St Michael, the Plague, and Castel Sant’ Angelo

Archangel Michael currently on top of Castel Sant’ Angelo made in 1753 (Public domain)

Gregory the Great’s vision of St Michael is one of the best known and most charming legends of the first plague pandemic. Gregory was elected Pope after the death of his predecessor from the plague in the 590s. In an effort to plead with God for an end of the plague, the new Pope Gregory led a procession, an early version of the Great Litany, around the streets of Rome. As they approached Hadrian’s Tomb, Gregory had a vision of Michael the Archangel atop the tomb overlooking the city, sheathing his sword, a sign that Gregory’s procession had been pleasing to God and that the plague would end. The statue to the right, an 18th century replacement of an earlier statue, commemorates the legend and evokes the archangels protection of Rome. It has become so iconic that it is on the cover of the only academic collected study on the first pandemic, Plague and the End of Antiquity.

As Louis Schwartz explained in his presentation at Kalamazoo last week, there are a number of problems with this story. Although Gregory the Great was a prolific writer and many of his works survive, he never mentions or even alludes to this vision. None of the early hagiographic works on Gregory mention it. Very strange considering how interested the English were in Gregory as their apostle. They came to Rome looking for more information in part on Gregory in the seventh century, and were still in the midst of plague epidemics when his story was forming in England. The earliest life of Gregory the Great was written in early eighth century England. The earliest written version of the vision that Schwartz could find was from the 13th century! The legend can only be documented about a century before the Black Death that must have fixed the legend in the landscape of Rome, along with supporting processions as mitigation against the plague.

For the shrine of St Michael in the upper chamber/roof of Hadrian’s Tomb, the earliest reference Schwartz could find was in Ado of Vienne’s Martyrology (c. 855) in the entry for St Michael.

“…But not much later, in Rome, the venerable pope Boniface dedicated to Holy Michael a church built atop a circular monument, a crypt of marvelous craft and great height. The church is housed within the very summit of this building, thus it is said to reside among the clouds.”

Castel Sant’Angelo guarding over the crossing over the River Tiber via the Pons Aelius (Credit: huwiki, wikipedia creative commons)

Schwartz notes that Ado was known for embellishing numerous saints lives and daily readings with innovative stories and is an unreliable historian. He believes that Ado was influenced by the Liber Pontificalis’ entry for pope Boniface IV (608-615) who built the church to St Mary in the structurally similar Pantheon. Bede describes this church after narrating Bishop Mellitus’ visit to Rome to confer with the pope on the English mission.

“St Boniface was the fourth bishop of Rome after St Gregory. He obtained from the Church of Christ from the Emperor Phocas the gift of the temple at Rome anciently known as the Pantheon because it represented all the gods. After he expelled every abomination from it, he made a church of it dedicated to the holy Mother of God and all the martyrs of Christ, so that when the multitudes of devils had been driven out, it might serve as a shrine for a multitude of saints.” (Bede, HE II:4)

For Schwartz the unreliable Ado of Vienne’s relatively late first reference to the shrine indicates that the shrine was old enough for its origin to have been forgotten. Instead of the time of Boniface IV in the early seventh century, Schwartz favors a later period in the early eighth century when the Lombards ruled over Rome. Michael the Archangel was the national patron saint and protector of the Lombards from the seventh century when a vision of Michael with his flaming sword was credited with the Lombards defensive victory in 663 at Monte Gargano under the warrior Lombard King Grimoald I.

Minted by King Cunincpert of the Lombards (688-700) featuring St Michael.

Schwartz noted that Grimoald’s successors minted coins with St Michael on one side and that between the 9th to 11th century, over 250 place names linked with St Michael have been found in Lombard territory.

Schwartz argued that the shrine of St Michael was built-in such a visible and strategic location during the few short years in the mid eighth century when the Lombards had hegemony over Rome. They immediately succeeded the final loss of Italian territory by the Byzantine Empire. The strategic location of Castel Sant’ Angelo guarding the only bridge over the River Tiber leading to St Peter’s Basilica symbolizing the Lombard’s role in ‘protecting’ Rome. Even after the Lombard’s lost hegemony over Rome, Lombards continued to hold an important place within the  administration of Rome. They had a Schola Langobardum within the Leonine walls built to protect St Peter’s Basilica and surrounding buildings in c. 850.

Unfortunately, for one of the best known legends of the first plague pandemic, there just isn’t any evidence to support it. It now seems likely that the shrine at Castel Sant’Angelo predated the legend of Gregory’s vision perhaps by several centuries.

Reference:

Louis Schwartz (May 12, 2012) “What Rome Owes to the Lombards: Devotion to Saint Michael in Early Medieval Italy and the Riddle of Castel Saint’Angelo” Session 429, International Congress for Medieval Studies, May 10-13, 2012, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 731 AD. Judith McClure and Roger Collins, Eds. Oxford U. Press.

Looking Back at Kalamazoo 2012

This was a really good Congress. It was pretty laid back and things seem to go pretty smoothly. I met lots of new history of medicine folks that I hope to keep in touch with (and barely got to chat with a certain geek I saw a lot of, sniff). I had great luck in picking sessions. Just about every session I went to either had interesting info for my research or gave me ideas for blog posts (even the ones I picked just for general information). I’ll highlight only some of the presentations here.

The tone was set just right with the first session Thursday morning on “Medieval Environments I: Food Shortage and Subsistence Crises in Medieval Europe” sponsored by ENFORMA (Environmental History Network for the Middle Ages). All three of these papers were really good. Kathy Pearson’s “After the ‘Fall': Feeding Rome in the Early Middle Ages” discussed the changes in Rome over the 5-7th century or so. She reminded us how drastically Rome shrank over the late antique/early medieval period. Their food demands shrank likewise and could usually be met by the hinterland until or unless pilgrims swelled the population of the city. Pearson reminded us that the Roman estate system had broken down  before the seventh century; its trade network and food shipments even from Sicily much less the wider Mediterranean were lost by or before the seventh century. Tim Newfield’s “Shortages and Population Trends in Carolingian Europe, ca. 750-950″ was very interesting and closest to my own work. He presented a lot of hard data that I didn’t try to write down but will eagerly wait for publication (and I’ve already looked up his PhD thesis – maybe a future full post). For now I’ll only say that there were fairly regular food shortages throughout this period. Philip Slavin’s Alternative Consumption: Fodder and Fodder Resources in Late Medieval English Economy, ca. 1250-1450 reminded us how livestock compete with humans for food sources and what allocations of fodder can tell us about animal use. I think ENFORMA will be a group that I may want to follow-up on.

For my second session I hoped to learn more about the Goths but two of the presenters didn’t show up. Deanna Forsman’s Becoming Barbarian: An Examination of Stilicho in Fifth-Century Latin was an interesting exercise in ethnic identity and Roman citizenship delivered with a lot of energy!

The last session of Thursday was Medieval Environments III: Exploiting and Managing Animal Resources”. The two papers that really stuck with me are Cristina Arrigoni-Martelli’s The Prince, the Park, and the Prey: Hunting in and around Milan in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century and Kevin Ian Malloy’s Forgotten Landscape: An Environmental History Examination of Medieval Parks in Scotland. What really struck me was the degree of management of the landscape into virtual open range deer parks to the point in Milan of rearranging the agricultural landscape to create range tracks for hunting. While I accept that it happened and that it explains the animal diversity (or lack of it) in Europe, it’s still hard for me to imagine. Driving back from Kalamazoo to southern Illinois I passed five deer road kills in one day!

Thursday evening I went to the “Burn after Reading: Miniature Manifestos for a Post/medieval studies” that I guess was supposed to talk about adjusting to some of the realities facing ‘medieval studies’ and the humanities as a whole in the current funding and reshaping of the university landscapes. A few of the 13 speakers had constructive (if not entirely popular) suggestions.  Several of the mini-manifestos have appeared on blogs since linked by the Medieval History Geek. It was interesting to watch as an outsider to the field. I loved it when another independent scholar asked the panel what they do for fun and not one of them said anything medieval related. I think she asked it because they were all being so dismal. Angst is the word I would use to describe the session. Of course they all backtracked and eventually said they loved their field, couldn’t imagine doing anything else etc. I believe she said she asked it because she wanted to know where/how they got their enthusiasm refreshed. They said ‘coming to Kzoo’! :-) Perhaps part of the problem they had being put on the spot was perhaps that I find it can be hard for a researcher to separate what is work and what is fun. Field trips are fun, even if work related. I imagine going to London or Paris to look at manuscripts could be fun! It also makes me think of the growth in Tolkien related studies at Kzoo, which for a medievalist is a fun modern text. The same for discussions of medievalisms in modern film, tv, books etc.  Likewise, lots of science folks read science fiction or watch science fiction tv/movies for fun. Alas, no one said they blog for fun.

Back to regular sessions, the intriguing mix of science and medieval studies continued all day Friday. I started the morning with The Health and Lifestyle of Medieval Populations: A Bio-anthropological Perspective. Another case where people dropped out of the session but they scheduled four so it was still good. The two presenters came from the Global History of Health Project at Ohio State. This is a massive bioanthropology study of people around the world from prehistory to the 19th century.  (They are still looking for collaborators for Europe, especially south of the Alps for all time periods.) Richard Steckel’s Medieval Stature: The Human Skeletal Record of Life and Living, AD 800-1500  had some really interesting data on the long-term shifts of human height (related to nutrition and life stress) for about a thousand years. (If I recall correctly his data extended beyond 800-1500). I wish I had a print out of some of the charts showing the rolling changes in height across the medieval period and the differences in gender. For example in some periods, men got shorter and women got taller or the opposite. Other periods, there was  a general decline in height and the shortest of all was the industrial period (about 17-19th century). Our medieval ancestors were taller on average than the first factory workers. Kimberly Williams’ Growing Old in Medieval Europe: Osteoarthritic Ankles, Knees, and Toes (and Other Joints) covered arthritic changes observed and how they also changed over time and place. She also discussed the osteological paradox which states that bones that show signs of arthritis (or malnutrition) are the healthier individuals because they survived the stress. People of weaker constitutions would die before these signs of adaption appeared in the skeleton.

Next up where the two sessions I organized. I really couldn’t have been happier with how they turned out. The first session on Health and Healing in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland was packed; we had people sitting on the floor. I was up first and I think my talk went ok (and I’ve tried out parts of it on you all over the last year here at Heavenfield and on Contagions, so no rehashing that!). Mara Tesorieri’s Regional Patterns of Health in Early Ireland: Distributions of Non-specific Stress Indicators covered some of the same malnutrition topics I did but from a bioarchaeological perspective.  She had some interesting data contrasting Ireland with Britain and areas within Ireland. In general, there were more signs of stress in Ireland and it was not distributed evenly. She briefly discussed some early observations of stress indicators vs. political stability. I’ll be looking forward to hearing more about her project as it progresses. Julia Baolotina’s The Experience and Practice of Medicine by the Laity in Anglo-Saxon England discussed what evidence there is for lay medicine and how much medical care monasteries provided for their surrounding territory, which seems to have varied quite a bit based on excavated cemeteries. Silas Mallery’s By France, or By Spain? Possible Mediterranean Origins of Irish Holy Well Veneration covered a wide-ranging comparison between early holy wells in the Mediterranean, Roman Britain and their later appearance in Ireland, their use in medicine, and he also discussed the antiquity of general water offerings.

In the second session Medical Texts of the Early Medieval Mediterranean our second speaker withdrew the week of the Congress, but the remaining two more than made up for the space. Jayna Brett’s Animal-Derived Medicines in the Early Medieval Pharmacy discussed a 4-5th century Italian text and its influence. She gave us lots of examples of the types of animal parts used and what they were used for. The early medieval pharmacist must have been quite the odd fellow picking around butchered and exotic animals for their medicinal bits.  I mean really, who collects condor eyes for a future salve? As I commented then, it seemed more dangerous to acquire some of these medicinal bits from some wild and aggressive animals than the condition the medicine was used to treat. Glenn Cooper’s Book-Learning and Medicine in Medieval Byzantium: Theory and Practice of the Alexiad of Anna Comnena brought us the fascinating story of a woman author who wrote her father’s biography using a metaphorical system based on the human body and used her own book-learned medical knowledge to describe his condition and criticize his medical care. Confined to a monastery for a rebellion against her brother she gathered a “salon” of learned men around her that became her intellectual legacy. I want to thank everyone who came to both sessions and the lively discussion that followed both sessions was great! After such a busy day speaking and presiding, this introvert needed to recharge with a quiet night, a nice dinner and returning to the hotel early.

I had intended Saturday to be a mainly Anglo-Saxon day but I made some last-minute changes and it worked out really well. The first session was Bede: Friends and Enemies I that I got to late, so I missed most of the first speaker. Patrick McBrine’s Old Acquaintances: The Poetry of Bede’s Vita Cuthberti brought a welcome look at the influences of antique poets on Bede’s verse Life of Cuthbert. It is always nice to see even snippets of that life, which still lacks an English translation!! The third speaker was a no-show, sigh. The session wrapped up with Peter Darby’s Bede and the Image Question: Enemies and Friends in Constantinople. Darby argued that Bede was kept up to date on the latest Iconoclast controversy in Rome by his researcher Nothhelm and that Bede took part in the debate by producing his De Templo as a rebuttal to the Iconoclasts using the decoration of Soloman’s temple. Within De Templo, Bede comments that the commandment not to make craven images of things in heaven or earth did not apply to icons and church decorations because Soloman’s temple had many carved images of things both from heaven (cherebim) and on earth. It’s interesting that Bede sends De Templo to Albinus of Canterbury to be copied for distribution. Darby argued that Bede felt so strongly about this issue because of how important the icons/paintings that Benedict Biscop brought to Wearmouth and Jarrow from Rome were to the community. Recall that Bede spends a lot of time in the History of the Abbots describing the art work acquired by Benedict.

I switched from my planned Bede sessions to Early Medieval Europe II and it really paid off. It opened with Louis Schwartz’s What Rome Owes to the Lombards: Devotion to Saint Michael in Early Medieval Italy and the Riddle of Castel Sant’ Angelo. This is one of those plague legends that I think I will devote a separate post to, so hang on for more on this one.  Erica Buchberger’s Gothic Identity in Spain before and after the Arab Conquest brought more examples of the fluidity of ethnic identity, both self-identity and reported identity both others. Helen Foxhall Forbes’ Suicides and the Damned in Anglo-Saxon England discussed what limited information and attitudes toward suicide. Acknowlegment of a suicide is rare in the records because it meant burial in unconsecrated ground. As Forbes said, a lot of people die ‘falling’ off buildings. The suicides implied in the record are also all from falling from great heights. She was also representing The Impact of Diasporas on the Making of England project at the University of Leicester, a multidisciplinary project involving history, archeology, genetics, linguistics, etc. Check it out!

For my last regular session, I thought I would try to learn something about Herbals so I went to the Herbs and Healing, from the Ancient Medieterranean through the Medieval West: Papers in Honor of John Riddle II. I’m afraid I didn’t get too much out of the first two papers because I’m really not a manuscript person. Unfortunately they were more interested in reconstructing textual transmission than with the content of the manuscript. However, the last talk was Wendy Turner’s Mental Incompetency as a Foundation for Suit in Medieval English Land Disputes had some good data that covered up through late medieval England. I’ll have to keep an eye  out for her work for post-Black Death guardianships etc. Handling issues like care for children and the disabled is part of disaster response (even if it’s not called that) that can go on for years after the event.

My Congress ended with a pretty typical routine: one last stroll through the book exhibits, pick up dinner, and then go to the Pseudo-Society Saturday evening. The book exhibits were disappointing this year. Fewer publishers and book sellers came, and those that came brought fewer books to exhibit and fewer copies of what they did exhibit. I rarely go to Sunday morning sessions with such a long drive home. So after a quick run through the big book sale Sunday morning, I hit the road early and got home in time watch Sherlock Sunday evening. Overall, a very good Congress with lots to think about and a rejuvenated feeling that are exciting things going on that I might be able to contribute to!

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

View more PowerPoint from hefenfelth

(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.