Writing History in the Community of St Cuthbert, c.700-1130
From Bede to Symeon of Durham
An interview with Charles C. Rozier
Dr Rozier, thank you so much for taking part! Before we start on your new book, could you please tell us what first triggered your interest in the Middle Ages, and also something of your studies and research since?
I have been interested in medieval history for as long as I can remember. My Dad probably started it by taking me to sites like ruined castles and abbeys, and then by agreeing to buy (and make!) a whole load of Lego. I’ve not looked back since (and I still have my Lego).
The fundamental question that has driven all of my research so far, is to try and find out how medieval people themselves thought about historical time and past societies. Were they interested in their past, and how did they try to learn more about it? In most cases, we will never know, but I have focused my research on a body of elite intellectual authors who were able to learn quite a lot about their history though books and through local traditions, and then who wrote various types of historical texts.
Please introduce us to the community of St Cuthbert. How and when did it begin and what role did it mostly assume?
The community began life as a monastery on the Northumbrian tidal island of Lindisfarne. It was founded in 635 by King Oswald of Northumbria, a recent Christian convert, and control given to Aidan, a monk from Iona. Oswald established Aidan as Bishop of Lindisfarne, tasked with converting the northernmost region of England, establishing structures and appointments for this fledgling church. The Lindisfarne community was organised as a monastery, with the bishop also acting as abbot.
St Cuthbert arrived at Lindisfarne after Aidan had died, but quickly gained a reputation for inspiring others through his strict asceticism, meditational practices, and strong commitment to the pastoral care of the community. He was made Bishop of Lindisfarne in 685, but died in 687. Cuthbert’s remains were venerated as relics of a saint, and numerous miracles were recorded, ensuring that Cuthbert rose to prominence as the foremost saint of the community: hence, ‘Community of St Cuthbert’. To learn more about where they went next and how they ended up in Durham, you’ll have to read the book!
Can you describe for us the range of texts that the community produced?
The range is significant, and includes eighteen original compositions. Symeon of Durham’s history of the Durham church represents a lengthy Latin narrative history of the community, while we also possess numerous much shorter collections of annals and simple lists of historical figures such as bishops, queens and kings. An eleventh-century Durham also wrote a beautiful twenty-line poem in Old English about the history of Durham’s saints, and we have several more polemical treatises on Durham’s rightful claims to properties and incomes and the historical origins of these claims. The corpus is, therefore, broad and varied, and highlights the complexities of understanding different forms of historical writing in the Middle Ages.
Was the community’s drive to record history and to preserve historic texts unusual for such a group?
We can see evidence of similar practises in other historical communities, such as Christ Church Canterbury, and Malmesbury Abbey, and probably other important ecclesiastical centres were producing historical works at the same rate. What makes Cuthbert’s community unique is the rate of preservation (we possess seventeen of the eighteen works in original medieval manuscripts) and the striking range of ways in which authors sought to use the past, as outlined above.
Was it an entirely self-assumed role, or was the community’s output directed or commissioned by others?
A little bit of both. Some examples, such as the magnificent compendium of materials relating to St Cuthbert’s cult (now Cambridge, Corpus Christi College manuscript 183) was given to the community by King Æthelstan in the 930s, representing on part of a major act of royal patronage. On the other hand, Symeon’s history was commissioned by Durham monks in order to articulate their claims to inherit the economic, cultural and spiritual legacy of the entire cult of St Cuthbert going right back to 687. Other works, such as the annals and chronicles compiled in the early twelfth century, show Durham monks responding to new intellectual debates that had recently sprung up throughout Europe, on the nature of time and dating of the world. So the study of these historical texts allows us to see members of Cuthbert’s community receiving and responding to all kinds of stimuli.
Does the community present a consistent ‘voice’ across its many texts? If so, how would you define it?
It is fair to say that the single resounding message highlights the power and sanctity of Cuthbert, and warns potential detractors not to interfere with anything deemed to be his property! This could mean actual land and incomes, but also his relics and also on a more abstract level, not to doubt the continued power and influence of the saint, even long after his death.
Is this how the community presented itself to the world outside? How was it viewed by others? Was it seen as a trustworthy source?
My book highlights some examples of external contacts writing to Durham in order to obtain historical information to be used in their own disputes, seemingly treating Durham authorities as trustworthy sources. However, there are other examples of communities or individuals seemingly writing in opposition to Cuthbert’s community, such as: John of Worcester, who appears to have attacked the legacy of Durham’s Bishop William of Saint-Calais and then prompted Durham’s response in the form of a lengthy treatise on how William was completely innocent of all charges.
The book’s blurb mentions several ‘watershed’ moments in the life of the community. What were these and what impact did they have?
Undoubtedly, we should recognise the attack on Lindisfarne by Viking raiders in 793, and the decision of the community to leave Lindisfarne following renewed Viking activities in 875. The community then settled at Chester-le-Street from the 880s until 995, when it was then translated again to Durham. After it had left Lindisfarne, several generations of Cuthbert’s community appear to have been striving to assert the continuity of their history. In order to maintain their political, economic and ecclesiastical influence, members of Cuthbert’s community had to explain why it was that they were no longer based on the island, not to mention who exactly Cuthbert was and why he should be venerated. By tracing the lines of historical continuity and highlighting episodes of Cuthbert’s continuing action, the community was able to retain, and to even expand its position. Much of this was thanks to the writing of history.
Can you put a number on the amount of texts they produced, or at least those that still survive?
There are eighteen known works from the period covered in my book (down to c.1130). Seventeen survive, while one can be reconstructed from the contents of later works. Durham authors produced many more historical texts in the centuries that followed, and so my book tells the first part of a much longer story that I hope to complete at some stage.
What drew you to this particular subject and St Cuthbert’s?
At noted above, my interest in why medieval people wrote history is somewhat autobiographical. I want to know if medieval people felt the same way about their past as I do about mine. The best way to answer that, is to read what they say in their histories.
St Cuthbert’s community in particular interested me, due to the large number and broad range of the surviving works. Obviously, there is also the fact that I live and work in Durham, and around half of the texts surveyed survive in their original medieval manuscripts in Durham. In many cases, they have never moved in nearly 900 years.
And what is next for you now? Is there more for you to do on the community?
Certainly, yes. As noted above, there are many more examples of how members of St Cuthbert’s community wrote history in the central and later medieval periods. I would very much like to write about these works and finish my story. I have also researched the works of another Anglo-Norman historian, Orderic Vitalis, and I continue to publish items related to these. More broadly, I am working on a new project which examines medieval concepts of historical time, and which I hope will lead to lots of exciting publications.
We like to finish with the same question to all our contributors. In this issue we’re asking how do you keep abreast of new publications and research? Is there anything that publishers could do better to keep academics informed?
Most often, I do this through Twitter (@rozierhistorian) because we like to promote and share the works of our colleagues and friends! But I also browse catalogues that I am sent in the mail and by email. I feel that this works pretty well as it is. We probably all feel like we should be more on top of recent publications in our field, but there is no single way to do this. As long as you are curious and keen to hear about new work, you should be able to carry on learning!
CHARLES C. ROZIER is Lecturer in Medieval European History at Durham University.
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