Sunday 2 November 2014

A Selection of Saints' Legends

One day. One day, I will hear a sermon on All Saints' Day which doesn't start off by making a joke about how silly medieval saints' legends are. In Oxford, of all places, you might think a preacher could come up with something a bit more interesting to say on this feast than 'aren't there lots of silly stories about medieval saints? Just as well we know better!' I'd like to think that somewhere out there in the world there must be a member of the clergy who has actually read a medieval saint's legend, or is at least prepared to expend some imagination to understand why saints in the Middle Ages attracted so much love and devotion, such a wealth of literary, artistic, intellectual and emotional investment, and the kind of creativity which made their legends lively, funny and memorable.

Well, not today. This morning's sermon was a classic of the genre, and it was annoying, though not particularly surprising. To do something productive with my annoyance, here are a few links to stories from some of my favourite medieval saints' legends. I'm using the word 'medieval' here in its technical sense and not, as today's preacher was, as a synonym for 'primitive' or 'stupid'.

St Guthlac finds his vocation while musing on his ancestors.

St Ethelburga's nuns are joyfully reunited with her in death.

St Oda saves the day at the Battle of Brunanburh by reforging the king's broken sword.

St Anselm recalls his first childhood vision of God, his youthful anxieties about his vocation, and his longing to escape the busy world and live in peace.

St Wihtburh builds a sandcastle, in a story which is a little silly, but also very sweet.

St Dunstan nips the devil by the nose. A legend which is comic because it's meant to be comic, not because people in the Middle Ages were idiots.

St Gilbert of Sempringham's friends mistake him for a dancer because he's up and down in prayer all night.

St Wulfstan of Worcester in tender and in playful mood.

St Edmund sacrifices himself to save his people.

St Eormenhild defends a little boy who has been cruelly beaten.

St Alphege stands fast in the face of a Viking army.

Edward the Confessor heals a blind man.

St Margaret of Scotland makes the best of life in exile.

Earl Waltheof, humiliated on earth, is honoured as a saint in heaven.

St Etheldreda defends her monks from unjust Norman rulers.

Gundulf of Rochester creeps away to a cowshed to pray in peace.

Julian of Norwich is comforted by St John of Beverley, her friendly 'neighbour', a homely saint glorified by God 'to made us glad and merry in love'.

This is a small selection, limited by nothing more scientific than my own interests - these stories are all from English sources (though the saints include people of Italian, Norman and Danish heritage), and most come from the Anglo-Saxon period and the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Are they all true? No. Maybe none of them are true. It doesn't matter. Though some of them are intentionally or unintentionally funny - more often intentionally, I think - they encompass a wide range of human experience: injustices small and great; battles to save a kingdom, extraordinary courage in time of disaster, and children playing on the seashore; friends teasing each other, expressing their love, and sharing personal memories; bullied children, young people worrying about their futures, old men trying to find peace in the midst of their busy lives; generosity, wisdom, humour, grief, illness, joy, love. Are there absurdities in the legends of medieval saints? Yes, of course; I wouldn't claim otherwise. But there is much, much more of beauty, value and truth.


Anonymous said...

We were lucky enough to have the incomparable Ian Bradley preaching on All Saints: among other things he was putting forward St Aidan as a potential patron saint for the United Kingdom, pointing out that we don't have one for the United Kingdom as a whole, and although a great deal of his sermon was about Scottish saints, plenty of Anglo-Saxon saints got honourable mention. Many thanks for your post: Medieval=Primitive (and therefore funny) is an idea that should be fought on every front.

Clerk of Oxford said...

That sounds excellent! After writing this post, I heard a much better sermon on All Souls Day (same church, different preacher) which made really lovely use of Bede's story of the sparrow, so I felt the balance was somewhat restored, and proper respect paid to the medieval :)

Anonymous said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing your knwoledge.