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.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

St Guthlac

Today, were it not Holy Week, is the feast day of St Guthlac, the seventh/eighth century patron of Crowland (Croyland) Abbey in Lincolnshire, and indeed a monastic community with which in his time Bishop Richard Fleming clearly enjoyed good relations

There is an online life of the saint at St Guthlac of Crowland

Medieval Histories last October had the following piece about him and his cult, which I have very slightly amended. At the end are links to a whole serie sof article son the medieval Fens and on Anglo-Saxon England:

Crowland Abbey © Rex Slye

Crowland Abbey in the Fens

 Image: Rex Slye/ Medieval Histories

St. Guthlac and Crowland Abbey

The Anglo-Saxon hermit, St. Guthlac, had a career reaching from aristocratic warrior over monastic visionary to patron saint of Crowland Abbey

They were ferocious in appearance, terrible in shape with great heads, long necks, thin faces, yellow complexions, filthy beards, shaggy ears, wild foreheads, fierce eyes, foul mouths, horses’ teeth, throats vomiting flames, twisted jaws, thick lips, strident voices, singed hair, fat cheeks, pigeons breasts, scabby thighs, knotty knees, crooked legs, swollen ankles, splay feet, spreading mouths, raucous cries. For they grew so terrible to hear with their mighty shrieking that they filled almost the whole intervening space between earth and heaven with their discordant bellowing.
 From: Felix’s Life of Saint Guthlac ed. by Bertram Colgrave, Cambridge University Press (1985), p. 103

The historical Guthlac was born sometime around AD 670. In his earliest Vitae we are told that he belonged to a line of the Mercian royal stirps and this was the reason for his initial career as an Anglo-Saxon warrior. However, at some point in his youth he became a monk at Repton in Derbyshire. Two years later, he moved further east where he took up the life of a hermit at Crowland on the border of the fens finding shelter in an ancient British burial mound. Later, in the 10th century, his hermitage became a very wealthy monastery.

Liminal World

Guthlac sailing to Crowland with Tatwin. © British Library, Harley Roll, Y 6, roundel 4
Guthlac sailing to Crowland with Tatwin. 
© British Library, Harley Roll, Y 6, roundel 4
Politically, Crowland, was originally located at the border between the old Mercian kingdom and that of the Gyrwe, situated on the western border of the Fenland, by Bede called the “regione Girviorum”.
In the Tribal Hidage, this region was divided into a northern and a southern part, each assessed at 600 hides. The border was formed by the River Nene, which ran from Peterborough just south of Crowland to the Wash. Later in 749 Mercia established a hegemony over East Anglia, but Guthlac did not live to experience this. Nevertheless, he may have felt the encroachment of his former life into his new world.

Geographically, the landscape offered a fluid liminality constantly recreated through the shifting courses of rivers and streams through the fenland and into the Wash. In spring, when the rivers would flood, heavy sediments from the erosions of winter would end up clotting the waterways and channel the streams along new and constantly shifting routes.

Socially this landscape was barely livable and although spiritual friendship was established between Guthlac and some followers, this was initially not a site intended for a religious community.
Here at the crossroad of water and land, Guthlac would try to bridge the abyss between his semi-pagan past (the burial mound), his warrior ancestry (mirrored in his spiritual fights with Britons) and the new Christian thinking about people and places, which was in the Mercian crucible (from warrior-economy based on people to lordship based on land). This would later be unpacked in detail by his early chronicler, St. Felix, who wrote his first Vita soon after the death of the saint in 714.

Quatrefoil with stories from the life of St. Guthlac, Crowland Abbey
Quatrefoil with stories from the life of St. Guthlac, Crowland Abbey.
Source: Wikpedia
According to the close reading of the vita, recently carried out by Lisa M. C. Weston, Guthlac was – in the words of Felix – constantly negotiating models of these past and present communities and lifestyles – the old warrior-world and the new monastic (Christian) thinking of lordship as based on the exploitation of landed resources and the accompanying new behavioural and cultural models and mind-sets.

Central to this conflict was the movement between two different literary cultures – that of the old oral warrior poetry and the new world of literacy and liturgy.

Above all, this became framed in his Vita through a series of nightly spiritual battles between British-speaking demons and the newly converted hermit, throwing verses from psalms and other scripture in their faces.

In the first night he is called to battle the temptation to return to his former life as a warrior and potential hero. In the second he is tempted by the demons to adopt an extreme asceticism and immoderate fasting. Finally, the third night he is demonised by multiple shrieking and frightening monsters trying to drag him into the fens or devouring by setting his hermitage on fire while raising him up on spears. However, it is at this point he identifies the monsters as a delusion because they speak the British tongue of his youth; and he is able to expel them in favour of a solitary austere existence.

On the basis of this he is able to transcend the old world and wholeheartedly enter the new, playing out his role as miles Christi and divine councillor for the future king of Mercia, Æthelbald, who gained sanctuary with Guthlac while exiled to the east. It is Æthelbald who according to the Vita, founded a monastery at Crowland immediately after the death of the saint in  716. During the next 200 years, the cult continued to grow and in   the monastery was turned into a Benedictine Abbey. The popularity of the cult is witnessed by a series of the survived manuscripts containing the Vita of Felix as well as later poetic rewritings of his life and deeds. It was during these rewritings Guthlac changed his shape from solitary spiritual warrior and into a more ordinary post-conquest saint.

Crowland Abbey

An Artist's Impression of Crowland Abbey © Crowland Abbey
An artist’s Impression of Crowland Abbey in the late middle ages 
© Crowland Abbey
As it stands today, the Abbey at Crowland is partly a ruin. Nevertheless it is a fascinating witness to the local history of the Fens in the 13th century.

The remains of the present building are the remains of a concerted effort of Henry de Longchamp, the abbot of Crowland from 1191-1236 and his successors to rebuild the church after a fire in 1179. They worked hard to recreate Crowland as an important pilgrimage centre publishing new variations of his legend and making the life of the saint a central feature of the decorative scheme of the new Abbey Church. This turned it into one of the most opulent and flamboyant of the East Anglian abbeys.
The Abbey Church had a nave with three aisles covered by nine bays and an apsidal choir of five bays. It measured 83 m x 27 m. As it stands today, only the northern aisle is roofed; this is used for the modern parish church.

However, an inkling of the decorative scheme, which used to embellish the church can be found on the facade of the still-standing west front. This was once brightly coloured. Right on top of the doorway arches is a quatrefoil illustrating the high-medieval and more placid version of Guthlac. Now the focus was on the traditional accoutrements of a typical medieval saint: miraculous healings, books, buildings etc.

Exactly the same shift can be discerned through a careful exploration of the so-called Guthlac roll, which stresses the saint building a chapel – something which the early Vita does not mention at all. Instead the Vita tells us that Guthlac turned a ruined burial mound or tumulus into his rustic ascetic cell. Thus Guthlac became – in the words of John Black – “primarily the defender of a religious foundation in its battles to retain holdings and power”.
Inside the church is a small museum telling the story of Guthlac and Crowland Abbey.


Tradition and Tranformation in the Cult of St. Guthlac in Early Medieval England
By John R. Black
In: The Heroic Age. A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe. (2007) Issue 10.
Guthlac Betwixt and Between: Literacy, Croos-Temporal Affiliation and an Anglo-Saxon Anchorite.
By Lisa M. C. Weston
In: The Journal of Medieval Religious Cultures (2016) Vol. 42, No 1, 2016


From the same edition here are other links to articles on

Anglo Saxon and Medieval Fenlands...

Gutlac puntingin the Fens (Guthlac sailing to Crowland with Tatwin. from: British Library, Harley Roll Y 6, oundel 4

Medieval Fenlands

For a long time a number of research projects have explored the culturally fluid landscape of the Medieval Fenlands in Eastern England. New book tells the story   Read more.
Highland Cattle grazing in theWicken Fen

Culture and Identity in the Early Medieval Fenlands

New studies of the use of the fluid landscape in the Early Medieval Fenlands point to a continuity in the settlement-structure from pre-Roman times   Read more.
Nydamboat from Gottorp Castle c. AD310 - 20. The construction of this boat is similar to that which was used at Sutton Hoo. © Gottorp Castle

Hoch and his family in Oakington

On the edge of the Fenlands at Oikington an Anglo-Saxon man named Hoch built a farm sometime in the 5th century. here, his family was buried   Read more.
European Eel ©Environment Agency

Eels in the Medieval Fenlands

The eel is a curious animal. Now listed on the international red list of threatened species, it used to be the ubiquitous food for smallholders and poor peasants in the early middle ages   Read more.
Boiling the Soup the medieval way

Recipes for Medieval Eels

In the Early Middle Ages eels were abundant and served as comfort food for hungry peasants. Later it turned into a very expensive delicatessen.   Read more.

There are other articles on contemporary events inn East Anglia and Mercia at:

River Debennear Sutton Hoo © River Deben Association

Rendlesham – An Anglo-Saxon Royal Palace Near Sutton Hoo

Rendelsham is known as an early Anglo-Saxon emporium. Recently a royal mead-hall was discovered there   Read more.

Staffordshire Hoard Item 550: strip with inscription © Staffordshire Hoard 
The Mercian Kingdom in Turmoil and the Staffordshire Hoard

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