Sunday, 23 August 2015

'From whom we learned all these things': Memory, Canterbury, and the Saints of 24 August

Let me tell you a story. This is an incident which occurred on this day some 950 years ago, during the night of 23-24 August, in a year some time between 1060-1065. The setting is the cathedral church at Canterbury, and our eyewitness is a little boy, who was singing in the choir alongside other boys and the adult monks.

A young girl came to the city of Canterbury, a maiden devoted to God by the grace of prayer. From her birth this poor girl had never seen the light of this world, but she was always seeking eagerly after the light of eternity.

It happened that the feast was being celebrated of St Bartholomew the Apostle and of St Audoen, the confessor of Christ, both of whose relics, along with those of many other saints, lie within the church of the Saviour at Canterbury. The girl asked the custodians of the church if she might have permission to keep vigil that night, which they readily granted her because of her devout way of life. She placed herself in the church near to the tomb of the blessed father Dunstan, and all night she kept vigil and prayed.

We were beginning the Night Office, singing the eighth response 'Let your loins be girded and your lamps be kept burning', joining our tuneful voices in harmony, when this little girl of God began to feel her eyes itching terribly. She rubbed her eyes very fiercely with her fingers, and blood poured from them, flowing from her head down onto her garments. She whispered to those standing nearby, "Give me a bowl, so the blood doesn't stain this holy ground!" When they had done so, she washed her eyes in the water they had brought. All this time we boys were staring at her, signalling to each other in excitement, for we guessed - as proved to be the case - that our good father Dunstan had performed a great miracle for her.

We had sung about the girding of loins, and the burning of lamps; that song had come to an end, and we sang our praises to the glory of the Holy Trinity. And behold, she who had 'girded her loins' in devotion was able to see the 'lights burning' in the church to the glory of God, rejoicing in her heart. She marvelled at everything she saw. She was shown many things: golden objects, crosses, the keys of the church, and at everything she laughed in joy and wonder. She stared around at the people in great amazement. All in the church who saw this wept, and sang to the praise of God with joyous hearts and melodious voices.

At dawn the next day, we boys went to our masters, due to be whipped for the infractions we had committed. But behold, that good man Godric [dean of the cathedral] intervened, saying to the masters, "You stupid men! You are vomiting your cruelty upon these innocent boys, when our sweet father Dunstan has demonstrated his tender kindness to us sinners. Get out of here! You see this miraculous sign being celebrated which our Saviour has performed for the girl born blind - and yet you dare to be so cruel? Get out of here!" So we escaped their cruel hands, and went into the church. Our blessed father's bell was ringing, the one it is said he made with his own hands - a sound than which nothing is sweeter, nor more able to move men's hearts to tears. All the people in the city were flocking together, to see with their eyes the truth of the story they had heard. With lifted voices and with tears we began together to praise our Lord God, who through his blessed servant Dunstan is pleased to bless our own days with great joy. There was a huge crowd of people standing in the church, and you could not see one among them who did not weep for gladness in all sweetness and devotion at the miracle.

This is a free paraphrase of a story (which you can read in Latin here) told in a Miracula S. Dunstani, written in Canterbury some thirty years after this miracle took place. The author of the Life was our little eyewitness choirboy, whose name was Osbern. At the time of this miracle, on the eve of the Norman Conquest, Osbern was a child oblate being educated in the monastery of Christ Church, aged perhaps ten or twelve years old. He grew up to be a monk of Canterbury, precentor of the monastery and a talented musician, best known for writing works on two of Canterbury's chief Anglo-Saxon saints, Dunstan and Alphege.

But all that was in the future on the August night when this miracle occurred. Linger in the story a moment, and imagine the scene: the summer heat, the darkness, the pools of candlelight, the chant going up into the roof of the church, the little boys jostling each other when they saw the unexpected commotion, as even the best-behaved choirboys do at any deviation from their usual routine. In the blind girl's wonder at seeing for the first time the golden ornaments of the church, we can almost see them for ourselves glinting in the light of the burning lamps. This is, typically for Osbern, a very musical scene: we learn what the monks were singing (a response from Luke 12:35), we hear their tuneful voices, and we listen too to the ringing of St Dunstan's bell - a bell made with his own hands, it's said (quite plausibly, given Dunstan's talent for metalwork), with a sound 'than which nothing is sweeter'. Well, few things ever are sweeter than the church bells of home.

Osbern and some musical animals (BL Arundel 16, f. 2)

This story is of a miracle attributed to St Dunstan, and it's only tangentially related to the saints on whose feast-day it took place. But both St Bartholomew and St Audoen (also known as Ouen), who shared a feast on 24 August, had relics preserved at Canterbury: Audeon's had come there in the time of St Oda, Bartholomew's in the time of Cnut. And both feature in a little group of connected stories from Canterbury texts which touch on memory, community, and the transmission of knowledge between pre- and post-Conquest England. Let me link some of these stories together for you today, and see what kind of picture we end up with.

We've started with a story which took place in the early 1060s, but we can go back further in time than that. The 'good man' Godric mentioned in this story, bursting in to save the boys from a beating with his vigorous speech, was dean of the cathedral between c.1044 and c.1070. He reappears elsewhere in Osbern's work - this time telling a story of his own. In 1023, Godric had been one of the monks entrusted with moving the body of the martyred archbishop St Alphege from London to Canterbury. Under instruction from Cnut and Archbishop Æthelnoth, Godric had helped to open Alphege's tomb in St Paul's (or at least, so he told Osbern). Godric described how when they had opened the tomb they found the shroud they had brought wasn't enough to cover the body, so he ran to a nearby altar and grabbed the altar cloth to use as another shroud; but, apparently feeling a little guilty, he left half a pound of gold to pay for the cloth. Osbern wrote an account of this event in the 1080s, based on what Godric had told him; in it he describes Godric as "once a disciple of Alphege himself... from whom we learnt all these things which, having made diligent inquiries, we now relate". You can read more about the story Godric told here.

A Canterbury manuscript of Osbern's Life of Alphege (BL Cotton MS Nero C VII, f.46v)

Now let's go forward in time to the 1120s, into the memories of another Canterbury monk and historian, Osbern's slightly younger contemporary Eadmer. Towards the end of his life - when he was by his own description 'white-haired' - Eadmer wrote a short work about the relics of St Audeon, and in this work we get a glimpse of Osbern himself. Eadmer describes how at some point in the early 1090s, he was quietly going about his own business in the cloister at Christ Church, copying a manuscript, when Osbern came up to him. Osbern wanted him to join in a search for the relics of St Audeon, which were at that time apparently overlooked somewhere in a storeroom. Eadmer recounts Osbern's persuasive speech to him, and says they went off together - without the proper permission - to investigate. They found the relics, but in the process angered the saint, who punished them with frightening dreams. (Historical research was so much more exciting in those days!)

Eadmer's account of the incident, from his own manuscript of his works, CCCC MS.371, f.223v 
('Tempore' halfway down the page is the start of Osbern's speech)

I talked about this story in my post on the reburial of Richard III, as an example of a generically typical medieval narrative about the discovery of lost relics. And so it is. But at the same time it is very specific, localised to a distinct time and place, and we can bring to it all kinds of other contextual information about the people involved. It took place in the years between the death of Archbishop Lanfranc in 1089 and the appointment of his successor, St Anselm, in 1093. Osbern was writing his Life of Dunstan around that time - so perhaps he was doing a bit of research on Audeon in order to tell the story I quoted above, of the little girl cured of blindness on Audeon's feast-day. Eadmer was in his late twenties, and of the two of them Osbern was the more senior and experienced historian; Eadmer was, as he tells us, working at copying manuscripts (some of which can be identified; see the article here), but probably only just beginning to compose his own works. His first forays into history-writing deal with Archbishop Oda, who brought Audeon's relics to Canterbury, and with one of the other saints whose relics they believed Oda had obtained (Wilfrid). So perhaps Eadmer was interested in Audeon for that reason; or perhaps Osbern's interest in Audeon's relics encouraged Eadmer's focus on Oda. Maybe it went both ways. When people are living and working together in close community, they influence each other immeasurably and intangibly, in ways perhaps even they don't understand.

Eadmer later became unquestionably the better historian of the two, and he has an intriguingly complicated relationship with Osbern's work, half imitation, half competition (when he later rewrote Osbern's story of the little girl's miracle in his own Life of Dunstan, he cut out Osbern's eyewitness testimony entirely). To see one writer through the eyes of another is fascinating, but scholars are not influenced only by other scholars; as Osbern's references to Godric remind us, a community is composed of all kinds of story-tellers, not just those who write the stories down.

Christ and Nathanael, traditionally identified with Bartholomew (Canterbury Cathedral)

This brings us to the other saint of August 24, St Bartholomew, and another of Eadmer's memories. In the eleventh century Canterbury possessed the arm of St Bartholomew, and as I wrote in this post about Sandwich and St Bartholomew's Day, Eadmer gives us a vivid insight into his own childhood in talking about how this relic was obtained. (I'll copy and paste a bit from that post, to save time, but do go and read the whole thing - Sandwich's St Bartholomew's Day traditions are adorable.)

Eadmer says that the arm of St Bartholomew had been purchased for the cathedral priory by Queen Emma, wife of Cnut, in the 1020s or 1030s. She bought it from the Bishop of Benevento, who was then in England raising funds by the sale of relics, and in return for the arm the monks of Canterbury gave the bishop a fine cope as a gift. In his Historia Novorum, Eadmer tells how when he was travelling with St Anselm in Italy in 1098, he spotted the very same cope which the Canterbury monks had exchanged for Bartholomew's arm being worn at the Council of Bari. Far from home, Eadmer was thrilled to see this little piece of England. He explains to us that he recognised the cope from the stories of senior Canterbury monks: he recalls that when he was a boy being educated in the cathedral school, three older monks - he gives us their names, Edwin, Blacman and Farman - "used to recount consistently and in sequence" all the details of Queen Emma's transaction, and the ceremony of the exchange of relic and cope, which they had witnessed. "In those days people in England considered the relics of saints more valuable than anything else in the world", he adds, as he tells this story about story-telling, remembering the old monks' memories. When he recognised the cope in Italy, excitable Eadmer went to tell the bishop who was wearing it of his discovery (I like to imagine Anselm indulgently smiling all the while at Eadmer's characteristically parochial enthusiasm), and the bishop graciously confirmed the truth of Canterbury's tradition.

This story suggests all kinds of interesting things about memory and oral transmission in eleventh-century England, and about the way traditions were perpetuated within communities - knowledge being transmitted from one generation to another. Bartholomew is traditionally identified with Nathanael in the Gospel story about the meeting of Christ and Nathanael - 'an Israelite in whom there is no guile!' Like Eadmer's story about Bartholomew's arm, this is a tale of recognition and knowledge: when Jesus greets Nathanael, Nathanael asks him in astonishment, 'How do you know me?' The question goes unanswered, or only partially answered: Jesus tells him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." Divine knowledge has no beginning, no coming to know; but we, like Nathanael, have to be taught, and we can always wonder how we come to know the things we know. As Eadmer understood, historians always have to be asking themselves 'how do we know this?', and Eadmer's explanation of how he knows the story of Bartholomew's arm is as characteristic as his excitement in seeing a memento of Canterbury in far-off Italy. In his eagerness to prove that something good can come out of Nazareth (or rather, pre-Conquest England) Eadmer has preserved the record of an event which would otherwise be lost; without his story those three monks, Edwin, Blacman, and Farman, would have joined the countless numbers whose names and lives history has not preserved. Osbern does the same thing for Godric, who would otherwise be nothing more to us than a name in a few charters - one of Anglo-Saxon England's many indistinguishable Godrics.

Anglo-Saxon calendar for August (BL Arundel 60, f.5v)

If you've read this far, and followed the zig-zags of times and places in this post, I appreciate it! We have four separate stories here, connected by links of story-telling and memory: Osbern's memory of Godric, Godric's memory of Alphege, Eadmer's memory of Osbern (and Audeon), Eadmer's memory of Bartholomew (and Edwin, Blacman, and Farman). It's the historian's job to put those pieces together and make something of them, to tell you how these stories fit together and what the picture is supposed to look like. I could do that now, in various ways depending on my mood. One kind of historian would use these stories to make their own critical story, explanatory narratives about medieval monastic memory or the famous twelfth-century 'nostalgia for the Anglo-Saxon past'. Another kind would read these texts in order to cherry-pick details of liturgical observance or ecclesiastical architecture, or try to work out whether these stories are reliable evidence for the economics of relic-exchange in Cnut's England, or the politics of saints' cults under Lanfranc, or... whatever. All these approaches are valuable, and I've followed them myself - broken open the stories to get to the kernel of information inside and thrown away the husk, forgetting in the process that these are narratives, not just accumulations of useful details. But I don't want to do that today. It's too neat. Is my own life so tidy that I can pretend to explain someone else's? Human life is not and should not be so easily explained away. The part of me which will always be more of a literature student than a proper historian wants to linger inside the stories, to think of them not as historical evidence to be evaluated for what they can tell us, but as tales which give us a glimpse into something immeasurably more important: real people's minds.

August, in the eleventh-century Martyrology of St Augustine's, Canterbury (BL Cotton Vitellius C XII, f.134)

Eadmer's work on the relics of St Audeon was almost the last thing he ever wrote, and in it the elderly Eadmer (clearly in a reminiscing kind of mood) talks quite a bit about his own childhood memories. As well as telling the story of Osbern's research trip, he gives a lengthy description of the cathedral he knew as a child, the church which was the scene of the miracle with which we began - which was destroyed by fire in 1067, and by the 1120s existed only in the memory of Eadmer and his fellow white-haired contemporaries. Osbern, Godric and the rest were long dead. Reflecting on the powerful hold his own memories have on him, Eadmer observes that it's what people learn when they're young that they remember most vividly: Quo semel est imbuta recens seruabit odorem testa diu, he quotes.

It's not surprising, in a way, that after a lifetime of writing the stories of other people's lives - he wrote at least seven Lives of saints, among other kinds of works - he should end his career by thinking about the story of his own life. The role of the monastic precentor, which both Eadmer and Osbern and other noteworthy medieval historians filled, was to be the living embodiment of the memory of their community: to know its saints and its stories, its commemorations and its duties, its history and its songs, its hopes and its prayers. The writing of history, usually although not always in the form of hagiography, was an intimate part of this task. From a modern perspective hagiography is often considered an inferior form of history-writing, and sometimes it can be; but in the hands of a thoughtful writer like Eadmer, or a creative writer like Osbern, it can almost be superior to what we call good history today: it has room for such human weaknesses as imagination, play, memory, all the kinds of stories modern historians try to exclude when we tell the story of the past. It allows Osbern to conjure up for us an August night, and Godric's vehement speech - not perhaps as they really were, but as he chose to remember them. When hagiography is the story of a saint connected to a particular community, even if that saint has passed out of living memory, the memories of the living will have personal associations with the story: it will be connected to people and moments significant in the life of the teller, and that makes it more valuable, not less. Osbern's story of the girl's miracle on that August night in the 1060s - whatever really happened to her, whatever the boys saw or thought they saw - is a glimpse into his life and his memory, and memory really is a miracle. The human mind is a miracle past understanding, and a glimpse into another person's mind is a gift and a privilege, not just evidence to be sifted. 'We are, to be sure, a miracle every way – but our powers of recollecting and forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.'

Dunstan (BL Royal 10 A XIII, f. 2v)


Rose Weaver said...

This is a beautiful post. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

David Wilson said...

Wonderful. I just love the passing of memory across what 'history' usually writes as a hard period-boundary. Without it, England would be a very different and duller place.
Good to see your star rising again!

Rolo said...

Thank you! "He who blesses thee shall be filled with blessings.."

Allouette said...

This was a joy to read and so much truth and wisdom from one so young!
I especially liked it because I live near a village called St. Ouen les Vignes and have always wondered who he was. My connection to the blog go further: as a student I lived in the parish of St. Alphege in Bath and later lived for a few years in Blean which is not far from Canterbury. As an amateur calligrpaher I find the images posted in the blog really beautiful. Thank you very much.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you all! Allouette, how lovely that you have your own links to connect you to these saints, just like the medieval people in the post :)

Unknown said...

What a fascinating post, I've always enjoyed reading recollections and reminiscences, they sometimes give a different view or side of a story and record events that otherwise would have been lost. Wonderful blog, thank you.

Ambra1960 said...

Thank you so very much for this post! Your writing is always filled with such a calming warmth, such that even after a long and difficult week, your words have a way of quieting my mind. I look forward to each and every post! I especially appreciate this one because I have spent a bit of time this summer reading as much as I can find about Queen Emma. I'm not an historian, just a history buff, but this post filled in a very nice corner of her story.

OneEnglishLady said...

You have never 'ruined your life' as you say. Life is a whole collection of experiences some good and some bad and some just.....well ordinary! At 62 I reflect on my life (of which I still have an awful lot left to live)but I don't regret anything, life is really too short and you particularly have so much to offer..maybe not in quite the way you desired or expected. I love your blog and really get a thrill when I see it in my inbox because I know I am about to learn something really interesting.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Ah, I didn't say I had ruined my life, but that I've made a mess of it - as most people do in one way or another, through poor decisions and missed opportunities. Life *is* messy, and that doesn't have to be a bad thing; my point was that when studying these kinds of historical texts it's important to admit that we're not dealing with bits of useful data but with human lives, as complex, illogical, and beautiful as our own.

Anonymous said...

The church bells of home - how I miss English church bells. I lived close enough to hear them ring for services (we never left the house until the bells had moved to 'hurry up' mode, however hard my mother tried) and to enjoy the practice session on Thursdays too. Now I live out of reach of church bells, and in any case change ringing is not much used here north of the border.

Anonymous said...

I love your blog so much. I always learn something, and it's beautifully written. Thank you.

Anselm said...

I than you for you insight. All you writings bring to life the past,but in a way it lives in the present. I find you personal comments very uplifting. You show a great love for your work. For you what you write is a personal journey and not just an academic pursuit. Thank you for all you do. Because I do not live in Great Brittan I am ignorant of the places you speak. As I read I feel myself being transported not only to another time but to another place.

Unknown said...

I like reading your whole blog posts.Thanks for sharing it.

Clerk of Works London