Clashing models: Latin-Mediterranean vs Celtic

Another topic in William Trent Foley’s article “Imitatio Apostoli: St Wilfrid of York and the Andrew Script” (1989, Am Benedictine Rev) that I found very interesting is his discussion of Cuthbert and Wilfrid following different and indeed clashing life scripts.

“The difference between Aidan and Cuthbert, on the one hand, and Wilfrid on the other can be traced to their different scripts. Aidan and Cuthbert received their scripts exclusively through the Celtic Christian meliu of northern Britain. In that melieu, sanctity has long been bound up in the ideal of martyrdom that centered on ascetic self-control. Wilfrid had taken more of his script, however, from the Latin-Mediterranean cities of Rome and Lyon … both… had been drenched with the blood of Christian martyrs who stood firm against persecution from secular authorities. …In both places, Wilfrid encountered through legend and witnessed in person this ancient ideal which understood martyrdom as the holy person’s struggle against the secular ruler who is hostile to God’s people and purposes. …the Hexham church’s dedication to Andrew is owing to more than simply some general devotion that Wilfrid had for the Roman Gregorian tradition which Andrew supposedly symbolized; it can be traced more specifically to Wilfrid’s recognition that Andrew’s story was also his own. The Hexham church thus stands as a memorial not only to Andrew’s ordeal, but to Wilfrid’s as well.

…In the final chapter of Wilfrid’s Life, Eddius [Stephan] writes the following in loving admiration of his late master: ‘But now it is for us to believe fully and perfectly that our intercessor [Wilfrid] by the sign of the holy cross has been made equal to the apostles of God, Peter and Andrew, who he specifically loved.” … I suspect that by so ending his Life in ascribing to Wilfrid an apostle-martyr status equal to Andrew’s, Eddius was remembering his old abbot to the world in exactly the way that Wilfrid would have wanted.” (p. 29-31)

I think Foley’s identification of the Latin-Mediterranean model for Wilfrid’s life is a very important one. We often write/talk about authors modeling their subjects on this or that, but it is also probable that people really did model their lives on their heroes. Remember that a saint is a hero; a more important hero to a true monastic than any secular hero, real or fictional. Its also not surprising that these two different religious lifestyles would each choose a local model saint that exemplified those ideas, Wilfrid for the Mediterranean model and Cuthbert for the Anglo-Celtic/Celtic model. I think it may be better to talk of Wilfrid in this Mediterranean mode because the term Romanist (which I admit that I use all the time) is charged with many post-Reformation feelings and images that are not relevant for the seventh century.

I wonder if it is likely that two such polar examples of piety could have only developed in direct opposition to one another. Both living in the same kingdom at the same time. Cuthbert is the student of Eata, who was the bishop in most direct contact and conflict with Wilfrid (previously discussed here), and Eata was the oldest and perhaps most trusted English pupil of Aidan of Lindisfarne. Wilfrid was the student of Bishop ‘Dalphinus’ of Lyon and Bishop Agilbert (later of Paris, originally of somewhere in Gaul).

I think we also sometimes get into this mode of considering Cuthbert to be all goodness and light and Wilfrid to be nasty and political, but that is a trap. Each followed their own model and teacher. I don’t doubt Wilfrid’s faith, sincerity, or belief that it was right — and he usually was! Contemporary kings gave him plenty of reason to feel persecuted. I’m sure they did prefer the quiet monks who, as far as we know, very rarely interfered in politics and didn’t want their wealth. Yet, Wilfrid’s practical approach to politics and endowments to his monasteries got results. Endowments are a necessary thing when your king dies and the throne passes from his lineage, as no doubt Jarrow knew full well. Their endowments ended abruptly with the death of King Ecgfrith. From then on they have to barter with King Aldfrith for additional lands and there are no royal building programs at Wearmouth-Jarrow. I really have to wonder how monasteries like Lastingham survived when their founder was branded a traitor. They must have got help from the episcopal sees of Cedd and Chad. Their political position would have made establishing veneration of Cedd even more important than usual.


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