Sunday 15 July 2012

Some Miracles of St Swithun

Swithun at St-Swithun-upon-Kingsgate, Winchester

'St Swithun's day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain;
St Swithun's day if thou be fair
For forty days 'twill rain na mair.'

Thanks to this little bit of weather-lore, St Swithun, who died in c.863, is one of the few Anglo-Saxon saints most people have heard of. This is a bit odd when you consider how many fascinating Anglo-Saxon saints actually did important and interesting things and get no attention at all, while what we know about Swithun's life could be summarised very quickly:

1) he was Bishop of Winchester
2) he did the usual things Anglo-Saxon bishops did, repairing churches, witnessing charters, etc.
3) he died in c.863.

That's pretty much it. Is any of that as exciting as standing up to Vikings, being taught songs by angels, fighting devils in desolate fens, standing up to a different lot of Vikings, being a wise and holy queen, or defending your followers from unjust attack? I don't really think so. But Swithun's weather-lore makes him more famous than any of those much better-attested saints.

(In fact I love traditional weather-lore and even more Jane Austen's poem about it, but nonetheless, a word for the underrated Anglo-Saxons...)

What Swithun did or didn't do in his life must remain a mystery; his legend concerns what he did after his death. He was buried at Winchester and about a hundred years after his death, when Bishop Æthelwold was engaged in a revival of monastic life at the minster there, miracles were attributed to St Swithun along with dream-visions which claimed to reveal his greatness in the eyes of God. Today I'm going to post some extracts from the story as told by Ælfric, the homilist and hagiographer, writing in English in the 990s. You can read Ælfric's whole text in Old English and in translation online here. Ælfric had been educated under Æthelwold at Winchester, and he gives us a detailed picture of how the cult of Swithun developed at Æthelwold's instigation.

The main problem with St Swithun - the complete absence of evidence for his saintliness - was clear to Ælfric too. This is how he begins his account of Swithun:

On Eadgares dagum ðæs æðelan cynincges
þaþa se cristendom wæs wel ðeonde þurh god
on angel-cynne under ðam ylcan cynincge
þa geswutelode god þone Sanct Swyðun
mid manegum wundrum þæt he mære is.
His dæda næron cuðe ærðan þe hi god sylf cydde
ne we ne fundon on bocum hu se bisceop leofode
on þysre worulde ærðan þe he gewende to criste.
Þæt wæs þæra gymeleast þe on life hine cuþon
þæt hi noldon awritan his weorc and drohtnunge
þam towerdum mannum ðe his mihte ne cuðon
ac god hæfð swa þeah his lif geswutelod
mid swutelum wundrum and syllicum tacnum.
Đes Swyðun wæs bisceop on winceastre
swa þeah ofer hamtun-scire gesælig godes þeowa
and eahta bisceopas wæron betwux him and Sancte Æðelwolde.
nu næs us his lif cuð swa swa we ær cwædon
butan þæt he wæs bebyrged æt his bisceop-stole
be westan þære cyrcan and ofer-worht syððan
oþþæt his wundra geswutelodon his gesælða mid gode.
In the days of the noble king Edgar, when by the grace of God Christianity was thriving among the English people under that king, God revealed St Swithun, showing by many signs that he is glorious. His deeds were not known until God himself made them known, and we do not find written in books in what manner the bishop lived in this world before he went to Christ. Such was the carelessness of those who knew him in life, that they did not write about his deeds and conduct for the benefit of future generations who did not know his virtue; but God nonetheless made known his life with manifest miracles and wonderful tokens. This Swithun was Bishop of Winchester, that is, over Hampshire, a blessed servant of God; there were eight bishops between him and St Æthelwold. Now, as we said before, nothing about his life is known to us, except that he was buried at his episcopal seat, to the west of the church, and a tomb was built over him, until his miracles revealed that he was blessed by God.

So, there you go - it's all attributable to the carelessness of those who knew him. Ælfric goes on to describe how Swithun's existence was revealed, leading to the moving of his body into the cathedral on 15 July, 971:

Þrym gearum ærðan þe se sanct into cyrcan wære gebroht
of ðære stænenan þryh þe stent nu wið-innan
þam niwan geweorce com se arwurða Swyðun
to sumum gelyfedan smyðe on swefne æteowiende
wurðlice geglencged and ðas word him cwæð to:
“Canst þu ðone preost þe is gehaten Eadzige
þe wæs of ealdan mynstre mid ðam oðrum preostum adræfed
for heora unþeawum þurh Æðelwold bisceop?”
Se smið þa andwyrde þam arwurðan Swyðune þus:
“Gefyrn ic hine cuðe, leof, ac he ferde heonon
and ic nat to gewissan hwær he wunað nu.”
Þa cwæð eft se halga wer to ðam ealdan smyðe:
“Witodlice he wunað nu on wincel-cumbe ham-fæst
and ic ðe nu halsige on þæs hælendes naman
þæt ðu him min ærende ardlice abeode
and sege him to soþan þæt Swiðun se bisceop
het þæt he fare to Æðelwolde bisceope
and secge þæt he ge-openige him sylf mine byrgene
and mine ban gebringe binnan ðære cyrcan
forðan þe him is getiþod þæt ic on his timan
beo mannum geswutelod. And se smið him cwæð to,
“La leof, Eadzige nele gelyfan minum wordum.”
Đa cwæð se bisceop eft, “Gange him to minre byrgene
and ateo ane hringan up of ðære þryh
and gif seo hringe him folgað æt þam forman tige,
þonne wat he to soðan þæt ic þe sende to him.
Gif seo hringe nele up þurh his anes tige
þonne ne sceall he nates hwon þinre sage gelyfan.
Sege him eac siððan þæt he sylf geriht-læce
his dæda and þeawas to his drihtnes willan
and efste anmodlice to þam ecan life.
Sege eac eallum mannum þæt sona swa hi
geopeniað mine byrgene þæt hi magon ðær findan
swa deorwurðne hord þæt heora dyre gold
ne bið nahte wurð wið þa fore-sædan maðmas.”

Se halga Swyðun þa ferde fram þam smiðe up
and se smið ne dorste secgan þas gesihðe ænigum menn
nolde beon gesewen unsoðsagul boda.
Hwæt ða se halga wer hine eft gespræc
and git þryddan siðe and swyðe hine þreade
hwi he nolde gehyrsumian his hæsum mid weorce.
Se smið þa æt nextan eode swa ðeah to his byrgene
and genam ane hringan earhlice swa ðeah
and clypode to gode þus cwæðende mid wordum:
“Eala þu drihten god, ealra gesceafta scyppend,
getiða me synfullum þæt ic ateo þas hringan
up of ðysum hlyde, gif se lið her on innan
seðe me spræc to on swæfne þriwa.”
He teah ða þæt isen up swa eaðelice of ðam stane,
swilce hit on sande stode, and he swyðe þæs wundrode.
He ða hit eft sette on þæt ylce þyrl
and þyde mid his fet and hit swa fæste eft stod
þæt nan man ne mihte hit þanon ateon.
þa eode se smið ge-egsod þanon
and gemette on cypincge þæs Eadzies mann
and sæde him gewislice hwæt Swyðun him behead
and bæd hine georne þæt he hit abude him.
He cwæð þæt he hit wolde cyðan his hlaforde
and ne dorste swa ðeah hit secgan æt fruman
ærþan ðe he beþohte þæt him ðearflic nære
þæt he ðæs halgan hæse forhule his hlaforde,
sæde þa be ende-byrdnysse hwæt Swyðun him bebead
þa onscunode se Eadsige Æðelwold þone bisceop
and ealle ða munecas þe on ðam mynstre wæron
for þære ut-dræfe þe he gedyde wið hi
and nolde gehyran þæs halgan bebod
þeah ðe se sanct wære gesib him for worulde.
He gebeah swa þeah binnan twam gearum
to þam ylcan mynstre and munuc wearð þurh god
and þær wunode oðþæt he gewat of life.
Geblætsod is se ealmihtiga god þe ge-eadmed þone modigan
and ða eadmodan ahæfð to healicum geðincþum
and gerihtlæcð þa synfullan and symle hylt ða godan
þe on hine hihtað forðan þe he hælend is.
Three years before the saint was brought into the church from the stone coffin which now stands inside the new building, the venerable Swithun appeared to a certain faithful blacksmith in a dream, richly adorned, and said to him: "Do you know the priest called Eadsige, who, with the other priests, was driven out of the Old Minster by Bishop Æthelwold because of their sinfulness?"

The smith answered venerable Swithun, "I knew him long ago, sir, but he went away from here, and I don't know for certain where he lives now."

Then the holy man spoke again to the old smith: "Truly, he is now settled at Winchcombe, and I command you now, in the Saviour's name, to swiftly tell him my message, and tell him truly that Bishop Swithun orders him to go to Bishop Æthelwold and say that he should open my tomb himself and bring my bones inside the church, because it has been appointed that in his time I should be made known to men."

And the smith said to him, "But, sir, Eadsige will not believe my words."

The bishop said, "Let him go to my tomb and pull a ring out of the coffin, and if the ring comes away at the first try, then he will know for certain that I sent you to him. If the ring will not come away by his effort alone, then he should not put any faith in what you have said. Tell him, also, that he should amend his behaviour and conduct to the will of his Lord, and hasten with a single purpose towards eternal life. And tell everyone that as soon as they have opened my tomb, they will find there a hoard so valuable that their precious gold will be worthless compared to those treasures."

The holy Swithun then left the smith. The smith did not dare to speak of that vision to anyone, not wishing to be thought a liar. But the holy man spoke to him again, and yet a third time, and severely challenged him why he would not obey him and put his commands into action. So the smith went to the tomb, and took hold of a ring on it - though he was terrified - and cried out to God, saying, "O Lord God, Creator of all things, grant to me, a sinful man, that I may be able to pull this ring out of the coffin, if he who has spoken to me three times in a dream lies within here."

He drew the iron out of the stone as easily as if it stood in sand, and he marvelled greatly at that. Then he placed it back in the same hole, and pressed it down with his foot, and it was again attached so fast that no one could pull it away.

The smith, awestruck, went out and found Eadsige's servant in the marketplace, and told him exactly what Swithun had told him, and asked him earnestly to tell it to Eadsige. The man said he would tell his lord, but he did not dare to tell him straight away. Then after a time he realised that it would not be good for him if he concealed the saint's commands from his lord, so he told him all that Swithun had commanded. Eadsige was angry with Bishop Æthelwold and all the monks in the monastery, because they had driven him out, and he would not heed the saint's commands, although that holy man [Æthelwold] was a kinsman of his. But, within two years, he returned to the monastery and became a monk, through God's grace, and lived there until his death. Blessed is Almighty God, who humbles the proud and exalts the humble to a high place, and corrects the sinful and ever protects the good who hope in him, because he is the Saviour.

This is a great story - Swithun as Merlin granting his own sword-in-the-stone moment. After this a number of miraculous cures take place, and Bishop Æthelwold is convinced to follow the command of the vision and bring Swithun inside the cathedral. (It's interesting that this is the exact opposite of the later legend that Swithun insisted on being buried outside the cathedral and showed his displeasure on being brought inside).

Swithun in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold (BL Additional 49598, f.97v)

The miracles continue, and Swithun appears again in a vision to chastise lazy monks:

Æþelwold þa se arwurða and se eadiga bisceop
þe on ðam dagum wæs on winceastre bisceop
bead his munecum eallum þe on ðam mynstre wunodon
þæt hi ealle eodon endemes to cyrcan
and mid sange heredon þæs sanctes mærða
and god mærsodon swa on þam mæran halgan
swa oft swa ænig wan-hal mann wurde gehæled.
Þa dydon hi sona swa and sungon þone lofsang
oðþæt heora laðode eallum þæt hi swa oft arisan
hwilon þrywa on niht hwilon feower syðum
to singenne þone lofsang þonne hi slapan sceoldon
and forleton ealle endemes þone sang
forðam þe se bisceop wæs bysig mid þam cynincge
and nyste butan hi sungon þone lof-sang forð on.
Hwæt ða se halga Swyðun sylf com on swefne
wundorlice geglencged to sumum godan menn and cwæð,
“Gang nu to ealdan mynstre and þam munecum sege
þæt gode swyðe oflicað heora ceorung and slæwð
þæt hi dæg-hwamlice geseoð drihtnes wundra mid him
and hi nellað herian þone hælend mid sange
swa swa se bisceop behead þam gebroðrum to donne
and sege gif hi nellað þone sang gelæstan
þonne geswicað eac sona ða wundra
and gif hi þone lofsang willað æt þam wundrum singan
swa oft swa wanhale menn þær wurðað gerihte
þonne wurðaþ mid him wundra swa fela
þæt nan man ne mæg gemunan on life
þæt ænig man gesawe swylce wundra ahwær.”
þa awæcnode se wer of þam wynsuman slæpe
and swyðe be-sargode þæt he geseon ne moste
ne nan læncg brucan þæs beorhtan leohtes
þe he mid swiðune hæfde ða gesewen.
He aras swaðeah and swiðe hraðe ferde
to Æþelwolde bisceope and him eall þis sæde.
Æþelwold þa asende sona to þam munecum
of cyninges hyrede and cwæð þæt hi sceoldon
þone lof-sang singan swa swa he ge-set hæfde
and se þe hit forsawe sceolde hit mid fæstene
seofon niht on an swarlice gebetan.
Hi hit heoldon þa syððan symle on ge-wunon
swa swa we gesawon sylfe for oft
and þone sang we sungon unseldon mid heom.
Æthelwold, the venerable and blessed bishop, who in those days was Bishop of Winchester, commanded all his monks who lived in the Minster that every time a sick person was healed they should all go in procession to the church, and praise in song the merits of the saint and glorify God because of the saint's holiness. They began to do this straightaway, and sang the song of praise, until it grew tiresome for them to have to get up so often - sometimes three times a night, sometimes four - to sing the Te Deum, when they could have been asleep. At last they all left off singing the hymn, because the bishop was busy with the king, and did not know that they had ceased their custom of singing.

But then St Swithun himself appeared to a certain good man in a dream, richly attired, and said, "Go to the Old Minster, and say to the monks that God is greatly displeased by their grumbling and sloth, that every day they see the miracles of God performed among them, but they do not want to praise the Saviour with hymns as the bishop commanded the brothers to do. Tell them that if they do not sing the hymn, the miracles will soon cease; but if they sing the Te Deum for the miracles, as often as sick people are healed there, then so many wonders will be performed among them that no one alive will be able to remember when any man saw such wonders anywhere."

The man woke up from his sweet sleep, and mourned that he could no longer see and enjoy the beautiful light which he had seen accompanying Swithun. Nonetheless he got up and quickly went to Bishop Æthelwold, and told him all this. Æthelwold straightaway sent a message from the king's court to the monks, and said that they should sing the Te Deum just as he had set down for them, and that anyone who neglected to do this should heavily atone for it by fasting for seven nights continuously. Afterwards they always kept this custom, as we have very often seen for ourselves - and we have often sung that hymn with them.
I do enjoy a good 'lazy monks' story. And that final sentence is Ælfric reminding us of his own personal connection with Winchester, of which he was justly proud.

St Swithun in BL Stowe 12 f. 273v. I have no idea what's going on here...

More miracles take place:

Is swa ðeah to witenne þæt we ne moton us gebiddan
swa to godes halgum swa swa to gode sylfum
forðan þe he is ana god ofer ealle þincg
Ac we sceolon biddan soðlice þa halgan
þæt hi us þingion to þam þrym-wealdendum gode
seþe is heora hlaford þæt he helpe us.
Hwilon wacodon menn swa swa hit gewunelic is
ofer an dead lic and ðær wæs sum dysig mann
plegol ungemetlice and to þam mannum cwæð
swylce for plegan þæt he Swyðun wære:
“Ge magon to soðum witan þæt ic Swyðun eom
seðe wundra wyrð and ic wille þæt ge beran
eower leoht to me and licgað on cneowum
and ic eow forgife þæt þæt ge gyrnende beoð.”
He woffode ða swa lange mid wordum dyslice
oðþæt he feoll geswogen swylce he sawl-leas wære
and hine man bær ham to his bædde sona
and he læg swa lange his lifes orwene.
His magas ða æt nextan þone mann feredon
to þam halgan Swiþune and he sylf andette
his dyslican word þe he dyrstiglice sprae
and bæd him forgifnysse and he wearð þa gehæled
swa þæt he hal eode ham mid his magum.
Is eac to witenne þæt menn unwislice doð
þa ðe dwollice plegað æt deadra manna lice
and ælce fulnysse þær forð-teoð mid plegan
þonne hi sceoldon swyðor be-sargian þone deadan
and ondrædan him sylfum þæs deaðes tocyme
and biddan for his sawle butan gewede georne.
Sume menn eac drincað æt deadra manna lice
ofer ealle þa niht swiðe unrihtlice
and gremiað god mid heora gegaf-spræce.
þonne nan gebeorscype ne gebyrað æt lice
ac halige gebedu þær gebyriað swiþor.
It is important to know that we must not pray to God's saints in the same way as to God Himself, because He alone is God above all things; but we should truly ask the saints to intercede for us with Almighty God, who is their Lord, that he may help us. On one occasion, men were keeping vigil by a dead body, as is the custom, and there was a foolish man who was joking around in an immoderate way. As a joke, he spoke to the other men as if he were St Swithun, saying, "Know in truth that I am Swithun, who performs miracles! I want you to carry your candles to me, and kneel before me, and I will grant you what you desire." In this way he blasphemed for a long time with foolish words, until he fell silenced, as if he were lifeless.

They carried him home to his bed straight away, and he lay there for a long time, despairing of his life. At last the man's kinsmen carried him to Saint Swithun, and he confessed the foolish words which he had presumptously spoken and begged for forgiveness from him; he was healed, and went home with his kinsmen in perfect health. It should be known that people act very unwisely when they joke around like fools at the bodies of dead men, and bring foul behaviour there in their sport, when they should rather be mourning for the dead man, dreading the coming of death for themselves, and earnestly praying for his soul without any senseless behaviour. Some men sinfully drink the whole night over the body of a dead man, and anger God with their foolish speech; no beer-drinking is appropriate at a wake, but rather holy prayers are fitting there...

This is an intriguing insight into Anglo-Saxon funeral customs!  Another particularly evocative vision:

Sum eald þegn wæs eac on wihtlande untrum
swa þæt he læg bæddryda sume nigon gear
and of ðam bedde ne mihte buton hine man bære.
Him comon þa on swefne to twegen scinende halgan
and heton hine yrnan ardlice mid him.
þa cwæð se adliga, “hu mæg ic yrnan mid eow
þonne ic ne aras of þysum bedde ana
nu for nigon gearum butan oþres mannes fylste?”
þa cwædon þa halgan, “þu cymst to ðære stowe
gif ðu færst mid us nu ðær þær ðu under-fehst þine hæle.”
He wearð þa swyðe fægen and wolde faran mid heom
ac þaþa he ne mihte heom mid syðian.
þa flugon hi geond þa lyft and feredon þone adligan
oðþæt hi becomon to sumum ænlicum felda fægre geblowen .
and þær wæs an cyrce of scinendum golde
and of gymstanum standende on þam felda
and se halga Swiðun on scinendum mæsse-reafe
stod æt ðam weofode swylce he wolde mæssian.
Swyðun cwæð þa sona to þam seocan menn,
“ic secge ðe broðor þu ne scealt heonon-forð
nanon menn yfel don ne nanne man wyrigan
ne nænne man tælan ne teonful beon
ne ðu man-slagum ne geðwærlæce ne manfullum reaferum
ne ðeofum þa ne olæce ne yfeldædum ne ge-ðwærlæce
ac swiðor gehelp swa þu selost mæge
wan-hafolum mannum mid þinum agenum spedum
and þu swa þurh godes mihte sylf bist gehæled.”
Se adliga þa ðohte þæt he yfel nolde don
buton þam anum þe him ær yfel dyde
and ðam wolde don wel þe him wel dyde ær.
þa wiste se halga Swiðun hu his heorte smeade
and cwæð bliðelice him to, “Broðor, ic þe secge,
ne do þu swa þu smeadest, þæt ðu derige ænigum
þeah ðe he derige ðe ac þinum drihtne ge-efenlæc
se ðe nolde wyrian þa ðe hine dydon to cwale
and het his folgeras þæt hi for heora fyondum ge-bædon.
Eac cwæð Paulus se apostol to eallum cristenum mannum
gif ðinum fynd hingrige fed hine mid mettum
oððe gif him þyrste ðu do him drincan.”
þa cwæð se bedryda to ðam bisceope eft,
“La leof, sege me hwæt þu sy manna
nu ðu manna heortan miht swa asmeagen.”
þa cwæð se halga Swyðun, “ic eom seþe nu niwan com,”
swylce he cwæde swa, “ic wæs geswutelod nu niwan.”
þa cwæð se bædryda to ðam bisceope eft,
“hu eart ðu gehaten?” And se halga him cwæð to,
“þonne ðu cymst to winceastre þu wast minne naman.”
Se man wearð þa gebroht to his bedde eft sona
and awoc of slæpe and sæde his wife
ealle ða ge-sihðe þe he gesewen hæfde.
þa cwæð þæt wif him to þæt hit wære Swyðun
se ðe hine lærde mid þære halgan lare
and þone ðe he geseah on ðære cyrcan swa fægerne.
Heo cwæð ða to þam were, “hit wære nu full good
þæt ðe man bære to cyrcan and þu bæde þone halgan
þæt he ðe gehælde þurh his halgan ge-earnunga.”
Hine man bær ða sona of ðam bedde to cyrcan
binnan withlande and he wearð gehæled sona
þurh þone ælmihtigan god for Swyðunes ge-earnungum
and eode him ða ham hal on his fotum
seðe ær wæs geboren on bære to cyrcan.
He ferde eac siððan to winceastre for-raðe
and cydde Aðelwolde þam arwurþan bisceope
hu he wearð gehæled þurh þone halgan Swiþun
and Landferð se ofer-sæwisca hit gesette on læden.
A certain old thane in the Isle of Wight was very ill, so that he lay bedridden for some nine years, and could not leave the bed unless he was being carried by someone. To him in a dream came two shining holy ones, and told him to run swiftly with them. The sick man said, "How can I run with you, when I have not risen from this bed alone, without help from someone else, for nine years now?" The holy ones said, "If you go with us now, you will come to the place where you will receive your health."

He was very glad, and wanted to go with them. Since he could not walk with them, they flew through the air, and carried the sick man until they came to a solitary field, fair with flowers, and in the field there stood a church, made of shining gold and precious stones; and St. Swithun, in bright vestments, stood before the altar, as if about to say Mass. Swithun straightaway said to the sick man, "Brother, I tell you, henceforth you must not do evil to anyone, nor curse anyone, nor speak evil of anyone, nor be spiteful, nor take part in killings, nor conspire with wicked robbers and thieves, nor join in evil deeds, but rather, to the best of your ability, help the needy with your goods; and you shall be healed by the power of God."

Then the sick man thought to himself that he did not wish to do evil, except to those who had done evil to him, and that he wished to act well to those who had acted well to him. But St. Swithun knew how he was reasoning in his heart, and said merrily to him, "Brother, I tell you, do not do as you are thinking - that you can harm a man as he harms you! Instead, imitate your Lord, who would not curse those who put him to death, and commanded his followers to pray for their enemies. In the same way, the Apostle Paul said to all Christians, "If your enemy is hungry, give him food, and if he is thirsty, give him something to drink."

Then the bedridden man said to the bishop, "Sir, tell me what kind of man you are, that you can read the hearts of men in this way!"

St Swithun said, "I am he who has newly arrived" - as if he had said, "I have now recently been made known."

The bedridden man said to the bishop, "What is your name?"

The saint said to him, "When you get to Winchester, you will know my name."

The man was then at once brought back to his bed, and he awoke from sleep and told his wife all about the vision he had seen. His wife told him it was Swithun who had instructed him with holy teaching, and whom he had seen so glorious at the church. She said to her husband, "Now it would be best if you are carried to church, and pray to the saint for him to heal you through his holy merits."

At once they carried him from his bed to a church in the Isle of Wight, and he was instantly healed by Almighty God, through the merits of Swithun; he went home, healed, on his feet, who had been borne on a bier to the church. Then afterwards he went very quickly to Winchester, and told the venerable bishop Æthelwold how he had been healed by St Swithun, and Landferth, the foreigner, set it down in Latin...

A manuscript of the text Ælfric is referring to here, Landferth's Life and Miracles of Swithun (BL Royal C VII, f. 2)

That last is my favourite of the numerous miracles of healing in this story; I think it's because it took place on the Isle of Wight, and the vision of the flowery field is so memorable! Ælfric concludes:

Ne mage we awritan ne mid wordum asecgan
ealle þa wundra þe se halga wer Swiðun
þurh god gefremode on ðæs folces gesihþe
ge on gehæftum mannum ge on unhalum mannum
mannum to swutelunge þæt hi sylfe magon
godes rice geearnian mid godum weorcum
swa swa Swiþun dyde þe nu scinð þurh wundra.
Seo ealde cyrce wæs eall behangen mid criccum
and mid creopera sceamelum fram ende oð oþerne
on ægðrum wage þe ðær wurdon gehælede
and man ne mihte swa ðeah macian hi healfe up.
þyllice tacna cyþað þæt crist is ælmihtig god
þe his halgan geswutelode þurh swylce wel-dæda...
We habbað nu gesæd be Swiðune þus sceortlice
and we secgað to soðan þæt se tima wæs gesælig
and wynsum on angel-cynne þaþa Eadgar cynincg
þone cristen-dom ge-fyrtðrode and fela munuclifa arærde
and his cynerice wæs wunigende on sibbe
swa þæt man ne gehyrde gif ænig scyp-here wære
buton agenre leode þe ðis land heoldon
and ealle ða cyningas þe on þysum iglande wæron
cumera and scotta comon to Eadgare
hwilon anes dæges eahta cyningas
and hi ealle gebugon to Eadgares wissunge.
þaer-to-eacan wæron swilce wundra gefremode
þurh þone halgan Swyðun . swa swa we sædon ær
and swa lange swa we leofodon þær wurdon gelome wundra.
On ðam timan wæron eac wurð-fulle bisceopas
Dunstan se anræda æt ðam erce-stole
and Aþelwold se arwurða and oðre gehwylce
ac Dunstan and Aþelwold wæron drihtne gecorene
and hi swyðost manodon menn to godes willan
and ælc god arærdon gode to cwemednysse
þæt geswuteliað þa wundra þe god wyrcð þurh hi.
We cannot write, nor recount in words, all the miracles that the holy man Swithun performed, by the power of God, in the sight of the people, for prisoners in chains and for sick people, to show to everyone that they themselves may earn the kingdom of heaven by good works, just as Swithun did, who is now made glorious by his miracles. The old church was hung all round with the crutches and stools of cripples who had been healed there, from one end to the other on either wall - and even so they could not put half of them up. Such tokens declare that Christ is Almighty God, who revealed his saint by such good deeds...

We have now spoken thus briefly of Swithun. We say, truly, that time was a blessed and happy one in England, when King Edgar fostered Christianity and built many monasteries, and his kingdom ever continued in peace, so that no fleet was heard of, except that of the people who ruled this land. All the kings of the Welsh and Scots in this island came to Edgar in one day - that was eight kings - and they all submitted themselves to Edgar's rule. And, moreover, many miracles were performed through St Swithun, as we have said, and as long as we have lived frequent wonders have been done in that place. At that time there were worthy bishops, Dunstan the resolute, in the archbishopric, and Æthelwold the venerable, and others like them; Dunstan and Æthelwold were chosen of God, and they, most of all, exhorted men to do God's will, and advanced everything good, to the pleasure of God, as is testified by the miracles which God works through them.

This last paragraph is a reminder of the fraught times in which Ælfric was writing: the last decade of the tenth century, the reign of King Æthelred, when England was being repeatedly attacked by Viking fleets. (Hence his reference to the happy time when 'no fleet was heard of'.) The reign of King Edgar, guided by Archbishop Dunstan and Bishop Æthelwold, was to Ælfric a golden age of peace and prosperity, such as had collapsed under Edgar's unfortunate son Æthelred. A general lack of holiness and good counsel is Ælfric's diagnosis for the problems of his time, and he looks back to the example of Edgar, Dunstan and Æthelwold as an implicit rebuke to the king and bishops of his own days.

I think he might have been disappointed to know that a thousand years later, Swithun's fame far outshines any of the other three...

The replacement for the destroyed tomb of St Swithun in Winchester Cathedral


Anonymous said...

Nice post. And just a question since you're an expert in the area, what do you think is the best handbook for college students to start studying Old English?

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thanks! I would recommend 'A Guide to Old English' by Bruce Mitchell and Fred Robinson ( - it has very clear explanations of the structure of the language, but the best thing about it is the excellent selection of texts to work through, with helpful notes and glossary.