St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

I’m experimenting with methods of putting up presentations. This one is put up through slideshare. Its conversion function doesn’t seem to have liked all of my text as you can see from the title page. This is the presentation I gave at the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo in May 2010. If you open up the presentation on full screen mode in the corner it will open in a new window so you can have it side by side with the text. Let me know what you think of this format for the presentation and comments are welcome on the presentation itself too!

St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

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(slide 1) St Æthelthryth is both one of the earliest and most prominent Anglo-Saxon saints. For those of you unfamiliar with her, she was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, born to first generation Christians. She was married at a very young age to a minor local ruler, Tondbert of the South Gywre, probably in exchange for the fenland people’s military support against Penda of Merica. Tondbert gave her the Isle of Ely as part of her wedding present and dies shortly afterwards with the marriage unconsummated. She retreats to her island hermitage at Ely but doesn’t remain there long. Within a few years her father has died and her uncle King Æthelhere forces her to marry Ecgfrith, the son of King Oswiu of Bernicia who is several years her junior. After 12 years of marriage and Ecgfrith’s eventual succession to the throne of Northumbria, Æthelthryth with the help of Bishop Wilfrid of York persuades Ecgfrith to allow her to leave their unconsummated marriage and enter his aunt’s convent at Coldingham. After a year of training, she leaves Coldingham to establish her own convent at Ely where she is abbess for seven years before dying of the plague. At her translation 16 years later she was found to be incorrupt and this was taken as proof of her perpetual virginity, a claim that Bede quizzed Bishop Wilfrid on to his satisfaction.

Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary have been linked together since virtually  the beginning of recorded memory of Æthelthryth. For the first century or so, the linkage wasn’t part of her narrative history but that would eventually change. In the beginning, the links between Æthelthryth and Mary were confined to Bede’s hymn on Æthelthryth included within his Ecclesiastical History. Bede makes no suggestion that Æthelthryth herself had a special devotion to Mary and his narrative does not make the link. Neither do the other two early prose references to Æthelthryth, Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid and the 9th century Old English Martyrology, a narrative martyrology probably compiled in Mercia.  Bede, Stephan of Ripon, and author of the Martyrology all stress Æthelthryth’s purity and virginity, but none of them directly or indirectly compare her to the Virgin Mary in their narrative.

(slide 2) Bede adds his hymn on virginity in honor of Æthelthryth, he says in imitation of sacred history. Given that the most important canticle in sacred history is the Magnificant sung by Mary, it is perhaps no coincidence that Bede’s song focuses on Mary nearly as much as Æthelthryth. It is easy for us to overlook how Marian this hymn is in part because all modern translators omit Mary’s name, even though Bede certainly names her in the F couplet.  Where Colgrave and Mynors oddly translate “God’s wicket gate”, Bede specifically said, porta Maria Dei, Mary God’s gate. Mary is the leader of heaven’s Choir of Virgins and Bede places Æthelthryth her among an illustrious list of virgin martyrs. As Virginia Blanton notes in her book Signs of Devotion, Æthelthryth’s inclusion among the illustrious martyrs of the past shows such sanctity is available in their own times but Bede isn’t satisfied with mere inclusion in the choir. In the R stanza Bede moves beyond including Æthelthryth in the Choir of Virgins by suggesting that Æthelthryth may be a mother of Christ as well.

“Royal Mother of Heaven’s King your leader now; You too, maybe a mother of Heaven’s King.”

Unlike the Virgin martyrs Æthelthryth is a mother of part of the body of Christ. In his narrative of her life, Bede specifically calls her “the virgin mother of many virgins”.

A further allusion that can only be explained by Bede’s equation of Æthelthryth with the Virgin Mary occurs in the Z couplet.

“Zeal frenzied tears the foe that conquered Eve; Truimphs the saint, zeal frenzied tears of the foe”

Colgrave and Mynors substitute the word “Saint” for the less specific “virgo” used by Bede, which makes that assumption that Bede is referring to Æthelthryth rather than Mary. Bede knew that Mary was routinely considered to be the redeemer of Eve. Yet here again he is being intentionally vague as this couplet is in the context of a discussion of Æthelthryth. Bede ends this hymn by portraying Æthelthryth as a bride of Christ represented as the lamb.

Through all of these comparisons Bede has shown Æthelthryth to be another Mary – she is a perpetual virgin, a leader of other virgins and a mother of the body of Christ, the redeemer of Eve, a queen in heaven as she had been on earth and last but not least the bride of the lamb.

This hymn adds no new information on Æthelthryth’s life; its purpose is to show that Æthelthryth not only belongs in the heavenly virginal choir, but also that she compares well with the Virgin Mother herself.  She is another Mary for Bede’s age.

There is reason to believe that this hymn circulated separate from History as part of Bede’s book of hymns. It survives in Cologne MS. 106, a manuscript indirectly associated with Alcuin that includes Bede’s breviate psalter and 12 of Bede’s hymns including the hymn to Aethelthryth. How widely Bede’s Book of Hymns circulated is unknown as it does not survive intact. When found in isolation it is impossible to tell whether the hymn came from the Book of Hymns or the History. Nevertheless, Bede’s History was the primary source for Æthelthryth’s story until the completion of the Liber Eliensis in the 12th century.

The linkage between Æthelthryth and Mary appears only once between Bede’s History and the 12th century Liber Eliensis, that is in the Benedictional of Æthelwold. (slide 3) Bishop Æthelwold was responsible for refounding Ely as an all male Benedictine monastery where he put his reform agenda that stressed monastic virginity into action. Æthelthryth is one of only two native saints featured in full portraits in his Benedictional, here coupled with a portait of Christ and is inserted at the benediction for her feast day. It is the most elaborate portrait in the book. Blanton notes that this arrangement is symbolic of Æthelthryth’s marriage to Christ.  She also notes that the Æthelthryth’s lily is symbolic of her virginity and, with the mirrored frame, is arranged in such as way to reflect Christ’s benediction in the opposing page.

(slide 4) Æthelthryth is also portrayed as a leader among the choir of virgins. An inscription written on the books the figures hold indentifies Æthelthryth as the haloed figure on the left in red, with her dress matching her full portrait completely. The central haloed figure has been a subject of controversy. The inscription identifies her as a Mary but the second word in unreadable. Authorities have been split on whether this figure represents the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene, with most siding for Mary Magdalene. I believe that if we consider the decoration of the rest of the benedictional, rather than trying to reconstruct the badly damaged inscription, then this figure must be the Virgin Mary.

(slide 5) When we look at the other depictions of the Virgin Mary most of them are decorated as in this illutstration of the annunciation. The rose dress with a flower pattern matches the leader of the choir of virgins exactly. In all illustrations of the Virgin Mary, she is given a gold halo or nimbus, gold veil, cuffs and sometimes an undertunic. This illustration of the assumption is the only illustration of the Virgin Mary who is not dressed in a rose tunic, but even here she is adorned with a gold halo, veil and trim.

(slide 6) In contrast, in the only illustration of Mary Magdalene in the Benedictional she is not distinguished from the other two women at the tomb. None of the women have a halo or wear any gold on their apparel. Only their instruments are gold. Further, the book lacks a benediction for the feast day of Mary Magdalene. If the leader of the choir of virgins is Mary Magdalene then we have to explain why she is not mentioned in the text and illustrated so differently at the empty tomb.

(slide 7) Returning to the choir of virgins, I believe this illustration must represent the choir of Virgins led by the Virgin Mary and Æthelthryth, as suggested in Bede’s poem. This also matches the overall theme of Bishop Aethelwold’s reforms that highly valued virginity and lifted up the Virgin Mary and Aethelthryth as role models. By this time, Mary Magdalene was well established, following Gregory the Great, as the sinful woman and therefore ill suited for Bishop Aethelwold’s agenda.

(slide 8) We have to jump two centuries from the 10th century Benedictional of Aethelwold to the 12th century Liber Eliensis before we get another glimpse of the evolution of Æthelthryth’s veneration.  In the Liber Eliensis Æthelthryth’s story and the related comparisons to the Virgin Mary reach their textual peak. The author of the Liber Eliensis, completed around 1170, uses Bede’s History and Stephan’s Life of Wilfrid to develop a much more complete story for Æthelthryth that embellishes the roles of Bishop Wilfrid, Abbess Æbbe, and St. Owine in addition to Abbess Æthelthryth.  Bede’s hymn is replicated exactly. Comparisons between Mary and Æthelthryth become more direct. The Liber Eliensis uses Mary and Joseph’s chaste marriage as president for Æthelthryth’s unconsummated marriages.

The Liber Eliensis also tells two new tales that will feature in iconography within the Cathedral of Ely. Cathedral construction began in the late 11th century with the Lady Chapel being constructed between 1321 and 1352. In the first new story, Æthelthryth miraculously escapes from Ecgfrith’s attempts to remove her from Coldingham and flies to Ely. While en route at a stopping place she plants her staff into the ground while her party rests, it takes root and grows into a strong ash tree. Ann Stanton describes how these miracles are depicted in iconographic panels within the Cathedral of Ely, at the crossing in her paper “The Virigin, the Queen and the Cathedral”. These panels date to the 14th century when the Lady Chapel was being constructed. Within the Lady Chapel itself iconographic panels stress Mary’s journey to Bethleham. The second story is of a Dane who tries to violate Æthelthryth’s tomb only to be struck blind, literally to have his eyes ripped out. This story explained a hole in the saracophagus from the era of the Danish destruction of the monastery and at the same time discouraged anyone from trying to use the hole to see her corpse within. According to Stanton this story is not depicted in the surviving relief panels of the Cathedral but the corresponding Marian story of a Jew attempting to overturn Mary’s tomb only be caught with his hand stuck in the tomb is depicted in the Lady Chapel. Other relief panels in the Lady Chapel reflect the commonalities in the lives of Mary and Æthelthryth.

(slide 9) The Liber Eliensis makes one additional Marian claim for the first time. It claims that

““there had not yet been any church on the island [of Ely] other than the one founded by blessed Augustine, the apostle of the English, but that was demolished right down to ground level by army of the unbelieving King Penda. This church Æthelthryth, lover of God, labored with all her might to renew and rebuild after its prolonged desolation. And as soon as it was rebuilt, dedicated as of old, in honour of Mary, the holy Mother of God, it became a shining light, through innumerable signs and miracles, as God carried out His work every day.” (LE i.15, p. 43)”

This is the first claim that the church of Ely was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Yet, it is extremely unlikely that Augustine ventured up into the fenlands to found a church dedicated to Mary. I believe that this is a fictional claim that expresses loyalty to the Archbishops of Canterbury while trying to make a claim of antiquity. If this claim were true then it would likely be the oldest English church dedicated to Mary. However there is no reason to believe that the dedication to Mary is any older than the refoundation of the house under Bishop Æthelwold.

Balancing the special relationship between Mary and Æthelthryth, the structure of Ely Cathedral is unique in England. Typically, the Eastern trancept is the where the Lady Chapel is found in English cathedrals. Yet, here this is the site of Æthelthryth’s shrine and chapel (L and N) on the diagram. Æthelthryth’s shrine was located where N is on the diagram, and it is marked on the floor today. This leaves the main body of the cathedral without a Lady Chapel. To compensate for Our Lady not having a special place in the cathedral, they built the largest and most elaborate Lady Chapel in England just outside the main plan (J). How do we account for such an elaborate Lady Chapel?

(slide 10) After the time of Bishop Aethelwold, Ely’s position on the trail from London to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham must have amplified interest in Mary. Although not mentioned in the Liber Eliensis, the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was founded in the 11th century, significantly before the writing of the Liber Eliensis. The omission of Walsingham from the Liber Eliensis or the 12th century French Life of Audree by Marie de France,  may be due to some sense of competition. Yet, the Life of Audree in particular gives the feeling that Ely was a pilgrimage destination. Its unclear how often Ely was a final destination or whether it was a feature on the Walsingham trail.  By the Reformation, Walsingham was the primary Marian shrine in all of England and Ely benefited by being on the trail from London to Walsingham. It is also clear that East Anglia was a major region of Marian devotion with several other shrines in the area including Our Lady of Ipswich. This leaves me to wonder if perhaps the popularity of Æthelthryth and her Marian connections may have fostered the growth of Marian shrines in East Anglia.

At the Reformation the Lady chapels and shrines at Walsingham and Ely were especially targeted for destruction by the reformers. The shrine of Æthelthryth was completely destroyed and the Cathedral of Ely was defaced.

(slide 11) Throughout the 20th century, Æthelthryth slowly began to retake her former position at Ely. The processional banner shown here was made in 1910 and has been used for processions ever since. Among the Millennial restorations made to the cathedral in 2000 was a new covered processional way linking Æthelthryth’s chapel with the Lady Chapel (I on the diagram). Since the third great renovation of the cathedral began in 1986 Æthelthryth’s presence has been steadily growing at the Cathedral. Within the last decade, St Etheldreda’s fair has been re-established as a major community event. A new Order of St Etheldreda was founded in 1992 under the patronage of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, to provide for the cathedral and in 2004 they published a new complete liturgy including processions and new hymns for her feast and the feast of her translation. This new liturgy is available on the Cathedral website.

(slide 12) Two more communities have been founded more recently, including a Benedictine inspired Ely-based Community of St Etheldreda established in 2005 that continues to use the Lady chapel for monthly services (shown here). As the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham has been restored and is regaining its popularity over the last decade, a new St Etheldreda Cell of the Society of Our Lady of Walsingham has also formed at Ely.

To celebrate the completion of the third great restoration of the cathedral in 2000, three sculptures were commissioned for the cathedral including a new sculpture for the Lady chapel. (slide 13) This controversial new sculpture represents the moment of the annunciation. What strikes me the most about this statue is not its modernity, but its startling golden hair and dress that resembles a Saxon princess so much more than an Middle-Eastern teenager.

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3 comments on “St Æthelthryth and the Virgin Mary Through the Ages

  1. kljolly says:

    Lovely paper examining the similarity made between AEthelthryth and Mary. I must admit the technology fascinated me as well, although I was not able to get the slides showing simultaneous with reading the paper. Clicking on full screen on the lower right bar of the slideshare window opens a new, separate browser window at full screen. I could reshape both browser windows side by side on my monitor, but it seemed easier just to click through the slides at the top while scrolling up and down in the text.

    • I think this technology is probably better with the text on the slides. Now, that is not what is supposed to be done for an actual presentation but for online viewing or teaching it seems better.

  2. Dr Sanjay Pandey says:

    Just wonderful. I was surfing for preparing slides on unconsummated marriages and chanced upon this precious reading.

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