writings on spiritual friendship have led some modern activists to claim him as being homosexual. As the writer of the Wikipedia article points out he lamented his own, unspecified, youthful lapses, but always wrote in terms of conventional marriage as the only place for sexual expression. He thus is rather like some people's claims about Newman - too many modern people cannot imagine genuine affection between friends of the same sex that does not extend to a physical, sexual relationship. The fact that Ailred and Newman, and many others through history could have perfectly chaste, but emotional friendships is beyond their comprehension.

Today's Medival Religion Discussion Group post points out that Ailred's tomb at Rievaulx enjoyed a medieval cultus, and ascribes the fact that the abbey church was enlarged in the 1220s to the need to accommodate his shrine. Indeed the most impressive remains at Rievaulx are from after Ailred's time. His cult was also observed at other houses of the Cistercian Order, which listed him among its saints at its General Chapter of 1250, and in 1476 approved his liturgical commemoration. He was never canonized Papally, but is venerated as a saint by his order, by others in the Benedictine family, and in churches of the Anglican Communion. Ailred was included in the Roman Martyrology in 2001 and is there styled a Saint. Following that he was added to the English National Calendar by the Conference of Bishops. The Cistercian order celebrates his feast day on February 3rd.

I have known Rievaulx as a historic site since I was a boy and it lies in one of the most beautiful parts, indeed one of my favourite parts of my home county of Yorkshire. The Howardian Hills and Ryedale are both beautiful and rich in history, and I have many happy memories of visits there.

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