Tuesday 17 November 2015

St Hilda and Hidden Gold

St Hilda (Worcester Cathedral)

Today is the feast of St Hilda, abbess of Whitby, who died on 17 November 680. Born into a royal family in the north of England, Hilda entered religious life at the age of 33, and in 657 became the founding abbess of Whitby, a double monastery for men and women. She was famous for her wisdom and counsel, according to Bede, who was born in her lifetime and describes her in his Historia Ecclesiastica thus:
Bishop Aidan, and other religious men that knew her and loved her, frequently visited and diligently instructed her, because of her innate wisdom and inclination to the service of God... She undertook either to build or to arrange a monastery in the place called Streaneshalch [Whitby], which work she industriously performed; for she put this monastery under the same regular discipline as she had done the former; and taught there the strict observance of justice, piety, chastity, and other virtues, and particularly of peace and charity; so that, after the example of the primitive church, no person was there rich, and none poor, all being in common to all, and none having any property. Her prudence was so great, that not only indifferent persons, but even kings and princes, as occasion offered, asked and received her advice.

At this point Bede notes, as evidence of Hilda's wise leadership, that her monastery produced five men who went on to become bishops, including St John of Beverley.

Thus this servant of Christ, Abbess Hilda, whom all that knew her called Mother, for her singular piety and grace, was not only an example of good life, to those that lived in her monastery, but afforded occasion of amendment and salvation to many who lived at a distance, to whom the fame was brought of her industry and virtue... When she had governed this monastery many years, it pleased Him who has made such merciful provision for our salvation, to give her holy soul the trial of a long sickness, to the end that, according to the apostle's example, her virtue might be perfected in infirmity. Falling into a fever, she fell into a violent heat, and was afflicted with the same for six years continually; during all which time she never failed either to return thanks to her Maker, or publicly and privately to instruct the flock committed to her charge; for by her own example she admonished all persons to serve God dutifully in perfect health, and always to return thanks to Him in adversity, or bodily infirmity. In the seventh year of her sickness, the distemper turning inwards, she approached her last day, and about cock-crowing, having received the holy communion to further her on her way, and called together the servants of Christ that were within the same monastery, she admonished them to preserve evangelical peace among themselves, and with all others; and as she was making her speech, she joyfully saw death approaching, or if I may speak in the words of our Lord, passed from death to life.
Bede describes how two nuns who were especially close to Hilda had miraculous visions telling them of her death. He then goes on to tell the story of Cædmon, which should be dear to all lovers of English literature - you probably know it! The story goes that Cædmon was a cowherd living in the monastery at Whitby, whose job was to look after the animals. An unlearned man, he felt unable to join in with the others at feasts where everyone was expected to sing or perform poetry. (I wonder if the abbess used to sing at these feasts...) During one such occasion, Cædmon hid himself away in the cowshed in embarrassment. There, as he slept, a miraculous figure appeared to him, who addressed him by name and ordered him to sing. Cædmon protested that he couldn't, but his visitor taught him to sing of the creation of the world, to the praise of God, in words which were not his own. When he spoke of his dream the next morning he was taken to Hilda, so that the abbess might judge the story of his vision and the poem it produced. Recognising his gift, Hilda took control of Cædmon's future: she decreed that he should enter her monastery, and provided him with more subjects for his verse. Cædmon's short hymn has a claim to be the earliest recorded English poem, and Hilda's role as Cædmon's patron means that she played an influential, often forgotten part in the production of the earliest Christian poetry in English. Would we know about Cædmon at all, if not for Hilda?

St Hilda (Worcester Cathedral)

St Hilda's day seems as good a reason as any to post a short extract from an Old English poem which I've been meaning to post here for a while. It comes from a text which rejoices in the modern title 'Instructions for Christians', but it's much less dull than that title makes it sound. It provides counsel on how to live a virtuous and holy life, and is particularly concerned with the proper use of wealth and of learning; the two seem to be associated in the poet's mind, as the first lines of the extract below demonstrate. The poem survives in a twelfth-century manuscript, and therefore comes from the very end of the Anglo-Saxon period, a good five hundred years after Hilda. But that makes it all the more a reminder of the strength and endurance of the poetic tradition for which Cædmon's story is such a powerful origin-legend - five centuries of English poetry of the kind fostered in Mother Hilda's monastery, and it would still be another two centuries before the birth of the man who's today called 'the Father of English poetry'.

The text comes from Old English Short Poems: vol. I, Religious and Didactic, ed. Christopher A. Jones (Cambridge, Mass., 2012), pp. 143-4, but the translation's mine.

Se forholena cræft and forhyded gold
ne bið ællunga ungelice.
Betere bið þe dusige, gif he on breostum can
his unwisdom inne belucan,
þonne se snotere ðe symle wile
æt his heah-þearfe forhelan his wisdom.
Ac þu scealt gelome gelæran and tæcan,
ða hwile þe ðe mihtig Godd mægnes unne,
þe læs hit þe on ende eft gereowe
æfter dæg-rime, þonne þu hit gedon ne miht.
Onlær þinum bearne bysne goda,
and eac swa some eallum leoda;
þonne ðu geearnost ece blisse
and æfter þisse weorlda weorðscipe mycelne.
Se ðe leornunge longe fyligeð
halgum bocum her on worulde,
heo ðone gelæredon longe gebetað,
and þone unlærdan eac gelæreð.
Heo geeadmodað eghwylcne kyng,
swilce þone earman eac aræreð
and þa saula swa some geclensað
and þæt mod gedeþ mycle ðe bliðre.
And heo eac æþelne gedeð þone ðe ær ne wæs;
eac heo þrah-mælum þeowne gefreolsað.

Concealed skill and hidden gold
are not entirely unalike.
Better the fool, if he can in his heart
seal up his lack of wisdom,
than the wise man who ever wishes
to hide his wisdom in his greatest time of need.
But you should always be teaching and instructing
for as long as mighty God grants you strength,
that you may regret it the less in the end,
after the course of your days, when you can do so no longer.
Teach your children with a good example,
and all peoples likewise;
then you will earn eternal joy
and great honour after this world is past.
He who long follows learning
in holy books here in the world,
she [i.e. learning] will always be improving the learned
and instructing the unlearned.
She humbles every king;
so too she raises up the poor,
and souls she cleanses,
and makes the mind much the happier;
and she makes a man noble who was not so before,
and many times she sets the handmaid free.

('handmaid' isn't a very good translation, but the word þeowne here means 'a female servant'. As Bede notes in apology for his translation of Cædmon, 'verses, though never so well composed, cannot be literally translated out of one language into another without losing much of their beauty...').

I've been thinking a lot over the past few months about teaching, learning and wisdom more generally, and so this extract appealed to me when I encountered it a little while ago. For various reasons I've had particular cause to be grateful recently to the women who have taught me, and I've been considering the many forms women's teaching can take; and that's the main reason why I followed the grammatical gender of the Old English here (as I wouldn't normally do) and used the pronoun she, Old English heo, for the feminine noun leornung. This seems not inappropriate, since this passage (and the whole poem) is clearly influenced by the Biblical tradition of wisdom literature as well as by the native variety; and in that tradition, the Book of Proverbs for instance, Wisdom is spoken of as female.

Perhaps Bede's description of Hilda, too, draws on a traditional image of female wisdom as well as on the personal qualities of the abbess herself. Hilda is particularly a symbol of female learning for me, because I was an undergraduate at St Hilda's College in Oxford, which was founded in 1893 for the education of women and named for that wise abbess. Over the years St Hilda's has produced some outstanding female scholars, including - as befits the only Oxford college named for an Anglo-Saxon saint - several brilliant medievalists. When I was at St Hilda's it was still an all-female college, at the time Oxford's only remaining women's college. (It went mixed just after I left.) Coming from a mixed school, and associating single-sex education with fancy boarding schools very far out of my experience, I wasn't all that pleased to find myself at a women's college, and I didn't then think it had any particular advantages; but since leaving I've come to feel I didn't appreciate it properly. I didn't know then what a privilege it was to be taught almost exclusively by brilliant, articulate women, and surrounded by female students. There, no one cared you were a woman: you were a person, a student, and it was not in question that you had a right to be taught and a right to be taken seriously. When I left that undergraduate bubble and began to enter the wider world of academia, it was an adjustment to a culture where women were now a minority. I still had wonderful female teachers and mentors, the best anyone could ask for, but nonetheless it was quite a shock. I imagine that the effects of living in such a culture will be familiar to many of you reading this, academics or not - it manifests itself in more ways than one can count, and you gradually learn to recognise the signs. You learn what it's like not to be listened to when you talk, to be talked over, to be judged for how you look or sound as you say something rather than for the value of what you say; you get used to seeing women you respect belittled and badly treated, to being shown that there are people who don't want you in their seminar or their common room, to listening to supposedly intelligent men trying to flirt with you by pontificating on the stupidity of women ('oh no, I don't mean you; most women'). The formal structures of academia - peer review, conference Q&As, etc. - obligingly provide many platforms for men who are so inclined to privately or publicly scold women, especially women who are considerably junior to them. Fun, huh? It's easy to say that you just shouldn't let it get to you, and most of the time I didn't; I stood up for myself pretty well, and for others, too. But one incident did some tangible career damage to me a few months ago, in part because I let myself be talked over when it was especially important that I should be heard. I let myself be silenced by a bit of meaningless aggression, and the cost was a valuable career opportunity, a lot of miserable soul-searching, and serious loss of faith in my own work. I was surprised by the strength of my own reaction and by how difficult it was to shake it off; I already well knew, as I'm sure many of you do, how often women's voices are thus privately silenced, day after day, and how often the investment of much careful mentoring is thrown away by a few careless words. But there was one positive result: if anything good came from that experience, it was the reaction I received when I found my voice again and wrote about it here. A post I wrote here in the summer struck a chord with many women, who contacted me to say they had had similar experiences - several of them scholars I hugely respect, the kind of people I would have thought no one would dare try to silence.

It was that response, more than anything, which made me realise how fortunate I've been, all my life, to be taught and guided by women - and some men, too - who knew how to express themselves in clear, measured, and constructive ways. They knew how to give criticism which was intended to improve the quality of a piece of work, not to score points against the writer; they knew how to challenge ideas and to debate incisively without wasting energy on unnecessary aggression; they understood how to use their power and influence for good, and not for self-aggrandizement; they were prepared to be patient with ideas, and with people, which might need time to grow. They knew when it was important to listen rather than to talk, and how to amplify the voices of others rather than shouting them down. These wise people, these St Hildas, taught me how to teach and learn, by teaching me how to do both at the same time. Some of this teaching was formal, some informal - some hardly looked, from the outside, like teaching at all. Some of it came from very successful and brilliant women, some from women living 'hidden lives', who never sought what the world considers success. Their lives might have been hidden - but not their wisdom, their gold. They didn't allow themselves to be silenced, or bullied into hiding the good they knew they could do. Instead, they spent their gold in teaching, and their teaching took many forms. The results of such lives are so widely diffused that they may never be recognised or honoured as they ought to be; if you freely spend your gold rather than hoard it, you'll never grow wealthy yourself.  But the effects of influence can be immeasurable, the consequences unlooked-for, the rewards rich in ways not to be counted. Clarity of thought, patience, generosity, the conquest of self - these are not qualities of weakness but of immense strength and wisdom, of leadership and power. That's the learning which humbles the king, and raises up the poor - and teaches the poet to sing.


Thomas Hillman said...

a marvelous post. well done.

Tim said...

Did you know that there’s a very nice historical novel about St Hilda? Written by a sci-fi writer but not in that genre at all. Written about here: https://www.tbray.org/ongoing/When/201x/2014/08/16/Hild

Cornflower said...

An excellent post.
I am interested to see whether/how Oxford changes when its new vice-chancellor takes charge. I hear she is a most impressive woman.

Albertus said...

Very enlightening! Thank you. I didn't know about Hilda and Caedmon. Nor was I aware of the benefits of single sex higher education. I don't think men learn as much in all male settings.

rothinzil said...

Thank you for a beautiful post ! I've just discovered this fascinating blog via Corymbus and have fallen deeply in love with whatever I've managed to read already -the Advent posts,the ones about little-known saints, the "Eala Earendel" post with its connections to Tolkien.As a woman myself, this post, in particular, strikes a chord. I love this especially:

"Clarity of thought, patience, generosity, the conquest of self - these are not qualities of weakness but of immense strength and wisdom, of leadership and power. That's the learning which humbles the king, and raises up the poor - and teaches the poet to sing."

Wonderfully expressed.

I apologize for grammatical errors - English isn't my first language though that does not prevent me from being fascinated by the language and its history !