PW: James the Deacon

Our Person of the Week for this week is James the Deacon, who presumably came to Deira with Bishop Paulinus of York in c. 625. He was left behind in Deira when Bishop Paulinus, Queen Æthelburgh and royal children fled to Kent sometime shortly after King Edwin’s death on 12 October 633.

Bede reports that his main habitation was at a village near Catterick. This could be near the royal estate, also near Catterick, where Paulinus baptized in the River Swale. In Bede’s time, the village was called after James. It is possible that James remained in Catterick to care for converts from  Paulinus’ mass baptism. If he did remain near Catterick caring for locals, one wonders if he was left behind because he simply wasn’t in York when the evacuation occurred.

Bede says that “when peace was restored to the kingdom and the number of believers grew, he also began to instruct many in singing after the manner of Rome and the Kentish people”. So Bede is not claiming that James was an evangelist. He only began to teach after the numbers of believers grew. I suspect that James had to lay low during the time of Bishop Aidan. Bede does claim that James continued to observe the Roman rites and customs, including the date of Easter.

Once Roman advocates began to build during the time of King Alhfrith, James would have become quite the celebrity, one of the few who personally knew (Arch)Bishop Paulinus. It is odd that for all his years of service and his celebrity in the 660s, James apparently was not ordained to the priesthood. His main value may have been as a witness to Paulinus’ mission. Bede records that James the Deacon and Queen Eanflæd’s priest Romanus were on the side of Wilfrid and Bishop Agilbert at the Synod of Whitby. The date of James’ death has not survived.

Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II Chapters 14 and 20, Book III Chapter 25.

7 thoughts on “PW: James the Deacon

  1. There are a number of interesting folk who seem to have remained deacons: Paul the Deacon and Alcuin chief among them. I’ve sometimes wondered if they recognized a state like the permanent diaconate for those whose vocation was primarily teaching but haven’t found any period evidence to support my supposition.

    I wonder what Rabanus Maurus has to say about deacons…

  2. …and random internet search turns up : Roger E. Reynolds, “An Early Medieval Tract on the Diaconate” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 72, No. 1/2. (Jan. – Apr., 1979), pp. 97-100.

    I’ll report back on it…

  3. Interesting. It seems that Rabanus, following Isidore of Seville, basically sees deacon as just a step along the ecclesiastical grades. The brief document edited in the above article is an anonymous ninth century document of French provenance. It seems to be a basic instructional document with a fondness for etymological allegory that speaks of the liturgical duties of the deacon and identifies the founding of the grade in both the Old and New Testaments. Nothing is said of any duties that a deacon might perform outside of a Mass setting. So–interesting, but it does not address the question at hand.

  4. I have a picture (admittedly unscientific; I have no data whatsoever) of James the Deacon being in love with music–of music being his life. I’d always imagined he was a bit compulsive, not liked terribly well by the powers-that-be because he fussed over details. In this scenario, he wouldn’t have wanted to be ordained priest (nor would tptb have wanted him to be). I imagined he stayed near York for access to the rebuilt stone church and the music he could bring forth with its hard acoustics.

    Again, no data. I’m just making stuff up because it’s my way, as a non-scholar, of engaging with this discussion.

  5. Bede says that James lived in a little village near Catterick. Seems like a good place to lay low to me, out of the normal spheres of royal power at York and Bamburgh. I don’t think there are any known major monasteries in that area either.


    I don’t know much about Paul the deacon but I’ve always thought of Alcuin as a bit of an oddity. How does a deacon become Abbot of Tours? I know you don’t have to be ordained to become an abbot, particularly if you are the founder. Yet, after the age of founders, most abbots are priests, aren’t they? I suppose as Abbot of Tours he was still under the bishop there. Perhaps he preferred administrative roles like abbot over liturgical roles.

    I’ve wondered if Alcuin was too politically active. He was so dependent on Charlemagne for his influence. How does Alcuin the deacon get the guts to send letters of spiritual direction to bishops?

  6. Catterick is, I think, on the main road (Dere St?), equidistant to Whitby, Hartlepool, York etc. It sounds like both the perfect place to lie low and from which to travel to or get news from one’s pupils at their various houses. For no particular reason James has always struck me as rather unworldly, happy to spend his days in a village, teaching people to sing, and then walking for days to sing in a big stone building when he could–an utterly different creature to Alcuin. Interesting, though, to ponder them both remaining deacons for entirely different reasons. Thank you.

  7. Well–given some of the abuses of the period you didn’t even have to be a cleric to be an abbot…

    Yes, most male heads of foundations were priests–obviously not so with the women (even Hild over the double house at Whitby)–but thats not a hard and fast rule. I think when it happens has a bit to do with it too. Remember, Benedict wasn’t a fan of priests being monks–he thought most of them were too uppity to be able to truly embrace monastic humility. One of the later chapters in the Rule makes explicit mention of this. As time went by, though, more and more monks were priests as well like Aelfric who specifically identifies himself as “monk and mass-priest.”

    I wouldn’t necessarily assume that these men were “held back” from the priesthood–it may well have been their choice. I’d imagine you might have more freedom as a deacon than a priest which may factor into it.

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