Monks, Miracles and the Making of England

When returning the proofs of Bishop Æthelwold, His Followers and Saints’ Cults in Early Medieval England to the magnificent Caroline Palmer, I joked that we could try advertising the book as featuring:

James Bond1

Explosions2

Cowgirls3

The ancestor of Times New Roman Font

The image on the cover is adapted from Rouen, Bibliothèque municipale de Rouen, Ms Y 6 – f. 158 v°

But while ‘Bishop Æthelwold and his Followers’ may not have much name recognition with Hollywood, they are well-known to early medievalists. Bishop Æthelwold of Winchester (d. 984) and his associates were some of the most extreme reformers in tenth-century western Europe: they insisted on uniformity in many aspects of religious life and wanted all ecclesiastics, even the staff of cathedrals, to follow the Rule of St Benedict. They were also some of the most influential figures in the nascent kingdom of England. By 1000 AD, his circle controlled both archbishoprics and the wealthiest bishoprics and monasteries. They continue to control historians’ perceptions of the early kingdom of England, since their monasteries preserved most (although, as Gerald Dyson has noted, not all) of the surviving sources, from economic documents to narratives to art. Indeed, the two most prolific Old English authors in the surviving corpus—Ælfric of Eynsham and Wulfstan, bishop of Worcester and archbishop of York—were taught at monastic schools established by Æthelwold. 

Moving map showing how Æthelwold’s circle came to control major ecclesiastical institutions by about 1000 AD

These reformers’ success has previously been attributed to their close connections to King Edgar (whom Æthelwold tutored), or to the force of Æthelwold’s personality. J. Armitage Robinson memorably characterized Æthelwold as ‘the harsh, unyielding, hasty reformer… whose cruelty produced a reaction the moment he was dead.’ The evidence presented in this book, however, suggests that Æthelwold and his circle were more open to compromise than his student-hagiographers—and later scholars—admitted. This can be seen in a key component of the circle’s success: their saints’ cults.

The circle’s texts, documents, and artworks often mentioned saints. Previously, scholars have suggested that Æthelwold’s circle’s lavish veneration of saints was driven by their ideological interests. Historians have argued that Æthelwold had a particular interest in saints from the ‘Age of Bede’, while literary historians have countered that Æthelwold and his followers emphasized universal saints—particularly the Virgin Mary—in their prayers and artwork. However, no consistent set of ideological motives explains all of the saints that the circle venerated most energetically.

On the contrary, the circle heavily promoted saints like Æthelthryth (the head of a double monastery), Iudoc (a hermit) and Swithun (a bishop from pre-reform Winchester) who practised lifestyles that contradicted some of these reformers’ principles. (The depiction of Æthelthryth in Æthelwold’s glittering book of benedictions is on display at the British Library until 2 October 2022.) Swithun, a saint from the ‘bad old days’ of the ninth century, was even promoted at Winchester over Birinus, a saint mentioned by Bede. For while Æthelwold’s circle did idealize the English-speaking Church’s distant past, they do not seem to have been more interested in the works of Bede than any other group. Rather, the circle’s major intellectual guides seem to have been ninth-century, Carolingian texts. So why did the circle extravagantly promote a range of local saints via elaborate displays and extensive financial investments?

St Swithun, as depicted in Æthelwold’s Benedictional (now British Library, Add MS 49598, f. 97v)

By examining individual prayers, schoolbooks, charters, accounts of property disputes, hagiographies, miracles narratives, and archaeology, this book suggests that saints facilitated monks’ and nuns’ interactions with groups outside their monasteries. Although the evidence is often difficult and incomplete, some suggestive patterns emerge. At the Old Minster, Winchester, where the circle had violently expelled their clerical predecessors, the monks came to venerate Swithun, a cleric who might even have been the ancestor of one of the men they had expelled. One such expelled cleric, Eadsige, even returned to the Old Minster to become the sacristan at Swithun’s shrine. Monks may also have promoted saints like Æthelthryth of Ely and Botulf of Thorney (and Peterborough and Iken) to secure the cooperation of nobles and lay people who were already devoted to those saints.

After all, Æthelwold’s houses disrupted local economies and societies through massive property acquisition, rerouting waterways, and intensive exploitation of the land—and ploughmen and cowgirls—under their control. The monks at Ely may not have initially promoted Æthelthryth—they listed universal saints as Ely’s dedicatees in early charters—but within a few years, the circle was claiming that people who stole Æthelthryth’s property exploded. The circle redesigned their churches to guide large numbers of lay people around their shrines (and to control sites associated with pre-existing lay devotions). Meanwhile, legal documents suggest that monks and nuns adjusted their language about saints depending on the specific situations they faced.

A bishop (Æthelwold?) and his congregation, from Æthelwold’s Benedictional (now British Library, Add MS 49598, f. 118v)

Contrary to the view that monastic reformers were idealists who imposed their agenda from above and refused to compromise with the needs of the laity—unlike pastorally-minded, unreformed clerics—this study shows that even the most extreme reformers were willing to compromise their commitment to uniformity to collaborate with groups outside these houses. This book thus supports recent work by Chris Riedel, Francesca Tinti, Sarah Hamilton, Steven Vanderputten and others.

While Æthelwold and his followers did not make all clerics in England rule-following monks, many of their institutions and ideas survived for hundreds of years. Even their distinctive Anglo-Caroline script is still influential. (A manuscript from Abingdon was bought by the Plantin-Moretus Printing House, where it may have helped inspire the Plantin Typeface, which, in turn, is the ancestor of Times New Roman Font.) The scale of their influence means that these men and women deserve to be studied in depth. And Æthelwold’s circle cannot be discussed without also considering their saints.

1The expert on medieval waterways, not the ornithologist nor the fictional spy

2Depending on how you define rumpebatur

3Depending on how you define dæge


This guest post was written by Alison Hudson, an historian who works on tenth- and eleventh-century monks and manuscripts. She received her doctorate from Oxford University in 2014, and has since worked in Brussels, London, and Orlando.

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