Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Death of St Dunstan

St Dunstan (BL Stowe 12, f.248v)

St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, died on 19 May 988. He was one of Anglo-Saxon England's greatest saints, a hugely dynamic and at times controversial figure who loomed very large over the English church in his lifetime and in the centuries after his death. One mark of his importance is the wealth of hagiographical material about him, which tells memorable stories about his forthright interactions with kings, his encounters with the devil, his learning and teaching, his talents at music and metal-working, the accusations that he was involved in black magic - all kinds of unforgettable things. I wrote about some of these stories here and here, and at some length about the most famous story, Dunstan nipping the devil by the nose, here.

Dunstan and the devil (BL Add. MS 42130, f. 54v)

There are two peaks in the production of hagiographical writing about St Dunstan: the years immediately following his death (which saw the writing of the earliest Life and this hymn to Dunstan, among other things) and the decades after the Norman Conquest. The latter period is my particular interest. In the forty years between c.1090 and c.1130, three Lives of Dunstan were written: by the monk Osbern, precentor of Christ Church, Canterbury and hagiographer of St Alphege, by his younger and more prolific successor Eadmer, and by William of Malmesbury. They differ in subtle and interesting ways, although Osbern's - the first of the three and the most inventive - is always a bit underrated compared to the other two. (It hasn't even been properly edited, since 'inventive' is not exactly what most modern historians look for in a saint's life...)

This is Eadmer's account of the final days of Dunstan's life, which were spent at Canterbury in 988. As the beginning of his life was heralded by a miraculous sign at Candlemas, the end was marked by one on Ascension Day, when he had a vision which revealed he was about to die.

And so the festive day began to break on which the Lord, the Son of God, our God, victoriously ascended to heaven after conquering death, and Dunstan, having finished the night Office, was alone in the church of our Saviour at Canterbury and was fixed in total concentration on Christ as he reflected upon such a joyous event. While he was doing this he looked up and, behold, a countless multitude of men in white, wearing golden crowns upon their heads and gleaming with unimaginable brightness, burst in through the doors of the church and stood gathered together in a group all around Dunstan and with one voice they rendered words of greeting to him in this way: 'Greetings, beloved Dunstan, greetings. The Son of God, whom you piously desire, orders, if you are prepared, that you should come with us and celebrate this day, whose joys you yearn for with undivided love, thankfully and joyously in his court.' Dunstan was not at all disturbed by their faces and voices, and asked who they might be. 'We are the Cherubim and Seraphim,' they said, 'and we would like to know how you wish to respond to these things.' Then Dunstan, in a devout state of heart and mind, and rendering due thanks for such great favour with suppliant voice, said: 'You know, O holy and blessed spirits, what honour, what hope, what joy occurred on this day for the human race th[r]ough the ascension of Jesus Christ, Lord and God of everyone. You know, nonetheless, that it is my duty on this day to refresh the sheep of that same Lord of mine, who have been entrusted to me, with the bread of eternal life and to tell them by what path they ought to follow him, where he has gone before. Moreover, many people have assembled on this account and I must not let them down in such an important matter. For this reason I cannot come today to where you have invited me.' They replied: 'Well then, ensure that on the sabbath you are ready to travel with us from here to Rome and to sing 'Holy, holy, holy' forever before the supreme pontiff. He agreed with what they had proposed”, and they vanished from his sight.
Eadmer of Canterbury, Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald, ed. and trans. Andrew J. Turner and Bernard J. Muir (Oxford, 2006), p.151.

In case you're wondering how anyone knew of this private vision: it was witnessed by one Ælfgar, at that time a priest in the church of Canterbury. Eadmer says on that Ascension Day Dunstan preached 'as he had never preached before', three times in one Mass, his face resplendent with such radiance that there was no one in the congregation able to look directly at him. His final promise to the people was that though he might be absent from them in body, his spiritual presence would never leave them. He died the following Saturday, and was buried in the place he had chosen for his tomb: "namely," says Eadmer, "in the place where the divine office used to be celebrated daily by the brothers, which was in front of the steps by which you ascend to the altar of Christ the Lord". This refers to the layout of the Saxon cathedral, which burned down when Eadmer was a child, but which he vividly remembered.

In the later medieval cathedral, the site of Dunstan's tomb was on the right of this picture

The central place of Dunstan's tomb at the heart of the church was important to Eadmer:
I do not doubt that he made this arrangement from a sense of great love. For this most kindly father wished even in bodily death to be constantly present there in the midst of the sons whom he truly loved and was leaving behind him in this troubled world, so that they would be able to declare confidently in his presence whatever they wanted, as if he were alive, and not doubting that his spirit would always be with them, in keeping with the promise he had made them. And indeed I may say this, from what I know happened since that time and from what I see still being done today around his most sacred body by monks of this church. For those who desire solace in their needs, whether of body or soul, hasten there every day and plead for assistance as if from a most blessed father living among them physically... Therefore it should not be doubted that Dunstan knew these things before his death and so promised that he would be amongst his people in spirit, and for these reasons and being full of love he desired all the more for his body to be placed in their midst.
After Dunstan's death his monks sorely needed his fatherly care, as Eadmer goes to explain:
Furthermore, it is clear enough from the chronicles and from our own tribulations without my saying anything what misery has enveloped all of England since his death, and by enveloping it has ruined it. Wherefore I do not see why I should write anything about it since those events are so clearly evident without a single word being written that there is no one could not see the real misery there. I do not know what the outcome of these things might be or when it will occur, but I have no doubt at all that everything which he has done, God has done in true judgement of us because we have sinned against him and not obeyed his commandments. Wherefore, since I do not have the physical strength and have no one to advise me, I do not know what might be said or done, except that God, who has ground us down, should be begged with humble heart that he give glory to his own name and deal with us according to the bounty of his mercy and the merits and intercession of our most blessed father, Dunstan, who predicted these things would happen, and that he deliver us according to his wondrous works. O good Lord and loving omnipotent God, whether you do this at some stage because of your bountiful mercy or do not do it on account of your inscrutable justice, may your name be blessed forever, O God of Israel. Amen.
Eadmer, Lives and Miracles of Saints Oda, Dunstan and Oswald, trans. Turner and Muir, pp.157-9.

This was probably written in the first decade of the twelfth century, some 120 years after Dunstan's death. In that period, England and Canterbury had seen many troubles: England had been conquered twice, by Danes and Normans; Canterbury had suffered a Viking siege, town riots, and a disastrous fire, in which the cathedral and monastery had suffered badly; one of Dunstan's successors as archbishop had been brutally murdered, and two others had been humiliatingly deposed. It was believed at Canterbury that Dunstan had foreseen all these disasters, and prophesied that his death would be the beginning of the end for England, as Eadmer discusses elsewhere. Eadmer may have written this while he was in exile with St Anselm, and the tone is so desolate it's hard not to feel for him. 'Since I do not have the physical strength and have no one to advise me'! Oh, Eadmer, I know the feeling.

His account of Dunstan's last days and death makes much of the promise of Dunstan's continuing, comforting physical presence within the church at Canterbury - quite conventional in hagiography, of course, but poignant in the light of this anguished conclusion. The numerous miracle-stories about St Dunstan recorded by Osbern and Eadmer from the years after the Norman Conquest suggest that it was Dunstan, more than any other saint, to whom the English monks of Canterbury appealed for help in the difficult years after 1066 - his memory which they clung to as an talisman, representing all the Anglo-Saxon church had been and was no longer. In 1067, after fire had destroyed the cathedral (a disaster prophesied by apparitions of Dunstan's ghost) the monks prayed amid the ruins at Dunstan's tomb. When Archbishop Stigand was deposed and Lanfranc appointed, the relics of St Dunstan were removed from the place described by Eadmer, and apparently put in a storage room while the cathedral was rebuilt, in a place where the monks could not access them. No disrespect was necessarily intended, but it was a sore point with Eadmer, and the memory of that time might underlie his emphasis here. His Miracles of St Dunstan (adapted from Osbern's) tells of a hauntingly sad incident from c.1075 in which a young English monk named Æthelweard, while serving at mass in the cathedral, was suddenly seized by a bout of violent insanity in full view of the horrified monks. Although he briefly recovered, the next night at Compline he disrupted the service and assaulted the prior, an appointee of Lanfranc's. Later, in the dead of night, he burst out with terrible screams, attacking his brothers with accusations of the secret sins they were concealing, which had been revealed to him by the devil said to be possessing him. We're told the devil spoke in French, a language Æthelweard did not know. In the chaos Lanfranc and the prior were unable to find a cure, and it was only when an elderly English monk (the Ælfwine named in this story) secretly sought the intervention of St Dunstan that poor Æthelweard could be healed.

So perhaps this kind of incident too explains Eadmer's focus on the comfort and support of Dunstan's physical presence. I wonder if it's relevant that he clearly knew that in 988 the date of Dunstan's death (as this year) fell between Ascension Day and Pentecost, a time when the church is thinking about absence and presence, loss and consolation, Christ's physical departure compensated for by the sending of 'the spirit of comfort'. In the emphasis on Dunstan's fatherly presence in the midst of his sons, you might be reminded of a scriptural verse used in the liturgy of both the Ascension and Pentecost: Christ's promise, 'I will not leave you orphans'. The spirit of comfort, the Paraclete, is called in Old English frofre gast (or the related frefriend 'the one who offers frofre'), and in Old English poetry and prose the alliterating words fæder and frofre ('father' and 'comfort') often appear together, used for God and for such spiritual fathers as Archbishop Lanfranc (in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry which records his death). Typical is a line from an Old English poem on the Ascension: Habbað we us to frofre fæder on roderum 'We have as a comfort to us a Father in the heavens'. Perhaps this association, of fatherly comfort and the Ascension/Pentecost loss and gain, was in the back of Eadmer's mind. If he had been writing in English, rather than Latin, he might have called Dunstan, like Lanfranc, muneca feder 7 frouer, 'comfort and father of monks'.

Readings for St Dunstan's Day, from a Canterbury manuscript (BL Cotton MS Nero C VII, f.73v)

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