In Bede’s Life of Cuthbert (ch. 22), Bishop Cuthbert tells a Christmas story at Lindisfarne and his hermitage on Farne to the people of Carlisle . This is not your typical cheerful Christmas story.
One Christmas before Cuthbert was ordained bishop, some of the brothers from Lindisfarne rowed out to his hermitage on Farne Island to celebrate the feast day with him. They prepared a feast worthy of the holy and joyful feast day. Eventually they coaxed Cuthbert out of his hut to join them.
Cuthbert was not a very cheerful fellow. In the middle of the feast, Cuthbert stopped their joyful celebration with warnings that they must prepare for temptations at all times and repent. The brothers chided Cuthbert that Christmas is supposed to be a joyful feast and he relents; the feast continues. A while later after more feasting and storytelling, Cuthbert again stops the feast and tells them that they should be praying and keeping vigil. This time the brothers remind Cuthbert that when the angel announced the holy birth to the shepherds it was to herald joyful celebration by the whole world. He relents again, but after a little while admonishes them for the third time. This time the brothers recognize Cuthbert’s sincerity and in fear end their feast. Cuthbert tells the people at Carlisle that neither he nor the brothers visiting him knew what was yet to befall them.
When the brothers returned to Lindisfarne the next day, they found that the first brother had died of the pestilence.
“as it grew and became worse from day to day, yea and from month to month, and almost throughout the whole year, nearly the whole of that renowned congregation of spiritual fathers and brethern departed to be with the Lord in that pestilence. Now therefore, brethren [of Carlisle], do you also watch and pray, so that if any tribulation come upon you it may find you already prepared.” (Colgrave, p. 249)
Ironically Cuthbert tells this story to the people of Carlisle to reassure them that his sermon warning them to prepare for tribulations was not necessarily about a return of the pestilence! This makes me think that something about this story has been reworked by Bede or his informant. According to Bede the tribulation that Cuthbert warned them of in his sermon was the death of King Ecgfrith in Pictland.
My immediate concern here is his description of the plague. This slow ramp up of cases over nearly a full year is what we should expect for the plague. There should be a trickle of cases early on, while the rodent epizootic is going on, and only when the rodents have been decimated do human cases begin occurring in large numbers. The plague does not behave like the flu; it doesn’t come and go in six weeks.
The priest Herefrith, who was abbot of Lindisfarne during Cuthbert’s tenure as bishop (685-687), read and helped Bede edit his Life so there is reason to believe that this description of the plague is accurate. It also means that both the then hermit Cuthbert and Bishop Eata, who were each at Melrose during the plague of 664, survived this second round at Lindisfarne. Although Cuthbert was a hermit, he was being supplied by Lindisfarne. This is consistent with his survival of an episode of plague in 664, which would give him immunity to the plague. Of course in a flea transmitted disease it is possible for him not to have been exposed in this second wave, cases would have been very hit-n-miss.
As to the Christmas timing of the beginning of the plague, this makes sense considering Lindisfarne’s role as the mother church of the kingdom. The arrival at Christmas suggests that it came in trade goods obtained for the festivals of the Christmas season. Lindisfarne is within eye-shot of the royal fortress of Bamburgh and so could expect goods and visitors for the major feast days of the Christmas season.
Considering the events of Cuthbert’s life and the consensus that the second major wave of plague in Northumbria ran from about 684-687, I’m dating this Christmas to the end of 683. Cuthbert is talking about the completion of the year long plague while in Carlisle in May 685. Even so the plague lasted within the kingdom for as long as Cuthbert lives. Perhaps we should consider the year long pestilence at Lindisfarne in Cuthbert’s demand to stay at Lindisfarne if he was to accept the episcopate in the spring of 685.
Colgrave, Bertram, trans. (1940, repr 2007). Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert. Cambridge University Press.