Blanton’s Signs of Devotion

Virginia Blanton. Signs of Devotion: The Cult of St. Æthelthryth in Medieval England 695-1615. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007.

They say that every age rewrites history to suite itself. Few topics show this better than the evolution of a saint’s cult. In Signs of Devotion, Virginia Blanton has followed the textual cult of St. Æthelthryth from her translation in 695 to 1615. This is an important study on the continuous evolution of a local/national saint and the study of religious development throughout the English Middle Ages.

This study is based very heavily on texts with sideways glances at history or art. Blanton has assembled an impressive array of 26 works from Bede to Ralph/Robert Buckland in 1610-1615 (fig. 2). Over and over, the importance of Bede’s work is stressed as many of these texts from over 900 years return to his work, usually directly, as a source. This makes the understanding of Bede’s presentation of Æthelthryth particularly important, especially since so many authors are making independent evaluations of Bede’s work(s). (She does overlook Bede’s inclusion of Æthelthryth in his ‘Greater Chronicle’ within On the Reckoning of Time, not that it adds much.)

Most of the book is an analysis of works in three key periods that are links in the textual survival of Æthelthryth’s veneration – Bede’s works, Benedictional of Æthelwold-Ælfric’s Life of Æthelthryth, and the Liber Eliensis. I appreciated her discussion of Bede’s hymn on Æthelthryth from the History, especially her recognition of the importance of the Virgin Mary in the hymn. It’s interesting that she considers Bede’s narrative account a Vita, since it is clearly integrated into the History and includes the conversation between himself and Bishop Wilfrid. The interview with Bishop Wilfrid is very effective, but not a usual hagiographical device. Part of what makes it so effective is the impression of historical investigation. While Bede may have chosen what to include and exclude with a hagiographical agenda, Blanton assumes that he is willing to manipulate or invent aspects of the narrative such as Cynefrith’s testimony. She assumes that Cynefrith was not a member of the monastery and is therefore an outside witness (p. 42). Yet, when Bede refers to him as a physician he does not rule out the possibility that he is a monk; his expertise is important to his testimony and Bede knew it should be stressed.

Cynefrith’s testimony is important because Blanton places a great deal of stress on Æthelthryth’s body as a metaphor. While I understand the value of following a continuous metaphor over this huge span of time, the focus on the body got rather tedious and stretched at times. Focusing on virginity would have allowed much more flexibility.

Blanton’s discussion of Æthelwold’s re-establishment of the cult of Ely and his use of texts was interesting. These texts are vital for understanding Bishop Æthelwold and Ælfric’s agendas. In her discussion of the Benedictional of Æthelwold, she notes that Æthelthryth is signaled out with Mary Magdalene, leading a chorus of virgins (p.81). There is some controversy over whether this figure is Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary. The Virgin Mary is left out of the choirs of saints completely, and this leader of the virgin choir is Mary Magdalene? It just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m going to look into this more. Blanton notes (p. 99) that Æthelthryth’s listing with martyr saints in litanies (which she largely credits to Æthelwold’s promotion) distinguishes her from other Anglo-Saxon female saints. This is also true of her inclusion in Bede’s Martyrology, where –I believe— in the new consensus version, she is the only native female listed and the along with Scholastica the only female non-martyr that I can recall. I’ll leave Ælfric to those who know him much better.

The third major text for Æthelthryth’s veneration is the more accessible Liber Eliensis (LE). Here she focuses on the first book that she calls a vita. While the LE is heavily based on Bede’s History, the LE is really the first major addition to Æthelthryth’s legend. I think she underestimates the influence of the Life of Wilfrid on the LE, particularly in the Coldingham scenes. The LE is an area that needs a great deal more research, including looking for folklore sources. Blanton’s analysis of the LE is overall interesting and I will probably come back to at some point in this blog.

One of the pleasant surprises for me was the discovery of Marie de France’s Vie Seinte Audree. I had never heard of this work before and a new translation of it came out just in time to explore it more. It is fascinating that the first lay text on Æthelthryth was by a woman who changed the emphasis of the text significantly. I find that I have a lot of sympathy for what I have read so far of Marie’s take on Æthelthryth. I also wonder if Marie is not reflecting a lay view that had been hidden by the fact that all previous texts were clergy productions. It is also interesting to me that two of the most common aspects of Æthelthryth’s modern veneration/memory – St Owine and the popular girls’ name Audrey come from the Anglo-Norman period. St Owine is in Bede’s History but only mentioned as being a former member of Æthelthryth’s household. He was not associated with her monastic houses at all. It seems that the Anglo-Normans were the first to bring St Owine into Æthelthryth’s monastic sphere. St Owine is a significant part of modern celebrations of the feasts of St Æthelthryth (see here).

After her discussion of Marie’s text and the roles of aristocratic widows in supporting monasteries, Blanton turns to a wide variety of texts and an analysis of roodscreens. Blanton’s reliance on texts sometimes leads her to overestimate their importance in reflecting the overall health of Æthelthryth’s veneration. She admits the paradox between the importance of contemporary texts and lay devotion in her discussion of the South English Legendary (SEL), most of whose recensions lack Æthelthryth. It was probably compiled primarily for the laity, so Æthelthryth’s absences could indicate a lack of lay interest. Yet, at the same time, pilgrimage to her shrine at Ely was at its peak and was routinely receiving the most donations of all non-Canterbury shrines in England. The differences between church dedications to Æthelthryth and roodscreens with her image are another area of difference between clergy/aristocrats who chose patron saints of churches and laity who decorate the churches. Mapping church dedications and her presence on roodsceens shows that there is very little overlap.

One of my biggest problems with the book is that it virtually ignores the reformation and its effect on veneration of Æthelthryth. (“Reformation”, “Ely: dissolution”, and “Henry VIII” are not even indexed.) After spending so much time on Æthelthryth’s body as a metaphor, she overlooks the fate of her body and shrine at Ely during the violence of the Reformation! Perhaps no roodscreens survive from the Liberty of Etheldreda and churches dedicated to St Æthelthryth because vandals trying to destroy the veneration of local saints targeted those churches and their decorations. If you are going to deface or put down the veneration of local saints it would make sense to specifically target art depicting them in churches dedicated to them. Was the reachable artwork in Ely cathedral defaced? The column capitals shown in the book may have been beyond the reach of the mobs who had larger ground-level targets on which to focus their wrath. It would not be difficult to read through this book and not be able to place when the Reformation happened in relation to events described. This says something positive about the texts that continue to be produced about Æthelthryth but it certainly changes their context!

Most of these comments are really areas of further research that Blanton has sparked in me, and not meant as major criticisms. Her treatment of the Reformation bothers me the most, but I suspect that this period is on the edge of both our interests. It does seem to be in a tradition of glossing over the violence and damage of the English Reformation. Then again, Blanton in particular seems to avoid writing of destruction in all eras. The effects of the Danes on Ely are not discussed much either; refoundation yes, but not destruction. Writing about destruction is not pleasant but it is reality.

Blanton has gathered, synthesized, and analyzed a huge amount of material from over 900 years and for that she is to be congratulated. This is the best source for the depth and breath of devotions to St. Æthelthryth available today and I assume for a long time to come. The bottom line is that this book will generate plenty of discussion and is a must read for anyone interested in St. Æthelthryth in particular or the development of national English saints.


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