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.

The Mortality of Children, Ireland 683-685

683 The beginning of the children’s plague in the month of October (AT, AU, AI), which lasted for three years in Ireland. (FAI); A plague was in Ireland (AC)

684: The plague of youths, in which all the chieftains and nearly all the young Irish noblemen perished. (FAI); The mortality of little ones (AT) / children (AU). Loch nEchach was turned into blood this year. (AU)

AU= Annals of Ulster; AT = Annals of Tigernach, FAI= Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, AC = Annals Cambriae

When I first found the annal entries above, I was intrigued. These brief annal entries rarely give clues to the type of disease, and almost never refer to children at all. Before we dig into these entries a little deeper, lets look at why some diseases at times occur primarily in children.

What makes a ‘childhood disease’? This simplest answer is that it is disease that the adults are immune to due to previous exposure. There is nothing special about these organisms that targets them to children or makes children uniquely vulnerable to them. The one thing they have in common is that these organisms are so abundant in the environment that few children get through childhood without being exposed.

Which pathogens cause ‘childhood diseases’ change over time depending on the available organisms and the immunity of the collective community (herd immunity). When I was a child, chickenpox was the most common childhood disease that most of my classmates all contracted. When my parents were children, measles and mumps were the common dangers of childhood. For my grandparents generation the most feared childhood disease may have been polio, whooping-cough and diphtheria/croup.

Hans Holbein, "The Dance of Death", bef. 1538

The nature of childhood diseases has changed rapidly over the 20th century solely because vaccines have immunized children before exposure. Today it’s not uncommon for my college students to have never seen a case of chickenpox. Nevertheless, the organisms are still very present in our environment as the climbing rate of measles in the last few years illustrates.

When looking at medieval populations, the same factors come to play but in different expressions. Not  all pathogens that we are familiar with today existed in the seventh century. For example, measles is predicted to have evolved around the twelfth century. Other diseases did not yet have a global (or Old World) spread. Conversely diseases like the plague that are infrequent today were much more common in the early medieval period. Vaccines obviously did not exist to provide safe immunity. Previous epidemics were the only way for a community to develop herd immunity.

Returning to the seventh century, the context of these entries can suggest the nature of this ‘mortality of children.’ Three years earlier in 680 the Annals of Ulster records a “most severe leprosy in Ireland called bolgach (smallpox)”. If smallpox had been a major epidemic just a couple of years before there wouldn’t be the kind of differential in immunity between adults and children needed for a children’s epidemic, so we can rule out smallpox. There are records of other adult deaths due to ‘pestilence’ around this time in Britain and in 685 the deaths of two elites by disease are recorded in the Annals of Ulster. Bede also writes about plague in Northumbria before and after 685 in the Life of Cuthbert. The British sources, including Bede’s Life of Cuthbert, indicate widespread disease and depopulation that doesn’t single out children as the victims. With that being said, the one detailed example Bede gives of the plague of c. 685 is of Bishop Cuthbert comforting a mother who had already lost one young son to the plague and was holding another dying son whom Cuthbert blessed and survived. William MacArthur (1949) also concluded that these entries refer to a wave of bubonic plague based on their context. He also compared these entries to similar records of child deaths in the second wave of plague that followed the Black Death in England, 1361.

The later Fragmentary Annals of Ireland suggests that the mortality of children doesn’t necessarily refer only to actual children. The epidemic when “all the chieftains and nearly all the young Irish noblemen perished” suggests a succession crisis more than indicating the age of the victims. The Irish practiced a form of succession where a couple of generations of descendents of a previous king were eligible to succeed. It was not uncommon for cousins to succeed each other and sons were not necessarily favored to succeed. This method would normally weather epidemics, famines, or constant petty warfare well because there were so many eligible successors. If this is the bubonic plague as the context suggests then this would be the second major wave of plague within twenty years, and therefore, two successive generations were severely depopulated causing rare succession crises.

This does tell us something about the severity of both the plague of 664 and 683 in Ireland. Enough adults in the 680s must have been survivors of a bubonic plague infection in the 660s to be immune. This would tilt the incidence of the disease toward youth up to 20 years old. A loss of teenagers would have depleted any major kingdom of a majority of its young nobles and a considerable proportion of its young warriors. Then as traditionally now, most warriors would have been 15-25 years old. It is quite possible that there may not have been many young nobles in their early twenties because they would have been vulnerable infants during the plague of the 660s.

There isn’t much evidence of plague-related succession crises in Britain. Although, it is possible that we just don’t have reference to the deaths of secondary heirs or really any children. Northumbria’s succession crisis upon Ecgfrith’s death in 685 is usually considered to be more political secondary to his potential infertility and the early death of his younger brother. Yet there does appear to be a lack of other eligible Æthelfrithings which could be due to the plagues. We are usually all too ready to accept that other Æthelfrithings died in battle or due to political intrigue.  Even if Ecgfrith had a son, it unlikely he would have been old enough to successfully succeed in 685. The Annals Cambriae also credits the death of King Cadwaladr ap Cadwallon of Gwynedd to this plague. Succession of the major British kingdoms in Wales seem fairly unstable at this time as well, but we don’t have enough information about them to understand why. So, while there isn’t evidence of plague-related royal instability it is a possibility.

One further thing to explore in these entries is the claim that the water in Ireland and Britain turned red that year. In entry 684 above “Loch nEchach was turned into blood this year (AU).” Loch nEchach is the largest freshwater lake in Ireland, sometimes called the ‘eye of Ireland’. Likewise in Britain there are  claims that “rain turned to blood in Britain, and ‡in Ireland‡ milk and butter turned to blood (AC, 689)”. In 685 there are also widespread records of an earthquake, probably in the Irish sea. Given the way these early annals are constructed and differences between them, it is unclear that these environmental events were securely after the beginning of the plague or what they mean by water turning to blood over such a large area. None of this suggests that the epidemic was anything other than the plague. Environmental disruption could also trigger a plague outbreak from rodent hosts within the islands.

Reference:

Colgrave,Bertram. (1940, 2007 repr.) Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert. Cambridge University Press.

MacArthur, William P. (1949) The identification of some pestilences recorded in the Irish annals. Irish Historical Studies, 6 (23), 169-188.

AU= Annals of Ulster; AT = Annals of Tigernach, FAI= Fragmentary Annals of Ireland, AC = Annals Cambriae

Plague in a time of war

One of the oddities of the plague in Britain and Ireland is the absence of any visible impact on political history. The few kings who died of plague were apparently replaced peacefully from within their kingdom, if not their dynasty. The effects of the plague on the church, particularly in the loss of bishops, may suggest that the effects of the plague on political history have not been appreciated enough, though the infrastructure of the early medieval kingdoms was significantly stronger than the fledgling church in Britain. While churchmen were mourned in Ireland, it doesn’t seem to have caused a crisis.

The Northumbrian plague of c.684-688 gives us an opportunity to look at the effect of a specific wave on plague on politics and particularly warfare. We don’t know exactly when this round of plague began in Northumbria. We know that it began at least a year before Cuthbert became bishop, so at least 683-684.  So this means that the plague was present in the kingdom, indeed at Lindisfarne, when King Ecgfrith sent ealdorman Berht with an “army” to Ireland to wreck devastation and perhaps more importantly take many hostages. We know that they attacked several churches and monasteries and took clerical hostages. We can probably assume that they took secular hostages as well. These hostages, perhaps including secular exiles, living in the monasteries were probably Ecgfrith’s real goal. Regardless of King Ecgfrith’s motivation, the plague did not stop him from sending an army far from home. Indeed, this is the only known English war band to be sent on a campaign by sea to Ireland or anywhere else in the early Anglo-Saxon period.

This attack on Ireland was roundly condemned by churchmen including within Northumbria. King Ecgfrith had apparently been in contact with the wandering English bishop Egbert who urged him not to attack Ireland. Egbert was either living in Ireland or Pictland at the time, so King Ecgfrith’s Irish campaign was discussed long distance for some time before it was undertaken. Given that the Northumbrians were not known for having a navy it would have taken some time to build the ships necessary to take the warband there. This raid was no impulse by a rash king. Perhaps the planning that went into the raid made it more likely that it would proceed even during the plague.

The Pictish rebellion just a year after the successful raid on Ireland doesn’t seem very wise. King Ecgfrith had brutally put down the previous Pictish rebellion about a decade earlier. After such a display of power in Ireland, why would King Bridei ap Beli have thought now was a good time to rebel? Although Berht brought back over 20 hostages, they still may have lost many of their warriors in Ireland, potentially weakening their army. They could have lost more warriors to the sea or battle injuries. Perhaps after such a victory Ecgfrith’s tribute demands went up so high that Bridei couldn’t or wouldn’t pay. The plague, of course, is another factor. If the plague wasn’t in the north, as Adomnan implies, then perhaps Bridei thought that Northumbria had been weakened enough by the plague that he could not field a typical Northumbrian army. I don’t think the plague has been considered before as a factor in the Pictish rebellion or in Ecgfrith’s unexpected defeat before.

King Bridei did have a plan. He had been waging war on his other borders for several years, racking up victory after victory. Presumably his warband was at its peak in size and experience. Even so he planned an ambush for Ecgfrith’s war band that was a critical part of his success.  It is believed that the campaign is memorialized on the stone to the right with ravens picking on Ecgfrith in the lower right corner.

We will never really know what effect the plague had on events in 684-685. It didn’t stop King Ecgfrith from launching two major campaigns. If the plague did weaken Ecgfrith’s forces or give Bridei the belief that this time he could win, then it played a significant role in the unexpected death of Ecgfrith. In turn, the death of Ecgfrith in battle was one of the most significant events in the history of the Northumbrian kingdom. It was from that point that Bede marked the deminishing of Northumbrian power.

In an era when warfare is so frequent and local, it is difficult to to discern the role the plague may have played. It is likely that plague weakened regions were more vulnerable to attack, if the attacker would venture into a plague stricken area. Of course, it takes more than a few years for the population to recover a plague. The plague would also lower a regions ability to produce crops as workers are lost and crops go unharvested. It may have played a role in the smaller independent regions ultimately being incorporated into the larger kingdoms. They would be unable to resist incorporation and would have wanted the protection. It may not be a coincidence that many of the smaller independent regions listed in the tribal hinge disappear shortly after the plague of 664.

Primary Sources:

Bede, Life of Cuthbert

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People